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The original sin of Ethiopian Studies



Over the past century, Ethiopia has changed significantly demographically, geographically, and politically. Centuries-old feudal economy and imperial power ended in 1974. After seventeen years of a brutal civil war, Ethiopian socialism was replaced by multinational federalism in 1991. Today, Ethiopians’ political notion and ‘experience’ combine ideas of a feudal system, socialism and an emerging semi-capitalist federal arrangement. 

The question is, has the academic tradition been responding to these fundamental changes? 

Surprisingly, the academic tradition remained confusingly static and epistemologically stubborn, unresponsive to the historical realities. Ethiopian studies tends to metamorphose into absence during major shocks and resume immediately and rarely examines causes of state dysfunction.

Thirty years ago, Donald Crummey asked an important question: What are we talking about when we talk about Ethiopia? Has the Ethiopian studies, mainly history and anthropology, been able to deal with the ‘deep and varied historical consciousness….’? 

This essay briefly discusses Ethiopian studies, its development as a mainstream thinking, and the challenges. Towards the end of the piece, I will present an example, a counterbalance to Ethiopian Studies: the Oromo Studies. 

Ethiopian studies: Historiography 

Our understanding of the history and cultures of Ethiopian societies is extensive. However, the delineation of Ethiopian history and culture, and the nuanced interplay between national and regional variations, remains unclear.

Renowned historian Donald Crummey, in his exploration of historiography and academic approaches, notes, “While practically all of the founding ‘Ethiopianists’ were radically critical of the interpretation of the Solomonic State, which the State itself promoted, too often our work has, nonetheless, more or less critically taken the State’s perspective”.

Ethiopian historiography has traditionally centred on military history and the ‘State’ as a political entity, focusing on figures like Emperor Tewodros, Yohannes, and Menelik as benchmarks for modernity. Bahru’s seminal work, “Pioneers of Change,” outlines significant transformations in Ethiopia during the first half of the twentieth century. In 1984, Bahru remarked, “Absolutism as the political order of the transitional social formation was a phenomenon that had attained its most mature levels in Western Europe. Conversely, the more or less parallel nature of the developments in Ethiopia justifies using the term absolutist to describe Haile Selassie’s state”.

Drawing an analogy, Ethiopia’s shift to ‘absolutism,’ akin to Western Europe centuries ago, occurred in the 1930s. However, the argument presented here falls short, as the ‘transnational social formation’ in Ethiopia, both at the state and grassroots levels, was incomparable to Western Europe. Thus, any notion of a ‘parallel nature of development’ between Ethiopia and Western Europe lacks validity.

Nevertheless, the modern periodization of Ethiopian history, starting in the mid-19th century, particularly 1855, is event-driven, not arbitrary. Labels such as ancient, medieval, and contemporary Ethiopian histories often hinge on military and state history rather than social, economic, and cultural development, as noted by Clapham in the ‘familiar tale of Ethiopian history.’

Ethiopian historical narratives traditionally underemphasized people and institutions, focusing more on kings and their extractive military. The scarcity of towns and settlements throughout medieval and modern Ethiopia serves as evidence, a phenomenon rightly labeled by Gamst (1970) as “peasantries and elites without urbanism.” Getnet, writing on peasants’ relations in Ethiopian history, asserts that the state was not only parasitic but also existed primarily to bleed its ‘host’ to death, being predatory, exclusionist, and irresponsible at every stage of its development.

Up until the 1970s, Ethiopian historians predominantly focused on state diplomacy, neglecting its social or cultural context. According to Donald Crummey, this trend originated at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), with the first history graduates shaping the History Department at Addis Ababa University. Some characterise this phenomenon as the ‘invention‘ of Ethiopia.

Epistemology and Education  

Until the 1940s, state bureaucrats and church leaders shared a common educational foundation rooted in the millennia-old Christian philosophy of the Orthodox Tewahido Church teachings in the Tigray and Amhara regions. The educational focus before the 1950s aimed at producing individuals designated as ‘translators, ambassadors, interpreters, and emissaries’ (Tasissa, 2009, p. 22).

Discussing the role of the educated elite during the tumultuous Ethiopian revolution of 1974, Messay observes that the ‘strong influence of Western education on the Ethiopian educated elite’ led to the ‘derailment of the Ethiopian mind, a derailment vividly demonstrated by the failure to modernize a country endowed with great potential.’

With the country transitioning between different forms of government, the foundational philosophy of Ethiopia’s curriculum has also shifted. The education system has drawn inspiration from various ‘traditions,’ including Swedish, American, English, French, and German. Consequently, despite the existence of a centuries-old indigenous writing system, English has become the medium of instruction at universities.

