Module for History of Ethiopia and the Horn (of Africa) for Higher Learnings

By Getatchew Haile

This 196-page presentation (The Module) is prepared by four scholars affiliated with four Ethiopian universities as a module for teaching the history of the nation to students at the country’s universities. The Module is sponsored by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, which sought a remedy for what the present government considers a deficient in the curriculum of teaching Ethiopian history before the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took power in 1991. As such, it can be taken as EPRDF’s drive to change course from what it calls an Amhara-centered portrayal of Ethiopia to a multi-national and inclusive orientation. It is penned as the next step of the party in power’s effort of changing the course it began by dismissing more than sixty university professors from the Addis Ababa University in 1993.

A closer look at the Module gives the impression that it was written by people who took notes at a forum where history professors were giving lectures on their specializations of Ethiopian history of different time periods. One cannot rely on such notes to write a national history. Nevertheless, the Module is not to be dismissed as irrelevant or embraced as it is. It is one that can earn a “Pass” mark, if it were a student’s term paper, and, as the national Module, that requires correcting errors to improve it. One can easily see two types of errors in the effort. The first group of errors can be easily corrected; the other might not be. The group of errors that can be corrected are made out of a lack of in-depth knowledge of the subjects on the part of the authors who wrote the Module. As I shall show, this lack of knowledge has led the authors to an even graver error: they plagiarize. The second group of errors is made with full knowledge, introduced by the authors to justify grievances of the Oromo (and other ethnic groups).

On the positive side, the Module is not dismissive of Ethiopia’s past history that we know. To the contrary, it presents it the same way as the history books from which we learned the history of our country. To its credit, it has attempted to incorporate the history and social life of the different ethnic groups, especially the branches of the Boran and Baraytuma Oromo. Regardless of its intention and success, it has addressed the complaint of the peoples which felt that a part of their history has been neglected in teaching Ethiopian history. Their complaint, as Cushitic Ethiopians, is that what has been taught is only the history of Semitic Ethiopians.

In the past, grouping Ethiopians by language has been the norm. But since it has led to the grave misinterpretation that Ethiopians are people of different races, we should take writing the Module for an occasion to handle it with care. We are Cushitic languages-speaking and Semitic languages-speaking Ethiopians, with the languages or the people easily shifting.

The problem the Module faces in justifying and addressing the particular complaint is lack of evidence. Its authors depend heavily on oral tradition. But we know for a fact that oral traditions can be backdoors for allowing false information to sneak in. One major history that the Module teaches in this regard is that the migration of the Boran and Baraytuma Oromo into central and northern Ethiopia in the sixteenth century was a return to their original homeland. It means that their ancestors were in central Ethiopia where the present Oromo are now before they were pushed out by immigrants of Semitic stock.

The narrative is not an impossibility. If this new story is true, it would have a positive, not negative, impact on Ethiopians’ togetherness. In fact, it might have a chance to be historically acceptable. I have read and quoted a study by German scholars (whose source I do not remember now) that the original home of the Somali was central and highland Ethiopia before they moved to the lowland. It would not be surprising if the case of the Boran and Baraytuma is similarly as presented in the way the Module depicts. All we know so far is their sixteenth century migration as encapsulated in my የአባ ባሕርይ ድርሰቶች ኦሮሞችን ከሚመለከቱ ሌሎች ሰነዶች ጋራ.

Now I will give a few examples of the two kinds of errors.

(a)  Examples of errors due to lack of knowledge:

(1) The authors of the Module write, “In his chronicle Amde-Tsion describes his victories: ‘I, king Amde-Şiyon, went to the sea of Eritrea. When I reached there, I mounted on an elephant and entered the sea . . .’”  There are two errors in this statement. First, they did not take this information from the Chronicle as they claim, but from Taddesse Tamrat’s Church and State in Ethiopia 1270-15257, Oxford (1972), p. 77. The second mistake relates to King Amde-Şiyon’s mounting “on an elephant.” I have corrected Taddesse’s incorrect translation of his Ge’ez source with “on a boat” when I wrote a preface to the book’s second edition.

(2) Maps and statistics in the Module are not the authors’. They are taken from others, including from Taddesse Tamrat’s book, without giving credit to their producers. They are glaring examples of plagiarism.

