Ethiopia’s Conflicts: Ethnocentrism Vs Cultural Relativism

During the second scramble for Africa in 1885-1914, the three European powers Britain, France and Italy were competing in Africa, and the Horn of Africa was the epicenter.

After several scuffles among them, finally the three big powers agreed to divide the region. Britain took over northern Somalia, NFD and Reserve Area in order to control the Blue Nile, and ensure the continuity of the meat supplies for her garrison in Aden.

Italy colonized the Southern Somalia and Eritrea, while France took over the railway between Addis-Ababa and Djibouti. France haven’t confronted enormous challenges compare to the Italy which was the rudest colony in the region.

Also, Britain was the smartest colony. Because, it didn’t intrude the region by force, but it did intervene via agreements with the local authority. In 1887, Menelik claimed the Somali region, the then HAUD as part and parcel of Ethiopia. 

In 1897, Britain’s Queen Victoria sent her special envoy (RODD) to emperor Menelik who was leading Ethiopia, the then Abyssinia. Rodd mission gives peerless opportunity to Menelik as the British administration has ceded the HAUD to Ethiopia, also the border conflict between Britain who was administrating in British-Somaliland and Ethiopia was sorted out.

Reciprocally, Britain demanded emperor Menelik to declare that, he doesn’t allow the passage of arms to Mahdist movement who erupted in 1881 and lasted in 1889 in Sudan against British-Egyptian forces. Because, British forces were protecting their interests in the Suez Canal. Additionally, Menelik announced that, Mahdist movement as an arch-enemy to his empire. 

Diametrically, Italy hadn’t respected the territorial integrity of the nations. Italy invaded to Ethiopia several times, but encountered remarkable defeats. In 1896, the Italy’s garrison in Ethiopia, especially the Tigray region currently was vanquished by Menelik’s troops in the famous war (ADOWA). Again, in 1934, Italy intruded Ethiopia’s land, the well-known war (Wal-Wal) had erupted where Italy faced another defeat from the Ethiopian forces. 

in 1931, Britain, Italy and France signed an agreement in London about the demarcation of the Somalis’ lands across the region in order to avoid any confrontation among the colonial powers. Though, Italy didn’t respect this agreement as she invaded Ethiopia, but Britain penetrated the region subtly, and expanded incrementally while France’s influence in the region was latent.


The flipside, Sayyid Mohamed Abdulle Hassan, who is the most prominent Somali freedom fighters declared all-or-nothing war against the British army. The headquarter of Sayyid Mohamed was in Taleh city. He invaded humongous times to the British garrisons in the Northern Somaliland, and he retook several towns from the British army. Unfortunately, the British army killed Sayyid Mohamed Abdulle Hassan in 1921. 

In 1941, Britain took over Italy’s colonies following the defeat of Italy in the 2nd world war. After Menelik has died, Emperor Hailesalassie, the then Ras Taffari continued the agreement among Britain and Ethiopia. In 1948-54, Britain handed over Somali region to Ethiopia. 

Unearthed and untold Oromo’s history

Lij Yasu was an Oromo ethnic, and the son of Muslim father (Ras Mikai’l). Lij Yasu was running Ethiopia from 1913-1918. He was the son of Menelik’s favorite daughter. Emperor Menelik chose this young boy who was 13 years old as his heir while Menelik was in a critical healthy situation. After Menelik has passed away in 1913, Yasu has taken the leadership smoothly.

Immediately, he takes Islam, and pioneered a tie with Ottoman Empire in Turkey. Also, Yasu empowered his father who was leading an army costs eighty thousand (80,000) mainly Galla ethnic. Additionally, Yasu had built several mosques in the Somali region, especially Jigjiga and Harar. Moreover, he supported and sent weapon and ammunitions to Sayyid Mohamed Abdulle Hassan, aka Mad Mullah who announced 20 years fight against the British administration in the Northern Somali territory (British-Somaliland).

When Yasu becomes an outstanding leader, and empowered his Oromo ethnic, the Amhara who was the inner-circle of Menelik started to repel Yasu’s administration. Amhara sent a request to Abuna, the Egyptian head of the Coptic Church for support in order to oust Yasu. 

After Amhara got inestimable support from the church, they defeated Yasu, and fled to the Somali region asking them for help. Yasu received warm welcome from the Somali tribes there, especially Bartire and Abaskuul (Jidwaaq-Absame). Yasu organized his army and pushed-back the Amhara forces. Unfortunately, Amhara had received a peerless support from the British and the church in Egypt, and ultimately Yasu was arrested and died in prison at Harar district for unfathomable reasons.

The aim of the young prince Yasu was uniting Ethiopia under Muslim-Galla domination. Right after the Yasu’s administration has disappeared, Hailesalassie, the then Ras Taffari and Zawditu, one of Menelik’s daughters took the leadership under the auspices of the British administration. 

Amhara tended extolling her culture while oppressing and unearthing others’ cultures and civilizations. Oromo owns the largest and the most populous region in Ethiopia. Despite these outstanding hallmark, Oromo is one of the downtrodden community in Ethiopia historically and contemporary. 

Ethiopia’s Governor to Jigjiga in 1917

Almost Somali region is arid and semi-arid land. But in the north-east of Jigjiga was quite fertile and gets higher rainfall compare to the other regions in Somali territories. When the British administration has ceded the HAUD regions to Ethiopia in 1897, Menelik and Hailesalassie used to appoint a governor to Jigjiga.

