Many Ethiopians are uneasy at the idea of seeing their beloved country following an administrative structure that empowers the regions and limits the central government. The main reason for this is their dread of the Zemene Mesafint (Era of Princes), a period characterized by perceived lawlessness and chaos, which is imprinted on their collective unconscious.In fact, I argue, it is the sub-conscious abhorrence felt towards this era and the glorification of the extreme reaction taken by Emperor Tewodros II in ‘setting it right’ which is the cause for the political trauma whose vengeful tides have come to lap at crisis-ridden shores once again.
In short, it is our failure to properly resolve the crisis of the Zemene Mesafint, which ran from the mid-1700s for about a century, that continues to haunt us. In the following essay, I will undertake to revisit the Zemene Mesafint and re-examine it in relation to the current political crisis. I will do so based on the framework of Richard Reid’s recent book: ‘Frontiers of Violence in North East Africa’.
The Zemene Mesafint was actually named after the ‘era of the judges’ in the Old Testament, when Israel had no King and ‘every man did that which was right in his own eyes’. Paul Henze suggests amending this verse to read ‘every noble did that which was right in his own eyes’ to more fittingly describe what went on during the era. Overtly defiant regional lords from parts of modern-day Tigray, Amhara and Oromia fought each other and challenged monarchical authority.
The forging of alliances and counter alliances along ethnic lines, frequent inter-regional wars, and absence of strong central authority all strongly resemble the current situation in Ethiopia. Even more striking is how the people’s reaction to inter-ethnic strife and corruption during the era mirrors the rallying behind the new regime today and the demand for strong leadership.
Forceful expression of a deep-lying problem
The crisis evinced in the Era of Princes was actually a forceful expression of a deep- lying problem that had been brewing under the surface during the previous centuries. Reid recognizes the importance of this fact in correctly understanding contemporary Ethiopian politics:
The conflicts which erupted in the 1760s and 1770s were a long time coming. They finally shattered the façade of unity—of political and ethnic homogeneity—much trumpeted at the apex of the medieval Ethiopian state…. The zemene mesafint was the crystallization of many of the evolving crises experienced by the habesha polity dating to the mid-sixteenth century… The processes and dynamics which were unleashed from the late eighteenth century…would come to define the region’s history long after the supposed ‘reunification’ of Ethiopia in the middle of the nineteenth century. The patterns of violence, and the reasons behind such violence, exist to the present day. (p 39)
It was the outcome of the increasingly strained relationship between the central government and the peripheral regions that had eventually grown to create fissures among the empire’s populace. Regional and ethnic identity, which had always been there, increasingly marginalized and subdued under the overarching super culture of the empire’s religio-political narrative, had finally got the chance to reassert itself, rather forcefully, on the political and religious center.
But the Era of the Princes was even more brutal and damaging than the actions of the emperors’ who served to ignite it. The glorification of the excessive and often vengeful actions undertaken by Tewodros II in subduing the regions, should thus be examined in the context of this resentment. And popular demands that call for such Tewodros-like leadership and their potential long-term effects should, in turn, be weighed accordingly.
Skeletons in the closet
Conventional Ethiopian history presents the Zemene Mesafint in the worst possible light. Many of its darker features—massacres, petty feuds between lords, bloody wars—causing havoc among the public may indeed justify such pronouncements. Recently, however, some historians have begun to question whether the extremely negative portrayal of the Zemene Mesafint, by local and foreign historians alike, is in fact, in part, the outcome of personal prejudices and misconceptions.
