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The Significance and Preeminence of Ethiopian Unity: Systems and Institutions that Glued and Bonded Ethiopian Communities

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                                              August 23, 2019

I decided to write this piece for the sake of our beloved motherland Ethiopia, at a time when it encountered political crisis, unfathomable internal displacements of its people, ethnic-related skirmishes and conflicts, as well as the astounding phenomenon of Ethiopian youth lack of knowledge of its history and as a result misguided by the present complicated reality on the ground. I am mainly interested in the youth, the future leaders of Ethiopia and I honestly want to educate (along with other Ethiopian educators) the young Ethiopians so that they can pull together in a pan-Ethiopian agenda and also march on the right track of history, but equally I am interested (as other fellow Ethiopians do) in raising the consciousness of the average Ethiopian, while at the same time provoking the elite and the intellectual of the country in a discussion forum, and in an effort to pressurize them so that they can shoulder their historical responsibility to uplift Ethiopia from the abyss and enable her regenerate its glorious past. I don’t just appeal to the elite, the intellectual, and the government of Ethiopia to engage in constructive measures; I too am part of this historic mission and am ready to shoulder the burden and pay sacrifices to salvage our country. The salvaging process, no doubt, is influenced and its course determined by a collective and gregarious action at national level; therefore, in order to realize the goal of this mission, the article will have two component parts: 1) Historical background to Ethiopian unity; 2) the present crisis and ways and means to overcome it.  

A word of caution before I delve into the main corpus of this Article: As stated in the introductory part above, presenting myself in the first person and implying educating others  should not be perceived as condescending; it is only because I am in the teaching profession and my job is primarily to teach; additionally, I want to shoulder responsibility for what I write; otherwise, I too am educable and I learn everyday from other people’s ideas and experiences, including any input that comes from my students. That is a badge of honor to me!!

Historical background to Ethiopian Unity: Ethiopia is one of the oldest countries in the world and home to ancient civilizations including that of Da’mat or Yeha that flourished around 800-500 BCE and, of course, the great and mighty empire of Aksum (100 BCE to 900 CE). The real beginning of the Ethiopian civilization, however, goes back to 1856 BCE when Ethiopis (aka Ethiop) reigned, and after whose name the country Ethiopia was constituted as a nation-state of antiquity; he is in effect the founding father of Ethiopia. Ever since Ethiopis laid down the cornerstone of the first Ethiopian state, the many tribes and nationalities have been mingling and coexisting via trade, migration, marriage, and wars for millennia. All of these people (now 80 plus linguistic groups) within the boundaries of the modern Ethiopian nation-state are by definition Ethiopians. This common identity of Ethiopians is not simply a sociological construct; it is also an expression of the phenotype and genotype biological traits that are clearly observable among the majority of the Ethiopian people, and it is not without reason that the majority of Ethiopians look alike and sometimes it is impossible to make distinction in their ethnicity given the incredible similarity of their physiognomy.

The material cultures that were produced by the above mentioned civilization were ultimately shared by the various Ethiopian nationalities, and to this day serve as reflections and testimonials of the relatively higher levels of conceptual and creative power of Ethiopians. For instance, the artistic sophistication of Aksumite architecture was carried on by Lalibela that was founded by the Zagwe Dynasty (1137-1270). The “monkey heads” (the top part of Aksum’s obelisks) are clearly manifested in most of the Lalibela churches, including St. George and St Mary; there are also miniature Aksum’s stele on either side of the bridge over the Yordanos River that cuts through the town of Lalibela. Moreover, the Lalibela rock-hewn churches are a continuation of the 120 rock-cut churches and monasteries found in Tigray, and it was King Kaleb (first quarter of the 6th century CE) who first commissioned the construction of a rock-hewn church named Meskele-Christos that is found in Seqota, northern Wollo.

By the same token, Gondar also emulated Aksum in architecture and building construction. The Gondar castles and palaces might give the impression of uniqueness and/or idiosyncrasy, but on close scrutiny, on the very top of the Gondarian palaces, one could see row of pointed small pillars, which incidentally are identical with that of St Mary of Tsion Church in Aksum. This similarity is not mere coincidence; in point of fact, when King Fasiladas (1632-1667) went to Aksum for coronation, he very much admired the majestic obelisks and had fascination with the St. Mary Tsion Church and he vowed that he would replicate the style and design of Aksum upon his return to Gondar.

