Timely Reflection: The Long Ethiopian Century

From empire to fascist occupation to communism, Ethiopia experienced all the turbulent upheavals of the 20th century. As its leader embarks on a risky reform effort, two recent literary works bring this vital history out of the shadows. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The American Interest

In October 2019, Ethiopian Prime Minister and soon-to-be Nobel laureate Abiy Ahmed did something uncommon for a sitting head of state: He released a book. Abiy’s Medemer, which roughly translates to “coming together” in the Amharic language, is not a typical politician’s memoir, but rather a cross between a manifesto and a self-help book. Medemer makes the case for Abiy’s ambitious reforms as a means of modernizing Africa’s second most populous country, while positing a new national ethos for the ethnically diverse and increasingly polarized nation. In a country torn by internal conflict, Abiy is asking citizens to rediscover a sense of common heritage and destiny while embracing political compromise.

The question of history, and particularly how Ethiopians frame their history, should be at the heart of any discussion of Abiy’s agenda. As an Ethiopian friend once opined to me, “History? We have too much history. I would prefer less.” Fair. In its own way, Ethiopia experienced the characteristic upheavals of the 20th century—imperial decadence and decline, fascist invasion, communist dictatorship—as much as any country, along with an appropriately enduring affinity for the VW Bug.

At the dawn of the century, Ethiopia was a multi-ethnic empire that had been ruled for more than 600 years by a dynasty claiming descent from the biblical Solomon. On the eve of World War I, Ethiopia was one of only two African states to have avoided complete colonization by European powers, having successfully defeated an Italian invasion in 1895-96. Italy waged a second, more successful assault under Mussolini in 1935, forcing Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie into exile. The Italians could never fully pacify Ethiopia, however, and in 1941, a British-led army expelled Mussolini’s forces and restored Selassie to his throne. Selassie’s dynasty ended in 1974, when the emperor was deposed and subsequently killed by young Marxist-leaning officers amid mass protests.

Thus began the brutal dictatorship of the Soviet-backed Derg (meaning “the committee,” a fittingly Orwellian name), under which tens of thousands were executed and untold others died of famine. The leaders of the Derg were themselves toppled in 1991 by a coalition of rebel forces that has ruled ever since. And it is this regime that is now undergoing a fundamental transformation under Abiy, who took power in April 2018 on the back of massive protests. As the country approaches national elections tentatively set for [next year], the most optimistic commentators are hoping Abiy can solidify Ethiopia’s transition from a one-party state to a democracy, while others fear the country may be headed towards a Yugoslavia-style breakup.

Unfortunately, there are relatively few English-language histories of Ethiopia available to those looking to understand the nation’s uncertain present. But for the general reader hoping to get a glimpse of Ethiopia’s recent past, two literary works examine the country’s transformation in the 20th century through the intimate perspective of an ordinary woman.

In The Wife’s Tale, Aida Edemariam deftly melds personal history with exquisite prose to explore the 97-year life of her grandmother, Yetemegnu. An unlikely focus for a biography, Yetemegnu is illiterate for most of her life. She never holds public office. She leaves Ethiopia only once, for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem toward the end of her life. But Yetemegnu demonstrates courage and resilience in a way that only a common woman thrust into extraordinary circumstances could. She does not pause to reflect on the historical weight of revolutions or invasion, as we might expect in the memoirs of a politician or activist. In these moments, her concerns are limited to ensuring her family’s safety. Her response when informed that the Derg has appropriated some of her properties: “Let them. As long as they don’t take my children.”

Yetemegnu’s story begins on her wedding day in the early 1920s. She is eight years old, confused, and apprehensive. She is about to be married to a man two decades older who is a priest in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. She will bear him ten children, not all of whom survive childhood, and outlive her husband by several decades—but the 1,600-year-old institution of the Tewahedo church will remain central to all aspects of her life. Her status as a priest’s wife grants Yetemegnu a degree of wealth, prestige, and a sense of community for most of her life. But her husband gets caught up in bitter clerical politics that eventually land him in prison, producing severe hardship for the family. While resenting the venal priests responsible for her husband’s downfall, Yetemegnu’s veneration of the Virgin Mary never wavers.