Although the era certainly entertained significant chaos and turbulence to merit healthy disapproval, the exaggerated condemnation that is evident in the writings of early chroniclers and subsequent historians predisposes us to inquire whether unmerited presuppositions have infiltrated perceptions of the era. Richard Reid tells us:
The Zemene Mesafint, from this perspective, is treated as a form of temporally determined ‘pre-modern savagery’, in much the same way as escalations of violent conflict in the nineteenth century have been regarded in other parts of the continent. (p.39)
But, while the period saw excessive violence and lawlessness, Reid believes it has been mischaracterized to fit preconceived trends and mythological notions:
It is axiomatic to suggest that contemporary European sources must be treated with caution in this context; ‘Western’ observers had a tendency to exaggerate and misunderstand the level of violence they were witnessing, and to emphasize above all else the prevalence of war, or what passed for it, among savage tribes endlessly at one another’s throats. What they were witnessing, in fact, was vicious total war, ruthlessly rational in economic and political terms. (p.43)
Although Reid explored the possible causes for westerners’ biased reports, he doesn’t explicitly mention the preconceptions for the markedly biased assessment of Ethiopian chroniclers and historians. He merely informs us that to the habesha mind, the state of things during the era were ‘against natural order of things’. It is therefore right to ask: “what makes it unnatural?” Was it the numerous wars and unrest that were common during the era, that made it sound ‘unnatural’ to the habesha mindset? To argue this suggests that apart from the ‘accursed’ era (the Zemene Mesafint), Ethiopia had been an island of peace and stability and bloody wars and persecutions were alien to the land.
Anyone who is even faintly familiar with medieval Ethiopian history would acknowledge that this is absurd. Bloody wars and relentless persecutions were common during much of it. Apart from an increased intensity of persecutions and bloodbaths, what changed during the Era of Princes was a difference among those who caused the bloody wars and who ended up with the spoils. What struck a chord among conservative chroniclers and made the Era of Princes ‘unnatural’ was the nobility’s dominance over the monarchy. The periphery had come to overwhelm the center.
Ethiopians at the political and religious center were nurtured from posterity with the idea of a strong monarch forcefully subduing the frontier. Reid traces the origin of this idea to the religio-political myths of Kibre Negastwhich claimed that “‘the greatness of kings’ was related to possession of a sacred emblem (namely the Ark of the Covenant) and a blood connection with a God-anointed elect.” (p.27)
According to Kibre Negast, the legendary Menilek I:
…waged war wherever he pleaseth, and no man conquered him, but whosoever attacked him was conquered, for Zion himself made the strength of the enemy to be exhausted. But King David II with his armies and all those who obeyed his word, ran by the chariots without pain, hunger or thirst, without sweat and exhaustion.
Consequently, whichever war the king chose to wage was blessed as righteous: “Righteous violence became legitimized through Solomonic mythology and came to occupy a central role in habesha political discourse and action, as real and as vital to nineteenth – and twentieth – century rulers as it was to early Solomonic monarchs” (p.28). Subsequent Solomonic kings strove to live up to the mythical Menilik (I)’s legacy of excessive yet ‘righteous’ violence to expand and subdue the periphery.
As such, the Era of Princes, with the unwelcome reality of autonomous nobles from the periphery exerting influence over the weak monarchs of the center, was indeed an abhorrence, and the idea of loosely connected regions, a sort of proto-federation, was blasphemy. The uncivilized periphery was meant to be subdued and tamed, not operate unchecked at the center, or even develop autonomy.
As such, Reid’s central thesis portrays the medieval and modern history of Ethiopia as the outcome of the unresolved tension and conflict between the center (embodied by authoritarian monarchy) and the periphery (politically and culturally alienated groups of the empire). The center ever strives to use ‘righteous violence’ to subdue the periphery and they in turn become “shifta” or “woyane” and attempt to influence the center by fomenting revolution.
The history of the past several centuries can thus be explained through these un-reconciled dialectics. More importantly, the current political tension between the Unitarian/centripetal and Federalist/centrifugal forces can be seen to be the direct outcome of unsuccessful past attempts to resolve the tension.
Absolutist and maximal centrism was further reinforced by the 16th century myth of a forthcoming national king. According to this myth, which probably had its origin in ‘Fikare Iyesus’ and inherited Jewish traditions about the warrior messiah, a messianic figure will emerge from relative anonymity to vanquish the enemies of Ethiopia and restore the country to her rightful place of greatness and prosperity. Peace, glory and joy are assumed to reign in Ethiopia when this glorious figure occupies the throne with some claiming his reign will last a thousand years. This myth is highly popular among the masses and its influence heightens whenever the country enters into crisis. And curiously enough, this messiah-king was foretold to assume the throne name of ‘Tewodros’.
