Robert Kaplan’s selective reading of history bolsters proponents of a centralized state while ignoring the legitimacy of federalists’ demands.
By Teferi Mergo, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
Foreign Policy, July 22, 2021
In a recent Foreign Policy article, Robert D. Kaplan argues that Ethiopia will not fall apart despite the serious civil wars in which it is embroiled on several fronts. The writer builds his case—disappointingly—on sentimental reflections about the country he affectionately calls “wondrously indefinable” and “more than a state,” rather than relying on a sober analysis of the real issues behind the conflicts ravaging the country—namely, a battle between unitarist forces that want centralized rule and federalists of various ethnic backgrounds who demand self-government.
First, Kaplan’s characterization of Ethiopia as an “outpost of Middle Eastern and Semitic civilization” is historically inaccurate and not backed by serious scholarship. Indeed, the ancient Aksumites—to whom he is alluding as an outpost of Middle Eastern civilization—had established extensive relationships with the various principalities in the Middle East and beyond, influencing and being influenced by the prominent kingdoms that were established in territories as far-flung as Arabia, Greece, Persia, the Indian subcontinent, and the lower Nile Valley.
The influence of the Sabaeans or others from the Middle East on the Kingdom of Aksum was minor and limited to a few areas. Importantly, a careful investigation of the Aksumites’ arts, crafts, tomb inscriptions, and written evidence they left behind points to a predominantly Indigenous origin of the venerated Aksumite civilization. As a result, there is hardly any serious student of Ethiopian history today who subscribes to the dated view that Ethiopia is an outpost of Middle Eastern civilization.
It is true that successive rulers of the Ethiopian empire claimed to have descended from King Solomon of ancient Israel and the so-called Queen of Sheba, but this is a myth that has not been supported with proper historical evidence. Historians have argued that the claim was used in search of a pedigree by the ruling classes in parts of what is today northern Ethiopia for a political end: The more distant and celebrated the lineage claimed, the more pedigree the kings obtained—and the less questioning the subjects would be of the absolute local monarchies.
Kaplan’s other glaring mistake is his reductionist view of Ethiopian history. The piece equates the ancient and medieval history of today’s Ethiopia essentially with the historiography of the Christian kingdoms established by the Amhara and the Tigrayans in northern Ethiopia and parts of Eritrea, making his analysis of current events in the country incomplete at best. It relegates the independent existence and histories of all other groups in Ethiopia to a mere footnote of its Christian highlanders’ history.
Whereas his claim that Ethiopia’s problems are not postcolonial relies on a narrow conception of colonialism, scholars have convincingly argued that the late 19th-century conquest and subsequent subjugation of the nations in the Ethiopian south by the Amhara ruling classes constitute a form of internal colonialism, with ruinous consequences for the conquered people.
Before their conquest and incorporation into the Ethiopian empire, the various peoples of Ethiopia had been developing along different trajectories, with some establishing formidable kingdoms and systems of government that could influence the course of Ethiopian history in significant ways. For instance, the Oromo had developed the Gada system (a democratic sociopolitical system recently recognized by UNESCO as a piece of intangible human heritage), which allowed them to thrive militarily, demographically, and economically in competition (and at times in collaboration) with their Christian highland neighbors in the north and Muslim neighbors in the east until their conquest in the late 19th century.
Disappointingly, Kaplan offers no real analysis of the contestations underlying the current Ethiopian civil war. He ignores—unjustifiably—the most significant event in the history of modern Ethiopia, Menelik II’s late 19th-century military conquest of the Ethiopian south. His piece simply glosses over this epochal event in Ethiopia’s recent history, without which the current conflict surrounding the Ethiopian state cannot be understood.
It may be that these accounts and histories do not fit Kaplan’s conception of a country that he described as more than a state—a false narrative that the advocates of the unitarist camp are happy to recite steadfastly. In fact, the current conflict in Ethiopia is a manifestation of the ruinous center-periphery relationships between the Amhara core and mainly southern Ethiopians—with the former seeking to monopolize power at the center and the latter fighting for significant devolution of power from the center to the peripheries.
Any attempt to dismiss the collective memories and histories of the conquered populations and disregard or minimize the federalist camp’s demands in reconceptualizing Ethiopia will only renew the cycle of conflict, famine, and abject poverty that has defined Ethiopia and its peoples for the last five decades.