Yetemegnu’s faith faces no shortage of trials. The war with Italy introduces her community to the horrors of modern warfare, such as aerial bombardment and chemical weapons. Yetemegnu becomes aware of the moral ambiguities inherent in war: there are brave guerrilla fighters undaunted by Haile Selassie’s flight into exile, but so too are there opportunistic collaborators, feuding rivals within the resistance camp, and lifelong brigands who rob under the guise of patriotism.

The Italian invasion is not the focus of The Wife’s Tale, however, and specific political developments are generally peripheral to the narrative. Edemariam’s strength as a writer is in capturing the ambience of an evolving society. Globalization is both a curse and a blessing: An airplane takes Yetemegnu’s son away to medical school in a distant land called Canada, but a telephone alleviates her ensuing isolation by allowing her to speak with her grown children from afar. The Cold War is never mentioned by name, but a palpable sense of suspicion, ideological division, and fear falls upon society when the Derg takes power. Amid the executions and disappearances of the “Red Terror,” one of Yetemegnu’s relatives jokes that all the foreign political terminology being thrown around—feudalism, proletariat, capitalism—might as well be describing pharmaceuticals.

The Wife’s Tale is written in a style bordering on magical realism, in which Yetemegnu’s experiences are recounted not as a clear chronology of events but rather as she might have remembered these episodes later in life: as a contortion of emotions; as inner dialogues, lucid dreams, and unsettling premonitions; and as sensory experiences like the growling of a deep-seated hunger. Edemariam forgoes some narrative clarity in her effort to transport the reader into Yetemegnu’s world. It is a risky approach, but ultimately a successful one. With the power of her description, the reader can envision the rolling hills of Ethiopia’s highlands, smell the aromas of incense and coffee beans wafting through a house mid-morning, and hear the ancient chants of priests filling a church hewn into a mountainside. Edemariam likewise brings her descriptive talents to bear with poignant effect when describing the darkest chapters in Yetemegnu’s life, such as her miscarriage or her husband’s imprisonment.

Not unlike Yetemegnu, the protagonist of Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King is based on an overlooked historical figure: the female resistance fighter in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-1937). The Shadow King is the second novel by Mengiste, who grew up in Addis Ababa immersed in stories of the war. The novel follows Hirut, an orphan and domestic servant who transcends her obscure existence to become one of the legendary arbegnoch or “patriots” who wage a guerrilla war against the Italians after Haile Selassie’s conventional armies are defeated. With a story arc similar to a Greek drama—complete with chapters narrated by a female chorus—the novel sheds light on the underexplored experiences of female arbegnoch.

This war is probably better known in the West than any other period in Ethiopian history, though for reasons that have little to do with Africa. Western coverage of the war has tended to focus on its implications for European geopolitics. Seven years after Kellogg and Briand had deemed war démodé, Italy’s aggression made a mockery of the effete League of Nations, and this at a time when its future already appeared in doubt following Japan’s 1931 annexation of Manchuria. The League authorized ineffective sanctions against Italy in November 1935, a month after the invasion, but abandoned them eight months later, by which point Italy’s conquest was a fait accompli. By 1937 all but six countries had recognized Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia. France and Britain were sympathetic to Selassie but feared that a forceful response to the invasion would drive Italy into the arms of Nazi Germany at a time when a Rome-Berlin axis was not yet certain.

While many in the West were indignant at Mussolini’s invasion, few were anything but condescending towards the Ethiopians. In the eyes of the Western press, the Ethiopians were alternatively docile victims or disorderly and incompetent bandits. The implicit message seemed to be that Ethiopia’s domination, while perhaps tragic, was unavoidable. Indeed, the Italians themselves framed the war as an historical inevitably rooted in their natural superiority. An Italian soldier in Mengiste’s novel is tasked with photographing Ethiopian prisoners of war for propaganda, the subtext of which is clear: Ethiopians are a ferocious people, but they will ultimately end up in Italian chains.

