Excerpt from "Rebels and Separatists Ethiopia: Regional Resistance to a Marxist Regime" by Paul Henze (December 1985).
Ethnicity had almost nothing to do with the emergence of Shoa as the core of the revitalized Ethiopian state at the end of the nineteenth century. Shoa played as important a role in modern Ethiopian evolution as Prussia did in the development of modern Germany. There are interesting parallels. Shoa was for much of its early history a frontier region, as Prussia was. Its people were a mixture of several ethnic strains, as Prussians were.
The challenge of dealing with frontier problems stimulated in Shoa the emergence of strong leadership and the development of efficient administration and military forces. Among a mixed population, concern with ethnic exclusiveness brought no advantage to those competing for leadership. Attitudes prevailing in Shoa created a favorable climate for the intensified and successful effort Haile Selassie made to overcome regionalism and build the governmental framework of a modern state.
To characterize Haile Selassie's Ethiopia as Amhara dominance, as many Western journalists and exile separatists have done, is to apply facile preconceptions rather than to analyze how the system worked. In the pre-Shoan era, the core of senior officials in the Ethiopian government came from Tigre or from the central Amhara provinces: Begemder, Gojjam, and Wollo. During the reign of Menelik II, the representation of these areas in the central government fell sharply.
The northern Amhara regions were severely disadvantaged during Haile Selassie's reign not only by lack of representation at upper levels of government, but as development accelerated after World War II, by lack of a proportionate share of investment and developmental priority. Table [below] gives the number of high-ranking officials (ministers, ministers of state, and vice ministers) in the central government from various regions over a 24-year period.
Shoan dominance of the central government intensified during Haile Selassie's long reign, with Eritreans coming to play a strong secondary role. If data were available on Eritrean participation in other ranks of the civil service and in key technical and professional positions (telecommunications, air transport, teaching, law, and commerce), they would show a higher proportion than Shoans in some fields; the northern Amhara provinces would account for only a minor fraction of such personnel.
Shoa's position can be exaggerated. I stress it here only to dispose of the facile characterization that, in its extreme form, depicts Ethiopia as a conspiracy of the Amhara against all its other inhabitants. The predominance of Shoa has an exact parallel in the preeminence of Paris and the surrounding region in France, of London and the home counties in England, and of Athens in modern Greece. Patterns vary. Rome and Latium dominated Italy for hundreds of years during the Roman republic and empire but have not gained the same position in modern Italy. Prussia, of course, no longer exists.
Ethiopia has survived long periods when power was diffused among regions. Until early modern times, the imperial court moved seasonally from one part of the country to another. But when Menelik II chose Addis Ababa as his capital in 1886, it quickly became the hub around which Ethiopian politics rotated, and the surrounding region, the old kingdom of Shoa, took on a central role in Ethiopian life which it has never lost. Addis Ababa and Shoa do dominate Ethiopia. They are the melting pot of the country's ethnic strains. The revolution has changed nothing in this respect.