The changes taking place in Ethiopia are in line with international political trends in which nation states, especially empire states, are weakening and, for better or worse, many democratic movements have taken nationalistic forms. However, the changes in Ethiopia are also the result of a long struggle of the oppressed peoples of Ethiopia. Indeed, it was the combined assault of the Eritrean, Tigrayan, and Oromo liberation movements that defeated the pseudo-Marxist regime of Mengistu in May of last year. That victory ended seventeen years of totalitarian rule, thirty years of war in Eritrea, and ignited hope among the peoples of Southern Ethiopia that the century-old idiosyncratic colonization they have experienced may come to and end.
The flux that is now Ethiopia, and the democratic transformation that is desired, is taking place in the context of certain opportunities and constraints. The opportunity is afforded by the new global political economy signalled by the end of the cold war. This could mean less foreign intervention and no proxy wars. The hope is that existing conflicts would be of low intensity, less destructive, and of short duration. The constraints include the ethnic conflicts, the way present day Ethiopia was historically created, and the outdated institutions of that creation. Whether the present favourable political condition translates into a peaceful and democratic resolution of the existing conflicts depends on how these constraints impugn on the changes.
In terms of ethnic/national politics, the relationship between the three main groups — the Oromo, the Amhara, and the Tigrayans — will have a determining impact on the emerging political arrangement in Ethiopia. (I will not discuss the other minorities in Ethiopia because of space limitation.) The Oromo are important because they comprise about 50 per cent of the population. The Amhara and the Tigre, collectively known as Abyssinians, constitute about 30 per cent of the population. They are important because they have controlled the institutions of the country, such as the state machinery and schools, for a century.
Examining the dynamics of the present transition in Ethiopia requires a look at its history of formation. Ethiopia is a historical anomaly. The incorporation of Ethiopia (except for Eritrea) into the world capitalist system took a different form than the rest of Africa. Ethiopia was not directly colonized. Ironically, this was so for the same reason that other African countries were colonized — competition among European powers.
In the rest of Africa, the late nineteenth century “Scramble for Africa” — the partition of the continent between the colonizing powers — took place more or less without war between the powers. In the Horn of Africa, the three competing powers (Britain, France and Italy) would not agree upon who should colonize Ethiopia. It was costly for the European powers to go to war in order to gain the upper hand in a region where there was no economic payoff, such as that in South Africa. Thus they agreed that no one should colonize Ethiopia.
But they exercised their control over Ethiopia through local rulers. Their choice about which local ruler to support has been one of the main factors that fashioned the political economy of Ethiopia. The three powers invariably chose to find an Abyssinian client (Amharan or Tigrayan) who could bring the whole of Ethiopia — which was not one country at the time — under his conquest.
It seems that they chose Abyssinian rulers for two reasons. The first is that the Abyssinians are Christians who have had previous connections with Christian Europe, beginning with the Portuguese, who sent an army and missionaries to the region in the sixteenth century. Other ethnic groups, such as the Oromo, practiced traditional native religion. The second is that the Europeans found the Abyssinian hierarchical, semi-feudal society easier to comprehend and to deal with than, for instance, the Oromo nation, which practices traditional participatory democracy, where rulers were changed every eight years. (Democracy in the third world does not have a necessary congruence with the demands of metropolitan capitalism.)
The support for Abyssinian rulers came in the form of firearms and expertise. The outcome was the colonization of present day Southern Ethiopia by the Abyssinians. As such, Ethiopia is an empire built by conquest. The state that emerged is dubbed a dependent colonial state. Dependent because the Abyssinian rulers became victorious and sustained the empire with the help of the metropolis of world capitalism. Because of this, some historians argue that what is now known as neocolonialism conducted its first experiments in Ethiopia.
During the conquest, millions lost their lives and hundreds of thousands were sold into slavery. The main economic consequence of the conquest was the imposition of new property relations on Southern Ethiopia. Abyssinian rulers, soldiers and the Abyssinian Coptic Church became the land-owning class, and most of the people of Southern Ethiopia became serfs. Consequently, class differentiation and ethnicity have been closely linked. This process was over by the beginning of this century, and the feudal property relations were not seriously challenged until the revolution of 1974.
From 1869 to 1952, Eritrea was under Italian and British rule. It was then federated with Ethiopia. In 1962, Haile Selassie annexed Eritrea, and the Eritean liberation movement began the same year. Eritreans were not willing to give up their multiparti system, parliament, freedom of unionization and their multilingual schools, which were abolished by the emperor of feudal Ethiopia.
The formation of the Ethiopian Empire was not favourable to its economic development. That Ethiopia escaped direct colonization was not translated into independent economic development, such as that of Japan, as envisaged by Emperor Haile Selassie. The system of property relations imposed by dependent colonialism on Southern Ethiopia was even less conducive to production than the land owning system that existed in Southern Ethiopia prior to the conquest. In fact, Ethiopia fell behind newly independent African countries, who might have benefited from the constructive aspects of imperialism, such as economic infrastructure, schools and degree of tolerance for diversity.