Mengiste’s novel is an effort to correct this narrative. She is not the first to attempt this, but none have done so with such poetic vigor. Mengiste’s Ethiopian soldiers are David to the industrial Goliath of Fascist Italy. At one point, two Ethiopians armed only with a rifle and a sword disable a tank as the Soldati stand stunned. But it is not simply their underdog status that defines the Ethiopians’ fight in Mengiste’s telling—it is also their outrage. Outrage over Italian atrocities, naturally, but also over something greater: A sense of indignation that arises when a nation with an unwavering sense of its own exceptionalism is on the brink of losing its sovereignty. Ethiopia was a civilization at a time when the Romans were mere peasants, as one of Mengiste’s characters boasts. In another instance, a commander asks his troops on the eve of battle if they will die for Ethiopia. A peasant soldier responds with an answer reminiscent of George Patton: “First I’ll kill.”

For its patriotic message, The Shadow King does not whitewash Ethiopian history. The social inequality of the time is ever-present in its pages. Hirut’s employer, Kidane, is the well-respected son of a legendary warrior of the first Italian war, but to Hirut he is patronizing and abusive. Kidane’s wife, Aster, is yet crueler, though she grows more sympathetic as we learn in graphic detail about her ordeal as a child bride and the death of her only child. And if Mengiste seeks to present Ethiopian women as the unsung heroes of the war, she is honest about the class divisions among them. When Aster defies her husband to raise a unit of female fighters (Kidane insists that the women tend to camp per tradition), one of the women assembled scoffs at Aster’s notion that there is any patriotic solidarity among them. The Asters of the world do nothing but take from hard-working peasant women, she insists.

The shortcomings of Ethiopia’s imperial state are most clearly embodied in the character of Haile Selassie, with whom Mengiste takes some artistic liberties while remaining fundamentally faithful to the historical record. The emperor is distant and indecisive at crucial moments in the war. In several scenes, he sits frozen in front of a projector as Italian newsreels of the invasion flicker across the screen. The novel’s plot hinges on Selassie’s decision to flee into exile while his armies are still attempting to hold the Italians at bay, a decision that would come to haunt him. The novel opens and closes in 1974 amid massive protests against the ailing emperor, perhaps Mengiste’s way of reminding us that Selassie’s aloofness would contribute to his demise.

The 1974 revolution, which is the focus of Mengiste’s previous novel, lies at the heart of a crisis of Ethiopian identity that persists to this day. The 1960s and 70s saw a notable awakening of ethnic consciousness in Ethiopia, first in opposition to Selassie’s regime and later against the Derg and its Marxist-infused Ethiopian nationalism. This sentiment was particularly acute among ethnic groups that felt historically marginalized or had been on the periphery of the imperial state.

All of Ethiopia’s emperors hailed from the country’s northern highlands—the predominant setting of both The Wife’s Tale and The Shadow King—and all but one was ethnic Amhara. The imperial state tended to elevate Amhara culture as the culture par excellence and made efforts to promote Amharic as the nation’s lingua franca. To many of the ethnonationalist movements that gained prominence beginning in the late 1960s, Ethiopia’s emperors were not so much noble state-builders as conquerors and despots. The modern Ethiopian state, in this view, was a product of African settler colonialism of which non-Amhara were the victims. These narratives are themselves simplistic and deserve scrutiny to be sure, but their salience is undeniable.

After the Derg’s demise in 1991, the tension inherent in reconciling such ethnonationalist narratives came to the fore. Most of the ethnic-based guerrilla forces that toppled the Derg had their roots in the student protest movements of the preceding decades. Influenced by Lenin and Stalin’s theories of ethnicity, they considered “the national question” to be the defining issue for Ethiopia and consequently implemented a controversial system of ethnic federalism that persists to this day. As the American historian Harold G. Marcus noted at the time:

Ethiopia will have to create a new official culture reflecting the nation’s diversity. In recent history, the state has been identified with the Semitic-speaking, Christian population, and since World War II, specifically the dominant Amhara culture. For the non-Christian, non-northerner, the cost was assimilation into an alien culture.

