John Markakis’s latest book, ‘Ethiopia: The last two frontiers’, presents a political history of Ethiopia covering the period 1916 to 2010. Focusing on the transformation of a multicultural empire into a modern nation state, Markakis continuously leans on the “centre/periphery” dynamic as a method of analysis. In the vein of subaltern studies, he seeks to give agency to “peripheral” peoples in the state-building process. Using a vast range of historical, political and anthropological sources, Markakis describes Ethiopia’s northern and central regions as comprising the “centre”. The “last two frontiers” are the two peripheries: the “highland periphery”, essentially the Oromo-dominated southern highlands, and the “lowland periphery”, inhabited by the Oromo but also by major pastoralist groups such as the Afar and the Somali, as well many other smaller ethnic groups.
Split into five parts, the book begins with a discussion of the main peripheral peoples, followed by a history of the modern Ethiopian empire from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, under Emperors Menelik II (1844–1913) and Haile Selassie (1916–74). During this period, Amharic became the lingua franca, excluding non-speakers from power. Both highland and lowland peripheries were subjugated: exploited for labour, taxes and tribute. Markakis then assesses the period of Dergue rule after the deposition of Haile Selassie, in 1974, in which the Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam succeeded in expanding the state apparatus until his overthrow in 1991. The fourth part describes how the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), led by Meles Zenawi, sought a state and national identity that would encapsulate Ethiopia’s diversity, empowering the three-quarters of the population that were not Amhara. Subsequently re-formed into the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), their brand of government has blended leftist nationalist ideology with a pragmatic drive to commercialize agriculture in the south. The final part of the book assesses the impacts of federalism on the diverse ethnic groups populating the southern regions.
Markakis believes the EPRDF has overseen an expansion of the state, with more schools and hospitals established in previously neglected regions. Pluralism has been feted. But beyond basic services and symbolic gestures, he argues, the “regime” has kept a “tight reign” and is “lacking in imagination” when it comes to offering real political power to peripheral regions.
‘Ethiopia: The last two frontiers’ reflects Markakis’s immense knowledge and passion for Ethiopia. Although the tone, structure and style could be lighter, readers will nevertheless find much worth in this expansive and original study.
Times Literary Supplement