“Afromodern” Aspirations and Ethiopianism

Historical events of the nineteenth century, such as the abolition of the trans-Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades, the development of a “legitimate” trade, and the search for new markets and sources of raw materials by Europe on the African continent drew the continent into new cultural, political, and economic relationships with the rest of the world. The multiple histories of migration that emerged out of the interlocking systems of international capital and political expansion had not only helped create the African Diaspora, but also entrenched a global “color line” of unequal exchange and a Janus-faced “gift” of modernity.

The era also gave Ethiopian modernism a distinct and particular edge with two major characteristics. First, with the incursion of the European colonial elite into the Ethiopian sphere of strategic interest, the empire became more concerned with firming up the boundaries of an evolving modern state, especially in the consolidation and expansion of bureaucratic authority in its purview. Second, foreign skilled professionals and advisors were welcomed in Ethiopia as long as they did not seek to impose undue influence on domestic affairs. The rejection of political and economic domination from abroad and the attempt to strike a balance between transformative and conservative forces at home proved to be a daunting and complex task.

In nineteenth-century Ethiopia and before, the dynamic of imperial political economy had continued to encourage a slow conversion of worshipers of polytheistic religions into Orthodox Christian identity. This other metanarrative of modernity, according to Marina Ottaway, was channeled into Ethiopia through the political center controlled by Amhara, and the notion of progress was mapped onto ethnic differences. Becoming modern, “of the times” (zemanawi), “civilized” (siltane), or “educated” (yetamare), required one, to some considerable degree, to adopt Orthodox Christian customs. Modernization also became increasingly identified with the concentration of power in institutions that required literacy, a fact that greatly increased the duress on non-Amharic folks derisively labeled as “pagans,” or backward hwalakeri, ripe for political conquest or religious conversion.
Based on the above equations, understanding late nineteenth-century Ethiopian history requires an iconoclastic reading of the multiple narratives of intellectual and political economic paradigms. On the one hand, the Orthodox Church contributed to the consolidation of ethnic hierarchies and its corollary in the form of hegemonic conflicts. It also ensured that the definition of what it means to be Ethiopian was in a constant state of flux. On the other hand, and of equal significance, the impact of emergent or evolving modern theories that validates racial and regional hierarchies also further complicated the history of Ethiopian modernism.

Afromodernity has been described as a particular understanding of modernity and modern subjectivity among people of African descent as they attempt to create a form of relatively autonomous modernity distinct from their counterparts in Western Europe and North America. Afromodernity, according to political scientist Michael Hanchard, was inextricably intertwined with global historical events, particularly the impact of the combination of international slavery and colonialism on people of African descent. The ascendancy of the myth of Africa as the “dark continent” and Africans as the antithesis ofWestern modernity and modern subjectivity made the modernist project more imperative for Africans. At its broadest parameters, Afromodern projects in the Horn of Africa thus consist of the selective incorporation of technologies, discourses, and institutions of the modernWest within the cultural and political practices of African-derived peoples. Ethiopia’s (Abyssinian) cultural and political history also played a significant role in the construction and advancement of Afromodernity.

As European ideas and economic interests became the pivotal driving force in the modern international political economy, there was a proliferation of narratives that trumped or remained ambivalent to the idea that European values and interests are invariably superior. For Africans who were configured as the antithesis of Western modernity, Ethiopia’s oral and written historical narratives as an ancient civilization that combines indigenous and Orthodox Christian heritage presented a major tool of evaluative criticism of modern global events. Ethiopian history automatically became a defining core of a modern epistemology of racial advancement or at least a counterhegemonic narrative among Africans and African-descended people. European chancelleries and official statements often portrayed Ethiopia as either the anomaly or the paradox of African history. Many European sources described Ethiopians as “black Caucasians” or as a “Hamitic” race of Christians distinct from other Africans. Ethiopia’s lack of economic development, however, situated it within most of the narratives that asserted Western hegemony, and more importantly provided a rationale for colonial capital penetration of Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s strategic location in the Horn of Africa, a major traffic passage for international trade and resources, also made it a prime target for European powers. Ethiopia began to face increased opposition to what many described as antimodernist practices, especially in the practice of domestic slavery. As a result, the country encountered opposition to its desire for superior armament from Europe, as select European states placed limitations or total embargo on the traffic of arms to the Solomonic dynasty. In spite of such limitations, the Ethiopian empire was defended by a standing army of virtually all adult male members of the peasantry, who were often well armed and led by able, ambitious, and determined regional leaders. Although there was a lot of division among the Ethiopian regional elites, the hegemony of Orthodox Christianity also engendered “national” unity at crucial moments in history, conducive to massive mobilization of troops.
The History of Ethiopia, Page 39 – 40