By Faisal A. Roble
Empires have a shelf life. Very often they show early signs of strain before they morph into a different government structure. Some even bulk under the weight of prevailing politics, and without good public policy they end up disintegrating into mini states. One, therefore, cannot rule out the current crisis befall the polity of Ethiopia as part of the early strains this ancient empire exhibits.
Most of the world’s empires have been of two kinds: the imperial/colonial empires such as Great Britain, France, and Italy, were traditional empires that had become of age during the highest development of capitalism. In search of slave labor and raw materials, they invaded overseas nations and at the same time pursued capital accumulation at a global scale (Wallenstein, 1974 and Samir Amin, 1976). This group of empires controlled big and large territories often far away from their home regions, thus the adage of “the Sun never sets in Great Britain.”
The second but more primitive kind of empires is the likes of Turkey, Russia, Ethiopia, etc. This group’s socioeconomic base is mainly a feudal system. Empires in this category annexed nations and nationalities next to their home base through expeditions and mainly did not have overseas territories but were confined to their neighborhoods. The later empires are still fighting localized imperial wars: Russia in Chechnya, Turkey in Kurdistan, and Ethiopia in Somali, Sidama, Oromo, Afar, et al.
Both categories of empires exhaust their shelf life once their exploitative tentacles to the regions they exploit are cut off and internal contradictions became untenable. In the former case, democratic cultures in the home country helped end imperial colonization. In the second category, though, the absence of democratic culture and the less expensive war the empire can wage against forces that seek liberation from the feudal/imperial authority tends to extend the shelf life of colonization.
Most empires die violently. The Yugoslavian empire, an offshoot of the Austro-hungry Empire, violently exploded in our modern times. The Turkish Empire, on the other hand, died at the turn of the 19th century after Europeans ganged against it. Ethiopia herself has come close to dying several times, most notably in 1977. After a significant mayhem and massive displacement of people in the periphery regions, it bounced back thanks to an intervention from the now defunct Eastern bloc countries.
Whether the ongoing Ethiopian internecine conflict and political instability, plus the crack that has emerged within the Oromo elite constitute a sign of the state’s dwindling capacity to hold the empire together is too early to conclude.
However, this should be treated as a preliminary sign for a decaying empire. According to Paul Kennedy’s “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers,” the coming of the end of the empire’s shelf life is mainly due to political, social, and economical incongruence. Moreover, as the elite continues failing to establish a democratic system of governance, the shelf life of the empire is hastened. Add to that, in the case of Ethiopia, the inability of the ruling elite to properly address resilient fault line along ethnic issues, then there is little doubt that it is perhaps about time for scholars and policymakers to ask whether Ethiopia’s empire is in the last throes of its shelf life. If so, what is to be done to avert a total collapse of the empire?
One key question scholars and policymakers alike are confronted with considering the perpetual crisis of the Ethiopian polity is this: should Ethiopia exist as one country, or break it up into organic manageable mini-organic states?
In asking such a critical question, let us first attempt to list some of the exogenous factors that had helped and continue to help maintain this dysfunctional old empire. While I will pay a cursory review of three major exogenous factors that had lent support to Ethiopia for centuries, one cannot avoid the feeling that the effectiveness of such factors is dwindling. As the geopolitics of the world changes, exogenous factors lose significance in keeping Ethiopia intact. On the other hand, endogenous factors that are germane to pervasive conflicts need due attention. Policy makers must be serious in addressing both group and individual rights within the country to save the empire.
The Prester John Myth
One of the most powerful factors that lent Ethiopia an unconditional Western hand for centuries is the West’s infatuation with the old “Christian Ethiopia in a Sea of Muslim World.” To this end, an everlasting myth has been utilized as a tool to boost Ethiopia’s overseas parody. This myth maintains that Prester John was a legendary wealthy patriarch and a king whose story was popular in the 12th through the 17th century.
It is believed that Prester John ruled the Nestorian or Eastern Church, and his rule reached as far as India. After a period, Prester John was lost. After a long search, goes the myth, the Portuguese explorers found him in Ethiopia. This myth lent Ethiopia immense well-wishing by Europeans.
