Building upon his previous work, Getahun Benti employs the work of the late Richard Pankhurst, among others, and in particular the dozens of senior and master’s theses done at Addis Ababa University, each devoted to a particular urban area in Ethiopia, to create a broad synthesis of the country’s urbanization process. In Urban Growth in Ethiopia, 1887–1974: From the Foundation of Finfinnee to the Demise of the First Imperial Era, Benti breaks down the time frame of urbanization into three general periods: from the conquests of Emperor Menilek II to the Italian occupation, the Italian period, and the post-Italian period encompassing Haile Selassie’s return to power. The analysis ends with the seizure of power by the Derg (Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia) in 1974. Interestingly, there is no use of any archival sources, not even Ethiopian, although such sources are quite abundant, particularly for the Italians and British, who maintained consulates in the country outside of the capital. Benti examines each town in terms of its function (administrative, commercial, ritual, etc.) over time. And he draws a distinction between towns of the traditional Abyssinian highlands and those of southern Ethiopia, areas incorporated into the empire in the late nineteenth century. Some had multiple functions, others altered function over time. Migration into these towns also varied over historical time as function and circumstance changed. Larger towns developed sefers (sections) reflecting the ethnic identity or craft skills of particular groups. While a similar pattern is evident in cities worldwide, one might also suggest that these sefers were derivative, in Ethiopia’s case, of traditional roving imperial camps where each evening various commanders settled their regional followers in specified sections surrounding the emperor’s tent. In the early period urban “planning” was more ad hoc than targeted, with the exception of a few enlightened Ethiopian regional governors; actual planning was more clearly evident with the coming of the Italians and with the imperial regime after the occupation. Haile Selassie and his minions sought to transform Addis Ababa into a glitzy world-class city with broad, tree-lined avenues, a city intending to impress visiting delegations and representatives of the OAU (Organization of African Unity, now the African Union). Sadly, in reality, much of the “real” city was calculatedly obscured behind ugly walls of metal sheeting. Beginning with the title of the book, one becomes aware that this is a book with a political agenda. Benti rejects usage of the name Addis Ababa and instead prefers Finfinnee, the Oromo name for the area, making the argument that this is “occupied” territory, a reality evident in current news headlines as an expanding capital encroaches into territory that is part of today’s Oromiya State. Given the historical dynamics of territorial control, particularly in the old province of Shewa, the expansionism of the Abyssinian state at various times, and the later Oromo incursion, defining ownership of the land is like trying to sort out the ownership claims of the Israelis or Palestinians. Who was there first is certainly debatable, but the debate seemingly leads nowhere. In terms of adding to urban development theory, Benti accomplishes little. His is a work that is more synthetic in the case of Ethiopia, a good summarization of events and trends within a theoretically minimalistic framework. There are few new insights here. One can hope that Benti might turn soon to what might be assumed to be the “first” to the “second” imperial periods (presumably the Derg and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front [EPRDF]). The examples of the Derg’s program of villagization and relocation, Addis Ababa’s emergence as a megacity, and the state’s experiment in ethnic federalism would all be fertile topics for integration and assessment. Benti’s is a useful book for what it attempts. Ethiopianists will certainly find it of interest; but for those looking for a more comparative approach, the work is of less benefit. While the work is certainly not definitive, it is important as a new marker on the road to revisionist Ethiopian historiography. Benti focuses heavily on the region he knows best, Oromo, more fully integrating and emphasizing it in the construct of the new Ethiopian state created by Menilek, an important step in moving beyond the more traditional Abyssinian interpretation of the past. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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