Where Is Ethiopia’s MLK? Where is the new Petros?
I drafted this article at close to two in the morning today, after I went to the celebration of the 127th Anniversary of the Victory of Adwa in Toronto.
And it’s not enough, not nearly enough, to mark this landmark event in history. It needs and should be regularly evaluated for what it means to us today. And boy, do we need to take stock.
In his wonderful book, Victory of Adowa, Abebe Hailemelekot translated Menelik’s call to arms, concluding with the line, “My campaign is for October, and I expect the people of Shoa at Wereyilu by the middle of October.”
Hailemelekot wrote that Menelik “further decreed that the peoples in far-off lands of Gojam, Denbiya, Quara, Begemder, and all areas above Chechehe should assemble at Ashenge. And the peoples of Simien, Walkait, and Tegede were ordered to converge at Mekelle.”
In other words, get the whole band together. Adwa is every Ethiopian’s legacy. Everybody gets a piece of that astonishing valor and grandeur. You had Ras Alula next to Ras Mekonnen, you had Oromo cavalrymen, and proud Afar warriors. You had giants then.
So, it depresses the hell out of me to go on Twitter and read the pathetic bickering over who did more at the battle, who dropped the ball, who deserves the most credit and on and on until you’re sick of it.
Where is the Adwa spirit today? And by Adwa spirit, I mean coming together to save the nation. Joining together and finding common ground and common cause.
Do you think the ferenji went away after Adwa? Of course, not. Sure, they lionized Menelik and wrote profiles of him in the New York Times and in French magazines, and ridiculously tried to convince themselves they lost the war because “Ethiopians are really Caucasians” (roll eyes now)…
Fast-forward a few years, and Britain, France, and Italy tried to mess around again with the 1906 Tripartite Treaty, only Menelik caught them at it. Fast-forward a bit more, and even during the coup by the nobles against Lij Iyassu, there are documents that show how the British were contemplating trying to interfere in the internal affairs of the country. Again.
And they haven’t changed. They can’t help themselves. Look at what is happening now. The U.S. and the Europeans lost their little proxy war, and even after Pretoria, they are stilllying over what happened. We have incontrovertible proof that the Tigray famine didn’t happen, and they still lie about that, even though a former Country Director of the World Food Programme in Ethiopia came out and said nope, didn’t happen.
The enemy is still out there. They are just waiting, salivating, itching to get back in and take advantage of any internal disputes or trouble.
And there are still enemies within.
They will not be beaten this time with guns. My gawd, we’ve had enough guns, haven’t we? Two long bloody years of them. Militias don’t have the numbers, and even if they did, you are still promised mass slaughter.
And so I ask: Where is Ethiopia’s Martin Luther King? Where is Ethiopia’s Malcolm X?
I have spent months now, sifting through old source texts piled next to my desk—thumbing through Pankhurst, Marcus, Ullendorff, the royal chronicles—and it’s not an opinion, it’s a fact: the Orthodox Church, for better or worse, whatever you may think of it, has been the single greatest influence on the history of Ethiopia. Period.
If last month demonstrated anything, it’s that the whole ugly confrontation with the Orthodox Church brought home just who is on the side of the angels lately, and of equally crucial importance, who can run rings around politicians and government in terms of messaging and communications. Look at this footageand witness the power of those who came out in support of what was sensible and just.
Ethiopia doesn’t need a political revolution, it needs a social one.
Who will lead it? I ask again: Where is Ethiopia’s Martin Luther King? Where is Ethiopia’s Malcolm X?
Doesn’t have to be a guy. It can be a brave woman.
Whatever the gender, this person needs to be absolutely incorruptible, close to invincible in terms of moral authority, courage, eloquence, and he or she can’t come from the political ranks because the question of ambition for office will always be there and because damn it, you knowwhat will happen—they’ll just throw your hero in jail.
Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, John Lewis, all of these great names, understood the power of individuals of faith in activism, those who can address the national conscience and summon the strength of a people.
Nobody’s asking for regime change. Nobody’s saying, “Storm the palace! Drag ’em all out!” No one’s revving up a Volkswagen Beetle to take away the Prime Minister. And nobody in MLK’s camp was that stupid either in the 1960s.
They wanted to save people from getting murdered. They wanted basic rights and freedoms. They wanted legislative reform, but they sought it through peaceful non-violent protest.
A good friend has warned me that the church, quite rightly, has steered clear of commenting on politics, and it is, in fact, barred by that toxic farce of a 1994 constitution from getting embroiled in politics: “Religion shall not interfere in state affairs.”
Well, there’s supposed to be a separation of church and state in America, and that didn’t keep men and women of faith away from the March on Washington in 1963. It didn’t interfere with people of good conscience becoming Freedom Riders.
Let’s be crystal clear: it is not a state affair to show up to a church with an armed escort and have a sniper planted outside to kill worshippers.
