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  • War and the Politics of Identity in Ethiopia: The Making of Enemies and Allies in the Horn of Africa
  • Edmond J. Keller
Kjetil Tronvoll . War and the Politics of Identity in Ethiopia: The Making of Enemies and Allies in the Horn of Africa. Suffolk, U.K.: James Currey, 2009. Eastern Africa Series. Distributed in the U.S. by Boydell & Brewer, Inc., Rochester, N.Y.xiv + 239 pp. Selected Glossary. List of Acronyms. List of Official Interviews. References. Index. Notes. $80.00. Cloth.

This book represents yet another fine contribution to the study of the politics of Ethiopia by Kjetil Tronvoll. However, it is a departure from a strict historical account of social relations in Ethiopia, and more of an analysis of the discourse of identity formation among scholars—and among Ethiopians themselves. The book takes a long view of the emergence of Ethiopian identity over time, demonstrating how the boundaries of identity have shifted among those who have attempted to come to grips with the question, "Who is Ethiopian and who is not?" For example, in the early days of the modern imperial state, Tigreans, including those who resided in the lowlands along the Red Sea and came to be colonized by the Italians, were considered to be an integral part of "Greater Ethiopia." However, the ultimately successful invasion of the Ethiopian core during World War II by the Italian Fascists, with the assistance of Eritreans, resulted in the perception on the part of those who defended the Empire that Eritreans were traitors and indeed enemies of Ethiopia.

Once he was restored to the throne in 1941, Emperor Haile Selassie attempted, at least rhetorically, to weld Ethiopia into a multi-ethnic nation-state with a common history and a common identity. However, many ethnic minorities remained oppressed and saw the Crown as their enemy, identifying more closely with their subaltern ethnic groups. These tensions contributed in part to the overthrow of the Crown in 1974 and the emergence of a Marxist-Leninist regime that emphasized ideology and national unity over other types of identity. Numerous subnational movements emerged after 1975, aimed at rejecting ideologically based politics in favor of celebrating the various subnational ethnic identities.

Most of the book is dedicated to understanding how the Tigre ethnic group has grappled with the identity question since the 1940s. Just after the Italians were forced out of Ethiopia, Tigreans engaged in a struggle against the imperial state known as the "first weyane" (peasant uprising). The struggle against the Marxist-Leninist regime (1975–91) led to the central government's being cast in the role of an enemy of the Tigre people. The "second weyane" ensued, and there was a subsequent restoration of the connections among Tigreans in the Ethiopian-Eritrean war in 1998. Once again Tigreans in Ethiopia created boundaries between "us and them," now forging an identity that placed the boundary between Ethiopia and Eritrea as a useful way of demarcating who truly had claim to "Ethiopianness." However, after the peace accord in 2000, the enemy for Tigreans [End Page 177] became not only those residing in the state of Eritrea, but also the ruling regime in Ethiopia, as some nationalist Tigreans condemned the regime for attempting to expand Ethiopian identity to groups believed to be not originally part of "Greater Ethiopia." At least rhetorically, the regime has preached national unity, but its message has been lost on large segments of the minority communities, who continue to see the central government as an enemy.

Tronvoll argues that the various wars, rather than reinforcing or creating firm group identities in Ethiopia, have had mixed results, even in some ethnically homogeneous communities. With regard to Eritrea, the boundaries between "us and them" seem to have been reinforced in Ethiopia since 1998. However, the same clear distinctions from Amharic powerholders as applied to Eritreans have not been applied to Tigreans, or to others who also feel themselves to be less than full citizens of Ethiopia and who harbor resentments. The author concludes that in Ethiopia today, "the officially sanctioned nationalism designed and expressed by the EPRDF (Ethiopian Revolutionary Democratic Front) government was not powerful enough to neutralize other competing nationalist discourses, creating...