A household name at institutions of higher learning in Ethiopia, John Markakis, a Greek national, is a renowned political historian of Ethiopia. He received his BA in political science from Brooklyn College and his MA and PhD in government and African studies from Columbia University.
He specializes in the economy of African states, with a particular focus on Ethiopia and its neighbors in the Horn of Africa. For most part of his life, he taught at the University of Addis Ababa, the City University of New York, St. Johns University (New York), Universities of Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zambia and Edinburgh and the Institute of Social Studies in the Hague.
A scholar enriched with a deep knowledge of Ethiopian’s political history, he also published historical books, namely “Ethiopia: Anatomy of a Traditional Polity,” “Class and Revolution in Ethiopia,” “National and Class Conflict in the Horn of Africa,” “Pastoralism on the Margin” and others. In addition to that, in his book entitled “The Greeks in Black Africa,” he showed the extensive relationship of Greece with the continent. Throughout the years, he also published and presented numerous research papers on issues concerning state building, national integration, ethnicity, religious and ethnic conflicts, pastoralism, cross-border trade and regional security.
In his latest publication “Ethiopia: The Last Two Frontiers,” Markakis presents an over-reaching, yet concise, historical profile of the momentous effort to transform a multicultural empire into a modern nation state. Regarding his latest book and his experience in Ethiopia, Tibebeselassie Tigabu of the Reporter caught up with John Markakis. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Let’s start from the beginning. How did you first come to Ethiopia?
John Markakis: It was totally a coincidence. I had no plans to come to Ethiopia. I had just finished my studies in the US, which included courses in African studies. During that period, Africa was very interesting; decolonization movements, nationalist political parties, election, and freedom fighters such as Kwame Nkrumah were at the center of newly independent Africa. So I wanted to come to Africa and asked for a position in Nigeria. They said the post was not open anymore. The only available and somewhat unwanted job offer was in Ethiopia. I did not know much about Ethiopia. There were no nationalist political parties, no elections; but I had to take it because there was nothing else. I came in 1965 during the reign of Emperor Haileselassie. I went to the Political Science Department of the Addis Ababa University College and the department head was an old Polish man. He was a very conservative Catholic man. At that time, the Jesuits were still controlling the university and they hired only Catholics. They did not allow students to smoke or drink. He showed me the courses which were offered by the department. There was nothing, not even a single course, on Ethiopia. So I asked why they were not teaching anything about Ethiopian government or the politics of Ethiopia. His response was, ‘‘No, no; we do not talk about these things in this country.’’ I asked why not. He said that politics was the job of the emperor; nobody else had anything to say about it. I asked what the students thought about that. He said the students were not supposed to think about politics. Later on, when I got to know the students, I found out that the reverse was true. In fact, what they all thought about was politics and nothing else.
What was the course you were assigned to teach?
I was teaching about government structures in the west, mostly in the US: the checks and balances, and the bicameral legislature. I also taught about totalitarian states and democratic states. These were issues that had nothing to do with Africa let alone Ethiopia. The students were not interested at all. All they wanted to talk about was revolution.
The students at that time were highly influenced by Karl Marx, Lenin, Frantz Fanon, and Mao. How did you reconcile your teachings with their ideology?
