Theory Teacher's Blog

Ethiopia and Historiography

Just this weekend, I finished reading a couple of books about Ethiopia by two of the most respected historians of that region who seem to me to approach the study of Ethiopian history in two different ways. One is Donald N. Levine’s Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society, first published in 1974 by The University of Chicago Press at the same time as Ethiopia’s first revolutionary war. A second edition with a new preface was published in 2000. The other book is Mohammed Hassen’s The Oromo of Ethiopia, 1570 – 1860, first published by Cambridge University Press in 1990 at the same time as Ethiopia’s second revolutionary war, and republished by Red Sea Press in 1994. Notably, Levine’s addendum to his bibliography in his second edition mentions Hassen’s book as one of the top five important books published on Ethiopia since his first edition.

In my view, Hassen’s book does a better job answering two of the questions that Levine raises: (1) what constitutes “greater” Ethiopian culture and society, and (2) why were “the Oromo able to defeat the Amhara so regularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” Both books are rigorous and brilliant, and both are controversial in how they challenged the scholarly community of Ethiopianists to revise their understanding of Ethiopian history and society, and in some ways, Levine’s book broke a path for Hassen’s.  Obviously, in some ways they are similar, in some ways very different. I would characterize Levine’s book as an idealist historiography whose understanding is simultaneously holistic and wholistic in a way that fails to fully account for the contradiction between a wholistic and a holistic understanding of culture. In contrast, I would characterize Hassen’s book as rigorously materialist in its approach, and I argue that this approach gives us a sturdier understanding of the social forces at work.

What do I mean by holistic and wholistic? To be fair to Levine, his project was arguably more difficult – theorizing and describing the whole of Ethiopian history – while Hassen focuses solely on how the Oromo emerged as a powerful political and commercial entity by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Levine describes his approach as holistic, meaning that he emphasizes the interplay of a multitude of social forces and protean, hybrid cultural identities in contrast to a single master narrative of history that would single out one social structure and/or cultural identity as representative of the totality of social, political, and economic relations. In particular, he attends to the interplay of several “cultural codes” and “social institutions” that contribute to a social system that is “greater” (as in his title “greater Ethiopia”) than the sum of its parts. So far, so good; I appreciate what he was up to theoretically,  despite a lot of the problematic details of his narrative.  Ultimately, he was attempting to recognize all of the cultural contributions to the Ethiopian state in a way we might today call “multicultural” “pluralistic” and “liberal,” and he did so at precisely the moment (1974) when the possibility of a truly multiethnic state seemed within reach. But herein lies the real problem, and perhaps what I have to say about the problem with Levine’s argument may also suggest why his image of a multiethnic state did not emerge after the 1974 revolution, and instead the ruthless and bloody totalitarian Derg regime did. It seems to me that Levine’s holistic approach depends upon a wholistic approach. What I mean by wholistic here, since Levine himself never uses the term, and since I’m kind of making it up, is an assumption about a national wholeness. In other words, the purpose of Levine’s book is to prove how multiethnic social forces led to Ethiopia’s integrity as a nation, but his argument tautologically assumes Ethiopia’s essential wholeness beforehand (that is to say, a priori).

There is a lot to Levine’s book, and I don’t have time or space to discuss it all here, but his argument is essentially that the interaction between the Amhara-Tigrean culture and the Oromo culture is what produced and developed the modern Ethiopian nation state. Levine formulates this as the “Amhara thesis” and the “Oromo antithesis,” out of which an “Ethiopian synthesis” emerges. The Amhara-Tigrean political structure along with its providentialist Christian ideology contributed a durable imperial political system. In other words, their translation of the Hebrew Bible into a national Ethiopian script (the famous Kibre Negest) that claimed a divine genealogy and the right to conquer others along with their hierarchical political structure and individualistic social habits enabled a strong political system. But they could not have accomplished an Ethiopian state on their own. The Oromo’s egalitarian political structure and collective social habits not only enabled them to often defeat the technologically more advanced and politically more centralized Amhara, but also contributed to the absorption of the smaller ethnic groups and the integration of the expanding trade networks. The Oromo political structures and cultural practices were adaptive and integrative in ways that the Amhara were not.

Why I call Levine’s book idealist is that it characterizes two cultures as two conflicting ideals whose resolution resulted in yet another ideal, the nation state. Though he calls it holistic because it recognizes the many political, social, and cultural factors that had a role to play in the constitution of a “greater Ethiopia,” it is also clearly dialectical in the Hegelian style — thesis, antithesis, and synthesis – and it is idealistic in how it subsumes all of those political, social, and cultural factors to the ideal of a nation state. This is an ideal that Levine assumes rather than proves. What is problematic is that much of the Oromo society he describes currently lives in Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya – outside the borders of the modern Ethiopian state, borders that were somewhat arbitrary and are still contested. Notably, Levine includes Eritrea within “greater Ethiopia,” which was certainly the case when Levine published his book in 1974 but was only the case for a fairly short period of time, from 1950 to 1991. Many of the Oromo and other ethnic groups such as the Somali do not want to be a part of greater Ethiopia or feel exploited and oppressed by the Amhara-Tigrean system, and believe they would run their state differently. It is a bit troubling that the very factors that make the Oromo an “antithesis” in Levine’s formulation also make them a non-state (page 135) and “unsuited for political dominion” (page 155). Notionally, for Levine, they are the antithesis to statehood, which in my view is a problematic way to characterize the culture of any people, especially a people who have been politically oppressed for a long time and who have been struggling for their rights and for independent statehood. (For all of my blog posts about the Oromo, see here.)

