On Unraveling Ethiopia’s Political Conundrums

Written by Ayele Gelan

by Ayele Gelan

(OPride) – In a recent Op-Ed piece that appeared on , I discussed the types and nature of nationalism in Ethiopia. In response, I received a number of constructive comments and questions both on the site and via email.

In this piece, I will attempt to address some of these questions and comments raised by readers. I will start by responding to a specific question that I received by email regarding my brief reference to ongoing efforts by Amhara elites to “maintain the status quo.”

I will then highlight some broader issues that I previously left aside and analyze the behavior of Ethiopian nationalists – how and why they have been resisting change for so long.

The Puzzle

The process of unraveling Ethiopia’s political conundrums is analogous to peeling the onion – removing the unpalatable outer cover, cleaning away some rotten stuff between the layers or in the core, and then keeping the edible fresh leaves. The Abyssinian empire has been around for a while but the Ethiopian empire began taking its current shape at about the same time when most countries in Africa and elsewhere in the world fell under the yoke of European colonization.

While most colonized countries have evolved through strings of changes, Ethiopia’s internal colonization remained intact in so far as there were no genuine attempts to rewrite the social contract or democratize its governance. The empire might have undergone a few rounds of changes in governance but saw no substantial alterations in its structure or form.

There has been a cumulative build-up of fallacies at different social stratum as well as in Ethiopia’s core establishment. A sober and genuine attempt to gain deeper understanding of Ethiopia’s political puzzle requires peeling back those layers and clarifying misconceptions, and revealing deceptions. No doubt this process is bound to uncover inconvenient truths, which at times may raise emotions and even cause some to shed tears – much the same way chopping onions make some cry.

I believe it is a positive step in the right direction to go through such painful but essential exercise in the process of critical self-assessment to gain insights into the real problems befalling the country today. If various social groups continue to live in denial about the existence or nature of their deep-rooted problems, then the end result is bound to be catastrophic.

On the Cover

In the previous piece, I focused on two outer layers of misconceptions in Ethiopia’s political discourse. It is useful to put these in the context of what has been said previously on these delusions.

The first one was the conceptual muddle regarding the mythical and real Ethiopia. I have attempted to establish that Ethiopians are yet to agree on what kind of nation they want to build or what exactly they mean by “Ethiopia”, and who is really an “Ethiopian”. In 1991 article the Demise of Mythical Ethiopia , Professor Hamdesa Tuso aptly explained the incompatibilities between the mythical and real Ethiopia perspectives. He suggested that if Ethiopia is to be democratized and its “unity” is to survive, the Ethiopian nationalists should get over their obsession with their mythical Ethiopia paradigm and engage in honest debates on how to build real Ethiopia. However, over the last two decades, the so-called Ethiopian nationalists have only intensified their political activism to restore mythical Ethiopia with heightened zeal, ferocity, and fanaticism.

The second layer of deception is the exclusive manner in which the Amhara elites shaped Ethiopian nationalism to serve their own narrow interests. In a short-lived attempt in 1990s, the Amhara elites briefly threw away their Ethiopian mask by forming the All-Amhara People’s Organization (AAEO) as an ethnic based political organization. This caused a huge uproar within members of the group because they found themselves in a rather embarrassing position. Even in this context, a certain Getinet Belay, writing in the May 1993 issue of The Ethiopian Review magazine,committed yet another logical fallacy in Amhara nationalist discourse.

He claimed that the only legitimate ethnic political group in Ethiopia was the AAPO because the interest of that ethnic group coincided with that of Ethiopia. As Dereje Alemayehu explained in his August 1993 response, Getinet’s bizarre line of argument was actually consistent because what he had in mind was a mythical Ethiopia. The Amhara elites quickly and fully retreated back to their usual position by simply replacing “Ethiopia” for “Amhara” to transform AAEO to AEUP (All Ethiopian Unity Party). I would argue that other ethnic-based political parties are even more legitimate because their interests coincided more with the real Ethiopia.