Long before the rise of Gondar, King Yekuno-Amlak (1270-1285) claimed his descent from the so-called Solomonic Dynasty, but more specifically he made reference to Aksum as “his place of origin”; the latter claim, more than the former, is supported by historical evidence, because the community of people (the Bete Amhara) to which Yekuno-Amlak belongs to, including Menz, Merhabete etc. actually came from Tigray and settled in Northern Shewa.

Another interesting experience to a common Ethiopian heritage, at least in the cultural realm and governance, is King Zara Yacob’s (1434-1468) exposure to the documents of Ethiopian civilization and religion written in Geez language on Branna (traditional Ethiopian books) when he went to Aksum for the ritual coronation and anointment ceremony. King Zara Yacob indeed witnessed the richness of ancient Ethiopian political and legal systems; he was so inspired by the documents he acquired and ultimately he read the contents of the various documents and ordered the publishing of a very important book entitled Kebra Negast (Chronicle of Kings). However, Kebra Negast was first authored by an Aksumite scholar cleric and governor of the city of Aksum named Nubreid Yishaq, who made an attempt to list the genealogy of Ethiopian kings and queens.

On top of the above commonalities that I have discussed above, there are some tangible and intangible heritages that are practiced to this day among diverse Ethiopian groups. If, for instance, we investigate Ethiopia’s material or tangible cultures, we examine striking similarities among the different cultural groups in Ethiopia. The various tools and utensils that were invented in Aksum such as cooking earthen wares, pots, jars, sickles, hoe, earthen stove, mills, axe, cloth-making tools, filter tools, hand-made clay and basket plates, books (Branna), pen & ink, musical instruments (flute, trumpet, Masinqo or Chira Waţa [Ethiopian violin], Kerar [Ethiopian guitar or string instrument], Begena [Ethiopian harp], Kebero [Ethiopian drum] are now found throughout Ethiopia. Musical notations were first authored by St. Yared of Askum in the 6th century CE; with his innovation was born the Ethiopian Zema (church hymn) and Ethiopian music that influenced the entire music culture of Ethiopians. St. Yared made a revolution in Ethiopian music and his legacy have had a far reaching impact on traditional and modern Ethiopian singers, and it is not without reason that we have now Yared School of Music in Addis Ababa.

On the other hand, if we see the intangible heritages, especially in governance and conflict resolution mechanisms, we again witness a lot in common among Ethiopian systems and institutions across the board in Ethiopia. For instance, the ancient kings of Aksum were advised and instructed by a twelve-member council of elders; incidentally, the sons and daughters of the kings of Aksum could not inherit power or claim the throne without the approval of the council of elders. Interestingly, the same system of governance was practiced in Kaffa; the king of Kaffa (the Kaffio Tato) was consulted by a six-member council of elders known as Miqricho, and similar to that of Aksum, the king of Kaffa could not confer titles and/or transfer power to his children without the approval of the Miqricho. 

Similarly, if one makes a study of the Garramiro Ethiopian people, found between the Genale and Dawa Rivers in South-Eastern Ethiopia, s/he will learn that they are a “confederation” of twelve tribes deliberately structured to avoid conflicts, but this style of governance also established a system of administrations and elections. Pre-Aksum northern Ethiopian communities were confederacies akin of the Garramiro experiment. In terms of conflict resolution, however, the dual system of administration and problem solving of the Gurage known as Yejoka and Qicha comes very close to that of Garramiro and to the settled communities in ancient Tigray; after all, the Gurage migrated from their original home in Tigray named Gura’e (now in Eitrea) and settled in south-central Ethiopia..

