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Elections in Ethiopia: Beyond winning (and losing) Part II

Ed’s Note: In the first part of this series of reflections on elections in Ethiopia, Tsegaye R. Ararsa of the University of Melbourne Law School described the current politico-legal context in which Ethiopia’s election 2015 takes place. The goal was to explore the ‘mood’ so that we can say there is a generally ‘democratic ambience’ within the context of which we expect a free and fair election. In this second part, Tsegaye describes the historical context in order for us to get the feel and flavor of the general sense of disenchantment with the state form and its constitutional incapability to turn up a democratic electoral process.


Problematic state form: A body politic with inaugural violence, held together by violence


*Tsegaye R Ararssa


If the immediate civic-political space is dwindling because of the saturation of this space by the obtrusive legal structure that (re)occupied it, the bigger ‘stage’ in which all this happens – the Ethiopian state system – is nowhere close to engendering a ‘political ecology’ that can deliver a festive electoral moment, a constitutional moment for the transformation and redemption of the state by overcoming the deficits thereof.

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Federal in form, imperial in substance
On the surface, the current Ethiopian state is constitutionally declared to be a Federal Democratic Republic (art 1). The state is thus federal (a union of entities joined together through the simultaneous operation of the principles of local self-rule and ‘national’ shared rule). And its government is to be constitutionally democratic. The form is parliamentary. However, it appears like the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) (whose leadership often confuse it with the State and/or government) has neither the comprehension nor the will to implement what the constitution says. In practice, its members seem to have other ‘constitutions behind the constitution’ (i.e., other party programs, bylaws, strategies, plans, policy documents, and subordinate legislations that override the constitution). These ‘constitutions’ could be stated or unstated, explicit or implicit.

Through these instruments, EPRDF is often seen subverting the constitution’s commitment to federalism thereby ending up a dominant party presiding over a centralized state that is a relic of the old feudal and socialist ‘empire’. Consequently, the state is more imperial in substance than its name suggests. Legislative subversion of federalism started in 2001 when the proclamations “to consolidate” the powers of the House of the Federation (HOF) and the Council of Constitutional Inquiry (CCI) (Procs No. 250/2001 and 251/2001) were enacted. Institutionally, it continued with the establishment in 2000 of the Ministry of Federal Affairs (MoFA) as a prominent ministry that oversees the states and the 2003 reorganization of the Federal Police under the MoFA. The enactment of the Federal Intervention Proclamation (Proc No. 359/2003) also expanded the authority of the federal government to act in the states.The federally directed revision of the state constitutions (2001-2004), the renaming of the states as “National Regional Governments” and the State Presidents as Chief Administrators were also some of the indications of how the government reduced the constitutional commitment to federalism into a mere platitude to mask the actual over-centralization of power.


Formal democracy, ‘Party’ autocracy
EPRDF also subverted the operation of the constitutionally sanctioned democratic state by adopting a range of strategic practices such as excluding strong political parties from taking part in election from the very start [1]; or weakening opposition parties that sought to take part in elections through hiccups in the political party laws and election laws among others; or through rendering them dysfunctional on the eve of elections (through exploiting schisms and siding with the weaker side [2]; or rigging elections and terrorizing the electorate afterwards through mass arrest and incarceration (as in 2005); weakening institutions such as the NEBE, the courts, and the HoF, the CCI; or using government institutions and resources to advance party goals before, during, and after polling days; or fear-mongering (invoking “an impending genocide,” or “civil war,” or “Islamic extremists taking power,” and possible “dismemberment as a country,”); or deploying outright repressive measures through legal-institutional technologies (e.g. anti-terrorist law).


In an insightful piece written in 2010, entitled ‘Abuses and Uses of Cultural Diversity: African Past, Ethiopian Present’, Professor Andreas Eshete had suggested that federalism without democracy tends to degenerate into an abuse of cultural diversity (the paradigmatic example of which are South Africa’s apartheid system and ante-bellum America’s Southern States’ insistence on their “distinct cultural institutions” of slavery [3]. Similarly, a democracy without federalism in a society that is emerging out of self-determination conflicts (also called ‘wars of diversity’) such as Ethiopia only strengthens the old hegemonic relations between the dominant and the subaltern, the core and the periphery, the centre and the margin. In such a context, there is a likelihood that we stop short of centring the margin thereby leaving the ranked relations among citizens (and subjects) intact. In short, a democracy without federal restructuring leaves the State untransformed.