Despite English being the instructional medium, only a fraction of Ethiopian elites speak it proficiently. A significant portion of the nearly 120 million Ethiopians is unfamiliar with the various foreign languages used in Ethiopian studies. For instance, a study confirmed that ‘English is not widely used in the media, administration, or day-to-day life in Ethiopia.’

The Semitic Label: remnants of imperial ‘fantasies’ 

For an extended period, the history and Orthodox Christian religion of northern Ethiopia have constituted the core of Ethiopia’s ‘national identity.’ Traditionally, the Tigrayans and the Amharas have been labeled as the essence of Ethiopia, with the former being associated with the genesis of the Ethiopian State (Alvarez, 2010; Donham & James, 1986; Marzagora, 2020).

This linear historiography of Ethiopia has led to a knowledge gap, particularly between historians and anthropologists. Beyond their historical roles in state-building, our understanding of the cultural, social, economic, and political realities of the Amhara and Tigrayan communities remains limited.

The differences between the Amhara and Tigray national states, based on territory, religion, and history, are critically low. In a recent piece, Dereje addressed epistemological debates and ideologies in Ethiopia but did not delve into the Tigrayan thesis and its divergence from the Oromo one.

The Semitic communities of the North encompass networks of semantic traditions and civilizations with multiple variations both between and within them. Over the past century, the Tigrayans and the Amharas have differed in their understanding of the Ethiopian State. These differences, alongside notions of ‘sameness,’ serve as modes of integration or segregation crucial in a multi-ethnic country like Ethiopia.

In comparing northern Ethiopia to Western European peasants, Allan (1975) argued that the social structure principles of northern Ethiopia resemble the traditional European system more than the African one. Contrary to many African societies, both Amhara and Tigrayan households were believed to be characterized by ‘politics rather than kinship,’ a notion that, I argue, disappointed anthropologists.

Anthropological goldmine: the South and Southwest 

Geopolitical shifts at the close of the 19th century, particularly in Ethiopia within the Horn of Africa, brought about a transformation in attitudes toward the lowlands (Commey, 2015; Marcus, 1963; Ullendorff, 1967; Vandervort, 1998). Ethnic groups in these regions have been categorized under the ambiguous term ‘periphery,’ a term that persists in the lexicon of the intelligentsia.

Traditionally, the term ‘Periphery,’ የጠረፍ አካባቢዎች in Amharic, denotes the Cushitic, Omotic, and Nilotic peoples of Ethiopia residing in the southern, southwestern, eastern, and western lowlands along the Kenyan, South Sudan, Djibouti, and Sudan borders. These areas have historically been the African (Ethiopian) frontiers that Ethiopian history has not fully recognized as such.

The integration of these ethnic groups into the Ethiopian Empire at the end of the 19th century was primarily driven by economic factors (Ayenachew, 1968, 2011; Donham & James, 1986; Keshebo, 2020; Meckelburg, 2018; Strecker, 2013). The central government exhibited aggressiveness in military pursuits, expansionist ideologies, exploitative economic systems, and cultural assimilation.

Over the past four decades, the ethnically diverse South Omo region of Ethiopia has been the focal point of some exceptional ethnographic studies, surpassing other parts of the region in intensity and magnitude. Schlee referred to the lower Omo region as an ‘Anthropological laboratory’ (Epple & Thubauville, 2010, p. 9). While there is a wealth of ethnographic studies from southern and western Ethiopia (Pankhurst, 2002, p. 15), it is evident that much anthropological research originates from these areas.

Our knowledge and understanding of the people of South Omo in the context of Ethiopia are highly specialized and detailed. Despite positive trends in anthropological research, there is still a considerable journey ahead to effectively reach policymakers and bridge the growing gap between this region and the rest of the country. In discussing the fate of the Mursi, for example, Turton argues that they are spatially ‘localised‘ in response to the practices of nation-states and ‘marginalised’ due to their dependence on values, norms, and technologies beyond their means of production and control (Turton, 2005).

The Oromo Studies and the Tigrayan politics: A counterbalance  

Since the publication of Asmerom Legese’s Gada system, the Oromo have rightfully garnered significant attention (Legesse, 1973), particularly amid recent political developments (Asafa, 2010; Gnamo, 2002; Hassen, 2015; Jenber & Zhen, 2021; Yates, 2016). Schlee aptly described the Oromo condition as ‘the largest nations without a nation of their own” (2003, p. 349).

According to Bahru, by the 1960s, historians had already shifted their focus to studying “non-literate” societies in the West and South (Zewde, 2000, p. 11), with the Wellega Oromo receiving considerable attention, particularly through oral sources. Nevertheless, the epistemology and language training in history continue to be heavily influenced by the Semitic North.

