12 November 2013 Written by  Dr. Assefa Fisha

Historic Ethiopia as a De Facto Federation

Ethiopian history dates back to the tenth century BC or at least official records take it to the Axumite civilization (first century AD to 1150). There is no iota of doubt that Ethiopia is the birthplace of mankind. With the discovery ofDinknesh(wonderful), otherwise known by herferenginame as ‘Lucy’ in 1974, in Hadar, the Afar land, of 3.5 million years old and so many other discoveries, the history of Ethiopia is as old as the human species itself. Yet, like many other issues in Ethiopia, its historiography is full of controversy. In terms of timing, some take it to millions, others to thousands and a few others to only hundreds of years, mainly to the emergence of the modern Empire state in the last quarter of the 19thcentury. In terms of the origin of its civilization, there is a contention between what Teshale calls ‘the Axumite paradigm’, which strongly contends for a civilization ‘from within’, and the Orientalists who claim civilization came ‘from without.’ The Sabeans crossing from Yemen to Ethiopia ‘carrying the burden of civilization.’ Teshale Tibebu, a historian himself, subscribing to the Axumite paradigm, argues, ‘to state that Ethiopian history starts with the Sabeans and not with the indigenous people is tantamount to starting with the invaders. As theKibre Negast(Glory of kings) narrates no Sabeans crossed to Ethiopia carrying the burden of civilization on their backs. It only talks of Queen Sheba’s adventure in Jerusalem.’

In terms of its coverage, the dominant approach has been to portray Ethiopian history as ‘a story of succession of rulers and dynasties’ and as a result, because of the dominant position of the Amharas and the Tigrayans, it was equated with what theferengiscall ‘the Abyssinian culture.’ The bulk of the people were then left out. The range of other ethno-linguistic groups in Ethiopia has scarcely been visible and until recently little interest has been shown towards understanding their cultures and tradition. It is an obvious fact that Ethiopia was portrayed in both official presentations and books as the land of the Abyssinians.

As will be demonstrated in later sections of this chapter, the writing of history in the Ethiopian context has failed to transcend at least two constraints. On the one hand, Ethiopia had to define herself as the only country in Africa that defeated European colonizers, with the rest of the world being hostile to Africa. It had to prove to the rest of the world that it is a state that should join the international community and to do so, it had to train elites to write the history of this ‘nation-state.’ This is not without con­sequences. The history thus written in this global context had to focus on the state and its institutions, as it was an instrument of nation building. ‘It tended to extol the central­izing and unitary role of Ethiopian monarchs and concentrated on their innova­tive and modernizing role within the Ethiopian society, the church and state tradition in so far as it focused on the development and growth of an independent and literate Christian nation.’ The state itself wasnot inclusive and the history too was not inclusiveand hence the controversy.

On the other hand, the Ethiopian Student Movement of the 1960s brought a new generation of historians as well as a new approach to writing history. While trying to fill the gap, this group of intellectuals have fallen into another trap and at times served as ideologues for national liberation movements. By undermining or at least giving less emphasis to the shared history, they have focused more on scoring the point that pre-Menlik Ethiopia constituted an amalgam of semi-autonomous kings and after Menlik’s coming to power Ethiopia became ‘the prison house of nationalities.’ The history they write, although it contributes to the other dimension of the peoples’ life, lacks at times objectivity or even evidence serving then only as an instrument of nationalist move­ments.

As a result, one should not be surprised if the name Ethiopia itself has come to signify different things to different people. For some Ethiopia is the oldest Christian polity in Africa, a country that was ‘Christian when the rest of the world was prostrating in front of the pagan idols.’ A Christian island and after Adwa in 1896, the sole remaining pride of Africans and Negroes, symbol of ‘unflinching defiance’ in which any freedom lover will take immense pride. It is a country that has had its own constitution and codified laws since the thirteenth century. By the ideologues of nationalist movements, on the other hand, it is dubbed as ‘ruthlessly colonial’. For some, Ethiopia is a multicultural and multi-religious state that should accommodate its diversity to make peace with itself, while for others it is one nation, one country and one territory with its Christian and Amhara identity.