It was very difficult for me. The department requested us not to talk about Ethiopian politics and I did not know much about Ethiopian politics either. I was teaching them concepts that were of no interest to them. They sort of ignored me. They would not come to class; and when they did they won’t ask any question. When they asked questions, they would try to embarrass me. Questions such as, ‘‘Do you think revolution is good for Ethiopia?’’ (Laughs) and I will say, ‘‘Well, maybe a reform is better, and so on.’’ So, the first year I had a hard time. I could see that I was not having a rapport with them and I asked other fellow lecturers for advice. They told me that since I came from the US, my students might think that I was a CIA agent. Secondly, they were not interested in American politics. The students I had were the most radical, the very ones which influenced the historical student movement here. Berhane Meskel Reda, Gebru Mersha, Walelegn Emanuel, and Tilahun Gizaw were all my students. Then, I noticed what they were reading: Frantz Fanon’s “Wretched of The Earth,” Mao’s “On Contradiction,” and “What is to be Done” by Lenin. These were books that I have never read. Fellow friends advised me to read what my students were reading; and to let them talk what they wanted to talk about in class and learn about Ethiopia. The system of land tenure was at the epicenter of the student movement and they held slogans calling for land-tenure reform at the demonstrations in 1965. By my second year, my class became open for any political discussion. Following that, the students warmed up and they started trusting me. In the following years, our relationship grew closer. We had departmental parties where we all gathered and the students were drinking Coca-Cola and other types of soda. Then I asked if other drinks like beer or alcohol were available? They told me that the Jesuits would not allow it. I said I was not a Jesuit and I asked them what they wanted to drink. They said tej. They brought tej and then I started drinking; and then I took out a cigarette and started to smoke. They said I broke the law twice. (Laughs) That is how we became friends gradually and became interested in how the imperial regime works. The system was very traditional and yet highly developed. Everyone knew his or her place. The society was highly hierarchical. Everyone knew how to behave with other people. If one was a balabat or a tilk sew, there was an understanding on how to even wear the shema when people talk to them. It was like going back to the Middle Ages but it was working as a state. On top of that, it was Emperor Haileselassie who knew everything and he was in control of everything and everybody. His control extended to such private matters as divorce. He was a remarkable man. I know he was later discredited by many, but now when I look back, I think Haileselassie was an extraordinary man. He made himself an imperial autocrat. He put the imperial state together, which put everything in place. He had that kind of control and the system worked. Nevertheless, there were communities and regions in Ethiopia that did not go along with the system. The regime had difficulties to sustain that kind of absolute rule. Ethiopia had the largest army in black Africa in the 1970’s with the US and Spain providing it with training and weapons among other things. The army was fighting in Eritrea and Somalia. There was a big uprising in Gojjam and the army was not able to control it because it was trained for conventional warfare: what they called at the time a positional warfare where the army holds a position and bombards the other side. They could not manage guerilla warfare and gradually things became very difficult. With that, the army started to become highly dissatisfied since the troops were not treated well. In the first mutiny in Bale, soldiers rose up because they did not have water to drink. The army was also split along class lines and they rebelled against their own officers. Once this happened, the regime started to collapse because the army was its pillar.
Why was Marx important to the student movement? Was it because of the division of the two blocs: capitalism and socialism? Or was it because of the hierarchical structure of the society at that time? Why is class the main concern in the student movement?
First of all, Marxism was the liberation ideology throughout the colonial world including the oppressed people in China, Vietnam, Algeria, Angola, Mozambique and South Africa. Naturally, the students here went in that direction. But, it also fits Ethiopia’s situation at the time since it was a rigidly class-divided nation.
The students were determined to attain what they called a telescope development. They wanted the state to jump to socialism without passing through capitalism. It was the idea of quick development, and they wanted it very badly. They knew that they had to overthrow the feudal regime if they were going to achieve anything. The land situation in Ethiopia was a time-bomb. In the southern part of Ethiopia, there was huge ethnic division which coincided with class segregation. It was bound to explode. This is why the students were preoccupied with land. Thus, the slogan, ‘‘Land to the tiller’’ was meant to prevent further turmoil that would potentially threaten Ethiopia’s statehood.
What about the question of nations and nationalities that students like Walelegn Makonnen advocated? What was the policy of the government then?