Oromo studies have played a pivotal role in challenging the traditional narrative of Ethiopian history and exceptionalism. By the 1980s, Oromo studies had gained momentum, with influential figures like Mohammed Hassesn, Negaso Gidada, and others delving into the diverse history of the Oromo, paving the way for a broader understanding.

This robust regional study has silently contributed to our intellectual and political discourse. A unique aspect of Oromo studies is its ability to nurture diverse viewpoints, though, at the moment, it has been criticized for potentially facilitating the ‘liquidation’ process of the Ethiopian State.

In contrast, there is a noticeable absence of Tigrayan Studies or any institution addressing the Tigrayan thesis within an academic environment. Neither Oromo studies nor Ethiopian studies have thoroughly explored the ‘Tigray thesis,’ choosing instead to scrutinize Tigrayan politics through a political party, containing Tigray’s history within the broader context of Ethiopia’s history. There is a portrayal of Tigrayan politics without TPLF and Tigrayan history without necessarily intertwining it with Ethiopia.

One common mistake among researchers is conflating Tigray with the TPLF in politics and generalizing it when discussing history, whereas the existence of Tigray as a political, cultural, religious, secular, and historical entity is contextually different.

According to Dereje Feyisa, the Global Society of Tigray Scholars (GSTS) is the closest equivalent to Oromo studies on the Tigrayan side. However, the mission statement of GSTS suggests a focus far from regional studies, especially when compared to the more targeted Oromo studies. Assuming GSTS is a guardian of Tigrayan Studies would be inaccurate; GSTS operates as a technical establishment removed from the intellectual battles in Ethiopian Studies.

Currently, there is neither the intellectual nor the infrastructure to cultivate Tigrayan Studies, a situation rooted in TPLF and its discouraging stance toward the social sciences. Historical trends, such as the decline of social science studies in Mekelle, reflect a downgrading of the concept of ‘Tigray’ within the social sciences, though indications of solidarity persist among Tigrigna-speaking people on both sides of the river, as well as among the Kunama, Saho, and Afar communities.

Publications about Tigray predominantly focus on the TPLF, presenting a challenge for historians like Bahru who strive to connect the student movement with the people of Tigray (Zewde, 2014). The critical question of agency arises here, emphasising that people are not merely ‘victims’ but active participants. The Tigrigna word ‘ወያነ’ (loosely translated to “revolt”) transcends a political party, existing among many Tigrayans since the 1930s, which is not fully captured in its English equivalency, Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Academics need to view the people of Tigray as a politically conscious society outside the prism of TPLF, similar to how other communities in the country should be approached. Reading the Oromo outside the prism of the OLF and even the Prosperity Party is equally essential for a nuanced understanding.

Challenges of Ethiopian Studies 

Ethiopian ethnography’s tradition concerning regional impact differs from other African countries with colonial legacies. Impediments in the development of Ethiopian ethnography are attributable to several factors. 

According to Alula Pankhurst (2002, pp. 1–35),  citing William Shack (1984) and Wendy James (1990),  the lack of a colonial legacy, institutional and bureaucratic hurdles, as well as state indifference to the social sciences and lack of long-term collaboration, have affected the development of cultural studies in Ethiopia. 

Pankhurst challenged the notion of a lack of colonial legacy by pointing to the development of the ethnographic tradition in Ethiopia. This development, he argued, was influenced by diverse schools of thought from traditions including Italian, German, French, British, American, and Japanese currents (Alula, Pankhurst, 2002, p. 15). This, in my opinion, presents a noteworthy challenge in itself.

However, Pankhurst acknowledged the lack of geographical and thematic diversification (Ibid: 2002, 15–35). I would add that the lack of institutional engagement, political turmoil and instability in the country may have contributed to the limited impact of social sciences research locally and globally. 

Rethinking the study of ethnic groups, Abbink rightly warned against ‘insider anthropologists’ because of the risk of inadequate theoretical applications and lack of comparative analysis (Abbink, 1992).

Conversely, the ‘outsider’ anthropologists who risk generalisation and lack of context in analysis or the challenge of Ethiopian historiography of imperial nature are equally dangerous, if not more. Overgeneralization and lack of comparative lenses may have been the primary causes of Ethiopian studies’ inferior position regionally. 

It is rightly argued that Ethiopian ethnography has remained absent in the global thematic debate due to the lack of theoretical application and little explanation. 

One example, among others, who seem to have departed from the enclaved Ethiopian historiography is Markakis, who oriented himself to a regional and comparative approach. His work on Ethiopia: Anatomy of a Traditional Polity, published in 1974, explained the ‘confusion’ and ‘surprise’ of the external world of the fall of Haileselassie. Several examples of ‘surprising’ development in Ethiopia include the recent war between Ethiopia and Tigray, one of its member states. These shocks become surprises for a lack of appreciation of the diversity and animosities beyond political parties. 

