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Review of Ethiopia: The Last two Frontiers


By Jane Plastow

Ethiopia: The Last two Frontiers. John Markarkis. James Currey, Rochester: NY & Woodbridge, 2011. Pp. 383. ISBN. ISBN 9781847010339 (hb). £40.

Long time political historian of Ethiopia, John Markarkis, brings the reader up to date in this book regarding the consequences of contemporary Ethiopia’s experiment with government based on ethnicity. The ‘last two frontiers’ to which he refers  are the ‘highland periphery’, essentially the Oromo dominated southern highlands, and the ‘lowland periphery’, inhabited by the Oromo but also by major pastoralist groups such as the Afar and the Somali as well as a host of smaller ethnic groups; some only numbering a few thousand.

To contextualise his study Markarkis begins in part 1 with an anthropological overview of many of these peripheral groups. Part 2 covers the political history of the establishment of the contemporary borders of Ethiopia under imperial rule; demonstrating how the Ethiopian empire came into being under the expansionist rule of Emperor Menelik II (1844-1913). Imperial rule was absolute and the only route to power was to adopt the lesana negus (language of kings), Amharic, and to take on Amhara values and modes of living. Non-Amhara were very much second class citizens, and the people of the two ‘peripheries’ (making up most of the 66 ethnic groups recognised in Ethiopia) were usually seen as vassals for exploitation of labour, tax and tribute. Part 3 takes us through the period of military Dergue rule after the deposition of the last emperor, Haile Selassie, in 1974, and the establishment of Mengistu Haile Mariam as Marxist dictator until his overthrow by loosely allied peripheral groups in 1991. Once more we see the people of the periphery being exploited by a centre that invests very little but takes land as it sees fit and moves or conscripts the people for central state purposes.

The primary interest in this book is in parts 4 and 5, dealing with the new government that emerged after 1991. The people who marched in to the capital of Addis Ababa were Tigrayans from northern Ethiopia, who as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had fought a 14 year struggle against Amhara/Dergue dominance. Markarkis demonstrates how they, under their leader, Meles Zenawi, along with key allies, were determined to establish a new sort of government that would reflect the cultures and aspirations of more than the 26% of the population estimated to be Amhara.

After a long history of exploitation this part of the story begins by seeming somewhat more optimistic. Markarkis documents the setting up the new government along the lines of ethnically based federalism, with each zone intended to exercise considerable degrees of autonomy. He shows how a measure of education, health care and development was brought, in some cases for the very first time, to vast areas of previously effectively ungoverned Ethiopia. However he also demonstrates how right from the beginning the Tigray dominated state reconstruction, and how artificial the new ethnic zones were; with people being forced to declare ethnic allegiance and many people living as minorities within each zone. Moreover, he shows the range of pretty intractable problems from which Ethiopia suffers. Some 12% of the population are pastoralists, and pastoralist groups like the Afar, Issa and Somali have long traditions of inter-ethnic warfare; with concepts of masculinity often linked to the idea of killing enemies which poorly armed police are ill-equipped to mediate, let alone resolve. In highland areas land is eroded and divided into tiny parcels as the population expands; and Markarkis is hugely gloomy about international development initiatives he sees as externally imposed and far too short term to make any real impact. The final part of the book describes a re-establishment of autocracy under the new president, Meles Zenawi; which has brutally emasculated any opposition, and the rise of increasing resentment by central and peripheral groups as they once again fall victim to the power lust of a man who has become in all but name the new dictator.

Markarkis does a great service in bringing together anthropological, historical and political research to explain how this new Ethiopia came into being, and for the first time gives us that history from a standpoint which seeks to reflect the situation for many of Ethiopia’s neglected ‘peripheral’ people. There will be many matters of interpretation and detail that can be contested in this complicated history; and Markarkis persistent gloom at times makes the book heavy going, but Ethiopia: The Last Two Frontiers is essential reading for all who want to understand how the Ethiopian empire arrived at its present configuration.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 73 (December 2011), pp. 88-89]

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