Consequently, by subverting federalism and democracy, EPRDF ended up sitting hierarchically at the top and geo-culturally at the centre of the old and large Ethiopian empire with its classic division of its population into citizens (North) and subjects (South). Deficits of inclusion-in-citizenship continues to foment resentment not just vertically (vis-à-vis the Government) but also horizontally (vis-à-vis the ‘more equal’, if only the more culturally privileged other members of the body politic).


But why? Pointers to more fundamental questions
But why is this the case? Why does EPRDF subvert the democratic and federalist project? Why do we have the paradox of simultaneous recognition of diversity and denial of autonomy? Why vacillate between the rhetoric of federal non-centralization and the reality of excessive centralization? Why do we have the rhetoric of democratic rule and the reality of oppression? Some have tried to explain it by tracing it to TPLF’s socialist beginnings [4]. Others have pointed out that EPRDF is opportunistically exploiting the demands for ethno-national justice (manipulating the ‘national question’) as a ‘divide-and-rule’ strategy to eliminate a possibility of forming a coalition of multinational parties that rise as one against the EPRDF hegemony[5]. The question still is: why is this the case? What is the condition that makes it possible for EPRDF to manipulate the ‘national question’ as a ground for elite co-optation and ‘production’ of the patron-client relationship between itself and these co-opted local elite of the (in)famous ‘X Peoples’ Democratic Organizations’( PDOs)?


Cracked foundation, violent inauguration

I like to suggest that it is rooted in a deeper structural problem, the problem of the constitution of the polity [6]. Like many of our ills, this problem relates to foundational issues, i.e., the making of the modern Ethiopian State, and the cracks of legitimacy at its founding. It is also rooted in the inaugural violence with which the ‘other’ peoples of Ethiopia (i.e., the non-Abyssinian Ethiopian core, now residing in the far-flung space of the South, West, and Eastern peripheries) were incorporated into the empire [7]. Needless to say, the mode of incorporation was conquest and subjugation. In the process, local resistance among several peoples of the wider South such as the Oromo (notably in Arsi, Bale, Hararghe, and Shoa in earlier years), the Harari, the Wolayta, the Kaffa, the Sidama, the Kambata, etc was brutally crushed resulting in massacres of varying degrees along the way, some of which were genocidal in objectives and consequences [8].


State sustained by violence: oppressive state form
The initial military conquest was followed by various forms of oppression (i.e., political domination and disempowerment, economic exploitation, marginalization, cultural imperialism/ethnocide, and subjection to systematic social violence [9]. The State was hierarchically organized starting from the Emperor at the top down to the local functionaries (such as Chiqa Shum and Mislene) at the bottom. The hierarchically organized Abyssinian power structure was superimposed on the newly conquered peoples. In the wider South – except in places where local leaders were granted autonomy as tributaries in return for their ‘peaceful’ capitulation – the armed foot soldiers (the Naftagna, literally the gun bearers) were appointed as rulers (through the ser’ate-shum-shir). The politico-economic system they put in place was the Naftagna-Gabbar system, an exploitative system that extracts the produce of the local farmers who, having been reduced to a serf status now, were granted mere ‘right’ of survival on the land ‘owned’ by the Naftagna. The indigenous peoples were completely excluded from political decision-making even in their own locality (save those who, as local Balabats, act as ‘tax collectors’ [10].

