Ethiopia’s Problems Stem From Internal Colonialism!

Ethiopia’s Problems Stem From Internal Colonialism

Robert Kaplan’s selective reading of history bolsters proponents of a centralized state while ignoring the legitimacy of federalists’ demands.

By , an assistant professor of economics at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
People celebrate ahead of the return of a formerly banned anti-government group, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on September 14, 2018. YONAS TADESSE/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

(Foreignpolicy)–In a recent Foreign Policy article, Robert D. Kaplan argues that Ethiopia will not fall apart despite the serious civil wars in which it is embroiled on several fronts. The writer builds his case—disappointingly—on sentimental reflections about the country he affectionately calls “wondrously indefinable” and “more than a state,” rather than relying on a sober analysis of the real issues behind the conflicts ravaging the country—namely, a battle between unitarist forces that want centralized rule and federalists of various ethnic backgrounds who demand self-government.

First, Kaplan’s characterization of Ethiopia as an “outpost of Middle Eastern and Semitic civilization” is historically inaccurate and not backed by serious scholarship. Indeed, the ancient Aksumites—to whom he is alluding as an outpost of Middle Eastern civilization—had established extensive relationships with the various principalities in the Middle East and beyond, influencing and being influenced by the prominent kingdoms that were established in territories as far-flung as Arabia, Greece, Persia, the Indian subcontinent, and the lower Nile Valley.

The influence of the Sabaeans or others from the Middle East on the Kingdom of Aksum was minor and limited to a few areas. Importantly, a careful investigation of the Aksumites’ arts, crafts, tomb inscriptions, and written evidence they left behind points to a predominantly Indigenous origin of the venerated Aksumite civilization. As a result, there is hardly any serious student of Ethiopian history today who subscribes to the dated view that Ethiopia is an outpost of Middle Eastern civilization.

Kaplan’s reductionist view of Ethiopian history relegates the independent existence and histories of all other groups to a mere footnote of Christian highlanders’ history.

It is true that successive rulers of the Ethiopian empire claimed to have descended from King Solomon of ancient Israel and the so-called Queen of Sheba, but this is a myth that has not been supported with proper historical evidence. Historians have argued that the claim was used in search of a pedigree by the ruling classes in parts of what is today northern Ethiopia for a political end: The more distant and celebrated the lineage claimed, the more pedigree the kings obtained—and the less questioning the subjects would be of the absolute local monarchies.

Kaplan’s other glaring mistake is his reductionist view of Ethiopian history. The piece equates the ancient and medieval history of today’s Ethiopia essentially with the historiography of the Christian kingdoms established by the Amhara and the Tigrayans in northern Ethiopia and parts of Eritrea, making his analysis of current events in the country incomplete at best. It relegates the independent existence and histories of all other groups in Ethiopia to a mere footnote of its Christian highlanders’ history.

Whereas his claim that Ethiopia’s problems are not postcolonial relies on a narrow conception of colonialism, scholars have convincingly argued that the late 19th-century conquest and subsequent subjugation of the nations in the Ethiopian south by the Amhara ruling classes constitute a form of internal colonialism, with ruinous consequences for the conquered people.

Before their conquest and incorporation into the Ethiopian empire, the various peoples of Ethiopia had been developing along different trajectories, with some establishing formidable kingdoms and systems of government that could influence the course of Ethiopian history in significant ways. For instance, the Oromo had developed the Gada system (a democratic sociopolitical system recently recognized by UNESCO as a piece of intangible human heritage), which allowed them to thrive militarily, demographically, and economically in competition (and at times in collaboration) with their Christian highland neighbors in the north and Muslim neighbors in the east until their conquest in the late 19th century.

Disappointingly, Kaplan offers no real analysis of the contestations underlying the current Ethiopian civil war. He ignores—unjustifiably—the most significant event in the history of modern Ethiopia, Menelik II’s late 19th-century military conquest of the Ethiopian south. His piece simply glosses over this epochal event in Ethiopia’s recent history, without which the current conflict surrounding the Ethiopian state cannot be understood.

