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Colonization Beyond Europe: The Ethiopian Case

AnalysisColonization Beyond Europe: The Ethiopian Case

While colonialism refers to the establishment and maintenance of a colony through subjugating indigenous populations, the concept is often reserved to refer to exclusively Western colonization. This article aims to introduce and explore the argument that the Ethiopian state is a colonial invention that propagates and maintains colonial structures and relations amongst its society.

This argument will be explored through situating Fanon’s concept of Manichean psychology with the experience and evolution of the Ethiopian state. This article specifically argues that the state of Ethiopia is premised on maintaining the Amhara-Oromo relations in the shape of colonizer and colonized respectively. It further argues that the structuring causes psychological sequela of colonialism that are identified by Fanon.

Fanon and Manicheism

In his Black Skins White Masks, Fanon relies on his personal observations to investigate the ideology of colonialism and its pathological and destructive effect on the colonized people. His methodology is best observed in the fifth chapter of the book, The Lived Experience of the Black Man.1 In the chapter, he presents his own “first-person phenomenological account” of the negative and racialized experience of the colonized subject. He points to how negrophobic attitudes caused by the “juxtaposition of the black and white races” in colonial settings have caused psycho-existential for black people. The observation leads Fanon to describe “racialization” as a “socially pathological othering” that “structures how bodies are represented and perceived.”

Acknowledging that black and white are not the only form of colonial relations that can occur, he acknowledges the “limitation of his positionality”2and that his account cannot be all-encompassing. Al Saji explains that the purpose of the account is not to universalize Fanon’s experience but to “draw out structural overlaps”3with the experiences of other colonized people. The lines of demarcation, in his case, “racialization” depend almost entirely on “visible bodily features” which are transformed through the process from being “relational” to “oppositional”.4 The outcome, or rather consequences, of this process, is the “naturalization of race” and the construction of “hierarchy” based almost exclusively on bodily demarcation. 5

While the racial component is crucial in understanding colonialism, its significance should not be overvalued. Firstly, Fanon’s emphasis on racism should be understood within the paradigm of his “positionality” in both time and location.

As a Martiniquan and someone who has lived in multiple former French colonies, his view on colonialism “parallels his views on the racial factor.”6 It should be clearly stated, however, that this does not reduce the validity of his ideological understanding of colonialism as he is focused on capturing “the character of the colonial world at that precise historical moment when the ideology of racism is paramount.”7

Therefore, Fanon does not necessarily suggest race as a requisite for colonialism, rather, racialization can be taken as a form in which Manichean differentiation between colonizer and colonized crystallizes in colonially structured societies instead of being a “prime factor.”8

The association of colonialism exclusively with race limits the multifarious forms of colonialism and colonial relations constructed, thereby invalidating otherwise already diagnosed psychopathologies of colonial oppression and their potential solutions for oppressed individuals or society.

This is true for the Oromo people of Ethiopia, as well as the other nations that collectively constitute what is known today as the Ethiopian state. In the following sections of the paper, two simultaneous processes that led to the formation of the Ethiopian state will be identified.

The first is the international situation and European intervention or partition of Africa. This part, although important, will be kept brief as it is included to provide context on how the dynamics of power changed in the region.

The second process is through reading and situating the internal processes occurring in the region through Deleuze and Guattari’s concept which conceives of the state through social relations (e.g. desire) rather than institutions. This method is a useful analytical method for understanding how the Ethiopian state propagates colonial ideologies.

The Sovereign in the Era of Colonialism

The partition of Africa rested in the denial of the sovereignty of its “black” natives. In the Western knowledge paradigm, Africans were considered “uncivilized” and “primitive”, hence, their agency over their lands and themselves was bypassed. European powers divided the land amongst themselves by erecting boundaries based on their economic and strategic interests.

Amongst this “scramble for Africa”, the small East African Kingdom of Abyssinia, which would later be referred to as Ethiopia, claims to have come out of this colonial world-order independent.

Holcomb, however, challenges this claim of independence in a rhetorical and epistemological questioning of independence in colonial world order. She, then, proceeds to give a historical account to challenge this claim of independence. According to her, the entity referred to as Ethiopia is a new polity and a colonial invention that was made to guard European interests and colonial ambitions.

Ethiopia’s location on the continent was of strategic importance to colonial powers of the time such as Britain and France. It is located near the then newly opened Suez Canal and the headwater of the Blue Nile9 and between French East and West African colonies.

To prevent conflict and competition over the area, European powers formed, what Holcomb refers to as “an intriguing alliance formed between capitalist states and loose assemblages of Abyssinian kingdoms.”10 Through this alliance, the Abyssinian king Menelik II was able to acquire the weaponry and logistical assistance that helped him subdue and incorporate the territories that surrounded Abyssinia. The imperial expansion led to the incorporation of different “socio-cultural groups with separate histories” and territories under one “single system.”11

Although the process is thoroughly documented, it is rarely referred to as colonialism in Western scholarship.12 Nonetheless, the process of Abyssinian expansion and the new territorial claim was formally recognized in an international treaty that acknowledged the sovereignty of the newly formed Ethiopian Empire. The legal recognition of this alliance was stated in the Tripartite Treaty of 1906: “We the Great Powers of Europe, France, Britain and Italy, shall cooperate in maintaining the political and territorial status quo in Ethiopia as determined by the state of affairs and present existing and previous [boundary] agreements.”13

Admittedly, there are several interesting themes, self and “other” that emerge from Europe’s “intriguing alliance” with Abyssinia.

