Menelik and Southern Ethiopia: Colonialization, Reunification, or Expansion? Messay Kebede (PhD)

To Donald Levine, who taught us to imagine Ethiopia

The Reunification Thesis

The specter of civil war and dismantlement has understandably re-injected life into an old thesis that had fallen into disgrace since the radicalization of Ethiopian educated elites. It is the idea that Menelik’s southern expansion was actually a reunification, that is, a recovery of territories that were once part of Ethiopia. Let alone colonization, the thesis does not even accept the characterization of the process as an expansion.

The thesis thus reverses the accusation: the invader or expansionist is not Ethiopia, but the Oromo. In other words, the southern components of Ethiopia, including all the expanses where the Oromo settled, were part of Ethiopia until Ahmed Gragn’s invasion of the country. The invasion weakened the Ethiopian state and allowed Oromo and Somali infiltrations and the subsequent conquest of Ethiopian territories. Oromo intellectuals themselves openly admit that their vast territory is the result of conquest, especially of expansion to the detriment of Ethiopia. They are also not timid in their glorification of the effectiveness of the Oromo assimilationist policy of local peoples

The defenders of the thesis of reunification argue that, once the fact of Oromo invasion is admitted, Menelik’s southern expansion becomes a legitimate claim of territories belonging to Ethiopia. As a matter of fact, addressing the issue of the recovery of previous tributaries of the Ethiopian state that were cut off as a result of Oromo expansion, Menelik himself wrote the following to European powers: “While tracing today the actual boundaries of my empire, I shall endeavor, if God’s gives me the strength, to reestablish the ancient frontiers of Ethiopia up to Khartoum, and as far as Lake Nyamza with all the Gallas and the Arussi country up to the limits of the Somalis, including the Province of Ogaden.”

Many Ethiopian and Western scholars find such claims extravagant. Even if one admits the difficulty of firmly demarcating the exact borders of Ethiopia in the past, which probably used to shrink and expand depending on the vitality of kings, such intermittent allegiances of some southern localities to the Ethiopian state are still not enough to support the claim of recovery of lost territories. Moreover, because at one moment in time a territory was part of the empire does not entail that Ethiopia has the legitimate right to annex it. During the course of world history, borders have been drawn and redrawn constantly in all countries. With few exceptions, most countries have accepted their present borders even if they have lost territories that were part of them at one time or another. For instance, it is close to impossible that Mexico would one day claim Texas or California on the grounds that both states were included in the territory that it controlled in the past. Add to this that the claim seems indifferent to what the people now living in the said lost territories have to say about the alleged reunification. They alone decide whether or not they want to be part of Ethiopia. Nations are about people, not just territories.

The Expansion Thesis

The difficulties of the theses of reunification and colonization invite a third alternative view that speaks of expansion while decidedly countering the characterization of “colonial.” Developed in my book, the thesis argues that the expansion neither assumed a racist overtone, nor acquired the structural divide of “metropolis-satellite,” so characteristic of colonial empires. Rather, it harbored the goal of nation-building through the formation of multiethnic educated elites and a national culture based on the use of one language, allegiance to the imperial throne, and national symbols derived from history and modern institutions.

The point is to explain why the term expansion is more appropriate than colonization and reunification, not only in terms of historical accuracy, but also for the future survival of Ethiopia. First of all, contrary to the claims of restorationists, it is undeniable that peoples with different cultural and socioeconomic features from northern Ethiopia inhabited southern Ethiopia. This does not mean that frequent encounters and exchanges between the south and the north did not take place or that some of the southern regions were not at one time or another included in the territories controlled by Ethiopian monarchs. Even so, these historical incidents do not alter the fact that southern peoples have maintained cultures and social systems different from the north. So that, Menelik’s march into the south could not but assume the form of incursion into alien territories, that is, of expansion of the northern system into a different system.

Another evidence of expansion is that the march brought about wars, which expressed the resistance of many local peoples. I am not familiar with any recorded reports saying that native peoples welcomed with cheers and joy Menelik’ soldiers. Instead, what is recorded is the series of resistance, it is true of unequal vigor, of local peoples. Moreover, the defeat of local resistances was soon followed by the progressive appropriation of land by Menelik’s war chiefs and the subsequent establishment of tenancy. The normal development should have been the progressive evolution into a gebbar system, which would have changed expansion into full integration. Those who came after Menelik opposed the alteration. We know the dire consequences of their policy, which was inconsistent with the project of nation-building. Unless we deny that the southern march did not cause violent clashes resulting in the defeat of those who resisted, I do not see how we can avoid the term “expansion.”

