Exceptionalism and Historiography of Ethiopia


6:00 PM – 8:00 PM (UAE Time)
Session 1



Moderator & Discussant
Tibebe Eshete - Pocock Family Distinguished Visiting Assistant Professor of History, The College of Wooster, Ohio, USA

Historicizing the Present: Contesting Culture and Power in Contemporary Ethiopia
Fouad Makki - Associate Professor of Development Sociology, Cornell University, Ithaca, USA

This paper seeks to explore contestations over history and memory in contemporary Ethiopia. Central to this contestation is the very meaning of Ethiopia itself, its identity as an ‘imperial’ or ‘national’ formation, and the implications of each for how relations between culture and power, state and citizen are conceived and imagined. The immediate catalyst for this is a particular crisis of state legitimacy and the unprecedented expansion of the public sphere facilitated by newly proliferating media of communication. In this highly charged conjuncture, where the connections between past, present, and future are being reconfigured, the boundaries between popular and professional histories - and the place of particular peoples within them - are also shifting. In this sense, the political urgency and anxiety of the current moment have turned the past into a particularly contested site of identity formation, a way of rooting oneself in an uncertain and rapidly changing present.

Epistemic and Material Violence: Unsettling Ethiopian Exceptionalisms
Surafel Wondimu Abebe - Assistant Professor at the Centre for African Studies and Researcher at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia

Many Ethiopians, particularly those who have accumulated discursive and material privileges from the hegemonic narratives of exceptionalism, posit the country as biriqiye (unique) for manifold reasons. It is a reality that Ethiopian exceptionalism is a multipronged and/or paradoxical narrative that has shaped global-local social relations as the historical material conditions shaped it. However, it is time to uncover the claim and any imposition of homogeneity on the subject of Ethiopian exceptionalism. Drawing and building on Mahmood Mamdani's theorization of South Africa's exceptionalist discourse, the paper asks: what other realities have been glossed over and what other questions we are not asking due to the metanarrative of birqiyewa (the Unique) Ethiopia? In particular, the paper poses this query: how does Ethiopian historiography account for its general neglect of the discussion of the theoretical and methodological issues embedded in history writing, while at the same time, the current political predicament and Pan-Ethiopian and ethnonationalist discourses have been profoundly affected by the colonial/modern rationality, progress, and science? Informed by a critical historiographic and methodological sensibility, the discussion will contrapuntally read the history of the present along with certain happenings of the beginning of the twentieth century. One of the exceptionalist narratives revolves around Ethiopia's (Adwa) victory over the Italian colonial power. Such narratives helped many Ethiopians to construct their identity as people of the only uncolonized country in Africa. However, there were Ethiopian intellectuals who questioned their country’s independence in the wake of the victory of Adwa (1896). In so doing, those intellectuals unsettled the epistemic and material workings of colonialism and the coloniality of power. Nevertheless, the act of making and unmaking exceptional Ethiopia unfolds in the twenty-first century without accounting for the old and new mechanisms of the raced-gendered-sexed global capital.

Beyond Exceptionalism: Interrogating the Entangled Making of Modern Ethiopia
Shimelis Bonsa Gulema - Associate Professor of Modern African History and Politics, SUNY Stony Brook University, New York, USA

‘Exceptionalism’ was a foundational notion that shaped Ethiopia’s ‘national’ psychology, the nature of the Ethiopian state, the conduct of politics and diplomacy, and not least the production of knowledge. The ‘paradigm of difference,’ which organized discourses about Ethiopia, within and outside of the country, operates at various levels of othering, using material and cultural progress as criteria. This narrative of singularity, which Ethiopia had a part in creating and sustaining, fragmented the polity, alienated the country and mystified the understanding of it. While underscoring the significance of the notion, this paper seeks to shift analysis of Ethiopia’s purported exceptionalism or independence, which is incomplete, or its dependence, which is largely incoherent, to its ambivalence – its simultaneous embrace and rejection of the West and its modernity – and its entangled development as a result of its complicated historical location. Injecting coloniality and global capital into the discussion of the making of modern Ethiopia is crucial. Complicating the discussion by recognizing the specificities of the Ethiopian experience is equally essential.

This paper uses contemporary debates about Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, to interrogate the effects and limits of the notion of exceptionalism.

Reading Afework’s Tobbiya, Troubling the Ethiopian (Imagi)nation
Serawit Bekele Debele - Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Germany

Hailing it as Ethiopia’s contemporary foundational myth, Yonas Admasu posits that Tobbiya picks off from where Kebrä Nägäst leaves us and yet radically departs from it. One of the manifestations of its departure is that Ethiopia is imagined in Tobbiya as one in which its “diverse” communities live in harmony, albeit under the hegemonic Orthodox Christian rubric. In an attempt to push the limits of diversity (and/or interrogate the notion), this presentation does a close (re)reading of Tobbiya. It asks: what does it look like to read Tobbiya- and through it, the idea of Ethiopia-in the lenses of gender and sexuality? By foregrounding the female protagonist Tobbiya as an iconoclast, this presentation “troubles” historiography. In this usage, to trouble means to center gender and sexuality-aspects that seems to be off-center- and thereby unsettle the heteropatriarchal (imagi)nation and discourses that feed it.


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