Ethiopia: Ethnic and Social Relations

Posted: February 25, 2008 in History
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Ethnic and Social Relations

Interethnic Relations

Ethnicity in Ethiopia is an enormously complex concept. No ethnic entity has been untouched by others. Groups in existence in the twentieth century are biological and social amalgams of several preexisting entities. The ingredients are often discernible only by inference, particularly if the mixing took place long ago. Nonetheless, such mixing led to the formation of groups that think of themselves and are considered by others as different. For instance, in the prerevolutionary period there were thousands of non-Amhara who had acquired the wherewithal to approximate the lifestyle of wealthy Amhara and had in fact gained recognition as Amhara. Such mixing has continued, and the boundaries of ethnic groups also continue to change.

Interethnic relations in prerevolutionary Ethiopia did not conform to a single model and were complex because of the nature of Amhara contact with other groups and the internal social and economic dynamics of the groups. Each group reacted differently to Amhara dominance. What makes this analysis even more complex is that the Amhara themselves do not constitute a cohesive group. Indeed, the tendency to see Ethiopia before (and, by some accounts, after) the revolution as dominated by Amhara has obscured the complexity of interethnic relations.

The Amhara are found predominantly in Gojam, Gonder, in parts of Welo such as Lasta and Wag, and in parts of Shewa such as Menz. Amhara from one area view those from other areas as different, and there is a long history of conflicts among Amhara nobles aspiring to be kings or kingmakers.

Intraprovincial and interprovincial conflict between Amhara nobles and their followers was quite common. Some aspects of intra-Amhara friction may be seen in the relations of Shewan Amhara to other Amhara and to other Ethiopians. Shewan Amharic speakers are on the southern periphery of the territory occupied by the Amhara. They made their presence felt in much of the Shewa region relatively late, except in areas such as Menz, which had always been Amhara. Thus, the Shewans over the centuries developed a culture and a society that emerged from Oromo, Amhara, and perhaps other groups. Whereas the southern people considered Shewan Orthodox Christians as Amhara, people from older Amhara areas such as Gojam and Gonder thought of such persons as Shewans or sometimes even as Oromo.

During the imperial regime, Amhara dominance led to the adoption of Amharic as the language of government, commerce, and education. Other forms of Amhara dominance occurred in local government, where Amhara served as representatives of the central government or became landholders.

Reaction to the Amhara varied even within individual ethnic groups. Some resisted the Amhara bitterly, while others aided them. In its most extreme form, resistance to Amhara dominance resulted in enduring separatist movements, particularly in Eritrea, Tigray, and the Ogaden. The separatist movement in Eritrea reflects a somewhat different historical experience from that of other areas of Ethiopia. Despite Eritrea’s seeming unity, ethnic and religious differences among Eritreans abounded. For example, the Kunema, a Nilo-Saharan-speaking people who formed an enclave among Eritrea’s Muslims and Christians and who have long been treated as inferior by some groups that make up the Eritrean independence movement, historically have provided an island of support for the central government.

Perhaps the only region to which the Amhara did not bring their sense of superiority was Tigray, home of the people who lay claim to the Aksumite heritage. The Amhara did not come to Tigray as receivers of land grants, and government administrators were often Tigrayan themselves. Tigray perspectives on the Amhara were, however, influenced negatively by a number of historical factors. For example, the son of the only emperor of Tigray origin to have ruled Ethiopia, Yohannis IV (reigned 1872-89), was deprived of the throne by Menelik II, an Amhara. In 1943 the imperial regime brutally repressed a Tigray rebellion called the Weyane.

Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, inhabited primarily by ethnic Somali, was the scene of a series of Ethiopian-Somali struggles in 1964, 1977-78, and intermittently after that until 1987. Somalia supported self-determination for Ogaden Somali. Although Somalia and Ethiopia signed a joint communiqué in 1988 to end hostilities, Mogadishu refused to abandon its claim to the Ogaden. Moreover, in 1989 and 1990, the Ogaden region was home to about 350,000 Isaaq Somali from northern Somalia who had escaped persecution by the regime of Mahammad Siad Barre.

In April 1976, the PMAC promulgated its Program for the National Democratic Revolution (PNDR), which accepted the notions of self-determination for nationalities and regional autonomy. In compliance with the program, the PMAC created the Institute for the Study of Ethiopian Nationalities in 1983 to develop administrative and political proposals to accommodate all the country’s major nationalities. As a result of the institute’s findings, the government expressed a desire to abolish Ethiopia’s fourteen administrative regions and to create thirty regions, of which five– Eritrea, Tigray, Aseb, Dire Dawa, and the Ogaden–were to be autonomous. Eritrean and Tigrayan leaders denounced the plan as nothing more than an attempt to perpetuate government control of Eritrea and Tigray. Their military campaigns to wrest control of the two regions from the Mengistu regime eventually succeeded.

The PMAC undermined the patterns of ethnic relations prevailing in imperial Ethiopia and eliminated the basis for Amhara dominance. However, postrevolutionary Ethiopia continued to exhibit ethnic tension. Traits based on ethnicity and religion are deeply ingrained and are not susceptible to elimination by ideology.

  1. […] Ethiopian History Weblog wrote an interesting post today on Ethiopia: Ethnic and Social RelationsHere’s a quick excerptDuring the imperial regime, Amhara dominance led to the adoption of Amharic as the language of government, commerce, and education…. […]

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