Modern Ethiopian

Three terms that should be defined before proceeding: power, identity, and religion. Power must be defined not only as a standalone term but in context. For instance, there is a difference between political power and the power to change. Political power is defined as the power to exert influence and affect change in political systems. Power to change is the ability to exert control on one’s own person and cause a change in personal behavior or attitudes. Power is a much-discussed concept and as this thesis focuses on concepts of power and identity a brief discussion of the sociological approaches to power is called for. Michel Foucault’s work expanded discussions about power. He sees power as an organizing principle and indicates that culture should be studied with regard to its relationship to power. Power does not originate in large institutions, but rather power exists as “an infinitely complex network of ‘micro-powers’ that permeate every aspect of social life.” According to Foucault, power is exhibited in small acts, such as the power to make someone act in a certain way without exerting any particular force on them. Foucault discusses power as having a direct connection with knowledge, arguing that “power produces knowledge (and not simply by encouraging it because it serves power or by applying it because it is useful); power and knowledge directly imply one another;” So to have knowledge implies having power.

Power is also defined as the ability to cause or bring about change. This can be done by one’s own actions or by eliciting a specific response from someone else. French and Raven identified five categories of power, including legitimate power, referent power, expert power, information power, reward power, and coercive power. Reward power is defined as the power of the wielder to grant desired objects, position, or privileges on the recipient. In this thesis reward power is an effective description of the kind of power the Christian state exerted on the non-Christian population by allowing them to own land for instance for submission to the state. Coercive power is defined as the means and ability to inflict negative influences on those who refuse to submit to the requested norms. This power was also a part of the state’s response to the non-Christian population, for instance, the requirement that the non-Christians live in a slum away from the Christian population. These expressions of power provide a way to think of how power is exhibited.

Power can also be defined as the ability to exert control, the ability to exert authority, the ability to do or to act. Keith Dowding, in his definition of rational choice theory, argues that groups or individuals are “actors” who choose from a “choice set” a group of possible actions and outcomes. They evaluate the costs and make the decision to exercise power in the most rational manner to accomplish the goals they have in mind. Power, as discussed in relation to the Oromo in this thesis, is the power to control their own identity. It is the power to choose and then to take whatever action is necessary to see that choice come to fruition. The concept of power in this thesis is closely tied to considerations of identity.

Psychologist Erik Erikson provided some of the earliest work on identity. He focused on the formation of “ego identity” and “social or cultural identity” that was influenced by the ego’s role in society. Identity is defined as the condition of being oneself, the way in which one defines oneself. In much of the material written about Africa, there is a sense of African identity as being defined by who they are not. This is one element that is dispelled in these case studies.

The impact of colonialism on African identities is the subject of the much scholarly enterprise. In the globalized, modern environment identifying the locus of change in cultural expression is often problematic and contentious. Questions of whether the change is forced or whether it is preferred; how power was used from the outside, to effect change or how groups use the agency to gain power by manipulating cultural change for their own benefit, are strongly debated. Crawford Young proposes that the discussion of identity formation is informed by scholarship that suggests three important approaches. Studies produced after World War II focus on ‘instrumentalism’ or ‘primordialism’ and, in more recent scholarship’ ‘constructivism’ has been added. Instrumentalism suggests that “rational considerations as determined by the group inform group actions.”

Primordialism emphasizes the emotional content of identity formation and constructivism looks at identity formation as being the progression through which primordial or traditional features of identity have actually been created or ‘invented’ and manipulated in much more recent times in both Africa and elsewhere. Young provides a conceptual framework for discussing concepts of identity and cultural change in Ethiopian society. Combining the frameworks of instrumentalism, primordialism, and constructivism to provide context we can analyze the influences that impacted the Oromo in the choices they made about their cultural identity, and how this relates to their perceptions of the importance of power in their societies.  

