Menelik and Southern Ethiopia: Colonialization, Reunification, or Expansion?

Menelik and Southern Ethiopia: Colonialization, Reunification, or Expansion?
To Donald Levine, who taught us to imagine Ethiopia
By Messay Kebede (PhD)
April 16, 2015

The 119th anniversary of the victory of Adwa has generated among some groups in the Ethiopian diaspora a renewed debate over the meaning of the southern expansion. Spearheaded by Menelik, the Ethiopian state accomplished the momentous achievement of doubling its size by expanding into what is now the southern part of Ethiopia. Basically, three opposing interpretations feed on the debate. Was the march into the southern part of Ethiopia a colonial conquest, an expansion, or a re-appropriation of lost territories? The purpose of this article is to examine the three positions with the view of showing their respective strengths and weaknesses. In many ways, this article is a summary of the first chapter of my book, Survival and Modernization, in which I conduct an exhaustive appraisal of the theorizations of the southern march.

Before critically examining the clash of the theses, it is important that we keep in mind the importance of the issue for today’s Ethiopia. Debating about Menelik’s southern march is not a simple curiosity about a past event with little relevance to current preoccupations. The issue pervades the present political situation of Ethiopia, just as it was one of the reasons that led to the revolution of 1974 and the subsequent overthrow of the imperial regime. The perceived injustice and unequal treatment over land ownership, as opposed to the northern gebbar system, epitomized in the slogan “land to the tiller,” has been the rallying cause that unified the opposition against the imperial rule. Since then the issue has been exacerbated by the failure to generate a modern and democratic state, which failure prepared the ground for the rise of ethnonationalist forces, notably of the TPLF’s policy to create ethnic zones. A process that could have been no less viable than the integration of Texas or California into the US now threatens the very existence of Ethiopia because its leaders were and still are unable to implement the most elementary steps of democratization. Let us begin with the most controversial thesis, namely, the alleged Ethiopian colonization of the southern peoples.

The Colonial Thesis

Mostly defended by ethnonationalist scholars of Eritrean and Oromo origins, the thesis simply maintains that the incorporation of Eritrea and the southern peoples into Ethiopia was no less colonial than the formation of British and French colonial empires. It used the same brutal methods and established a similar type of political, economic, and cultural hegemony for the benefit of one “non-native” ethnic group, namely, the Amhara.  So stated, the thesis looks puzzling, to say the least, because of the obvious absence in Ethiopia of the main features defining European colonization. Being still a traditional society, Ethiopia did not have an expanding capitalist system in need of overseas satellite countries. Nor did the incorporation of Eritrean and southern peoples result in the establishment of a social barrier discriminating natives from “racially superior” expatriates.

These undeniable counter-facts could not but call for a specification intent on maintaining the thesis while adapting it to the Ethiopian context. Thus, because the European definition is not applicable to Amhara, who are neither racially “superior” nor historically and culturally alien to Eritreans, intellectuals of Eritrean origin based their main argument on the fact that an Eritrean autonomous state had existed after the decolonization from Italy. And since the internationally accepted principle is that colonial borders must not be contested, it is colonization to incorporate a country whose recognized status as an independent country results from decolonization.

As to Oromo ethnonationalist intellectuals, they added the specification that Ethiopian colonization was actually a dependent colonization. The lack of a capitalist system and the traditional nature of the Ethiopian society at the time of the expansion preclude any idea that Ethiopia, by itself, had the power and the economic needs to initiate and succeed the conquest of southern peoples. It had done so thanks to the military and diplomatic aids of Western countries so that it can be emphatically affirmed that Ethiopia colonized the southern peoples on behalf of colonial powers. In other words, Ethiopia was just a junior partner of colonial powers.

Be it noted that the thesis of dependent colonialism, unlike its Eritrean counterpart, maintains that Ethiopia fulfilled the racial criterion of European colonization. Both Amhara and Tigreans claim Semitic origins in addition to being Christian. They are thus racially and culturally different from the southern peoples, who are Cushitic and were non-Christian. Just like European colonization, the Amhara have imposed their language and culture; they have also appropriated southern lands and instituted a system different from the northern gabbar system, to wit, the southern system of tenancy.