Abyssinia has long been considered, in Western knowledge paradigm, the “Black Orient”;14“a country in rather of Africa.”15However, since the topic of the paper has to do with psycho-relations due to internal changes within the Ethiopian state, the topic will not be further explored in the paper.

There is a lack of research sources that deals with pre-colonial social relations of the different polities that exist within Africa, especially in the field of psychoanalysis and psychology. Most of the research assumes Eurocentric lenses and explains colonialism from the inter-racial, rather than intra-racial, relations. Nevertheless, this paper argues colonialism cannot be fully comprehended unless the various multilayered systems and social relations that enable colonialism are explored. Most specifically, the psychological aspect of the colonial encounter needs to be explored from the perspective of all the actors involved.

From Relational Towards Manichean: The Making of a State

As forms of identity, nations, and civilizations use “othering” as means of identifying between the “us” and “them”. In the same manner, the Abyssinian civilization has defined itself vis-à-vis their “uncivilized” and “heathen” neighbors. The process is not necessarily Manichean, in the colonial sense, but relational because the independence of the “other” gives them agency to construct and defend their worldviews. Nonetheless, the process of constructing the “other” in the eyes of the civilized can be seen in the court historian and monk, Abba Bahrey’s, works. In the oldest surviving socio-historical work on the Oromo, “History of the Galla”,16 17 Bahrey introduces the society of the “other” as:

“I (hereby) begin to undertake the studies [I write] of the Galla in order that I may know the number of their tribes, their zeal to kill people, and the brutality of their demeanor. If there is anyone who would say to me, “Why has he written about the wicked ones like the history of the good?”18

Bahrey’s authored his book centuries before the creation of the Ethiopian state. Moreover, his work is anthropological and is aimed at educating his people about their neighboring society. He also writes from a point of subjectivity where his village was involved in conflict with an Oromo clan. For centuries, the different polities that occupied Ethiopia had “tested each other [militarily] and maintained consistent and clear-cut boundaries between their homelands”.19 Each had its pre-state conceptualization of the “other” that was shaped by different forms of interactions.

Fanon himself does not refute the existence of racism and “otherization” before colonialism. For him, the civilizational gaze of the “other”, although it predates colonialism, it [colonialization] captures the history and civilization and reduces them into a specific stereotypical image.20 Fanon, however, ponders on this theoretically and does not illustrate the mechanisms in which this process exactly occurs.

Even though Deleuze and Guattari did not specifically write on colonialism and colonial societies, their conceptualization of the “apparition of the State” is nevertheless useful in exploring the process in which pre-colonial “othering” and gaze is fixated and institutionalized to represent a collective’s existence as a whole. According to them, the state comes into existence in societies that already have identifiable “anthropological differences.”21 Walker refers to these differences as “original divisions” and states that the state builds new social relations entirely based on these perceived “original divisions.”

Even if the state is still in the process of formation, the “original differences” or perceptions of the “other” become congealed into the various apparatuses of the state and continuously (re)produce through the different institutions and mediums that make up the state.22D&G explain this process as “deterritorialization and (re)territorialization.”23Through “deterritorialization”, an assemblage of relationships and desires lose their context and original form. Those assemblages, then, “(re)territorialize” and reconstruct in a new form that constitutes something else altogether. In the case of Ethiopia, civilizational different worldviews are put together under a “single system.” What desires and relationships were involved in the process? As a consequence of the European intervention, the state formation in Ethiopia was vertical; it is a result of violent Abyssinian expansions into the territories of the Oromo. Ethiopian historian Tibebu, reflecting on the process of building Ethiopia, stated that “the rise of modern Ethiopia heralded the demise of Oromo power.”24

Considering this, the next paragraphs explore how pre-state desires and set of relations Abyssinia had with Oromo play out under this “single system.”

Richard Pankhurst, in his “Tedla Hailé, and the Problem of Multi-Ethnicity in Ethiopia”, provides useful insight into how previous “anthropological difference” and social relations had been transformed and institutionalized in Ethiopia. Pankhurst revisits a thesis proposal made by Tedla, a minister of education during the time of Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-74). According to him, Tedla drafted a proposal aimed to “unify all the people of Ethiopia.”25He [Tedla] introduces his thesis by identifying the traditional rulers and nemeses of Ethiopia. The Amhara, he claims, has always been the “dominant” and “governing”26ethnic group of Abyssinia and Ethiopia. Under the leadership of the ethnically Amhara Emperor Menelik II, Tedla states that “Ethiopians” were finally able to “completely submit” Oromos to their rule. He, then, proceeds to state the “central theme” of what he referred to as the “Gallo-Amhara Problem”: “What would be the relations between the Amharas and Oromos in the years ahead?”27

