The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - Ethiopia: The Last Two Frontiers

John Markakis

Reviewer - John Mellors


This book looks at the frontiers of modern Ethiopia and investigates the problems associated with governing this multilingual, multiethnic nation. According to Markakis the last two frontiers an Ethiopian government has to cross in order to build a coherent nation are "to redress the imbalance of power that marginalises the majority of its people..." and to integrate the "lowland periphery" with the rest of Ethiopia without destroying the pastoralist realm in the process.

He says that "It was in the 1970s .... that the seed for this work was planted in my mind" and it looks as though he has struggled since then organising a suitable layout for the book. In the end he has felt the need to justify the structure of the book in his introduction as, in choosing to start by describing some of the history and culture of the groups involved, there is some duplication later in the book.

The first part of the study (The Lowland Frontier) describes the contrast between the highlands and lowlands of Ethiopia and goes on to present profiles of the groups that inhabit the Ethiopian lowlands today: the Afar, the Somali, the Oromo pastoralists, and the indigenous communities of Gambella and Beni Shangul Gumuz. The second part starts with the expansion ("reunification") of the state of Ethiopia under Menelik and the conquest of the lowlands. It goes on to deal with the subsequent rise of Emperor Haile Selassie and the methods he used to rule the lowlands (The Imperialist Model). The effect on each of the lowland groups is outlined in detail. The third part covers the events leading up to the 1974 revolution and describes changes in the way that the lowlands are managed during the military regime (The Socialist Model). Again the detailed effect on each of the lowland groups is discussed. The fourth part details the changes resulting from the overthrow of the Dergue and the reforms to the administration of Ethiopia up to 2010 (The Federal Model). The final part examines the effect of government policy on each of the lowland groups and concludes with some thoughts on possible future outcomes for Ethiopia.

It is a provoking book in many ways; Markakis accuses all successive governments of failing the lowlands. Emperor Haile Selassie is described as an absolute monarchical ruler and is accused of attempting to integrate Ethiopia by forced assimilation and his struggle to keep control of the periphery of the country is said to have finally ended his rule. The Dergue are accused of failing to develop a credible system of governance while attempting to retain centre dominance over the country, although their 1975 Land Reform is applauded for severing the link between the old ruling class and land ownership. Again they were said to be brought down by rebellions in the periphery. The present government is charged with doing all it can to keep the power at the centre and, while nominally promoting ethnic federalism, not taking into account the wishes of the lowland groups. The lowlands' many natural resources are now expected to be a key factor in enabling Ethiopia to escape from poverty and Markakis is concerned that the central government is likely to use force to keep full control of the periphery.

The book does suffer from poor proofreading, particularly in the references quoted in the text as some do not appear in the bibliography at the end. There is a useful list of acronyms of the various political and military groups at the beginning of the book but not all acronyms used in the text are present. The biggest problem is with the maps as most of the maps provided are not really suitable or adequate and they all seem to have been added as an afterthought as none are referred to in the text. The maps are not dated, which is a problem as internal boundaries are often changing; also, most are too small to be useful and some of the names given on the maps don't match the names used in the text.

The book does appear to suffer from a lack of objectivity at times and quotes are used by Markakis if they suit his arguments regardless of whether they are typical responses or not. Nevertheless this book is a good introduction to the problems in the Ethiopian lowlands and is a recommended read.

Ethiopia: The Last Two Frontiers.
John Markakis.
James Currey, UK, 2011
ISBN: 9781847010339
Hardback 400 pages;
210 x 145 mm;
monotone maps;
Price £40

First Published in News File Winter 2011

Opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of the Society.
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