The State at the Center was impermeable to the ‘other’ peoples of Ethiopia until the late 1950s during which time a handful of the first generation of modern-educated non-Amharas found their way up in the bureaucracy after relinquishing their names, languages, and identities (by taking up an Amhara name as their first name, Amharic as their language, and Orthodox Christianity as their confession). The fact that the language of education, administration, and law enforcement was Amharic only – and the added requirement of proficiency in Amharic in order to join higher education institutions that operate in English -was meant to ensure the cultural superiority of Amharic. The policy of assimilation adopted especially after 1941[11]. (which included banning of education in indigenous languages of the ‘other’ peoples by law and the coercion of everyone to speak, write, and read Amharic alone yielded a deficit in equal citizenship in the country). Soon, there emerged the ranked relationship between the peoples of the Abyssinian core (which I heuristically refer to as ‘North’ in this piece) and the ‘other’ peoples (which I refer to as ‘South’ or ‘the wider South’). This in turn set the major political divide between the citizen-inhabited North and the subject-inhabited South, a division long known in Ethiopian studies circles as the people with history (North) and the people without history (South), the legacy of which is still with us today [12]. Owing to this legacy, the state was the ‘exclusive property’ of the North and the power thereof is the preserve of their elite; the South can access it, if at all, only in the terms of the North, even when completely assimilated. Even then, members of the assimilated Southerners are not as trusted as its custodians as those from the North. The consequence was the imposition of unequal inter-linguistic and intercultural relations in the empire which in turn brought about a ranked relationship among groups. The combined effect of all these ‘faces’ of oppression (i.e., domination and disempowerment, exploitation, marginalization, cultural imperialism) is the acting out of systematic/systemic social violence on the population of the wider South (who were the constant targets of vilification, denigration, and dehumanization [13].  The state, in its very posture, is defined against these ‘other’ peoples. Both in the old semi-ecclesiastical constitutional documents (such as the Kibre-Negest and Fetha-Negast) and the modern(izing) constitution of 1931, the Ethiopian State is explicitly defined and designed against its ‘others’ (especially so specified in the 1931 text are the Muslims (‘Islam’), the pagans (‘aremenie’), the Ethiopian Jews, pejoratively referred to as the Falasha [14]. In short, the consequence was the deficit of equal citizenship [15] and the deficit of what was later called ‘ethno-cultural’ justice by liberal multiculturalists [16].


Work in progress, multiple inner contradictions
Inaugurated chiefly with Menelikan violence, the Ethiopian state that was consolidated by Haileselassie I was always a work in progress. The nation-building project was always an unfinished project. The imperial state had a Coptic Christian self-image (and the Emperor was, by law, the defender of the Holy Orthodox faith since 1955). The state was projected as mono-confessional, but the people are multi-confessional. In fact, the large majority of people professed and practised other faiths such as Islam, Judaism, Waaqeefanna and numerous other traditional African religions. The state was monolingual, but the country was multilingual. The State was projected as mono-cultural (as having the culture of the Amhara-Tigryan civilizational continuum) but the country was obviously a country of diverse culture. The State projected homogeneity, but the lives of the peoples suggested heterogeneity. Political power was hierarchically organized at the helm of which are members of the Amhara-Tigryan ruling class and at the bottom of which, if at all visible, are some of the ‘other’ peoples.


Physically, the State inhabited the garrison towns (Ketema) that later became ‘urban’ centers. The vast majority of the people lived in the rural villages. The State’s economic base was the land and agricultural produce of the newly incorporated ‘other’ peoples, but these same people are not only excluded from any political decision-making (which was unlikely even for the northern peasant anyway!) but also depended on the mercy of the northern governors or their local ‘chiefs’ (balabat) for access to economic facilities and opportunities such as land. Even in its modernizing instinct, the imperial State built social services (such as schools, roads, and hospitals) around the state bureaucracy and military/security institutions in the garrison towns. But the local peoples of these towns and their surroundings hardly had access to these facilities. In other words, these services were self-serving. The semblance of laws that are applied are applied mostly in favor of the elite in the towns (just like European laws applied in favor of white settlers and not/against the locals). There was another law for the ‘others’ of the Ethiopian State. The state was thus projected as having sovereignty and exclusive jurisdiction over all sorts of disputes in the territory -with all the grandeur of legal centralism – but the diverse peoples of the country had their own distinct laws and dispute resolution mechanisms over which their own wise men (often the elders) asserted their jurisdiction (the right to speak the law, literally). The tension between the state’s legal centralist pretensions and the country’s obvious legal pluralist content was already visible even in the era of Ethiopia’s age of codification (via legal transplantation).


