Cover Image
close this bookEthnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (United Nations University, 1996, 298 p.)
close this folder2. Ethnic conflict in the Horn of Africa: Myth and reality
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentConceptual problems
View the documentProblems of definition
View the documentEthnicity and social harmony
View the documentThe role of ideology
View the documentTraditional remedies
View the documentAn alternative approach
View the documentConclusion

Problems of definition

Once one goes beyond the labels and begins to decipher the claims and counter-claims in the Ethiopian conflicts, all the problems associated with the concept of ethnicity discussed earlier begin to surface. To begin with, the definition of the "oppressors" and the "oppressed" in ethnic terms becomes an insurmountable task. Who are the dominating Amhara people? How is membership in this group defined? What is the Amhara culture? Is "Amhara domination" a code word that disguises other grievances or does it signify supremacy of one population over another, as the term implies?

It is true that most of the symbols of the Ethiopian state (official religion, official language, etc.) have taken the identity of what has been labelled "Amhara culture," and the persons who have occupied power and privilege have, by and large, borne Amhara names. But this situation does not mean that the great majority of the Amhara people have been "dominators" or beneficiaries of the political, economic, or social system that bore their name.

First of all, not all people that speak Amharic as their mother tongue and are Orthodox Christians consider themselves as one ethnic group. The Gondare Amharas are distinct from the Shoan Amharas, as the Gojam Amharas are from the Wollo Amharas. There had been a history of rivalry and warfare between these subgroups. In the past several centuries, the subgroups had formed various alliances with other ethnic groups such as the Oromos, the Gurages, and the Tigres to fight other Amharas. The same phenomenon of internal division and warfare has also prevailed among other groups such as the Oromos, the Afares, and the Somalis.

Second, in the last century, the major beneficiaries of the "Amhara dominated" state were primarily the Shoans, who held most of the government leadership positions, controlled much economic power, governed most of the provinces, owned large estates in the southern provinces, and managed to make Shoa's capital, Addis Ababa, the centre of economic activity for the entire Ethiopian state. The other Amharas (Wolloyes, Gojames, and Gondares) were excluded from this system as much as those who belonged to other ethnic groups.

Third, even with "Shoan domination," the beneficiaries of such privilege were the aristocracy and the educated elite, who constituted a very tiny percentage of the Amhara population. The vast majority of the Shoan Amharas have been as poor, powerless, and exploited as any other Amhara or non-Amhara groups such as the Oromos, Gurages, or Sidamas. In fact, the poverty of the Shoan Amhara peasant was in some cases worse than that of the "subjugated peoples" of southern Ethiopia such as the Kaffa and Adere people, who were "outsiders" to the state system.

Fourth, even the ethnic identity of the Shoan rulers has been subject to controversy. As far back as the 1760s, Oromos have assumed very significant leadership roles in the Abyssinian kingdoms or empires based in Shoa and the other Amhara regions of Begemder, Gojam, and Wollo. According to Clapham (1988/9: 217), the Shoan leaders have been as much Oromo and Gurage as Amhara. He points out that most of the Shoan emperors, and many of the generals and governors who served these rulers in the expansion of Shoan control to the south of the country, had Oromo or Gurage lineage. Emperor Haile Sellassie, the latest and one of the strongest symbols of "Amhara domination," was "in terms of his parentage more Oromo than Amhara, and also had a Gurage grandmother. He married an Oromo. "4

Fifth, there is a big question as to whether the so-called Amhara culture was merely the culture of one ethnic group which was imposed on other ethnic groups. It has been pointed out that the Amhara culture interacted with the cultures of other peoples in Ethiopia not by assimilation but rather by acculturation.5 Although its name stayed "Amhara," the culture allowed others to influence and change it. Asmeron Legesse (1973: 9) argues that "the process of cultural exchange cannot be reduced to a simplistic picture in which Gallinna [Oromo] speakers [for example] become Amhara... It is a rather complex situation in which many cultural vectors are interacting to produce a resultant [sic] that is fundamentally new." This aspect of the so-called Amhara culture has enabled Clapham (1988: 23-4) to call it a core element of a multi-ethnic culture which, despite its name, is not the exclusive property of any particular group of people.

In sum, Greenfield (1965: 58) scans the history of the Ethiopian peoples' interaction over the centuries and observes: "This latter word [Amhara] no longer has close definition and it is clear that the word 'tribalism' is not suited to Ethiopian studies."

Thus, we find the ethnic explanation of the conflict that has gripped Ethiopia for the past 30 years, such as the theory of "Amhara domination," very inadequate and misleading. This is partly because it is very difficult to define the actors in ethnic terms (for instance, who are the Amharas?). Secondly, even if it were possible to define the actors in ethnic terms (if one were to define easily who the Amharas were), the reality on the ground does not support a conclusion that what was witnessed in Ethiopia was ethnic conflict.

In fact, a good case can be made that ethnic conflict, in the sense of one ethnic group waging a war against another, or pogroms motivated by ethnic hatred, such as we have seen in some societies, has been a very rare event in the history of Ethiopia. The norm in the country, if not in the region, with the exception of recent developments in Somalia, has been ethnic coexistence rather than ethnic warfare.