According to Tedla, for Ethiopia to become a modern state, it should abandon its “old garrisons” in Oromo lands. Instead, he proposed “a policy of assimilation”. Towards this, he explores several scenarios, between the “enslavement of the whole population” to a policy “in which the conquerors [Amharas] raise(s) the conquered [Oromo] to their level, and the latter people abandoned their customs”. Tedla opted for the latter, where he states that for an “ordinary Oromo” to join the ranks of “Ethiopian society”, s/he had assimilated culturally and linguistically to the superior Amhara. This, he argued, would require the government to (re)settle Amharas in Oromo territories to rule over and civilize them. Such a policy, he envisioned, would make out of them “good Ethiopians.”28

A Member of an Oromo diaspora community in the US walks past a group of ethnic Amharas ignoring their hostile screams, and insults on her way to attend a meeting with Oromo public figures in 2019.
A Member of an Oromo diaspora community in the US walks past a group of ethnic Amharas ignoring their hostile screams, and insults on her way to attend a meeting with Oromo public figures in 2019.

Interestingly, Tedla points out, despite these and the Amhara domination, their geographical proximity and the absence of any physical differences with the Oromo makes: first, the relation non-colonial. Secondly, premising on the first conclusion, assimilation possible. 29

Despite Tedla’s assertion, it is possible to point out the “structural overlaps” between Ethiopia’s assimilation-ism and Fanon’s conceptualization of “racialization.” The ideological basis for both processes is similar, if not the same, and is a product of colonial relations. Both processes feed on (re)conceiving social differences (e.g. black/white or Oromo/Amhara) into fundamentally opposite and mutually exclusive identity markers based on a specific “gaze”.

Likewise, in each case, one identity marker is defined as the primary, hence, discernibly privileged. In his Wretched of the Earth, Fanon explains the colonizer’s logic of dichotomizing the world as “help[ing] rehabilitate man, and ensure his triumph everywhere.”30The “Whiteman’s” privileged place in the world is ensured and recognized as long as the “Black man” exists. For Fanon, a sharp distinction of “us” and “them” is a requisite for the continuity of the system. Similarly, Tedla’s vision rests on the claim of rehabilitating the Oromo by elevating them to the “high” status of the Amhara. Oromo, as a naturalized and fixed identity, must remain for the success of the “good Ethiopian” vision.

Ethiopian State: What Pathology is Mine?

In one of the incidents in BSWM, Fanon recounts a time when he believed to have assimilated into the French and White world.31He believed he was intellectually capable and culturally well-informed for the system to accept him. The colonial reality, however, shattered his belief at the glimpse of a single patronizing “white” eye.32He concludes that despite the colonial situation offering the “Negro…two frames of reference within which he has had to place himself,” it does not offer him social mobility or other realities. He summarizes the effects by saying: The “Black” man “be recognized not as Black, but as White.” while the reality is that he cannot.

Saji explains Fanon’s description by pointing out the alienating and neurotic component of the social mapping in saying that the Manichean distinction and inability to define oneself independently triggers a “feeling of nonexistence”33for “Black” people. This Fanon, argues, is because the black person “has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man.”34Unlike the condition of Jews in relation to anti-Semitism,35the white man does not believe the black man has a “civilization” to defend him. His/her entire identity is foiled, and he is conceptualized as inferior by the white man. Moreover, as s/he has no alternative view means of identifying him/herself. The absence of other references of identifying leads the “Black” person to internalizing the derogatory images” and produce a pathological desire, which Fanon diagnoses as neurosis.

Gemetchu Megerssa reaches a similar conclusion while observing the condition of the Oromo people in Ethiopia:

“The intrusive and destructive image of themselves [Oromos] as fabricated by the galla myth forms part of their consciousness and social experience and serves as a constant provocative negative pole according to which all Oromo must now continue to define themselves.”

According to Gow, Gemetchu argues that Oromos are caught up in a seemingly inescapable and paradoxical referral to a “constant provocative negative pole” to define themselves. According to him, “the Oromo national is compelled to define herself in reference to the subaltern sensibilities coded within the formation of Abyssinian imperialism.” Gemetchu’s frustration can be observed in Hachalu Hundessa’s “What Existence is Mine”.

Video clip of Hachalu Hundessa song, "Maalan Jira." (what existence is mine?"
Video clip of Hachalu Hundessa’s hit, “Maalan Jira.” (what existence is mine?”)

In the widely popular cultural resistance Oromo song, Hundessa tries to explore the “subterranean” processes that are causing him and his people “the experience of dispossession.” While the point of the song was recognizing the Oromo as a collective, the traumatic experience of “Ethiopia” and its formation serves as the reference point. According to Awol Allo, the song serves as an “ethnographic take on the Oromo’s uncertain and anomalous place within the Ethiopian state.”


This article tried to explore the process of the formation of the Ethiopian state from a historical perspective as well as analytical to argue that it is a colonial state. Moreover, it tried to situate Fanon’s analytical discourse on colonialism within the context of the Ethiopian state to expose the similarly Manichean society that has developed. The argument that this paper attempted to lay out is that Ethiopia, as a state, propagates pathologies in the same way other colonial states have done.