Tumultuous Times: Ethiopia Revolution and Derg Years

8:15 PM – 10:15 PM (UAE Time)
Session 3

Moderator & Discussant
Shimelis Bonsa Gulema - Associate Professor of Modern African History and Politics, SUNY Stony Brook University, New York, USA

Revolution as Art, Art as Revolution
Donald L. Donham - Distinguished Research Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Davis, USA

Perhaps the most important recent development in Ethiopian Studies is the efflorescence of new work in the humanities and arts. This paper will attempt to tie together these new developments with older work in cultural anthropology and history. It will intend to focus on a series of related concepts—the modern, modernist, modernity—that recur in both new and older works. To some extent, the paper will return to issues raised by the author’s book, Marxist Modern, published in 1999, based on fieldwork in southern Ethiopia during the 1970s and 80s. There are a few things that will be done differently today and explaining those will allow the consideration of some broad patterns in Ethiopian history and beyond. The crucial pattern that the paper will emphasize is the historical feeling of “being behind,” of living in exhausted times.

The quest for an alternative, for the “modern,” seems often to develop out of this structure of feeling. But it represents by no means a clear rejection of the past. Rather, the modern comes entangled with other concerns like “tradition” and even the “anti-modern.” To understand these entanglements, the paper suggests that we turn to Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the chronotope—a particular binding of space and time in discourse that establishes the shape of a narrative, in this case, the narrative of the nation. Modern chronotopes typically look across space to discover a livelier future, to uncover some secret of progress, and they interact with other ways of representing space-time.

The stakes of art and social revolution are, of course, vastly different. However, what the paper suggests is that both share certain commonalities such that looking at one may inform the other.

The Ethiopian Revolution as Rupture or Continuity? Elleni Centime Zeleke – Assistant Professor of African Studies, Columbia University, New York, USA

How can we name the historical processes that have led to contemporary political forms in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa? Was the Ethiopian revolution of 1974 an aberration or part of the process of creating the modern Ethiopian nation-state that began with Minilik in the late 19th century? Is the Ethiopian nation-state the continuity of something ancient or new? This paper argues that the questions posed by the Ethiopian student movement of the 1960s and 1970s and that led to the Ethiopian revolution of 1974 must be understood as part of the process of making sense of the scramble for Africa—a process that affected so-called independent Ethiopia as it did the formally colonized.

Popular Youth Self-Activity and the Criminalization of Urban Space in Addis Ababa: 1974 Semeneh Ayalew Asfaw - Researcher at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia

In its attempt to monopolize “change,” the Derg started a vigorous campaign of criminalizing urban spaces in the months following June 1974. When the Derg seized state power in September, by deposing Haile Selassie I, it stepped up its assault on youth self-activity beyond attacking organized political activity and by targeting cultural life and public spaces, especially of the youth. Through the criminalization of urban space, what the Derg did was assail the cultural bulwark of rebel young sensibility and subjecthood. That was done particularly through the control of the superfluous energies of the unwaged youth— the unemployed, vagrants, students, sex workers, and such urban young subjects. The aim was to contain the young and recalcitrant elements of the Addis Ababa society. Criminalizing urban space would continue to be the hallmark of Derg’s strategy of social control and the most characteristic means by which it enforced the tacit cooperation of the urban populace. The urban protest movement of the Ethiopian revolution carried mainly through organized petitioning and strike actions in the five months between February and June declined in the months after. In this moment, the section that was too difficult to contain for the Derg were the unwaged youth and school students who shared the same physical spaces of the city and had common social ties—the shay betoch, khat chews, and shebeens that were the public sites where the young— laborers, coolies, school students, vagrants, beer brewers, and sex workers confluence. Frequenting bars and shay betoch, chewing khat, violating curfews, operating drinking parlors, as well as theft and other petty crimes were all targets of the Derg’s puritanical cleanup state action.

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