Before the creation of the modern Ethiopian state, the larger portion of present-day Ethiopia (the eastern, western and the south) consisting of the Oromo people and other numerous national and ethnic minorities had led an independent existence as masters of their destiny and makers of their own history. The Northern half of the country and part of Eritrea had been under feudal anarchy since the mid of 18th century. Around mid of the 19th century, the geographical extension of present-day Ethiopian state was limited to Northern part of today’s Ethiopia, commonly known as Abyssinia. In contrast, the Oromo had developed their own cultural, religious and political institutions that shaped their history. In general, they had different worldviews. The independent existence of the Oromo people in general and the Borana, in particular, began eroding under the project of empire-building put into motion since the early 1850s.

The ambition of the Abyssinian (a common and historic name for Northern Ethiopian ruling ethnic groups inclusive of the Amhara and Tigre) to create Ethiopian empire was initiated by Tewodros (the then governor of Gojjam) around mid of 19th century. However, his unifying mission was stumbled for two reasons. First, the regional warlords who were enjoying autonomous fiefdoms did not prefer the ambition. Secondly, his ambition to produce firearms by forcing the missionaries (detention of missionaries) pitted him against the British which later ended his life. However, the political process that was set into the motion by the mid of 19th century as anti-thesis to the era of the princes (Zamana Masafint) was able to produce in a half a century a full-fledged empire-state.

From 1882 to 1886 Menelik, the ruler of the Amhara kingdom of Shewa attacked and finally overwhelmed the Arssi Oromo. Soon the Kaffa and Jimma were also brought under Menelik’s control. He eventually controlled all of the area now known as Ethiopia. As part of his effort to bring these areas under his power, he put Amhara/Tigre Christians in control. The new administrators imposed Amhara language, culture, and Christianity on the local populations as pointed out by Shehim. In cases such as this, there was no effort to incorporate the indigenous people and they were the targets of strong discrimination. Some of the Oromo tried to fit in by changing their names to Amharic names and by entering the service of the Crown as semi-formal officials called balabbats. Oromo culture during this time was considered by those in power to be inferior to Amharic culture and as a result, Oromo identity was also viewed as inferior. Over time the political structure changed and the Oromo were able to begin to reconstruct their collective identity and take pride in it.  

Was the Abyssinian conquest of the Oromo people and other national minorities constitutes the act of expansion or colonialism or national oppression? Obviously, labeling the conquest in different terms bear different effects. For instance, some native scholars and Oromo nationalists argue based on the historic severe oppression and unjust treatment of the people under the Abyssinian rule, that it is equivalent to internal colonialism and eventually calling for self-determination. On the other hand, others argue that the conquest was national oppression not colonization, per se. Merara Gudina contends that in Ethiopian context in spite of the use of force in the expansion of the empire and the severity of the oppression the various people of the south were subjected to, the relation between the conquerors and the conquered resembles more the relations among the various groups constituting Great Britain where the term national oppression appears more appropriate than reference to the relation between Great Britain and peoples of her overseas empire.

In 1894, the book title is written in Oromo, the name of which in English would be something like “The beginning of teaching; that is, a book of conversation for those who study the language of the Galla. To show the natives of Oromo countries the way to God; collected and printed (this book) by Awag Onesimos and Ganon Aster. It should be noted that the latter was not a book written to spread Christianity. It included war songs, songs dedicated to Waqa (the Oromo God), and other materials. Most of this material was written in Oromo and reflects Oromo culture. One of the songs focuses on the battle between the Oromo and the Amhara. Another song discusses the battle of Adawa. Although this work provides information about Oromo identity it does not address the formation of Oromo identity.

Identity is not formed by culture, but rather culture is an outgrowth of identity. The Oromo used the Gadaa system, their shared language, and elements of their traditional religion to maintain their identity in the Amharic state, which later became Ethiopia. Although religion as a belief system is very different from religion as a cultural system, the importance of the cultural expression of religious belief serves as a strong cohesive mechanism in the maintenance and expression of identity. Because of the dependence of this thesis on a clear understanding of identity, culture, and religion, this chapter focuses on these terms in relation to the Oromo. A significant portion of the material for this section will be taken from a text that was published in 1922 by Enrico Cerulli which focuses on Oromo folktales. This material provides insight into Oromo culture from an Oromo perspective.

