The Clash of Cultures in Ethiopia
Assefa A. Lemu 7-21-19
Like me, you may be wondering why Ethiopia is going through cycles of conflicts and instabilities and why insecurity is always looming over the Ethiopian sky. You may be also wondering about what is the underlying problem that needs to be addressed to bring peace and stability to Ethiopia. In this article, I will briefly discuss one of the underlying problems-the clash of cultures. As Prof. Huntington put in his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order "The most important distinctions among peoples are [no longer] ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural "(1996: 21). This is a reality in Ethiopia.
Most of the political organizations in Ethiopia are established in line of the culture they claim to promote and defend, not along the ideology or political outlook. For example, the central focuses of Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) are Oromo culture and value, the central focuses of Amhara Democratic Party (ADP) and National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) are Amhara culture and values, the central focuses of Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Union of Tigrians for Democracy and Sovereignty (UTDS/Arena Tigray) are the culture and values of Tigraway, and so on. Even the political parties who claim that they didn’t organize themselves along cultural or ethnic lines have the hidden cultures and values they promote. For example, on the meeting held on July 4, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia (USA), when the leaders and senior advisor of Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party (ECSJP/ EZEMA) say 1) you can’t maintain the unity of Ethiopia and you can’t build democracy in Ethiopia without removing EPRDF, 2) State Governments (Regions) must be weakened and the Central Government must be stronger, and 3) States should not have their own media ( ), it is clear that whose culture and value ECSJP/EZEMA is promoting and defending. They are promoting Amhara political culture of centralized government and powerful government that can crush any opposition and a country that speaks one language and listens to one centrally controlled media that promotes one culture.
Ethiopia is a home for more than 80 ethnic groups who have their own languages and cultures. Since it is difficult to discuss all the 80 languages and cultures in this short article, I will focus only on three cultures which are expressed through three respective languages: Amharic, Afan Oromo, and Tigrigna. Amharic and Tigrigna are both Semitic and Amharas and Tigraway belong to the Habesha group. The difference between Tigraway and Amhara cultures is the matter of sub-cultures within a Habasha culture. Whereas, Afan Oromo belongs to Cushitic language group and Oromo do not belong to the Habesha culture group. Culture is beliefs and practices governing the life of a society; and language is the vehicle of culture throw which culture is expressed. In this article, for the sake of brevity, I will limit the discussion of clashes of cultures in Ethiopia only to clash between Habesha culture and Oromo culture. In addition, as culture is a broad term, I will focus only on cultures which are associated with politics (political cultures).
2. What is Culture?
According UNESCO, the commonly used definition of culture is the following: "culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, laws, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by a human as a member of society” (). According to UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity of November 2001, culture is at the heart of contemporary debates about identity, social cohesion, and the development of a knowledge-based economy. Article 1 of the declaration says “Culture takes diverse forms across time and space. This diversity is embodied in the uniqueness and plurality of the identities of the groups and societies making up humankind. As a source of exchange, innovation and creativity, cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature. In this sense, it is the common heritage of humanity and should be recognized and affirmed for the benefit of present and future generations”. A society should be transformed from cultural diversity to cultural pluralism that cannot be dissociated from a democratic framework and creates conducive environment to cultural exchanges and to the flourishing of creative capacities that sustain public life.
However, pro-monolithic culture politicians in Ethiopia argue that cultural pluralism and democracy are incompatible. Ethiopia has seen numbers of wars between the supporters of one culture and the supporters of cultural pluralism. The wars fought by TPLF, OLF, ONLF and the like with the central government of Ethiopia were examples of such wars. The main reason for the current political tensions in Ethiopia is also related to cultural issue-- maintaining cultural pluralism versus taking back the country to the period where only one Ethiopian culture is recognized.
3. Cultural Differences in Ethiopia
Ethiopia is a country of diversity. For years, ethnic diversity, cultural diversity, linguistic diversity, and religious diversity have been causes of tensions and conflicts. Up until 1974, non-Amhara identities had been suppressed in the name of Ethiopian unity and that suppression resulted in cultural domination, economic exploitation, and uneven representation in government offices. Because of that suppression of identity, Ethiopia before May 1991 is called the prison house of nations and nationalities. Since May 1991, cultural diversities have been recognized by law, but the tension still continues. This time the tensions and conflicts are happening not because of suppression of identities, but because of the right to express one’s identity which is different from others and clashes with other’s cultures. To understand these cultural differences and why they clash, let’s discuss few cultural differences below.
3.1 Culture of Social Organizations:
To show the difference of cultures of social organizations of Habesha, mainly represented by Amhara, and Cushitic represented by Oromo, I will briefly discuss Fanno and Qerro, the social organizations which are now popular in Ethiopia.
Fanno is an armed voluntary Amhara local militia or guerrilla. The historic slogan of Ethiopian Students of 1960s and early 1970s which says “ፋኖ ተሰማራ፤ ፋኖ ተሰማራ፤እንደ ሆ ቺ ሚኒ፤እንደ ቼ ጉቬራ (O Guerrilla, rise to arms! O Guerrilla, rise to arms! Follow the example of Ho Chi Minh! Follow the example of Che Guevara” explains the meaning of Fanno. It is a self–appointed armed force like vigilante.
