Emperor Haile Selassie

Ohio University Press has a series of "Short Histories of Africa". I recently decided to pick up most of the collection for potential use as reading materials for classes. This post covers "Emperor Haile Selassie" (2014) by Bereket Habte Selassie. Books usually take more than a year to write, get reviewed, go into publication, and then hit the shelves (usually longer). It is probably fair to say that this book, given what happened from 2012 onward in Ethiopia, would be written differently today. I have only found a couple of reviews of the book, and welcome input form others on the author's portrayal of this history. The author, being an insider in the Emperor's administration, has unique insight into events and the individual, which the vast majority do not have access to. The author is critical, so the above comment is not suggesting it is a book of praise. A few notes:

"his declared ambition of gradually introducing democracy and a regime based on the rule of law was denied by the constitution's codifying the power and dignity of the emperor, sanctioned by his anointing as well as by tradition. All in all, in the judgment of all close observers and based on the emperor's words and acts, Haile Selassie remained an absolute monarch with absolute power." (p. 76)

"It is ironic that in annexing Eritrea the emperor flouted the very international law and morality to which he had appealed when his own country was invaded." (p. 83)

"The emperor's survival strategy included distrust of even his closest kinsmen, on the basis of the Machiavellian dictum "If I take care of my close friends, I can take care of my enemies." (The emperor was an avid reader of Machiavelli; Workneh told this writer that the emperor lent him an Amharic translation of The Prince.)" (p. 95)

"Was Haile Selassie a progressive modernizer who shaped Ethiopia's destiny? The answer to this question is undoubtedly in the positive. Did his pursuit of power reflect a commitment to a higher purpose, such as modernization and centralization of the Ethiopian state? This too must be answered in the positive, despite some opposed views that contend that his use of power was purely for selfish ends that went against the interests of the nation." (p. 123)

"The consensus is that the denial of democracy is the central issue on which the emperor finally stumbled. Democracy was one of the exciting promises of his earlier work, and in refusing to grant more power to the central institutions of the state, including the cabinet and the parliament, he certainly chose personal power over national interest." (p. 124) 

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Oxford Handbook of the Ethiopian Economy

Started in 2015, published in 2019, and penned by leading thinkers on the Ethiopian economy (Fantu Cheru, Christopher Cramer, Arkebe Oqubay) "The Oxford Handbook of the Ethiopian Economy" is a treasure. Standing at 955 pages, I am aware of no similar effort to cover the diversity of the country's economy. The contributing authors are a whose-who of experts, and this is really a testament to the editors and their leadership in bringing this collection together. Even listing the titles of the 50 chapters is beyond what this brief post can offer. Unfortunately, the book is not Open Access and prohibitively expensive (particularly for readers in Ethiopia), running at US$135 from Oxford University Press. 

For readers not familiar with this collection, the main sections are: (1) Context, concepts, and history, (2) Economic development, (3) Social policy and development, (4) Agricultural and rural transformation, (5) Industrialization and urban development, and (6) Structural transformations and the African context. There are some interesting gaps; khat makes only brief mentions despite playing an important economic role nearly on part with coffee, which has two chapters; FDI in the agricultural sector is also interestingly not covered in depth, particularly the large scale acquisitions (which were very apparent by 2015 when the project began). Potentially more broadly, the role of politics and governance, while it is interwoven, might have played a stronger role (not in the sense of the Growth and Transformation Plans, but more in the realm of political economy, which Clapham adds a chapter on). Readers have the benefit of hindsight on this. Compared to when the project started in 2015, it was a completely different Ethiopia when the book finally hit the market in 2019. A wonderful resource, unparalleled, and highly recommended.  

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Land to the Tiller

One of Ethiopia's most radical policy changes in the modern era was land reform, which nullified tenure agreements and redistributed land (changing much of rural Ethiopia from large land holders with farmers as tenants / sharecroppers to farmers as landowners). Ann Oosthuizen (whose connection to this issue or interviewee is not explained) published an interview with Zegeye Asfaw in "Land to the Tiller: An Interview with Zegeye Asfaw" (2020), who was one of the leading figures of this radical land reform as then Minister of Land Reform. The interviews were conducted in 2012. Although titled as "an interview" the majority of the book (Zegeye's story) is not structured as an interview and organized chronologically. Readers do not know how much editing or synthesizing took place. Although potentially less readable, the transcript form would have been a more transparent way of capturing the stories as Zegeye actually presented them (and the questions asked of him). The book is a fascinating first-hand glimpse into histories and issues that is, despite being short (130 pages), well worth reading.

One note for the ages: "...they haven't told you the real reason why they want you to appear before the Derg commission of enquiry. The whole point revolves around why you had to say "public ownership" instead of "government ownership". At the time when we framed the land reform bill there were two recognised forms of ownership; private ownership and government ownership. The entire pastoralist area was regarded as being under government ownership over which the government gave different concessions. We used the term public ownership because we wanted to prevent the government from confiscating land in order to hand out concessions - to friends and businesses and so on. So we had to re-phrase our defense and explain why we used the term public ownership. Of course, later when the Derg wrote its constitution, they changed the term 'public ownership' to 'government ownership'. I don't know whether we could have saved peasants from eviction by using the term 'public ownership'." (p. 50) 

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The Ethiopia Book of Travels

In many of my critiques of books written about Qatar I have focused on the almost exclusive reliance upon the British colonial record for history making, despite other sources being available (notably Ottoman records in that case). I was directed to an interesting translation of a travel dairy of an Ottoman dignitary, sent by the Sultan, to meet with Menelik II to explore anti-colonialist alliances in Ethiopia in the years following the Ethiopian defeat of Italy in their attempted colonization of the country. The travel took place in 1904, and draws on Turkish and Arabic source material, and was translated in 2021 as "The Ethiopia Book of Travels". The book is largely a record of travel logistics and experiences along the road. Nonetheless, this is one of many examples where source material democratization can help with the decolonization of history making.

A contextual note about the book: "The Ethiopia Book of Travels takes you to June 1904 to accompany Sadik Pasha on a mission for sultan Abdulhamid II to go before emperor Menelik II, the ruler of Ethiopia. One of the three missions to Africa by Sadik Pasha to counter the scramble for Africa by West European powers, this volume should be considered a companion to Journey in the Grand Sahara of Africa, republished with contributions from his descendants in Journey in the Grand Sahara of Africa and Through Time." (p. vii)

An interesting reflection on modernity, as it was in 1904: "While we were watching and observing the paradise like surroundings and the sunrise from the hill that we were on, numerous young [] girls were passing, singing with a high voice all at once. The mixture of their voice with the echo was creating a nice harmony. Apparently, they were going from the village to the fields. Rising from behind the hill at this moment, the sun combined its rays with the zephyr and dampness of the morning. The song that the girls were singing happily in this way, the charm of the surroundings emerald like hills were forming such a beautiful scenery that only a skilled painter, a skilled poet would be capable of describing this. It can be seen that the health of these girls wearing a tunic each, walking bare feet over the meadows is much better than those of prosperous girls with the pampering and abundance of civilization." (p. 78) 

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