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Ethiopia Can’t Progress While Back-casting – by Tadesse Nigatu

January 14, 2017

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the New”. Socrates


It has become a common knowledge, that, the name Ethiopia itself has different meaning to different people. This difference in meaning has its origin when some say Ethiopia is a 3000 years old country and others say it is a creation on Emperor Minilik II. This difference has becomean Achilles‘ heel for the progressives in the country and a feast for the EPRDF. There is a third view which sees the modern Ethiopian nation- state as an outcome of the rival interactions among local, regional and colonial political and military forces. Since nation-state days, Ethiopia has seen five governments and all were undemocratic, economically backward and culturally stagnant. All rulers (from Empror Minilik to Hailmariam) have more in common than differences. The Ethiopian peoples and their progressive organizers can benefit if they rally around the ideals of democratic Ethiopia and stop the continuity of tyranny, instead of waging a futile toil to undo history. A democratic nation, as a common goal, should make it easier for all Ethiopians to join hands to do away with centuries political repressions and economic exploitations and work to build a just, democratic and prosperous Ethiopia that is fair for all.



With all its shortcomings, the mass resistance that engulfed Ethiopia during most of 2016, casted hope towards a just and free Ethiopia. The mass resistance was very clear in defying the repressive nature of the ruling party. At the same time, the mass resistance did not have clear direction as to how to build that free and just Ethiopia.

It begs to ask as to why the resistance did not have clear direction? There was no clear direction because it was unorganized and abrupt overflow of anger and frustration due to decades of accumulated repression and exploitation. There was not clear direction because opposition political organizations were not only ready to provide leadership but also, they have contradicting views about the meaning and future of Ethiopia itself. This last point has a significant role in fracturing the opposition and therefore is the focus of this write up.

Nowadays, it is a common knowledge that the country Ethiopia, does not mean the same thing for all opposition political forces. This difference in meaning originates from how Ethiopia itself came into being. There are two camps around this. For people in one of the camps, Ethiopia is an old country with history of more than three thousand years. For the proponents of this camp, the septal proximity and the very long time that the different cultural and linguistic groups had together, enabled, trade, intercultural marriage, conflicts, joint worship etc. which eventually forged common identity among them. Those interactions, through natural social process, helped build close network which latter end up the place we call Ethiopia now.

For people in the second camp, Ethiopia is a country that is 125 years old and was put together by the warrior Emperor Minilik II through sheer force.

The two groups differ on not only how the country was formed, they also have different outlooks or visions for the future of Ethiopia as well. For the former group, the integrity of the country is vital, while the latter group advocates separation and returning to the pre-Minilik conditions of 125 years earlier. For the last twenty-five years or so, these differences have been and still are posing obstacles to crafting a nation-wide clear direction and common strategy for substituting the tyrant EPRDF and building a democratic society. Without a doubt, those differences have isolated the oppositions from each and made them prey for the ruling group.

In this write up I hope to bring a third perspective and minimize the gap between the above two opposing outlooks. The third perspective regards the systems view outlook.

A system is simply a set of interacting components that function as one larger whole. This connected and interacting whole is something larger than the sum of its parts. The interaction between the components create feedback loop that are nonlinear and unpredictable. Systems are dynamic, meaning they change overtime. Nearly every real-world that is composed of interacting parts fit this description. That is, the whole is more than the sum of its parts, that the outcome is non-linear and are dynamic.

The systems world view sees the emergence of a new entity (be it nation or other phenomenon) as an outcome of many independent and interacting factors and forces. It is a holistic view that takes all the variable forces and the underling conditions of the time in to account. For emergence (of a nation, or any new entity) it is not the parts (components) but the interrelationships among the components that matter. Interrelationships among the parts are nonlinear. This means that 2 +1 may not be equal to 3 all the time. In systems view, the whole is more important than the components or parts. The opposite world view is known as mechanistic or linear view that attributes a simple cause-and-effect relation to the formation of a nation. In the mechanistic view the isolated components (parts) of an entity (state) are more important than the whole.

In the discussion that follow, I focus on the Ethiopian nation-state of 1880s as opposed to the 3 000 years Ethiopia. Note that I am not against the latter. It is just that nation-state Ethiopia of 1880s time is more convenient for make my points.