One way to understand group identity is to look at the historical formation of that identity and to consider how it has changed over time in light of changing political, economic, and social circumstances. The group response to those circumstances must also be taken into account, including which cultural elements have remained fixed and which have been re-crafted. With the Oromo this is difficult, for most of their early history is described by outsiders rather than members of the Oromo community. The time period addressed in this article is from the 16th through the 19th century, for which written material is available that addresses concepts of Oromo identity. Prior to the 16th century, there is little or no mention of a collective Oromo identity, but linguistic differentiation suggests that one existed. Because of this, the issue of identity formation is even more problematic for the Oromo. An illustrative discussion of identity formation will provide context for conceptualizing how identities are formed.

Identity is both individual and group oriented. For the individual, it provides a sense of belonging to something larger. For the group, identity provides a rallying point for mutual support. Both of the preceding entries were individual expressions of identity, but both are also representative of Oromo group identity. The importance of individual identity cannot be overstated. People the world over are unique and self-creating. This is not to say that the individual creates their identity de novo and that their identities are independent of their social context. Instead, individual identity is defined by the way the individual interacts within a larger social context. The integration of their cultural heritage and the interaction with other cultural groups with which they come into contact is a defining aspect of individual identity and contributes much to its development. Individual identity is deliberative and self-directing. The cultural experience of the individual acts as a toolbox, providing various tools for the individual to choose from in forming their own personal identity. According to Appiah, “We make up selves from a toolkit of options made available by our culture and society.” Individuals make choices based on the available options.  

Often identity is expressed through material means, such as the wearing of certain types of clothing. One example of this is the Oromo custom of wrapping the peritoneum of a sacrifice around their necks. This sacrifice was made at the door of a slain enemy before the Oromo entered the enemy’s home. This wearing of the peritoneum was very significant for the Oromo and had a religious connotation. This was an external expression of Oromo identity that was often mentioned by travelers. It identified the wearer as not only a warrior, but also as a person who respected the religious traditions of the Oromo. Religion can be used to re-create one’s identity or to maintain an identity. In the early Ethiopian state, the forced conversion was used by the Christian state to acculturate those in the territories they were brought under their control. For instance, one aspect of this is that Menelik demanded that the wearing of the peritoneum be abandoned because it was un-Christian. To the Oromo who were Christian, this meant more than a religious display it was a part of the expression of their identity. By demanding that they stop wearing this, Menelik was asking them to deny their identity and to become “Amhara” not just Christian. Some Oromo are Muslims, some are Christians, some adhere to the Oromo religion, and still, others do not adhere to any specific religion. In the case of the Oromo, their religion was tied very closely to their cultural identity and even when they “converted” to Christianity or became Muslims they often maintained most of the elements of their religious system and created a syncretic form of Christianity which was unique to their cultural group.  

Nomenclature as it may be, one thing is undeniable though, that is the ruthless oppression and involuntary rule from external forces against the will of the majority population of Ethiopian people. Moreover, the mission of nation-building was bloody in which millions were left at the mercy of the conquistadors; the subjugated peoples’ land was forcefully taken away and the commanding generals allotted to themselves thousands of hectares (Merera 2011). Above all the imposition of a new type of political control in the newly conquered regions of Oromia including the Borana land was more enduring and it may be equated to national oppression.