When the Revised constitution was “given” in 1955, in part it was meant to reconstitute Ethiopia and its State in the light of the newly (re)united Eritrea and in part to fully integrate the ‘other’ peoples of Ethiopia (especially those in the peripheries) into the Empire. In a decade’s time, Eritrea’s autonomy was eroded gradually before it was eventually rescinded altogether by systematically pushing the Eritrean Parliament to abolish itself and reunite Eritrea completely with the empire in 1962. (In this, one finds a genealogical parallel between this manipulation and control of ‘autonomy’ by the centre and the contemporary manipulation and control of the States of the Ethiopian federation through the Ministry of Federal Affairs, the Federal Police, the Federal Security, and the EPRDF’s Advisor’s to the State governments.) The act of “annexing” Eritrea provoked an armed struggle for the Eritrean independence.


The resistance to Abyssinian hegemony and political ‘deconstruction’ of the Ethiopian Imperial State was thus started before even the completion of the nation and state-building process. The peasant resistance movements in Tigray (in the aftermath of the Ethio-Italian war) and Gojam preceded the Eritrean movement, but their grievance wasn’t expressed in the form of seeking independence. The Bale Oromo resistance of the mid and late 1960s was more an expression of resentment to imperial hegemony but it was also limited in its national aspiration to delegitimize Ethiopia and break away from it. Nevertheless, these movements indicated the tensions at the heart of the state form and revealed the foretaste of the direction politics will take in the subsequent years [17].


Disenchantment with Empire, and critique of the ‘Ethiopian’ mask
The disenchantment of the newly educated class with the Monarch and the modernizing capacity and pace of his imperial State led to the 1960 attempted coup d’etat of the Neway brothers (General Mengistu Neway of the Imperial Body Guard and his brother Germame Neway). A similar disenchantment of the university and college students of the 1960s was already expressing itself in the form of writings, demonstrations, and protests by this time. At the start, they used class as their unit of analysis and sought the solution in the resolution of the contradiction between the nascent ‘feudo-bourgeois’ class and the poor peasant and emerging proletarian class. At the same time, questions directly pointing to the unfinished nature of the nation-building project, its illegitimate beginnings, violent inauguration, and its oppressive manifestations (unscrupulous domination, continuous marginalization, unabated exploitation, coercive assimilation and cultural denigration, and its unbearable systematic social violence) started to rear their head among the more informed and the more radical student leaders.


By 1969, the ‘national question’ had become one of the topics that preoccupied the student body [18]. The ‘question’, as formulated by Wallelign Mekonnen, indicted the ‘fake Ethiopian nationalism’ that was merely a mask of Amhara-Tigriyan nationalism [19]. By so doing, Wallelign’s critique revealed the shortcomings of the Ethiopian State to be inclusive or representative of all the peoples residing in its territory. It exposed the deficit in equality, inclusion, and representation. For Wallelign, Ethiopian (state) nationalism was merely a mask for Amhara-Tigriyan ethnocracy that passes for a universal pan-Ethiopian patriotism [20]. Wallelign had also suggested the principle of self-determination as a corrective to this deficit and the injustice thereof. The moral gesture in favor of self-determination was of course more instrumental than essential, as national self-determination was to be pursued to dismantle the infrastructure of imperial hierarchy thereby paving the way for a socialist redistributive State. Moreover, by interrogating the mainstream state nationalist narrative, his critique, perhaps unwittingly, de-centered the Amhara-Tigryan cultural code that formed the core of Ethiopian nationalism and exposed the moral vacuity of this nationalism in and of itself. It exposed the hollowness of the constitutive components that make the Ethiopian State home to all who reside in it. The question of what constitutes Ethiopia—and who the Ethiopian is—remains to be an open-ended question until now. To date, apart from the Southern (and more pointedly the Oromo) discourse that seeks to disarticulate what wrongly passes for ‘Ethiopian nationalism’ (which is heavily resented by the ‘other’ peoples in the wider South), there is hardly any systematic attempt to articulate the constitutive principles of Ethiopia [21].



[1] This started early in EPRDF’s national life when it excluded its partners-in-transition such as the OLF in 1992 and “Alternative Forces of the South” soon afterwards. The ONLF followed suit in 1994 although it was already embattled in the name of anti-Al-Itihad operations earlier on. For an intimate narration and an OLF perspective on the collapse of the transition, see Leenco Lata, The Ethiopian State at the Crossroads: Decolonization and Democratization or Disintegration?(Red Sea Press, 2000).