In 1918, Fitaurari Tekle Hawariat, who was an Ethiopian agronomist and later became politician and had acquired an agricultural education in Russia was appointed Governor of Jigjiga. Fitaurari was staunch to Ras Makonnen, the father of Hailesalassie, the then Ras Tafari. Fitaurari pioneered a system of serfdom for the benefit of the state which is similar agricultural laborer in 18th and 19th century in Europe.

Tekle has deported Gallas (Oromo) from other regions in Ethiopia and brought in the Somali region to cultivate the pasture lands of North-east of Jigjiga. The governor distributed the land, and offered each family to one hundred and twenty acres. In return, they used to pay a tithe of one-tenth of what they have produced to the governor. The governor used to distribute the share he gets to his household and soldiers. 

Tekle was replaced by Kenyazmach Galagorgis who permitted Amhara to intruding further eastwards towards the British protectorate border. 

Then Amhara occupied the lands belong to Somalis, especially Gadabursi and Issa tribes. Amhara encroached several lands belong to Somalis under the guise of “Tax Collecting”. Nur Robleh, the Ugas/Sultan of Gadabursi tribe enormous times complained against Amhara’s intrusion in the Somali region to the governor of Jigjiga and the British Protectorate.

After the Ugas delivered plethora of complains to the governor, and nothing has been fixed out, he decided to relocate and went to Borama city under the British Protectorate administration which was established in 1921 for that time. The Ugas received a warm reception from the British administration, and he himself showed an allegiance to the British administration. 

In this regard, Amhara’s intrusion to other lands belong to other communities is notorious and dates back. During this period, Amhara seized tremendous lands own to Somalis under the guise of “Tax Collecting”. 

Northern Region: The beacon of Ethiopia’s history

Almost all Ethiopia’s historical events had taken place in Tigray region including but not limited Adowa war with Italy in 1896, Emperor Dengel against Imam Ahmed Gurey, King Najasha, Aksumite Empire, Yeha (Damat) and others. Tigray rule also pioneered the federal architecture which conglomerated over 80 communities in Ethiopia, so each community can exercise their own language, and should have their own special forces. While, Amhara used to impose on the rest her culture, language and religion. 

The flip side, during Tigray rule from 1991-2018, there were tremendous mistakes which have taken place. Meles’s rule was under iron fist, and he repressed especially Oromo and Somalis. The freedom of the independent media was very narrow. Additionally, Meles Zenawi nullified when ONLF had won unanimously the Somali region’s election. In 2007, Somali region encountered the brutality of Ethiopia’s troops after ONLF attacked and killed over 70 people including Chinese in the oil field. Indiscriminate killings, rape, torture and all forms of human rights violation had been witnessed in the Somali region. 

Current Situation

The second most populous country in Africa is hovering between disintegration and dilemma. The open-ended conflicts in Ethiopia, especially the internecine-communal violence dates back centuries. The youngest leader in Africa, PM Abiy came at a critical time where the two-most nemesis in Ethiopia, Amhara and Tigray are at loggerheads. Many people considered Abiy’s nomination as a turning point as he is an Oromo ethnic, but Abiy is influenced by Amhara’s jingoistic nationalism. 

The biggest impetus of the on-going conflict in Ethiopia is, the historical leadership competition between Amhara and Tigray. Amhara always advocates to shifting from Federalism and re-introducing unitary system under their favor, while Tigray prefers the federal architecture which Ethiopia adopts since 1994 where each community have the right to exercise self-administration.  Ethiopia comprises ten regional states, nine out of ten accept the current federal system, while only Amhara region rejects. Because, Amhara wants to impose her culture, religion, and language on the other communities as before which is patronizing. 

Amhara and Tigray, as a nemesis are dominated the history of Ethiopia, the then Abyssinia. From Menelik 2, Hailesalassie, the then Ras Taffari up to Mengistu HaileMariam, Amhara used to dominate Ethiopia’s power. In 1991, the Tigray under TPLF with the leadership of the dead PM Meles Zenawi ousted the Dergi-Socialist regime under Mengistu who took the leadership in 1974 with the help of the former Soviet Union. Over 27 years of Tigray rule, in 2018 the former PM of Ethiopia HaileMariam Desalegn resigned, and Abiy becomes his successor. Abiy is an Oromo ethnic, but his mother and his wife are Amharas.

In November last year, Abiy launched the war against Tigray. Many people including me believe that, Amhara was the biggest impetus of that war. The Amhara dominated ENDF along with Eritrean troops invaded Tigray where colossal of human rights violations have taken place. On 28 June, last month TDF has re-captured most of its regions, and vowed to re-take the disputed towns of Raya and Welkait between Amhara and Tigray region. 

Abiy’s administration 

During Hailesalassie and Mengistu era, arbitrary detention, military attacks on civilians, especially Oromo, Somali and Tigray regions, war crimes and crimes against humanity, shambolic exercises and pervasive culture of fear were ubiquitous.

The new administration in Ethiopia under Abiy tended shambolic exercise, and the ominous challenges are enormous. The festering war in northern regions (Tigray and Amhara) which is metastasizing other regions indicates how Abiy’s administration is vacuous and falling apart. The worst was, when Abiy invited Russia to penetrate the region in order to make the west freak-out. 

Way forward

In order Ethiopia to survive, I think Abiy should resign sooner rather than later, and hand-over the power to transitional team so that, they can accommodate all the political stakeholders. But, if Abiy remains obdurate, then disintegration is blessing in disguise.

Anwar Abdifatah Bashir. Lecturer @ Somali National University. Also, he is Horn of Africa Affairs Analyst. Email:

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect’s editorial stance.

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