By Samson G.
Tigrai Online Jan. 28, 2013
Now and then, opposition politicians and their media outlets cry and wine about the state of Ethiopia's cultural, historical and related heritages. This is to be encouraged as it is their citizenry duty and the issue is a problem faced even by better developed countries in the global south. Our oppositions, nonetheless, take the issue in a misguided, unconstructive manner and motivated by bias and zero-sum politics.
The latest of such fanfare is the misinformation and deceptive propaganda in relation to the Addis Ababa railway construction. A rumor was started claiming that two historic statutes will be wrecked to make way for the railway line. The two statutes were erected to commemorate Emperor Minilik, the 19th century ruler when Ethiopia defeated Italians at Adwa, and Abune Petros, a religious father from Ethiopian Orthodox Church and a symbol of Ethiopians resistance to fascist Italy during World War II publicly hanged by General Rodolfo Graziani in Addis Ababa.
Not surprisingly, in no time, the opposition politicians and their media started beating the drum claiming this is an attack by EPRDF against Ethiopia's heritage.
As these forces consider themselves the sole guardians of the cultural, historical and other heritages of the Ethiopian peoples, it didn't occur to them EPRDF officials and experts in charge of the project care as much as they do about the statutes. They didn't try to ask for accurate information from the relevant organs. After all, they assume they have to guard Ethiopia's heritages from the ruling party and the government it leads.
They didn't ask whether the rumors are true or not, what considerations were taken by the designers, etc. They jumped to say:
“Why are these kinds of projects planned? Why are the statues and historical places of our forefathers who have contributed a lot for Ethiopia not considered during planning? Or a conspiracy against Ethiopia’s history?
The Ethiopian Railway Corporation immediately clarified that
The rail lines will be contracted without doing any damage to the statues. However, as the Addis Ababa rail tunnel project passes through the iconic thoroughfare it will momentarily dig up the Abune Petros statue and it will not get anywhere near the statue of Menelik II. All the rumors revolving around this are baseless.
During the interview, the Railway Corporation officials emphatically underlined the works affecting Abune Petros statue will be made under the supervision of relevant experts. During the momentary dig up, the statute will be moved without any damage, will be kept in the national Museum available for public visit, and its re-erection will be conducted preserving its original positioning with stronger foundation and elevated standing. In short, the statute will not be wrecked, will not disappear from public view and will have even better standing after re-erection.
But these self-appointed protectors of Ethiopia's heritage continued with their propaganda of conspiracy. They still claim both Minilik's & Abune Petros's statues will be removed and never return. They include the Minilik statute in their misinformation campaign because it is known Minilik is disliked by many due to his domestic policies. However, they know no one disputes commemorating the Adwa victory and the martyr's of the resistance against fascist Italy.
The issue of the statues is just a recent example. Previously, these elements were making similar claims with regard to Waldba monastry, which is located several killometers away from the Wolkait Sugar project in Tigray region. Several officials, experts and religious fathers gave their testimony, after reviewing the project design and visiting the area, that the Monastry will not be in anyway affected by the project. But this didn't stop the propaganda claiming the heritage is in danger.
The main problem of these campaigns is not that their claims are proved wrong. Anyone can make mistakes due to genuine concern or false information input. The main problem is they are not sincere. This is evidenced by the fact that they continue to disseminate the false claim even after it is disproved beyond doubt. In addition, the way they present their claims is self-contradictory.
These elements routinely blame the government for sugar shortages in the country and for the transportation problems in the capital city. When the government prepared the 5-years Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), which is recently commended by World Bank as "ambitious but attainable", they criticize it as an impractical plan designed for political consumption. They were not willing to participate in the public consultations forums held in Ethiopia and in many countries where Ethiopian diasporas live. Two of the mega projects in the GTP are the Addis Ababa express railway project and the Sugar development plan, which consists ten major sugar projects across the country.
After all these consultations and plan preparations and after the government managed to gather the necessary finance, design works, etc. for the projects, these elements started saying the projects are not well planned and also saying there is another agenda behind the projects. They perfectly know the projects could not be located just anywhere. The sugar project needs an abundant water source and a large fertile plantation area.
Similarly, the railway can only be constructed inside the city where its future customers live. These elements would have launched similar campaign if the sugar project was located at a highly populated area by displacing people. They would also oppose if the railway line took a different route and displaced existing neighborhoods and buildings. Even if compensation is paid, as the government always does, they would have said the projects should be conducted in another area. Where? They don't have answers.
In short, they criticize the government for any shortage, they oppose its efforts to solve the problem. They don't like anything the government does, they don't wish to provide constructive ideas. Their sole hidden agenda is blackening the ruling party until and unless they get power. If the people suffer in the process, if development projects are hindered due to their campaign, they are not concerned.
The second problem of these elements is their concern for culture, history and heritages has a narrow focus.
