The Pitfalls of the Ethiopian Elites’ War of Narratives: Part I

In this two-part post, Shimelis Mulugeta Kene, DCL'20, and Solen Feyissa provide a thorough historical analysis of Ethiopia’s social and political landscape, and demonstrate that a war of narratives has recently regnited between the “Pan-Ethiopianists” and “Ethno-nationalists.”

Although seldom framed and understood as such, the current political conflict in Ethiopia has its roots in disagreement among the elite on how to narrativize Ethiopian history.

The second part was published on January 22, 2021.

There is an enduring disunity among Ethiopian elites regarding the country’s history and future. Informed by its long and contentious multi-ethnic history, and fueled by recent shifts in the country’s political landscape, a war of narratives has reignited. As we explain in this article, the narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianists” and “Ethno-nationalists”. The spillover effect of this increasingly toxic debate has negatively impacted the lives of everyday Ethiopians and continues to destabilize the country. Indeed, narratives surrounding ethnic identities and ethnic politics in Ethiopia demand increased attention. As it stands today, the way and environment in which the debate is occurring, and the actors involved, indicates we may be approaching a threshold that cannot be uncrossed.

Nation-building Narratives in the Ethiopian Body Politic

Nation-building is a contested process of narrative construction. In his book Imagined Communities, Anderson reminds us that nations are “imagined political communities.” Common to all political communities is a set of beliefs in unifying narratives about community special characteristics. These narratives provide explanations to the participating individuals and their leaders regarding what makes their community unique, especially when compared to others. Nation-building in the Ethiopian context follows a similar pattern.

Faced with the burden of justifying the maintenance of the Ethiopian state and their place at the top of the social hierarchy, Ethiopian rulers of the past relied on religious texts and edicts of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Written in the 14th century, the Kibre Negest, or “Glory of the Kings”, provided detailed accounts of the lineage of the Solomonic dynasty—the former ruling dynasty of the Ethiopian Empire—according to which Ethiopia’s rulers were descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It told the story of Ethiopia and Ethiopians as God’s people; a chosen people. It declared:

"The people of Ethiopia were chosen [from] among idols and graven images, and the people of Israel were rejected. The daughters of Zion were rejected, and the daughters of Ethiopia were honoured; the old men of Israel became objects of contempt, and the old men of Ethiopia were honoured. For God accepted the peoples who had been cast away and rejected Israel, for Zion was taken away from them and she came into the country of Ethiopia. For wheresoever God is pleased for her to dwell, there is her habitation, and where He is not pleased that she should dwell she dwelleth not; He is her founder, and Maker, and Builder, the Good God in the temple of His holiness, the habitation of His glory, with His Son and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever. Amen."

Similarly, the 12th-century text Fitiha Negest, or “Laws of the Kings”, served as the country’s oldest traditional legal code. The Fitiha Negest insisted that kings must receive obedience and reverence. It justified the kings’ power using scripture, specifically the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 17:15.

Ethiopia’s rulers used these texts to justify the state’s existence and their own power. But more importantly, just like Americans take the Declaration of Independence as their founding moment, the Kebre Negest provided a similar “origin” story, albeit a contested one. For Ethiopians, the Fitiha Negest served as a constitution of sorts by laying out a minimal set of rules that bound the kings and their subjects. As such, the Kebre Negest and the Fitiha Negest could arguably be considered the most important founding texts of the Ethiopian state.

The 1700s witnessed an emergence of a new political structure where disparate noblemen usurped power away from Emperors of the Solomonic dynasty and began ruling over their own regions, a period known among Ethiopian historians as Zemene Mesafint, or Age of the Princes, named after the Book of Judges. In 1855, Emperor Tewodros II, born Kassa Hailu, rose to the throne after defeating regional noblemen. He recognized the need for a newer narrative that was closely aligned to his vision of Ethiopia as a modern, forward-thinking nation. In line with that vision, his first step was to separate Church and State, shift its narrative and establish the state on a more secular foundation. To do so, he needed a population of better educated Ethiopians, and thus began an elite-led nation-building process. His efforts, however, did not bear fruit due to fierce internal opposition largely driven by disgruntled clergy, who, fearful of losing their own privilege and power, were unappreciative of his radical ideas.