Except for the twentieth century, a cursory reading of history reveals that Ethiopia has for the most part been under a decentralized rather than a centralized system of gover­nance. This observation essentially characterizes all periods that preceded the coming to power of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930, leaving certain exceptions of brief unitary attempts by Emperors Tewodros (1847-1868) and Menlik II (1889-1913).

One observes a co-existence of a duality of authorities, mainly that of the Imperial throne, representing the center and a number ofprovincial nobilitieseffectively exercising decentralized power. Among other things, the nobilities from Gondar, Wello, Gojjam, Showa and Tigray shared power with the crown and at times claimed the throne itself. Indeed, the rivalry among these regional forces and the corresponding weakening of the imperial authority was one of the factors that contributed to the absence of a fixed capital or rather to the presence of shifting capital for a long period. Several authors contend that regionalism or provincialism, one essential element of diversity that defined the Ethiopian state, characterized the relationship between the center and the pro­vinces. Provincialism is slightly different from the notion of ethnic attachments. It refers to a special attachment or affection between a person or group indicating one’s origin. It represented a sense of parochial identities and diversity of sentiments and interests. It had distinct boundaries and historical traditions of its own nurturing a pas­sionate attachment to self-rule under the framework of imperial administration. The territory defined as a province also represented economic and political interests, which it defended collectively against trends of centralization, under the leadership of the local nobility. It is comparable to the Swiss notion of Cantonalism, although the latter goes much further in protecting linguistic and religious rights.

Equally, autonomous kings existed on the South and Southwestern side of the country. Between the years of 1570-1860, Mohammed Hassen, for instance, contends with loose political as well as trade relations with the center, ‘the Oromo led an autonomous existence as masters of their destiny and makers of their own history.’ This reached its climax with the establishment of five kingdoms around the Gibe region, namely Limmu-Ennarya, Gomma, Guma, Gera and the Kingdom of Jimma. They were all absorbed into the Ethiopian state after the 1880s and only the last survived until 1932. On June 6, 1882 at Embabo, Menlik defeated king Teklahaymanot of Gojjam and was able to end not only the Gibe Monarchy but also the Oromo of Wallaga and Illubabor. One also finds, for instance, the kingdom of Kaffa, Wolayta (Nigus Tona succumbed to Menlik in 1894), Sidama, Kambata and Janjaro mainly situated near the vicinity of the Omo River and the Rift Valley area. These kingdoms claim their origins back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

On the Eastern side we find the Afar sultanate, the Somalis and the Emirate of Harar representing another important center of Islamic power and influence. For the major part of their history, the Afars lived under great autonomy of their own, with minimal intervention from the highland kingdoms in Afar affairs. The Awsa sultanate was a vassal of Menlik but after agreeing to pay tribute, the sultan won recognition of his authority over his subjects. The Afars were identified as a distinct group with their own mode of existence, predominantly nomadic pastoral and their own traditional hierarchy, culture and religion. Their relative autonomy came to an end with the coming to power of Haile Selassie in 1930. Harar, the center of Islam, a religion which must have begun spreading in the Ethiopian region by the middle of the 8thcentury AD, (Other versions provide that Islam came to Ethiopia and started spreading during the rule of king An-Najashi when the first migrants came to him from Arabian Peninsula.) Ethiopia is the first country to recognize Islam at state level in the world.    played a role as the springboard for Ahmed Gragn’s attack against the center, when its leader Abdullahi was deposed, after the Battle of Chalanko on January 6, 1887 and in his place, Haile Selassie’s father,RasMekonenn was appointed governor. The people inhabiting present day Benishangul-Gumuz and Gambela regions were loosely integrated into the Ethio­pian state. They were incorporated in the 19thcentury and remained since then peri­pheral to the Ethiopian state, both geographically, sociologically, politically and econom­ically speaking. It is with the introduction of commercial farms in the 1940s that the lowland area’s social foundation was penetrated. In short, the majority of the Kingdoms of the South, South West and Eastern sides existed as autonomous units only indirectly associated with the center usually marked by the payment of tributes.

This cluster of kingdoms existed effectively for centuries until they were finally incor­porated into the Ethiopian state in the second half of the 19thcentury. They predate the centralized Ethiopian state of the 20thcentury. However, it needs to be emphasized that despite their semi-autonomous existence there always existed a network of trade relationships as well as relationships based on religion. The imperial throne served as a symbol of unity and the political system combined a balance of forces between the monarchy and regional nobility, the former playing a centripetal role and the latter moderating the power of the center. No historical evidence has so far been adduced that disproves this very fact.

Although it may be difficult to ascertain beyond doubt the exact autonomy and power of the kings, there are clear evidences indicating the fact that except during the tenth century when Yodit/Gudit attacked the Christian empire, during the campaign of Imam Ahmed (1527-1543) and during the (Age of Princes)Zemene Mesafint1769-1855, three important periods in which the power at the center had to subject itself almost completely to regional forces, the balance often swayed, albeit slightly to theNiguse Negast(King of Kings).Yet, the regional notables held important powers. Defined in broad terms, the regional nobility submitted to the throne, contributed a fighting force in time of crisis or rebellion and collected and paid tributes to the monarchy: the collection of tribute and maintenance of national security being the function of the emperor. In return for this administrative and military function, the nobility were granted autonomy and the right to retain some amount from the tributes they collected for the center. They had their own army. This was indeed true until the coming to power of Haile Selassie when the army of regional forces had to be dissolved and replaced by national armed forces organized along modern lines. Among others, the regional nobilities not only had military and taxation powers but were also entitled to regulate trade and commerce, impose duties and demand men and material to maintain armies. They also controlled the extraction and distribution of valuable commodities, such as metals, salt and ivory. They were sometimes economically stronger than the emperor and often defied him. The general arrangement was, however, that such kings would submit at least symbolically by paying tribute to the king of kings at the center of political power. Of course, the scope of the nobility’s power varied with the strength of the emperor. The stronger the imperial power, the smaller the autonomy would be and vice versa, but it appears that regional power was far from being a mere instrument of central power although its economic and social foundation was entrenched in the imperial system. Rather, a mutual dependence between the two forces seems to have been the dominant feature of historic Ethiopia.

On the other extreme, it was Tewodros (1847-1868) who by bringing to an end the regional lords, set the scene for centralization, but at the same time caused his downfall. Menlik picked up the current of centralization, although not completely, but none other than Haile Selassie and theDergcarried this mission to its extreme. The former stripped the nobility and the regions of their traditional autonomy and powers and theDergintensified it. It is not surprising then that the major peasant revolts (Tigray, Gojjam, Bale) and the student uprising occurred during the former and all sorts of national and regional forces resisted the latter. We should note that unlike what is portrayed in some corners, these two regimes are the ‘main incubators’ of national and regional forces.

Observing this fact Paul Henze recently wrote, ‘Ethiopia, the oldest continually existing polity in Africa, has almost always been relatively decentralized at many stages in its long history, so decentralized, in fact, that only a vague tradition of statehood, combined with a sense of religious and cultural community held it together at all.’ Clapham states, ‘historic Ethiopia approximated a federal system.’ The notion of autonomy and unity fully explain such a period. The history of Ethiopia is indeed full of strife between forces of centralization on the one hand, and local governors urging for decentralization and autonomy on the other. Perham wrote, ‘although the Ethiopian provincialrases were never able to establish for long their position as over-mighty subjects, the emperors on their side were unable to consolidate, century after century, the authority of the imperial government.’ A perennial tension existed between the king of kings and the provincialrases(heads) and the balance between the two over a period of time differed depending on the strength of arms. It is stated that ‘over the six hundred years or more of which we have reliable knowledge, neither side seems to have gained over the other until this [twentieth] century.’ By and large, the centralizing and decentralizing forces remained in balance.