The Formation of the Ethiopian Nation-State

A social phenomenon such as nation-state may come to life, only, if many different but complementary components interact simultaneously under appropriate condition, in the right order, and at the right place and time. The new nation-state cannot come to life just because its component parts are around the corner. The parts must fit and function together. Even then, there is no guaranty that this new thing can function as there are many unknowns that can avert its emergence. In other words, the coming to being of this new nation-state is contingent on many things happening “correctly” at the right time and the correct order. In short, the emergence of a state is contingent on many complementary processes occurring in the right way.

Before I get to the nation-state Ethiopia, let me say more about contingency using a scenario. Let’s say, one morning, as I was driving to work, I got into accident with another driver. Of course, none of us, the drivers, had planned for the accident to happen. But it happened. When asking why it happened, it becomes clear, that many predetermined factors must take place simultaneously for the accident to occur. The speed I and the other driver is driving at, the exact lane we were in, the traffic condition, the timing, our mental state (whether we were paying attention), etc. had to work together for the accident to happen. The factors are predetermined in the sense, that I determined the speed I was driving at and the rush hour commute determines the morning traffic condition etc.

If one or more of the factors were missing, for example, if my timing was different (say, I came earlier or later even by few minutes) or took different lane or drove at different speed etc. the accident might not have occurred. The key point here is that even a small occurrence like an accident requires the convergence of many things taking place at the same time, let alone a large entity like a nation.

Now let us look at the emergence of the Ethiopian nation-state in 1880s (European calendar). For some of us, the existence of this nation, Ethiopia, is predestined by fate. In other words, for some of us, no matter what, a country named Ethiopia had to be built by somebody named Emperor Minilik II, in 1880s. The truth is far from that. This is to say that, there were chances or possibilities, that the Ethiopia we know today would not have existed. The existence of Ethiopia is not predestined, or predetermined, it is rather a chance occurrence. Just like my accident example, many factors must take place in a complementary way for the Ethiopian nation-state to come to existence. Hold on, don’t be mad at me yet!

Let’s think of the years, say 1880s, before King Minilik II became the Emperor of Ethiopia and consider the local, reginal and international political forces which were in play. We can think of those political forces playing and interacting with each other at every level. Let’s see them closer.

Local Forces: There were many rival emperors/kings. To name just a few of them, King Minilik (of shewa), Astese Yohanis (of Tigri), King Tekele Haimanot (Gojam-wollega), King Abbaa Jiffar (Jimma) and King Tona (Wolayta) , Ras Ali (of Wollo). Each of them with thousands of followers, looking after his own interest, competing with one while cooperating with the other etc. In all this, the ambition of each was to be the most dominant.

Regional Forces: These were reginal forces that dealt with this or that local king or warlord. Those included like the Mahadists in Sudan, the government of Egypt, and Turkey. Those regional forces were very active meddling in Ethiopian political affairs, sometimes on their own, other times collaborating with European power. For example, they collaborate with one king against another to achieve their goals. Again, the goals of the reginal forces were to promote their own or their European masters interest.

International colonial Forces: The Great Britain, French, and Italian colonial powers were the main ones who focused on the area. Great Britain and French were the most powerful ones with lots of African colonies. Great Britain had a vital interest in Ethiopia to protect the source of Nile River which waters its cotton plantation in Egypt and Sudan. Italy had a long ambition to make Ethiopia its colony. French has a strategic interest in Ethiopia as it boarders Djibouti and the red sea. Those international colonial powers were actively engaged with different regional emperors/kings in isolation or as a group depending on who better fit or met their strategic interests. Per Harold Marcus1, the interest of Great Britain and Italy was to colonialize Ethiopia while French’s colonial interest was better served if Ethiopia was independent which was one of the factors for Ethiopia not falling under European colony. The reason why the French preferred Ethiopia to remain free was to prevent Great Britain from gaining total strategic access in the region.

All the three forces, i.e. local, regional and colonial forces were actively engaged in what we now call Ethiopia at all levelsi.e.at local, regional and international levels. The local forces fight or collaborate among each other looking after their own interests. The colonialist as well as the regional forces did the same. For example, the British could negotiate with one Ethiopian kings against the other. In another example, Italy, who noticed tension between Kink Minilik and Atsse Yohanis was providing guns to Minilik and sought favor from him to oppose Yohanis. The different local forces collaborate with each other against the Mhadiests. There were disagreements among the European colonial powers themselves over this or that Ethiopian region. The arrangement of forces was dynamic, quickly changing and unpredictable. In addition, factors such as geography (land scape), historical interactions among the peoples in the region, and the timing in which all the interactions were taking place made the situation even more uncontrollable.