After the creation of the multinational empire-state by the Shewan feudal principality, especially after the conquest and the effective occupation and incorporation of the South, South-west, and South-eastern areas, a classical system of feudal serfdom was established. An extensive process of land confiscation and the enserfment of the indigenous peasants took place. The religious, cultural and linguistic differences between the feudal conquistadors and the process of enserfment gave a still more brutal dimension; the aspect of national and religious oppression accentuated the more fundamental aspect of class oppression. (Addis Hiwot, 1975)

Personal identities which are often described as character traits, include features such as wit, charm, and intelligence, to name a few. Collective identities are sociological in nature they include aspects of “race” or “ethnicity.” For instance, the Oromo attempted to resist the Amharic state especially in relation to its effort to control Oromo land, but there was also a need to interact with and be accepted by the state hierarchy. This is true of the individual identity also. Individuals possess a separate identity, but within a social context, for the most part, they desire to be part of a collective identity as well as maintaining their individual identity. This need speaks to the tension between individual identity and social identity and to the tension between ethnic group identities within a multicultural state. This not only points out the tension between individual identity and social identity but also alludes to the discrete cultural identities embedded in a multicultural state, such as Ethiopia.

Identities may be expressed through cultural systems such as language, religion, etc., but the formation of the identities goes beyond these expressions. They are also most often formed in relation to social change or social stress. In order to create an identity, there needs to be an “other” for without an “other” there can be no “us.” According to Elizabeth MacGonagle “, the identities of a particular people exist “in a context of oppositions and relativities” as groups classify “others” during their own acts of self-identification.”  There is no need for an “us” and “them” unless it provides a benefit. In the case of the Oromo, the Christian Amharic state based acceptance on religious conversion. If the Oromo chose to be Christian they could benefit from state structures, they could own land, they could move freely; if they did not become Christians they were enemies of the state and were treated as such. The Oromo navigated these contentious identities and formed a strong group identity regardless of religious affiliation.

Often people like the Oromo that are historically defined by their resistance or their position as a warrior class are denied any other identity. A few brief examples of Oromo in situations other than war with the Amhara will provide a more balanced perspective on Oromo identity. This first example relates a story of a hunting celebration held by Tullu Abba Gifar at Gingo. He was a Muslim and a center for Islamic studies had been established on his lands. When these celebrations occurred, the Oromo minstrels would gather at his court to show off their songs and prose in this scholarly environment. On one occasion several songs were presented that discussed a challenge between Tallo Mahmud, a famous Muslim warrior, and elephant hunter and the Oromo governor of a province in the Jimma kingdom. Tallo boasted that he could kill an elephant with a sword and a prize of a horse named Sardo was to be presented if he succeeded. The governor agreed and here is a section of Tallo’s victory song, “O daughter of Gallo, the lion, seven times fall down [from the trees] and break yourself! Run! Come to me! . . . Sardo, the necklace of Tucco, the fine (horse) of Tute Danno, repose! There is the death of a man!”  Tallo won the wager and killed the elephant, but in the fray Sardo, his prize was killed. This provides a glimpse of the Oromo interacting with the Muslims. They were desirous of performing their songs and prose in a “scholarly” environment. This is in contrast to the “warrior” identity—it is an identity of scholars and performers. The Oromo produced songs and literature and history.

During the first half of the 20th century (1913-1941), three main historical events took place in the history of Ethiopian political development. The first one was the death of Menelik II in 1913 and question of succession to power. The event had threatened the process of centralization and the project of empire building. However, it did not last long. The second historic event was the coup d’etat of Lij Eyasu V’s government by Ras Tafari Mekonnen, later re-named, Haile Selassie I. The third event was the invasion and occupation of Ethiopia from 1931-1941 by the fascist regime of Italy. During this period, the Oromo, who were conquered by the Abyssinian rulers for five decades, had also experienced a European administration system for five years.

Some argue that the Italian colonial rule was far better than the Abyssinian administration for the Oromo people, especially in a relationship to land policy. Of course, the Italian colonial authority could have abolished the serfdom system. However as the period of Italian occupation was short and limited to Ethiopian towns, it is futile to generally conclude that the Italian rule was better or worse as compared to the unfolding Abyssinian rule. Thus, five or so decades of Abyssinian domination may not be comparable to five years of Italian occupation.

