By Richard C Lewontin

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They are a cruel set of bloodthirsty robbers’. 17 Thus were the Oromo made scapegoats for much that was held to be ‘wrong’ with highland state and society in the nineteenth century. The generally accepted account18 is that the prolonged period of destructive warfare in the first half of the sixteenth century had weakened the Christian kingdom’s defences, leading to its shrinkage and consolidation around a northern core, particularly under Sarsa Dengel between the 1560s and the 1590s, and facilitating the gradual advance of groups of pastoral Oromo into the southern highlands.

In many respects this amounted to an examination of the peoples living on Menelik’s southern battlegrounds of the late nineteenth century. This coincided with studies of the ethnic federalism of the post-Derg state, some of which sought to historicize Ethiopia’s multiethnic challenge; at the same time, however, those writing on Eritrea and Somalia soon had new tests of their own. Somalia collapsed in the early 1990s, descending into an apparent chaos which was hotly contested by a series of ‘warlords’ and which was only partially alleviated with, first, the emergence of Somaliland as a comparatively stable would-be state in the north, though lacking international recognition at the time of writing; and, second, the emergence of the Islamic Courts Union, who were 16 set t i ng and ap p roac h considered threatening enough to warrant military action by Ethiopia at the end of 2006.

In the fertile south-west of Ethiopia are other Cushitic language groups, such as the Konso, and others are clustered together under the term Sidama; these include Kambata, Gimira-Maji, and Janjero. They inhabit a complex cultural and ethnic zone which has been much prized by central statebuilders owing to its natural wealth; hoe agriculture is common, while there is a mixture of Christianity, Islam, and indigenous belief systems. In this area, mention should also be made of the Omotic cluster of communities—peoples living along the Omo River—which comprises remarkable linguistic and cultural diversity, including the Kafa grouping.

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