[2]This has happened to the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) (where EPRDF tried to undermine AtoTemesgen’s group and favoured AtoAyeleChamesso’s group), the Oromo National Congress (ONC) (in which EPRDF sought to undermine Dr Merera’s group and favoured AtoTesfayeTolessa’s group). Similar problems are happening in this election to AEUP and UDJ.
[3] AndresEshete35availableonlineat

[4]See, for example, Semahagn Gashu, The Last Post-Cold War Federation: Ethnicity, Ideology, and Democracy in Ethiopia(Ashgate, 2014).

[5]See for Example, Merera Gudina, Ethiopia: Competing Ethnic Nationalisms and the Quest for Democracy (Shaker, 2003).

[6]There is a widespread consensus among Ethiopian historians—mainstream or otherwise—that the modern Ethiopian state was formed in the late 19th and early 20th century. The historical cut-off point is often the reign of Tewodros II which started in 1855.

[7]The Abyssinian State has always imagined itself as an Empire. Whenever it is strong, it has projected itself as a Christian Kingdom in the Southern periphery of the larger Christian civilization. See for example, Robert Woolbert, “Feudal Ethiopia and her Army,” Foreign Affairs (Oct. 1935, pp.71-81. At a point he says: “The true Ethiopian… is Christian.” P.72; and “The true Ethiopian of the highlands regards himself as of the white race,” (p.71). This image, also embodied in the story of the Prester John of the Indies, that Christian King in the South, has encouraged the West to view it as Europe’s black ‘other’. Often self-identified as an island of Christianity surrounded by Muslims and pagans in the neighbourhood, it isolated itself from the rest of Africa and the orient and directed its desire towards ‘Christian Europe’ in medieval times and towards the ‘civilized/modernized Europe’ in the more secular age of enlightenment and colonial civilization. All the Imperial correspondences of the times make this crystal clear. The modern Ethiopian State built by Menelik and Haileselassie is also referred explicitly as imperial whose rulers are officially/constitutionally described as hailing from “The Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, King of Kings, Emperor of Ethiopia.” This is stated in the first codified constitution of 1931 only to be perfected in the (Revised) 1955 Constitution. On the various images of Ethiopia, see among others, TeshaleTibebu, The Making of Modern Ethiopia (Red Sea press, 1995); and John Sorensen, Imagining Ethiopia:Struggles for History and Identity in the Horn of Africa (Rutgers University press, 1993). At a time when to be an empire is something to be fancied by Europe—just like to be a democracy is something to be fancied today—Robert Woolbert asked this question “By what right does Ethiopia call herself an empire? How can a country where illiteracy is almost universal, where there are virtually no roads, and whose annual foreign trade is worth less than $25,000, 000 –how can such a land presume to arrogate to itself the most exalted of all titles? He then gives a quick answer by identifying one of the reasons why it qualifies to be called an Empire. He says, “One attribute of an empire is that it holds alien peoples in subjection.” He goes on to argue that “in the case of Ethiopia, there can be no question that a single people rules over various subject peoples.” (P.71).

[8]The resistance was crushed primarily because of Menelik’s use of rifles imported from Europe in the years between 1840s and 1890s. The war of conquest was conducted in the name of unifying the country, occupying land/territory, civilizing (i.e. Christianising) the population, and/or erasing and displacing their cultures, politico-legal systems, languages, and identities; and subjecting the indigenous populations to slavery and/or serfdom. On the resistance of the Arsi, see for example, Abbas Haji Gnamo, Conquest and Resistance in the Ethiopian Empire, 1880 -1974: The Case of the Arsi Oromo (Brill, 2014). See also Alexander K Bulatovich, Ethiopian Through Russian Eyes (translated by Richard Seltzer) (Red Sea Press, 2000) for a glimpse of the atrocities perpetrated by Menelik’s imperial forces, especially on the peoples of the South Western Ethiopia.

[9]Iris Marion Young, “Five Faces of Oppression” Justice and the Politics of Difference (Ed D Allen) (Princeton University Press, 2011)

[10]On several micor-studies on the state-society relations in the South, See, for example, Donald Donham and Wendy James (eds), The Southern Marches of Imperial Ethiopia (James Currey, 1986).