In the second half of the 20th century (1941-1974), the move to modernize Ethiopia and to strengthen the central authority had a special place. Post-independence Emperor Haile Selassie I (hereinafter the Emperor) had transformed the long history of the country’s regionalism to centralism (Merera 2011). By and large, nationalism and drive for unity were heightened. The regime and the Emperor took major steps to establish strong central authority and to minimize regional lords’ powers. To this effect, among others, the revision of the 1931 constitution in 1955 was to legitimize the central authority and reconstitution of the highest powers and functions of the emperor6 (Asefa Fiseha 2008). It eventually led to the demolition of the previously semi-autonomous regions such as Jimma, Wollega and eventually they had begun to be ruled by governors appointed by the Emperor.

Besides, the first move for the modernization of the Ethiopian legal system was initiated during the Emperor’s regime. Especially the establishment of Addis Ababa University (and later, the opening of the law faculty in 1963) laid a foundation for the legal transplantation from most advanced legal literature from western countries. The driving policy at the time was modernization. To the contrary customary laws and traditional institutions were considered by state authorities as an inefficient obstacle to progress. With this perception, the Emperor hired a Franco-Swiss team of comparative law specialists, which crafted a complete set of codes up to the latest standards of the late fifties. While these codes were arguably of an extremely high standard they were not matched with adequate capacity building or training at the local level. Following the development of substantive law codes, procedural laws subsequently imported wholesale from England, India and the US, with little regard to the coherence of the system as a whole.

Furthermore, the legal transplantation of alien laws was automatic; they were imported without giving a chance for the majority people of Ethiopia to decide on the long-lasting legal systems and legal institutions. During the time of wholesale legal transplantation process, the government was very paternalistic. That is, it was believed that adopting developed nations’ laws and institutions could transform the country to modernity and ultimately it would create civilized citizens. However, as most countries’ legal history experience indicates legislations need to be pragmatic to validly match the life standard of the people; it has to reflect the socio-economic development of the country; and of course, it should consider the customary laws of the people (Brietzke 1982). Thus relegating customary laws and traditional institutions of governance foreign legal institutions were introduced.8 As a result, where the historic codification process of most of the laws went astray; imitated legal institutions were also not fulfilling functionally.

In the last quarter of the 20th century (1974-1991, the Derg regime), a new political landscape was recorded in the history of the country. This period was congruent to the time of the Cold War where world nations were divided based on the rhetoric ideologies (the capitalism/west and communism/East). Ethiopia lined along the socialist ideology and could form a socialist state in the horn of Africa. Given the authoritarian nature of the regime and allegiance to the socialist ideology, the West was not comfortable with the regime as compared to the case of the Emperor’s regime. Despite this fact, the Dergue regime did introduce some positive changes to the country. Among other things, the 1975 land reform that ended feudalism and transferred the ownership of the land to the ordinary Ethiopians including the subjugated Oromo people could not be underestimated.

