Contemporary conflicts in Ethiopia are overshadowed by the ongoing war between the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on the one hand and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on the other. Between 1991 and 2018 both parties were partners in a Tigray dominated coalition front which finally failed to impose its hegemonic nation-building project on the multi-ethnic country. During this conflict other longstanding conflicts seemed subordinated. However, for decades political and religious conflicts have also been prevalent in other parts of the country. In his masterful study on Islam, ethnicity, and conflict, Terje Østebø develops a case study on one of today’s precursors of conflict along “ethnic”/religious lines in the eastern and southern lowlands of the Oromia region of the country. He dissects a Muslim-dominated insurgency in Bale under the iconic Waqo Gutu against the regime of emperor Haile Selassie between 1963 and 1970. The conflict was started by Arsi Oromo and Somali pastoralists. It was triggered by the introduction of a new head tax. In principle, the insurgents can be described as a separatist movement. It took the Ethiopian forces almost eight years to quell the armed rebellion. Finally, the leaders of the insurgency agreed to give up and were pardoned. Bale, historically part of a medieval Sunni Muslim kingdom, was created in 1960 when it became a separate region. The lowlands are stretching into Ethiopia’s part of the Ogaden, i.e., bordering Somalia, and are situated between then Harerghe to the north-east and Sidamo to the south-west. In today’s Ethiopia, Bale was divided in 1992 between the newly created Oromia and Somali national state regions.
The author is chair of the Department of Religion at the University of Florida (Gainesville FL), with a joint appointment in the Department of Religion and the Center for African Studies. Østebø received his PhD in 2009 in the History of Religions from Stockholm University, Sweden, and was an assistant professor at the private Christian NLA University College in Bergen, Norway (2008–2010), before joining the University of Florida in 2010. He has published on Islam in contemporary Ethiopia, focussing on Islamic reformism and Salafism, as well as Oromo politics. Among his publications are Localising Salafism. Religious Change among Oromo Muslims in Bale, Ethiopia (Brill, 2012) and, co-edited, Muslim Ethiopia. The Christian Legacy, Identity Politics, and Islamic Reformism (Palgrave, 2013). He is also editor of the forthcoming Handbook on Islam in Africa (Routledge, 2021). Østebø has lived in Ethiopia in the early 2000s and is fluent in Oromo.
Primarily, this book is based on interviews the author has conducted between 2002 and 2018, often with aged veterans and victims of the insurgency. Additional source material comes from government reports, military documents, and court files.
In his analysis of the Bale insurgency Østebø is carefully navigating beyond early Marxist interpretations of class struggle against feudalist structures, and subsequent interpretations which emphasize ethnicity from an Oromo ethno-nationalist perspective. In contrast to these approaches the author emphasizes religion as integrative to the insurgency. His conceptual contribution to conflict studies in Africa (and beyond, one may add), is on the interrelation between ethnic and religious identities and the notion of “peoplehood”, or “imagined peoplehood” (nod to Benedict Anderson, 1983), as an analytical term. It highlights “the central role of language and culture in the forging of the shared sense of belonging that is essential to the formation of modern nations” (p. 5). Religion and ethnicity are treated as foundational dimension of peoplehood, and more precisely the making of an Islaama peoplehood. The term itself is borrowed from Jewish Studies (Kaplan, 1934), a subject Østebø has delved into in his early academic training. But rather then separating religion, ethnicity, and peoplehood, the author argues that peoplehood should be read as a more encompassing concept, similar to the notion of community, allowing for flexibility and acknowledgement of fluidity. In this perspective, and in the tradition of Maurice Merlau-Ponty, materiality and embodiment become key features of an intersubjectivity which is central to the concept of being-in-the world.
A number of important themes are addressed in this profound study. Historically, the Arsi Oromo expanded into predominantly Muslim Bale in the 19th century. First, and building on previous work, Østebø’s shows how the Islamization of Oromo and the Oromization of Islam in a dialectic process has led to forms of identity construction which escape simple classifications. Second, by discussing the spatial dimension of the Oromo clan system, Østebø also illustrates how changes in land tenure related to privatization and commodification, “severely disrupted the existing land-class connection and eroded notions of identity and belonging” (p. 32). Underlying the detailed discussion of these and other questions, is a meta-theoretical argument. The author locates himself in the material turn and argues against what he refers to as excessive constructivist perspectives. Rather, he claims, “human realities are constituted by, and integrate with, and bound by the materialities of our bodies and natural environments” (p. 318).
To conclude, this is a great example of theory-inspired, solidly researched, and well-narrated historiographical ethnography. Convincingly Østebø manages to deal with the challenges of reconstructing a conflict that has faded away in the memory of most people. And the relevance of his book for today’s situation cannot be over-emphasised. Casting a long shadow into today’s complex conflicts in Ethiopia, in the mid-1970s remnants of the insurgency resurfaced in the Oromo Liberation Front and the Somali Abbo Liberation Front – this time fighting the military council, or Derg, that had overthrown the emperor’s regime in September 1974. Beyond the current conflict between the government of Ethiopia and the TPLF, the development of religious fault lines juxtaposing a dominant Amhara Christian Orthodoxy vis-à-vis forms of Sufi-Islam immediately has a bearing on today’s conflict constellations and the dynamics reproducing them. Rich studies of the various conflicts in the country and their origins are still few and far between. This book vividly demonstrates how the combination of historiographic and anthropological approaches can help to better understand Ethiopia’s past and present.