Does the transfiguration of the colonial thesis into dependent colonization make it more convincing? It would have been so were not the transfiguration still based on flagrant distortions of facts. To consider Tigreans and Amhara as non-native to the region is, of course, an aberration. No less absurd is the suggestion that Ethiopia colonized southern peoples on behalf of European colonizers when it was itself the target of successive attempts at colonization by European powers. Whatever is the explanation, Ethiopia has frustrated these attempts, notably through the victory of Adwa that resulted in the international recognition of its state as independent and sovereign. Add to this that the Ethiopian context did not generate anything resembling the colonial distinction between metropolises and satellites. Even if the southern system was different from the northern one, it was not a satellization. On the contrary, in terms of economic advancement, the south benefited more while the north was almost marginalized.

The irony is that the defenders of dependent colonialism constantly underline that Ethiopians were not, in terms of civilization, more advanced than the Oromo. This is so true that the Oromo expanded at the expense of Ethiopia and even penetrated deep into Amhara and Tigre territories where they even acquired political supremacy, like in Wollo. Historians readily admit that the expansion of Oromo is the reason for the weakening of the Ethiopian state and the rise of what is known as the Era of the Princes. But then, Oromo and Amhara were contenders for the control of the region. Is not the reality of this contention dismissing the description of the Amara as alien to the region? What is more, how is the admission of rivalry for control compatible with the idea of colonization, that is, with the idea of an overseas conquest? The reality is that both were driven by expansion, the only difference being that, thanks to Menelik, the Amhara prevailed. The expansion and the resulting incorporation was, therefore, inspired and executed by indigenous forces. We have maybe a loser and a winner, but not a colonial subordination.

We know that the ultimate target of the thesis of the colonization of the Oromo and southern peoples is the dismantling of Ethiopia. Presented as a racially and culturally alien rule for the purpose of political domination and economic exploitation, Ethiopia should not have a fate different from the fate of British or French colonial empires. The only legitimate and feasible solution is decolonization and the acquisition of independence of the southern peoples.

Instead of directly contesting the colonial thesis, the TPLF came up with a convoluted alternative, which, short of independence, consists in recognizing southern peoples as full nations with the right to self-determination. The recognition of this right is accompanied by the offer to remain part of Ethiopia in a decentralized federal system in which the right of each nation to administer itself is fully recognized. Obviously, the TPLF did not propose this solution out of concern for the good of Ethiopia. It was meant to be a rallying proposal against the Amhara hegemony on the one hand and, on the other, a device to recruit ethnicized elites, the very ones that would develop shared interests with the TPLF. It also allows the implementation of a divided-and-rule policy that makes sure that these towed elites become unable to act in a concerted way. The upshot of all this is that the TPLF remains the sole arbitrator and decider, especially through the complete control of the repressive and armed forces of the state. In thus fragmenting the Ethiopian society while also claiming to be the sole holder of its unity, the TPLF does no more than play with fire: in baptizing ethnic groups nations, it has planted the seed of civil war and secession in the heart of the system in the vain hope of securing a perennial rule.

The Reunification Thesis

The specter of civil war and dismantlement has understandably re-injected life into an old thesis that had fallen into disgrace since the radicalization of Ethiopian educated elites. It is the idea that Menelik’s southern expansion was actually a reunification, that is, a recovery of territories that were once part of Ethiopia. Let alone colonization, the thesis does not even accept the characterization of the process as an expansion.

The thesis thus reverses the accusation:  the invader or expansionist is not Ethiopia, but the Oromo. In other words, the southern components of Ethiopia, including all the expanses where the Oromo settled, were part of Ethiopia until Ahmed Gragn’s invasion of the country. The invasion weakened the Ethiopian state and allowed Oromo and Somali infiltrations and the subsequent conquest of Ethiopian territories. Oromo intellectuals themselves openly admit that their vast territory is the result of conquest, especially of expansion to the detriment of Ethiopia. They are also not timid in their glorification of the effectiveness of the Oromo assimilationist policy of local peoples

The defenders of the thesis of reunification argue that, once the fact of Oromo invasion is admitted, Menelik’s southern expansion becomes a legitimate claim of territories belonging to Ethiopia. As a matter of fact, addressing the issue of the recovery of previous tributaries of the Ethiopian state that were cut off as a result of Oromo expansion, Menelik himself wrote the following to European powers: “While tracing today the actual boundaries of my empire, I shall endeavor, if God’s gives me the strength, to reestablish the ancient frontiers of Ethiopia up to Khartoum, and as far as Lake Nyamza with all the Gallas and the Arussi country up to the limits of the Somalis, including the Province of Ogaden.”