Subsequent rulers of Ethiopia followed the path that was almost dismantled by Emperor Tewodros II. As a result, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church remained inseparable from the Ethiopian State, and, with that, from the state narrative. This changed when Emperor Menelik II assumed the throne in 1889. Although the historic Ethiopia dates back millennia, Emperor Menelik is widely considered as an architect of the modern Ethiopian state. His epic defeat of the Italian colonial power at the Battle of Adwa added another, if not stronger, element to the myth of God’s-chosen-people identity to Ethiopians and the Ethiopian state. As the Ethiopian historian Bahru Zewde recounts in his book Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia, Menelik sent Ethiopians to Europe and the U.S. for higher education intending to modernize Ethiopia. Unlike the church-educated elites that preceded them, these early Western-educated Ethiopian elites broke tradition and became critics of the state. It may be argued as such that Emperor Menelik could be credited with spearheading the creation of a new intellectual-elite class at the centre of state politics that unbeknownst to him, would later challenge the very essence of Ethiopia as a nation-state.

Walleligne and The Birth of Ethno-Nationalism

When Emperor Haile Selassie ascended to the throne in 1930, he was acutely aware of the shortage of educated Ethiopians to build Ethiopia’s nascent civil service and bureaucracy. To fill this gap, like his predecessor, he sent many Ethiopians to Europe and the U.S. for higher education that produced “a generation of daring, innovative intellectual leaders and thinkers,” in the words of Jon Abbink. However, many of these intellectuals were sadly annihilated by the Italian colonial power in the late 1930s. The loss of its brightest left post-war Ethiopia with deep psychological scars and decades of stagnant periods devoid of social and political change. With the founding of the University College of Addis Ababa in 1950, now Addis Ababa University, Emperor Haile Selassie’s dream of producing educated Ethiopians finally came true.

The 1960s was when the role of Ethiopian intellectuals in the country’s politics probably reached its most consequential phase. With the backdrop of broader social unrest, university students began to oppose Haile Selassie’s authoritarian rule and the oppressive socio-economic and cultural structures within which they claimed the Imperial government and its predecessors functioned. They demanded rights and freedom. It was not until a more radical wing of the movement sprang that, concurrent with the more mundane demand for reform, students started to question the very essence of the Ethiopian state as a nation.

Compared to the reformist intellectuals of the previous generation, Ethiopia’s newly minted intellectuals displayed impatience and lacked foresight in their calls for radical social and political reform. Jon Abbink might not be far from the truth when he observed these intellectuals’ “wholesale adoption of unmediated Western ideologies and abandonment of Ethiopian values” had had “quite disastrous consequences.”

An influential short essay written by Walleligne Mekonnen—who at the time was a second-year political science student at the university, and who was later was shot and killed along with fellow activists while attempting to hijack an Ethiopian Airlines flight—entitled, “On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia” became a founding text of the radical wing of the student movement. In his essay, Walleligne argued that “Ethiopia is not really a nation” but rather “made up of a dozen nationalities with their own languages, ways of dressing, history, social organization and territorial entity.”

However, this reality, according to him, was suppressed by the ruling class. Instead, a “fake Ethiopian nationalism” based on the linguistic and cultural superiority of the Amhara and, to a certain extent, the Amhara-Tigrayan, was imposed on the other peoples of Ethiopia, resulting in asymmetrical relations among the “nations'' of Ethiopia. Therefore, according to Walleligne, the Ethiopian state came to be through the linguistic and cultural assimilation of the peoples of the wider South by the North—the Amhara and their junior-partner-in-assimilation, the Tigrayans. Moreover, this project of constructing Ethiopia was aided by the trinity of (the Amharic) language, (Amhara-Tigrayan) culture and religion (the Ethiopian Orthodox Church). Walleligne was, of course, echoing arguments Stalin, Rosa Luxemberg and others made about nations, nationalism and self-determination. Stalin, for example, lays out his thesis in Marxism and the National Question, as does Rosa in The Right of Nations to Self-Determination.

Walleligne thus called for the dismantling and replacement of this “fake [Ethiopian] nationalism” with a “genuine Nationalist Socialist State” that he argued could only be achieved “through violence [and,] through revolutionary armed struggle”. To be sure, Walleligne did not see “succession” as an end in and of itself; nonetheless, he propagated it as a means to build the future egalitarian Ethiopian state, with the caveat that such succession should be rooted in and guided by “progressivism” and “Socialist internationalism”. He closed his essay with a passage that may be considered prophetic: “A regime [Haile Selassie’s government] like ours harassed from corners is bound to collapse in a relatively short period. But when the degree of consciousness of the various nationalities is at different levels, it is not only the right but the duty, of the most conscious nationality to first liberate itself and then assist in the struggle for total liberation.” Haile Selassie’s government eventually collapsed in 1974.

