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Mebratu Kelecha

April 28th, 2023

How Ethiopia’s past has shaped its present

3 comments | 44 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Mebratu Kelecha

April 28th, 2023

How Ethiopia’s past has shaped its present

3 comments | 44 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Ethiopia is a country with a long and complicated history. Its identity and future have sparked heated debates and political struggles between those who demand more regional autonomy along cultural and ethnic lines, and those who want a more centralised system based on an idea of an overarching Ethiopian nationalism. These debates, Mebratu Kelecha writes, have significant implications for contemporary Ethiopian politics and conflicts.

There are two main perspectives on Ethiopia’s identity. One sees Ethiopia as a unified nation with a shared heritage, while the other views it as an empire of unequal nations. The country’s current federal system came into force in 1995, but its roots go back to the late 1800s when the borders of what has become modern Ethiopia were first established. Understanding how those borders were drawn is vital to understanding the current political situation in the country.

Starting in the past

In the 19th century, various groups vied for control of the Horn of Africa. The Ethiopian Empire was the dominant power in the area and had ambitions to expand its influence beyond its base in Abyssinia where it ruled over the Amhara and Tigrean people. Emperor Menelik II directed much of his expansion efforts towards the south, where he aimed to bring various southern regions under Ethiopian control through military campaigns and negotiations. Menelik II’s expansionist policies significantly increased the size of the Ethiopian Empire. By the end of his reign, Ethiopia’s territory had tripled and grown to include the Oromo territories, parts of modern-day Somalia, and various southern territories, including the regions of Sidama, Wolayta, Kaffa, and Gedeo.

Before the Ethiopian Empire arrived, the southern territories were diverse and varied. Some were home to indigenous peoples who had their own distinct cultures, traditions, and political systems (like the Oromo). Other regions were independent kingdoms, such as the Sidama Kingdom and the Kaffa Kingdom. The arrival of the Ethiopian Empire meant the imposition of a new political and cultural order, which often led to resistance and conflict. Eventually, Ethiopia succeeded in expanding its empire and becoming a recognised state. However, this process involved the brutal conquest of other communities, including the Oromo.

The first form of nationalism emerged in Ethiopia from the supremacist thinking associated with Menelik’s conquest of Oromo and southern communities. After the 1896 victory over Italian forces at Adwa, a pan-Ethiopian nationalism developed which emphasized to the outside world the country’s history of non-subjugation by European powers.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Ethiopian student movement, rooted in Marxist and socialist principles, attempted to redefine Ethiopia’s national identity along class lines but was largely unsuccessful. At the same time, the colonial thesis grew in prominence. It argues that Amharic-speaking groups, with the help of European powers, conquered independent peoples such as the Oromo and Somalis to create the Ethiopian empire.

During the period of communist rule between 1974 and 1991, pan-Ethiopian nationalism morphed into Ethio-nationalism, which sought to reshape the national identity of the country in the image of the dominant ruling group. At the same time, various ethno-nationalist groups emerged, rejecting Ethio-nationalism and demanding greater autonomy. As such, the state-building process has been plagued with claims and accusations of historical injustices, which have sparked ethnic nationalist movements against the state.

Following the political changes in 1991, Ethiopia saw the emergence of a new multinational, secular, and federalist state. The period also saw the rise of separatist movements in Ethiopia’s politics, which continue to divide the country’s elites and political forces.

The federalist approach to governance is intended to address the political, economic, and social inequality that different national groups have experienced in Ethiopia. However, the federalist approach has not been without controversy. Some argue that it perpetuates ethnic divisions and could lead to the eventual disintegration of the state. Others believe that it is necessary to address long-standing grievances and to build a more inclusive and democratic Ethiopia.

Contemporary politics

The past, and debates about it, have significant implications for contemporary Ethiopian politics, as the state-building process has been a complex and challenging journey. One of the primary obstacles has been the uncritical imitation of the European nation-building experiment, which emphasised homogeneity as a prerequisite for political, economic, and social citizenship, and is impossible to replicate or impose on modern Ethiopia.

The revival of nativist discourses in Ethiopia since 2018 has further complicated the situation leading to the propagation of stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, and parochialism by political elites to win infighting. This has created a sense of exclusion and discrimination among other groups and deepened the fault lines within Ethiopian society. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Ethio-nationalism has morphed into populist nationalism.

Regionalism has also become a significant problem, as it is exploited through ethnic, clan, or religious affiliations to create barriers to integration and competition for resources. Historically, participation in political life often required assimilation into Abyssinian culture, leading to debates about how different national groups view their political relationship with the State – as colonial or part of nation-building. While the recent rise of an Oromo prime minister has shifted the centre of power from North to South, it has also created a sense of discrimination among other groups.

The legacy of the political contradictions that stem from the conquest of the south remains at the centre of Ethiopia’s political discourse. Ethiopia’s convoluted history, with its competing narratives, casts the hero of one group as the villain of another. The statue of Emperor Menelik II is a contested memorial site, with Ethio-nationalists viewing it as a symbol of unification and anti-colonial struggle, while Ethno-nationalists view it as a reminder of the crimes committed against their people.

These contradictions continue to shape Ethiopia’s relationship with its past, present, and future, with significant implications for the country’s social, political, and economic development. To move forward, Ethiopia needs to acknowledge and address these contradictions, recognise the histories and truths of all national groups, and work towards building a more inclusive and democratic society.

Democracy amidst division

Ethiopia’s struggle for democracy has been hindered by contending nationalisms rooted in the country’s history. These nationalisms, rooted in historical injustices and exclusions, have stalled the development of a shared sense of citizenship and a stable democracy in the country.

The polarisation of political elites and public opinion of the same political elites divides along ethnic lines. The debate around the 1995 constitution, which established the federal nature of modern-day Ethiopia is an elephant in the room, fuelling political violence and instability in the country.

The current crisis in Ethiopia can largely be seen as a crisis of state- and nation-building, perpetuating divisions and animosities between various ethnic groups. Reassessing the relationship between the state and society through mutual negotiation is essential for democracy to succeed in Ethiopia. The challenge of building a stable democracy requires political elites to move beyond exclusive interpretations of the past and embrace inclusive dialogue to create a common Ethiopian citizenship. Only then can Ethiopia move towards a more democratic and stable future.

This blog post is based on Dr Kelecha’s recent open-access article published in the Journal of African and Asian Studies.


Photo credit: wikimedia

About the author

Mebratu Kelecha

Mebratu Kelecha

Mebratu Kelecha is a Research Fellow at the Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa (FLIA), London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He received his PhD from the University of Westminster, an MSc from Durham University and a BA from Addis Ababa University. His research interests include development politics, public policy, transition and contentious politics, conflict and peace studies, democratic theory, and innovation.

Posted In: History | Politics

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