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Social Justice in Ethiopia

Social Justice in Ethiopia                                                               

Assefa A. Lemu 6-19-19 of the political tactics to mobilize supporters is to coin or select new political terminology/terminologies or slogan(s) and rally supporters around that terminologies or slogans. For example, Medemeris the recent political terminology/slogan in Ethiopia around which Prime Minister Dr. Abiy wants to rally his supporters. These terminologies/slogans sometimes used as distinguishing factors. For example enashenifalen, wezader, teramaj were the terminologies that distinguish MEISON and enachenifalen,labader, abiyotegna were the terminologies that distinguish EPRP.  More and more jargons are coming into Ethiopian politics either to condemn others’ ideas or promote one’s idea. Nowadays,  we repeatedly hear the Amharic terms zeregna (racist) to disapprove others’ ideas and yezeginetpolitika (citizen politics) and mahiberawi fitih (social justice) to promote one’s idea. The term zeregna is not new because it has been in use in Ethiopian politics for decades even though there is no consensus on who is zeregna and what constitute zeregninet(racism). Some even question the existence of racism in Ethiopia as all peoples in Ethiopia belong to one black race. The relatively new terminologies introduced to Ethiopian politics are yezeginet politika and mahiberawi fitih. In one of my previous articles titled “Ethnic Politics vs. Citizenship Politics in Ethiopia” ( ), I discussed citizenship politics. In this article, I will discuss social justice.

What is Social Justice?

According to the National Pro Bono Resource Centre of Australia, social justice is “about fairness” (  ). Social justice is based on the concept that all individuals in a given society deserve fair and equitable access to resources and opportunities. This fair access to resources and opportunities may lead to equitable treatment, fair allocation of common community resources, and to fair relations between the individual and the society and to just distribution of wealth. In short, social justice can be considered as equality or equal opportunity in the society. For Plato, “Justice means minding one’s own business and not meddling with other men’s concerns”.

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For those who have grown up within the egalitarian societies like Oromo and for those who lived in the socialist system or read socialist theories in which the slogan of "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" is popular, the concept of social justice is not new.  In fact the problem of social justice is not with its meaning but with its implementation, with setting the right balance between the responsibilities of a society and the responsibilities of individuals to contribute to a just society as well as identifying where the optimum balance between the responsibilities of the society and individuals lies.


History of Social Justice in Ethiopia

For some nations, nationalities, and communities in Ethiopia, social justice is an integral part of their cultures and values. Members of their community are treated fairly and equally and given access to resources and opportunities. For example, until the practice of feudalism was introduced to Oromo community, every member of the Oromo community had equal access to land and other natural resources and fair access to participate inGada system regardless of age and gender. They also have social safety nets such as hirpha, gumata, and birmanna through which they help the needy or unlucky individuals and distribute wealth. There are also other communities who have such kinds of mechanisms to maintain social justice in their community.

However, at the level of country-wide, the idea of social justice was institutionalized in the 1970s as the result of the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974.  As stated in the preamble of the 1987 constitution of the PDRE, the objective of the socialist Government of Ethiopia (Derg) was “to construct the new society in which justice, equality, and prosperity reign” and to bring rapid social progress. In fact, various actions were taken to achieve this objective including “Development through cooperation, campaign for literacy and work”, the “National Literacy Campaign”, the nationalization of rural lands, the nationalization of urban land and extra urban houses, villagization, resettlement and expansion of education and health services opportunities. The objective of resettlement which was later considered as one of the crimes of Derg was part of the plan to institutionalize social justice in Ethiopia. Article 10(3) of the constitution of PDRE says “The state shall encourage the scattered rural population to form consolidated communities in order to free rural life from backwardness and to enable the people to attain a better life”.

EPRDF also upheld the principle of social justice and preached a lot to show that Ethiopia is a place where everyone is free to achieve everything he or she is capable of doing and took some actions including affirmative actions to create an even playing field. These principles are enshrined in the constitution of FDRE under Article 41 (Economic, Social and Cultural Rights), Article 89 (Economic Objectives), and Article 90 (Social Objectives). The constitution also declares that all Ethiopians have equal access to publicly funded social services including public health and education, clean water, housing, food and social security, and equal opportunities to improve their economic condition and to equitable distribution of wealth. Furthermore, the rights of the people to self-rule at all levels have been enshrined in the constitution of FDRE. Even though much needs to be done, gender equality and the right of persons with disabilities also promoted and got legal protection. 

In short, the rhetoric and legal frameworks related to social justice have been there for about half a century, but the issue is with its practical implementation.  Therefore, it would be better to be cautious not to be misled by the bombast of bringing social justice for Ethiopian peoples.