The long-standing tradition of consciousness of unity and autonomy, that is to say duality in the exercise of power, is not only found on the records of history, it is also well symbolized in the notion ofNiguse Negast(King of Kings). At least since the 13thcentury, Bahru wrote, ‘when a dynasty that claimed to represent the restoration of the Solomonic line came to rule the country, its rulers have styled themselves king of kings of Ethiopia’. Nothing symbolizes the duality of authority better than the notion ofNiguse Negast. It implied the existence of deep-rooted and strong kings in several of the provinces exercising, as briefly indicated above, important powers in their own territory. The clearest manifestation of the Empiresde factofederation, if one may call this, can be discerned in the time of Emperor Yohannes IV (1872-1889). One author notes, ‘his choice of the titlerésa makwanenet(head of the nobility) as he bid for the throne set the tune of his policy. He continued to regard himself as first among equals, king of kings, in the strict sense of the word, not an undisputable autocrat. Yohannes was ready to share power with his subordinates so long as his throne was not challenged. He adopted a more cautious policy of accommodation to regionalism,’ though intolerant towards religious diversity.

In theory, it is often stated that the throne’s authority was absolute. But it was not so in practice. Primarily, until the twentieth century where provincial nobilities were effec­tively and systematically abolished, the Ethiopian state did not posses the structure and means required to impose the absolute claims the throne may have demanded. The vastness of the empire, geographical obstacles, absence of transport and communication facility, fiscal and manpower constraints, ethnic, linguistic and regional disparity, hindered direct central authority. To the extent that the central power was hindered, it meant also that regional forces enjoyed themselves as autonomous kingdoms merely acknowledging the existence of a distant emperor. Indeed, the administration of the state was carried out by the nobility (the kings), a group that normally resisted the attempts for centralization. Even though the status, power, and privileges of the nobility de­pended on the appointment and grants dispensed by the emperor, quite naturally the nobility strove to secure continuity of status and privileges by rendering both office and status sometimes hereditary and free of royal control. Appointments were often given to leading families in the area, since provincial sentiments usually precluded the appoint­ment of outsiders. The more powerful provincial kings were sometimes contenders for the throne itself. As Levine stated it rightly: ‘The perennial tendency of certain regional families to become endowed with an aura of legitimacy in their own right’ often was a threat to the throne itself. When a conducive environment was found, provincial forces never hesitated to crown themselves emperors. This demonstrates the fact that they were not only administrators of decentralized power by right, but they were also potential contenders to the throne.

Secondly, tradition and religion also imposed limits on the power of the Emperor. Some authors argue that Ethiopia had experience with constitutional government that predated by many centuries the promulgation of the written constitution in the 20thcentury. If a constitution is defined, stated Clapham, ‘not as written document but as set of practices which guide the exercise of political power, then Ethiopia enjoyed constitu­tional government over a long period’. One aspect of the constitutional practice limiting the power of the Emperor, emanated from the famousKibre Negast, a document of great relevance in explaining the constitutional law of the Empire. This is probably one of the oldest constitutional documents in the entire world. Written in 1320 by a group of authors from Axum, interestingly after the downfall of the Zagwe Dynasty, (roughly from 1137 to 1270, that succeeded the Axumite state, and believed to have usurped power without belonging to the Solomonic line) and during the Reign of Yikuno Amlak, an Amhara from Wello, who overthrew the Zagwe Dynasty and inaugurated a dynasty which called itself ‘Solomonic’ to emphasize its legitimacy as opposed to its predecessor. Among other things, theKibre Negastdefined the core of the Ethiopian ethos and the source of legitimacy of the Emperor. It provided the rules for succession to the highest office. Accordingly, no one except the descendant of King of Solomon shall ever reign to the Ethiopian throne. It also provided about the complex organization of the imperial court and government and regulated the relation between the state and church. These rules combined together played a crucial limit to whoever failed to claim the legend. Even when one succeeded to the throne by might, its legitimacy was questioned immediately and would subsequently lead a downfall. The cases of Emperor Tewodros and Michael Sehul represent good examples. The former’s inability to expressly affiliate with the Solomonic line as well as his radical position against the church frustrated his project of building a centralized state. The latter who was known for making and unmaking seats to the throne in Gondar although he was capable of throning himself, never claimed it probably because he failed to affiliate himself with the same line.

Religion was another crucial factor. Indeed the connection between emperor and church was so strong that the imperial authority was committed to the church’s faith. The emperor was required not only to be a believer of ancient Orthodox Christianity but also required to defend it. Religious conversion is one charge, which was not tolerable. Rulers who violated this injunction forfeited the allegiance of their subjects and their right to the throne. To mention a few, Emperors Ze Dingil (1603-04) and Susneyus (1607-32) were removed from the throne because of their conversion to Catholicism. In 1916 the charge of alleged apostasy, however obscure the fact may be, was instrumental in the overthrow of Lij Iyassu. It is not surprising then that Christian­ity remained state religion until 1974.

For the most part, consciousness of unity and autonomy coexisted more or less in the balance the emperor slightly prevailed over regional forces. The plurality of kings, with theNiguse Negastabove them signifies some kind of federal or confederal government structure. The throne and the church represented the symbol of unity and regional forces exercised decentralized power. TheNiguse Negastde factodealt with national matters while the kings exercised powers over matters of local interest. There is no doubt that this presents in the words of Livingston, a typical ‘federal society.’ These are essential features of what we understand today as the federal principle. Suffice to emphasize here that before the emergence of the modern federal system in the United States in 1787, its features were never as clearly articulated as they are today. The more amorphous confederate form was predominant.

The beginning of the twentieth century marked the first serious attempt to curb the autonomy of the regional forces. It was reported in 1906 that Emperor Menlik II (1889-1913) could at any time take away the authority of the highestraseswithout giving any reasons for his action. But this is far from the measures taken by Haile Selassie. Accord­ing to Levine, Menlik did not decisively undercut the authority of the great provincial lords and towards the end of his reign the provincialrasesbecame largely independent. It is true that the power of Jimma Aba Jifar II survived for instance until 1932.

The coming to power of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 and the subsequent issuance of the 1931 Constitution, the firstwrittenconstitution in the history of the country, marks a new epoch. It heralded the end of the role of the duality that existed for centuries. Provincialism and/or the autonomous kingdoms, the traditional check against the power of the king of kings, were completely absorbed into the centralized adminis­tration. Haile Selassie in conformity with his policy of centralization refused to confer the title of kings, thereby disappointing expectations at the time of his coronation. This is particularly clear from the nature of the two houses established under the 1931 Constitution. The emperor made sure that all potential contenders for power were members of these chambers that in effect had only an advisory role.

Apart from the introduction of the modern army after dissolving private armies of the regional notables, Haile Selassie’s measure of direct individual taxation without the involvement of the intermediary notables, which in a way centralized the taxation system, hit hard the economic base of those regional notables. Their right to collect tax was taken over by the center.

Nor did the 1974 Revolution, which gave a mortal blow to the old monarchy, bring any change in the move towards more centralization of power. As far as regional autonomy is concerned, except for the change of ideology from Solomonic genealogy to Socialism, the centralist character of the state remained intact and was even strength­ened to a degree that far exceeded the imperial regime.

The process of centralization, modernization, nation building or by whatever name it was conducted and with good intentions, was not without consequences. Firstly, the incorporation of the South, the Southwest and the Eastern sides from their previously autonomous position to complete absorption meant that the notion of the state, its institutions and culture were imposed on the incorporated kingdoms. Secondly, it brought about all sorts of diversities in terms of religion, language, tradition and culture. Because the state failed to accommodate them, the religious, lingual, cultural as well as political and economic dominance gave birth to the ‘question of nationalities.’ Thirdly, the state became extremely centralized at the expense of regional rulers. The political marginalization of the bulk of the community led to civil wars whose cause fundamen­tally differed from earlier ones. This time resistance not only called for state reform but even at times challenged the state itself. Several studies hinted that conflict in traditional Ethiopia was mainly an instrument for asserting some level of regional autonomy and not for upsetting the whole system, nor was it for separation. ‘God can not be blamed, the King can not be accused’ was the main tenet. The opposition mainly looked for adjustment and restoration of violated rights like better administration, lower taxes, respect for local autonomy and reduction of corruption. By and large the legitimacy of the Monarch and its ideological roots were not attacked. In the 1960s, however, things started to change. The new forms of resistance changed significantly in terms of leader­ship, social composition, motivation and ideological orientations.

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 November 2013 14:17