Problems Faced by Countries Directly Rooted in Conquest Empires

Several recent GeoCurrents posts have remarked on Nepal’s relatively low social and economic indicators, especially when compared with other environmentally and culturally similar regions in the southern Himalayas. Explaining why this is the case, however, has not been attempted. Nepal’s chaotic political environment and recent history of conflict no doubt play a major role. But could a deeper reason be lodged in the fact that the modern state of Nepal is directly rooted in the early-modern conquest empire of the Gorkhas? In such an empire, one group of people conquers and imposes its will on many other groups, creating profound resentment. Turning such a polity into a well-functioning nation-state, and especially a democratic one, can be a challenge.

To assess this thesis, it is useful to look at other modern countries similarly founded on relatively recent conquest empires. Although many countries could potentially be placed in such a category, I have limited it to eight states, including Nepal (see the map below). Each will be briefly examined here.

Ethiopia, in its currently geographical bounds, emerged in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the rapid conquests of the Kingdom of Abyssinia, or Ethiopian Empire, dominated by the Christian Amhara people. Although most of Africa was colonized by Europeans, quite a few of its peoples were subjugated by this indigenous empire. Not surprisingly, religiously and linguistically diverse Ethiopia continues to experience pronounced ethnic tensions, and has never successfully transitioned into a fully national state.

Saudi Arabia is a more recently created conquest state, emerging in the early 1900s. In 1902, the domain of the Saud family was limited to a small area near the middle of the Arabian Peninsula. Through a spectacular series of conquests over the next several decades, Ibn Saud had carved an extensive state that became known as Saudi Arabia. Although one could argue that Saudi Arabia was never an empire because its creation involved the conquest of other Arabic-speaking Muslim groups, the actual situation was more complicated. The austere Wahhabi sect that was, and still is, closely linked to the Saudi dynasty, was foreign to most of what is now Saudi Arabia. Especially to Twelver Shi’ites of the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia can still seem like an empire. But it is also true that generous social spending and rapid economic development have more generally transformed Saudi Arabia into a successful nation-state.

Afghanistan is directly rooted in the Durrani Empire, carved out by Ahmad Shah Durrani in the mid 1700s. A Pashtun project, the Durrani Empire forcefully brought many members of other ethnic groups, with different languages and cultures, under its rule. In the twentieth century, Afghanistan sought to transform itself into a national state in several different incarnations, with middling success. But Afghanistan’s continuing tensions and turmoil have some linkages with its imperial formation.

Modern Burma/Myanmar is firmly rooted in the Burmese Konbaung Empire and Dynasty (1752 to 1885). The first Konbaung ruler crushed the wealthy and sophisticated Kingdom of Pegu in southern Burma and subsequently almost wiped its Mon people off the map. Konbaung rulers went on the conquer the Shan states, Arakan, Manipur, and even Assam, severely threatening the British East India Company in Calcutta. Three Anglo-Burmese war followed, eventually reducing the entire empire to British imperial rule. But when Burma was reborn as an independent state in 1948, its leaders sought to reestablish ethnic Burman domination over non-Burman peoples, following Aung San’s pre-war slogan “our race, our language, our religion.” Ethnic rebellions immediately proliferated and continue to this day. Burma has never been able to turn itself into a solid nation state.

Iran has deeper and more complicated roots, but it was essentially formed by the Safavid Dynasty, which conquered the region that is now Iran, and more, in the early sixteenth century. The religiously driven Safavids turned Iran a Twelver Shi’ite country; today it is a Twelver Shi’ite theocracy. The Safavid state was a joint project of Turkic military power and Persian cultural and administrative capability, the combination of which continued to form the backbone of the Iranian state long after the Safavid Dynasty fell from power in 1736. Iran eventually turned itself into a relatively successful national state, but to its mostly Sunni Kurds and Balochs, and to many Iranian Arabs as well, it can still seem like a Persian empire.

Russian arguably became an empire in 1552, when Ivan IV (“the Terrible”) conquered the important Muslim state of Kazan, turning Russia into a multi-confessional, multilinguistic polity. Subsequent expansion brought many other non-Russian peoples under its imperial rule. Although the Bolsheviks rejected the very idea of empire, in many ways the Soviet Union that they created continued to function as an imperial state – as does Russia to this day. Ethnic conflicts, however, are not a major problem today. Crucial factors here include the fact that ethnic Russian form a solid majority (70 to 80 percent of the total population) and the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s political suppression.