As much as it counters the idea of reunification, the thesis of expansion, let me insist on this point, does not lend itself to a colonial interpretation. Can one conclude from the fact of socio-cultural differences that the expansion was colonial? Obviously not, for the simple reason that the differences were never viewed as a justification for the satellization of the south. On the contrary, the expansion quickly moved toward integration and nation-building, however inconsistent the method used may have been, and never showed any tendency to segregate, to establish a color bar separating natives from northerners, as is characteristic of colonial domination.

Let it be added that the expansion was not the exclusive work of the Amhara of Shoa: it included a significant Oromo participation. The objection according to which the Oromo participated as native colonial troops overlooks the fact that they were active initiators and consolidators of the expansion, as shown by the eminent role of Ras Gobena, who was more of an ally than a subordinate. Gobena was not only a full member of the Shoan aristocracy, but also led the greater part of the expeditions among Oromo people. The Oromo involvement suggests an internal inspiration aiming at uniting the Oromo under the authority of the Ethiopian state in light of their political fragmentation. Clearly, the Oromo participation both at the level of leadership and soldiery had nothing in common with the participation of Eritrean ascaris in the Italian attempts to colonize Ethiopia or Indian troops in the formation of the British Empire.

As to the establishment of tenancy, the rush to call it colonial simply forgets that it represents none other than the introduction of capitalism in a traditional society. Owing to the resistance that capitalist incursions encountered in the north, which was wholly attached to the gebbar system, the elementary requirement of capitalism, namely, the dispossession of the means of production, came to Ethiopia via the south. It is unfortunate that the feudal lords proved unable to fully utilize the opportunity to grow themselves into capitalist entrepreneurs. Still, the truth remains that tenancy was not a segregationist system, but the easiest way, compared to the north, to introduce a rudiment of capitalism.

True, Ethiopianization of native peoples took place, but it was inspired by the goal of wholesale assimilation. Though colonialism too imposed its language and economic interests on native peoples, it was less to assimilate them than to tow them to the needs of the metropolises. Cultural differences can be accommodated through syncretism or mutual tolerance, not so racial barriers. Because they are insurmountable, they freeze a ghettoized social relationship based on the assumed innate inferiority of natives. I do not see how it is possible to identify a process of integration, however slow it may have been, with the status of an overseas territory. One can rightly denounce the unequal treatment within the same social unit, but one cannot use concepts proper to colonialism to describe it, obvious as it is that the inequality had little to do with an annexation instituting racial exclusion.

In addition to remaining close to the facts as they have happened, one of the merits of the theory is to provide a legitimate justification of the expansion. I am referring to the undeniable fact that the expansion was essentially triggered by the Ethiopian instinct of survival before being nation-building, which instinct is evidenced by the amazing perseverance of the Ethiopian state. Menelik was alarmed by the colonial encirclement of Ethiopia: since the surrounding territories, including Eritrea, were all colonized, they could serve as a launching pad to invade Ethiopia. Hence the precipitation to integrate them before they fall under colonial rules. In Menelik’s words, “if Powers at a distance come forward to partition Africa between them, I do not intend to remain an indifferent spectator.”

Integration meant more means both in terms of human and material resources in the defense of Ethiopia. More importantly, it gave greater power to Menelik in his fight to prevail over his rivals in the north and unite the country. At least two conditions had to be met to give northern Ethiopia a chance to counter the Italian invasion: unity and the prevention of complete colonial encirclement within a narrow and closed space. The expansion was, therefore, a legitimate act of self-defense, which is an internationally acknowledged right. I find this defense more admissible both in terms of facts and rightness than the thesis of reunification.

The upside of this survival motive is that Menelik’s expansion actually saved southern peoples from colonial conquest and subordination. It is undeniable that their integration into Ethiopia foiled colonial designs. Notably, without Menelik’s conquest, what is now called Oromia would have been divided among Italian, French, and British colonizers, like the Somali and many other African countries. Many Oromo still cannot appreciate what they owe to Menelik: they can hate him but they cannot deny the fact that he shielded them from colonial domination and dispersion.

Some ethnonationalists may say that it would have been better for Oromo and other southern peoples to have been colonized by authentic rather than by fake or junior colonizers. I consider this objection to be nothing more than an expression of self-deprecation as well as an inability to understand the opportunities offered by history. Indeed, what else is implied in the objection but the view that the southern peoples would have been better off under superior white colonizers as if the present ills and failures of African countries were not caused, directly or indirectly, by Western colonization? The statement that an alleged black colonizer had done worse is just not in the range of possibility.

More importantly, the objection overlooks that the southern expansion represented a call to overcome our narrow identity and put ourselves at the service of a transcendent cause that we bring to life by our effort and choice. Nation-building is neither a characteristic of nature nor an invitation to ethnic parochialism, but the forging of a new identity that includes the other. In including the non-ethnic other, we rise to universality, to a non-ethnic citizenship, thereby transforming the natural belonging to a group into a moral commitment to a union of our own making.

Source : Ethiomedia

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