(3) “Alphonso de Paiva V of Argon received a delegation from Yishaq in the city of Valentia, in 1427.”  This is pure plagiarism, taken from Taddesse Tamrat’s book. A writer can make mistakes but a mistake to plagiarism, such as there, cannot be lectured to students. The Module is full of pieces of information taken verbatim from Professor Taddesse Tamrat’s studies without crediting them to its author. The fact that Professor Taddesse is dead does not protect them from the watching eyes of the living.

(4) The controversy arising from the concept that Christ is the Messiah (the Anointed) is dealt with amateurishly. I see no reason why the subject could not be given to a more knowledgeable person.

(5) The relationship between the Ethiopian Orthodox Church with the Orthodox Church of Alexandria is described as the former being subservient of the latter. This is wrong. Ethiopians never feel nor have been subservient to any other nation. Ethiopia was a diocese of Alexandria until it requested and received autocephaly. The American Catholic Church is not subservient of the Roman Catholic Church or the Vatican, just because it recognized the Pope as its head.

(6) The allegation that people are baptized by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church obligatorily by decree sounds like the continuation of TPLF’s attack of the local Church. To be credible, the authors of the Module must quote the decree from which they found this information. It is undeniable that the Emperor Yohannes IV (1872-1888) has asked people whose ancestors were forcibly converted to Islam to be converted to Christianity. But that was an aberration, and not the normal operation of the Orthodox Church. It is ridiculous to keep silent about the untold devastations inflicted on the Christians and their heritage during the revolt and invasion Iman Ahmad (Gragn) and his forces, and tell a story that did not happen.

(7) No one, including the authors of the Module, knows who Zoscales was. To teach it was Za Haqel (sic., Za-Haqle) is wrong, because we did not have a king called Za Haqle. The “Za” in “Za-Haqle” is a particle meaning “of”. “Za-Haqle” is a phase, meaning “That of Haqle,” e.g. “[The time of reign] of Haqle is 13 years.”  So, the name of the king is Haqle, not Za-Haqle. See ዓመታተ ነገሥተ አኵስም  ዘአርዌ ፱፻ዓመት፤ ዘብእሲ አንጋቦ ዘሰደዶ ለአርዌ ወቀተሎ ፪፻ዓመት፤ ዘግዱር ዘበኑኅ ፻ዓመት፤ ዘስባዶ በሳዶ ፻ዓመት፤ ዘተዋስያ በአክሱም ፩ዓመት፤ ዘማክዳ ፶ ዓመት፤ . . . ዘሕቅሌ፡ ፲ወ ፫።  “Years of (reign of) kings of Aksum: of Arwe 900 years; of the man from Angabo who chased out Arwe and killed him, 200 years; of Gidur in Nuh 100 years; of Sibado in Sado 100 years; of Tewasiya in Aksum 1 year; of Madidda 50 years. . . of Heqle 13 years. (Taken from መጽሐፈ አክሱም). The name ግዱር has been found inscribed on a bow-looking metal. So he was ግዱር, not ዘግዱር. We know that the name of the queen was ማክዳ, not ዘማክዳ. So, Zoscales was not Za Haqel or Za Haqle or Haqle. In itself, this is not a grave mistake, but it is when found in the Module.

(8) The statement that during the reign of the Zague some religious works were translated from Arabic to Geez is simple guessing.

(9) The statement, “Ethiopian Queen Azeb” is embarrassingly false. “Azeb” means south, not a personal name. Makedda is the name the Kibre Negest gave to the Queen of the Azeb or South.

(10) When teaching our ancient history, it is wrong to refer to the country as Ethiopia and Eritrea. Statements such as “The earliest inscriptions in Eritrea and Ethiopia,” need to be corrected. Eritrea as a country independent of Ethiopia, is known only since the 20th century.

(11) The statement, “One peculiar feature of the Sabean inscriptions is the absence of vowels in the written words,” refers to a feature that is true of all known inscriptions of the Semitic languages. Teaching such a mistake is a disservice to the students. The authors of the Module are not qualified to delve into Semitic Philology.

