Ethiopia’s expansion brought together people that were culturally, racially, linguistically and historically different from the conquering Abyssinians of Amhara and Tigriya. Menelik “converted what had been sovereign independent states to the hegemony of one over the rest”. Haile Selassie consolidated into a unitary empire that was divided into standardized provinces.
The Abyssinians were Christians of semitic and Cushitic race that entered Ethiopia from Arabia. The conquered and colonized people were Cushitic and Nilotic stock. At the time of annexation and colonization they were at different levels of development (Mekuria Bulcha 1988).
The relations between Abyssinians and the rest exhibited colonial characteristics including economic exploitation. The colonization took place during the scramble for Africa. The inhabitants of the conquered territories were subjected to characteristic treatment: They were sold as slaves and exploited as serfs. They had no political, religious, economic or social rights. Officially they were referred to as dependents. Inequality in political status, economic participation, educational opportunities and human rights defined the relations between the conquerors and the conquered.
Abyssinia was not colonized by Europeans in part because several European countries including Great Britain, France and Italy had interest and avoided conflict over the area thus leaving it alone that enabled Abyssinia to conquer neighboring territories using massive modern weaponry and foreign experts that were denied to the conquered people including in Oromia, Sidama and Ogaden. Instead of colonizing Ethiopia through physical occupation Europeans chose a neo-colonial system of trade with Abyssinia following the defeat of Italy by Ethiopia at Adowa in 1896.
The conquest was violent and resulted in depopulation of many parts. The conquered people were enslaved, impoverished and dispossessed of their lands and livestock.
Economic exploitation and impoverishment triggered resistance. Resistance occurs through collective or individual actions against the presence of an alien political power. The aim of resistance is to liberate the territory and people from foreign occupation, domination and exploitation. The conquered people resented subjugation from the beginning. Resistance was sometimes open and violent, but was mostly hidden and silent.
The subjugation of Oromoland or Oromia and her people started with annexation of Wollo in 1899. The Oromo fiercely resisted and it took a decade to impose Ethiopian foreign rule using imported modern weapons. Oromo people were driven to resistance because they never derived any benefits as Ethiopia’s subjects (Mekuria Bulcha 1988).
The socio-economic system that was imposed on Oromo and other conquered territories was feudal, authoritarian and hierarchical. Political power, social prestige and privilege were inherited or bestowed, not earned on merit. To keep the spirit of resistance alive, Oromo people stressed in their daily lives ‘great resurrection followed by departure of the oppressor’.
In northern Oromo the first revolt took place in 1928 due in large part to excessive taxation and corruption. Other revolts followed in 1935-36. The Western Oromo confederation formed in 1936 was not recognized by the Imperial regime. When Haile Sellasie was restored to the throne by the British, the Oromo people resisted his control over them but did not succeed. People revolted in mid-1960s including the Macha-Tulama Association and the Bale Peasants. The Bale Peasant rebellion was the first and lasted from 1963 to 1970. Despite setbacks, the spirit remained alive.
Uprisings took place in other colonized parts besides Oromia. They occurred in Sidama and Walatiya and were most acute in the Ogaden. Conflicts also took place within Abyssinian society itself due to inter-and intra-class differences that produced social conflicts. Menelik moved the capital of the empire to Addis Ababa in the annexed Oromo territory from Tigray, reducing Tigray to a peripheral status that upset the nobility. Unable to fight Menelik, they accepted his superiority and, in turn, were left independent. With subsequent Haile Sellasie’s centralization policy, the independence of Tigray came to an end. Peasant poverty due to poor agricultural production, feudal exploitation, drought, locusts, epidemics and civil war after the 1974 revolution created conditions for a rebellion.
Eritrea is occupied by Christians and Muslims. The highlands of Eritrea and Tigray formed the center of the ancient kingdom of Aksum and the cradle of Abyssinian culture. The Italians conquered Eritrea while Menelik was conquering territories in the south. The colonization of Eritrea was completed in 1889 and recognized by Menelik in the Ucciali treaty.
Italian rule ended with World War I when Italian forces were defeated by combined British and Ethiopian forces. Eritrea became a British protectorate. In 1952, it was federated to Ethiopia by UN General Assembly resolution. Eritrea was given autonomous status with a parliament and a government responsible for domestic affairs. The federation lasted ten years in part because of incompatibility between relatively democratic institutions and political practices in Eritrea and the autocratic feudal government in Addis Ababa. Haile Selassie violated articles of the UN Federal Act and intervened in internal affairs of Eritrea. The prime minister resigned in protest. In 1962 Eritrea was annexed to Ethiopia as an ordinary province (Mekuria Bulcha 1988). This act initiated a resistance that would last some thirty years to liberate Eritrea from Ethiopian colonization.
Resistance in many parts of the empire made worse by external factors such as the oil crisis and severe drought led to the 1974 revolution and civil war. After the defeat of Mengistu government, Meles became prime minister. In order to keep the country together, his government designed a federal system of government that has allowed devolution of powers so that the people can decide how they want to be governed.
A lesson for Uganda
Uganda that is going through a critical period and is vulnerable to internal and external shocks needs to learn from the federal arrangements in Ethiopia that have kept the country together except Eritrea. The decentralized system in Uganda including creation of economically unviable districts has not worked to the satisfaction of the people. The post NRM regime should organize a national conference by a transitional government run by a presidential team so that the people of Uganda decide how they want to be governed. Maintaining a centralized system may lead to unhappy outcomes. It’s time leaders listened to the voices of the people.