The interactions among the forces were tense and chaotic some times and calmer at other times. Both competition and collaboration between the local, reginal and international colonial forces were in play. Different regions were under different rulers. Power is fragmented. There were histories of conflicts between kings or war lords. There were religious contentions. No one could be sure as to which direction the balance of forces could tilt. No one single force, including a European colonial power, could determine what kind of structure could come to exist. So many things had to complement and work together for one clear structure to take shape from that complex political situation. Therefore, Ethiopia is an entity (a nation- state) that emerged from the complex interactions of all those forces. If just one or more factors mentioned above did not go the way they did or were missing from the reality on the ground, the result could have been different.

It was the interactions of many independent, powerful, local, regional and European forces resulted in the emergence of the Ethiopian nation-state. In the process, the brutality of the rival interacting forces have caused the unfortunate loss of lives and property. On the positive side, the arrival of the nation-state, reduced the centuries long, endless wars, among the local kings in the north and south that had claimed countless lives and properties. The emergence of a nation-state stopped or minimized all those endless cycles of wars of hundred years between local warlords because now they are all under one and the same rule.

Emperor Minilik is a well-known figure in Ethiopia. Some admire him as a great Ethiopian leader and the father of modern Ethiopia. Others condemn him as an oppressor and expansionist or even colonizer. I think both group exaggerate the Emperor’s role. Emperor Minillik II was just one of the leaders of warriors among many other warrying groups. He may have been an astute warrior, who, had a better sense as to where the balance of force leaning so that he could sail with it. Otherwise, as an individual, he could not have power or force that could shape history on his own. The complexity of local, regional, European colonial forces as well as the millions of people in the region made Minilik II (or any other individual) too small on his own. In such, complex interactions of larger forces, the role of an astute individual like King Minilik was limited to orchestrating political activities around the flow of forces and to attempt to stir them in the direction of his preference. The mix of those forces and their interactions created Minilik but not the other way around. That is, Emperor Minilik could not create the system of those forces and interactions that made him the Emperor, instead, the system of the forces and their interactions created the Emperor. In other words, the situation created Minilik, but Minilik did not create the situation.

Both supporters and opponents of Emperor Minilik II argue for their positions strongly. As such, he is a political figure that has also became an infliction point in Ethiopia’s history. The source of the dispute regarding the Emperor’s fame or defame may be partly on how people see the role of individuals in history. When we see individuals in isolation from the society they lived in, and the historical forces and conditions that permitted their development, we suffer from lack of a holistic view of the world and that is problem. The situations on the ground create individuals and their roles. Detaching individuals from the environment that created them permits exaggeration of their roles. As such, we give them too much credit than they deserve or blame for the power they did not have and the actions they could not take.

The bottom line is, that, the Ethiopian nation-state emerged from the complex interaction of many local, regional and colonial forces that have distinct role at that place (geographical boundary) and time. Emperor Minilik II did not and could not create Ethiopia. It is the interaction of the local, reginal and colonial forces conditioned by history and geography of the region that created Ethiopia. Minilik was just one player among many who, himself was created and shaped by those forces. This is a universal rule that govern the relations between individuals and society. Not unique to Ethiopia.

The Nature of Government

In the development of human society, there comes a point, where, the traditionally cooperative early communities transformed into competitive ones. Then completion led to domination. Government started as one form of domination. In its inception, government began, just as mafias did, as an instrument of protection by violence. As a way to sustain, government collected taxes and in return, it “protects” tax payers from predators.

In his book, the evolution of everything, (pp 239), Matt Ridley2, states that: “Throughout history, the characteristic feature of the nation-state is its monopoly of violence. In ancient Rome, especially during the first century BC, consuls, generals, governors and senators, each with his organized crime syndicate of thugs and legions fought over the division of spoils of imperial conquest in a serious of civil wars, assassinations and plots that grew steadily more desperate-until one emerged with sufficient wealth and power to impose a monopoly of military might.”

In the same book, Ridley, also quotes Pope Gregory VII (from the 11th century) who wrote: “Government originated as a group of thugs who raised themselves above their fellows by pride, plunder, treachery, murder-in short by every kind of crime.”

Every Government in the world originated as described above and their functions in large part remained the same until the French revolution. Thanks to the French revolution, (with slogans “Life, Liberty, Fraternity the pursuit of happiness”) the tyranny of governments was severely challenged and then slowly was forced to change. Since then, at least in advanced nations, government institutions began to evolve to be fair, just, democratic and much less violent and corrupt.

