Reflection on our achievement in the outgoing Ethiopian Millennium
Tuesday, 11 September 2007
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By Dimetros Birku
It is like almost a norm to reflect on the outgoing year and think about what to do in the oncoming year. What is outgoing for Ethiopians this year is not just a year or a century. It is millennium that is going to be ending in a couple of days. Although, Ethiopians are still living with poverty and more importantly with chronic administrative and political problems, the last Ethiopian millennium is of a paramount importance during which we achieved something extraordinary. The objective of this article is to reflect on the preservation of Ethiopia's independence in the face of the conquest of African and other Asian nation by European colonialists and its implication.
To begin with, for the sake of not giving a room for relativist ( I am thinking of the local dissentions) interpretation, it is necessary to depict the object clearly as an achievement so that there could not be the notion that "what is an achievement for one may not be so for the other." Whether something is seen as an achievement or not could best be gauged in light of how challenging the issue or the object is/was. The higher the nature of the challenge, the higher the value of an achievement as far as the challenge at hand was concerned. In fact, when we talk about the preservation of a nation's independence or loss of it as an achievement or as unsuccessful effort we are not talking about "independence' per se. Because its impact involves a domino-effect and the negative implications transcends to some other aspects of a given nation.
It is beyond dispute that the outstanding challenge in the outgoing millennium, not only for Ethiopia, but also for other African and Asian countries, was the task of maintaining independence in the face of European colonial wars of conquest and treaties of trickery. And nations, unfortunately, were not successful in standing taller than this challenge. Ethiopia, one of the oldest nations in the world, with a hierarchical feudal society proved that it was much more than the challenge and stood taller in victory in the face of colonial war. This is an achievement and there is no question be it from regional, continental or international point of view. Rather, what scholars have been questioning is as to why Ethiopia managed to preserve its independence. To analyze each and every conception of foreigners in general and historians in particular is a big task and is not achievable in such a short article. So, what appears to be advisable is to analyze a few works of scholars who primarily analyzed this issue.
Sven Rubenson, a renowned Swedish scholar was one of the personalities interested in the question as to why Ethiopia managed to usher in victory in the task of maintaining its independence. And he has produced a book is entitled, "the survival of Ethiopian Independence." 1 I have to admit that I have some reservation regarding his usage of the term "survival." It is obvious that Ethiopia's response to foreign aggression and attempted wars of conquest prior to Mussolini's war were all (of course the fall of Maqdala was an exception and there is an internal dynamics as explanation for that) successful and Ethiopia emerged with shining victories. In view of these, shining military victories I am of the view that the term "survival" is not appropriate. During Mussolini's invasion, yes the nature of Ethiopia's response was different in form as it was waged in the absence of a monarch and in a guerrilla form and the task took five years. In that case the term "survival" could be fitting.
Before setting out his own argument Sven Rubenson analyzed some other assumptions vis-à-vis the question why Ethiopia was successful. For Arnold Toynbee, "the explanation of Abyssinian survival power" was "...the virtual impregnability of the highland-fastness." 2 Another scholar by the name Spencer Trimingham also appears to emphasize this same "impregnability of highland" theory.3Apparently, the conceptions of both scholars emphasizes the geography of Ethiopia as an important factor. Sven Rubenson, on the contrary, while recognizing the role of geographical factor, rejects geographical determinism. However, I go to the extent of arguing that geography could not be part of the explanation to Ethiopia's military success at all. At least two reasons: For one thing Africa, particularly, the Eastern part is a mountainous continent and Ethiopia is not basically different from other East African (to be specific) nations in terms of geography. And the point invites the questions: why is it that people in the mountainous part of South Eastern Africa is conquered? Why is it that what we now call Tanzania was conquered? For the other thing, even some of Ethiopia's own victory over the expanding Egyptian army was achieved in the less mountainous (we may call it "pregnable" to pursue the context of the discussion) part of the country.
Sven Rubenson then followed three trajectories as an explanation of Ethiopia's success: a) external factors which he stated as "diplomatic, political, and military conditions on the European [and the Turkish-Egyptian] side." 4 b) Internal dynamics which he stated as "the actual and political and military conditions on the Ethiopian side," 5 c) the misconception of Ethiopia's military power by Ethiopia's invaders, which falls within the classification of external factor. Yet, Rubenson emphasized internal factors as an explanation. Also he counts "miscalculation of Ethiopia's potential" 6 by the invading forces as an important factor for Ethiopia's success.
To analyze Ethiopia's victory in light of the political and military conditions (or "weakness" as cited by the scholars) of its invaders rather than analyzing them in light of Ethiopia's invincibility does not simply make sense. No matter how problematic political or military situations the invading countries were in, the invading country's (Turkey, Egypt, and Italy) military and political posture was in no way inferior to Ethiopia's military and political posture. These countries were, at least, in a position to organize military campaigns in an area far away from their territory. And raising an invading force without doubt requires a strong political foundation and is not some thing a politically or militarily weak state can undertake.
With respect to diplomatic factor, it may just suffice to pose the question what diplomatic advantage did Ethiopia enjoy? If diplomatic factor counts at all, it is not hard to assume (and in fact that was the case especially with respect to Egypt and Italy) the invading forces were in a more advantageous position than Ethiopia was. As a matter of fact, countries whose diplomatic support would have been essential to Ethiopia were rather engaged in plot against Ethiopia. The Egyptian invasion of Ethiopia in the 19th century is a case in point.
To reflect on the conditions on the Ethiopian political posture, Ethiopia waged most of its war against invaders as a feudal state. And a feudal state is prone to internal rivalry and power struggle. So even if we agree to the assertion that internal political situation of the invading countries was unstable, Ethiopia's internal political situation was far more unstable in the sense that there had always been power struggle in the form of regionalism. For example, Menelik's military response to Italians at Adowa was almost a concomitant process to his internal military campaigns, which was partly a response t to possible rivalry from regional lords and partly an important part of undertaking of a feudal monarch and empire. So explaining Ethiopia's success in terms of the political and military situation of the invading army does not make sense at all.
What rather makes some senses is the explanation that "miscalculation of Ethiopia's military capacity" to respond to external aggression. In fact Ethiopia was perceived at times as strong (What comes to mind is the legend of the land of Prester John ). Yet, the appearance of Ethiopian feudal politics has given foreign powers the impression that Feudal Ethiopia was weak and divided. This is true not only in the modern history of Ethiopia but in the medieval history of Ethiopia as well. For example, in the medieval period, there is an interesting case of misconception of monarchy and society relationship. A certain Portuguese missionary monk (I am not sure the name, I think Mendez or Paez in the 16th century)7 is said to have reported to the Portuguese king that the Ethiopian monarch is so strong and influential, and the people are simply a passive followers.
This same observer stated the possibility of making Ethiopia easily a catholic state. All it takes, according to him, was converting the Ethiopian monarch to Catholicism and then the monarch can do the rest of the job. Initially, Ze-Dengil, a monarch, happened to be the first Ethiopian convert and he was unsuccessful in his effort to make Catholic a state religion. Then, Susenyos followed the line and was converted to Catholicism and tried to make Catholicism a state religion. What then followed was a stiff resistance which took a form of civil war. Susenyos was then compelled to abdicate his power in favour of Fasiledes.
And the first thing Fasiledes did was to expel European catholic elements and pass a closed door policy. And no European was allowed to enter the country for about 150 years except a couple of Europeans of which one was Jaquoes Poncent on grounds of giving medication to an Ethiopian monarch and the other was ,allegedly, to study the source of Blue Nile( Whom Graham Hancock mentioned in his book, the "Sign and the Seal"). This story is mentioned here to underline that there has been a repeated case of misunderstanding the dynamics of Ethiopian feudal politics and society. Also, I am of the view that this tendency is not a thing of the past and still there exists this attitude.
Coming back to the main question we are reflecting on, Haggai Erlich, another renowned scholar on Ethiopian studies, analyzed the why of the Ethiopia's success in the face of foreign invaders. Although some of his explanations are not agreeable (for example he do not recognize the connection between Ethiopia's victory and a sense of "sentiment of national patriotism," 8 his thesis,"...Ethiopia's strength and survival[""] stem from its unique internal sociopolitical flexibility, rather than from the attributes and behaviour of foreigners," 9 is basically agreeable. What does he mean by "sociopolitical flexibility"? This idea is explained very well in relation to his discussion of colonel Chessman's, a certain British colonel, understanding of the reason/s of Ethiopia's success. Colonel Cheesman believed that, "The crazy structure of the Ethiopian empire is held together by a mysterious magnetism,..., which is incomprehensible to one who has no more than a superficial knowledge of Ethiopia." 10 Apparently, Erlich's conviction that Ethiopia's "unique internal socio-political flexibility" is a principal factor behind Ethiopia's success is a derivation of his analysis of colonel Cheesman's "mysterious magnetism."