One fascinating system of leadership institution is that of Afar people known as Fima, a system that systematically avoids incompetent leaders. The Fima criteria in selecting leaders, requires creativity, capacity, and responsibility in leadership qualities. One other system that emphasizes equality among members of its community and grassroots by its nature is the Qancha or Akuay system (ሥርዓት ቃንጫ፣ሥርዓት ዓዃይ) found in the Wajirat of Southern Tigray; if one travels to the Sidama Zone of Southern Ethiopia, s/he can witness a system of conflict resolution mechanisms at family, sub-clan, and clan levels known as Woma, Ga’ana, and Guro respectively. But when it comes to overall governance and conflict resolution, the best examples would be the Bito (“people’s parliament”) of Tigray and the Shimagle of Amhara; the name of Shimagle (literally “elders”) is also interchangeably used to depict the Bito of Tigray. These two institutions are not simply structured to resolve conflicts only; their main task in fact, is to deter disputes long before they erupt, and by doing so they actually facilitate a just system of peace and order. One other institution that comes very close to the Bito and Shimagle is the Q’war institution of justice among the Anuak of Gambella; the Q’war is inspired and reinforced by the Akudo spiritual force that the Anuak worship. As Akudo is to Anuak, the All Mighty God was to King Ezana of Aksum; in his prayer statements, Ezana uttered: “May the Lord of Heaven made strong my Kingdom…I will rule the people with righteousness and justice and will not oppress them.”

One important lesson that we Ethiopians get from Ezana is not only his sense of justice, but the fact that he had a universal idea of governance and nationhood; he saw himself not only king of Aksum but of all peoples under his dominion, irrespective of the languages they spoke and the customs they followed and practiced. King Ezana (320-360 CE) considered himself as king of Aksum, Saba, Salhen, Himyar, Dhu-Raydan, Kassu, and Kush. The universal attitude and ideology, as we shall discuss in the last part of this paper, is one important mechanism to overcome the current narrow and enclave ethnic politics in Ethiopia.  

The present Crisis and the ways and means to overcome it:

Long before the present complicated crisis engulfed the larger Ethiopian society, some fourteen years ago, or more specifically in the year 2005, in an effort to address the ethnic differences and divide in Ethiopian community circles, I contributed an article in Amharic entitled ለኢትዮጵያ የሚበጅ የፖለቲካ ስትራቴጂ መቀየስ የሁላችን ታሪካዊ ኃላፊነት ነው (It is the historical responsibility of all of us to devise a political strategy for the benefit of Ethiopia)1 The central thesis of this article emphasizes the importance of overarching Ethiopian national identity as opposed to ethnic enclave identity; and this is what has been argued in the Article:

ለኢትዮጵያ የሚበጅ ማንኛውም የፖለቲካ ስትራቴጂ መቀየስ የሁላችን ኃላፊነት ነው። እንዲህ ያለ ግዙፍ የፖለቲካ አጀንዳ ለተወሰኑ ሰዎች (ለምሳሌ ምሁራን) ወይም ባለስልጣናት ብቻ ማሸከም አይቻልም። ስለሆነም እያንዳንዱ ኢትዮጵያዊ፣ በተለይም ንቃተ ህሊናው አንፃራዊ በሆነ መንገድ የላቀ ከሆነ ታሪካዊ ኃላፊነት መሸከም አለበት። የመጀመርያው ከፍተኛ ኃላፊነት እንግዴህ የኢትዮጵያን ሕዘብ አንድነት መጠበቅ ነው። ያለአንድነት አገርን በሚመለከት (ትምህርት ጤና ሉዓላዊነት ወዘተ) የመወያያ ነጥቦች ይዘን ብንቀርብ ትርጉም አይኖራቸውም፣ እንድያውም ከንቱ ውዳሴና ውሸት ነው የሚሆኑት። በዚሁ መሰረተ፟፟¬ዓላማ ማለትም የአንድነት አጀንዳ የምንስማማ ከሆነ (የማንስማማበት መንገድ ደግሞ አይታየኝም) በልዩነታችን ሳይሆን ባንድነታችን ነው ማተኮር ያለብን። ማንኛውም አገር ደግሞ እንደ ተቋም ቀጣይነቱ አስተማማኝ መሆን የሚችለው የሕዝቡ አንድነት ሲጠነክርና ሲፀና ብቻ ነው። በልዩነታችን ላይ ካተኮርን ጥላቻና አንባጓሮ ካከልንበት ግን እንኳንስ ኢትዮጵያ ልታብብና ልትበለፅግ ይቅርና ህልውናውም ሳይቀር አጠያያቂ ነው የሚሆነው፣ እንደሃገር የማትቀትልበት ሁኔታም ሊፈጠር ይችላል፣ በብልሃትና በፖለቲካ ብቃት አንድነታችን ካልጠበቅን ደግሞ ፍርክስክሳችን ሊወጣ ይችላል።