(12) “A gap of 7–8 years between Ethiopian and Gregorian calendars results from alternative calculation in determining date of Annunciation.” This is another embarrassing error make by people who are not qualified to deal with the subject. A few books, including my ባሕረ ሐሳብ የዘመን ቈጠራ ቅርሳችን ከታሪክ ማስታወሻ ጋራ, are available for whoever wants to educate himself/herself on the subject.

(13) Emperor Zer’a Ya’iqob “himself wrote some books like Metsafe-Birhan, Metsafe-Me’lad, Metsafe-Sillasie, Metasfe-teqebo Mister etc. In addition, during his reign; Te’amre-Maryam was translated.” Such a statement would be made by an illiterate person, not by scholars preparing a module for teaching university students.

(14) The statement that King Dawit received from Jerusalem a piece of the true cross and a number of religious paintings including the famous “kuerate resu”, is wrong. The piece came from Egypt, not from Jerusalem. Read my The Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s Tradition on the Holy Cross, pp. 1-15. The painting did not come to Ethiopia before the sixteenth century.

(15) The Wichale treaty and its grave consequences are poorly and confusedly presented as follows: “It has twenty articles and written both in Amharic and Italian languages. However, Article III and XVII have had major difference on the two languages versions. The Italian version of Article III, indicates the ‘effective occupation’ of Italy to legitimize their further expansion towards the Marab River. While the Amharic version states that Ethiopia could use Italy to conduct its foreign affairs as optional Article XVII of the Italian version indicates Menelik’s foreign contacts must be through the agency of Italy.”

(16) The authors of the Module write, “The Oromo contact with diverse peoples in the 16th century brought far-reaching integrations among peoples across ethnic and religious background.” We wish this was the case, but it was not.

(b) On the negative side:

(1) What I would call a major setback of this Module is the absence of bibliography at the end of each section. No teacher dispenses her/his responsibility towards his/her students without giving the sources from which the lesson is drawn.

(2)  The veracity of the statement, “Shawan forces led by Ras Darge Sahlasillase made the final assault on the Arssi at Azule on 6 Sept. 1886. This was followed by Aannolee amputations (female right breast and male right limbs were cut off, accompanied by castrations in the extreme cases,” is doubtful.

During war anything is of course fair game. If this campaign to reintegrate lost territories has really happened as described in the Module, we read it as any similar event and move on. Raising question regarding its veracity is inevitable, especially since there are people who, for no reason, feel personally hurt by it. They feel as if accused of a heinous crime. The source for this reporting, as far as I can see, is Abbas Haji Gnamo, not the wrongly spelled J. Gastro Vanderheyn. The fact that the Module is reluctant to mention Abbas Haji Gnamo as its sources increases the reader’s suspicion.

Among the sources of Haji Gnanno, one finds Gebre Sellassie’s ታሪከ፡ ዘመን፡ ዘ ዳግማዊ፡ ምኒልክ፡ ንጉሠ፡ ነገሥት፡ ዘኢትዮጵያ። and R. H. Kofi Darkwah’s Shewa, Menilek and the Ethiopian Empire. They all record the stiff resistance of the Arussi/Arssi during the fight. But none of them mention “Aannolee amputations.” It is not in the nature of Menelik’s policy. Here is what Darkwah reported: “But when it came to serious military maneuvers the Shewans rose to the occasion and proved that they were not only adept in surprise attacks but could successfully live up to a sustained and determined resistance. This was reflected in the battle against Gojam in June 1882. It was even better reflected in the campaigns to the Arsis country where the Shewans met with what was probably the most determined resistance in the history of their kingdom. The first four campaigns conducted between January 1881and December 1885 met with very little success but the Shewan casualties were heavy. The fifth expedition achieved success only after four months of continuous campaigning during which the Arussi killed over 700 Shewans in a single attack. And it needed a strong garrison under Ras Darge to defeat the Arussi to a final submission. . . The breakdown of the Arussi resistance was in the final analysis do to the superior armament of the invaders.” p. 191.