In 1987, after thirteen years of military rule, the nation officially became the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) (abolishing PMAC) under a new constitution providing for a civilian government. The structure and features of government bodies under the 1987 PDRE constitution can be summarized as follows: first and foremost, the constitution advanced the unitary form of government in which all ultimate state power was conferred on the National Assembly (Shengo) and it had Standing Council. Unlike the early Ethiopian written constitutions (the 1931 and 1955), it endorses a unicameral parliament. Hence the National Assembly was the single and robust legislative authority. In principle, it was acclaimed that State power is derived from the people, whose sovereignty is exercised through the National Assembly. Second, the constitution blends all executive powers in the hand of the president. The president was the Secretary-General of the sole political party (the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia), the executive president of the Republic, the Chairman of the National Assembly, and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Given the authoritarian (where a single political party alone was eligible) nature of the Dergue regime, there had been no option for transition to democracy except through the use of force. Consequently, after a long bloody civil war to end the military rule that the EPRDF could defeat the Dergue regime. In addition, among external factors that contributed to the downfall of the regime, the demise of the Cold War that divided the West and the East bloc, where the west tried to sponsor some of the African leaders for her own strategic and national interest and the east block also bail-out authoritarian regimes with socialist pretension including Col. Mengistu. Thence, the downfall of the Soviet Union necessitated a change to blow in Africa in general and in Ethiopia in particular in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Following the dawn fall of the Dergue regime, Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE) was established in 1991. Since 1991, a de facto and since 1995 a de jure, multicultural and multi-ethnic federal system was constitutionally declared. The adoption of ethnic federalism was in recognition of the urgent need for collective rights of the people and the political condition at the time. The adoption of the FDRE constitution has come with distinct nomenclature as well as the different structure of state as compared to previous regimes. For instance, the Dergue, as well as the Emperor’s regime, was unitary state—where one language and similar culture was sought to endure. Perhaps EPRDF considering the challenge of advancing a single and uniform policy towards multi-cultural and multi-ethnic groups like Ethiopia; diverse legal systems and institutions were adopted. The past regime’s approach of center prevailing over the peripheries in multi-cultural and deeply divided society did not host the entrenched differences among Ethiopian peoples. In addition, during the adoption of the 1995 constitution, there was a view that “secessionist sentiments would be weakened and self-confidence generated by the experience of self-rule would advance the goal of nation-building. Perhaps that is why ethnic federalism was sought as a means to address the quest of national oppression and ethnic minorities’ political and cultural rights.15 Thus, the federal form was adopted as an attempt to alleviate ethnic conflict among national minorities in Ethiopia.

The 1995 FDRE constitution establishes a parliamentary form of government. It also provides for bicameral/two-chamber federal houses, namely the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR) and the House of Federation (HoF). Where the HPR shall be elected directly by the People for a term of five years on the basis of universal suffrage; the members of the HoF are composed of representatives of ethnic groups and national minorities and that shall be elected by the State Councils. Moreover where the total number of seats in the HPR shall not exceed 550 (of these, national minorities shall have at least 20 seats); HoF’s total number of seats relies on the fact that each national minority shall be represented at least by one and it shall be represented by one additional representative for each one million of its population.

Ethnic federalism

Ethnic federalism is a type of federalism where a power is divided vertically between the central government (commonly known as federal government) and its constituents to form a federation. It is where states or constituents of a federation are divided into pieces based on their ethnic homogeneity, language, culture, psychological make-up, and common historical background. Based on these legal parameters, currently, Ethiopia embraces nine regional governments. Among member states of the FDRE the Oromia National Regional State (which embodies the largest ethnic group) is constitutionally recognized as an “autonomous” region.

It is worthy to note here that, the formation of a regional state did not only follow the pattern of the requirement of identity of a group alone. The typical example is the case of South Nation Nationalities and Peoples Regional State (SNNPRS). This regional state consists of almost fifty administratively identified ethnic groups. Except for SNNPRS, each regional state bears the name of the dominant ethnic group in the state regardless of the presence of minorities. Despite this fact, SNNPRS is considered as one regional state (killil). Had the requirement of ethnicity followed alone, Ethiopia would have had far more than nine regional states.

Nevertheless, the constitution does not limit the formation of local administration to nine regional states. In the long run, several ethnic groups may demand to become autonomous regional states. Any claimant ethnic group has to meet Article 47 sub-Article 3 of the constitution’s requirement (procedural and substantive) such as: a demand approval by two thirds by the State Council; when supported by the majority vote in the referendum and eventually becomes a member of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Therefore, the formation of regional states is unfinished business. However, the procedures set to be met are not simple. Hence, unless a demand gets a green signal from the center (federal government) to create a new separate regional government, the probability to have additional constituents is hardly possible.

Ethiopia’s ethnic-based federal structure has been criticized and fiercely debated around academic and political circles. One of the most notorious critics was that ethnic-based regionalism would lead to ethnic strife, the break-up of the country (Merera 1994; SerraHorguelin 1999). Most nationalists felt that ethnic federalism may also ignite ethnic conflicts among different ethnic groups and the system would defeat the principal existence of the country, i.e. unity.



When the Gadaa Democracy Rules in a Federal State


The Origins of the Oromo and Somali

The Gada system