ማንኛውም አገር ወዳድ ኢትዮጵያው ዘርና ጎሳ ሳያነሳና ሳይጠቅስኢትዮጵያየሚል መፈክር ነው ማንገብ ያለበት፣ ከሁሉም የዘርና የጎሳ ጥቅምና ፖለቲካ የኢትዮጵያ አጀንዳ ነው የበላይነት መያዝ ያለበት። ዘርና ጎሳ ትምህርታዊ በሆኑ የጥናትና ምርምር መድረኮች ካልሆኑ በስተቀረ ለውይይትም ቢሆን መቅረብ የለባቸውም ብሎ ያምናል። በአንፃሩ የሕዝብ አንድነት እንዳይደፈርስ በንቃት ይታገላል፣ የሁሉም ብሔሮች እኩልነት ለማረጋገጥ ሌት ተቀን ይጥራል፣ ሁሉንም ብሔሮችና ብሔረሰቦችን ያፈቅራል ያከብራል፣በታሪክ በባህልበኃይማኖት በምጣኔሃብታዊ ግንኝነቶች የተቆራኙ መሆናቸውን በጥልቅ ይገነዘባል። ከሁሉም በላይ ደግሞ አገር ወዳዱ ማንኛውም ኢትዮጵያዊ የአንድ ብሔር አባል የሆነውን እንዳጋጣሚ መሆኑን ኢትዮጵያዊነት ግን በታሪክ የተገነባ መሆኑን በቅጡ ይገነዘባል። ይህ በቀላል አማርኛ እንዲህ ማለት ነው፦ አንድ ግለሰብ ኢትዮጵያዊ የትግራይ ተወላጅ የአማራ ኦሮሞጉራጌ  ሲዳማ ወዘተ አባል ሊሆን የቻለው እንዳጋጣሚ እንጂ ሆን ብሎ በእቅድ ከዚሁ ብሔር ልፈጠር ብሎ በመምረጥ አይደለም። እንዲህ ያለ ክስተት ተሰምቶም ታይቶም አይታወቅም፣ ለወደፊትም አይኖርም።

The idea of “one cannot choose to be born in this or that nationality” stated in the above Amharic text was first propagated by me in 2005; now it has become a vogue among the Ethiopian elite; it is a clear indication that it has percolated and permeated into the larger Ethiopian society, which by the way is an achievement by itself, because Ethiopians who entertain same idea of ethnicity would be able to transcend the narrow ethnic ideology that has now buttressed the ethnic enclave thinking and weakened the pan-Ethiopian outlook.

Given the rich history, civilization, and systems and institutions mentioned above, there is no doubt that Ethiopia is one of the great nations in the world. However, Ethiopia at present is deeply embroiled in political crisis accompanied by economic decline manifested in instability and diminished economic growth. On the other hand, there is some glimpse of hope in regards to Ethiopia’s revival and recovery as reflected in the joint Ashenda celebration by the Amhara and Tigray States, the two Ethiopian regional states that were at loggerheads just few months ago; that is a blessing and a more hopeful sign for Ethiopia’s unity, but more efforts, dedication, and commitment are required for the realization of a formidable and strong Ethiopia. Incidentally, in the Ashenda celebration in Tigray, it was not only the group from Sekota (Amhara) and Tembien (Tigray) that exchanged Ashenda dancing troupes; there were also individuals who came from the Qimant of Gondar, and the Awghi from Agaw, and other people who came from Oromia, Wolita, Dire Dawa, Addis Aabba and joined the festive spectacle of Ashenda at Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray State. This unique historical phenomenon is a clear indication that Ethiopia has begun healing from its wounds and is striding (sometimes staggering) in the right direction.

Now, the immediate task of Ethiopians should be to go back to their roots and if possible revive the many traditional systems and institutions, discussed above, that glued and bonded the diverse Ethiopians communities for thousands of years. Moreover, Ethiopians, this time must abandon foreign dogmatic ideology and adopt rather their own home grown world outlook. With respect to the latter recommendation, I like to invite readers to once again read what I wrote in “21st Century Ethiopian Politics Should Be Reoriented toward National Reconciliation and a Home Grown Ideology”:2

“…I like to address the significance and importance of political ideology and theoretical framework that at present are scarce amongst the opposition parties and the Ethiopian social milieu in general. By ideology, I did not mean the old ideologies of liberal and/or radical schools; I meant rather a variety of modalities that could serve as alternative narratives that Ethiopians need to uphold in order to correctly analyze emergent contours and challenges. More specifically, I meant, Ethiopians must establish articulated roadmaps for a guide to action addressing outstanding issues.