Kaplan ignores the most significant event in the history of modern Ethiopia, Menelik II’s military conquest of the Ethiopian south, without which today’s conflicts cannot be understood.

It may be that these accounts and histories do not fit Kaplan’s conception of a country that he described as more than a state—a false narrative that the advocates of the unitarist camp are happy to recite steadfastly. In fact, the current conflict in Ethiopia is a manifestation of the ruinous center-periphery relationships between the Amhara core and mainly southern Ethiopians—with the former seeking to monopolize power at the center and the latter fighting for significant devolution of power from the center to the peripheries.

Any attempt to dismiss the collective memories and histories of the conquered populations and disregard or minimize the federalist camp’s demands in reconceptualizing Ethiopia will only renew the cycle of conflict, famine, and abject poverty that has defined Ethiopia and its peoples for the last five decades.

While pointing out the rising expectations in Ethiopia—which have arguably been spawned by the phenomenal growth of its economy under the previous government, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—as a backdrop for the current conflicts in the country, the article ignores the elephant in the room that dislodged the TPLF from the halls of power in Addis Ababa, paving the way for Abiy Ahmed to rise from relative obscurity to the most important position in the country.

The significant event that precipitated the change of the political guard in Ethiopia in 2018 was a policy of land grab instituted by the Ethiopian government—a massive horizontal expansion of the capital region, Addis Ababa, into the neighboring Oromo farmlands—that triggered a momentous youth-led Oromo protest movement.

Despite its likely positive contribution to the overall economic growth in Ethiopia, the multiple-fold expansion of Addis Ababa into the Oromia region was one of those policies that turned out to be highly controversial in the context of the asymmetry of political power along ethnic lines. Although considered a modernization and urbanization undertaking by the government, the expansion was viewed by the Oromo public as a mechanism of ethnopolitical subjugation and economic exploitation, with a serious threat to their cultural and linguistic rights.

While it was directly targeted at the TPLF-led government, which initiated and executed the policy, the protest movement was also directed against the scheme’s political and cultural consequences—the further Amharization of central Oromia that the practice would inevitably usher in.

Rather than grapple with this event and its political and cultural consequences, Kaplan falls back on a colonialist discourse that ascribes some sort of superiority to the peoples of “Middle Eastern and Semitic civilization” over the Indigenous peoples of Ethiopia.

The uninitiated reader of the piece is left to assume that the greatness and uniqueness of Ethiopia come from its association with a foreign culture and that its Indigenous part could not have made a mark on human history without the imperial stewardship of settlers from the Middle East. Moreover, his failure to give due consideration to the perspectives of the conquered populations in Ethiopia and their resistance movements is unhelpful when it comes to resolving Ethiopia’s age-old political problems.

Although the parallel drawn in the article between Ethiopia and the former Yugoslavia is at odds with Kaplan’s key conclusion that Ethiopia is here to stay, the Yugoslavia analogy is in fact much closer to the unfolding reality in the country.

Given the influence his writing had on world leaders as that conflict spread in the 1990s, one would expect the cautionary tale of Yugoslavia’s dissolution to carry greater weight for Kaplan. Indeed, several observers have argued convincingly that his flawed historical account of the Yugoslavia conflict’s roots in his 1993 book, Balkan Ghosts—which presented the Balkan wars of the 1990s as fundamentally driven by ancient hatreds and irreconcilable differences, minimizing the role of manufactured ultranationalist rhetoric by figures such as Slobodan Milosevic—contributed to delaying the Clinton administration from tackling the mounting atrocities that were being committed by Serbian paramilitaries.

Similarly, a misreading of contemporary Ethiopia by policymakers in Washington—which might be based on the misguided historical arguments advanced by Kaplan in his recent piece—could have grave consequences for millions of people in the country.

Kaplan’s conclusion that Ethiopia is here to stay—no matter what—is magical thinking  associated with the proponents of a centralized state.

