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Book Review – The last two frontiers

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Ethiopia stands out in African history. As any proud Ethiopian will tell you, the country has been united since Biblical times. Indeed, there is ample evidence that the Queen of Sheba – who visited King Solomon in Jerusalem – returned home pregnant. She gave birth to a boy who became Menelik I, the first emperor of Ethiopia. Ethiopian then welcomed Christianity, and they are proud of being the only Christian kingdom in Africa to have resisted Islamic invasion. Again, Ethiopians are eager to point out that they had a centralized government long before any other country south of the Sahara did. All this is presented as historical fact, based on documents.

Reality is somewhat different. Historians recognize the antiquity of the Ethiopian Empire, but also point out that the stories relating to the Queen of Sheba were well crafted by knowledgeable people at the service of the emperor to give a firm foundation to their claim to the throne. The Coptic Church certainly has had an important role in the building of the Empire and in its growth. Yet, one should be blind not to realize that Islam – with 35% of the population – is of great influence in the country.

John Markakis’ latest book – Ethiopia, the last two frontiers – revisits the working forces behind the building of Ethiopia. Markakis, with a lucid analysis, reminds the reader that “although it called Ethiopia an ‘empire’, the imperial regime did not regard the expansion as an imperialistic venture. It saw it as the restoration of the status quo ante”. Markakis argues that today’s Ethiopia is the result of an ever enlarging circle of influence, an expanding power that wants to annex and control territories at its periphery. This is a movement that brought the original Amhara rulers to expand first within the highlands, and then towards the lowlands, the semi-arid and arid regions which surrounds the highlands.

The centre has always imposed its influence, even though allowing limited self-administration and favouring the rise of a local elite. Yet, this system cannot perpetuate forever. On the one side there is the pressure of highlands peasants for land, on the other, the demands of the people from the lowlands. If in the past the lowlands were considered little more than a nuisance, places for goat herders and little more, today all Ethiopians appreciate the value of those lands. They are valuable because they can be opened to agricultural exploitation, and because of the many mineral resources they harbour.

A change is in order, and the totalitarian temptations of the present regime do not give much hope for a positive outcome. As the author sums up “return to … a centralised state under centre control … can only be imposed on the periphery with greater exertion and force than ever. If this were to happen, it would condemn yet another generation of Ethiopians to authoritarian rule and civil strife … Ethiopia’s rulers face a genuine dilemma, a choice between two risky alternatives. One would be to cross the political frontier, make a clean break with the past, renounce centre hegemony and accept equitable power sharing with the periphery. Another would be the political downgrading of the Abyssinian core, and the loss of the centre’s prerogative to determine the distribution of national resources…”

Markakis book is a well thought out text. The author relied on research, but much more on the personal experience built while lecturing in Ethiopia, where he certainly built an excellent network of scholars and resourceful people. The result is a text worthwhile reading and certainly one of the best explanations of the present situation in Ethiopia published so far. It is a must read for those interested in Ethiopia and, indeed, the Horn of Africa.

John Markakis, Ethiopia, the last two frontiers, pp. xiv +383, James Currey, Woodbridge 2011

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