The Core “Establishment”

A couple of readers asked “what status quo?!” They reasoned that Amharas are no longer in a position of power to maintain any status quo. However, the reader should remember that the foundation of mythical Ethiopia was firmly built with three analogous structures: Amharanization, the Orthodox Church, and State Power. A marriage between these three served as the basis for “the establishment” of an Ethiopian empire. The roles of the first two pillars have barely been interrupted ever since. The third pillar is taken away partly but the bureaucracy of the “establishment” largely survived with a proven capacity to regroup and re-establish itself using the military and even the weaknesses of the current regime.

The underlying cause of this dichotomy between the types of nationalism and Ethiopia’s identity lie in the phenomenon of Amharanization. The architects of the Ethiopian empire rather naively envisaged converting Ethiopia into a melting pot of diverse nations and nationalities by simply Amharanizing everybody living within its borders. This is the first and most fatal error that remains unresolved and is at the core of Ethiopia’s political troubles. As any mathematician would tell you, if one starts solving a problem using the wrong formula, then the person can spend the rest of his/her life trying but would never arrive at the correct solution.

I am not talking about Amharanization and its origin in some distant past but the aggressive manner in which Amhara elites and the Orthodox clergy are currently advocating the value of Amharanization to “maintain” the unity and survival of Ethiopia.

Following Dergue’s downfall, the “establishment” launched a stiff resistance to limit the use of Afaan Oromo as the official language in Oromia. By openly supporting the “establishment,” Amhara activists living in Oromia fiercely opposed the use of Oromo language and utilized all kinds of tricks to evade rules and regulations of the Oromia regional state. Similarly, Amhara students often clash with their Oromo counterparts – sometimes through tacit approval of senior elites – simply because Oromo students spoke in their language to each other or organized Oromo cultural events.  

Official Language

Amharic is still the only official working language at the federal level in Ethiopia. There have been vigorous campaigns by the “establishment” to pre-empt any possibility of the Oromo language becoming a second working language. In a recent interview with SBS radio Amharic program, Birhanemeskel Abebe Segni compared the present day Ethiopia to a sick person in bed and receiving glucose. Segni reasoned that a nation, which relies only on less than a third of its potential capacity, couldn’t be seriously considered as healthy and fully alive. The status of the remaining two-third is reduced to second-class citizenship with their identity hidden and their sense of belonging grossly diminished.

One unique behavioral characteristic of those who preach Amharanization is their zero-sum game mentality. First, Amharanization was more of a religious movement than a social phenomenon. For proponents of this movement, if one deviates from mythical Ethiopia’s Amharic “scriptures” and uses his own native tongue, the gods would be seriously disappointed. Like devotees to a religious sect, followers of Amharanization consider it an unforgiveable sin or treason to speak a language other than Amharic or maintain an identity different from Ethiopian. This remains a source of continuous friction and irritation between the minority “followers” and majority “non-converts” in that country.

Advocates of Amharanization, particularly the Orthodox clergy, once propagated that modern communication devices such as radio and telephone would immediately shatter into pieces if the Oromo language was used. The fact that the Qubee generation is building vibrant Oromo TV and radio stations may not necessarily mean the end of such mythology. The advocates of Amharanization may still be worrying that the roof of Ethiopian parliament would suddenly collapse if Oromo parliamentarians speak to the microphone in their own native language.

There is a great deal that the establishment could learn from the progress attained over the last four decades. In spite of the relentless defense by advocates of Amharanization, today most nations in Ethiopia are developing and promoting their respective cultures. Ethiopia has experienced perhaps the fastest social change and cultural revival during this period since the formation of the empire.

Denials and Falsifications

Lately, Ethio-nationalists have moved beyond attempts to block ongoing changes and pre-empting possible future changes. They are now engaged in futile attempts to prove that the changes that took place over the last forty years were unnecessary and counter-productive. For instance, Professor Messay Kebede, a pioneer in this school of thought, has been vigorously cursing the student movement that triggered the Ethiopian revolution and the abolition of the feudal system.

Messay asserts:

The very fact that we are dealing with students and intellectuals easily suggests that we direct our attention to the mental process triggered by the exposure to modern, Western education. Because modern ideas and methods did not grow from the native culture, modern education took the form of displacement of native values and beliefs. It became a process of acculturation, of Westernization resulting in the depreciation of the traditional legacy.

