A History of Modern Ethiopia

​Bahru Zewde has penned some excellent books: The Challenge of Democracy from Below (2002), Pioneers of Change (2002) and The Quest for Socialist Utopia (2014). This post covers "A History of Modern Ethiopia 1855-1991" (originally published in 1991, second edition in 2001). Richard Pankhurst, one of the great historians for Ethiopia, described Bahru Zewde as a leading historian in reviewing this book. Undoubtedly his status has risen since, and may be Ethiopia's greatest living historian today. All of his works are highly recommended. Due to its general nature, this book has received the broadest readership. I do not attempt a summary – instead a few quotes that stood out, or are facts that seem to have fallen through the cracks and are worth highlighting.

The history of Ethiopia often focuses upon the highlands, and of Orthodox Christians. This partially as a result of more historical documentation to draw from. It also represents the ruling voice, at the expense of others. Bahru points this out, notable in 1991, when statements such as these were not commonly made: "Confused as it certainly was, his [Iyyasu] policy can be interpreted as one of trying to redress the injustices of the past, of making the Muslims feel at home in their own country. In this, he represented a revolutionary departure from the past. Tewodros, a man of wide vision in many respects, was bigoted when it came to Muslims, particularly the Muslims of Wallo. Yohannes, liberal and almost federal in his politics, was even more uncompromising on the question of Orthodoxy and Christianity. Menelik, builder of the largest empire Ethiopia has ever seen, did little to integrate the heterogeneous entity into one nation. Iyyasu's religious policy was the first major attempt to tackle the question of national integration, a question which has not been satisfactorily solved to this day." (p. 124)

It is often said that Ethiopia was never colonized and as a result has the opportunity to develop its own institutions, policies and laws. However, reading Bahru's description of the Italian occupation, one can't help but recognize its legacy: "Italian administration was characterized by a top-heavy bureaucracy and corruption. According to one writer, "Sixty percent of the bureaucratic machinery was working in AOI [Africa Orientale Italiana] to administer itself" (Sbacchi, 80). There was a mania for creating committees and commissions, largely so that the members might attempt to exonerate themselves from responsibility. A vast number of colonial officials were distinguished for their ineptitude and narrow-mindedness, as well as for their corruption. The Duke of Aosta is reputed to have characterized 50% of his officials inept and 25% as thieves. There was a veritable frenzy to get rich as quickly as possible. Badoglio himself reportedly pocked half of the 1,700,000 Maria Theresa thalers confiscated from the Bank of Ethiopia, in the immediate aftermath of the conquest." (p. 163)

There is also deeper legacy, consider this description of the Imperial government: "The composition of the parliament, which had two houses – a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies – emphasized the belief that the people were not yet ready for active participation in the political process… The property qualifications for a member of parliament excluded even rich merchants, let alone commoners" (p. 141). The language has changed, 'vanguard' being adopted by the military and current governments, but the sentiment of acting on behalf of the people has remained a core tenant of government.

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