Nearly three decades later, developing this official culture remains a central challenge for Ethiopia. Under the current regime, politics is largely a competition between the elites of various ethnic-based factions. As the historian Bahru Zewde puts it somewhat counterintuitively, the “stresses and strains of [the] contradictory postures” of these elites “were to form the political bedrock of post-1991 Ethiopia.” Since coming to power in 2018, Prime Minister Abiy has stressed the need to rekindle a pan-Ethiopian nationalism, hence Medemer. However, his liberalization efforts have also exacerbated ethnic divides, in no small part because many elites see stoking ethnic tension as a way to secure or increase their influence in an uncertain new political landscape. Last year alone more than 1.5 million Ethiopians were internally displaced as a result of ethnic-based conflict.

The thorny issue of ethnic representation is particularly salient as Ethiopia prepares for this summer’s elections, which international observers consider a key bellwether of Ethiopia’s transition under Abiy. But the tension between ethnic self-determination and national unity will not be resolved with one poll. As Ethiopian human rights activist Yoseph Badwaza recently told me, “Ethnicity will be the defining issue in Ethiopian politics for the foreseeable future.”

It would seem intuitive that ethnonationalist grievances and aspirations anywhere are rooted in complex and controversial histories. Few would analyze the 2017 Catalan independence referendum or the rise of AfD without considering the legacies of Francisco Franco or the post-war division of Germany. Yet Western commentary on Africa can be disappointingly ahistorical. When ethnicity is discussed, it is often in crude terms that reduce Africans to caricatures of inscrutably and implacably hostile tribes. Alternatively, African political issues are frequently framed through a reductive economic lens that would suggest that reaching certain development benchmarks is the panacea to a society’s ills. These approaches are short-sighted if not patronizing, insofar as they presume that historical debates do not underpin politics in Africa.

Edemariam and Mengiste’s works were not written to explain Ethiopia’s current political crisis. But anyone seeking to understand its roots would do well to read both. Each work introduces the reader to a compelling and overlooked history that evokes both pride and contention among Ethiopians, recalling the pithy remark of historian Gebru Tareke: “There are few countries in Africa that are as enriched and burdened by the past as Ethiopia.”

Last March, Abiy delivered an address during celebrations for the anniversary of the Battle of Adwa, the decisive triumph over Italy in 1896 that made Ethiopia a symbol of anti-colonial resistance across Africa. “The young generation of today should repeat the victory of Adwa by defeating current challenges and barriers,” Abiy remarked.

It was no accident that Abiy singled out this generation. Much like the members of the student movement who helped topple Selassie before turning on the Derg, many of the younger Ethiopians whose protests helped propel Abiy to power now challenge his authority. Ethiopia’s youth population, which is under-employed and expanding, expects its government to provide better economic opportunities. Ethiopian youths, like those anywhere, are also keen to address injustices real or perceived. Unsurprisingly then, many of them have found a voice for their frustrations in ethnonationalism. Reports of ethnic violence in Ethiopia these days often implicate roving bands of disaffected young men, perhaps the most combustible demographic throughout history.

The situation in Ethiopia is precarious, and it’s anyone’s guess as to where the country is headed from here. Looking ahead, Abiy and his coterie, or perhaps an entirely new generation of leadership, may yet find a way to channel the most inspiring elements of Ethiopia’s heritage into a sort of Medemer that binds together the country’s diverse elements without erasing their unique identities. Unlike the Battle of Adwa, which was over by noon the day it began, such a transformation would be gradual, undramatic, even quotidian. But it would be just as crucial to the nation’s future as any battlefield victory ever was.

This article written by James Barnett, a journalist covering East Africa, first appeared in: Volume 15, Number 5 of The American Interest magazine.

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