June 29, on the night Hachalu Hundessa, a popular Ethiopian Oromo singer and activist, was assassinated, “Qeerroos” (young people) from the Oromo ethnic group headed straight to Emperor Menelik’s statue which is found at the center of Addis Ababa. They started throwing stones at the statue of the 19th century emperor.
The night was very tense in Addis Ababa and many parts of Oromia region. Reports indicate the death of more than 167 people from different ethnic groups and the destruction of businesses in several cities and towns.
The intention of the Qeerroos in Addis Ababa was to dismantle the statue of the emperor, but they couldn’t because they were dispersed by security forces who arrived immediately. However, young Oromos who live in London dismantled the bust of King Haile Selassie while those in the city of Harar in East Ethiopia destroyed the statue of Ras Mekonnen.
One may wonder what explains the motives behind the destruction of statues in Ethiopia. But the answer could be found by looking at what’s happening recently around the world, especially after the murder of George Floyd in the United States.
Generally, people link the widespread racism, injustices, and inequalities of today to the past. The past becomes an enemy if it has negative impact on the politics and justice system of the present. So, past leaders who instituted such a system are blamed.
Many Ethiopians believe that Hachalu was assassinated due to the remarks he made in his interview with Oromia Media Network just a few weeks earlier. In the interview, Hachalu suggested that Emperor Menelik’s statue should be removed saying he was responsible for more than a century-long subjugation of the Oromo people and other nations and nationalities in Ethiopia.
Public memories have always been subjects of controversies which arise mainly from differences in understanding of what they represent and the values they stand for. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, monuments, statues, and artifacts which symbolize Communism were removed in many countries including Ethiopia. In 2015, ISIS destroyed the historical city of Palmyra in Syria. The death of George Floyd in the United States months ago has led to a renewed campaign to dismantle statues of confederate leaders and past slave owners.
In Ethiopia, too, the war on statues is not the war on statues themselves; it is a war on the idea they represent and the values they symbolize.
Emperor Menelik II, was the father of modern Ethiopia and considered by some, especially the Amhara ethnic group, as a “unifier” of the country. However, this claim is rejected mainly by the Oromos and other nations and nationalities in South Ethiopia. For these group, the emperor was an invader who conquered independent nations which had their own governing system. They blame him for instituting a system that favored the Amharas and Christians but marginalized all other religious and ethnic groups.
Now, the war on statues is becoming an international movement. With ubiquitous influence of social media, it’s a matter of time before people in every country question the values monuments in their public space represent and if they deserve to be there!