Many Ethiopian and Western scholars find such claims extravagant. Even if one admits the difficulty of firmly demarcating the exact borders of Ethiopia in the past, which probably used to shrink and expand depending on the vitality of kings, such intermittent allegiances of some southern localities to the Ethiopian state are still not enough to support the claim of recovery of lost territories. Moreover, because at one moment in time a territory was part of the empire does not entail that Ethiopia has the legitimate right to annex it. During the course of world history, borders have been drawn and redrawn constantly in all countries. With few exceptions, most countries have accepted their present borders even if they have lost territories that were part of them at one time or another. For instance, it is close to impossible that Mexico would one day claim Texas or California on the grounds that both states were included in the territory that it controlled in the past. Add to this that the claim seems indifferent to what the people now living in the said lost territories have to say about the alleged reunification. They alone decide whether or not they want to be part of Ethiopia. Nations are about people, not just territories.

The Expansion Thesis

The difficulties of the theses of reunification and colonization invite a third alternative view that speaks of expansion while decidedly countering the characterization of “colonial.” Developed in my book, the thesis argues that the expansion neither assumed a racist overtone, nor acquired the structural divide of “metropolis-satellite,” so characteristic of colonial empires. Rather, it harbored the goal of nation-building  through the formation of multiethnic educated elites and a national culture based on the use of one language, allegiance to the imperial throne, and national symbols derived from history and modern institutions.

The point is to explain why the term expansion is more appropriate than colonization and reunification, not only in terms of historical accuracy, but also for the future survival of Ethiopia. First of all, contrary to the claims of restorationists, it is undeniable that peoples with different cultural and socioeconomic features from northern Ethiopia inhabited southern Ethiopia. This does not mean that frequent encounters and exchanges between the south and the north did not take place or that some of the southern regions were not at one time or another included in the territories controlled by Ethiopian monarchs. Even so, these historical incidents do not alter the fact that southern peoples have maintained cultures and social systems different from the north. So that, Menelik’s march into the south could not but assume the form of incursion into alien territories, that is, of expansion of the northern system into a different system.

Another evidence of expansion is that the march brought about wars, which expressed the resistance of many local peoples. I am not familiar with any recorded reports saying that native peoples welcomed with cheers and joy Menelik’ soldiers. Instead, what is recorded is the series of resistance, it is true of unequal vigor, of local peoples. Moreover, the defeat of local resistances was soon followed by the progressive appropriation of land by Menelik’s war chiefs and the subsequent establishment of tenancy. The normal development should have been the progressive evolution into a gebbar system, which would have changed expansion into full integration. Those who came after Menelik opposed the alteration. We know the dire consequences of their policy, which was inconsistent with the project of nation-building. Unless we deny that the southern march did not cause violent clashes resulting in the defeat of those who resisted, I do not see how we can avoid the term “expansion.”

As much as it counters the idea of reunification, the thesis of expansion, let me insist on this point, does not lend itself to a colonial interpretation. Can one conclude from the fact of socio-cultural differences that the expansion was colonial? Obviously not, for the simple reason that the differences were never viewed as a justification for the satellization of the south. On the contrary, the expansion quickly moved toward integration and nation-building, however inconsistent the method used may have been, and never showed any tendency to segregate, to establish a color bar separating natives from northerners, as is characteristic of colonial domination.