Thus, it is no surprise that this popular yearning for the national messiah reached its peak during the Zemene Mesafint, when the power of the monarchy was undermined and centrifugal forces were causing havoc. It was during this time, when every Abyssinian was dreaming of a Saviour who would take Ethiopia out of this troubled time and ‘restore’ her back to greatness, that Kassa of Quara emerged as the national messiah, taking the throne name of Tewodros:
His very choice of throne name suggested an amalgamation of hubris and insecurity, alluding to a longstanding Orthodox belief that a monarch named Tewodros would come to save the kingdom, and rule for a thousand years. It was a popular fiction, but the historicization of violent conflict was the defining feature of nineteenth century habesha statehood, and was underpinned by ideas about destiny and inheritance. (p.52)
Any form of compromise and diplomacy was thus perceived as a weakness. Leaders occupying the center were urged and pressured by this centuries-old mythology to assume the role of the ‘big man’ and forcefully cleanse what was impure and do away with what was considered an abomination. Any form of negotiation and compromise with the periphery would not do. Only when ‘righteous violence’, legitimized by sacred scrolls and chronicles like the Kibre Negast, was unleashed upon alien usurpers from the frontiers, to put them to their proper place, would the centrists be satisfied.
The widespread euphoria that quickly accompanied Abiy Ahmed in his rise to power and the equally quick and widespread denunciations he received from the populace is yet another sign that the habesha reared from childhood with such unrealistic messianic expectations of political leaders possess neither the patience nor the political maturity to allow leaders to make sober and diplomatically sane decisions.
Conversely, this ‘righteous’ violence breeds dissatisfaction by politically and culturally alienated groups which provides them with just cause and righteous indignation (‘woyane’ comes from the Tigrigna word ‘way ane (ዋይአነ)’ – a cry of indignation) to march on the center.
The ‘liberators’ are quickly welcomed with euphoric acclaims and the vanquished are portrayed in their worst light. Labels such as ‘the dark years’ are tagged to previous regimes and attempts to acknowledge even faint positives are met with outrage. The ‘Zemene Mesafint’ had been portrayed as the ‘dark era’ and Tewodros heralded as the bringer of light. In line with this trend, the Derg, similarly demonized the Imperial era and claimed heroic status for slaying the ‘dragon’. The TPLF-EPRDF regime, for all its anti-centrism rhetoric, followed down this well-trodden path towards vilifying the past and heralding itself as the messiah.
Such unrealistic expectations, bordering on childish narcissism, drive policy decisions and political strategies for generations, further escalating conflict between the center and the periphery. With Abiy’s government following in the footsteps of its forerunners in calling the previous era “27 years of darkness”, the trend does not seem to have changed.
The curious case of Tigray
The tension and conflict between Tigryan elites and political center, which has been casting its shadow on Ethiopian politics for centuries, seems poised to remain as a destabilizing force for some time to come. It is interesting that the Era of Princes was ushered by a Tigrayan noble, Ras Mikael Sehul. His march to Gondar to defeat and execute Emperor Iyoas in 1769 marked the beginning of the Zemene Mesafint. The event almost resembles the ‘decentralization project’ which was witnessed with the coming to power of the Tigrayan based TPLF-led coalition. The TPLF, of course, didn’t receive a formal invitation from the center, as Mikael Sehul did from Etege Mentewab. Yet it did not stop TPLF from considering the centrists’ active rejection of the Derg and their unenthusiastic acceptance of the imminent reality of the new regime to be essentially equivalent.
But the parallels do not stop there. Ras Mikael was then the kingmaker and was able to appoint two emperors, Yohannes II and Teklehaymanot II. This was not too dissimilar to TPLF’s role during the past 27 years. What makes it all the more striking is that Mikael Sehul was defeated and ousted from power by combined Amhara and Oromo nobility. Again, this roughly resembles the combined ‘Oro-mara’ forces which brought Abiy Ahmed to power. History does indeed repeat itself.
