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Ethiopia’s civil wars: postcolonial modernity and the violence of contested nationhood



This article investigates the historical and structural foundations of the war between the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia and the federal government. It does so by employing Mamdani's theoretical framework of rethinking the politics of national belonging. The article considers one of the central propositions in Mamdani's broad vision of political decolonisation, that of reimagining the relationship between nation and state in the face of violent contestations over national belonging. The article argues that the recurring civil wars in Ethiopia indicate that the country's ongoing pursuit of a nation-state is a futile exercise that will continue to produce cycles of political violence. Despite not being colonised, Ethiopia has not escaped the destructive consequences of colonial modernity that the rest of the postcolonial world continues to grapple with. The article thus locates Ethiopia's protracted and violent search for nationhood within the narrative of postcolonial modernity in Africa.
Ethiopia's civil wars: Postcolonial modernity and
the violence of contested national belonging
Namhla Thando Matshanda
African Politics and International Relations,
University of the Western Cape, Cape Town,
South Africa
Namhla Thando Matshanda, African Politics
and International Relations, University of the
Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa.
This article investigates the historical and structural founda-
tions of the war between the northern Tigray region of
Ethiopia and the federal government. It does so by
employing Mamdani's theoretical framework of rethinking
the politics of national belonging. The article considers one
of the central propositions in Mamdani's broad vision of
political decolonisation, that of reimagining the relationship
between nation and state in the face of violent contesta-
tions over national belonging. The article argues that the
recurring civil wars in Ethiopia indicate that the country's
ongoing pursuit of a nation-state is a futile exercise that will
continue to produce cycles of political violence. Despite not
being colonised, Ethiopia has not escaped the destructive
consequences of colonial modernity that the rest of the
postcolonial world continues to grapple with. The article
thus locates Ethiopia's protracted and violent search for
nationhood within the narrative of postcolonial modernity
in Africa.
civil wars, Ethiopia, national belonging, postcolonial modernity,
The war in Tigray is a reminder of the violent contests over national belonging that continue to plague the African
continent. Ethiopia is currently experiencing the political rupture that was predicted by John Markakis in his 2011
book Ethiopia: The last two frontiers. Markakis (2011) doubted the extent to which the nation-state in general and
Received: 3 November 2021 Accepted: 6 January 2022
DOI: 10.1111/nana.12835
© 2022 Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism and John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Nations and Nationalism. 2022;114. 1
ethnic federalism, in particular, would resolve the long-standing contestations over national belonging in Ethiopia.
Markakis' inquiry primarily focused on the inclusion of the regions on the periphery of the state into the political
community. Even he could not have imagined that the imminent rupture would emerge from within the traditional
and historical core of the state. This is the empirical and analytical puzzle that is presented by the current civil war in
Ethiopiathat contested national belonging encompasses multiple nationalities, those traditionally part of the histori-
cal core and those external to that core. To make sense of this puzzle, the war in Tigray must be examined by tracing
the history of contested national belonging. This history reveals that the war is rooted in a violent past of contested
nationhood. The war is thus another manifestation of the failure of the Ethiopian state to deliver inclusive national
belonging. The article provides historical context to this failure through a reading of political theory that prob-
lematizes the foundations of the nation-state, which are grounded in colonial modernity. The article is inspired by
theoretical interventions that highlight the continued relevance of political theory in ongoing debates about state
and nation building in Africa.
In November 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali ordered an offensivea law enforcement operation on the
Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party of the northern Tigray regionfor allegedly attacking a mili-
tary base and stealing weapons (Gavin, 2021). This was just over 2 years since he came to power and approximately
a year after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A few months earlier the TPLF openly defied a federal govern-
ment directive to postpone regional elections due to the Covid19 pandemic. These are some of the surface level trig-
gers of the conflict, but the actual build-up to these events began in 2018 when Abiy Ahmed came to power and
embarked on a purge of the TPLF from positions of power and related state institutions. Abiy and his allies came
with a contrary imagination of the Ethiopian nation-state, one that viewed federalism as an aberration. In 2019, Abiy
had published the book Medemer which means to merge together. In examining the symbolism and meaning of the
book against the context of war, it can be argued that the book served as a precursor to the wholesale rejection of
multinational federalism and was in preparation for the reassertion of a unitary Ethiopian identity (Tibesu &
Abdurahman, 2021). Much can be said about the role of Abiy in this ideological shift; however, this article seeks to
demonstrate that the actions of the prime minister can be located within the structures of a longer historical process
of contested nation building in Ethiopia.
This article conceptualises nationhood as inclusive and equal citizenship, that is, a broadly imagined political
community. This is due to the fact that previous governments have pursued exclusionary nation-building strategies
that sought to erase and exclude the political voice of several ethnic minorities and majorities. Recent and past
attempts at nation-building in Ethiopia have been accompanied by violent contestations that have left death and
destruction in their wake. This is sufficient evidence to convince us that previous and current approaches to nation
building and the ways in which the nation-state has been imagined have not worked. Since the late 19th century,
successive Ethiopian governments espoused nation-building approaches that have left a significant number of people
outside the boundaries of the imagined nation. The consequences have been the proliferation of ethno-nationalist
movements that have sprung up in different parts of the country, most of whom have pursued two main goals: to
force their inclusion in the state or to alter the state through some form of self-determination. The term nation is also
used to define the various nations and nationalitiesthat were given some form of recognition under federalism
after 1991.