Both, however, "mysterious magnetism" and "socio-political flexibility" are references to Ethiopian feudal politics. And the point comes down to state-society relationship and the relationship between central government and regional lords of feudal Ethiopia. Erlich, for example understood Ras Alula's and Ras Mengesha's allegiances to Menelik and Hailesellassie respectively as a manifestation of the flexible nature of the socio-political relation which he also described as "flexible pragmatism." 11 Conceivably, the flexibility is two-sided. There is the emperor's flexibility towards regional lords and there is also regional lord's flexibility towards the emperor. What Ras Alula and Ras Mengesha did was ignoring their respective personal differences and ambitions and ally with their respective emperors. They stood firm in defense of the country in stead of exploiting the situation for what Erlich refers to "provincial separatism."12 Likewise, emperors emphasized what these regional lords could do in relation to Ethiopia's projected struggle against foreign invaders rather than their past feud. If I am to denote Erlich's "flexible pragmatism" in the context of feudal Ethiopia, it corresponds to "tolerance", "recognition", "forgiveness" and "inclusiveness." It also relates to, as cited by Erlich, the will to allow regional feudal lords to take part in the "all-Ethiopian political game."13 This is what made any "theory of disintegration", according to Erlich and rightly, futile in the face of Ethiopian feudal political system. So I dare to conclude that if the essence of the outgoing Ethiopian millennium was Ethiopia's success in preserving its independence, this achievement is the offshoot of the dynamic and unique features of Ethiopian feudalism- and that is the mystery of our success. (To correlate this historical account to the current Ethiopian political situation, taking into consideration that the policies of Meles Zenawi administration are clearly divisive and in view of the fact that the Ethiopian people have rejected Meles Zenawi's administration formally during the last election, informally in different forms, we can say that indeed any "theory of disintegration" does not work to date.)
The question "what is the relevance of our success of preserving our independence?" might linger here. And it is suffice to suggest a reading on colonial Africa in general- and the educational, economic, social policies of the colonial powers in particular, which produced a loss of cultural values and identities as well. Although Ethiopia remains poor to date, although the feudal politics turned out to be lucrative ground to generate negativist interpretations for what we can call some of the pioneers of "modern Ethiopian politics," the preservation of our independence enabled Ethiopians to preserve their cultural values irrespective of the language group to which they belong. The Oromo culture is in its original form and it does not have any European element, the Tigre culture is in its original form and it does not have any European element in it, the Guraghe culture is distinct and its does not have any European element in it, the Amhara culture is the same and it does not have European element in it and so on. Whether we like it or not this has been possible due to the feudal politics. And it is not possible to deny that the "mysterious magnetism" is not at work.
This, however, is not to argue that feudalism is the best that Ethiopia can be nor to ignore the downsides associated with principal political responsibilities of a monarch in a feudal system which is mainly to create a strong central state which at times involve the task of territorial expansion. However, this should not be a ground to craft a political agenda portraying Ethiopia as a colonizer. This is simply missing the point of the dynamics of feudal politics. Whatever was done then has more to do with the feudal system than the concept Ethiopia. Also there is no need to gloss over the upsides of the system, which takes another article to address. It is due up on Ethiopian intellectuals in general and opposition political parties in particular to clear this misinterpretation of history. And one of the best ways to undertake this task is to organize an intensive symposium. Let the "colonial school of thought" argue its cause in the open. And let the other side of the story also argue its cause. And a consensus is possible. If achieved, it is a great step forward in the direction of resolving the political stalemate in the Ethiopian political spectrum, which is the principal challenge of our era. And that would become the threshold of a peaceful and harmonious nation looking striving to change the other form of challenges poverty. But first, my favorite saying Nukrumah's statement:- "Seek first thy political kingdom."
******The End ****
Sven Rubenson, The survival of Ethiopian Independence, London : Heinemann Educational Books, 1976, 1.
Cited on "The survival of Ethiopian independence"
For details see Professor Merid Wolde-Aregay's historical account (unpublished?)
Haggai Erlich, Ethiopia and the challenge of independence, Boulder, Colo.: L. Rienner Publishers, 1986,206.
cited on Erlich,202
Erlich, Haggai, Ethiopia and the challenge of independence, Boulder, Colo.: L. Rienner Publishers, 1986.
Rubenson, Sven, The survival of Ethiopian Independence, London : Heinemann Educational Books, 1976.
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