A casual reader may think the above text is taken from a political satire, but it is a reasoning advanced by presumably the best brain the elites of establishment could offer. According to Kebede, if Ethiopia’s education policy was fully indigenized in line with the mythical Ethiopian doctrine, then millions of Debrtera Liqawunts would have been produced and Ethiopia would have achieved a middle-income status years ago.

There is now an ongoing movement established along Kebede’s line of thinking to deny, revise, and falsify Ethiopia’s pre-1974 history of land holding system. As James McCann noted in An Agricultural History of Ethiopia, one claim is that “Menelik had never taken land away from Oromo farmers.” And that the elites had the right to a share of income from the land but the actual entitlement to the land remained in the hand of Oromo farmers. These kinds of ill-informed conclusions arise from a deliberate effort to falsify history through biased rural development research particularly in Oromia. An Oromo farmer would typically be asked where or how he acquired the plot he is currently farming. Naturally, he would say, “I inherited it from my father.” Then the “enlightened” researcher would ask, “Where did your father get it from?” and the farmer would respond, “He inherited from my grandfather.”

The “researcher” then tabulates the data and concludes that most Oromos had entitlement to their land throughout the feudal regimes and, therefore, land was never taken away from them. What is lost in this story is, what Oromo sons inherited from their fathers was actually serfdom rather than land ownership. This is a rather obvious historical fact but Ethiopian nationalists would not relent on re-writing history to suit their ulterior motives.

This begs another question: What is their ulterior motive?

For some formerly CUD (Kinijit) and now G7 politicos, their primary political agenda is to privatize land. In order to fit this narrative into their “democratic Ethiopia” agenda, they needed to revise and re-write history with a claim that “life was much better when land was in the hand of the landlords.” Toward that end, these nationalists used their clouts with multilateral agencies such as the World Bank Group to put pressure the EPRDF regime into privatizing land. The EPRDFites, known to be masters of political opportunism, used these pressures as a pretext and went on a land-selling spree on a gigantic scale. However, all the Ethio-nationalists really wanted was “effectively surrendering land back to the sons and daughters of ex-landlords in whose custody they believe Ethiopia’s land would be safer.”

The Paradox

As we keep peeling back the layers of Ethiopian polity,we encounter many more misconceptions and deceptions. The sum total yields a grand paradox whereby the very people who occupied the core of the establishment and claim to protect its unity have become the worst enemy of Ethiopia – the ultimate source of its disunity and misery. In a bizarre twist in Ethiopia’s history, we have now reached a stage where Ethno-nationalists are having hard time to save Ethiopia from the dangers posed to it by the so-called Ethiopian nationalists.

In the past, Ethiopian nationalists presented themselves as the only group who cared about Ethiopia’s existence and excluded the rest of Ethiopia’s political groups from playing a part in the nation building drills. The Amhara saying man baqenaw hager – meaning this is my country, none of your business – which reduces the entire country to a private property for the benefit of a small group, succinctly sums this truth up. One way or another, this mentality still lurks in the background of Ethiopian nationalist rhetoric.

Ethiopian nationalists’ all-time favorite motto has been Ethiopia First. It still beams from their affiliate FM radio stations, which obey the Amharanization doctrine by playing music in no other language except Amharic. “Ethiopia Tikdem!” punctuates each song and program throughout the broadcasts. Ironically, the very people who have formulated and preached the Ethiopia First mantra are the ones who practice it the least. Ethiopia First requires a serious commitment to putting aside group interests for the sake of national interest. Other ingredients include tolerance, respect, consensus, and compromise. But these are buzzwords completely absent from the Ethiopian nationalist’s political narratives.

Based on several years of experience working in and researching in the country, former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn once concluded: “I believe that at least in highland Ethiopian society, the concept of compromise as I understand it in the United States is sorely lacking.”

I concur with his observation. If genuine democratization was to be envisioned, Ethiopia is going to need a lot of it.

* Ayele Gelan, Ph.D. is a research economist at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR). He can be reached for comment at



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Ayele Gelan

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