This article employs a qualitative case analysis that draws on historical archival sources and secondary sources
to argue that the uncritical pursuit of nationhood in Ethiopia is not going to end the country's recurrent political
violencethe civil wars. This is because the Ethiopian vision of nationhood is rooted in a modernist conception of
political community that finds significant influence in colonial modernity. In this instance, colonial modernity is con-
ceived as the Eurocentric logic that informs the dominant structures and patterns of power in the modern era
(Mignolo, 2017; Quijano, 2000). Mignolo (2017) notes that when Quijano conceived the term coloniality, he envis-
aged coloniality and modernity as two sides of the same coin. Thus, one cannot speak of one without the other. To
counter the towering and destructive influence of colonial modernity, the article proposes Mamdani's (2021) political
theory of political decolonisation to make its arguments. Mamdani demonstrates how colonial and postcolonial
modernity have been central to the problem of extreme violence in the postcolonial period. The article also draws on
Wolde Giorgis' (2010, 2019) ideas of theorising Ethiopian modernity. The article demonstrates the enduring conse-
quences of Ethiopia's entanglements with colonial modernity and how its location within a regional and global con-
text of postcolonial modernity contributes to the violence that underpins the project of nation building. The first aim
of the article is to make sense of the war in Tigray by locating it in a broader political and historical context of state
and nation building in Ethiopia. The second aim is to contribute towards expanding the theoretical lenses through
which we approach the study of modern Ethiopia with the objective of challenging the idea of Ethiopian
The article is divided into two main parts. The first part begins with a discussion of Ethiopia's experience with
colonial modernity. The section employs Mamdani's framework and attempts to locate the Ethiopian experience
therein. This section presents evidence on the conjuncture of European and Ethiopian imperial interests in the 20th
century. This moment was pivotal in the evolution of Ethiopian modernity and came not long after the country
became an internationally recognised sovereign state, leading to the formation of an Ethiopian colonial modernity.
Ethiopian sovereignty is central to this discussion as it offers clues to the logic behind the subjective motives of the
imperial state vis-à-vis its subjects. This section also reveals that the imperial state's feudal structures and post-war
processes of state modernisation from 1941 were rooted in colonial modernity. The second part of the article shifts
focus to the recurring violence during the process of setting the boundaries of the emerging political community.
This section highlights the inherent challenges of ethnic federalism which was adopted after 1991 and points to
2018 as a crucial moment in that experiment. The final section of the article is the conclusion.
The challenge of nation building in Ethiopia has occupied many scholars who study the modern Ethiopian state.
Many have taken to this task by seeking to reinforce the idea of the nation-state in Ethiopia. On the imperial period
and its homogenising discourse of the nation, a number of Western and Ethiopian writers advanced the notion of
Greater Ethiopia, an idea that reduced the history of Ethiopia to the central highlands and privileged the Amhara
identity as central to the formation of the modern nation-state (Getachew, 1986; Perham, 1969; Ullendorf, 1960).
Following the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution that brought an end to imperial rule, the literature began to reflect a much
needed methodological and analytical shift. These changes were necessary as the revolution had shattered the myth
of an Ethiopian national identity that was, up to that point, ostensibly endorsed by multiple ethnic groups
(Keller, 1981, p. 522). Instead, agrarian history and urban history emerged as new themes in the late 1980s
(Crumney, 1990; Eshete, 1988). The transformation of Ethiopian studies from a narrowly defined sub-field to a
broader African studies agenda has been made possible by a number of Ethiopian scholars (Hassen, 1990;
Jalata, 1996; Wolde Giorgis, 2010, 2019). Yet some Ethiopian scholars struggled to conceptualise Ethiopia within
the discourses of colonialism and decolonisation that dominated African studies. Ethiopian scholars and intellectuals
such as historian Bahru Zewde, for instance, are said to have distanced themselves from the agenda of the radical
left as they were trained through the Orientalist gaze of Western institutions (Tibebu, 1995, p. 45). Wolde
Giorgis (2010, 2019) further argues that although Zewde acknowledged and grappled with the arrival of modernity
through colonialism in Africa and Ethiopia, he did not unpack the politics of knowledge associated with the moderni-
sation process.
In the main, the task of examining Ethiopian modernism and, in some cases, linking it to the broader contexts in
which it evolvedcolonialism and decolonisation in Africahas been left to those who challenge the idea of
Ethiopian exceptionalism. For instance, Wolde Giorgis (2019, pp. 2122) argues that it is impossible to appreciate
the conditions of Ethiopian artistic modernism in the twentieth and twenty first centuries without considering the
political and cultural implications of colonialism and the politics of decolonisation. Such a conceptualisation enables
us to consider Ethiopian modernity more broadly, and it helps to dispel the otherwise myopic conceptualisations of
this process. Wolde Giorgis (2010, p. 85) further notes that the analyses of modernity and modernism in Ethiopia are
contingent and contextual on how the nation was imagined and narrated. This is what the present work seeks to
highlight in arguing that the nation-building project in Ethiopia has been closely intertwined with the global project
of universalising the nation-state model. And as Mignolo (2017) argues, we have to contend with the inevitability of
the badside of modernitycoloniality. This article demonstrates that the Italian occupation and the contested
British Military Administration (BMA) became the backdrop for modernisation in Ethiopia, a process that was
influenced by broader regional and international logics of colonial modernity, which Ethiopia had adopted and
localised. Some of the literature that shifted the narrative on Ethiopia's national identity foregrounded the centre-
periphery dimension of the state. After the fall of the imperial regime, many ethnographic studies began to investi-
gate the peripheries and their social systems, thus highlighting the peripheries as constituent parts of the whole
(Donham & James, 2002). This literature highlighted the contradictions that lay at the centre of the nation building
project. These contradictions became more glaring after the Marxist regime known as the Dergue
came to power in
1974 (Clapham, 2002, p. 14). The centralised authoritarianism of the socialist state exacerbated the existing tensions
between the centre and the peripheries leading to the emergence and proliferation of ethnic-based movements that
sought self-determination. It was against this historical background that the rebels that defeated the Dergue and
came to power in 1991 sought a radical redefinition of the nation-state in Ethiopia. The introduction of ethnic feder-
alism sought to address some of these historical tensions and, indeed, to minimise the cyclical incidents of violent
contestations over national belonging. Yet even this seemingly radical break with the past showed cracks, enough to
prompt warnings about its sustainability (Markakis, 2011).