In addition, and more importantly, I say that Levine’s book is idealist and wholistic because it leaves out a key event. The Amhara were able to dominate the region largely due to their strategic alliance with the European empires who supplied them with weapons in exchange for access to trade routes. It should be obvious to Levine why the Amhara “resurgence” happened in the 1870s and not at another time. Their so-called resurgence was in large part because of the French and British involvement, but in all his analysis of the many factors that led to the formation of Ethiopia at the end of the nineteenth century, Levine never once mentions Europe or the transformative effects of the Suez Canal that opened in 1869 immediately before the so-called resurgence occurred. Instead he writes: “Where the Oromo culture was fragile, Amhara culture was durable. Where the Oromo were inclined to associate with one another as equals, the Amhara were disposed to rule. The variables which led the Galla [the pejorative name for Oromo] to cooperation, acculturation, and interethnic affiliation led the Amhara to a resurgence of traditional political and religious culture and the establishment of a hierarchical order throughout Greater Ethiopia” (page 164). Levine admits that the Amhara also controlled the gun trade in an offhand remark in the last paragraph of his book (page 185), but he doesn’t acknowledge why they did. Levine’s blindness to outside forces is as much a methodological, historiographic blindness as it is an ideological one. If Levine had admitted contributing factors from outside of Ethiopia, his idealistic formulation of the nation would have fallen apart. In other words, his holistic interpretation of history depends on a wholistic notion of “greater Ethiopia.” As a result, he reads history backwards, assuming that the present conditions of the Amhara and Oromo in 1974 should be the organizing principle for their whole past.

Though Mohammed Hassen’s book, published sixteen years later, never discusses Levine’s book except for a citation or two in the endnotes, some points of his argument agree with Levine’s. For example, Oromo culture was more open to interethnic affiliation and integration. Hassen elaborates this in greater detail and hence provides a richer and better explanation of the Oromo success than Levine. Levine’s characterization emphasizes the Oromo character and what this meant militarily. In contrast, Hassen emphasizes the economy and the long, slow process of acculturation. The Oromo tended to adopt the people they conquered rather than merely exploit them (pages 47 and 58). Their system placed less emphasis on a Biblically inspired, racial genealogy, so the other tribes and ethnic groups could feel a part of the Oromo’s more open political system. Though neither Levine nor Hassen come out and say it, I believe this aspect of Oromo political culture helps explain why the Oromo became and still remain the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia (somewhere between 35 and 50% of the population depending on how the statistics are calculated) despite the efforts of the Amhara government under Emperor Haile Selassie to suppress and erase Oromo language and culture. Hassen’s methodological approach is also similar to Levine’s holistic approach that emphasizes the intermixing of cultures, economies, and political structures, and like Levine he also asserts that the Oromo system contributed to the integration of the economy when he points out that the Oromo language became the language of trade for some areas in the eighteenth century (page 161). It is these commonalities between Levine and Hassen that lead me to believe that Levine’s book paved the way for Hassen’s.

But Hassen’s differs in several important respects. First, Hassen never characterizes Amhara and Oromo culture in the idealist and culturally essentialist way that Levine does. Instead, he points out that political, cultural, and economic practices of all of the ethnic groups were usually contingent on a range of other factors and quickly transformed to adapt to changing circumstances. For instance, the Oromo were pastoralists when they were forced to migrate, but became agrarian when they settled, and commercial when they began to interact with the Arab trade networks. Their political institutions, cultural practices, and religious affiliations changed alongside these economic and political circumstances (pages 86-87). For instance, when the Oromo eventually took over the prosperous and powerful Ennarya kingdom in the seventeenth century – the Ennarya being an ethnic group that no longer exists because of the this takeover – they absorbed a lot of Ennarya’s economy in ways that were transformative for the whole region (for the Oromo, Ennarya, Amhara, and others.) To put it another way, Hassen’s argument does to Levine exactly what Karl Marx did to Hegel; he turns the dialectic off its idealist head and puts it firmly back on its materialist feet.

Second, he also shows (again dialectically) how a weakness can be a strength. Whereas Levine suggests that the Amhara system is more durable because of its will to domination, Hassen shows how the adaptive cultural practices of the Oromo and their adoptive political system (what Levine perceives as their weakness) ultimately makes them more “durable.”

Third, Hassen is always quick to point to external factors. For instance, one particular war between the Amhara Christians and the Muslims of Harar so weakened both sides that the Oromo were able to move in. Hassen’s historical narrative stops in 1860 at the point of the Amhara resurgence, but he indicates that the Amhara control of the gun trade and its strategic relationship with European empires facilitated the end of the Oromo domination of the Gibe region of Ethiopia, one of the richest and most fertile regions of the whole Horn of Africa. Other books continue the story of Ethiopia after 1860, namely Sisai Ibssa and Bonnie Holcolmb’s The Invention of Ethiopia, Asafa Jalata’s Oromia and Ethiopia: State Formation and Ethnonational Conflict 1868 – 2004, and Harold Marcus’s two books, The Life and Times of Menelik II and Haile Selassie I: the Formative Years.

Fourth, and most importantly, Hassen doesn’t formulate the Oromo in problematically essentialist terms as the antithesis to nation building as Levine does but instead explains how the political systems and culture of all the ethnic groups in the region adapted to a changing economy. Hassen’s historical method is, in my view, ultimately more satisfying and convincing than Levine’s.


October 13, 2009 - Posted by | Oromia

1 Comment »

  1. […] at the core of Ethiopianist historiography in general. On a slightly related note, see also this piece by Steven Thomas that deals with some of the issues with Ethiopian historiography. See also his […]

    Pingback by Ethiopia: a reading list – Ayantu Writes | December 23, 2017 | Reply

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