Ethiopia: Power and Protest:
Peasant Revolts in the Twentieth Century

Gebru Tareke

Cambridge University Press 1991
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001
Case studies of three revolts make up the bulk of Power and Protest, but Tareke begins with a survey of their historical and social context and a glance at some theory. He describes the history of the Ethiopian imperial state, from its origins in the last quarter of the nineteenth century to the Italian invasion and the restoration of Haile Selassie. And he outlines the key differences between the highlands (with peasant agriculture dominating) and the lowlands (with pastoralists and nomads), and in the former between an Amharic imperial centre and northern and southern regions with their own identities (Eritrea the extreme case). Tareke has an obvious interest in the marxist staples of production relations and ideological frameworks, but takes a broad perspective that ranges over the complexities of social, political, and economic history; he goes over some of the theory on domination and peasant consciousness, but never lets it take over.

Several groups combined in the Weyane revolt in Tigrai from May to October 1943: peasants resentful at the reimposition of taxes (after their elimination by the Italians) and the abuses of venal officials; Raya, Azebo, and Wajirat pastoralists trying to maintain independence and avoid feudal incorporation; aristocrats caught up in factional conflicts and rivalries; and bandits. (Tareke finds no evidence of deliberate external instigation by either the Italians or the British.) Contributing factors to their initial success were the use of oath-taking and religious sanctions to hold the uneasy coalition together, widespread military experience and the easy availability of rifles from the withdrawing Italians, and the leadership of Haile Mariam Redda. But the revolt ended when the rebels tried to fight a pitched battle at Alage and were bloodily defeated by regular army units backed by British advisors, artillery, and air strikes. Except for most of the nobles, the participants were subjected to brutal punishment and repression.

Between 1963 and 1970, there was a rebellion in Bale (southeast Ethiopia). The rebels were supplied and supported by Somalia, but driven primarily by local discontents — by land and tax issues and by religious and class tensions that pitted Christian Amhara settlers against Islamic Oromo and Somali. The rebels were plagued by ethnic divisions (and lineage divisions within those) and lacked a common ideology or shared goals. (Comparing them to the Vietminh, Tareke concludes that "their movement was no more than a typical peasant protest, whereas that of the Vietnamese was a nationalist cum socialist revolution".) Poor organisation and leadership by the government forces helped the rebellion persist; better government leadership and the withdrawal of Somalian support eventually allowed it to be suppressed.

The revolt in Gojjam in 1968 involved bandits, local nobles, and peasants; it was provoked by extortion by officials and militia, a new income tax law and changes in land measurement, and an arrogant governor who alienated local clergy and gentry. The result was a grass-roots rebellion, with little coordination above the parish/village level. For many months several districts were outside government control, but the state response was indecisive, with commissions sent and concessions made before military force was used to restore order, and subsequent sanctions were light (many of the rebel leaders were in fact rewarded). Rather than a "vendée" revolt directed solely against change, Tareke sees the Gojjam rebellion as a struggle "in which peasants successfully preserved their partial autonomy by exploiting interclass conflicts at the top".

An epilogue looks at events after the 1974 Revolution, which was led by student activists from the capital and had a radically different basis to the earlier rebellions. Comparing the movements opposing the Mengistu military dictatorship, Tareke explores why the Tigrai Peoples Liberation Front was so much more successful than similar movements in Bale.

May 2001

External links:
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Related reviews:
- Ryszard Kapuscinski - The Emperor
- Richard Pankhurst - The Ethiopians: A History
- books about Africa + African history
- more modern history
- books published by Cambridge University Press
%T Ethiopia: Power and Protest
%S Peasant Revolts in the Twentieth Century
%A Tareke, Gebru
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 1991
%O hardcover, references, index
%G ISBN 0521400112
%P xxi,272pp