The nationality question dominates the analyses of violent conflicts in the Horn of Africa (Markakis, 1987;
Reid, 2011; Tronvoll, 2009). Reid (2011, p. 9) argues that the region has a uniquely violent character that exists inde-
pendently of individual states, which he attributes to a corridor of conflict that has the Ethiopian highlands (and
their Eritrean extension) as its centrepiece. He traces this peculiarity to the pre-colonial configuration of the region;
however, I argue that it was the colonial experience that transformed this conflict dynamic into something more
structural and thus permanent. For example, the development of Eritrean nationalism and the eventual indepen-
dence of that country in 1993 and the violence that has plagued Sudan since independence can all be connected to
the history of Italian and British colonialism, respectively (De Waal, 2005; Sorenson, 1991). Another example is the
case of Somalia and the Somali people who at face value appear to be a nation with a shared culture, language and
religion. Yet the historical trajectory of Somalia has not resulted in the formation of a nation-state (Laitin &
Samatar, 1987). This is because during the colonial period the Somali people were divided territorially and through
the politicisation of their identities, a history that has resulted in recurring political violence in the postcolonial
The political development of the modern Ethiopian polity changed dramatically with the Italian defeat at the bat-
tle of Adwa in 1896. It can be argued that the victory stands out less for its occurrence
and more for its implica-
tions. Unlike Isandlwana among the Zulus in Southern Africa, Adwa secured Ethiopian independence permanently as
it set in motion a series of events that led to the international recognition of Ethiopian sovereignty. Adwa brought
significant shifts to the political and territorial landscape of the Horn of Africa. The recognition of Ethiopian indepen-
dence by Britain and France marked the point where the interests of the Ethiopian imperial state and those of the
European colonial powers converged. Colonial archives demonstrate how legal international agreements carving up
north-east Africa were entered into by Ethiopia, France and Britain shortly after 1896.
Quite significantly, the
Scramble for Africa in the Horn also coincided with the resurgence and extension of central authority by the ruling
Amhara class in Ethiopia (Touval, 1963, p. 47).
These developments took place when Emperor Menelik, who is known to have held grand territorial ambitions,
was consolidating power around the Shoa-Amhara ruling class (Rennell-Rodd, 1948). Border making and the signing
of boundary treaties between imperial Ethiopia and the European colonial powers was one of the central features of
the European nation-state model that Ethiopia embraced. At the time of signing boundary treaties the emperor had
been expanding his territory and incorporating into the empire peoples and territories to the south, east and west of
the highland core. However, these territories were not guaranteed and the boundaries were not yet determined.
These processes formed the basis for how and why imperial Ethiopia would later employ different features of what
Mamdani (2021, p. 14) describes as technologies of colonial modernity. These processes coalesced into emergent
ideas of the nation-state and became even more pronounced after the 5-year Italian occupation of Ethiopia. After
this period, Ethiopia increasingly exhibited elements of colonial modernity that rested on war, domination and racism,
among others.
Ethiopian sovereignty is highlighted here as one of the institutions that are derived from the modernity-
coloniality nexus. It is used to illustrate how it influenced the emerging logic of colonial modernity in Ethiopia. The
main thesis in the debate about different forms of sovereignty is that there are not one but multiple forms of sover-
eignty (Clapham, 1998, 1999; Poggi, 1978). Although we might be led to believe in the Westphalian Commonsense
that conflates all sovereignty to the European experience, sovereignty has followed different patterns in different
parts of the world (Grovogui, 2002, p. 316). This is true of Ethiopian sovereignty which was politically circumscribed
by the influence Europeans wielded in the affairs of the country from the time of its independence (Zewde, 1991).
The limits of Ethiopian sovereignty were plainly illustrated by the Italian occupation in 1935, after which the imperial
rulers focused on the domestic dimensions of sovereignty. As such, after the occupation, the imperial state cemented
its claims of legitimacy over the territory and increasingly drew on the instrumentalities of sovereignty
(Grovogui, 2002, p. 317). In Ethiopia, this took the form of entrenching imperial authority by consolidating its power
over the whole territory.
2.1 |Modernity as state centralisation and modernisation
Upon his return to Ethiopia in 1941, Emperor Haile Selassie faced a challenging domestic and international context.
His country was in the process of being placed under a British Military Administration which severely limited his
powers, and the world was in the midst of a deadly world war. The first Agreement and Military Convention between
the United Kingdom and the imperial Ethiopian government was signed in 1942 and the second one in 1944.
The territorial boundary played an important role in efforts to restore the sovereignty of the imperial state. In an
effort to regain the state's sovereignty, the practice of indirect rule was taken up and implemented in different parts
of the Somali regions of Ethiopia. These are the areas where Ethiopian sovereignty was most challenged by the
BMA. For Mamdani (2021, pp. 1214), indirect rule divided colonised groups into territorial homelands where the
divisions were drawn along cultural and ethnic lines. Such divisions resonated with the Ethiopian rulers who up to
that point had been unable to assert their sovereignty over the vast regions on the margins of the empire.