On the contrary, Qerro is unarmed Oromo youth. The traditional meaning of Qerro refers to unmarried male Oromo youth. The equivalent name for unmarried female Oromo youth is Qarre. Once married, the Qerro enters the stage of Subbo (married man) and Qarre enters the stage of Qarree-bufatee or Nadhen (married woman). Both Qerro and Qarre show marriage and age status and have nothing to do with armament. Unlike the Amhara culture of Fanno, Yegobez Aleqa (war lord), or Shifta (bandit), almost all the armed fighting of Oromo used to be done within the framework of Gada system following the formal and established procedures.
The reason why Oromo protesters used crossed arms over their head to protest against EPRDF/TPLF led Ethiopian Government and Amhara protesters used guns is because of the differences of their cultures in showing protests and solving disagreements. Qerro intended to solve the problem peacefully and Fano intended to solve it with guns. The symbols used by Qerro and Fanno to express their protests also interpreted differently by the members of different cultures. Crossing bare hands over the head was interpreted by some Habeshas as cowardice and submission and carrying guns while protesting in the cities was interpreted as provocative action and calling for armed fighting by some Oromos. These differences of interpretations of symbols and gestures became the point of debates and arguments on social media. This shows that what leads to clash is not merely the difference of cultures, but also the interpretation of the symbols used to express culture. Similarly, the green grass Oromo carry during Irrecha celebration as a symbol of thanksgiving to God has different meaning for Oromo and Amhara and noticed creating debate among the two.
3.2 Culture of Conflict Resolution
Not only their culture of protest, but also the cultures of conflict resolution of Amhara and Oromo are different. Without going into the details of Amhara’s culture of Tikur Dem and Oromo’s culture of Guma, I will show this differences by using the recent cases of Brigadier General(B/G) Asaminew Tsigie vs. Dr. Ambachew Mekonnen of the Amhara State and Dawud Ibsa vs. Lemma Megersa of the Oromia state.
On June 22, 2019, we heard that the coup d’etat lead by B/G Asaminew Tsigie was staged and the President of the Amhara State Dr. Ambachew Mekonnen was killed in his office along with his two officials (Mr. Migbaru Kebede and Mr. Ezez Wasie) who were with him for the meeting. The alleged killer, B/G Asaminew, was the head of Amhara State’s Bureau for Peace and Security and member of the Central Committee of the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP). He was one of the top officials of the Amhara State Government and used to work for President Dr. Ambachew. However, he killed his boss and colleagues accusing them that they held the political opinion which is different from his ( ). B/G Asaminew had been working for Dr. Ambachew but he didn’t want to disclose his strong disagreement to the ideas of Dr. Ambachew and his colleagues and he didn’t want to sort out the problem through discussion or other peaceful means. He preferred to keep his disagreement and plan in secret until he killed them on June 22, 2019. This is in line with the Amhara culture of keeping information in secretes as much as possible until they take action on their opponent. That is why it is usually said “you can’t see when Amharas shoot, but you see when they kill”.
On the contrary Dawud Ibsa, the Chairman of OLF, and Lemma Megersa, who was the President of the State of Oromia and Deputy Chairman of ODP, sorted out their difference peacefully in January 2019. Mr. Dawud and Mr. Lemma do not belong to one party and one doesn’t work for the other. The armed forces of both leaders were fighting each other in the remote parts of Oromia. However, both agreed to follow Oromo culture of peaceful conflict resolution and agreed to cease hostility to each other.
The way the Tigrian sub-culture of Habesha resolve conflicts is also similar with that of Amhara culture. For example, when Oromo protested against the implementation of Addis Ababa Master Plan which was rolled out in 2014 and sparked protest throughout Oromia, rather than having discussion and negotiation with the protesters, TPLF officials wanted to crush the protests by the military force. In 2015, TPLF official and the then Advisor to Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn, Mr. Abay Tsehaye vowed to implement the plan by force and to crush anyone who tries to obstruct the implementation of the Master Plan. He said “The Addis Ababa Master Plan will be implemented. Anyone who tries to obstruct its implementation will be crushed (liki yigebal)”( ).
In addition, another TPLF official who was the Head of Government Communication Affairs Office (GCAO) Mr. Getachew Redda reflected the same position. In December 2015, speaking about Oromo Protests, Mr. Getachew said “Those who called the devils are not sure if they can control the devils they called. These devils can be put under control only by the forces of organized people and government. To use exactly his words which is in Amharic “Yihinin ganen lik masgebat yemichil yetederaje hizb ena mengist bicha naw. Enezih yeteru aganint keteruwachew tenkuway akim belay silehonu betederaje yehizb ena mengist haile bicha new lik yemigebut” (). Both Abay Tsehaye and Getachew Redda chose crushing by force (liki masgebat) to solve the problem. The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s sayings such as mengedun cherk yargilachew (good luck for those who want to fight EPRDF) and tat enkortalen (we will cut the fingers of those who oppose us) are all about provocation, not about compromise.