Properly understood, culture is, according to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, "a concept which incorporates all intellectual, ethical, physical, technical and other activities that characterize humankind as a rational being. It also involves the ability of man to learn and train himself in moral, technical and other spheres of knowledge. Culture is a wide concept which include the modes of life, beliefs, traditions and the whole set of the material and spiritual wealth which characterize a certain society as distinct from others".
Ethiopia's culture policy contextualizes the definition as: "In the context of the cultures of the peoples of the various nations, nationalities, and peoples of Ethiopia, this definition could be used to incorporate their varied social, economic, political, administrative, moral, religious and psychological conditions. The languages, history, oral tradition, housing, instruments of production, food preparation eating habits, costumes, ornamentation, aesthetic values and appreciation, beliefs and religious practices are also components of their cultures."
However, the focus of Ethiopia's opposition elements is elective. Their worry is towards certain forms of heritage they associate, rightly or wrongly, to the old concept of Ethiopianism. Their concern for heritages is reality an extension of their effort to bring back the old fashioned political and cultural system applied by previous regimes which are being replaced by the new multi-national pluralist system in the past two decades.
When they talk about language they rarely go farther from Amharic, when they talk about religious heritages they revolve around Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, when they talk about historical heritages their focus is on preserving the one-sided stories written by rulers of the past one or two centuries. Indeed, these are part of Ethiopia's heritages and they should be preserved in the proper way possible. Any maintain and reviews should be done with the utmost care without political interference.
However, Ethiopia is a mosaic of diverse ethnic, linguistic, cultural, architectural, religious etc. values, norms and heritages. All these should be preserved, developed and promoted regardless their political implications. But the self-appointed protectors of heritage do not see it that way.
This is clearly evidenced by their vehement opposition to the various efforts EPRDF had done in the last 20 years to preserve, develop and promote the heritages all Ethiopian communities. However, the opposition do not see the merit of these efforts. As their concern is skewed by their political agenda, they see every effort, even the celebration of the annual Nations, Nationalities and Peoples day, as dividing the country.
A third, and related to the second, problem of these elements is that they think EPRDF, like them, sees the issue of culture and heritages as an ideological tool. Of course, EPRDF designed its programs taking into consideration the various heritages of the people. Its policies are based on the values, histories and norms of the people rather than copying some alien ideology from the Western or Eastern world. Nonetheless, it doesn't aim to impose and discriminate one norm or another.
Moreover, for the ruling party, cultural heritages are not merely symbolic and abstract concerns but a means to development.
Ethiopia's cultural policy clearly states that the necessity of the cultural policy emanates from:
* The recognition of the positive or negative role that culture could play in the relationship of peoples; with the realization of the fact that culture is itself the mark of the identity of humankind and the foundation of all human rights; and believing that it is appropriate to ensure that the cultures of the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia receive equal recognition, respect, and chance to develop and;
* The recognition of the fact that culture is closely related to the daily life and psychological states of people, and that it has a decisive role in facilitating development programs to meet their goal.
As it is understandable for any person, preserving, developing and promoting one's heritages can be best done by the concerned people itself. Since EPRDF took power, it recognized the peoples' right of self-administration including cultural rights. Today parents freely raise their children according to their culture and send them to schools which teach in their mother tongues.
Television and MW, FM & community radios in total transmit in almost 50 Ethiopia languages. Elementary school text books do not focus on ideological or foreign country issue rather on local and regional heritages and characteristics. Children today are not align to their heritage and that of adjacent peoples.
Generally, the expansion of education, local self-administration, freedom of expression and high increase of publications in diverse languages improved the lot of Ethiopian heritages in the past two decades. Dying cultures and languages have revived, the relatively developed languages have furthered flourished entering the world wide web and digital technologies.
The same can be said with regard to well-known historical, cultural and religious heritages. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church achieved organizational freedom and become able to launch theology colleges, relations with sister cities abroad in the last two decades. Stolen sacred artifacts were returned as far from Scotland and Belgium. Muslims were able to claim and promote their heritages, such as, the Al-Nejasi site, document the history of their Ulemas and conducted advanced studies, researches and experience sharing with fellow adherents from foreign countries.
One of the Axum obelisks, which was stolen by facist Italy, was returned after 60 years due to the persistent lobby and political and diplomatic efforts spearheaded by this government. The Lalibela rock-hewn churches received long-due maintenances by this government with the assistance of international experts. The number of Ethiopian heritages recognized as World Heritages reached more than eight during EPRDF rule. About half-a-dozen languages are being researched and taught in the departments and institutes of several Ethiopian Universities.
Of course, there is a lot to be done. For example: A scientific inventory of the cultural, historical, linguistic, and natural heritages of Ethiopia found in and out of the country should be completed. Studies and standardizations shall be further conducted in various aspects of Ethiopia's cultural heritages, architectural sites, etc.
However, on the balance, EPRDF's track record unequivocally demonstrates, within the limits of the country's financial resources and institutional capacity, it has been the best custodian of Ethiopian culture so far.