[11]The blue print of this policy was laid out earlier in the 1930s by Tedla Haile who made it the most important agenda of the Emperor to assimilate the Oromo in particular into the dominant Amhara stock through a range of measures such as compulsory elementary education of the Oromo in Geez and Amharic (and no education afterwards); intermarriage; resettling Amhara and Tigryan peoples in the Oromo territory; incorporation of the male population into the army; banning the use of local language in education; launching of university for the children of the Abyssinian core so that educated civil servants enforce this assimilationist policy otherwise called nation-building. Tedla Haile’s MA Thesis, submitted to the then Colonial University of Antwerp, was entitled “Pourqoi et comment pratiquerunepolitiqued’assimilationenethiopie” [literally, Why and How to Practice a Politics of Assimilation in Ethiopia] foresaw what was later to be rigorously applied in later years. Commenting on the assimilation policy used in the process since the time of Menelik, BahruZewde says, “An element of assimilation had accompanied the formation of the modern Ethiopian State under Menelik. … A more systematic policy of establishing Amharic as the dominant language came with its establishment as the official language of the country in the Revised Constitution of 1955, and its replacement of English as the medium of instruction in elementary schools in 1963. Indeed, the school system and the military served as two important institutions for the promotion of pan-Ethiopian identity.” BahruZewde, The Quest for Socialist Utopia: The Ethiopian Student Movement c. 1960-1974 (James Currey, 2014), p.193.

[12] The fact that there is a different political rhetoric between the north and south today is rooted in this legacy of conquest, forced assimilation, and cultural imperialism. Accordingly, even in this election (as in the past elections) political groupings with the Northern and urban constituency (AEUP, UDJ, Semayawi, New Generation Party [Addis Tiwilid Party (ATP)], Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) tend to use language of unity (as opposed to equality), territorial integrity (as opposed to self-determination), individual rights (as opposed to collective and group-differentiated rights), civil and political rights such as freedom of press, expression, assembly, and association (as opposed to socio-economic and cultural rights such as the right to land, culture, language, identity, social equality, and recognition of collective subjectivity), individual autonomy and the liberties thereof (as opposed to justice for past violation of collective dignity, gross discrimination on the basis of language, identity, and culture and dislocation and dispossession), civic or pan-Ethiopian identity (as opposed to ethno-national particular-Ethiopian identities). The South emphasizes the imperial-colonial legacy of the state and the atrocities visited upon their populations and the plunder done to their property by the northern elite in the name of nation-building. They seek acknowledgement of historical injustices for what they were and undoing of the infrastructure of oppression ingrained in the Ethiopian State form. The political groupings with Southern and rural constituencies tend (the parties that are now that formed the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Forum [EFDF], alias known in Amharic as Medrek) and other parties that are not in the EPRDF coalition (as XX PDOs) tend to use the language of pluralism/diversity, equality and non-discrimination, minority protection, social justice, autonomy and self-determination, etc. It is no accident that Medrek insists that its program for Ethiopia is implementation of social democracy. This same pattern is replicated among the political forces that are operating from outside—armed or unarmed. Accordingly, parties such as Ginbot Sebat, Arbegnoch Ginbar, etc seek liberal civil and political rights as primary to the broadly equality and self-determination rights of socio-economic and cultural type often emphasized by Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), the various factions of the (former) Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Sidama Liberation Movement (SLM), and several other parties from Gambella, Afar, the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Regional State (SNNPRS). The Northern parties seek to preserve the state form but seek to reform it through infusing democracy. The Southern parties seek to transform the state by radically changing it through the instrumentality of the right to self-determination. The North assumes that our redemption is in simple electoral democracy. The South affirms that our redemption is in recognition of our plurality, the state-perpetrated injustices of the past and the present, and the entrenchment of equality and equalization schemes. For the latter, self-determination is not only a tool for decolonizing the state but also to guarantee a relationship of full equality in the context of democratic governance.

[13]Such vilifications are rife in core Ethiopiic documents, sacred and secular. The royal chronicles of medieval kings such as Amdetsion and Zar’aYacob [which frequently refer to the non-christian others—Muslims and ‘pagans’—as dogs; or otherizing ‘historical’ writings such as by those Abba Bahrey (Chronicles of the [Oromo]) and AlaqaTaye’sYe-Ethiopia Hizb Tarik (The History of the Ethiopian People, 1955) (which trace the history of the ‘other’ peoples to either outside of Ethiopia or some non-human source ; or the demonizing church booklets of the 20th c such as Ra’eyeMariyam (which consign a select group of the ‘other people such as the Oromo and groups from Benishangul to a particularly atrocious corner of hell) are only some of the manifestations of such vilification.

