Revolution, Oppression, Ornithology and a semi-Charter City

One of the incredible monolithic churches in Lalibela, Bet Giyorgis

Apologies for my long blogging silence. I’ve been almost completely off the grid for a holiday in Ethiopia (with a short detour to Djibouti) for the last couple of weeks. I checked my e-mail only a couple of times, and completely avoided Facebook. It was glorious.

Still, Ethiopia gives one the blogging bug. Historically, culturally, archaeologically and politically it must be one of the most interesting countries I’ve ever had the good fortune to visit. Without claiming any kind of in-depth analysis, a number of things occurred to me in the last couple of weeks, things I’d be interested to explore further or hear about from people who have already done so. I also saw some interesting economic developments in Djibouti that I’d be really keen to get more of an insight into.

First are the politics. A while ago I wrote a post speculating as to why popular revolt and revolution are so rare in Africa, when so many countries seem to have many of the characteristics that would make them likely. Ethiopia is an exception to this rule. It has experienced a genuine revolution, which led to the fall of the Mengitsu, effected by civil war with the aim of regime change (not solely for secession, though this was the aim of a subset of the combatants). While in Ethiopia, I picked up a book, Ethiopia: Power and Protest, by Gebru Tareke, which shows that prior to the revolution, peasant revolt and rebellion was common enough to dissipate state resources and demand remedial action. Tareke argues that rebellion was a relatively rare phenomenon in Ethiopia compared to peasantries elsewhere in the world, but nonetheless, this still marks it out as historically more prone to rebellion than the rest of Africa.

Why Ethiopia? What has made revolution and rebellion occur here? One reason might be that the extremely strong influence of Orthodox Christianity provides an alternative source of authority to the state, thereby making challenge of the leaders more palatable. Historically the monarchy sought legitimacy by patronising the Church, once conversion was widespread – the incredible monolithic churches of Lalibela stem from this impulse. It may be that by providing an alternative authority, one which is relatively unified in voice, the authority of the state can more effectively be challenged by Ethiopians. Yet this could hardly be more than a minor part of the story. The organisation of so many people, encompassing a number of diverse tribes and linguistic groups must have been extraordinarily difficult if revolt was to be anything other than local. I’d be really interested to hear from anyone who knows more about this.

Yet, despite the rebellious and revolutionary past of Ethiopia, its polity has remained resolutely centralised and undemocratic. It was ruled as a serious of Kingdoms from the beginning of its recorded history (gorgeously preserved in Axum and Gondar, with many more treasures under the ground waiting for excavation); after a brief interlude of Fascist occupation, the monarchy was restored under Haile Selassie, before a military coup replaced it with the Communist Council or Derg, ruling as a dictatorship of enormous brutality. Following civil war, the Derg collapsed and was replaced by the ‘democratic’ Government of Meles Zenawi, which took 99% of the elected seats in Ethiopian Government in the elections of 2010, to general incredulity. This does not seem to be an especially open or subtle Government. In almost every place we went we either met or heard about communities that were being forcibly evicted from their land, often to make way for new commercial buildings, for what was usually claimed to be inadequate compensation.

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