By Abebe Haregewoin, MD, Ph. D.
March 18, 2014
|Prof Tecola Hags|
Dr. Abebe Haregewoin
The woes of cyberethiopia
We Ethiopians have a unique love/hate relationship with one another. We enjoy haggling over layers of ideas from the trivial to the momentous and vital. And yet with the exception of some upstarts we have inherited a rather nuanced cordiality from our ancestors and have perfected a dance around the fires of discord without seemingly offending each. This often occurs when we are in face to face conversational mode. However, this respectful distance grows thin and often disappears completely in our written communications under the cover of anonymity for which the internet is a perfect vehicle. A perennial complaint that crops up in our community from time to time is the deplorable quality and the deceptive camouflage that certain members of our society use the web in order to sell sordid and toxic ideas to the gullible.
Many of these individuals are obvious purveyors of the divisive ideologies that painfully gnaw on the bones of our multiethnic Ethiopian psyche. The most inflammatory topics among many and hiding behind several masks such as politics, national interest or religion is the unacknowledged monster of tribalism which is now euphemistically renamed nationalism and by other names which make it sound innocuous and even scientific. But this is the poison with which we Ethiopians like ox peckers feeding on the wounds of our miserable farm animals continuously dig to deepen on each other on our already festering wounds. And yet we are a people who believe in miracles and we pray or at least hope for a cyberprophet who will minister to our wounds, and with the truth as a weapon kill these flesh eating maggots of despair and save us from sapping each other’s spirits over small and trivial non-issues and forget about the big picture, which is Ethiopia.
Tecola Hagos – the prophet redux!
Some years back towards the end of the last millennium this writer believed that he had discovered one such website which he believed had the right promise as it was founded by cyberprophet of his dreams! The prophet was no less than Tecola Hagos with whom he was familiar for almost a lifetime. This was the Tecola who was seen by many as a suave intellectual and artist of the late sixties Addis. He was a template to emulate and copy as one of the boomer generation’s role models. Many were encouraged to grow his bouffant Afro hair style and a matching goatee to emulate his cool style. His name evoked and commanded immediate loyalty and respect. Tecola’s site was simply named, “Ethiopia”, with the founders name reassuringly emblazoned underneath the caption. I had a great sigh of relief when I opened the site. Tecola reassuringly declared that his website,”…. is devoted to expose and analyze without fear and censor the forces that have impacted upon our lives and in the life of our country……it is open to all, and all are invited to share their views in articles, essays, poems, cartoons etc…there is no censoring on themes and central ideas…no nation can be built on falsehood and propaganda..etc” Unless one is suffering from terminal skepticism, which is an affliction somewhat endemic in its benign form to Ethiopians (mostly in a rather healthy way), this statement of purpose should kill the seeds of doubt before it sprouted into the proverbial hapless weeping cactus growing near the thorny acacia tree. More reassuringly he also stated that part of his task is to somehow defend Ethiopian territorial integrity, “…..which has been made difficult by the then Ethiopian leader, the late Meles Zenawi who is bent on destroying Ethiopia and on surrendering away Ethiopian territory…etc.” (I must admit that I have not visited that site in years as the reader will find out why, later in this article). This type of nationalist spice and flavor is like the smell of doro wat on the Ethiopian political dish and is a strong magnet to many saddened by the shrunken map of the nation and those who are opposed to the current Ethiopian government. This focus, by the way, does not make Tecola’s site any different than many other garden variety sites, but his declarations of openness and apparent fervent nationalism invite and draw viewers seeking an in-depth treatment of subjects near and dear to all Ethiopians.
Tecola’s pantheon of Ethiopia’s historical villains: Negus Sahleselassie, Atse Tewodros, and Atse Menelik II
Tecola in his site presents himself as an expert historian and an unbiased interpreter and a trained eye for his perplexed countrymen and women. A careful reading of Tecola’s essays on Ethiopian history is not the usual ennoblement of heroes and past civilizations, full of national pride and kudos but written with a different and unexpected purpose at hand. His stories rather than history as we understand it is an eccentric and novel interpretation of the events as most of us know them. Tecola seemed to believe that we have all been deluded by our history and with his scholarly interpretation this cloud of unknowing will be lifted and that we will be freed from our delusions. With this premise Tecola a opens a parallel universe that he has discovered about our country hitherto unknown to us.
In his novel approach to our history, Tecola presents himself as a giant slayer and chose three main characters whose evil nature we misunderstood, gave us one single hero for the last century and a half and identified a new tribe or species that most “true” Ethiopians have failed to recognize as we will see below.
The trinity of evil rogues that Tecola demoted and downgraded from being heroes reassigned to evil doers included, Atse Tewodros, Negus Sahleselassie, and Atse Menelil II. Tecola perfunctorily dismisses Atse Tewodros as a madman who got what he deserved at Meqdela and over whom not much need to be written about. But no hate literature of any kind equals the invective that Tecola throws at Atse Menelik II. To him Menelik was a stinking, syphilitic, inferior human being, for whom he seemed to have lacked additional words of defamation and abuse in the English language. It seemed that even Menelik’s real enemies, the Italians, have not gone to the extent of writing such barnyard and shameful literature on an Ethiopian leader. It is surprising that Menelik’s leadership successes at the battle of Adwa in 1896 had reverberated as the only example of the defeat of a colonial power on African soil, and still continues to be a jewel and pride of African and world history to this day. But for Tecola, the battle of Adwa was a defeat for Ethiopia and a win for the Italians. This does not mean that Tecola has no heroes. He has indeed appointed for us a single Ethiopian hero for the last century and a half. Tecola singles out Atse Yohannes for extreme poetic and unbridled praise and veneration. This author unreservedly supports the heroism of Atse Yohannes as an undisputed and real national hero of our country who was martyred in the defense of his country. But Tecola was using his name as a crutch to bolster support for his ultranationalist rhetoric among those who are susceptible to such ideas. It is not too difficult to imagine that Tecola is a contributor for the disregard that some members of the current government seem to have for Ethiopian history as we know it, as Tecola was at one time one of their interpreters and scholarly tutor of our history during their early and formative years and he should thus be proud about this crowning achievement of his teachings.
The Mehal Sefari: Tecola’s crowning-jewel discovery of the eugenic human breeding “laboratory” of King Sahleselassie
The height of Tecola’s scholarship is what he probably imagined to be a stroke of his genius and a ground breaking discovery of a group of people that other professional historians seem to have missed entirely. He seems to have come to his remarkable discovery based on books written about Ethiopia by nineteenth century European authors. Tecola swears that all the documents he used as sources were all written by well-educated authors who are telling the truth. Not too surprisingly he completely ignores the abundance of historical documents written by Ethiopian observers and historians since he apparently finds all that he is looking for, from reliable European authors of that time.
The eureka moment of Tecola’s tireless historical research was his discovery of a breed of people whom he refers to as “Mehal Sefari” The Mehal Sefari according to Tecola never existed in the Ethiopian past until they were purposely bred by King Sahle Selassie by the miscegenation of noblemen with slaves. Even though it is not too difficult to guess who the noblemen might have been in this breeding program Tecola does not explain where the receptive female breeding slaves were obtained. But those who know the mentality behind such writing can suspect who Tecola is writing about. He does not disclose his sources on the genesis of this eugenic breeding of the Mehal Sefari by Sahle Selassie, but it is seems that once these science fiction like mongrels were released in great hordes they became a mischievous vermin that infested Ethiopia. It appears from Tecola’s scholarship Ethiopia before the Mehal Sefari was inhabited by a noble race which since then has been diluted and adulterated by these nefarious creatures. His conclusion is that Ethiopia’s woes rest on the shoulders of these Mehal Sefaris and finding a solution for these beings will be the salvation of the nation.
Truth is funnier than fiction: But who are the Mehal Sefaris?
If Tecola had given Ethiopian sources the benefit of the doubt, he could have avoided the blunder of his fantastic fabulist story about the Mehal Sefari. The Mehal Sefaris are not a distinct breed of people but soldiers who were closely allied and loyal to the reigning monarch. The term Mehal Sefari did not exist before the time of Menelik II, and came into use during his time to describe the soldiers who inhabited Addis and were under the leadership of one of the trusted noblemen close to Menelik. Neither they nor their leaders belonged to any ethnic group. According to Ethiopian sources the first leader of the Mehal Sefari under Menelik was Dejazmach Germame whose father was from Quara and his mother from Tegulet. In fact the most powerful leader of the Mehal Sefari of that era was the second one, Dejazmach Gebreselassie Baryagabr (father of the illustrious Ethiopian historian, the late Dejazmach Zewde), a nobleman from Tigray and definitely not a mongrel bred in Ankober. Dajazmach Gebreselassie was appointed as the leader of the Mehal Sefari after the battle of Adwa which resulted in the largest accumulation of armed war veterans who lived in various camps throughout the city. The qualification for becoming a Mehal Sefaris was being an experienced soldier irrespective of place of national origin. Thus most of the Mehal Sefari came from areas distant to Addis and included a sizeable proportion from Tigray and Gonder (they were sometimes generically referred to as Gondere) and were not the factory made ones that Tecola imagines came from the breeding camps of Ankober. Whoever led the Mehal Sefari had a lot of political clout and power in Addis, particularly during the last days of the reign of Menelik and the period immediately following his death. It was actually the Mehal Sefari under the leadership of Dejazmach Gebreselassie who demanded the abdication of Itege Taytu in the post-Menelik scramble for power. Without his support and military backing it would have been impossible to have removed the powerful Itege Taytu from power.
