The latest book by leading area scholar
Ethiopia is populated by highlanders who historically have been part of the state formation and whose rulers have subjugated a number of nationalities in the highland periphery and in the surrounding lowlands.
This struggle between the centre and the periphery is a momentous issue for the country. The three regimes that have ruled the country during the last hundred years have resorted to military power and violence to control the territory and extract its resources.
About 12 % of Ethiopia’s population are nomads and their pasture-lands make up more than half of the area of the country. They are barring the way of development and development will annihilate them – brutally and at breakneck speed.
The only solution is to create a nation for all Ethiopians. Two regimes fell while defending the interests of the central power, and the third and present had to give up Eritrea, thus incurring the bitterness of all Ethiopian nationalists.
What do we think we know about Ethiopia? Well, Ethiopia is a proud highland realm, a Christian kingdom with historical roots from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, with its own alphabet and written history; an African country that was never colonized, with a central power that even in 1896 could mobilize an army of 100,000 soldiers with 200,000 muskets and defeat the Italian army in the battle of Adua.
And most of this is true. But according to John Markakis, Greek historian and political scientist who spent a lifetime studying Ethiopia and its neighbours on the Horn of Africa, there is an even more important truth.
And that is the fact that the state of Ethiopia is constituted by highland peoples who historically have been part of the state formation and whose rulers have subjugated a number of nationalities in the highland periphery and in the surrounding lowlands.
This struggle between the centre and the periphery is a momentous issue for the country. In the opinion of Markakis, the three regimes that have ruled the country during the last hundred years have been incapable of understanding the complexity of the country, resorting instead to military power and violence to control the territory and extract its resources.
Whether the centre has been ruled by an autocratic and divine emperor like Haile Selassie, or by a Marxist military dictator like Mengistu Haile Mariam, or by the current authoritarian government of Meles Zenawi – the ruling clique has continuously prevented all economic and political pluralism for the subjugated peoples. The result is conflict and revolts that inhibit economic development.
The latest book by John Markakis entitled Ethiopia, the last two Frontiers (James Currey, Woodbridge 2011) is impressive but hard to penetrate due to its wealth of knowledge and details.
Markakis reviews some fifty ethnic groups and reports on at least twice as many liberation movements and other political groups; he leaves no stone unturned in exposing the conflicts that the shaping of a genuine Ethiopian nation has brought about and will need to confront.
The two frontiers he refers to in the book title are democratization and integration of the subjugated lowland areas. Markakis does not like what he sees. He considers the opposition that was allowed to work in a short, democratic opening before the elections of 2005, albeit divided, just as highland nationalistic as the regime. It would have faced exactly the same problems if it had come to power.
The present regime springs from the Tigray Liberation Front, which overthrew the Mengistu government in 1991. But – in contrast with many others – Markakis does not see it as representing narrow ethnic interests. It simply represents the traditional central power in the highlands with its two major ethnic groups: the Amharas and the Tigrays.
He further asserts – also in contrast with the majority of the opposition and a large number of international analysts – that the last 20 years of transformation of Ethiopia into an ethnic-based federal state is a necessary reform.
No matter how many obstacles it has met concerning borderlines, internal conflicts, lack of local resources and educated people, favouring of local elites and endless other problems, Markakis maintains that it was necessary. But it has to be carried out in such a way that a true representation can be achieved with all ethnic groups getting a fair chance to participate in the country’s development.
At the core is, of course, the land issue. It is the earth which has to feed the growing population. All land is state property; it is leased out or controlled traditionally and used in different ways, but importantly, it is not private.
The proponents of privatization and a capitalist development, i.e. the most hawkish nationalists in the opposition, have so far not gained a hearing, of which Markakis approves.
But somehow the arable land shortage in the densely populated highlands has to be resolved. Before, the landless migrated to the lowlands, but with the new ethnic federalism this is made more difficult and tends to create new conflicts.
Moreover, the government considers the land in the outlying areas as the engine of economic development. It is leased out in a large scale at low cost to foreign companies for cultivation of rice, sugar and other crops for domestic consumption and for export. Energy crops are to yield Dollars, Euros and Yen.
But, says Markakis, no one seriously believes that the nomads and subsistence farmers in the lowlands will become plantation workers. These jobs will be taken by migrant labour. The water, the pastures and the traditional ways of life will be destroyed.
About 12 % of Ethiopia’s population are nomads and their pasture-lands make up more than half of the area of the country. They are barring the way of development – here as elsewhere – and development will annihilate them. This may eventually be inevitable, but now it will happen brutally, at breakneck speed.
I lived in the capital Addis Abeba for some years in the 80s, and my mind was impressed by the hegemonic perception of Ethiopia as one country. When reading Markakis, I’m more inclined to think of the Roman Empire and its history of constantly subjugating new peoples and expand its frontiers. I would like to bring his book on a tour along the borders of Ethiopia in order to understand the country better.
It is a relief that Markakis does not consider Ethiopian development to be driven by external forces. He of course describes the revolving door policies from WWII up to the fall of the Soviet Union, when first USA and then USSR became allies of the Ethiopian rulers and armed them to the teeth, and thus helped them subdue the border area populations.
He also explains how the War on Terror has once again created close links between Ethiopia and the USA. But the picture he shows of Ethiopia is a nation whose rulers have not been the puppets of others but have promoted their own interests. And these interests are entirely those of the ruling clique in the highlands.
But it will require increasing superiority of forces to maintain control, according to Markakis. The only solution is to create a nation for all Ethiopians. Two regimes fell while defending the interests of the central power, and the third and present had to give up Eritrea, thus incurring the bitterness of all Ethiopian nationalists.
A true federalism would in the view of Markakis also mean autonomy for the Somali region – the area where two Swedish journalists were arrested last year. It’s been decades since gas and oil companies started prospecting in the rebellious Ogaden area, but none has yet managed to exploit the resources, despite the near occupation of the central power.
Markakis knows many members of the present Ethiopian government; several have been his students. He said in an interview that he hopes they will read the book, but he does not think they will like it. He also expects them to be overthrown in their quest for keeping the status quo. And he sees no alternative regime that is likely to change course.
A short version of this article was published in Swedish in Sida’s magazine Omvärlden, No. 4, 2012.