The presence of the BMA and the threat it posed to Ethiopian sovereignty led to a pronounced awareness of
the state's national identity. And this identity was broadly imagined and defined as that of a unitary nation-state.
BMA attempts to blur the boundary lines between Ethiopia and British Somaliland only intensified Ethiopian resolve
to revert to the pre-occupation status quo of clearly demarcated boundaries and uncontested sovereignty. Although
there was tension between the imperial government and the BMA, there were also instances where their interests
converged, most notably in the administration of the Somali inhabited areas (Matshanda, 2019, p. 665). The Somalis
were effectively subjects of both the British colonial government and imperial Ethiopia.
The contestations between the Ethiopian and British authorities reflected the latter's general condescending
attitude towards what they perceived as a backwards native country.
However, this sentiment was difficult to fully
express in relation to Ethiopia because of the country's sovereign status prior to the Italian occupation. Nonetheless,
the establishment of a Tribal Organisation by the Ethiopians was a clear indication of their intentions to regain their
sovereignty. Towards the end of the period of BMA in the mid-1950s, the Ethiopians had created a parallel native
authority. The Tribal Organisation operated alongside the BMA's own organisation. Central to both the Ethiopian
and British organisations was the concept of indirect rule. They each established a native authority known as Chiefs
in eastern Ethiopia, a foreign concept among the decentralised Somalis of this region (Matshanda, 2019, p. 671). The
Somali chiefs acted as intermediaries between the imperial government of Ethiopia and the general population of
the region. What emerged resembles what Mamdani (2021, p. 13) terms as territorial indirect rule. The territory
Somali region, parts of which were under BMAembraced customary authority and law of institutional indirect rule.
More than the Ethiopians, the British had by this time recognised and exploited some of the areas of difference
among the Somalis. This is evident in the politicisation of these differences, for example, between the pastoralists
and the more sedentary groups. The Ethiopians followed suit and pursued these divisions further. This experience
laid the foundations for the political fragmentation and contestations of power and authority that have consumed
this region since 1991 (Hagmann, 2005).
The modernisation of the state was an important element in the incorporation of the Ethiopian state into colo-
nial modernity. At the onset of the Italian occupation in 1935, Haile Selassie had made a rallying call to his people, a
proclamation of ketet (war) (Wolde Giorgis, 2010, p. 86). In this speech, the Emperor invoked the idea of the nation
as contingent on a cultural politics that was used to advance a sense of Ethiopian nationhood (Wolde Giorgis, 2010,
p. 88). This invocation of the nation can be attributed to the patriotic resistance that ordinary Ethiopians had demon-
strated against the Italians, which, in turn, was influenced by the memory of Adwa. This conceptualisation of the
nation extended to how the Ethiopian government sought to redraw provincial boundaries after the occupation. In
the course of these changes emerged the province of Hararge, a fief of the imperial family that became the largest
province of the empire (Markakis, 1974). In the process of provincial re-structuring, the demarcation of lowland prov-
inces tended not to have cultural or ethnic considerations. Markakis (1974, p. 289) notes that cultural heterogeneity
and historical identity gave way to considerations of political and administrative convenience. Hararge province was
home to Somali, Oromo, Harari and other ethnic groups. The ethnic and cultural composition of the new provinces
revealed significant heterogeneity, which indicates that imperial authorities perceived these populations as subjects
rather than as distinct nationalities. The process of provincial restructuring was informed by notions of modernity
that sought to entrench a homogenising discourse of the nation.
As state modernisation was being pursued, a parallel process was unfoldingthe centralisation of imperial
power and authority. This project encountered resistance, most notably in the northern region of Tigray. After
liberation from the Italian occupation, under dubious conditions, the emperor reintroduced the taxation system
that had been lifted by the Italians; he also refused to recognise the local nobility's autonomy in Tigray
(Prunier, 2010). He appointed a Shoan governor and channelled tax revenue to Addis Ababa and eroded the
previously autonomous nationalities that had, up until the Italian occupation, managed to stave off the authority
of the imperial state (Prunier, 2010). The Emperor found it difficult to rely on the loyalty of the Tigrayan nobility
as some had sided with the Italians during the occupation or had decided not to join the patriotic resistance. The
impetus for state centralisation can, therefore, be understood within the context of general instability in the
country (Reid, 2011). The situation presented an opportunity for the emergence of a competing Tigrayan national
imaginary that was rooted in the ancient Axumite civilisation up to and including the Era of Princes that ended
with the death of Yohannes IV in 1889 (Prunier, 2010). The Tigrayans held the potential for alternative myths
and values of the nation because their forbears were at the centre of the historical Kingdom of Axum. The
Axumites had presided over the expansion of the Abyssinian Empire that spread over the Ethiopian highlands
(Berhe, 2004, p. 570). This alternative myth of the nation would have posed significant challenges to the Amhara
ruling class.
Devastated by changes in their ability to self-govern and having to contend with a rapidly transforming domestic
political context, peasants in south and central Tigray began an uprising, the Woyane revolt in 19421943
(Gilkes, 1975; Tareke, 1996). The Woyane revolt and, indeed, other popular 20th century peasant revolts in Ethiopia
were a direct response to the transformation of feudal power structures that were occasioned by the modernising
state (Tareke, 1996). There is agreement that the Tigrayan rebels had no secessionist aims but that the revolt and
the conditions that resulted thereafter helped to crystallise a sense of Tigrayan nationalism, which was posited
against the dominant Shewa-Amhara ruling class (Berhe, 2004; Prunier, 2010; Young, 1996). The Tigray peasant
revolts were primarily a response to the changes brought about by the extensive transformation in political
organisationthe modernisation of the state (Tareke, 1996).
