Printer Friendly

Bahru Zewde (2001): A History of Modern Ethiopia 1855-1991.

Bahru Zewde (2001) A History of Modern Ethiopia 1855-1991. 2nd edn. Oxford: James Currey; Athens: Ohio University Press; Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press. pp. xviii + 300 pp. ISBN 0821414402 12.95 [pounds sterling] (pbk).

The second edition of Bahru Zewde's A History of Modern Ethiopia provides what the first edition lacked: a chapter on the ignominious fate of the Ethiopian Revolution, its French Revolutionesque vicissitudes, and finally the drawn out collapse of Ethiopia's most autocratic regime, thereby extending the analysis from 1974 through 1991. This is a welcome addition to the book, since Zewde is well placed to view the revolution from its student beginnings, through its popular phase, and into the nightmare of the Red Terror. He was a student at Haile Selassie I University as the ideological debates raged. Moreover, he was imprisoned by the Derg, he experienced the prison university system (as the Ethiopian intelligentsia euphemistically dubbed their incarceration), and was released to assume an academic position at Addis Ababa University, while remaining critical of the Mengistu regime.

In spite of his personal experience, Zewde manages to maintain scholarly distance and trace the broad outlines of the revolution with all its reversals. He does not outrightly condemn the revolution, even after Mengistu usurps it, since he constructs an exceptionally critical portrait of Haile Selassie's imperium. By parsing out the aims and aspirations of participants in the revolution and their historical relationship to the state, he gives credit where credit is due. For example, he acknowledges the benefits of land reform, literacy programs, and the elimination of the aristocracy.

The decade since the overthrow of the Derg enabled Zewde to assess a growing number of autobiographies and testimonials in various Ethiopian languages, in addition to the first historical analyses of tlije revolution undertaken by students at Addis Ababa University. The results are significant. Gone is the foreign experts' penchant to view Ethiopia as merely a pawn on the Cold War chessboard. Instead, there is a focus on the internal dynamics of the revolution. Zewde notes the ideological controversies between rival leftist movements and how some revolutionary leaders initially sought to collaborate with the military under the assumption that they could relegate the soldiers to subordinate roles in due time. He is not an apologist for anyone. The section on 'The Ideological Schooling of the Derg' is particularly informative since it tracks how soldiers leaned left for political expediency and finally emerged as 'the sole legitimate custodians of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy' (p. 248). By focusing on internal rivalries, Zewde marks the emergence of regional and ethnic secessionist forces and their armed struggle that finally led them to enter Addis Ababa in 1991 as outright victors. Attention is given to the differences between the EPLF and the EPRDF during their struggle against the Derg, such that the reader can understand some of the antipathy between the two parties that led to the Eritrean-Ethiopian War of 1998-2000. With minor reservations concerning his treatment of the economy, Zewde gives the best overview of the revolution yet written.

The remainder of the book remains unchanged, except for a few corrections and an insertion of a picture of Emperor Haile Selassie on page 142. Yet, even though unchanged, it has withstood challenges by Harold Marcus's A History of Ethiopia (2002), and Paul Henze's Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia (2000), and remains the most balanced and sociologically nuanced general history of Ethiopia. Zewde treats the northern highlands not as a bastion of 'high culture', but as a hegemonic region conscious of its economic dependence on the south and east. By applying Marxist analysis, Zewde is also able to move beyond a narrative history of rulers and aristocrats and accentuate political and economic forms of exploitation by northerners over southerners that by the end of the 19th century had eliminated sophisticated land tenure systems in the south and reduced peasants to tenants. Resisting the propensity to make blanket statements about the intentionality to exploit, Zewde shows how it was not military incursions into the south, but rather the seemingly benign measurement of land that affected usufruct rights 10 or 20 years later that finally subjugated the peasants (p. 88).

The book begins with the Zamana Masafent period, which describes the internecine warfare between contentious noblemen that fractured northern highland society and inaugurated a cycle of decentralization that would be the task of subsequent rulers to undo. The strength of the book is the time period 1896 through 1935, where Zewde integrates political history, social developments, the voices of public intellectuals, and the fumbling debut of capitalism.

Most problematic for this reviewer is the fact that Zewde maintains that Hayla-Sellase constructed an 'absolutist state' after his coronation in 1930, premised on 'enhancing the political power of the monarchy and guaranteeing the economic privilege of the nobility' (p. 140). Yet, even in his conclusion, where he tries to diagram the larger trends in Ethiopian history, it becomes increasingly hard to portray Hayla-Sellase's regime as anything but frail, for certainly fiscal policy, the import-export sector, and effective taxation were beyond his reach. Zewde's depiction of an absolutist state holds up better after 1941, but then one has to factor in the patron-client relationship between Ethiopia, Great Britain, and the USA. In this case, is it absolutism or another version of a puppet dictatorship?

Despite interpretive differences on a few points, I have used Zewde's A History of Modern Ethiopia more than any other text in undergraduate classes both in Ethiopia and in the United States. Students appreciate it. It is clearly written, well illustrated, and filled with provocative assertion about Ethiopian history that not only educate students about Ethiopia, but force them to consider the interpretive power of historical methodology.


Marcus, Harold (2002) A History of Ethiopia. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Henze, Paul (2000) Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia. New York: St Martin's Press.

Charles Schaefer

Valparaiso University, USA
COPYRIGHT 2005 Sage Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Schaefer, Charles
Publication:Journal of Asian and African Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 2005
Previous Article:The politics of identity in local African societies.
Next Article:Frank Muhereza and Peter Otim (2002): Pastoral Resource Competition in Uganda, Case Studies into Commercial Livestock Ranching and Pastoral...

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters