Nomads in the Shadows of Empires

Book Review by Fekadu Bekele (PHD)
Title: Nomads in the Shadows of Empires
Author: Gufu Oba
Pages: 366
Publisher: Brill
ISBN-10: 9004244395, ISBN-13: 978-9004244399
ISSN: 1568-1203

This book about nomadic tribes in the frontier of two countries, namely Ethiopia and Kenya, deals with the impacts of two contesting Empires, Ethiopia which had not yet transformed to a fully developed nation-state with thousands of drawbacks, and the British Empire which had highly developed and a colonial power which had extended its imperial rules over many countries. As a matter of fact its colonial policy had impacts on the social conditions of African Indigenous peoples in Ethiopia.

The main tribes affected by the contests of these two imperial powers are the Borana of Ethiopia, who were pastoralists, and who were compelled to move from one frontier to the other, or within one vast area in search of water and grazing lands for their herds. The other ethnic groups are the Garre, usually called the Somalis. Though both of them were nomads and pastoralists, they are different in many respects. The Borana are peace loving and harmonious, while the Somalis are different in their social structure and psychological makeup. However, both used to have more or less a harmonious relationship before the two Empires came and began disturbing through various mechanisms the social norms which these two ethic groups had exercised hitherto.

Nomads in the Shadows of the Empires is divided into fourteen chapters, but the main context of the book focuses on how two contesting powers could disturb and at the same time shape the social relationship of different ethnic groups which were ones governed by other customary laws and having their own unique norms which could serve as guiding principles and practiced them.

The first chapter deals with the relationships of the Borana pastoralists and the Somali clans’ before the arrival or expansion of the two Empires, the Ethiopians and the British. Before the two empires had extended their influences on these ethnic groups in southern part of Ethiopia, and Kenya, there were more or less intensive contacts between the Borana and the Somali clans. Naturally, both ethnic groups were compelled to move into different directions in search of water and grazing lands. The fact that the Ethiopian side of the frontier had much water and grazing possibilities, the Somalis were compelled to come to the areas which belonged to the Borana. The Borana as peace loving and harmonious comparing with those of Garre of the Somalis tolerated them to use the wells and the grazing land for their herds. However, because of the absence of any kinds of regulations, and since the boundaries were more porous, they were prone to conflicts.

The Borana of Ethiopia exercised a class system of regulating their population, herds, and grazing lands. Because of the low number of the population, the Borana did not live in scattered areas. The fact that some normative rules were being practised, the political economy of resource control and using the resources for their herds without putting too much pressure on the ecological setup of the inhabiting and grazing areas was a common feature of the Borana class system. Astonishingly, the Borana had exercised a balanced system of resource using and controlling the move of their population which they could exercise for many centuries without being exposed to the changing climatic conditions in arid areas. The fact that resources belonged to the group, and since all members of the class were being governed by the Luba system, there were no conflicts on resource using and this made it possible that each member carefully used the resources in order not to inflict damages upon the ecological setup of the grazing lands. The Borana, heavily dependent on water resources and grazing lands, were well aware of how they use the water resource without jeopardizing the environment. Such a careful system of using the resources could be maintained over many centuries.

On the other side, the Somali clans were not abiding by certain kinds of regulations, and believed that water resources and grazing lands must be open to all ethnic groups without any restrictions. This contrast in the socio-economic organizations of the two systems and their approaches towards the natural resources and the system of exploiting the resources in accordance of the needs of the population and their herds and maintaining the ecological setup of the area was a source of conflict between the two ethnic groups. However, through intermarriages and assimilation the Somalis were compelled to accept some of the customs of the Borana. On the other side the Borana were suspicious about the rapid growing numbers of the Somalis. The Borana were afraid that they might be overwhelmed by the Somalis as the numbers of the Somalis grew through time. This intermingling between the Borana and the Garre, however, could not lead to a clear cut social differentiation which might be culminated into conflicts. Though the British tried to create trade relationship with the Somalis, and through that to exploit the resources from Ethiopian by developing intensive contacts with the Borana people, the trade contact did not have that much impact in changing the social structure of both the ethnic groups. They remained nomads, mainly dependent on cattle raring for their living as income source and wealth accumulation. The civilising mission of the British did not bring any fundamental changes in the social and work organization of the Borana and the Somali ethnic groups.

The historic victory of Emperor Menelik in 1896 over the Italian invasion and the expansion of the imperial power southwards to incorporate more land as part of Ethiopia was a great challenge for the Borana. The expansion of the two contending powers, namely the Ethiopians which had expanded southwards, and the British which controlled Kenya, north of the Borana land, had its impacts especially on the Borana nomadic people. Prof. Oba clearly analyses how such contending powers could determine the courses and development of certain groups by imposing new laws of resource using and levying taxes. As the new administration of Emperor Menelik had expanded and claimed more lands as its own territory, the Borana were no more independent, and became subjects of the new Ethiopian imperial power. Emperor Menelik had introduced a quasi-feudal relationship, which was known as the gabbar system. Under this system, all lands belonged to the Emperor, and he had the right to decide over resource use and resource allocation. Therefore the new subjects had to pay tributes or taxes which altered their social relationship. In order to collect taxes and control the movements of the people, the new Ethiopian administration created new administrative structures, known as ketamas (military outposts) to control the annexed region and through that to facilitate tax payments. Because of lack of knowledge and experiences from the side of the new Ethiopian administration, the Borana were subjected to excess exploitation and suppression. Without understanding the socio-economic organization of the Borana, and the advantages what the Borana got from their cattle, the new Ethiopian administration requested heavy taxes from the people. As Prof. Oba systematically shows in the book under reviews this could upset the social and economic organization of the Borana; and because of excess tax payments to the new imperial government some of them had to flee to Kenya, where the British administered. As it is shown in the book, the way in which the British handled their own citizens and the Borana which fled to Kenya was entirely different from the new not yet well organized Ethiopian administration. More or less some of the new comers, called the shiftas (bandits), used excessive force to collect taxes. Such widespread attitudes among the administration of Menelik could not help in bringing social harmony among the different communities. Prof. Oba clearly shows the cultural differences between the new Ethiopian government, which did not have a well-structured and organized administration with qualified personnel, and the British administration, which had experiences in administrative affairs which possessed also a liberal outlook which helped it how to deal with very sophisticated social and cultural issues.

The gabbar system of exploitation and imposed social relationship had to be changed when the Italian fascists occupied Ethiopia. The new Italian occupiers explicitly showed their hatred towards the Amhara, because in the Amharas they saw a kind of Ethiopian nationalism. When Italy invaded Ethiopia for the second time in 1935, she wanted to revenge, what she had lost in the battle of Adowa in 1896. The Italians this time well organized, supported by air planes, could easily defeat the Ethiopian Army. It was therefore easy to spread propaganda against the Amhara, and to be seen among the Borana and the Somalis as the new liberators from the feudal relationship of the Amharas. Prof. Oba clearly showed how the Italians completely abolished the gabbar system, which was a system of exploitation and social degradation. However, the Italians were not successful everywhere. They could easily win the hearts of the Somalis while the Borana were wavering among the Ethiopians and the Italians, in accordance of the shift of power. The Italians therefore organized the Somalis as their collaborators (bandas) to fight against the Amhara. Such a divide and rule system helped the Italians to hold foot in certain areas. As time went the resistance grew from the Ethiopian side, and at the end the Italians were defeated. However, by creating a new Somali land, by uniting most of the scattered Somalis, the Italians implanted a new nationalistic sentiment among the Somalis which became later on a source of conflict between the new Ethiopian government under Haile Selassie, and the Somalis in Mogadishu.

When Emperor Haile Selassie came back from exile and ascended to power, things hast to be reversed again. However the new administration under Emperor Haile Selassie was confronted with many problems, including the new situation with the Somalis. The scattered Ethiopian forces which vehemently fought the Italian fascist must be reorganized and integrated into the new administrative structure. There were other scattered forces which practiced banditry as a way of life. The Somalis which were organized by the Italians during the War were a great challenge to the new Ethiopian regime. Ethiopia as an underdeveloped nation did not have well-build roads and villages to control the movements of the different tribes. The regime did not have the institution which could contain all the forces, and the personnel which can mobilize the forces for work. Emperor Haile Selassie must reorganize the administration to bring law and order. At the beginning this was not an easy task. The multiple and complicated problems however, could not stop Emperor Haile Selassie to reverse the policies of the Italians. He had reinstalled the old feudal relationship. The government of Emperor Haile Selassie did not understand the dynamism of the social relationship that the Italians had introduced. With the reverse of the social relationship and installing the feudal tenant system, the government of Emperor Haile Selassie consciously or unconsciously created a new system of exploitation and class conflicts which became later on a great challenge for his administration. However, Emperor Haile Selassie could win the hearts and minds of some of the leading figures in the Borana land and in the areas where predominantly the Somalis lived. He achieved this by alleviating them to new posts, or allowed them to administer their own areas.

Though Emperor Haile Selassie had tried to consolidate his power, on the other hand he was not in good terms with the British which controlled Kenya. Since the Somalis and the Borana, and other shifta elements were moving across the two frontiers it was very difficult to control the movements of the different groups. In addition to this the question of citizenship could not be clearly settled, since some Borana people lived on the other side of the frontier where the British had administered. The lack of effective administration and control mechanisms to stop banditry in the frontier region was seen by the British that the Ethiopians lacked the ability to deal with such kinds of complex issues. After five years of intensive war, the new Ethiopian government had to start from the scratch to build new administration structures. In the absence of liberal traditions and intellectual movements one should not wonder that the new Ethiopian administration could not handle the situation differently.

Professor Oba´s well written book, Nomads in the Shadows of Empires, clearly analyses the nature of the social and cultural situations of both the Borana, and the Ethiopian empire. He showed us the difficulties in countries like Ethiopia that lacked effective administrative structure to deal with the different ethnic groups that had their own norms and psychological make-up. The fact that other powers, like the British and, later on the Italians had been involved and complicated the socio-cultural setup of the region made it extremely difficult for Emperor Menelik and later on for Emperor Haile Selassie to effectively rule their country. Professor Oba, who himself originates from Borana, has grasped the complex issues of the nomads from this perspective, and from the difficulties of forming a nation-state under complex social structures that did not have differentiated division of labor.

Fekadu Bekele holds PhD in Development Economics. He taught as a part time lecturer at the Free University of Berlin and Technical and Economic colleges in Berlin. He has published many articles about the social and economic crises of African countries, and currently works as a political analyst and consultant.