One may argue that the recent final and decisive victory of the Eritreans over the Ethiopian army, which was the largest armed force in sub-Saharan Africa, is partly the result of the Eritrean adaptation to capitalist culture during their colonization under Italy and Britain. Not that colonialism is benign; but in a world of war and competition, those who have adapted more to capitalism would be better off than those who have adapted less.
The desire to bring Ethiopia out of backwardness was one of the reasons of the 1974 revolution. Then, as now, the key problem was resolving the interwoven issues of self-determination and changing property relations, especially the land tenure system.
The Mengistu regime
The Mengistu regime, which usurped the 1974 revolution, attempted to resolve the problem by separating the two issues. It denied self-determination, but nationalized all rural land, thereby abolishing the old feudal system.
Initially, the peasants were appeased as they saw the landlords stripped of power and estate. However, the peasants became unhappy under the stifling state control that collectivized farming without due regard for agricultural production or the safety and freedom of peasants. The state under Mengistu became a sort of feudal monopolist. Furthermore, the state machinery was largely controlled by the Amhara elite that used to rule prior to the downfall of Haile Selassie. Therefore, the struggle for land, control over production, and self-determination continued. For instance, the Oromo organized their struggle under the leadership of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). The Eritreans intensified their liberation movement under the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF).
Post liberation issues
Now that these liberation forces have won the war, they have started tackling the issues of self-determination, and must grapple with the institutionalization of property relations favourable to the people and economic development.
Last July, the victorious rebel forces held an internationally-attended conference in which most of the political organizations in the country took part. This has a historical significance for Ethiopia, for it is the first time in Ethiopian history that different political organizations sat down in Addis Ababa to discuss the future of the country. When the conference ended, the participants agreed upon a charter that stipulated the political principles that would guide a democratic transition in Ethiopia.
The charter affirms the right of nations/nationalities to self-determination, including independence. In particular, it recognized the right of the Eritrean people to determine their political future through an internationally supervised referendum. The referendum is to take place within two years. In return, the rest of Ethiopia gets free access to the ports of the Red Sea. All participants of the conference agreed to this, with the exception of one individual who abstained.
This was unthinkable just over a year ago. The immediate causes for this dramatic change are two. The first is that most of the victorious rebel participants have been allies of the Eritrean liberation organizations for years. The second reason is that the Ethiopian army has been completely routed. Indeed, today the Eritrean armed forces have superiority over all other armed forces in Ethiopia.
The emerging political arrangement in Ethiopia will largely depend on the choices made by the three main players in the present scene. These are the Eritreans, led by the EPLF; the Abyssinians, led by the Tigrayan-dominated Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF); and the Oromo, led by the OLF, and other smaller Oromo fronts.
Given the number of players, the alternative outcomes that might be obtained are numerous. For now, the Eritreans seem to favour independence. The Oromo might follow suit and establish an independent republic of Oromia, as stated in the OLF political program. The EPRDF, which has the second strongest army, and whose leader is the present president of Ethiopia, favours a united Ethiopia. The EPRDF may let go of Eritrea, but it will not be sympathetic to a free Oromia. However, the EPRDF does not seem to have the will or the means to start a prolonged war against the Oromo. The EPRDF does have good relations with the US and Israel. But there is no obvious American or Israeli interest that would compel them to support an EPRDF war against the Oromo. Therefore, in its long history, the empire of Ethiopia has the chance of restructuring itself without significant foreign intervention.
Interestingly, the Oromo have not closed the door on a federal arrangement for the peoples of the Ethiopian empire, provided that the institutions of dependent colonialism are abolished from Oromia. The OLF political program states that the front will work for a political union with other nations, based on the principle of voluntary association. Thus, at least in the long run, a political union in which even Eritrea is a member, and a regional economic union involving other countries of the Horn of Africa — Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia and Kenya — are not out of the picture. At the time of this writing, it is not clear what type of political arrangement would emerge. The situation is relatively peaceful, but unstable.
In regard to economic policy, this has not been fully spelled out and agreed upon yet. The leaders of the main liberation fronts that are prominent in Ethiopia today were activists in the anti-imperialist and anti-feudal Ethiopian student movement of the ’60s and ’70s. This movement was responsible for disseminating progressive and socialist ideas in Ethiopia. For example, the leader of the EPRDF and the president of Ethiopia, is a member of the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray, which was sympathetic to Albania. But recently, he has accepted the principles of democracy and pragmatic economic policy. The leader of the OLF was a participant in the Addis Ababa university student association, which was the core of the Ethiopian student movement; but he is not known to be doctrinaire.
At present, the OLF leaders look to South Korea as a model for their agricultural policy. The EPLF, which has a social democratic orientation, wants to make Eritrea the Taiwan of the Horn of Africa and the adjacent Middle East. In the era when Eastern Europe is struggling to integrate into the capitalist global economy, Ethiopia does not seem to have an alternative.
Barring a degeneration into another prolonged war, one thing is sure: the feudal and totalitarian institutions that prevented a deep incorporation of the Ethiopian economy into the world capitalist system would go. Whether such an incorporation would bring about a better living standard for the peoples of Ethiopia depends on the choices of economic strategies of the government(s) of Ethiopia, and the resulting interaction with the capitalist centre. This we may be able to observe in about a decade.