In short, Habesha and Oromo culture of conflict resolution are different and these differences sometimes lead to clashes. Getachew Reda was not wrong when he talked about the difference of Amhara and Oromo cultures/ ideologies and said in August 2016 that “ the two ideologies which are fire and hay and could be causes of huge blaze without addition of benzene shouldn’t have come out together to the public place” . He was referring to the difference of the two cultures/ideologies and the high possibility of clash between the two.
3.3 Culture of Taking and Transferring Political Power
As one of the U.S. Senior diplomats who served as U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia from 2010-2013, Ambassador Donald E. Booth, put it “ If you look at the history of Ethiopia, it’s a series of strong rulers at the center usually from the Amhara region but the highlands who managed to cobble together a kingdom or an empire and then may be when the ruler is a bit weaken or there is a weak successor, you have rebellion from the periphery or attack from the outside and it all collapses and then you need to wait for another strong leader to put Ethiopia back together again. This is a fundamental issue that I think Meles was grappling with. I was told there was many many late-night all night sessions he had with Huntington of Clash of Civilizations [The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order , published in 1996] discussing how do you structure the government of this country and what came out of it was ethnic federalism.
Now, I have had Ethiopians tell me what we should just have is a normal structure like the United State does and I say well how do you draw state boundaries, I mean those have already drawn by long history of ethnic groups so you know ethnic federalism is probably the least worst option in my mind for long- term stability in Ethiopia” (United States Institute of Peace. Jun 5, 2019).
In Habesha culture, there are two main ways of taking power—hereditary through linage of kingship or by force and revolt the way Kassa Hailu (later Emperor Tewodros II) took power. In addition, there is no limitation of term of office in Habesha culture. Once one is in power he will be in power until he dies or removed from power by another person. There is no culture of peaceful transfer of power. However, Oromo political culture is different. One can take power only through election and cannot be in power for more than eight years (one gada).
Abba Bahirey, one of those who wrote about Oromo of 16th century said “They [Oromo] have neither king nor master like other peoples [Amharas and Tigrians]; rather they obey a Luba [Abba Gada] for eight years. And after eight years another Luba is appointed, and the first is relieved. They do so at every period” (Haile 2002: 200). Each Luba leader [Abba Gada] take power representing his respective party and there are five Gada political parties who take power in turn. These parties are Melba, Mudanna, Kilole, Bifole, and Michille.
The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was fully aware that the political problem in Ethiopia emanates from cultural differences and the Western countries also acknowledge this fact and supported the current federal structure which accommodates different cultures as a solution to the problem. Today, most intellectuals agree that a federal structure which recognizes the self-administration of nations, nationalities, and peoples who have different cultures best suits the case of Ethiopia. The argument which says the current federal structure in Ethiopia was put in place to enable the minority Tigrians to rule Ethiopia through “divide and rule” tactic by keeping every ethnic group separate is a hoax mainly because of two facts: one, the current federal structure wasn’t instituted by Tigrians only. It was instituted with the censuses of the majority of ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Second, the majority of the people of Ethiopia still want to maintain this federal structure and there are more demands to exercise the rights of self-administration enshrine in the constitution. We didn’t see any group who wanted less power and requested to give away its statehood status to become a normal province. Rather, as Professor Medhanie Tadesse argued, they need more decentralized and looser federal system (
Culture is a reflection of beliefs, values, traditions, practices, and assumptions. Different communities and organizations may have different cultures. These differences may be reduced over time through development and communication, but will not disappear soon. Thus, the way forward is to recognize these differences and know how to live with it.
Even though people of different culture have different views on different issues and these differences in view may lead to difference in policy, these differences could be managed. The survival of one culture doesn’t necessarily require the elimination of other cultures. It is true that people who have similar culture easily come together and cooperate and those who have different culture move apart and compete. However, the existence of one culture and one language is not a guaranty for cooperation, harmony and peace. For example, Somalians who have common culture and common language have been suffering from lack of peace for about three decades. Therefore, rather than spending our time and energy on how to create one culture in Ethiopia and work to eliminate the culture we think competitor with ours, we must work on how to make different cultures live alongside peacefully and integrate when possible. In short, we need to embrace multiculturalism where different ways of life and identity are respected.
1. Huntington, Samuel P. 1993. "The Clash of Civilizations?". Foreign Affairs. Summer 1993, 72/3. http://www-personal.umich.edu/~satran/Ford%2006/Wk%204-1%20Clash%20of%20Civilizations%20Huntington.pdf
2. United States Institute of Peace. Jun 5, 2019. A Changing Ethiopia: Lessons from U.S. Diplomatic Engagement.
3. Haile, Getatchew. 2002. The Works of Abba Bahriy with Other Documents concerning the Oromo.
4. UNESCO. Cultural Diversity