Once Ethiopians garner alternative narratives (e.g. mixed economy of market and state-run enterprises) they easily embrace political clarity that in turn permits them to forge a refined policy; and once they accomplish this level of consciousness, they will begin to understand that “historical change involves change in discursive formations” as Michel Foucault aptly puts it. According to Foucault, discursive formations are designed to explain the nature of society and human beings. It is also a system of knowledge to study prevailing cultural frameworks.

Ethiopians, therefore, must no longer be guided by the old ideologies of the liberal and radical, which are alien and irrelevant to the larger Ethiopian society, and begin rather to formulate a new theoretical framework of what I call “social constructivist” and begin to study their history and culture, and ultimately establish policies of their own, independent of foreign influences. This does not mean, of course, to reject everything foreign; Ethiopians must indeed receive anything foreign, including technology that benefits them; it is only to underscore the importance of independence that could altogether lead to creativity and a home grown ideology. The social constructivist theory recognizes the potential of individuals and groups game changers in societies, not only by receiving ideas from outside influences but also by methodically and creatively evolving their own distinct ideology that in turn sustains an independent national mode of thinking.”

On top of the above strategies to combat Ethiopia’s problems, I am of the opinion that the current reform led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, should seriously consider to preserve the federal structure and the constitution with some modification in the former and amendment in the latter. After all, “The Ethiopian federal structure is meant to redress the plight of the oppressed and forgotten nationalities, which was quite an achievement…Despite the current frightening political mess, however, an important and significant historical phenomenon took shape in Ethiopia, which I believe is the result and legacy of the federal system, and the majority of the Ethiopian people and the regional states are in favor of the now existing federal structure. There are some nascent political groupings, mostly from ex-Diaspora opposition movements that managed to converge in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and are advocating on behalf of the unitary state; and some of these groups even endorse the idea of going back to the old imperial provincial governance based on geography alone and completely abandon the cause of the nationalities and the prize won by the regional states. They are detached from the reality on the ground in Ethiopia and their agenda of replacing the federal system by a unitary state would not be acceptable to the regional states; in a recent Mekelle conference of the legally registered opposition parties and the TPLF leaders, almost all of the conferees reaffirmed that the federal system is the only political structure that met their needs in self-determination and in terms of honoring their identities, flourishing their culture and languages as well. A gentleman from the Afar Regional State bluntly asserted in the conference that ‘the Afar people had no national identity before the federal structure was installed; they were known as Afar from Tigray, Wollo, and Shewa; now, thanks to the federal system, they have their own regional state and one and undivided identity.’ This statement of the Afar people is shared by the Somali, Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz, Oromo, Harari, Tigray, and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples; the only exception in this general consensus of endorsing the present federal structure and the constitution, including the national Ethiopian flag that represents the regional states and nationalities, is the Amhara State. Given this reality thus, it would be extremely difficult to overturn the Ethiopian federal republic and put instead a unitary state that would not represent the Ethiopian people interest.”3        

The many recommendations made in this essay are good working themes for the Government of Ethiopia to reconsider its present reform movement that is bent with the liberal agenda of privatization and moving away from the developmental state model, a system that enabled Ethiopia to do well in economic growth and the foundational economy; there is nothing wrong with privatization but unless it is allowed to operate in tandem with public enterprises, it is the foreign investors and a handful of domestic entrepreneurs that would ultimately run and control the economy, and this should now be allowed as a prime agenda in Ethiopia’s economic policy. For Dr. Abiy and his government, the best bet is to embrace a mixed economy, and continue the systems and achievements of the present federal structure and the constitution.


1.    ለኢትዮጵያ የሚበጅ የፖለቲካ ስትራቴጂ መቀየስ የሁላችን ኃላፊነት ነው www.africanidea.org/doc5.pdf

2.    21st Ethiopian Politics Should Be Reoriented toward National Reconciliation and Home Grown Ideology, www.africanidea.org/reorient_ethiopian_politics.html

3.    The Federalist and Unitary Systems in Comparative Perspective and in the Ethiopian Context, www.africanidea.org/Federalist_Unitary_context_Ethiopia.html