(3) One of the controversial statements is this: “The project of conquest driven by interest to control land and trade routes was not new to Menilek II. What made Menilek expansion new were the intensity and the degree of success. Besides, his conquest coincided with European powers colonial expansion in Africa with whom he concluded partition of territories.” Emperor Menelik was talented and the Ethiopian people were ready to give their lives, as they always have, to save Ethiopia from the jaws of European powers. Read Sven Rubinson’s The Survival of Ethiopian Independence. There will come a time when Ethiopians, as a nation, mature enough and erect Menelik’s and his general’s statues in each provincial capital that developed from military garrisons.

(4) They write, “Taye and Asme wrote Yeityopia Hizb Tarik (The History of Ethiopian People) and the Ye-[Oromo] Tarik (The History of the Oromo) respectively.”  The first is የኢትዮጵያ ሕዝብ ታሪክ and the second is የጋላ ታሪክ፡. A mature nation does not change past records. If the Oromo are opposed to the name Galla, the best way to diffuse the attitude attached to it is to present the issue by saying, “We the Oromo whom others used to call ‘Galla.’”  These nomenclatures are history to which we should not attach any negative or positive feeling, especially if the effort is to tell it as it is when educating the next generation. The effort should be to eradicate the wrong attitude from the mind rather than from the books. The students will find out that what they are told by the Module is false when they one day see the original sources unless we succeed in the impossible task of suppressing them.

(5) The book ዝክረ ነገር is a source of records. Criticizing it, as this Module does, is counterproductive. When the students read it, as we expect they will, they will feel betrayed by the agency that assigned the preparation of the Module for them.

(c) Minor errors but embarrassing that they appeared in the Module:

  1. amir al-mumin (sic), for “amir al-mu’mnyin.”
  2. Zemene Masefent (sic), for “Mesafent”. The combinations of the two Amharic (sic) word Zemene-Mesafints. They are not Amharic but Ge’ez words.
  3. “Quara, ” Why two spelling for one name?
  4. Gedeo was annexed in 1895. Fitwrari (sic, for “Fitawrari”) Habtegiyorgis Dinagdee/Abba Machal/Abba Mala built a fort at Megga and took over Booranaa & Konso in 1896-97. Tasamma Nado (sic, for “Nadew”) also conquered up to Baro (Sobat) and Nasir in Gambella.  Although several ethipian (sic), for “Ethiopian”) regional rulers were intersetd (sic, for “interested”) in European technologies emperor Tewodros. foreigners, ras Teferi had keen interst (sic, for “interested”) in modernization by which he wanted.  Soe (sic, for “Some”) of the reforms were the centralization of the government.
  5. The social, economic and legal positions of slaves diffred (sic, for “differed”) across time and space. However, in many cultures from ancient to modern the causes of enslavement were faiure (sic, for “failure”) to debt (tax).
  6. For instance, the production of tools, furniture, and dersesses (sic, “dresses”); Uhtman (sic, for “Uthman” digna; Alula Edida (Who is Alula Edida?). Cardinal Massaja was not German. Several travelers of British nationals including Samuel Gobat and Christian Kugler, C.W. Isenburg (sic, for “Isenberg”), Giustino De Jacibis (sic, for Jacobi) arrived in 1830s.
  7. The meaning of “Babel Mandeb” is not “Gate of Tears,” but “Strait of The Wail.”
  8. “king Solomon of Israel, who tracked (“What is this word?”) the queen sleep with him.”
  9. Who is “Abuhe Gabra Manfes Qidus”?
  10. In what language writing system is Negarit spelled as “Negariti”?


(d) Conclusion:

The role of the government in giving guidance to schools as to what children of a nation should be taught is unquestionable. The government has to make sure that children of the nation should mature, knowing what makes a people one nation within one territory, under one constitution, and one flag as a symbol. But that requirement has to be for pre-college education. In higher learning, however, it is the responsibility of the universities to determine what to offer to educate and how best to train citizens in line with the country’s Constitution. The country needs educated civilized citizens and the economy of an informed civilized trained labor force. Only dictators prepare teaching materials for universities. The case of the Module is of similar worth. It is prepared by unqualified writers who have the audacity to accept an assignment for which they lack the required knowledge. What they have is not qualms but enthusiasm for writing about such subjects. Their style suggests that there is a Ferenji historian behind the curtain.



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