Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia

Bahru Zewde has written an excellent book on the history of the student movement in Ethiopia, this book goes back further, to the late 1800s and early 1900s, exploring the activities and impact of the intellectuals of that time period. The book, "Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia: The Reformist Intellectuals of the Early Twentieth Century" (2002) by Bahru Zewde, is very well researched and is an excellent addition for anyone seeking to understand the historical roots of the modern Ethiopian state.

Bahru argues that "the Ethiopian educated elite have played a preponderant role in the political history of the country, a role clearly incommensurate with their number. It is thus difficult to understand the genesis and course of the 1974 revolution without a proper appraisal of the Ethiopian student movement, which could said to have started to follow a revolutionary course in the mid-1960s. In a number of ways, notably in the articulation and resolution of what has been characterized as 'the national question', the legacy of that movement is still with us. And yet the intellectual protagonists of the second half of the twentieth century had their predecessors in the first half. The revolutionary option was preceded by the reformist one" (p. xi). The means through which the educated elite engaged with each other and exerted influence was primary through newspaper articles (p. 188).

The book presents detailed histories of the individuals, I draw from the chapter that attempts to present commonalities, and readers with interest in specifics can turn to the text. Bahru writes that "there is no doubt that the intellectuals' interest in provincial and municipal administration and in fiscal centralization were secondary to their overriding concern for social justice, and particularly for the alleviation of the condition of the peasantry" (p. 120). But this is not an idealized call, for example, the "enormity of the institution of slavery and the slave trade was such that few of the educated elite could fail to be moved into strong denunciation of them. When it came to the less brazen form of oppression and exploitation of the southern peoples, however, many failed to overcome the dominant cultural milieu in which they had grown up" (p. 130).

One challenge faced by all contemporary governments in Ethiopia – including a pressing issue of the day – is that of how the nations within a nation come together. For many of the educate elite of the early 1990s, assimilation was the answer: "Coming to the practical ways by which the policy of assimilation could be implemented, Tedla points to education and the army as the two most important vehicles of assimilation. Tedla goes back to classical Rome to demonstrate how the army has always been a factor for assimilation, be it through the intermarriage of garrison troops with local women or the recruitment of subject peoples into the imperial army. Likewise, all other facets of government policy – administration, justice, economic organization – should be regulated by the policy of assimilation. Provincial boundaries need to be redrawn to facilitate the policy. Oromo numerical predominance in the southern provinces should be tempered by a policy of Amhara settlement" (p. 132-133). I will refrain from commentary, and leave this historical point of reference for discussion elsewhere.

A letter of 1887 advising governor Ras Alula, from an immigrant (Petros Giyorgis, or 'Petros the Ethiopian'), warns (in Amharic): "You may not have read history. But the faranj [i.e. European] are like an earworm. Earworm is the smallest of worms. But it will eat up and destroy the largest of trees. Likewise, the faranj first come in the name of trade; gradually, they end up taking over the country. So, hit them now, wipe them out, or else your country is lost… You can move a sapling with your toe; but once it is grown, it will require many axes and saws" (p. 18). Notably, in 1896 the Ethiopian army defeated the nearly 20,000-troop Italian army, attempting at colonizing the country. On this, Bahru argues that "Adwa set the modality for Ethiopia's modern relationship with Europe in particular and the West in general. Ethiopia joined the ranks of the handful of African and Asian countries which remained politically independent but were under the shadow of the overwhelming European presence that had engulfed the two continents" (p. 208-209).

Bahru concludes: "what a long way things appear to have come from the time in the early twentieth century, when intellectuals relied on gentle persuasion rather than violent confrontation, when they sought royal patronage rather than the overthrow of the monarchy, when they advocated gradual reform rather than the revolutionary transformation of society" (p. 211).

Peasant Households and their Resource Base
The Peasant and the State

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