Much like the “Strong Serbdom, Strong Yugoslavia” slogan that guided Serbian nationalists throughout much of the 20th century and caused unnecessary death and destruction in the former republics of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Amhara political forces have a similar motto: Amara yesew wuha lik new (which may roughly be translated as “being an Amhara is the highest standard of human excellence”) and are working in concert with Prime Minister Abiy to reincarnate a unitary political system that was invented to preserve Amhara hegemony over the rest of the country—a country where everyone would speak the Amharic language, dance to Amharic tunes, and embrace Amhara culture at the expense of their own.

Kaplan’s conclusion that Ethiopia is here to stay no matter what is magical thinking that is associated with the proponents of a centralized Ethiopian state. It also makes little sense to argue that Ethiopia is exceptional, given its checkered history and current diplomatic difficulties. A popular argument that one often hears in the unitarist political camp in Ethiopia is that the nation will not perish because it is exceptional and ordained by God.

However, the reality is that the Ethiopian state is unraveling, with the TPLF defeating Ethiopian and Eritrean forces in Tigray and the Oromo Liberation Army making significant inroads on the battlefield in Oromia, the largest state in the country. Indeed, as I have written elsewhere, Ethiopia will perish ingloriously if it fails to accommodate the legitimate demands of the federalist camp.


  1. Yooyaa Obo Mergo!
    Thank you for a wonderfully written, measured, expertly organized, and intelligently argued article! I look forward to reading any other work you may be willing to share with Kichuu’s readers!

    Aba Solan

  2. Re-posted from Ayyaantuu News

    Ya Oromo, (also, to the Journalists and ‘Experts’ who write about Ethiopia’s current crisis but whose work I have found to be short on insight and facts…)

    The Anti Oromo Liberation Army campaign in the guise of protecting the ‘unity’ of Ethiopia is in full swing. Nearly forty years ago, A similar campaign was waged against The Eritrean Liberation Front, The Tigray Liberation Front, & the then fledgling Oromo Liberation Front. Today, the focus of this Anti-Oromo campaign is the Oromo Liberation Army. Rather than write an article about it now, I have republished an essay written on this same issue by H.Q. Loltu in March 1985. I and many of my friends are forever indebted for ALL we have learned from the work of one of our brightest thinkers and writers on the Oromo question. With a change of names, time, and other minor items here and there, I trust you will find this essay useful in understanding why the “concern” about Ethiopia’s “fragmentation”, or “Balkanization,” at heart, is really an Anti-Oromo propaganda campaign with the sons and daughters of armed Amhara settlers, the Nefxagnas, as the primary drivers of the story line. Other proponents of the ” scare-the-bejesus-out-of-the-reader” writers about the ‘evils’ of “Fragmentation” or “Balkanization,” of Ethiopia fall within the range of those who are plainly oblivious to the history of the Horn of Africa AND that of the Oromo in particular, to those who have an agenda of their own to push under the guise of “respect for Ethiopia’s Sovereignty”…


    Re-printed from:
    The Kindling Point #5
    “On Unity & Fragmentation”
    March, 1985
    By H.Q Loltu

    ” Many people seem to be afraid of the “fragmentation” of Ethiopia, and give that as a reason for opposing the Oromo and other movements for national liberation.
    Most people who mention it, however, are either unwilling or unable to explain their concerns. So I have been thinking a lot lately about what might lie at the base of this fear of “fragmentation.”

    Recently while this issue was on my mind, I ran across several articles appearing in Newspapers and Magazines to commemorate the Berlin Conference that was held in 1884-85 in that city to divide up Africa. The articles dealt with how and why the Colonial Powers at the time carved up Africa into its present pieces.When you think about it, the World has really been observing the one hundred year anniversary of the Fragmentation of Africa. The way Africa was carved up made sense only to the colonizing powers and not to Africans. The pieces on the map show only the logic of an outside market and the logic of ruling elites. Foreigners drew lines that dissected living nations of Africans limb from limb for the convenience of intruders. They drew lines around prize territories in complete ignorance and contempt for the inhabitants. Then each colonial power took his prize to play with in whatever way he wished. And each one jealously guarded what was handed to him like a dog guards a bone. It was at this time and in this way that Oromia came to be in the possession of Abyssinia.