It is not clear where and how Tecola came up with the fantastic idea that the Mehal Sefari was a random collection of hybrids but a close look will reveal that he believed he was coining a new term by hijacking it from its true meaning for its euphemistic and propaganda value so that he can advance and vilify aspects of Ethiopian history by blaming it on an easy and nebulous target. According to this Mehal Sefari diatribes of Tecola, all historical facts associated with this group should be discounted. Thus the battle of Adwa was but a defeat for Ethiopians because of the Mehal Sefari. Apparently in Tecola’s eyes the thousands of Ethiopians who died in defense of their motherland at Adwa died in vain. Anybody with some inkling of Ethiopian history may think that Tecola’s epistles on the Mehal Sefari were written by a racially inclined foreigner writing for a nineteenth century European audience rather than a modern writer who claims to be a nationalist writing for his countrymen and women. Tecola writes about the Mehal Sefari as if they were low life and dirty beings who should be sequestered and isolated in gulags where they will be left to await their fate like the Russian kulaks and undesirables who were sent to Siberia by Joseph Stalin. Tecola seems to assume that Ethiopians have grown too lazy to bother reading their own history in detail and was taking advantage of this presumed gap and ignorance. Much like Lenin who was writing as an émigré during Tsarist Russia whose time came with the Russian revolution, Tecola seemed to have believed his time had also come for his social experiment when the TPLF came to power. But his seething and shrill hatred, zealotry and neologisms might have been a complete turn off even if some in the TPLF might have shared his feelings. One wonders what suggestions he might have made to the TPLF about the Mehal Sefaris when he once regarded himself as their intellectual mentor and advisor before he broke up with them and became an opposition figure. One can surmise that their refusal to implement some of his more ambitious and “final solution for the Mehal Sefari problem” might have been part of the quarrel that led to the break up.
What made Tecola tick in this manner?
After reading Tecola’s stories and out of respect, I tried to give Tecola the benefit of the doubt in order to understand what might be making him tick in this peculiar manner and if he can shed some light on some of his thoughts as promised at his site as an open forum. I emailed him twice with my concerns. Both emails came to naught. I do believe that many others may have faced the same wall of silence from him. It is possible that the mercurial Tecola wants his writing forgotten and that he has once again changed his colors and emerged as a new prophet in another vein. But he should not forget that his writings will remain part of a shameful trail of literature and oratory of hatred of this era whose main purpose was to throw poison at the sores that temporarily afflict Ethiopian politics. The only explanation one can come up with Tecola’s behavior is that he suffers from a severe case of narcissism from his paintings. His notable painting, “In defense of his country” of an armed and patriotic Ethiopian, is clearly a self-portrait of Tecola as a young man masquerading as a hero. Even his other claim to fame “Grandfather”, some believe is yet another fictionalized depiction of himself as an old and wise man passing on his wisdom to the next generation. But his messages are ultimately not the advice of a kindly grandfather or the advice of a concerned uncle, but that of an embittered and disappointed old man who can only be satisfied by pitting people against one another. The most surprising and counterintuitive success Tecola seems to have enjoyed is with those who according to his hypothesis can be categorized as the hated Mehal Sefari. And yet he is treated with respect and as a hero even among people who should have been offended by his writings and avoided him at all costs. Unfortunately some Ethiopians have become willing followers as like all experts in propaganda Tecola knows that they do not take the trouble to understand in depth matters that are of the utmost importance and only follow slogans and inflammatory rhetoric without ever thinking. My only advice to them is not to follow that old adage,”the enemy of my enemy is my friend” before they jump into any bandwagon.
The author of this article, perhaps like many others would definitely appreciate if Tecola would perhaps correct his defamatory writings and allow us to appreciate his contributions without any reservation.