D. Chinigò: Everyday Practices of State Building in Ethiopia

Everyday Practices of State Building in Ethiopia. Power, Scale, Performativity

Chinigò, Davide
Oxford Studies in African Politics and International Relations
Anzahl Seiten
272 S.
Rezensiert für Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists von
Ulf Engel, Institut für Afrikastudien, Universität Leipzig

For more than a century, state-building in Ethiopia has been a highly contested and violent process. In the period since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in April 2018 alone, the country has been rocked by a war between the federal government and the rebel Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) (November 2020 to November 2022), as well as numerous local violent conflicts – the most important of which is taking place in the Oromia region. In his brilliant book on everyday practices of state-building in Ethiopia, the Italian scholar Davide Chinigò develops a compelling argument about social identify formation under the developmentalist and authoritarian state of Ethiopia during the period 1991 to 2018 when the country was ruled by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).1

The author is a research fellow in African history and institutions at the University for Foreigners of Perugia, and adjunct professor at the University of Bologna, Italy (departments of political and social science, and cultural heritage, respectively). He is also research fellow in the department of sociology and social anthropology at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

The book is divided into seven chapters. Following the conceptual introduction, Chinigò develops five case studies located in Ethiopia's four most populous regional states and the capital city of Addis Ababa. Chapter 2 interrogates “rural modernisation” through resettlement policies in Waag Himra special zone in Amhara region. In chapter 3 decentralization and the national programme of rural land registration in Siraro in Oromia region is discussed. Chapter 4 is on agricultural commercialisation through a (failed) biofuel projects in Wolaita in Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNR). In chapter 5 the author looks at small business and job creation policies in Kolfe, a peri-urban sub-city of the capital Addis Ababa. And in chapter 6 he discusses labour dynamics in the textile value chain in Tigray’s capital Mekelle. The research is based on five periods of fieldwork in Ethiopia between 2006 and 2018. Most of the chapters in this monograph have been published as journal articles in earlier versions (chapters 3 to 6).

Conceptually, Chinigò follows anthropological insights into state-building (as practised, for instance, by the Mainz-based scholar Thomas Bierschenk) and favours an empirical focus on social change. The focus on performativity is inspired by Judith Butler’s theory of discursive-based performativity. Chinigò’s approach entails a clear critique of methodological nationalism (as proposed by the eminent historian John Markakis through his “highland centre – lowland periphery” thesis) and descriptive empiricism. The author privileges “questions around becomings over belongings in identity formation” (p. 2). He develops a careful critique of key approaches to state formation relying on a centre-periphery framework, and on the notion of political culture to explain authoritarianism. With Edinburgh-based scholar Sarah Vaughan, he positions Ethiopia as an ethno-federalist experience that has sought to overcome ethno-nationalism but has produced territorialised ethnicities through the design of its constitution and political practice (however, rather following Tobias Hagmann and Didier Péclard, Chinigò argues against her culturalist explanation of state power).2 The 1995 Ethiopian constitution, which many observers see as central to the current political conflicts, draws on the 1924 Soviet constitution and the notion of essentialised “nations, nationalities and peoples” – an idea that in turn dates back to debates among European socialists who sought to solve the problem of administering “multi-ethnic” states after socialism had replaced the Habsburg and Russian empires.

This monograph offers a comprehensive insight into the contested state-building processes and identity formation at the local level in Ethiopia. The “everyday” lens employed by Chinigò allows to interrogate state formation as both a state elite driven project “and from the perspective of how subjects navigate the representational and material forces of state power in society” (p. 216). The book is an important contribution to contemporary debates not only on the nature of the Ethiopian developmental state and the violent conflicts that shape current politics, but also on future attempts at state-building and, possibly, transitional justice in the Horn of Africa.

1 As part of PM Abiy’s political reform programme, the EPDRF was dissolved in November 2019 and succeeded on 1 December 2019 by Prosperity Party which claims to be a non-ethnic national political party.
[2] See my reviews of Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe, Laying to Rest the Past. The EPRDF and the Challenges of Ethiopian State-Building, London 2020, in: Comparativ 31 (2021)1, pp. 135–138; and Terence Lyons, The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics, Boulder CO, London 2019.

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