The French revolution, the spread of commerce, the advances in technology, and the mass resistances against tyranny, together paved the way for the evolution of modern governments which strove to be representative, democratic, fair, just, caring, humane, and regulated. In our time, this evolution has achieved different maturity level in different countries. In most of the advanced nations the maturity is at the level where citizens are exercising their full democratic and human rights.

When we consider the nature of Ethiopian Governments throughout the last 125 years, we observe that not much has changed. Every Ethiopian government behaved like “a group of thugs who raised themselves above their fellow citizens “by pride, plunder, treachery and murder, in short by every kind of crime.” I have a hard time finding reasonable distinction between each of the five Ethiopian rulers including the current one. They all function poorly as far as democracy, individual freedom, the rule of laws and economic development are concerned. They all behaved like Mafias. I do not think this is exaggeration.

Think about it, the French revolution took place almost a century ago before Emperor Minilik took power and 225 years before EPRDF. If you wonder what stagnation means, this is it!

125 years in Brief

In the last 125 years, since Emperor Minilik II, that is, the people of Ethiopia has gone through both the good and the bad. In what follows, I sample some from the bad and the good.

The ugly side of the last 125 years

In the past 125 years, Ethiopians saw five governments headed by Emperor Mnilik II, Empress Zewditu, Emperor Halesellasse, Colonel Mengistu, and Meles-Haile Mariam. There may be small personality differences between each, but, when it comes to the key forces of development, such as democracy and economic/technological advancement, they all have more in common than differences. Here are few of their similarities.

Politics: None of them believed in genuine democratic and civil rights. All the balancing forces of governments, the legislature, the judiciary (courts) and executives are controlled by the ruling groups in each government. That means, there were no independent democratic institutions. The mass media (newspapers, radio, TV and now the internet) were and are controlled by every government. No freedom to express opinions in speech or in writing. No freedom to organize independent political parties. Each ruling group was/is composed of similar minded individuals from every nationality and region across the country so that they could suppress and exploit in every corner of the country.

Economy; Land was never the property of the farmers. Land was either possessed by landlord-church (under the emperors) or by the state (under the Derg and EPRDF). In every regime 90+% of the farmers used outdated farming techniques. None of the rulers seriously attempted to bring in modern farming or manufacturing to benefit the whole country. The little modernizations they did took place at the expense of tens of thousands of displaced farmers to benefit the ruling group and their international exploiting partners. Transportation and communication infrastructures were and are stagnant.

Education /Culture: Even by African standards Ethiopia still has one of the lowest numbers of literates, high school/ college educated population. Women and children were and are regarded as inferiors to men. No security for elders. No real opportunity for cultural and language development.

All things considered, the small economic gains the country has seen, in roads, communication, electric power and educational/cultural activities such as schools and colleges during the whole century and quarter were mainly calculated to serve the regimes in power. To all the rulers, the interests of the Ethiopian people came last.

The Ethiopian nation-state is more than 125 years old. Most African nation-states are under 60 years old. Some of these younger African nations are already showing economic and political advances. That is not the case in Ethiopia. There has been no freedom of speech, no genuine election, no balancing of political power. Ethiopians are dependent on outdated and subsistence agrarian economy and foreign aid. Economic growth has been stagnant. Our cultures are made dormant. Our health is poor. Ethiopia after all those years of “self-rule” is still one of the least developed nations in the world.

The good side of the last 125 years

During all those decades, despite the brutality and backward nature of all the Ethiopian Governments, the Ethiopian people were building fraternity and mutual understanding. Ethiopians have been and are tolerant, and respectful to each other’s cultures and belief systems. They stood with and support each other both in good and bad times. It is not hard to find examples where Ethiopians stood united as nationals of the same state. They have stood united twice to defend their nation from Italian colonial aggressors even the kings fled the country. They stood shoulder to shoulder against the rotten feudal system during the 1974 demanding land-to -the-tiller, religious and cultural equality, and democratic and civil rights. They repeated that togetherness as recently as last year (2016), when Ethiopians stood united against the current ethnic based undemocratic rule of the EPRDF government.

Whether to defend their country, to fight for land reform or to demand justice and democracy, to oppose land grab, Ethiopians again and again have shown that their destiny is tied together. They showed that despite, the divisive, exploiting and undemocratic rulers who tried to divide and rule them, Ethiopians respect, tolerate and cooperate with each other to create a just, fair and democratic nation-state.