The Need for Social Justice in Ethiopia

The idea of social justice is anchored in the principle of treating everyone equally and fairly and giving each his/her due. Inequality must be eliminated not only among individuals, but also among the group of peoples. Individual rights and group rights must be kept in balance. If an individual is considered as the center of every right, certain social groups such as disabled persons, women, minorities or other weaker section of the society will be left without protection and exposed to injustice and exploitations. Therefore, a political system which keeps the balance between individual rights and group rights and creates genuine equality, fairness, and respect among peoples is necessary.

 Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party (ECSJP) which was evolved from the Rainbow Ethiopia- Movement for Democracy and Social Justice, Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), and Ginbot 7 Movement for Justice, Freedom, and Democracy is now presenting itself as the advocator of social justice and citizen politics in Ethiopia. It is true, the peoples in Ethiopia need social justice in which all are treated equally and the participation in Ethiopian politics must be the business of Ethiopian citizens so that foreigners should not decide on the fate of Ethiopian citizens. The challenge is how this desired social justice could happen and how the participation of citizens in politics will be enhanced? Can a group which is working to destroy social identity and social fabrics bring social justice? What are the track records of individuals who now claim to be the advocates of social justice? Can a group that considers those who accepted their social identity (ethnicity) as “not Ethiopians enough” be the promoter of social justice for all Ethiopians?

Politics is a social activity through which people make rules under which they live. Etymologically, the word “politics” comes from the Greek word “polis” which means “city-state”. Politics is about the affairs of the “polis”, what concern the group. Politics take place within polity, not in solitary. Solitary individuals like Robinson Crusoe cannot engage in politics because neither conflict nor cooperation takes place in solitary environment.

Then, if politics is a social activity and done by group, why group politics is demonized in Ethiopia today? The answer is simple. The objective of that demonizing is to disband the existing groups and set up new group which they can control and use for their intended objective. Therefore, isolating individuals from their current organic groups and putting them in the artificial group which they can use is the preferred approach. The fuzzy and catchy terms such as “citizen politics” and “social justice” are baits to catch individuals and isolate them from their current groups and put them into another group. That is why they are denouncing group identity such as Somali, Afar, Sidama, Oromo, Tigraway ,etc and promoting new group identity such as “Addis Ababie”, or “Zega”. As the American Political Scientist Harold Lasswell said, politics is “the process of who gets what, when and how”. They are playing a game to defeat their opponents and emerge as winners to get what they want, i.e. political power that enable them get the rest of the power including economic and social powers. If we are misled and beaten by their tricks, it will be our fault and victimization will be our fate. As the famous Venezuelan military and political leader Simon Bolivar said “An ignorant people are the blind instrument of its own destruction”.


Some of the communities in Ethiopia implemented the principles of social justice for centuries, Derg implemented it for 17 years and EPRDF tried it for 28 years. The leader of AwuraAmba Community Mr. Zumra Nuru preached it for years. Then how the re-advertising of the social justice will bring different result this time? What will be the tangible social justice to be brought this time—privatizing the land so that few persons who have financial power can control it and make the unlucky ones serfs once again, banning Ethiopian languages with the exception of Amharic or limiting them to the informal businesses to have one dominant language by killing others, to divide ethnic groups by rivers, mountains, or gorges to cut their bondage and destroy their identity, to force them to leave their culture and values to be considered as “citizens” or what?

Yes, we do understand that Derg and EPRDF incrementally weakened the sentiment known as “Amhara privilege” where anything affiliated to Amhara culture is considered “Ethiopian” and accepted but the rest are considered as racists and secessionists, speaking Amharic is sign of civilization and speaking other languages is considered being narrow nationalist and backward.   We know there are groups who want to reverse what have been done in the past 45 years and sell to us reactionary ideas in different packages.  What is important is not the package, but what is in the package.  Therefore, un-wrapping the package and scrutinizing the idea in the package is important. If the Socialist State of Ethiopia which was based on the principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his work” was brought lots of injustice and sufferings and finally collapsed, what is the guarantee that the sugar-coated “social justice” of ECSJP could bring real social justice?

As the popular saying “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” warns us, we shouldn’t be victim of the same trick twice or thrice. The argument that claims citizenship politics and social justice are panacea for Ethiopia’s political, social, and economic problems is empty propaganda and bogus. Those who have been systematically discriminated, disadvantaged, and dispossessed over years and centuries could not get remedies from these empty words because the rhetoric of social justice for the last about half a century didn’t stop discrimination and prejudice on the basis of ethnic background. The existence of social justice requires full respect of individual and people’s fundamental freedoms and rights and it could not be achieved by denying group rights. 

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