This was then followed by the exclusion of Tigrayan nobles from the political arena and the subsequent dominance of imperial politics at Gonder by Oromo nobles—the so-called era of the wara-she/Yejju/rulers. However, the assimilated Yejju Oromos soon started to face opposition from their un-assimilated southern kinsmen on the one hand and resentment from the Amhara of Gondar and Gojjam on the other. Again this almost mirrors the current tension Abiy’s regime is experiencing; torn between the unionist Amharas and ethnic extremist Oromos especially over the thorny question of Addis Ababa. This state of fragmentation and continual wars was to last until the coming to power of Tewodros II.
The formation of the new Prosperity Party and the inevitable exclusion of TPLF—and presumably of the Tigrayan people—from Ethiopian politics seems set to bring about the re-enactment of this violent historical tension between Tigray and the center. But excluding Tigray did not work before. It only served to breed resentment among Tigrayans and end up in initiating episodic revolutions with varying degrees of success. Yohannes IV’s rise to power and the first and second Woyane rebellions were all empowered by the resilient belief that Tigray did not receive appropriate recognition as the cultural and political co-founder of Ethiopia. There were thus forceful reactions to exclusions from the center.
It is noteworthy that in all three cases none of these movements emerging from Tigray attempted either to culturally dominate or declare complete autonomy from the center. Yohannes IV, although he reigned from Tigray, refrained from imposing Tigrigna language and culture on the rest of the country. The first Woyane rebellion of 1943, similarly, remained Pan-Ethiopian, merely content on seeking autonomous self-administration ‘under the Ethiopian flag’. The second Woyane launched the EPRDF. All three in effect endorsed federal type arrangements.
This shows the defensive type of ethnic identity that lies at the center of Tigrayan politics. This is in sharp contrast to certain aggressive elements among other ethnic groups who have sought to impose their culture and identity over others. Anti-Tigrayan sentiments put forward by some quarters need to note this virtuous aspect and temper their criticisms accordingly. On the other hand, the recent movement by certain sections of Tigrayan politicians to split Tigray from Ethiopia should also recognize the deeply Ethiopian character of Tigrayan identity and previous resistance movements, and consequently re-orient their efforts to combat perceived and apparent injustices within the national political space.
History at a crossroads?
The question is whether Abiy Ahmed will back-track and ‘cave in’ or will he embrace centrists’ expectations and strive to fill Tewodros’ messianic role, thereby continuing the vicious cycle of excessive centrism and reactive revolution? Indeed, his swift, albeit veiled actions to deal with potentially rebellious regional leaders are reminiscent of Tewodros II’s attempt to quash the princes and end the Zemene Mesafint. Without fanfare, he appears to have succeeded in making all but two of the regions subservient to his rule.
Popular centrist expectations, leading many to hang Abiy’s photo alongside that of Tewodros, may present ominous temptations to the newcomer and may cause alarm among critics that another authoritarian leader is at the helm. However, while he may have initially played on such popular fantasies and appeared to subtly condone such associations, as morally ambiguous as they may be, it is doubtful if Abiy entertained their use beyond the means to reach power.
So far Abiy seems to have resisted the urge to take manifestly hostile actions, especially against overtly defiant regions like Tigray. This may be because he may have doubted his success; or he may be waiting for the appropriate time. Equally, it shows populism has not driven him towards losing his reason; in fact, his approach so far resembles more that of the cautious Haile Selassie I than the hot-headed Tewodros II.
Reconciliation that excludes Tigray will not endure
Yet Abiy would do well to note that even Haile Selassie’s diplomatic prowess and veiled tactics did not prevent resentment boiling over in the form of the Woyane rebellion of 1943. While it may have eventually been subdued, the Woyane rebellion served to entrench animosity among Tigrayans, which eventually brought about the TPLF insurgency. This shows that even overt pacifism is not enough as long as true autonomy of regions is being eroded. The only way out would be to recognize and grant true autonomy for regions and work towards an all-inclusive political platform at the federal level. It is ironic, however, that regions such as Tigray are exercising their greatest autonomy today under a leader who is suspected of the intent to undermine their right to self-rule.