The homogenising discourse of state modernisation and centralisation encountered resistance due to the cul-
tural and ethnic heterogeneity of the imperial state in the early 20th century. This section turns its focus to another
element of Ethiopian modernity that owes much of its origins to colonial modernitythe racialisation of ethnic iden-
tities. This discussion emanates from the competing interpretations of nation building that gave rise to what some
have called a case of Ethiopian colonialism (Holcomb & Ibssa, 1990; Jalata, 2008). The converging interests of
Ethiopian and European colonial powers in the late 19th century are said to have given Ethiopia's imperial rulers the
capacity to subjugate various nations under the expanding polity (Holcomb & Ibssa, 1990, pp. 28). The question of
the Oromo stands out in these assertions. The imperial state stands accused of a paternalistic attitude towards
groups such as the Oromo. This attitude is said to be grounded in a cultural and racial hierarchy that foregrounds
Semitic culture above others within the polity (Jalata, 2008).
If Tigrayans posed the threat of a legitimate competing national myth from within the historical core of the
imperial state, then the Oromo held the potential for an equally threatening myth from outside that core. The Oromo
are the historical face of the dominant other that has been subjugated and excluded from the political community in
Ethiopia (Hassen, 1990). This reality has led to the evolution of their group identity up to a point where they fash-
ioned themselves as a nation (Keller, 1995). However, the fact of their numerical dominance has not guaranteed the
Oromo an upper hand in their struggles for recognition and equality. The Oromo discourse comes with some com-
plexity. For instance, it is difficult to speak of the Oromo as occupying a completely marginal existence in Ethiopia.
The Oromo have a long history of integration and extensive assimilation to the Amhara political and cultural centre.
This complexity is noted by Gudina (2006, p. 125) who argues that the irony of Oromo history, therefore, is that
they were part of the conquerors as well as the conquered. This ambiguity indicates the complex processes of
categorisation, identification, inclusion and exclusion that have underlined the project of crafting the nation in
Ethiopia. Nonetheless, in this article, Oromo and Tigrayan identities and experiences are used to illustrate the nature
and extent of contestations over national belonging within the Ethiopian state.
In discussions about national inclusion and exclusion, Ethiopian ambivalence towards Blackness needs to be
mentioned (Habecker, 2012). Regardless of the romantic narratives of black consciousness that Ethiopia evoked
among Africans in Africa and in the diaspora, Ethiopian leaders have failed to demonstrate any meaningful engage-
ment with black politics (Wolde Giorgis, 2019, p. 24). This ambivalence revealed itself in the exclusionary narrative
beginning in the late 19th century where the nation was presented as a Semitic, Amhara and Christian Orthodox
nation. This identity was embedded in the twin processes of state modernisation and centralisation and became
the epitome of political modernity in Ethiopia (Wolde Giorgis, 2010). Consequently, embracing this political moder-
nity meant embracing the epistemic conditions that were created by Europeans to distinguish the nation as civilised
and therefore justifying glorifying the nation at the expense of those seen as uncivilised (Mamdani, 2021). This
framing of the nation left many on the outside with little opportunity to express their cultural and political
This section has discussed the conditions that integrated Ethiopia to the European political modernity of the
19th centurycoloniality. The evolution of Ethiopian modernity, as Wolde Giorgis (2010, 2019) demonstrates, can-
not be removed from the influences of colonial modernity as Ethiopian modernists were constantly drawing parallels
and making comparisons between Ethiopian and European modernity. State building became the structural basis on
which the nation was to be imagined and constructed particularly in the period after the Italian occupation. Notions
of nationhood occupied both the intellectuals and state builders of the time, and they all drew inspiration and moti-
vation from the European experience. Tigrayan identity emerged as a threat from within the dominant national iden-
tity, whereas the Oromo identity emerged as a threat from outside it, in both cases, every attempt was made to
silence them. The role of the monarchy, the centrality of the Christian Orthodox religion, sovereignty and the divine
role of the monarch to preside over populations formed the basis of the Ethiopian nation. The next part of the article
outlines the violence that marked the different forms of opposition to this national imaginary.
Mamdani (2021) notes that violent confrontations over national belonging are rooted in the belief that society must
be homogenised in order to build a nation. The overriding sentiment is that any and every potential source of com-
peting identity must be eliminated in order to homogenise the nation. In Ethiopia, this was presented in the form of
the dominant Amhara national identity at the expense of numerous others, such as the Tigrayan and Oromo identi-
ties. The idea of the nation was contingent on a cultural politics that was used to advance a pan-Ethiopian identity.
Keller notes that imperial social policy paid no attention to the national questionin spite of the fact that the impe-
rial state consisted of culturally subordinated groups (Keller, 1981, p. 534). Indeed, the existence of an Amharised
Ethiopian statewas an undeniable fact of life (Tronvoll, 2009, pp. 1012). In Ethiopia, the development and
entrenchment of an Amhara national identity created two very powerful struggles and forms of resistance: a nation-
alist opposition and a class struggle.
The period following the height of political independence elsewhere on the African continent brought Ethiopia
in direct confrontation with post-colonial modernity and its corresponding violence; it also created the conditions for
a social revolution. The emergence and proliferation of Somali, Eritrean and Oromo nationalism brought to the fore
contests over national belonging. The inherent contradictions in the modernisation and centralisation policies began
to unravel. However, it was drought that finally cracked open the contradictions and revealed the shortcomings of
the imperial state. It was drought and famine that became Haile Selassie's political coffin(Schwab, 1985, p. 12). Ini-
tially led by university students, the dominant force in the protests between 1960 and 1974, civil unrest swept
across urban centres in Ethiopia (Tareke, 2009). There is no doubt that the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution was
influenced by the wave of political independence that was taking place elsewhere in Africa. But there was more in
Ethiopia as a combination of political, social and economic factors sought to replace the old order with a new one.