Lessons from history

If we do not learn from the past, we will be condemned to start from zero (the beginning) every time. That is, if a new generation did not learn from the previous one, it must start everything from scratch. And if that is how society proceeds, then there is no civilization that transfer from generation to generation. Luckily, that is not the case majority of the time. Thanks to storytelling, literature, and now electronics, the wealth of knowledge and experience from the past generation passes to the new one, vertically as well as laterally.

Of course, bad experience of the past should not be repeated. But the lesson should still be kept and passed so that it will not be repeated. As we saw above, the history of Ethiopia is a mixed bag of both the good and the bad. We can even distinctly categorize them and say that the history of our rulers is the bad one and the history of the people was and is a good one. In other words, we should not repeat the undemocratic, exploitative, corrupt, repressive nature of the rulers. On the contrary, we should learn and carry, the tolerant, respecting, hardworking, fairness and justice seeking behaviors of all the Ethiopian peoples.

We use lessons from history to guide our current and future actions but not to undo what took place. The problem with attempting to undo what took place at different times under different conditions is, that, it is impossible to repeat it. It is messy and can never be repeated right. Say that we want to undo (defragment) Ethiopia to its 1880s (pre-Minilik II) structure. Imagine recreating all those, local, regional and international forces and the interactions among them just as it was at that time. Nations are systems and systems change over time. Nothing stays the same. Even in the slow-moving Ethiopia of 2017, is different in so many ways from 1880s, so that it is impossible to go back. So why try to do the impossible?

Instead, why not try to learn from the mistakes of our rulers and not repeat their wrongs. Why not work to understand and practice democratic principles, build a democratic institution that brings Ethiopians from all walks of life under one roof, where democratic and human rights are respected, every culture is respected, and everything is decided by majority vote not by gun. That is the only right way to learn from the history.

There is one other important lesson that the democratic forces can learn from all the Ethiopian rulers. That is, if we look at the compositions of the rulers from Emperor Minilik all the way to EPRDF, we can see that they were/are composed of members from all nationalities and come from all the regions in the country. The rulers have benefited from this inclusive structure as they could directly access any region or nationality of interest through their comrades in that nationality or region. The democratic opposition forces need to learn how to forge alliance and unity among different nationalities and regions. If the rulers could forge such alliance to oppress and exploit the people for 125 years, how come the oppressed and exploited people and their organizers could not forge alliances to free themselves from subjugation and exploitation? This is the missing equation that the opposition need to solve. This is the best organizational format that can challenge this divisive ruling group.

In Closing

Society does not organize in a mechanistic and linear way as some want us to believe. Ethiopia is not a nation-state that was put together single handedly by an astute worrier named Emperor Minilik II. Instead it is a country that was born out of the dynamics of local, regional and international political forces of the time. Those interactive forces created the conditions by which the various local forces arranged to self-organize themselves and form the nation-state. Those interactive forces and the people behand them were necessary for the emergence of the Ethiopia we know. Minilik II was not necessary for the emergence of Ethiopia. His role could have been played by any another individual of the time.

We also noticed that brutality is a universal nature of nation-states. That is, the brutal nature of nation-state is not unique attributes of the then Ethiopian socio-economic conditions. It is universal social phenomena in human history. The inhumane killings and the plunder of property during nation-state formation process should be condemned. But we should not let it build barrier between people which prevent them build their common bright future.

The Ethiopian rulers of the past 125 years left us not only economically underdeveloped, but also with poor education and dormant culture. In all those decades, all of the Ethiopian cultures and languages are left stagnant and underdeveloped. This is true about the Amharic language that all the rulers of the past and present used as the instrument for tyranny and economic backwardness. But to these days, most Amharas, cannot read and write in their own language. This is just to point out that whatever the rulers did, they did it only to help themselves rule Ethiopian people but not to enlighten them.

That said, even in the hardest of times, the multicultural and multilingual Ethiopians tolerated and harmonized with each other much better than some monocultural nation-states. At various times in their history, even when they are under the repressive regimes, Ethiopians have shown that they do their best when they are together. No doubt, if Ethiopians had progressive leaders who championed democracy and technology to bring good governance, economic development, and proceed with cultural advancement of all nationalities, they would have been far better integrated than they are now. But that did not happen. Obviously, that is the task left for this and the future generation of Ethiopians. No doubt, they will do much better than their rulers!!

All we need to do is what Socrates advised us to do that is to focus on building the new!

1, Ridley Matt. the evolution of everything, 2015, HarperCollins, New York

2.Marcus, Harold. A history of Ethiopia,1994, university of California press, Los Angelis

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