Emperor Haileselassie had a policy towards integration. The regime presumesd ethnic differences were dangerous to the country’s stability. The policy of cultural integration and bringing about national unity and homogeneity of identity was a classic one. The plan was to assimilate southerners and others into Orthodox Christianity and the Amharic-speaking community. The regime pushed this. To some extent, it was successful in a sense that many people converted to Christianity in the south. Many people took Christian names. Place names were changed, Adama into Nazareth, for example. Assimilation into the ruling class was granted through Christianity and the Amharic language. This was the policy. But for such a policy to work, it would take a long time. Before they could get very far there was a reaction against assimilation. Walelegn was an Amhara but he reacted against forced assimilation. The Oromos, even in those times, were very much against being assimilated. The Somali could not even understand what it takes to be assimilated. Therefore, the policy was very archaic and it would take a long time to succeed. The rebel movements intensified in Eritrea, Ogaden and Bale. A huge army presence was felt in the country but it was divided which only meant that the center itself was divided. Therefore, the pressure from the periphery divided the center and it collapsed. The Derg tried to respond to some of these challenges immediately. This is one of the reasons why the students resorted to Marxism because Marxism was a theory that transcends ethnic differences. It contends that ethnic differences would dissipate if class differences were resolved. That is, if the system made sure that the worker/peasantry class is treated as equal. The Derg took the ideology from the students, which says ‘‘we are workers and peasants; we have nothing to divide us.’’ The second concept the Dergtook from the students was the policy of nationalizing land. It was a great move forward. It was anticipated to dissolve the explosive tension in the periphery. In addition to that, unlike the previous regime, the Derg recognized Ethiopia as a multi-cultural society. Haileselassie went to the US Congress in the 1950s and he said that Ethiopia was a Christian nation in the middle of an Islam-dominated neighborhood while half of its people were Muslims. Many of the things that the Derg did were intended to prevent the same situation from happening again. One thing they did not do or has not been done yet was power- and resources-sharing among different groups equally. Haileselassie would not do that; he would not even think of it. The Derg as well could not think of it. So eventually, the Derg found itself in a more difficult situation than the emperor. More revolts, rebellion movements and guerrilla wars broke out all over the country. In my book, “Ethiopia: the Last Two Frontiers”, this was one of the political frontiers which I tried to describe.
What are these last two frontiers?
The first frontier is the political or the monopoly of power, which was inherited from the empire-builders and zealously guarded ever since by the ruling class of an Abyssinian origin. The descendants of the people subjugated by the empire-builders remained excluded from power, a handicap that bred political instability and violence in Ethiopia. The second frontier is the arid lowlands on the margins of the state, where the process of integration has not yet taken place and where resistance was the greatest. Until this frontier was crossed, the Ethiopian state would not have a secure border as a mature nation state. After the downfall of the imperial regime, the military regime was highly centralized. The Ethiopian army was not capable of defeating guerrilla movements across the country. There were too many groups fighting against the Derg, the Tigrians and the Eritreans being the major ones. Then the center started to crack, and it collapsed eventually. Looking at the actions of those at the helm of power at present, the EPRDF, one can see that they have again exerted great effort not to repeat the same mistake. When EPRDF took power, there were too many guerilla movements fighting all over the place. Thus, the government designed ethnic federalism as a mechanism to decentralize power and recognize all regions. It was a great step forward. A new Ethiopian identity that no longer forces assimilation or Amharaization upon the people was introduced. It advocated having one’s own culture, identity and belongingness in the country like everyone else.
They devolved power, in a sense that they gave the regional governments responsibility to administer themselves, the people to elect their own representatives, to speak their own languages, etc. However, again, this regime has not addressed the political frontier fully. Power still remains highly centralized at the center. The center decides and then the periphery administers. The center refuses to decentralize power and share resources equally and this would eventually threaten the system. Force is not enough to keep a state together. Like the previous regimes, EPRDF is now facing a similar crisis. As its predecessors had done, the government seems to be calling up on the army to resolve the situation.
Many of the territories in the south were incorporated into present-day Ethiopia during the 16th century by the highlander Christian kingdoms. What were the historical mistakes in that process if there were any?