China is the most complicated case. Its civilizational roots extend back for millennia, longer even than those of Iran. But the geographical expression of China today stems from the conquests of the Qing Dynasty and Empire in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Taiwan, viewed by Beijing today as an intrinsic part of its territorial domain, had never previously been under Chinese rule. The huge regions of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Manchuria all became firmly part of China owing to the power of the Qing. Ironically, the Qing were not themselves an ethnic Chinese but rather Manchus; their success in subjugating the vastly more numerous Han Chinese people resulted in their own demographic swamping and virtual disappearance as a people. Today, China forms a secure national state with relatively minor ethnic conflicts. Such stability stems from the demographic predominance of the Han people (92 percent of the population) and to the country’s rapid economic ascent. But to Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongols, and others, China can still feel like an imperial state.

Many other countries, including the United States, have some imperial roots and are treated as empires by some writers. But for the eight countries mapped above, imperial roots are pronounced. It is probably not coincidental that none of them has a successful history of democratic governance.

Richard Francis Burton, Harar, and Hyenas

“I doubt not there are many who ignore the fact that in Eastern Africa, scarcely three hundred miles distant from Aden, there is a counterpart of ill-famed Timbuctoo in the Far West. The more adventurous Abyssinian travelers … attempted Harar, but attempted it in vain. The bigoted ruler … threatened death to the Infidel who ventured within the walls… Of all foreigners the English were, of course, the most hated and dreaded. …It is, therefore, a point of honor with me … to utilise my title of Haji by entering the city, visiting the ruler, and returning in safety, after breaking the guardian spell.” – Richard Francis Burton, First Footsteps in East Africa or, An Exploration of Harrar. eBooks@Adelaide 2009

In 1854, having recently gained fame from his pilgrimage to Mecca, Richard Francis Burton first entered the territory of what is now Somaliland. Burton’s destination was the city of Harar, located in what is now Ethiopia, but then an independent emirate. Harar was a challenge that Burton could not refuse: rumor had it that no Christian had ever set foot inside the city walls, and prophesy maintained that the city would decline if one ever did. Burton waited in the Somali port city of Zeila and explored its environs until he determined that the way to Harar was open. He reached the city with few problems, and remained there for ten days as the guest – or perhaps prisoner – of the Emir.

Burton was not particularly impressed with Harar or its inhabitants. “The Somal say of the city that it is a Paradise inhabited by asses,” he reported, immediately adding that, “the exterior of the people is highly unprepossessing. Amongst the men, I did not see a handsome face.” Yet he found the women of Harar “beautiful,” but only in comparison with their men. He also noted that, “both sexes are celebrated for laxity of morals. High and low indulge freely in intoxicating drinks, beer, and mead” – but in Burton’s case, “laxity of morals” was not necessarily an objectionable trait. He also praised Harar’s qat (“I could not but remark the fine flavour of the plant after the coarser quality grown in Yemen”), yet seemed disappointed that the drug did not have a stronger effect.

Burton was intrigued by the city’s language, which did not extend beyond its wall: “Harar has not only its own tongue, unintelligible to any save the citizens; even its little population of about 8000 souls is a distinct race.” Immediately outside of the city, Burton reported, one encountered a different “race,” the Galla (Oromo), who, he claimed, were habitually defrauded by the merchants of Harar. The profound separation of the city from its hinterland persists. The Harari are a distinct ethnic group with their own language. The Harari tongue is Semitic, hence only distantly related to the Cushitic language of the Oromo who surround them. Harar and its immediate outskirts thus forms one of Ethiopia’s ethnically based administrative regions, officially called the Harari People’s National Regional State (see map).

Harar today boasts an emerging tourist trade. UNECSO lists it as a world heritage site, claiming that it is the fourth most holy city of Islam, with 82 mosques and 102 shrines. It has other attractions as well – including hyenas. Semi-wild hyenas live within the city walls, providing scavenging services for the Harari. Hyena-men feed the animals raw meat out of their own mouths for the amusement of visitors.