Here, we find some limitations to Mamdani's framework. Mamdani (1996, 2001, 2021) has consistently directed
his gaze towards the political while downplaying the role of political economy. Focussing on the political alone does
not fully account for the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia, which had clear social and economic motivations. Mamdani's
position is that the political economy framework could only explain political violence as either revolutionary or coun-
terrevolutionary, when it was simply non-revolutionary (Mamdani, 2001, pp. 651652). This may well be true in the
Ethiopian case too because although genuine class and nationalist struggles converged and resulted in the revolution,
the revolution did not bring an end to the nationalist struggles. Some of the ethno-nationalist movements that
emerged in Ethiopia shortly after the revolution had both class and nationalist foundations (Keller, 1981, p. 46). In ana-
lysing the conjuncture of class and ethnicity in the context of the revolution, Keller (1981) argues for a relational model
that accounts for both variables. He stresses the importance of the sociocultural context in any theoretical endeavour
(Keller, 1981, p. 44). Such an endeavour comprises what the present article seeks to docutting through the myths
that surround Ethiopian statehood. The strength of Mamdani's framework lies in the fact that although class and mate-
rial contradictions are not explicitly cited as the causes of political violence, they are implied. For instance, what Kel-
ler (1981, p. 46) calls the fact of conquestis important for explaining not only the political topographies of coloniality
but also the links to the world capitalist system. In Ethiopia, a growing opposition to state nationalism and increasing
marginalisation from social and material power of the state led to the proliferation of violent confrontations with the
state (Markakis, 1987). Markakis' is mainly referring to the groups on the territorial, political and cultural margins of the
state. Yet one of the biggest class and nationalist movements to emerge out of Ethiopia in the 20th century, the TPLF,
could hardly be classified as marginal. After the revolution, the TPLF embarked on a sustained nationalist struggle
against the usurpers of what Mamdani (2001) would call a non-revolution.
The evolution of the TPLF on the one hand, and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) on the other, demonstrates
the impossibility of a single Ethiopian national identity. Both fronts and their respective constituencies were exposed
to and were on the receiving end of an exclusionary political community that was perpetuated by successive
Ethiopian governments. This experience led to their formationthe TPLF in 1975 and the OLF in 1974 (Berhe, 2004,
p. 569; Jalata, 1993, p. 393). The Oromos had long identified themselves as a colonised people under imperial rule,
and their struggle gained momentum in the 1960s when they started to organise through self-help associations, no
doubt influenced by the decade of African decolonisation. The key organising principle in the formation of the OLF
was revolution and decolonisation of Oromia(Jalata, 1993, p. 393). For the Tigrayans, the Woyane rebellion and
other struggles that took place in Tigray against imperial rule laid the foundations for the emergence of the ethno-
nationalist TPLF (Berhe, 2004). At the time of their formation, the OLF and TPLF were thrust onto a violent national
political landscape that was dominated by multiple ethno-nationalist struggles against the Dergue regime. Yet the
TPLF presented something different from the other liberation fronts. They were from the traditional coreregions
and could not be deemed as a marginal group, nor did their struggle have secession as its main objective, they sought
Gebregzhiaber (2019) traces the ideological shifts of the TPLF since its establishment and reveals a political for-
mation that is founded on pragmatism and a strong desire for power and domination. The TPLF can be seen as a
product of a violent postcolonial modernity in Ethiopia. Tigrayan struggles under the imperial rule of Haile Selassie
led to a strong articulation of Tigrayan needs and aspirations within Ethiopia. We see this in the role played by vari-
ous Tigrayan intellectuals in earlier political agitations. From the onset, the Tigrayan intellectuals framed and articu-
lated the Tigrayan struggle along class and ethno-nationalist lines (Berhe, 2004; Gebregzhiaber, 2019). The Tigrayans
expressed tangible grievances about the peasant existence and marginalisation of Tigray by the imperial government,
which continued under the Dergue. The ethnic-nationalist sentiment was triggered by the power held by the Amhara
feudal class, the forced Amhara ethnic hegemony over the polity and the recent history of rebellions in Tigray, Bale,
Gojjam and Eritrea (Berhe, 2004, p. 580).
The decision of the TPLF and OLF to pursue an armed struggle against the Dergue locates the Ethiopian search
for nationhood within the violent contestations over national belonging that we see elsewhere in the postcolonial
period. In the 1970s, Ethiopia was besieged by violent confrontations over the definition of the nation and who
belongs in it. This is highlighted by the Eritrean struggle for independence and the TPLFs role therein. The evolution
of the relationship between the Eritrean and Tigrayan fronts can be traced to the period of the Dergue regime when
these liberation fronts joined forces (Young, 1996). Tigrayans living in Eritrea had made connections with the
Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) in the wake of an increasingly
repressive military regime. However, this coalition faced a number of challenges that had to do with how each
envisioned their respective national identities. The cooperation between the Tigrayan and Eritrean forces was, as
Young (1996) argues, underlined by tensions and pragmatism. The two liberation fronts held divergent objectives in
their armed coalition against the Dergue regime, with opposing end goals. The history of these differences can be
traced to the Woyane revolt of 1943. Prunier (2010) argues that one of the inheritances of the revolt was a deep
schism between the Tigrigna speakers of Tigray and Eritrea. The political and socio-economic conditions of the
Ethiopian Tigrigna speakers under imperial rule had set them quite apart from their Eritrean cousins who had a
slightly different experience under Italian rule. This Tigrayan split revealed itself quite violently during the 1998
2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean war.
