Distinguished historian and author Bahru Zewde (Professor Emeritus) is regarded as one of the foremost Ethiopian historians who have made significant contributions to a comprehensive professional historiography of the nation, with an emphasis on the years after 1855.
He is the author of several books; A History of Modern Ethiopia 1855–1991, Pioneers of Change In Ethiopia: the Reformist Intellectuals of the Early Twentieth Century, Society & State in Ethiopian History, The Quest for Socialist Utopia: The Ethiopian Student Movement, and others.
Aside from teaching history at Addis Ababa University, Bahru serves as president of the Association of Ethiopian Historians, which is tasked with scholarly counteracting historiography’s distortions.
The renowned historian has insight and answers when it comes to handling conflicting historical perspectives that put Ethiopia’s nation-building at risk. The Reporter’s Bewket Abebe sat down with him to discuss Ethiopia’s nation building journey and the difficulties it has encountered.
The Reporter Magazine: This particular interview is primarily aimed at discussing the issue of nation-building from a historical perspective, particularly in light of Ethiopia’s modern history. To set the scene, what characteristics did Ethiopia’s nation-building process have at the outset?
Bahru Zewde (Emeritus Professor): When we say modern Ethiopia, conventionally, it begins with Emperor Tewodros as you all know. This does not mean that there had not been modernization attempts before. But essentially modern Ethiopia is assumed to begin during the reign of Tewodros around 1855. The vision of Tewodros was to unify Ethiopia and modernize it. He thought that he would bring about this unification of the country by restoring the medieval glory of the Ethiopian empire. The second agenda was modernization; modernizing the country, modernizing the army, and modernizing the administration. He could be said to have laid the foundation at least as a visionary; not necessarily as a successful emperor but as a visionary. Then Emperor Yohannes came. He was the most embattled emperor. There were various internal and external problems and he was highly absorbed dealing with those problems. He really didn’t have much time. But at least he laid the foundation for a kind of decent arrangement between the monarchy in the center and the periphery- between the emperor and regional lords, what you can roughly call a federal arrangement was instituted by him. So he had this kind of approach slightly different from that of Tewodros of really decentralizing the state and giving recognition to regional sentiments. I think the most successful in nation building was Emperor Menilik II. He really laid the foundation to what we call modern Ethiopia as we know it today: in terms of the boundaries, in terms of the constituencies, and so on and so forth.
In fact he expanded the frontiers of the empire to an extent that was not really there before. That was an unprecedented level of expansion. It had both positive and negative sides. The negative side, like all such expansions, was that the military campaigns took lives and so on. But on the positive side, he did recognize regional lords who had peacefully submitted to him like the rulers of Wollega, LekaNekemtie, Benishangul, and Afar. So, it was a mixed affair. At least, the foundation for Ethiopia as a territorial entity was laid under Menilik.
Under Haile Selassie, all these efforts of Menilik in nation building were consolidated. There were two important institutions that were particularly pivotal in cultivating and fostering national sentiment: the educational institutions and the military. Irrespective of which region they come from and which ethnic group they belong to, students evolved as Ethiopians. The same applied to the military. The military was composed of people coming from different regions but essentially loyal to the army, the nation, and the emperor.
Some argue that Ethiopia’s nation building process has remained an unfinished business. What is your take on that?
If you look at the time of Haile Selassie, for instance, the previous nation building efforts were consolidated and successfully rooted. Institutions were laid but not sufficiently. He could have done more. One of the problems of the Haile Selassie period was lack of sensitivity to local sentiments. There was a hyper centralization of power. That of course made Ethiopia pay a price. A very good example is Eritrea. Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia. Under the circumstances, it was the best possible arrangement because Eritrea had been separated from Ethiopia for 50 to 60 years. It had been under Italian colonial rule. Different sentiments had evolved. So, the federation was really logical. And the breaking up of the federation was probably one of the worst mistakes of Emperor Haile Selassie. At the time there were people in the government who advised against the breakup of the federation. The federation idea should have been extended even to other marginal peripheral areas like Somali, let alone Eritrea.
What other imperfections feature in Ethiopia’s nation building journey?
The major failure was on accommodation of regional local sentiments, i.e failure to give recognition to the cultures and languages of other nationalities. Because of that failure, we paid the price. When the solution came later on in the socialist movement, it assumed an extreme fashion, including the idea of secession. That could not have become an agenda had the accommodation of regional sentiments been addressed from the beginning. The Dergue actually aggravated the situation. It was not prepared to entertain the idea of federation. It was hyper-centralized, almost totalitarian.
In the sense that those peculiarities were not recognized, the nation building was unfinished. Then in an attempt to address those problems, we went to the other extreme of emphasizing the local sentiments. That has been the situation since 1991. In the process, the idea of Ethiopian identity and the idea of building an Ethiopian nation disappeared. This is the only country where the people are called ‘peoples’. You do not say ‘American peoples’, ‘South African peoples’, ‘Nigerian peoples’ etc in spite of their diversity. But in Ethiopia, it has become a fashion to talk about the ‘peoples of Ethiopia’. The previous extreme was ignoring the rights and cultures and values of nationalities, the current extreme is ignoring Ethiopian national identity, which has already been there.
Conflicting narratives of historical and political discourses have long been widespread among scholars, historians, and politicians. For some, Ethiopia is one nation that shares the heritage of history and coexistence over the centuries, whereas others present Ethiopia as an empire of completely different and subjugated societies and thus they promote the idea of either the creation of independent states or replacement of the entire order with a new one for the country to continue existing. What is your take on that?
The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, the historiography had been distorted. It had focused on the northern people of Ethiopia. But this has been rectified a long time ago. Actually even before the idea of nations and nationalities became fashionable, the Department of History of Addis Ababa University had tried to rectify this by making students and staff write on the history of the people in the southern part of Ethiopia. That was through a scientific exploitation of oral sources. This happened way back in the 1960s and it has continued through the 1970s. So if you look at the libraries of Ethiopian studies, you will have quite a lot of studies by historians of the southern part of Ethiopia. You have recognition of the diversity of the people of Ethiopia. If you look at my book, A History of Modern Ethiopia, there is a lot also about the southern part of Ethiopia and that was based on the theses of our students. Attempts were made to be as inclusive as possible. There have been rectifications.
But of course people have different reasons to emphasize this or that. On the one hand, there is this old-fashioned idea of emphasizing the northern culture and historical tradition. On the other hand there is another extreme of saying that we have a separate history. But we know that the history of the people of Ethiopia is not a separate history. They are very much interlinked And intertwined over the years, economically, socially, intermarriage, even political power. The Oromo have played a very prominent role in central Ethiopian politics. Of course Oromo nationalists tend to say that the Oromo have been neglected and marginalized. They were very much in the center of politics even during the Gonderine period. And, in the 20th century, FitawrariHabtegiorgisDinegdie was the pillar of the state for two decades or more. So this is fallacious. Look at the markets: the Bati market, the Shashemene market, etc., were the meeting points for different nationalities. With regard to intermarriages, people rarely considered the ethnic origin of their partner to get married.
It is only now that people are trying to emphasize that they should only get married to someone from your own ethnic group. They are now going to the extreme of calling for divorce for those who made ‘the fatal mistake of marrying from another ethnic group’. We argue that such things are fallacious and do not conform to historical evidence. There is a great deal of interaction among people.
As of recently , those conflicting narratives of historical and political discourse have been widespread and shared by common people (citizens) and affecting their lives and finally challenging the nation-building efforts. What is your observation on that?
Yes, largely because historians have been silent. We need to acknowledge our failure. For so long, history has been under siege, especially since 1991. The regime that came to power in 1991 was not in favor of this Ethiopian identity. History is one important expression of that identity. Since the last three years, we have said enough is enough. We need to make our voices heard. The real history has to be put on the national stage.
Establishing the Association of Ethiopian Historians a couple of years ago, one of the commitments contained in what you called “The Kuriftu Agreement” was that the association would help to define the standards for writing authentic and professional history. How do you do that?
The reintroduction of history as a common course to first year undergraduate students that had been suspended was one of our activities. The result is quite amazing. Because if you do not have this introduction to Ethiopian history when you enter the educational system, then you become prone to the kind of work that goes by the name of history that is very much motivated by political agenda . We are hoping that this will be rectified. The other area we work on is correcting those distortions.
What specific roles do you play,particularly when it comes to dealing with historiography that is politically motivated? Because anyone can now claim to be a historian, historiography has been messed up in recent years.
It is a difficult job but it is not impossible. We are not giving up. One of our activities at the association is doing book reviews. We review history books that are coming out. We give professional judgments on the books so that readers will understand before they buy the book or the idea; they will understand whether the book is worth reading at all. This is one way we want to make a difference.
Similarly, there are series of workshops. One of the workshops we plan is on historiography – the writing of history. How do you write history? What is the difference between popular history and professional history? What is the difference between history and memoir? How do we ensure that all historical archives are well kept and made accessible? How do we expand the frontiers of economic and social history? Such issues are very important because part of the problem is that there has been this overemphasis on political and military history. But if you really concentrate on economic and social history then you can better understand the commonalities that bind the different nationalities of Ethiopia together.
The problem of Ethiopia is not the problem of the common people. It is the elites that have created the problems as far as historical understanding is concerned. I hope the National Dialogue, if held successfully, will fill the gap.
That is why we have been participating actively. In my capacity as the president of the association I was elected to serve in the advisory committee of the Commission. The association is playing a very important role in terms of strengthening the mandate of the national dialogue commission.
We have serious limitations though. We do not have proper facilities and funding. What we have now is external funding – the USAID and Friedrich Ebert Foundation funded our activities thus far. They are not Ethiopians. But they have invested in us. The ones who should invest in us are Ethiopians themselves: the government, the public and the private sector. Those who believe that proper and professional history matters should support us. Our belief and conviction is that history is not part of the problem. History can be part of the solution.
The belief that the country’s existence itself is in jeopardy appears to be widely held. As a historian who has devoted his entire life to studying Ethiopian history, what do you think is more pressing than ever?
Of course there are serious challenges. There is no question about it. Due to the way it has been conceived. The question of nationalities was a legitimate question but the solution that was prescribed for it was not really the right one. It has actually complicated it even more. But this is not unique to Ethiopia. Nation building has been very challenging all over the world.
Bismarck said building a nation is like making sausage. When you make it is really ugly and nasty, but once it is finished then it is delicious. You look at the United States and think about the Red Indians, and in Australia the aborigines. Even the Germany we know today was built with ‘blood and iron’. Nation building has never been an easy process. The process can be ugly but the end product is sweet. Countries like Switzerland have best practices of nation building.
Those are successful nations that you mentioned. In any case, the sausage has been made. Some, though, failed miserably as a result of the unpleasant process. There are people who fear that Ethiopia would end up becoming one if things kept going as they are. Are you buying into that fear?
Of course if you do not manage it well, you can join the club of failed states; not failed nations but failed states! The only thing that makes you hope for the best is the resilience of the people. The Ethiopian nation, after all the shocks, still comes out alive, sometimes even stronger. That is the only ray of hope we have; that we might once again overcome this and rise from the ashes and establish our greatness.