The city’s hyenas are the subject of a blog: Marcus Baynes-Rock’s delightful Hyenas in Harar. Graduate student Baynes-Rock investigates human-wildlife interactions in urban settings, and he has found a fascinating case. The key to the relationship between people and hyenas in Harar, he argues, are the supernatural creatures called jinn (or genies):

“According to my sources, there are good and bad jinn in Harar and they are all pervasive, with the bad ones occasionally possessing people. And this is where the hyenas come in. They serve the town by locating and eating the bad jinn and maybe mistakenly eating the odd good one. While humans can only occasionally see jinn, hyenas see them all the time and will chase and eat them at every opportunity. In fact it’s been suggested that a hyena attacking a person could well be a case of a hyena attacking a jinni that has possessed a person. So presumably, the ‘oo’ sound is the hyena sucking the jinn from the ground, and the ‘woop’ is the point at which it enters the hyena’s stomach, the tomb of the jinn. But it goes even further…”

To find out just how far it goes, check out Hyenas in Harar.

Somaliland’s Quest for Recognition

Although Somaliland is well governed when contrasted with the rest of Somalia, all is not well in the breakaway republic. On May 4, 2010, StrategyPage warned that “Somaliland is sliding towards civil war.” Such an assessment may be unduly harsh, but Somaliland’s much-touted democracy did lose some credibility recently when a government-run radio station linked the main opposition party to Al Shabaab, the extreme Islamist militia inflicting havoc across southern and central Somalia. The opposition group denied the allegation, arguing that the report had “seriously dinted [sic] the image of top figures in Somaliland’s political landscape.” More troubling in the long run has been the failure to hold elections after Dahir Rayale’s presidential term expired in May 2008. Yet another postponement in September 2009 brought threats of a political boycott by rival parties.

Despite such problems, Somaliland’s election appears to be on track for June 2010. Official ballot boxes arrived from Denmark on April 19, and biometric voter registration cards are currently being issued. One of the main campaign issues is the country’s lack of international legitimacy. Candidate Faisal Ali Warabe has promised that, if elected, he will make the breakthrough: “The name Somaliland is not even known in 10 countries in Africa, and I will guarantee the people of Somaliland that if I am elected as the next President of Somaliland I will promise that I will achieve recognition for our country, and my words are final and by doing this I will do all means and ways and I know easy tricks to do that.”

Gaining even limited international recognition will likely prove more difficult than Faisal Ali Warabe anticipates. But it is not entirely out of the question. In March 2010, reports circulated that Israel was considering recognizing the de facto country. Such rumors provoked the Arab League – of which Somalia is a member, despite its miniscule Arab population – to call vaguely for “diplomatic action” against Israel. The Egyptian government in particular has reacted firmly: “Egypt is a friend of the Somali people,” proclaimed Cairo’s ambassador to Somalia, “[and] it will never allow the disintegration and division of Somalia.” The fact that Somalia did indeed disintegrate in 1991 and has been divided ever since has apparently made little impression on the ambassador.

Some high-level members of the United States military establishment have floated the idea of recognition. In 2007, Defense Secretary Robert Gates discussed the issue on a visit to neighboring Djibouti, a key U.S. ally in the volatile region. “Somaliland is an entity that works,” reported a senior defense official. Another official supposedly claimed that the Pentagon favored formal acknowledgement: “Somaliland should be independent… We should build up the parts that are functional and box in Somalia’s unstable regions, particularly around Mogadishu.” The State Department, however, disagrees strongly. Not wanting to be seen as meddling in African affairs, the U.S. government has consistently deferred to the African Union, which rejects recognition. As Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi E. Frazer put it, “We do not want to get ahead of the continental organization on an issue of such importance.”

Somaliland’s closest relations are with neighboring Ethiopia. Landlocked Ethiopia depends heavily on Somaliland’s port facilities in Berbera, and seeks to leverage its influence in Somaliland to counter the threat of radical Islamists elsewhere in the region. In June 2007, an official Ethiopian communiqué referred to the leader of the breakaway republic as the “President of Somaliland,” implying sovereignty. But as long as the African Union denies recognition, Ethiopia – home of the AU’s secretariat ­– is unlikely to formally grant it. The same is true of the European Union and its member states.

