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  • The Rise of Coffee and the Demise of Colonial Autonomy:The Oromo Kingdom of Jimma and Political Centralization in Ethiopia
  • Guluma Gemeda


In the late nineteenth century, King Menelik II (d. 1913) of Shewa conquered the regions south of his kingdom and created the modern Ethiopian empire. From Entoto, where the imperial court was established in the late 1870s, he sent out his soldiers to the south and the southwest and annexed vast Oromo and Omotic territories. The administration of the conquered regions was maintained by loyal northern soldiers and their commanders, who facilitated the transfer of resources to the imperial center. The soldiers (naftanya) were garrisoned at strategic places (katama) to suppress any resistance and ensure imperial control. The specific nature of the colonial administration was determined by a number of factors such as the level of initial resistance, the economic and political conditions of the territory, the location of the province, and the strategic interest of the empire. Ethiopianists have classified the postconquest imperial administration of the south into three categories: the qurt-gibr or fixed tribute–paying autonomous regions; the territories of gabbar or tribute-paying subjects; and the borderlands or frontier zones.1 The indigenous rulers of the fixed tribute–paying regions initially enjoyed some autonomy from the imperial center. Paying fixed annual tributes, they escaped the excessive [End Page 51] demands of taxation and labor, and the burden of sustaining Menelik's soldiers. Social and political dislocation was relatively minimal in the semi-independent regions.

On the other hand, the gabbar territories and the "fringe peripheries" were directly controlled and heavily taxed by imperial soldiers. Besides annual tribute payments, they furnished the soldiers with wide-ranging services and provisions. Over time, however, the differences between the various administrative categories faded away as the imperial government tightened its control over all the provinces of the empire. Such changes were not very visible during the reign of Menelik (1889–1913). But after Ras Taffari (Emperor Haile Sellassie, after 1930) came to power in 1916, the imperial administration was more centralized and its means of economic extraction systematized. Between 1916 and 1936, Ras Taffari/Haile Sellassie eliminated the semiautonomous status of several regions and created an "absolutist state."2 During this period, the autonomous status of Jimma, the most prosperous province in the southwest, was suddenly eliminated.3

This article examines the relationship between political centralization and the penetration of the market economy in Ethiopia during the early twentieth century. It attempts to show how increased coffee production and export, despite its contribution to the prosperity of Jimma, undermined the kingdom's autonomy and accelerated Haile Sellassie's drive for the creation of a centralized bureaucratic state. The annexation of Jimma occurred in 1932 during a political crisis in the kingdom, an event that I will discuss later.

The Political Context of Jimma's Autonomy

The kingdom of Jimma was one of the five Oromo monarchies of the Gibe region before it was conquered by Menelik's army in the early 1880s. It emerged in the second half of the eighteenth century and its state structure was consolidated during the reign of Abba Jifar I (r. 1830–55).4 Until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Jimma fought against its neighbors, extended its frontiers to the east and southeast, and eventually became the most powerful kingdom in the region. By the 1870s, it controlled the fertile agricultural lands and the important [End Page 52] trade routes in the Gibe Valley that linked Kafa in the south with Gondar in the north and other markets in central Ethiopia.5

During the early 1880s, despite its relative power, Jimma's ambitions were kept in check by political events in the Gibe Valley. In 1881, the kingdom was confronted by two Abyssinian powers from the north. First, it was challenged by the forces of King Takla Haymanot (d. 1901) of Gojam. Shortly after Emperor Yohannes IV of Ethiopia made him "King of Gojam and Kafa" in 1881, Takla Haymanot sent his army to the Gibe Valley to conquer the Oromo kingdoms and the Omotic Kafa. The young sultan of Jimma, Abba Jifar II (r. 1878–1930), planned to resist...


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