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From Ethiopianness to Ethnic Fragmentation: the Adversity of Retrospective Logic – by Messay Kebede

Mesay Kebede

A leitmotiv of ethnic politics in Ethiopia is the use of retrospective logic as an essential argument to justify its ideological stand. By this I mean the view that Menelik’s southern march, which is responsible for the creation of modern Ethiopia, was nothing else but a violent destruction of preexisting nations. Such statements as “Ethiopian colonization” and “the invention of Ethiopia” as well as the description of Ethiopia as “prison of nations and nationalities” all signify that modern Ethiopia has emerged on the ashes of annihilated preexisting nations.

Far from me to deny the violent and annexing character of the southern expansion. But it is one thing to point out conquest and domination, quite another to speak of eradication of existing nations. The present ethnonationalist discourse is a product of the derailment of modern Ethiopia. It does not predate modern Ethiopia; rather, it is what modern Ethiopia has given birth owing to its socioeconomic failures. What is in play here is a thinking that throws back into the past what is but a product, thereby transfiguring the effect into a cause.

Unsurprisingly, objections proliferate. The Eritrean insurgency, peasant uprising in Bale, the Oromo mutiny of 1966 led by General Tadesse Birru, etc., are events that not only occurred prior to the Ethiopian revolution of 1974, but were also eminently part of the general discontent that brought down the imperial regime. Agreed, but the whole question is to know whether these uprisings, including the Eritrean one, were really triggered by nationalism or whether they were part of the general demands of the Ethiopian people for equality, justice, and economic development. The fact that the forces that destroyed the imperial regime were inspired by the then prevailing Marxist-Leninist ideology suggests that social divides and subsequent confrontations were more based on class alignments than on identity politics. The debate within the Ethiopian student movement over the question of knowing whether the primary contradiction is the contradiction between classes or nationalities is proof enough that the issue of the primacy of identity politics was by no means a settled matter.

To be sure, groups promoting ethnonationalist ideologies were present, but their presence was marginal for quite some time. Precisely, their influence started to grow as a result of the Derg’s repressive policy and its utter inability to respond to the demands of equality and economic development. Stated otherwise, what was an issue of equality progressively grew into ethnic alignments as the new regime not only dashed all the hopes raised by the Revolution, but also aggravated all the ills of the imperial regime. Last but not least, the revolutionary regime could not even defend the integrity of the country: its shameful military defeat against armed ethnonationalist forces announced the beginning of the downward trend of Ethiopian nationhood in favor of ethnonationalist movements under the hegemonic control of the TPLF. Once in control of Ethiopia, the TPLF launched an active and deep-going ethnicization of the country, which is essentially a policy of divide and rule by which alone it could sustain its hegemonic position.

This is to say that ethnonationalism in Ethiopia is a product of all the above prior developments and occurrences, and not, as the retrospective logic claims, a fact that existed prior to the formation of modern Ethiopia. The correct expression is not “the invention of Ethiopia,” but the invention of ethnonationalist movements in Ethiopia. In so saying, my purpose is not so much to demean such movements as to assert that, as any ideologically driven movement, ethnonationalism is a construct by which elites vying for the control of power mobilize people. Still less am I implying that its posteriority to modern Ethiopia turns ethnonationalism into a negligible political nuisance. On the contrary, I am stressing the undeniable fact of changed Ethiopia to the point that any viable and lasting remedy for the ills of the country must include the ethnic factor.

Understanding ethnonationalism as a byproduct of modern Ethiopia is a theoretical position that has a great beneficial outomce. It views ethnonationalism as a protest rather than as a clash between incompatible or alien cultures. Protest is manageable being but a demand for reforms, however far-reaching the reforms may be. By contrast, the view that modern Ethiopia resulted from the sequestration of already existing nations has nothing to offer but the dismemberment of Ethiopia or, as the TPLF’s solution demonstrates, the preservation of a political unity so structured as to ensure the hegemonic position of one ethnic group. Obviously, this last solution does nothing more than defer the inevitable dislocation of the country.

To sum up, the retrospective reconstruction of Ethiopian history puts us neither in the path of peace and stability nor of democracy. Stability and democracy demand concessions and compromises, neither of which is possible with the claim that today’s Ethiopians actually belong to different nations.


