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Author: Oyvind Aadland
Title: A history of modern Ethiopia
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: A history of modern Ethiopia
Oyvind Aadland

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 3, pp. 15, 1992
Author Biography: Oyvind Aadland is a graduate student in the Department of Communications of Northwestern University.

A History of Modern Ethiopia


Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia 1855-1974. London: James Currey; Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press; Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press, 1992, 244 pp, illustrated.

For far too long, the absence of a general history of Ethiopia has been acutely felt by specialists engaged in Ethiopian studies, by educators in institutions of higher learning, and by many readers interested in Ethiopia. Yet few historians have turned their attention to the writing of such a general history, although Ethiopian historiography has made remarkable advances in the last two and a half decades. The dramatic changes that Ethiopia has been going through, particularly in the last twenty years, have made the need for a background history leading up to those events more urgent.

The time span of this book provides perspective on current political history. Events after the fall of Haile Selassie in 1974, however, are only presented in brief introductory remarks.

Bahru Zewde, a Senior Lecturer in History at Addis Ababa University, is aiming at a general as well as scholarly readership. This history should challenge both journalists and policy makers to broaden their insights and to relate today's political struggles to the past.

The central narrative of the book concerns the struggles around the creation of modern Ethiopia—beginning with Emperor Tewodros' first efforts to unify an Ethiopian state—and around the preservation of its independence over the ensuing decades.

Zewde shows how the death of Tewodros re-opened the issue of the throne, and how Yohannes IV followed substantially different policy of unification from that of his predecessors. In contrast with Tewodros' head-on collision with regional powers, Yohannes was ready to devolve power to clients and subordinates who recognized his claims as "King of Kings." Zewde suggests that Yohannes IV's victories over the Egyptians at Gundat and Gura were even more remarkable than the more famous later battle of Adwa: where Menelik led a united Ethiopia against the Italians, Yohannes IV faced the Egyptians as the head of a divided house.

Zewde provides a narration of the complex history of struggles during the 1880s and 1890s among ethnic groups, local chiefs, and the throne—and the context of colonial rivalries—that culminated in the Italian invasion and the creation of the modern Ethiopian empire-state. Menelik's claim to historical distinction was that he presided over the realization of an idea that had first been kindled in the fiery mind of Tewodros. Menelik pushed the frontier of the Ethiopian state close to its modern boundaries, a shape consecrated by the colonial powers after the 1896 battle of Adwa.

A decade of consolidation and the settlement of the Tripartite Agreement followed. With the exception of Eritrea—which was federated with Ethiopia in 1952 and united in 1962—the territory of the state was integrated and defined under Italian colonial rule (1890-1941) and British administration (1941-1952).

The years after Menelik's death were marked by intense rivalries and power struggle within the royal family. This modern phase of Ethiopian political development is most intriguing and, although the Italian Occupation has been dealt with in numerous studies, Zewde's clear presentation opens a highly complex part of Ethiopia's recent political history that has not received adequate attention. These struggles, and the reign of Haile Selassie, receive a critical contextualization of real depth.

As a general history, the book is very well written and presented, supplemented with passages | folklore, primary accounts, and well-chosen illustrations. This is a model for an African history that bridges the audiences of specialists and general readers. Zewde's book is a balanced, scholarly, and brave contribution that informs directly current political and social developments in Ethiopia.

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