3.1 |Defining the nation under federalism
Following 17 years of protracted civil war, the TPLF alongside its Eritrean allies and other groups defeated the
Dergue regime in 1991. The success of the TPLF/EPLF alliance carried nationalist undertones for each of these
fronts. However, it was not until each of them had gained political power in their respective polities that we would
see the full extent of their nationalist ambitions. The TPLF came to power with a plan to radically restructure the
Ethiopian state. Central to this plan was a redefinition of the nation and nationhood which came in the form of a fed-
eration that divided the country into smaller decentralised ethnicunits known as regional states. Despite the adop-
tion of federalism, the idea of the Ethiopian nation remained a salient part of the restructured state. This was
evident during the war with Eritrea between 1998 and 2000. In Ethiopia the war was not a wholly Tigrayan affair,
although it was quite important to the TPLF, many others responded to the national call to take up arms against the
enemy. Many were surprised by the popular support of this war (Last, 2004). The appeal to the nation and
Ethiopianness played a big role in the national war effort. Contrary to the multinational rhetoric, in the time of war,
the TPLF-led government followed in the footsteps of Emperors Menelik and Haile Selassie and made an appeal to
the nation(Wolde Giorgis, 2010, p. 87). Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has also galvanised national support in a similar
fashion in the ongoing civil war against the TPLF.
The lifespan of the TPLF has been characterised by pragmatism and ideological shifts that are rooted in a quest
for political domination in Ethiopia (Gebregzhiaber, 2019; Young, 1996). They constructed the definition and mean-
ing of nationhood from a similar standpoint. Ethnic nationalism was one of the main ideas that led to the establish-
ment of the TPLF, driven by the belief that national oppression against the Tigrayan ethnic group was alive and well
in Ethiopia (Gebregzhiaber, 2019). We saw this belief manifest itself in the introduction of federalism by advocating
for group rights over individual rights. Yet, as the years progressed and the challenges of ethnic federalism appeared,
the TPLF was able to rethink its position and adopt a tried and tested approach of deferring to the idea of a common
national identity. Orlowska (2013) demonstrates how the TPLF used the celebrations of the Ethiopian millennium in
2007 as an opportunity to try and bridge the gap between the divisive outcomes of ethnic federalism and the out-
dated nationhood associated with the Semitic culture and Orthodox Christianity. They employed pragmatism in
order to preserve the federal arrangement while also appealing to the memory of a unifying national imaginary.
Abbink (2012, p. 600) notes that considering the repression and the civil war that had ravaged Ethiopia for
decades, the adoption of ethnic federalism was likely the best possible modelfor Ethiopia at the time, a move that
was designed to hold a divided multi-ethnic state together (Orlowska, 2013). However, more was needed in order to
sustain these politics of difference, and this proved much harder than was initially anticipated (Orlowska, 2013).
The institutionalised divisions caused significant challenges in practice among the divided nations and nationalities
of Ethiopia. Despite these challenges, the architects, leaders and supporters of ethnic federalism still believed that
Ethiopia could still be a viable nation-state. It never occurred to the TPLF and its ruling coalition that the relationship
between state and nation produces a vicious cycle, whereby the nation imagines the state as its protector and
aggrandizer, the state fulfils this role and the nation's investment in the state's bestowal of privilege only intensifies
(Mamdani, 2021, p. 334). The focus remained on gaining and maintaining power over the state, whose capture is
seen as central to protecting group rights and privileges. If we take Mamdani's (2021) postulate that the only way to
escape perpetual political violence is through the decoupling of state from nation, then ethnic federalism was never
going to be the solution in Ethiopia. For Getachew (2021), federal structures that maintain the politicisation of tribal
and ethnic identity do not resolve the pathologies of the nation state. Instead, she argues that in federal structures,
the coupling of nation and state is produced and reproduced internally by tribe and ethnicity (Getachew, 2021).
The flaws in Ethiopia's ethnic federal experiment can be seen in the different trajectories of the TPLF and the
OLF since 1991. The OLF was among the groups that gathered in the early days to craft a new Ethiopia. They could
not claim any major military victories, yet they had also contributed to the fall of the Dergue. The OLFs participation
as a junior partner in the transitional government provided the Oromo people an opportunity to articulate their
vision of ethnic nationalism (Jalata, 1993, p. 397). However, the initial experience of the OLF with the EPRDF led the
former to doubt the commitment of the ruling coalition to grant unlimited freedoms to nations such as the Oromo.
The establishment of the Oromo People's Democratic Organisation (OPDO) and the support it received from the
EPRDF in the first election led the OLF to believe that a strategy of divide and rulewas being pursued by the
TPLF-dominated coalition, and they left the transitional government (Jalata, 1993; Keller, 1995). This set the tone
for the decades of strained relations between the OLF and the EPRDF. In its efforts to construct a modern multi-
ethnic nation-state, the EPRDF government did what many African states have been attempting to undo without
success for decadesentrenching politicised ethnic identities. We thus need to see the escalation of political vio-
lence in Oromia, Amhara and Southern regions up to 2018, and the subsequent war as part of the definition and
redefinition of the boundaries of political community in Ethiopia.