The Constitutionalization of Ethno-Nationalism

The radical movement, spearheaded by the intelligentsia as it were, was hijacked by the Dergue—a collective of disgruntled low-ranking military officers in the imperial army that not only succeeded in overthrowing Haile Selassie’s government but also in ruling Ethiopia with an iron fist for the next 17 years. Nevertheless, the political and armed struggle for “liberation” continued. It was in this atmosphere of radicalization of the intellectual-elite class that discourses like “liberation” and the “oppressor-oppressed” took hold in the Ethiopian body politic and a plethora of liberation fronts mushroomed: the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF, 1962)—that succeeded in succeeding Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1991—the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF, 1966), and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF, 1975) to name but the most important ones. Dergue’s 17 years in power was marred by the bloodiest times in Ethiopian modern history, the Red Terror, a border war with Somalia (1977—1978) and, most importantly, the protracted civil wars with TPLF, EPLF and OLF.

After 17 years of armed struggle, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) defeated the Dergue and controlled Ethiopian state power in 1991. EPRDF was a coalition composed of the TPLF, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Southern Ethiopia Peoples Democratic Front (SEPDF). It should, however, be noted that it was only with victory in sight against the Dergue and a desire to expand its sphere of influence beyond Tigray that the TPLF formed the EPRDF in 1988. Otherwise, the actual power holder within the coalition remained the TPLF. Consequently, the EPRDF introduced the 1995 constitution. Adopted in the immediate context of the post-Cold War in a way that reflects the politics of constitutionalism and especially the shrewdness and pragmatism of the man behind it, Meles Zenawi, the constitution was a compromise between TPLF’s deep-rooted Marxist-Leninist ideological moorings and the post-Cold War euphoric triumphalism of liberal constitutionalism and human rights, so much so that the constitution declares the inviolability and alienability of human rights and freedoms emanating from the nature of mankind. However, as his building a de facto one-party state would later reveal, this was a move that seems to have been motivated more by placating the West than a genuine desire on the part of Meles’s EPRDF to champion the causes of human rights and democratic values.

The constitution divided Ethiopia into nine ethnic states that—with the exception of what is called the Southern Nations and Nationalities Regional State—are based on the ethnic identities of residents of those states. Most importantly, the constitution grants the “Nations, Nationalities and Peoples” within those states the unconditional “right to self-determination, including secession.” In other words, rather than residing with a people, sovereignty resides in the plurality of peoples of Ethiopia. It is these peoples that came together to form Ethiopia and they are the custodians of the country, from which they have the absolute right to secede if they so wish. As such, the constitution replaced the age-old notion of Ethiopia as a nation with an Ethiopia as a “nation of nations”. “What are the Ethiopian people composed of? I stress the word peoples because sociologically speaking at this stage Ethiopia is not really a nation”, so said Walleligne almost a quarter of a century beforehand; and it came to be through the 1995 constitution.

From the time of the new constitution, ethnicity became a determining factor and dominant political currency in Ethiopian politics, bringing with it an “epidemic of ethnic and regional hostilities” as described by the late Donald Levine of the University of Chicago. In addition to changing the way the country organized itself politically, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) also sought to reframe the very foundation of what it means to be an Ethiopian and how Ethiopia itself came to be. Not unexpectedly, EPRDF targeted schools and educational institutions in particular as spaces where new narratives of Ethiopian history could be inculcated, so much so that Ethiopian universities became flashpoints of ethnic conflicts among students. Walleligne’s abstract—and, as he admitted in his writing, an incomplete idea—found a home in the curriculum.

With the entrenchment of a “new” history of Ethiopia, a generation educated in the new curriculum and the alienation of “pan-Ethiopianism” from the Ethiopian body politic, it seemed that the “old Ethiopia” had died and been buried. But, as the 2005 Ethiopian election showed, a pan-Ethiopian party called the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) almost clinched power in major cities and rural areas, but for its suppression and finally expulsion from the Ethiopian political landscape. In fact, it was the 2005 election that challenged the ongoing ethnic politics championed by Meles Zenawi that lasted for nearly two decades, and more importantly, sowed the earliest seeds of the revival of pan-Ethiopian politics.

The second part was published on January 22, 2021.

About the authors

Shimelis Mulugeta KeneShimelis Mulugeta Kene is a Visiting Fellow and former O’Brien Fellow at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, at McGill's Faculty of Law. Shimelis received his Doctorate in Civil Law (DCL) from McGill University in 2020. Previously, he worked at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP); the Human Rights Office of the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE); the Organization for Social Justice in Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian Federal First Instance Court. He holds an LL.M (Hons) in International Human Rights from Northwestern University and LL.B from Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia).

Solen FeyissaSolen Feyissa is an academic technologist in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota. His work in ICT for education strives for balance between humans, technology, and the environment. Solen is a frequent collaborator on international projects in a wide range of fields and disciplines including education, communication technologies and development. An avid photographer, his photos have appeared in national and international publications including Fast Company, Vice, Yahoo! News, and MIT Technology Review. He holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of Minnesota.

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