Somaliland faces additional challenges in its struggles against Puntland, another governmental entity that has emerged out of the wreckage of Somalia.More on that in tomorrow’s post.

Gambella: Ethiopia’s Troubled Western Lowlands

Ethiopia is well known as a plateau country. Its cultural and political core areas have always been in the highlands. But Ethiopia also includes extensive lowlands, a legacy of the imperial conquests in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Ethnic conflicts plague much of Ethiopia’s lowland fringe, as do tensions with the central government. One of the most troubled regions is Gambella, in far western Ethiopia along the border with Sudan.

Although relatively moist and fertile, Gambella is sparsely settled, with just 300,000 people in 25,800 square kilometers. Tropical diseases and frequent flooding have historically constrained agricultural development in the region. But Gambella’s population is now booming, due largely to migration from the highlands. As many as one in five residents may be former highlanders, mostly Amhara and Oromo.

Increasing population has brought escalating tensions. The two main indigenous ethnic groups, the Nuer and the Anuak, have been fighting over land. Although speaking closely related Nilotic languages, they traditionally follow different modes of life: for the Nuer, nomadic pastoralism; for the Anuak, sedentary cultivation. As is often true in the age-old conflict between herders and farmers, the former seem to have a military advantage.

The deeper ethnic conflicts in Gambella stem from domination by the highlands. Much of the upland plateau is densely populated and short of food. As a result, sparsely settled Gambella beckons. It has good soil and plenty of water, and also boasts tungsten, platinum, gold and oil deposits. Hostility between the indigenous inhabitants and highlander immigrants intensified in recent years. In 2004, after some 400 Anuak men were reportedly killed by the Ethiopian military, Genocide Watch placed the Anuaks on its list of potential victims. Violence seems to have subsided since then, but it has by no means disappeared.

Gambella’s agricultural potential has been noticed by the world market. Ethiopia has recently leased roughly one million hectares of farmland to foreign firms, and reportedly plans to lease another two million. In Gambella, Saudi Star Agricultural Company has taken over 10,000 hectares and is expected to add another 250,000, and the Indian company Karuti Global has leased 741,000 acres. The Ethiopian government’s desire for such deals is not difficult to understand; it is an impoverished country faced with chronic hunger, whose western lowlands could produce a great deal of food. But it is also not difficult to understand local opposition. As the Anuak exile Nyikaw Ochalla reported to the Anyuak Media news site on March 2, 2010,These are secret deals between the government and the land grabbers, in particular the foreign investors. I very much doubt that the regional government is even aware of these deals. This land grab is something that is happening in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. There is no consultation with the indigenous population, who remain far away from the deals. The only thing the local people see is people coming with lots of tractors to invade their lands.”

Ethiopia’s Failed Ethnic Federalism

Ethiopia is known for a venerable Christian tradition and a record of successful resistance to nineteenth-century European colonization. Less often discussed is the depth of Islam in the country, whose population today is more than one third Muslim. Also overlooked is Ethiopia’s transformation into an imperial state in its own right during the late 1800s. Acquiring modern weapons to avoid colonial rule allowed the monarchy to embark on its own land-grabbing spree, conquering and incorporating large areas inhabited by people of strikingly different political and cultural traditions. This episode of Ethiopian imperialism remains invisible on most maps of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Africa, which portray the division of the continent as a strictly European affair.

The Ethiopian (or Abyssinian) kingdom had long been dominated by the Amhara people, with the Tigray and other Christian groups of the north also playing significant roles. Eastward conquests brought in Muslim areas, inhabited primarily by Somali and Afar speakers. Expansion to the southwest incorporated a large number of animist groups. The situation to the immediate south of Ethiopia’s historical core was more complicated. This was the homeland of the Oromo, a large ethnic group whose northward spread had vexed the Ethiopian monarchy in the 1600s and 1700s. Ethiopian kings intermarried with the Oromo, partly to co-opt them, and about half of all Oromos eventually converted to Christianity. As many turned to Islam, however, while a few retained their original beliefs. Today the Oromo people are roughly 47% Muslim, 30% Ethiopian Christian, 17% Protestant Christian, and 3% animist. Despite these religious divisions, the Oromo constitute the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia (some 25 million strong) and tend to have a strong sense of ethnic identity.

