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Review of War and the Politics of Identity in Ethiopia: The Making of Enemies and Allies in the Horn of Africa


By June Rock

War and the Politics of Identity in Ethiopia: The Making of Enemies and Allies in the Horn of Africa. African Issues. Kjetil Tronvoll. James Currey, Woodbridge, Suffolk and Rochester NY, 2009. Pp. 256. ISBN. 9781847016126 (hb). £40.

This book focuses on the effects of war on the formation and conceptualisation of identities – the making and remaking of enemies and allies - in Ethiopia.  Building on the Abyssinian tradition of alliance making, it provides an in-depth look at the formative impacts of the recent (1998-2000) Ethiopia-Eritrea border war on pre-war discourses and policies of identity at the regional and federal levels. It shows - contrary to conventional assumptions that inter-state war strengthens a collective notion of national (or ethno-national) identity in multi-ethnic societies like Ethiopia - political pragmatism, and not ethnic affinity, to be the determining factor in the making and remaking of enemies and allies, as exemplified through an analysis of the recent border war:

“The more or less unanimous backing for the EPRDF’s war effort by the people and political opposition (except for the OLF) should be explained by historical conceptions of state and power in Ethiopia, and not because of primordial identities (neither ethnicity nor nationalism)… the political elite in the country used the war both as an occasion to try to regain lost territories – both Badme and Eritrea – and to position themselves in the internal power play within Ethiopia..”  (p.203)

Tronvoll provides useful background to outsiders on the cultural linkages and distinctions between the Tigrinya-speakers of Tigray and Eritrea and the Amhara. But he also brings out the importance of land as a means of livelihood and its significance for the sense of belonging, spatial and territorialised identity – a point often overlooked by outside explanations for the border war. He provides an overview of historical trajectories of enemy images, up to and including the TPLF’s politico-cultural production of a Tigrayan identity during the liberation struggle and it policies (ethno-federalism) and discourses on identity as the government up to 1998.

His analysis of the impact of the border war provides detailed accounts of changes in identity discourses at the regional and federal levels: the redefinition, in Tigray, of Ethiopia-Eritrea relations from friends to enemies and the reappearance among the Tigray population of the ‘Greater Ethiopia’ sentiment - a sentiment antithetical to the Tigray liberation struggle and to the EPRDF’s new ethnic federation; but he also shows that, contrary to the myth of a single collective enemy during war, the TPLF was also perceived as the ‘enemy’ by some Tigrayans – notably, those  for whom the priority was the maintenance and welfare of their families and the loss of male labour as a result of recruitment.  He likewise discusses and brings out the different and competing discourses and politics on identity at the federal level, including the identification of the ‘enemies within’: Eritreans of Ethiopian origin and the Oromo.  In the Postscript to the book, he focuses on the internal dissent within the TPLF and between the TPLF and the EPRDF coalition in the aftermath of the war and the resulting creation of new categories of enemies ‘enemies from within’.

War and the Politics of Identity in Ethiopia: The Making of Enemies and Allies in the Horn of Africa is an informative and essential read for anyone wishing to understand the dynamics of both war and its aftermath (the peace) in Ethiopia.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 71 (Winter 2009/10), pp. 90-91]

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