By Leyou Tameru
I have thought about writing about the topic of this column for quite some time. It is very controversial, but I truly believe that I have reached a point where addressing it on here is beyond necessary.
Early this year, I screened a documentary I had been working on for over two years. The topic of the documentary is the contemporary legal history of Ethiopia. The documentary consists of a series of interviews with lawyers of different generation reflecting on a piece of legislation that symbolizes the “modernization” of the Ethiopian Legal System: The Civil Code. This law is part of the laws enacted in the 1960s to shape the Ethiopian legal system in a western model. During my research I came across a lot of research on institutions and how they are built, with a focus on the Ethiopian context. And a few things dawned on me, most of which have to do with understanding history.
The first thing you are likely to hear from an Ethiopian regarding history is how we were never colonized. How we heroically fought off forces that wanted to subjugate us to their power. In many ways, this is true. Our forefathers and mothers fought tirelessly to resist the Italians not once, but twice. Yet this “uncolonized nation” narrative has a selective memory when looking at Ethiopia’s history. Or perhaps it just has a very limited definition of colonization. After the liberation from the Italian occupation, the British and Ethiopian governments signed an agreement which pretty much made Ethiopia a protectorate for the years that followed. I find it interesting that this particular agreement did not make its way into our history books. Perhaps it is because it does not feed into the narrative I mentioned earlier.
But the impact of colonization are not limited to subjugation of people, i.e. slavery and apartheid being an example, it also has a structural side to it. There is an imposition of a system foreign to those it governs. And while going through my readings I came across this very interesting sentence which holds more truth than I would like to acknowledge. It said that although Ethiopia has never been colonized the institutional problems that it is facing are similar to those countries that have been colonized by European powers. The reason is that Ethiopia voluntarily invited the Europeans to design her system as opposed to having it imposed like in the other African countries. Regardless of the means, the result is the same. We are disconnected from the very institutions in place to govern us.
The other part that the narrative mentioned above would like to selectively forget is the slave trade that our country was a part of. We not only had slaves and sold them within Ethiopia, we actually sold them to other countries. In fact, the narrative that was told to the Italians, when they attempted to colonize Ethiopia for the second time, is that they are going to free their fellow Christians from slavery. Ironic, isn’t it?
The point that I’m trying to drive home is that we need to reexamine our history and tell the story from all perspectives. I understand that by sticking to a narrative is a way of building a “nation-state” but that concept in itself is becoming a “has been”. When we tell stories, let’s not talk about what flatters us, let us be willing to entertain other aspects and other sides. We can only learn from the past when we actually know the past, not parts of it. Let’s know the good, bad and the ugly they all carry a lesson.
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