    The Oromos were trapped inside the Ethiopian Empire by a gun and a lie and a set of rules written by colonial thieves. If you ask me, the famous Berlin Conference was no better than a big poker game among robbers who were plotting to raid the riches of Africa after a few scouts had returned to tell stories about her wealth. They played with chips that were broken fragments of Africa grabbed from wherever the players could reach and stacked with other parts without rhyme or reason. The biggest prizes went to those who were the best at bluffing and lying about their claims to certain regions. It was not only Europeans who played this game. Abyssinians played also. Abyssinians have always been experts at bluffing. They are better at it than at anything else. They could not govern themselves in unity; they could never defeat or absorb the Oromo Republic on their own, no matter how hard they tried. But once they were handed a disputed part of the pot from this gigantic poker game and given guns to “protect” it, they conquered the Oromo nation with a vengeance and then pretended that things had always been that way.

    The greatest outrage of all is the Abyssinian lie that their claims to the region went back to the beginning of time. Ever since they finally conquered the Oromos, the Abyssinians have been worried that the Europeans were going to come and take away the prize that was awarded to their Kings. [So] their greatest defense has been to act like that old poker game was a convention of the Saints and the rules of thieves were created to protect the “sacred principles of unity and justice.”

    No one has been so dependent on the rule of thieves as the Abyssinians, so [no] one needed to defend them as strongly. When Haile Selassie used the League of Nations to try to hold onto his Empire, the Europeans were amazed and pleased and flattered that someone had taken their old game seriously. They supported Haile Selassie when he cried that Italy was a bully trying to take his piece away from him (but no one was more of a bully than the Emperor to the people inside his empire). When the British stepped in to defend the Emperor’s position and the Italians left, the Oromos were locked in for another fifty years.

    Let me make one footnote here. No colonialism is good. But some types have lasted longer than others. That is the one difference to the Oromos if the Italians had stayed. Former colonies of the Europeans have obtained their independence. The colonies of the Abyssinians have not. And Abyssinian fascism is not less torturous than Italian fascism.

    Later, Haile Selassie tried to use the Organization of African Unity as a platform to hold onto his empire just as he had used the League of Nations. He even invited the OAU to have its headquarters in Addis Ababa. And he began to talk about the importance of “territorial integrity” of the colonial pieces of Africa just as he had used the idea of “collective security” to protect his empire [at the League of Nations].

    Understanding that each of the African Heads of State had inherited a colonial territory, and along with it, the problems, Haile Sellasie calculated that they would not question the terms of the Will and risk losing their inheritance. That is why the Emperor constantly warned them of what might happen to Africa if the colonial boundaries were disrespected.
    Can you imagine the colonialist and those seeking their independence sitting together and deciding the future of the African people? Yes I can. It can only happen if one party is aware and the other doesn’t know. Haile Sellasie was the only one who really knew about the nature of Ethiopia when he sat with Africans who did not. (It was truly a case of one rotten apple spoiling the rest!) I am sure that he had no better way to guarantee his holdings than by threatening everyone else’s and making the OAU into a kind of a Shrine honoring the Europeans’ fragmentation of Africa.

    Today in honor of Haile Sellasie, his successor, Emperor-Comared Mengistu Haile Mariam, also Chairman of the OAU, repeats this concern by preaching about the importance of “non-interference in internal affairs of Africa” (especially the people of Africa are not to interfere), and warns about the “Indivisibility of Ethiopian Unity.” (This is nothing new; this is something we have heard before!) The essence of this warning is to frighten people with the issue of fragmentation. And if you really think about it, there is no other group that argues more desperately about the evils of “fragmentation” than Ethiopians with an empire to keep together.