A close look at the patterns in Ethiopian history for the past one hundred years would not be a surprise as not only Tigray but also Eritrea, Somalia, Afar, Oromo, and other nations and nationals have, one way or another, challenged a centralised extractive system. The so-called periphery takes only one opportune time to strike back. 

Politically, the country has witnessed waves of political changes in the past 47 years since the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974. Not only were these changes vicious and hindrances to the smooth sociocultural and political developments of the people, but they also discouraged a long-term research presence. 

In the recent Tigray war, many universities have supported the Ethiopian Army financially and morally. Addis Ababa University, the birthplace of  Ethiopian studies in Ethiopia, with its massive intellectual and financial wealth, was the leading supporter of the Tigray war and reminded complacent about it. The scholars and teachers in Tigray were on their own, including from the Ethiopian Studies group, the largest constellation of Ethiopianists. 


As the country goes from one form of government to another, and one war to another, Ethiopian studies scholars have primarily managed to survive. Many of the leading thinkers in Ethiopia have lived through the worst times of Ethiopia. However, whether our understanding of Ethiopian societies and history has been responsive enough to those inter-generational shocks remains obscure. 

In the past three decades, with the expanding number of universities, research projects and collaborations in the country, a notable improvement has been made. However, researchers must historicise the extensive anthropological knowledge from southern, southwestern and western Ethiopia. In contrast, the northern Semitic’s contribution to state formation must accommodate anthropology’s recent contributions from other cultures. Regarding regional studies, neither the ‘intellectuals’ nor the state promotes it- the Oromo studies being the exception. The future of Ethiopian studies belongs to a return to regional studies and variations and a revisit to ‘original’ sources. 

There is an urgent need for scholars to rethink regional variations and contributions. Until we realise the importance of diversity and comparative studies of histories and cultures, we will always be blindfolded by the illusion of Ethiopian Studies and its inherent ‘appreciation’ of the tradition of subjugation, backwardness and ‘exceptionalism’ narrative. 

Dereje, writing on the epistemological debates of Ethiopian scholarship and about the International Conference on Ethiopian Studies (ICES20) that I co-organized in Mekelle in 2018, writes, ‘..many members of the Mekelle organisational committee were unable to attend the 21st  ICES Conference hosted by Addis Ababa University, or refused to do so, given the war in Tigray.’  

Addis Ababa University organised the Conference in 2022 under the theme “Persistence and Resilience in Ethiopian Studies: Global Context and Domestic Developments”. As the Ethiopianists convened in Addis Ababa, the country was engaged in one of the deadliest wars in its history. The ability to ‘persist’ is not to thrive and it is possible to question the future of ‘Ethiopian’ studies. As can be seen from the maxim of the day, the message was more political than academic, sarcastic than scientific. 

As a young scholar struggling to make sense of Ethiopia’s academic and political ideologies, the struggles are not only  ‘intellectual’ but ideological, not scientific, but sectarian. From the Origin of Ethiopian studies to Ethiopian history’s logic of periodisation and epistemology to the anthropologists’ ‘classical’ gaze at Ethiopian cultures are the original sins worth redemption.   


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Mitiku is a social anthropologist; taught social anthropology and ethnography film at Mekelle university. Currently he is a researcher at The School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHES) in Paris and a fellow at SOAS University of London. Research interest includes minorities, power and agency in the social sciences.

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1 Comment

  1. Make Finfine great again and remove mahibrekidusan(satanic group)

    November 28, 2023 at 11:43 am

    Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.

    This article’s title is deceptive, misleading, and might pose a major query.

    The inherent representational bias exhibited by a few diaspora Amhara ethnic members, as seen in the above article, to deceitfully portray all ninety ethnic groups in the country is a source of confusion for many. All the above-listed 20 groups can be reduced to one ethnic group. These individuals boldly claim to speak for the entire ethnic group in Ethiopia, simply calling themselves Ethiopian associations, while displaying blatant contempt and scorn for the constitutional rights granted to other ethnic groups.

    They cry desperately :”Twenty-two civic organizations of American Ethiopians wrote a protest letter to the United States Secretary of State over what they call “scandalous reference to the Ethiopian capital” by the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa.We, therefore, demand that the Embassy immediately retract its statement, unambiguously express its apology to the people of Ethiopia, and demonstrably refrain from making such irresponsible statements again in the future. “” Source ZehabeshaDOTcom and BorkenaDOTcom

    The title must be 20 fannatic fanno sponsors from Amhara ethnic groups write an open letter to the U.S. Secretary of State.

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