It remains to be seen whether or not the Tigrayan elite will follow the post-Mikael Sehul track and choose a path of political alienation and passive resistance to centrist encroachment until another indignation (‘way-ane’) prompts them to episodic rebellion.
On the other hand, Oromo and Amhara elites need to recognize that any reconciliation that excludes Tigray will not endure. While the numbers game might initially make it seem that Tigray would not pose a threat, the overall situation would merely create another center-frontier tension which, through time, could provoke further embitterment on the part of the excluded and end up in some form of rebellion that might potentially undermine the unity of the country.
History shows us the futility of such actions as, ironically, Abiy’s present rise to power is the outcome of a reaction to such exclusion. Thus, the subtle yet apparent attempts to take TPLF—and Tigray by default—out of the political game by moulding the EPRDF into a single party needs to take into account such far-reaching consequences. After all, ‘medemer’ (as ‘inclusivity’) must not be interpreted to mean unity against Tegaru, but must be sincere enough to include all Ethiopians for it to bring about a true and lasting solution for Ethiopia’s political conundrum.
Equally, the Tigrayan elite need to make a sober assessment of the past 27 years. They need to recognize that, although there were remarkable contributions in terms of infrastructure development and empowering previously suppressed ethnic groups, the TPLF has been wrongfully dominating the political and economic platform. For such a resistance ideology, which built its reputation upon the assertion that the Amhara elite had been unjustly dominating the political and economic platform earlier, it would be ironic not to recognize that the Tigrayan elite had themselves been doing the same for the past two decades. Thus, they need to understand that such disproportional activity , though blown out of proportion for their political agenda by unionist elements, genuinely bruised other nationalities and caused real embitterment. Honest reflection and acknowledgement of this fact should start the process towards reconciliation.
Moreover, TPLF and other ethnic based groups need to acknowledge that the ‘wuhud /assimilated/’ are a major force to be reckoned with and give them their due recognition. There is a huge segment of the overall population that has been assimilated and does not profess any ties to conventional ethnic groups. They should not be rejected or stigmatized for not having an ethnic identity. They have the right to exist and develop their ‘non-ethnic’ identity without being forced to adopt ethnic titles to which they have no attachment. So far centrifugal forces have either turned a blind eye to their existence or resorted to trivial name calling and belittlement. Merely calling them ‘Amharized’, ‘mehal-sefaris’/moderates/ or ‘keyet‘ is not going to dissolve them into non-existence.
Political ideology needs to stop demonizing centripetal forces and acknowledge that they are the legitimate representatives of this segment who need a voice as much as un-assimilated ethnic groups. I believe amendments that recognize such groups need to be considered within the federal constitution. There should be laws that guarantee the rights of assimilated groups just as much as their ethnically affiliated fellow citizens. The controversial case of Addis Ababa also needs to be revisited from this perspective. As such, the rights of Addis Ababans, who do possess distinct non-ethnic identity and shared cultural values, for self-determination and self-governance should be affirmed.
I believe ‘Team Lemma’ (or whatever is left of it) has used the anti-TPLF card for far too long. Although some might regard their initial anti-TPLF rallying call as justifiable to bring about the change of regime, anyone would recognize the extent and duration of this propaganda has outdated its agenda and is now threatening to defeat the purpose. The creation of a siege mentality may work for a while but apart from the fact that it is not going (economically speaking) ‘to bake the bread’, it will inevitably have negative consequences in the long term.
In fact, this is already starting to appear. Though intended or not, anti-TPLF remarks have been widely expanded into anti-Tigrayan reactions by the populace. This, in turn, is invoking widespread anti-nationalist and secessionist movements among the Tigrayans. Some may underestimate such tendencies with oversimplified assumptions about the capacity of the region to stand on its own, and consequently downplay their viability.
That is beside the point. The federation, as it stands, cannot withstand another secessionist impulse, no matter how supposedly insignificant the region may be. Ethiopia barely survived Eritrean secession in 1993 with Oromo and Somali separatists demanding similar treatment and almost getting away with it. Another such debacle would risk severing the very chord holding the country together.
This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopian Registrar will correct clear factual errors.