The scramble for more secular and inclusive national symbols during the millennium celebration points to a mis-
guided commitment to the nation-state. But more than this, the search for a modern definition of the Ethiopian
nation was a pragmatic move to legitimise the EPRDF government and to maintain its political dominance at the
expense of an inclusive national politics. Orlowska (2013, pp. 299300) notes that the millennium celebration came
at a particularly sensitive time following a highly contested election in 2005 that led to unrest and bloodshed. The
political violence that followed the 2005 elections fits a typology of what has come to be known as electoral
violencea form of political violence that we find in many African countries (Birch et al., 2020). The post-election
violence pointed to the precarity of the Ethiopian political community and a failure to address long-standing ques-
tions of inclusion and exclusion. Analyses on the post-election violence focused on the political system and the kind
of democratic ethos that was emerging in Ethiopia, including the reproduction of neopatrimonial tendencies
(Abbink, 2006, p. 180). Others saw the electoral violence as indicative of the contested nature of political identities
in Ethiopia and the tensions over ethnic identities and inclusive citizenship (Smith, 2009). Central to the violence was
contestation over boundaries of the political community, a recurring problem that has never been adequately
addressed using political means. Instead, the EPRDF government proceeded to criminalise political violence almost
as a state policya response that only perpetuates the status quo ante (Mamdani, 2021).
The war in Tigray is a continuation of the violent historical contests over the boundaries of the political commu-
nity in Ethiopia. These cycles of violence are made possible by the fact that the nation-state itself prevents the sub-
ordination of violence to non-violent political action, for it renders effective nonviolent political action impossible in
many cases(Mamdani, 2021, p. 334). We saw this in the absence of a meaningful commitment to democratic prac-
tice in Ethiopia since 1991. The recurring political violence in several regional states since 1991 and the war in Tigray
is evidence of the failure of the nation-state project in Ethiopia. The greatest inheritance of colonial modernitythe
nation-statehas been as devastating in Ethiopia as it has been in the rest of the African continent. A living contra-
diction, Ethiopia continues to occupy the minds of some of the country's thinkers who at times ponder the predica-
ment of the coloniality of our uncolonized land(Wolde Giorgis, 2019, p. 26). What Ethiopia needs is a reimagination
of the political. The war in Tigray demonstrates the inherent danger in the pursuit of the nation-state model at all
costs. Aptly capturing the past and present state of affairs in Ethiopia, Mamdani (2021, p. 333) cautions,
As long as the state form continues to be pegged to the nation, new grievances will arise over time as
people learn to think differently about their place in the political community. Not only that, but yes-
terday's victim is likely to seek benefits and become tomorrow's perpetrator: once the victim's griev-
ance is satisfied through his elevation to membership in the political community, he will be in a
position to prevent others' access, even as he retains the narrative of victimhood.
At some point, this cycle must be broken and a new form of politics has to emerge. This applies to the rest of
the African continent and beyond where societies are still held hostage to ideas of colonial modernity.
Mamdani's (2021) solution of decoupling state from nation may take long to realise; in the meantime, we need inter-
ventions that will reduce the prevalence of political violence. The widespread suppression of democracy and
democratisation in Ethiopia during the period of ethnic federalism arguably hastened the failure of this project. What
is urgently needed in Ethiopia as elsewhere in Africa is a commitment to decolonise the political and to make space
for more inclusive, indigenous and accountable forms of political community.
Addressing the structural and historical causes of political violence is a productive place from which we can start to
think about reimagining modern society in Africa. This article has sought to make sense of the war that erupted in
Ethiopia in November 2020 between the TPLF and the federal government, yet another instance of civil war in that
country. The article argues that the continued embrace of the nation-state model in Ethiopia is not the solution to
the country's cycles of political violence. This is because the Ethiopian vision of the nation is rooted in a modernist
conception of political community that is influenced by elements of colonial modernity. The foundations of
Ethiopian nationhood preclude the equal inclusion of other nations and nationalities. This is evident in the histories
of the OLF and the TPLF, two very different ethno-nationalist fronts that have each resorted to violent means in
order to advance the national ambitions of their people vis-à-vis the Ethiopian state.
This article foregrounded Mamdani's (2021) provocations on decolonising the politicala welcome critique
of the dominant epistemological and cultural projects of modern politics. The article has focused on one part of
Mamdani's broad inquiry into political modernityexplaining the violent expressions of nationhood in the period
after the end of formal colonisation. The article found Mamdani's assertions on the conjuncture of colonial and
postcolonial visions of modernity particularly useful. The homogenising imperative and the global embrace of the
nation-state has had devastating consequences on African societies since independence. The power of
Mamdani's framework is evident when we consider it in relation to the idea of coloniality. Coloniality has had a
major influence on Ethiopia regardless of the absence of formal colonisation by a European power.
Quijano's (2000) assertions hold true in Ethiopia, where modernity has coexisted with coloniality. Key institutions
of colonial modernity such as sovereignty formed the basis of Ethiopian modernity. Consequently, notions of
inclusion, exclusion, domination and racism interacted within this context to inform the national imaginary.
Ethiopia has not embarked on a comprehensive process of decolonisation because the country has not reckoned
with its entanglements with coloniality. The structures of exclusion and domination remain intact, despite the
social revolution of 1974 and the attempt to decentralise power after 1991. This suggests that for as long as
the nation continues to be imagined alongside the state in Ethiopia, violence will continue to mediate patterns
of exclusion and inclusion.
Through this framework, we can dispel the notion of Ethiopian exceptionalism as it is evident that Ethiopia has
not escaped the vestiges of colonial modernity that the rest of the African continent continues to contend with. In
fact, the Ethiopian case illustrates the limits of decolonisation and the shortcomings of this endeavour elsewhere in
Africa. If a comprehensive decolonisation had taken place, then nation-states would have ceased from being the
main sites of political violence in the postcolonial period.
Ultimately, the solution to the problem of contested nationhood and the corresponding political violence lies
within the affected societies. A comprehensive agenda to decolonise the political and room for inclusive models
of political community must be prioritised, regardless of whether the outcome is a decoupling of state from
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