While pointing out the rising expectations in Ethiopia—which have arguably been spawned by the phenomenal growth of its economy under the previous government, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—as a backdrop for the current conflicts in the country, the article ignores the elephant in the room that dislodged the TPLF from the halls of power in Addis Ababa, paving the way for Abiy Ahmed to rise from relative obscurity to the most important position in the country.
The country seems on the verge of falling apart. Here’s why it won’t. Robert D. Kaplan
The significant event that precipitated the change of the political guard in Ethiopia in 2018 was a policy of land grab instituted by the Ethiopian government—a massive horizontal expansion of the capital region, Addis Ababa, into the neighboring Oromo farmlands—that triggered a momentous youth-led Oromo protest movement.
Despite its likely positive contribution to the overall economic growth in Ethiopia, the multiple-fold expansion of Addis Ababa into the Oromia region was one of those policies that turned out to be highly controversial in the context of the asymmetry of political power along ethnic lines. Although considered a modernization and urbanization undertaking by the government, the expansion was viewed by the Oromo public as a mechanism of ethnopolitical subjugation and economic exploitation, with a serious threat to their cultural and linguistic rights.
While it was directly targeted at the TPLF-led government, which initiated and executed the policy, the protest movement was also directed against the scheme’s political and cultural consequences—the further Amharization of central Oromia that the practice would inevitably usher in.
Rather than grapple with this event and its political and cultural consequences, Kaplan falls back on a colonialist discourse that ascribes some sort of superiority to the peoples of “Middle Eastern and Semitic civilization” over the Indigenous peoples of Ethiopia.
The uninitiated reader of the piece is left to assume that the greatness and uniqueness of Ethiopia come from its association with a foreign culture and that its Indigenous part could not have made a mark on human history without the imperial stewardship of settlers from the Middle East. Moreover, his failure to give due consideration to the perspectives of the conquered populations in Ethiopia and their resistance movements is unhelpful when it comes to resolving Ethiopia’s age-old political problems.
Although the parallel drawn in the article between Ethiopia and the former Yugoslavia is at odds with Kaplan’s key conclusion that Ethiopia is here to stay, the Yugoslavia analogy is in fact much closer to the unfolding reality in the country.
Given the influence his writing had on world leaders as that conflict spread in the 1990s, one would expect the cautionary tale of Yugoslavia’s dissolution to carry greater weight for Kaplan. Indeed, several observers have argued convincingly that his flawed historical account of the Yugoslavia conflict’s roots in his 1993 book, Balkan Ghosts—which presented the Balkan wars of the 1990s as fundamentally driven by ancient hatreds and irreconcilable differences, minimizing the role of manufactured ultranationalist rhetoric by figures such as Slobodan Milosevic—contributed to delaying the Clinton administration from tackling the mounting atrocities that were being committed by Serbian paramilitaries.
Similarly, a misreading of contemporary Ethiopia by policymakers in Washington—which might be based on the misguided historical arguments advanced by Kaplan in his recent piece—could have grave consequences for millions of people in the country.
Much like the “Strong Serbdom, Strong Yugoslavia” slogan that guided Serbian nationalists throughout much of the 20th century and caused unnecessary death and destruction in the former republics of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Amhara political forces have a similar motto: Amara yesew wuha lik new (which may roughly be translated as “being an Amhara is the highest standard of human excellence”) and are working in concert with Prime Minister Abiy to reincarnate a unitary political system that was invented to preserve Amhara hegemony over the rest of the country—a country where everyone would speak the Amharic language, dance to Amharic tunes, and embrace Amhara culture at the expense of their own.
Kaplan’s conclusion that Ethiopia is here to stay no matter what is magical thinking that is associated with the proponents of a centralized Ethiopian state. It also makes little sense to argue that Ethiopia is exceptional, given its checkered history and current diplomatic difficulties. A popular argument that one often hears in the unitarist political camp in Ethiopia is that the nation will not perish because it is exceptional and ordained by God.
However, the reality is that the Ethiopian state is unraveling, with the TPLF defeating Ethiopian and Eritrean forces in Tigray and the Oromo Liberation Army making significant inroads on the battlefield in Oromia, the largest state in the country. Indeed, as I have written elsewhere, Ethiopia will perish ingloriously if it fails to accommodate the legitimate demands of the federalist camp.