As a matter of fact, the coming of the Portuguese and Spain to help Ethiopia against Imam Ahmed Alkhazali, who led the Somali (Muslim) struggle against Abyssinians, was buttressed by the Prester John myth. Since then, Ethiopia remained the darling of Western civilization at the expense of Muslims in the region.
Forward this to our contemporary political culture, the West aggressively sought a policy of destroying Muslim states through internal organization (World Bank, IMF) in order to strengthen the muscle of Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa (see Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations”).
Service to Big Powers
Ethiopia has served for centuries as a premier geopolitical real estate and a proxy agent for colonial powers in the 19th and 20th centuries. During the Scramble for Africa at the end of the 19th century, both England and France used Ethiopia as the linchpin to get to the heartland of East and northeast Africa.
By all accounts, Ethiopian feudal lords of the day played a historical reactionary role. As such, they betrayed the African brotherhood sentiment. By gaining access to the corridors of power where Africa was subdivided just like one does to a bounty of real estate, Ethiopia ended up colonizing Somalis and enslaving many nations and nationalities in the South, including Oromia.
For its colonial service in return, Ethiopia was handsomely awarded and was given huge Somali territories thereby dismantling the organic Somali nation. The last transfer of Somali territory into the hand of Ethiopia was during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie which took place on November 29, 1954, a mere 65 years ago from this date.
Equally important is that Oromia would never have been a colonized state of Abyssinia had it not been the service feudal Ethiopia rendered to England. When in the 1930s and 1940s Italy tried to create an independent Oromia state to limit the power of Great Britain, the two powers that vehemently fought against that idea were England and France (Bulcha Demaksa).
Prior to the end of World War II, Oromia came close to becoming an independent state. By mid-1940s, Italy started demarcating and fully mapping out Oromia state. Alas, today Africa’s most populous nation (Oromo is over 40 million in the Horn of Africa) is without its own nation-state. If not carefully handled, the search for an independent Oromia nation-state plus the deferred dreams of Somalis alone can one day undo the Ethiopian ancient empire.
Arab Fear Factor
The balance of power with the Arab world is another exogenous factor that until recently kept Ethiopia together. As both the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean facing Africa were/are controlled by Muslim/Arab nations, such a condition was and is not favorable to the West, mainly because of the existential question of Israel and the heavy volume of commercial goods that pass through these sea routes.
Also, in the Post-World War II era, Ethiopia, along with Turkey and the Philippines, was the most after-sought strategic real estates by the West. Kanghew Station in Asmara housed the most valuable spying electronic [satellite] stations for the USA; the US lost that resource following the 1974 Derg revolution which switched sides and sought close diplomatic relations with the then Eastern bloc.
Even then, the West never ceased using Ethiopia as its base to secure the safety and the protection of Israel and wider Western interests. When the US wanted to pacify the United Islamic Courts (UIC) in Somalia, Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s discredited ruthless autocrat was given material and moral support to invade Somalia on America’s behalf. Today, Ethiopian soldiers are used as a proxy agent both in regional wars. Said Samatar once wrote: “where Ethiopia goes in the affairs of the Horn of Africa, so goes the West.”
All these exogenous factors helped maintain the Ethiopian empire and injected enough dose of diplomatic energy to Survive. But not for much longer!
If left unchecked, endogenous factors could tear Ethiopia apart. Internally, the Ethiopian Empire was maintained by the alliance of Amhara-Tigray unity. Both are sematic and largely follow the Eastern Orthodox Church. Owing to their cultural affinity, they formed a fortified center aided and abated by the West to colonize the periphery regions inhabited by the Somalis, the Oromo, Afar, Sidama, and others.
In the last few decades, however, the center has shown major internal cracks and has lost its absolute power. The initial blow to the power of the center was dealt by the fascist regime of the Derg which nationalized both urban and rural land previously controlled by the feudal lords. The second major blow took place with the usurpation of power by the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF).