[14]This tripartite classification of Ethiopia’s civilizational/religious ‘others’ into the Muslim, the pagan, and the Felasha also repeats itself in the classification of its national/cultural ‘others’ as the Galla (pejorative name for the Oromo), the Gudella (pejorative name for the Kambata-Hadiya and the wider Cushitic and Omotic southern continuum), and the Shanqilla (the darker-skinned Nilotic/Omotic people of the Western and South Western peripheries). (This classification is also seen in Tedla Haile’s policy of assimilation. See BahruZewde, Pioneers of Change (James Currie, 2002), p. 130-135.
[15] Lahra Smith,Making Citizens in Africa: Ethnicity, Gender, and National Identity in Ethiopia. (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[16] See generally Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship (Oxford University Press, 1995); Finding Our way (Oxford U press, 1995)

[17]For details of early resistance movements from the peasants of both the ‘center’ and periphery, see, for example, GebruTareke, Ethiopia: Power and Protest: Peasant revolutions in the 20th century.(Red Sea Press, 1996).

[18]Wallelign Mekonnen wrote his famous piece entitled “On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia” in this year. The question of “Who is the Ethiopian?” was already raised in a poem by Ibsa Gutema earlier under the title of “Manew Ethiopiawi? [‘Who is the Ethiopian?’] [??]. Thus, the content of the pan-Ethiopian identity that is propagated as part of State nationalism was questioned. In other words, the outer limit of the content of Ethiopian identity was explored. Given the rhetorical nature of the question, it was already suggestive of the strain the state form faces in its capacity to be inclusive. Lamentation of the invisibilization, marginalization, and erasure of the ‘other’ peoples was elaborately done in a poignant poem by Poet Laureat Tsegaye Gebremedihn around the same time. See his “Yidres Lewendime Lemalawkih” [literally, ‘To the Brother I never Knew’] in Esat Wey Abeba (Addis Ababa, 1963 EC/1970-1971 GC).

[19]Walellign Mekonnen, “On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia” Struggle (Nov. 1969). In retrospect, this article is the first to ever suggest that we need to ‘provincialize’ Ethiopia in order to understand it accurately. Provincializing divests an entity of its false claim to universality. See DipeshChakrabarty’s, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (New ed) (Princeton University Press, 2007;2000) on the provincializing imperative.

[20]This positing of Ethiopian nationalism as civic (and the nationalism of the ‘other’ people as ethnic) persists until today. One can easily discern how this posturing invisibilizes and eliminates these ‘other’ peoples in the assumed assimilation of all into the Am,hara-Tigryan cultural code that is taken to be civic-Ethiopian. This neglect of the ‘other’ peoples’ subjectivity and presence informs the sense of entitlement for the minority Abyssinian core to rule over the majority of the other peoples. (In Woolbert’s 1935 estimate, elites coming from 1/3rd of the population rule over 2/3rd of the population.) This prompts southern nationalists view the Ethiopian state not only imperial-colonial in origin but anti-democratic minority rule in a system that is akin to apartheid.

[21]Even the current constitution has no explicit statement of the principles or the building blocks that constitute Ethiopia (as an identity and as a form of nationalism) although a surface reading of it suggests that it is a plurinationalist, multilingual, multi-confessional, multicultural polity that is more post-national in its tenor. As a constitutional lawyer, I sometimes indulge in musings around this issue, wondering if the fundamental principles in arts 8-12 (Sovereignty of nations (art 8); Constitutionalism and Constitutional Supremacy (art 9); Sanctity of Human Rights (art 10); Secularism (art 11); and Accountability and Transparency of Government (art 12)) form the basis of defining a civic Ethiopian identity to/from which one could trace some form of pluralist ‘constitutional patriotism’. However, to date, there are no negotiated and agreed upon set of values or principles that define a pan-Ethiopian identity.


*Tsegaye R Ararssa is a Constitutional lawyer currently in the process of completing his PhD studies at the University of Melbourne Law School. He can be contacted at




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