Let it be added that the expansion was not the exclusive work of the Amhara of Shoa: it included a significant Oromo participation. The objection according to which the Oromo participated as native colonial troops overlooks the fact that they were active initiators and consolidators of the expansion, as shown by the eminent role of Ras Gobena, who was more of an ally than a subordinate. Gobena was not only a full member of the Shoan aristocracy, but also led the greater part of the expeditions among Oromo people. The Oromo involvement suggests an internal inspiration aiming at uniting the Oromo under the authority of the Ethiopian state in light of their political fragmentation. Clearly, the Oromo participation both at the level of leadership and soldiery had nothing in common with the participation of Eritrean ascaris in the Italian attempts to colonize Ethiopia or Indian troops in the formation of the British Empire.

As to the establishment of tenancy, the rush to call it colonial simply forgets that it represents none other than the introduction of capitalism in a traditional society. Owing to the resistance that capitalist incursions encountered in the north, which was wholly attached to the gebbar system, the elementary requirement of capitalism, namely, the dispossession of the means of production, came to Ethiopia via the south. It is unfortunate that the feudal lords proved unable to fully utilize the opportunity to grow themselves into capitalist entrepreneurs. Still, the truth remains that tenancy was not a segregationist system, but the easiest way, compared to the north, to introduce a rudiment of capitalism.

True, Ethiopianization of native peoples took place, but it was inspired by the goal of wholesale assimilation. Though colonialism too imposed its language and economic interests on native peoples, it was less to assimilate them than to tow them to the needs of the metropolises. Cultural differences can be accommodated through syncretism or mutual tolerance, not so racial barriers. Because they are insurmountable, they freeze a ghettoized social relationship based on the assumed innate inferiority of natives. I do not see how it is possible to identify a process of integration, however slow it may have been, with the status of an overseas territory. One can rightly denounce the unequal treatment within the same social unit, but one cannot use concepts proper to colonialism to describe it, obvious as it is that the inequality had little to do with an annexation instituting racial exclusion.

In addition to remaining close to the facts as they have happened, one of the merits of the theory is to provide a legitimate justification of the expansion. I am referring to the undeniable fact that the expansion was essentially triggered by the Ethiopian instinct of survival before being nation-building, which instinct is evidenced by the amazing perseverance of the Ethiopian state. Menelik was alarmed by the colonial encirclement of Ethiopia: since the surrounding territories, including Eritrea, were all colonized, they could serve as a launching pad to invade Ethiopia. Hence the precipitation to integrate them before they fall under colonial rules. In Menelik’s words, “if Powers at a distance come forward to partition Africa between them, I do not intend to remain an indifferent spectator.”

Integration meant more means both in terms of human and material resources in the defense of Ethiopia. More importantly, it gave greater power to Menelik in his fight to prevail over his rivals in the north and unite the country. At least two conditions had to be met to give northern Ethiopia a chance to counter the Italian invasion: unity and the prevention of complete colonial encirclement within a narrow and closed space. The expansion was, therefore, a legitimate act of self-defense, which is an internationally acknowledged right. I find this defense more admissible both in terms of facts and rightness than the thesis of reunification.

The upside of this survival motive is that Menelik’s expansion actually saved southern peoples from colonial conquest and subordination. It is undeniable that their integration into Ethiopia foiled colonial designs. Notably, without Menelik’s conquest, what is now called Oromia would have been divided among Italian, French, and British colonizers, like the Somali and many other African countries. Many Oromo still cannot appreciate what they owe to Menelik: they can hate him but they cannot deny the fact that he shielded them from colonial domination and dispersion.

Some ethnonationalists may say that it would have been better for Oromo and other southern peoples to have been colonized by authentic rather than by fake or junior colonizers. I consider this objection to be nothing more than an expression of self-deprecation as well as an inability to understand the opportunities offered by history. Indeed, what else is implied in the objection but the view that the southern peoples would have been better off under superior white colonizers as if the present ills and failures of African countries were not caused, directly or indirectly, by Western colonization? The statement that an alleged black colonizer had done worse is just not in the range of possibility.

More importantly, the objection overlooks that the southern expansion represented a call to overcome our narrow identity and put ourselves at the service of a transcendent cause that we bring to life by our effort and choice. Nation-building is neither a characteristic of nature nor an invitation to ethnic parochialism, but the forging of a new identity that includes the other. In including the non-ethnic other, we rise to universality, to a non-ethnic citizenship, thereby transforming the natural belonging to a group into a moral commitment to a union of our own making. – An African-American news and views website.
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