Abyssinia is a very old homogenous nation state. However, its people had a great problem with land shortages due to over- cultivation as well as climatic and geographical conditions. They had a tremendous need for more land. It was a matter of survival. So, the expansionists were strong in military, more populous, and better organized. Therefore, military expeditions to the southern parts of the country followed. Northerners flooded the south and became the neftegnas (landlord). They ruled by the gun, took the land from the people forcefully. The land was not enough. The expansion also had a system of taking the labor. Due to the expansion, Ethiopia was no longer a nation. Abssinia was a nation. The people they conquered were not Abyssinians. They were composed of various nations. Ethiopia was not and is not a nation because of its diverse population. Obviously, the people whom this happened to were not content for a long time. The truth is Ethiopia became a multi-cultural society. Under Haileselassie, decisions were made at the center and then the local balabats executed them. Under the Derg, decisions were made at the center and the cadre who were mostly locals executed them. The structure is always the same. There is a center, which is homogenous, which controls the vast periphery, but they cannot afford to rule the periphery by themselves. It is not economical. Therefore, the states found local allies to do the job and they paid these allies quite handsomely. When EPRDF came, it also tried to forge allies in the peripheries which are paid to administer the regions well. In my opinion that is not a stable system.
There is no integration in the real sense; is that what you are saying?
There is no political integration. The periphery I think is well integrated. This is a success. People travel throughout, communicate, inter-marry, and they share food throughout the highland peripheries. All it needs now is a political solution.
What would be the political solution?
Power and resources should be shared equally among various groups; otherwise, the system will be in danger of breaking down. A state cannot have some of the ethnic groups excluded. It is impossible. Maybe, five centuries ago it would have been possible. So there has to be a new political arrangement. I am not talking about democracy, rather in some way the people have to choose for themselves. Therefore, they will feel that they are represented by the system that they have chosen. Power- and resource- sharing with the periphery has never been done satisfactorily in Ethiopia’s history. Even though the government wants reforms and reshuffles its cabinet to that effect, that is not how to go about power- and resource-sharing.
Regarding the question of ethnic oppression versus class oppression, there are groups which argue the center prefers the northerners more. While on the other hand, there are also those arguing the oppression is an elite, class-based, and that all are excluded from the center economically and by other means. What do you say about that?
The oppression of the center, the imposition of the cultural hegemony, came from the so called Habesha elites. The Habesha peasants are part of the hegemony from a psychologically point of view. However, economically, they did not benefit; rather they were poorer than those in the low land periphery areas. The southern part retained a lot of its fertility whereas the northern lands were over-cultivated. Until a few years ago, if you go to Gojjam or Tigray, there was almost nothing there. Therefore, you are right in a sense that the peasantry class has not benefitted from this and that is why they are creating problems. What are they saying in Tigray now? They are saying that they were accused of benefitting from the system but they have nothing. Therefore, obliviously, we are only speaking about the political elite. In Oromia, there are political elites who are living very well but it does not mean that they represent the vast majority of the Oromo people.
Can we say the system benefited the political elite from anywhere?
Yes, we can say that.
Whether they are from the highland periphery or the lowland periphery?
Well the lowland periphery is a different case. The lowland periphery was not integrated and that was the problem. The imperial regime did not do anything because there was less material benefit to be extracted from the area. The land is semi-desert. These pastoralists did not use money so they could not be made to pay taxes. They were heavily armed too. You could not account for them because they are highly mobile, crossing borders. They were mostly led by their own local chiefs. They lived by their own rules. In addition to pastoralists, there are also what you call subsistence agriculturalists. They are the ones who scratched the land, cut the trees and branches, and plant there. After a few years, the ashes become no longer fertile. They leave the land and go somewhere else. They come back to it after a few years and again start the job from the scratch. For so long, nobody bothered them. The Derg came and it was not able to integrate the lowlands in anyway because it did not have enough time. Sixteen years is not much time to integrate them politically or economically to the center. The literacy campaign that was undertaken elsewhere in the country was not feasible in the lowlands. All in all, government presence was limited in those areas. Now for the first time, EPRDF is trying to start integrating these areas. They have established a court system, and provided health, education and other services. The area is conflict-prone. It is a very unstable region. It is a threat to security because again there is no complete control over regional territory. They have to be integrated and power, representation, resource, and so on should be granted.
Do you think ethnic federalism has gone wrong? If so, where did it go wrong? Was it even right for Ethiopia to begin with? The system aspired to respect language, culture and identity at regional and sub-regional levels. In retrospect was it a feasible plan?