    When Africa was broken up and nations splintered into fragments, so was the Republic of Oromia. That was a terrible loss to Africa. The Oromos had a democracy under the Gadaa method of government. This was before the Abyssinians arrived armed with Remington rifles. They defeated the Oromo armies and gunned down hundreds of thousands of Oromos.It has to be one of the worst slaughters and series of uneven battles ever fought in the history of the world.

    From that time of conquest until now, every sign of unity, cooperation and camaraderie among Oromos has caused panic and alarm in the hearts of Abyssinians. This is because they know what they are guilty of doing to the Oromos. The Gadaa
    system of assemblies and lawmaking was outlawed mainly because the Gadaa unified the Oromos in Politics, Economics, and Religion.

    Oromos share every experience of colonized Africans. Oromos were not allowed to move around on their own territory after the formation of Ethiopia. Instead they had to stay and till their own farms and pastures for any one who arrived from Abyssinia with a gun and piece of paper in a foreign language saying he owned the land. Thereafter the people on it had to give up to him everything they grew. If they refused, they were dealt with by the same armed landlords. Oromo land and people were divided into Provinces, Awarjas, and Woredas. Nobody in the international community cried out about “fragmentation” then when the real fragmentation took place.

    But when the Oromos organize themselves to throw off the terrible yoke that has been tied on their necks for a full one hundred years, certain groups become very concerned about “fragmentation” and “economic in-viability of small entities.” It should not surprise anyone to learn that the ones who are especially concerned about these issues are the sons and daughters of the armed landlords, the “neftennas.”

    Now I ask you, how can anyone who has looked at the present condition of chaos in Ethiopia find the arrogance to say that they are worried that “fragmentation” could bring disaster? If this is not disaster, what is it? Definitely, it is a disaster impossible to exaggerate, and it is caused by colonial policy. The present crisis is so severe that seven million people are in danger of death by starvation and the rest are terrified of being destroyed by bombers. How can people stand by witnessing the holocaust of the 1980’s and continue to defend the old colonial empire?

    I have been thinking a lot about why the world can be so concerned about Ethiopia and so quiet about the real problem that the people inside are facing. The West is quiet about the problem because they created it. The East is quiet about the problem because they are sustaining it now. Africans are quiet because they are afraid. People who live in glass houses cannot throw stones. Therefore they sit in the OAU and sip champagne while Mengistu is bombing Eritrea, Somalia, Oromia and Tigray and declare that Ethiopia’s problem is due to “natural catastrophe.”

    In my opinion, all of Africa inherited the problem on the day that they agreed not to redraw the colonial boundaries according to an African logic in order to express real African unity. Is it not true that Europeans were more interested in the size of the holding when they entered and drew the lines without considering the ethnic composition of the holding? Look at the Somalis, divided among the Italians, the British, the French, and the Abyssinians. Isn’t the problem of Africa the problem of fragmentation then rather than now? Isn’t the “problem” we see a “problem” of the people wanting to be united who have been torn apart? Isn’t it when the people reject that division that the war begins? Yes, it is.

    I would go further and say that if Africans had redrawn their map the economic crisis that they are facing would not have existed and they would be able to take a proper position based on African unity. But the regimes over Ethiopia’s empire must argue to maintain the colonial boundaries because Ethiopia herself is a colonial empire that she wants to keep. The others made a mistake to follow her.

    Redrawing the map is not supported by the former colonial masters. Why? Because if Africa redraws her map, both the East and the West would lose their big markets for weapons systems and Africa would turn to research and development on her own. Why does Africa need weapons systems anyway? To protect herself from the U.S.A? The U.S.S.R or Britain or France? For that matter, Israel? Could she defend herself against any of the great powers even with unlimited investment in weapons? No. She could not. Therefore it is obvious that she needs the weapons to suppress mass discontent and to use against her neighbors and against colonial subjects. All are problems caused by accepting the colonial boundaries. I won’t go into which country is against which because that is easy to find out in the media. The point I am trying to make, however, is that African society has been disintegrated by the colonialism that followed the Berlin Conference–usually referred to as European Colonialism by people who forget that Abyssinia was also in that club. That map is still maintained by European, America, and Soviet Bloc aid. To focus particularly on the Horn of Africa, the trouble we see in Ethiopia’s empire today is the people’s expression of dissatisfaction with that arrangement and their wishes to be reunited.