  1. Well, I don’t see any central message in this piece. What the good Dr. is trying to argue is that Ethiopianness preceded the ethnonationalist movements that sprang from a solid Ethiopianness.
    The argument should have been, though, there were different identities that preceded the formation of Ethiopia and their forced conglomeration of forcefully creating Ethiopia couldn’t sustain the Ethiopianness Dr. Messay & co desired to construct. It is because these various identities were so contending and rivals thereby failing to harness the Ethiopianness under discussion. Hence, the contemporary ethnic nationalism and its trend are all the logical consequences of Ethiopia that was invented instead of Ethiopia that should evolved in to a coherent multinational as it should have been. The Theory of the dependent colonial state in the horn of Africa, i.e. Ethiopia was significantly explained by Holcomb and Ibsa to the effect of justifying that Ethiopia was invented rather than created. The coincidence between the emerging European powers to take over Africa towards the last quarter of the 19th Century (the Berlin Conference) and the emergence of an expansionist feudal kingdom in the horn of Africa (the Rise of Menelik and the Shoan Nobility) coupled with the desire of those European powers to avoid conflict amongst themselves by sparing the Abyssinian Kingdom from their colonial ventures had made the fledgling kingdom to be part of the the scheme to colonize others. The abysinian kingdom that expanded to the south to create what has become to be known as Ethiopia was assisted by the European powers of the time. Abyssinia has defacto become a colonial power, but not a power that grew from within its dynamics but supported and nurtured by the outside forces. This dependent colonial state has become so brutal against its vassals, may be way more that what Europeans have committed to non european races they have come to occupy. In fact the invention of Ethiopia and the dependent colonial state theory is the first of its type that best describes the nature of Ethiopian colonialism which has become so consequential for what is happening today, that may result in to Ethiopia withering away eventually. Dr. Messay and other keep ranting about the evils of Ethnonationalism, as if their, otherwise,peaceful and harmonious beautiful Ethiopia has fallen in the hands of the “infidels” or the power hungry non-mainstream Ethiopian elites. That is the saddest part of the gibberish all over again.

  2. ባሌ ከጥንት ጀምሮ የአማራ ጭምር ርስተ ምድር የነበረ፤ ግራኝ አህመድ «የባሌ አበሾች ሰይጣኖች ናቸው» ሲል የመከሰረላቸው የባሌ ነጋሹ የራስ ተክለ ሃይማኖት ግዛትና ከግራኝ አህመድ ጋር ሲዋጉ ለአገራቸውና ለኃይማኖታቸው የወደቁት የባሌ ተወላጆች የነ ራስ ነብያንትና የነ አዛዥ ፋኑኤል መቃብር ነው። ደዋሮ [የዛሬው ምዕራብ ሐረርጌ] የልብነ ድንግል የጦር አዝማች የነበረው የቢትወደድ በድል ሰገድ ርስት ነው። ዳሞትና ቢዛሞ[የዛሬው ወለጋ] በሽምግልና እድሜው ግራኝን ለመፋለም ዘምቶ አስደማሚ ተጋድሎ ያደረገው የልብነ ድንግል የጦር አዛዥ የአዛውንቱ የራስ ወሰን ሰገድና የጀግናው ልጁ የባህር ሰገድ እትብት የተቀበረበት አገራችን ነው። ፈጠጋር[ የዛሬው አርሲ] እነ ነጋሽ ተክለ ሐዋርያት ከግራኝ ጋር ሲፋለሙ የወደቁበት ያያቶቻችን ርስት ነው። So, who is the colonizer?

    • Please keep the fictions for yourself. You and your types are Fabricating and Extrapolating facts to fit your dream history. The places named Bali, Dawaro, Fatagar, Bizamo, etc could not yet be localized conclusively. Most probaly, they were famous marketplaces where traders congregated from near and far. Abyssinian kings and moslem sultanates used to compete to controll these trading posts and the routes that lead to them. They were located within territories inhabited by the Oromo and other peoples that were outside the control of Abyssinians or of moslem sultanates. What you list here is names of Habesha warlords that may have fallen while invading other peoples that were outside their traditional hegemony. Debteras may have written eulogies to these warlord – their bread givers, but that can not be taken as true history.

  3. I read both Messaye and Tufa Muna . Theyare part of the histroic debate of ethiopia. Messaye often demonizethe question of nation and nationalities as something invented by some sort of elites who wants to control power. He often rejects the quest of equlity of the ethiopian people as if it contradicts with modern ethiopian hood.The problem of Ethiopia has been to reconcile itself with its own identity -diveristy-.This is were elites like Messaye failed to see and read . messaye knows demand for social and political equlity in what ever its forms cannot be fabricated , unless he is in total denail , may be because of age .

  4. Professor Messay says: “To be sure, groups promoting ethnonationalist ideologies were present, but their presence was marginal for quite some time. Precisely, their influence started to grow as a result of the Derg’s repressive policy and its utter inability to respond to the demands of equality and economic development.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

    With all due respect, Professor Messay, how can you get it so wrong. Please can you tell me when Macha and Tullama was active? Wasn’t it the case that Tadesse Biru and Mamo Mezemir were sentenced to death during Haile Sellassie era? Mamo was executed but Tadesse’s was changed to life imprisonment. Of course, Derge killed him later.

    Ironically the kind of retrospective falsification of history is far more dangerous than the ones you set out to criticize. I wish you and those that you are so keen to criticize stop obsessing with the past and we focus our time and energy to deal with the present.

  5. Thank you Dr Messay. The country need intellectuals like you in this time of turmoil and confusion.

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