Please tell me how it’s a state affair to bulldoze a woman’s home in the middle of the night, and while she tries to retrieve household items, a hyena mauls her children?
Tell me how it is a respectable state affair that you turn back people who want to move to your nation’s capital for safety, and you force them to go home where there’s a high chance they’ll be massacred.
These are beyond state affairs. These are matters of civil rights.
Tell me how any of this is different in its essence from Jim Crow laws in the U.S., back when Black people could get lynched if they got caught in whites only sections of southern towns after dark.
Tell me how it’s different from Black people in the U.S. not being allowed for ages to live where they please.
Ethiopia needs a civil rights revolution.
I see the social media posts, and well meaning individuals with too short memories tag the UN or the hacks at Amnesty and Human Rights Watch on these events, and I have to shake my head.
Can you honestly think after what they tried to do to Ethiopia during the Tigray War, and what they did get away with, that they can be trusted to help in situations now? NO!
Don’t ever, ever, ever leave the back door open for them to sleaze their way in. The solution must come from Ethiopian people and their own institutions, even if those institutions are in jeopardy and under attack from inside the country.
Ethiopia needs its own MLK. It needs its own Malcolm X.
If these American examples aren’t good enough for you, feel inspired then by one of your own: Abun Petros once defied the Italian Fascists and their war atrocities, saying, “How could I stand before God if I do not condemn a crime of such magnitude?”
This is the true spirit of Adwa. It does not take a gun or a club. It requires only a conscience and a will to follow through on the right action.
Where is the modern version of Abun Petros, speaking truth to power?
I can think of no other organization that can produce this hero than the church, and I don’t think it has to be the top guy, someone who let himself be used as a prop for TPLF talking points, but that’s just my view. Frankly, Martin Luther King was not “top of the food chain” in the American Baptist faith—his primacy and fame came through the massive wattage of his character and his personal conviction. Malcolm X was the number two in the Nation of Islam until he broke away from it—and his stature only increased, his legend indelible.
These men had no political aspirations, no venality, no hunger for fame. They did what they did because it was the right thing to do.
Think of the potential of a civil rights campaign led by a charismatic yet politically astute and eloquent priest in Ethiopia. One who will reach out and build an alliance with Muslim leaders who doubtless want to see justice as well.
Think of what could be accomplished through peaceful marches into and out of Oromia, leading targeted and terrorized Amhara IDPs to safety; into and out of Tigray, bringing people together, helping the country heal.
A civil rights campaign works on the fulcrum of shame. It worked for Gandhi because the British were forced to confront their own hypocritical sanctimony; it did notwork for the Burmese against their ruthless military junta in 1988 because those bastards in charge felt no shame—and still don’t.
But if there is a God, He bestowed on the Ethiopian people—all of them—a profound sense of right and wrong and of justice to their fellow citizens. If there is value in faith at all, it needs to include hope that those committing horrors can eventually be turned to say, “My God, what have I done?”
And change their ways.
We started this with Adwa, and after the battle was over, Ethiopians were appalled at how Russian medics didn’t want to take care of the Italian casualties—they showed more compassion for the enemy than their European guests.
A nonviolent civil rights campaign as I describe it comes with massive risks.
Ask the Freedom Riders. Ask those who got beaten bloody with John Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
But their day of deliverance did come.
No people are truly free when they’re prohibited from traveling or moving to wherever they like within their own country. Do you think those who watched their homes bulldozed, who are grieving now for loved ones shot or wounded outside a church are celebrating Adwa?
Make this anniversary mean something even more profound this year. Start organizing, start marching. March not for war, but for rights.
I know, I know. It’s easy for me to toss out such a strategic and tactical scenario. I still don’t live there—I risk next to nothing in floating these concepts. I showed up at Toronto’s Adwa Celebration, and people warmly embraced me, and it was wonderful as usual. I could play it safe now for the rest of my days…or I could stand for something and make myself useful.
I am your friend. I come when you ask me, I go where I’m invited. And when it comes down to it, I can only speak for myself, and any thoughts or advice are for you to accept or reject as you see fit.
But I’ll tell you something else. Your true friend is definitely not the correspondent for The Economist or the BBC who wants to portray your internal crises—again—as another “proof” of how Africans can’t govern themselves. Your true friend is not some smug European or American son of a bitch who threatens your economy and tells you how to run your democracy. A real friend says, “This is how I see it, but it’s up to you. Here’s a notion that you can take, and if you like it, you can make it your own.”
Once upon a time, Ethiopia was a beacon to the rest of Africa, to African Americans and to Black people in Caribbean colonies; a people who always resisted invaders, who were a wellspring of inspiration. It’s time for Ethiopia to be that again.
Take your cue from MLK, Malcolm, or Abun Petros and please start the civil rights revolution.