With Tigray rearranging power seat from Amhara-Tigray to a Tigray dominance, the pillars that hitherto united the guardians of the center, including but not limited to, the Orthodox Church, the aristocracy, tightly knit bureaucracy drew from Amhara-Tigray coalition, and foreign military and diplomatic alliances have either dried up or are significantly weakened (Ed Keller, 1988).
For Example, the proliferation of the Pentecostal Church that is siphoning congregation members from the Orthodox Church, rapid urbanization in highland Ethiopia, a dwindling surplus from the south, and institutionalization of regional governments in the last thirty years have collectively contributed to the making of deep and possibly irreparable cracks in the center (Faisal Roble, 2018).
The Amhara-Tigray alliance is for the time being dead, and the past fustian commitment to impose hegemony on the non-Abyssinian communities has run out of steam thereby making the Ethiopian empire susceptible to a complete fracture both at the center and in many of its several peripheries. In Highland Ethiopia, signs of rebellion against the state – a phenomenon in the past only associated with the periphery, is tearing apart the traditional Amhara-Tigre Faustian pact. In short, the center has decayed, and the Ethiopian polity has lost a major guardianship in that fracture of the northern Abyssinian allied forces. The closest way to keep Ethiopia together seems to rest in the hands of Oromo notwithstanding its fractured nature.
Add to that the Ethiopian state is fragile and it is showing fatigue to continue as before. With a burgeoning population of over 100 million, over 20 million unemployed young men and women in urban centers, a critical shortage in urban housing and other services, it is not by accident that Ethiopia is the global leader of internally displaced persons since World War II with 3.5 million people losing their homes and livelihood. Political upheavals that are concentrated in the center of the country this time around are shortening the shelf life of the empire.
If John Markakis and others cataloged the historiography of this dying ancient empire threatened by the periphery, the disintegration of Ethiopia is today is both the works of the former benefactors in the center and those who have been exploited in the peripheries.
Saving not the Feudal but Federal Ethiopia
There are experiences in the rest of the world where empires or some parts of an old empire have been kept together short of total disintegration. The key tool to plausibly saving Ethiopia is not certainly an over-dependence on exogenous factors as have been the case in the past. On the contrary, paying due attention to the endogenous factors, particularly the ethnic question, and instituting a progressive and democratic system of governance is the only way to transform the ancient empire and at the same time save it as a functional polity.
As such, Prime Minister Abiy must advance a political platform that promotes self-determination based on authentic federalism. Ethiopia has been battling the legacy of feudal/imperial domination of non-Abyssinians by northerners for over 100 years. And that cannot continue. Neither should it be ignored as words leaking from the PM’s circle suggest digression from nationality-based federalism. If that proves to be case, this would constitute a fatal strategic mistake.
The recent merger of different regional groups into the Prosperity Party (PP) under the auspices of Prime Minister Abiy’s “medemer” philosophy should not offer as a panacea a repackaged centrist state, where yesteryears oligarchy still rules the rest and effectively owns critical assets in the form of political, historical, cultural and psychological wellbeing of the country. Destroying or even diluting the federal structure is tantamount to putting the country’s critical asset (i.e., cultural, linguistic, and political power) in the hands of former oppressors.
In case PM Abiy have been more sympathetic to the flagbearers of the wrong version of Ethiopian unity (Andinet forces, meaning one group’s dominance in the country), he better take cues from his predecessors; the Derg and TPLF-dominated EPRDF have vainly tried versions of a repackaged centrist state. And they both miserably failed.
If it is ever possible, Ethiopia could perhaps be saved and its geographical expressions held intact only if, and that is a big if, a democratic federal system where self-rule for nations and nationalities is more than a nominal, but a non-negotiable rights guaranteed by the constitution and implemented by the regions, always remains the law of the land. If this is not done, Ethiopia is not too big to fail. Neither poetic language nor the barrel of the gun would save the ancient empire.
Faisal A. Roble
Email: [email protected]
Faisal Roble, a writer, political analyst and a former Editor-in-Chief of WardheerNews, is mainly interested in the Horn of Africa region. He is currently the Principal Planner for the City of Los Angeles in charge of Master Planning, Economic Development and Project Implementation Division
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