Ethiopia remained essentially a feudal monarchy until 1974, when the communist Derg (“committee”) seized power. The Derg attempted to demolish the traditional structures of Ethiopian society in a brutal and inept manner, but Amhara dominance of the state did not change. Regional and ethnic rebels gathered strength during the 1980s and made common cause against the Derg. In 1991, a multi-ethnic Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front seized power. Although the Front was a composite organization, its leading faction represented the Tigrayan area of the Christian north.

In 1996, Ethiopia’s new Tigrayan-dominated government restructured the country’s political geography, replacing thirteen provinces with nine ethnically based regions. Such a federal approach, it was hoped, would lessen the country’s severe regional tensions. But the new division of the country presented a few challenges. Trying to include all of the Oromo–speaking people into one region required intricate boundaries (see map above). Southwestern Ethiopia, one of the world’s more linguistically diverse areas, ended up comprising two ethnically composite regions. In the east, the historically important cities of Harar and Dire Dawa formed city-regions, as did Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia’s ethnic reorganization generated considerable enthusiasm in the international development community at first. It did not last long. By the early 2000s, complaints of continued Tigrayan domination mounted, especially in the Oromo region. Secession movements took root; today the Oromo Independence Movement, the Oromo Liberation Front, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromia, and the Conference of Oromiya Peoples Liberation Front are all classified as actively seeking to split the state. Due both to poverty and conflicts with Ethiopian governments, many Oromos have been fleeing the country, often for Yemen across the Red Sea.

Recent reports highlight the plight of Muslim Oromo refugees in Yemen. As Voice of America News reported on March 4, 2010, “The Yemeni government calls many of those coming from Ethiopia ‘infiltrators’ and ‘sneakers’ and regularly announces mass arrests, and plans for deportations.” Ethiopia’s human rights record is increasingly criticized by the United States, generating bilateral tensions. The Ethiopian government has recently been jamming the Voice of America’s Amharic radio programming. Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi accused the station of broadcasting “destabilizing propaganda,” comparing it to the Rwandan radio station that propelled the 1994 Tutsi genocide. Perhaps not coincidently, Ethiopian national elections are scheduled for May of this year.

Although the Oromo region is currently Ethiopia’s main trouble spot, more serious human rights abuses may well be taking place in the western region of Gambella, as tomorrow’s post will explore.

Troubled Eritrea

Ethiopia/Eritrea Border Dispute

On December 23, 2009, the United Nations voted to impose sanctions on Eritrea for supporting Islamist militants in Somalia. The next day, Eritrea denied the accusations, labeling the UN actions as “shameful.”

Regardless of whether Eritrea arms Somali rebels, it is clear that the country has one of the most repressive regimes in the world. In fact, Reporters Without Borders ranks Eritrea dead last in the world in regard to freedom of the press. As the organization’s website puts it, “Life may appear sweet in the floral streets of the capital Asmara, but is in fact nightmarish, particularly in the dark corridors of the all-powerful ministry of information” (

Language map of Ethiopia and Eritrea from Muturzkin, border enhanced

Eritrea’s relations with its neighbors are not friendly. Its border with Sudan is not fully demarcated, it fought with Yemen over the Hanish islands in the Red Sea in the 1990s, and it remains locked in a bitter struggle with its main opponent, Ethiopia. The 1998-2000 border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia may have resulted in as many as 200,000 casualties.

Proponents of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis have a difficult time dealing with the Ethiopian/Eritrean conflict. Religion does not play a role, as both countries are roughly half Christian and half Muslim. As can be seen in the map above, linguistic lines as well cut across the political boundary. If anything, Eritrea and Ethiopia together form a single “civilizational” unit. Animosity instead is rooted largely in the two countries’ divergent political histories. In the colonial era, Eritrea was under the rule of Italy, while Ethiopia remained independent through most of the period. A post-colonial union failed as Eritrea resisted Ethiopian rule. As proved true elsewhere in Africa, colonially imposed political boundaries may have been violently and arbitrarily drawn, but they nonetheless remain firmly inscribed.