Ethiopia Reflects On Its Founding Father's Triumphant, Bloody Legacy

Feb 8, 2020
Originally published on February 13, 2020 12:10 pm
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The new park in Ethiopia revives questions about an old monarch. Menelik II ruled Ethiopia in the late 1800s, a founding father and leader who repelled colonialists. But he has also become a lightning rod, a hero to some, a villain to others. NPR's Eyder Peralta has our story.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Menelik's palace complex sits on a hill overlooking Ethiopia's capital. Since the communist revolution killed Ethiopia's last monarch in the '70s, it's been used as military barracks and the place for the reception of foreign dignitaries. In an authoritarian country, it was a no-go zone. Men with machine guns would watch as you drove by.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-Foreign language).

PERALTA: But Ethiopia's new reformist government decided to open it to the public and rename the grounds Unity Park. Menelik's palace compound now includes a playground, a coffee shop and traditional singers to lighten the mood.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: The park's lead historian, Dr Tamrat Haile, says here Ethiopians can connect with their history.

TAMRAT HAILE: It's about the unity of all the culture, the people, the religions, the narratives.

PERALTA: This is a fraught moment in Ethiopia. Ethnic groups that had been subjugated through violence have come into their own, demanding their rights, their history, their territory be acknowledged. And Dr. Tamrat acknowledges that.

HAILE: People might not have the same understanding of the Ethiopian past or the Ethiopian present.

PERALTA: Tamrat says that is the point of this park - debate. He says, you'll see, as he hands me off to Joshua Rafael, my tour guide.

JOSHUA RAFAEL: Before we don't have any furniture....

PERALTA: We walk up a steep hill. And, suddenly, Menelik's palace comes into view. It's a simple structure with carved doors and, hanging from the facade, wooden carvings that look like embroidery.

RAFAEL: So let me take you to my favorite room in the whole palace (laughter). I like this room because it has the best view (laughter).

PERALTA: From here, you can see the whole of Addis Ababa, as many cranes as there are sky rises. This city is at the center of Ethiopia's ethnic conflict. The majority Oromo group wants to control the capital city. They say that Menelik stole it from them. I asked Joshua if his tour addresses Finfinne, as the Oromos used to call this city.

RAFAEL: Well, that's a part of history that has been (laughter)...

PERALTA: That's an official tour guide dodging a question. He says that history is lost. But Menelik is actually a well-documented guy. In 1896, he defeated the Italians, who were trying to colonize Ethiopia. So he became a kind of global celebrity. The queen of England sent him a congratulatory phonograph, and he responded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MENELIK II: (Speaking in non-English language).

PERALTA: That's his voice on a recording kept by the British Library.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MENELIK II: (Speaking in non-English language).

PERALTA: Historian Raymond Jones wrote a whole book, "The Battle of Adwa," about Menelik's victory against the Italians. Menelik, Jones argues, changed the course of history. At the time, everyone thought Africa was headed the way of Latin America. That is, the Indigenous people would be killed or forcefully assimilated by Europeans. But his victory showed that African people, their languages, their cultures, could survive.

RAYMOND JONAS: He opened up the possibility of an Africa not overwhelmed by Europeans.

PERALTA: It was an event that not only brought Ethiopians together but black people across the world who saw him as a hero. It was a mantle Menelik didn't seem to want. He famously told a Haitian journalist he was not black. He was a guy, Jones said, with only one thing in his sight.

JONAS: He's not interested in becoming anybody's hero. He's interested in becoming emperor of Ethiopia and staying emperor of Ethiopia.

PERALTA: As Jones describes in his book, Menelik banged together an empire using European weapons. A Christian, he destroyed mosques and Harar, one of the holiest cities in Islam. His troops would pillage as they went, maiming opponents, collecting slaves and burning villages. Menelik would brand his slaves with the sign of a cross burned in acid.

JONAS: You know, he's not really a nice guy. And I don't think anyone should mistake him for a kind of virtuous figure.

PERALTA: The main reason activists oppose the new Unity Park is because they believe the government wants to go back to Menelik's vision, one united Ethiopia with one language and one religion, not the multi-ethnic federation that exists now. And to do that, they say Menelik's legacy has to be cleaned up as a liberator, a founding father.

EZEKIEL GEBISSA: It's just mind-boggling.

PERALTA: That is Ezekiel Gebissa, a historian and a professor at Kettering University in Michigan.

GEBISSA: It's amazing that Menelik would be the symbol that would represent unity in Ethiopia.

PERALTA: He says it's understandable that a government dealing with a country fracturing along ethnic lines may have wanted to find something to sew it back together.

GEBISSA: But the depth of how Menelik is felt among the southern people - it's just not a wound that you can heal by just talking about it.

PERALTA: To him, renovating Menelik's palace, surrounding it with happy spaces just feels tone deaf. In southern Ethiopia, he says Menelik's brutality is not ancient history.

GEBISSA: People whose limbs were cut off lived, you know? They were not killed because of that experience. They lived. They have children. They have grandchildren today.

PERALTA: Back at the park, historian Tamrat Haile says this park was meant to spark tough discussions.

GEBISSA: It's not easy to - I mean, to entertain different narratives - OK? - very quickly or in a very short period of time.

PERALTA: It's not easy anywhere, especially not in a country just emerging from decades of authoritarianism. But in the least, he says, this is a start. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Addis Ababa.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Raymond Jonas is the author of The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. In this story we incorrectly say Jones.]

(SOUNDBITE OF GIGI'S "SEMENA-WROCK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.