    I would say that it is the responsibility of Europeans who have created the problem to realize it and stop aiding the empire and to get involved in aiding to rebuild what was destroyed rather than sitting on the sidelines and waiting for the OAU to lead them in a proper direction. (Of course if the West has a
    long-range plan to reconquer, they cannot do that, but otherwise they could and they should.)

    I understand that it is very difficult for the West to go against the situation that they created. They have made the Ethiopians the token blacks for the international community for a century now. People are afraid to say or do anything against it. If Africans say that Abyssinians are colonizers and should be out of their colonial position, those Africans are labelled against African unity or power hungry. If a white person says it, that person is labelled a racist. (Definitely the Abyssinians have enjoyed their position and have even come to believe that they deserve to be there. As a result they not only keep quite but try to close the mouths of others.) Then who can say it? The working Oromos who suffer under the heavy burden have been saying it for years in every way possible to them.

    Let me make a closing remark. I, for one, am totally opposed to the fragmentation of a nation: that is why I support the national liberation movements. When People divide something whole into several parts and then annex each piece to a different entity and call that “unity,” just like the Ethiopians are doing, and when they call anything that comes after that a fragmentation, then the term “fragmentation” loses its real meaning. It becomes an empty phrase in the mouths of those who benefit from colonialism. The ones who can tell the difference between fragmentation, which is the breaking up of a nation, and decolonization, which is the breaking up of an empire, are the colonial subjects themselves. We should listen to them, understand them and support them. By all standards, the Oromo issue is not an issue of fragmentation, rather it is an issue of decolonization and a process of rebuilding a nation. ”

    Hordhoofa Q. Loltu

    Irkoo says:
    August 6, 2021 at 4:55 am

    Aba Solan,
    I absolutely loved reading this article by Loltu from 1985! My father loved
    reading “The Kindling Point,” but never saved the copies! It is one of the very few regrets I have in my otherwise wonderful Oromo upbringing! Do you have any other copies written by Loltu? Oh, how I would love to get my hands on all of his work! Know that there are the “quiet” children of Oromia such as yourself who are working for the emancipation of our people and the birth of a Sovereign Oromo Republic! We shall all meet, one day, in our own Free land, among our own Free People, under the umbrella of our own Free & Sovereign Oromo State! To paraphrase you, NOTHING LESS SHOULD BE ACCEPTABLE!

    Let’s stand with our Oromo Liberation Army!

    Aba Solan says:
    August 7, 2021 at 1:54 pm

    You have restated my own sentiment regarding the imperative for establishing an Independent Oromo Republic eloquently! We owe our fallen heroes and our own children that much AND more! The right of the Oromo People to form their own Sovereign Oromo Republic SHOULD NEVER BE NEGOTIATED AWAY! What we need to negotiate about, if necessary, is the mechanism by which the Oromo People WILL CHOOSE TO GO THEIR WAY!

    As to the articles written by Loltu, I have “The kindling Point,” #1 to #38, except for #s 36 & 37. Loltu also published a series of Articles titled ” The Turning Point,” after he stopped publishing “The Kindling Point,” but I only have Issue #3. I am planning to digitize these articles and make them available via emails or online soon. I will share the ‘hows’ of my project when I am ready. In the meantime, we will continue to meet on Kichuu’s pages! Our ULTIMATE GOAL is, of course, to quote you, to be able to “one day, meet in our own Free land, among our own Free people, under the umbrella of our own Free & Sovereign Oromo State!”

    Waqaa Gurracha Oromo Waliin!

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