It did; it tried to integrate. They gave recognition to the various nations. The question, however, comes from those who are from the center. This section of the society is worried what federalism means to the country’s unity in the long run. I do not think anyone group would have the interest to break away from Ethiopia. Where are they going to go? What some groups are asking is just to share power, to be represented by their own deputies, to choose their representatives fairly, and so on. So, it is the political issue that needs to be resolved. Ethiopia was not made culturally diverse by the EPRDF. It was always like that. EPRDF recognized it and this encouraged others to stand up and be proud of their identity. So, I think this fear of disintegration would go away once the center starts to share political power fairly.
In your book’s conclusion, you argued for market to be the only deterministic force in allocation of land, contradicting the concept of land belonging to the state. How did you come to hold such a view?
In a historical context, land is the source of all value, wealth. Of course, that is why land has become a very important resource. Who controls it? Classically, it was controlled by the state but peasants in the north had very strong rights to land in the past. You could not take land away from Abyssinian peasants unless they rebelled or failed to pay taxes. Families owned land. To show this strong relationship, they call it Atsme-rest. Land was passed down through generations. So, there was no market for land. Towards the end of the Haileselassie’s regime, the World Bank, IMF, and other institutions were pushing towards privatization. The regime was under great pressure. Therefore, they began taking surveys and registering the stock land and so on. They were moving towards privatization of land. What did the Derg do? It nationalized it. The state owns land and of course, the Derg said you could not hire labor, sell or rent but the land was not given to the peasants to do what they like. The nationalization proclamation did not intend for the state to take over land; to the contrary Derg had a different idea. Today who owns land theoretically? It is the state. They did nothing to change this. Control of land enables the state to control the peasantry. In order to rule Ethiopia, you have to be able to control the peasantry. This was abused by various regimes. The Derg abused it by cooperatives, collectives, and state farms. In the end, the peasants turned against the system. Under EPRDF. the land is again under state control. There has always been a strong push by the elite to privatize land. This of course would be a catastrophic for Ethiopia because Ethiopia does not have the urban economy to take in the peasants who could be displaced from their land if land were privatized. Mechanized farms are expanding, so the question is what is going to happen to the peasants who are displaced by machines. You know the opposition in Ethiopia or what used to be the opposition, it is an incoherent opposition. There were two branches; one was the Habeshas who are against federalism who want to go back to the old system. The other group was the Mereras’s, Beyene Petros, and others who represent to some extent the periphery and they wanted more federalism, more power. The two wanted opposite things. The likes of Merera and others who represent the periphery are afraid if land is de-nationalized (privatized). They contend that market forces will deprive their people of their land. Privatization is the worst possible thing for them. Nevertheless, this seems to be happening already. Land is being sold, decided by market forces. Nowadays farmers complain openly because the land they had sold for a few thousand birr is now worth millions.
There seem to exist two distinct political forces in Ethiopia. One group resents ethnic federalism for sowing division among the people of the country. While others, mostly members of liberation fronts, believe that ethnic federalism did not give them real power. How do these two groups reconcile for the country to continue as a state?
I do not think EPRDF has any intention of dividing Ethiopia. They instituted federalism to keep the country together at the time. They recognized diversity, change the idea of citizenship and culture, and gave administrative rights to people with the right to speak their own language. All this was done to pacify the country. I believe this is what they wanted. At the same time, by having a political system which is ethnically arranged, they themselves had become part of that system. I think it was a calculated effort to prevent exactly what their enemies accused them of. Moreover, it is a great injustice actually; can you imagine this group made up of people from the northern part of the country wanting to break up Ethiopia? It is ridiculous. They are the most radical Habeshas, if you ask me. Therefore, it was a very clever way of preventing internecine conflicts at the time. The essence of it was that the center would retain its power. Well, it did not take long before the others really understood that and then the liberation movements started getting momentum. This is the political frontier. Then the question is how Ethiopia could get out of this. EPRDF can’t go forward with the original design because it will be accused of giving more power to those who want to break Ethiopia. It cannot also go backwards; it is impossible. It is critical to calmly charter the road ahead. But EPRDF’s attempt to externalize some of the political problems is also counter-productive. This could be taken as a lack of serious effort at bringing about permanent solution.