Thursday, February 22, 2024
CommentaryDecoding the enigma

Decoding the enigma

Exploring the root causes of recurrent conflicts in Ethiopian history

I am not a professional historian, but I have been immersed in Ethiopian history since I was 9 or 10 years old. Most of the literature on Ethiopian history focuses on the country’s wars. From the Ancient and Medieval periods to the modern era, civil war has been a defining feature of Ethiopian history, aside from conflicts with invaders such as the Egyptians, Italians, and Somalis.

According to numerous historians, modern Ethiopian history began in 1855 and continued until 1974, with the period after 1974 considered as contemporary history. Throughout these periods, starting from 1855 until now, the country has experienced numerous civil wars.

For instance, there was a war between Emperor Tewodros II and various nobilities, including the battles of Gur Amba (November 1852), Gorgora Bicshin (April 1853), Aysahl (June 1853), Gundet, and Gura (June 1875). The underlying purpose of the war was to restore and unify historic Ethiopia, while the apparent motive was to establish a sovereign king over the Ethiopian Empire in a greater Ethiopia. Consequently, it can be described as a power struggle.

On the other hand, Emperor Yohannes IV, who reigned from 1872 to 1889, dedicated his rule to defending the sovereignty and borders of the country. However, this doesn’t imply that there were no internal conflicts within the Empire’s political system. For instance, conflicts arose between King Menelik II of Shewa, who became Emperor of Ethiopia in 1896 and ruled the entire Empire until 1906, and Emperor Yohannes IV.

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The conflict between the two were resolved peacefully through the Liche agreement signed on March 20, 1878, preventing the escalation into a civil war. According to Bahru Zewdie (2016), the Liche agreement of 1878 involved Menelik II formally acknowledging Yohannes’s suzerainty in exchange for being recognized as the Negus or King of Shewa.

This agreement brought an end to the conflict between these two powerful houses. It serves as a valuable lesson and a milestone for current political leaders in the twenty-first century. How many of you are aware that Liche is located near the city of Debre Berahn?

The reign of Emperor Menelik II marked the completion of the process through which the new Ethiopian Empire was formed. While these periods may be subject to debate among ethnic historians and politicians, for me, this was the era in which the true Ethiopian state came into being.

Nevertheless, numerous wars occurred between the forces of Emperor Menelik II and regional kingdom rulers. Similarly, the period of Emperor Haile Selassie I (1930–1974) was characterized by internal power struggles, such as the failed coup d’état in the 1960s and the 1974 revolution.

The aforementioned conflicts were factional struggles within the core elite groups, consisting of proponents and opponents of the ruling power. In contrast, throughout modern Ethiopian history, the people have fought for their political rights, which were disregarded by the ruling elites.

The first Woyane rebellion in 1943, as well as rebellions in Bale (1963–1971) and Gojjam (1960–1968), the Ethiopian Students’ Movement, and the frequent strikes by urban residents after the 2005 election, serve as strong examples of how the people have long struggled for their freedom, liberty, and democracy.

This leads me to ask, are we Ethiopian warriors? Are we lovers of war? Or did the leaders have no opportunity or willingness to prevent war before it broke out?

These questions are not easily answered, as it is difficult to comprehend why Ethiopians have resorted to war strategies instead of resolving conflicts through dialogue or peaceful negotiations, thereby avoiding the loss of millions of lives and the destruction of properties worth billions of dollars.

From my perspective, there is a traditional saying about people: “the people do not make mistakes.” Therefore, I cannot conclude that Ethiopians are warmongers.

On the contrary, it is the Ethiopian leaders who are bellicose and power-hungry, which is why they failed to emulate what Emperor Yohannes IV and Menelik II achieved with the Liche agreement in Shewa. This is because, when one examines the root causes of the aforementioned wars, whether for power, maintaining their positions, or striving for independence, freedom, and democracy, it becomes apparent that the Ethiopian leaders bear the responsibility.

The aim of this article is not to recount Ethiopian history but to raise important questions. Why is Ethiopian history characterized by recurrent conflicts and wars?

The reason behind this lies in our failure to build a genuine and inclusive democratic political system. Despite having a rich history of state-building cultures spanning 3000 years, we have struggled to establish a democratic political system that is widely accepted.

There may be various reasons for this, stemming from both internal and external factors. However, in my perspective, the primary reason for our failure is the lack of committed, selfless, and visionary leadership dedicated to the principles of democracy.

Leadership entails formulating a vision for the future, developing rational strategies to achieve that vision, and enlisting the support of political actors. Politics is built upon a purposeful, interactive “leader-follower” relationship capable of causing change. In practice, however, we have witnessed a lack of sound policies for democratization, effective democratic institutions, and independent media.

Instead, we continue to witness power struggles, fights for freedom and liberty, without effectively resolving problems through wise dialogue.

To change the recurring conflicts and wars in our history, the only solution is to establish a genuine democratic culture and political system in the country. A democratic culture and recognized political system can address both power struggles and democratic aspirations. In a democratic system, ultimate power is derived from the people, and the sovereign power resides with them.

Democracy is not a mere luxury for Ethiopians; it is a matter of survival. The people of Ethiopia refuse to be ruled by authoritarian means or by a select group of individuals.

Extensive literature on governance consistently concludes that democracies outperform autocracies. As Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first president, stated in 1968, “Leadership cannot replace democracy”.

In conclusion, to resolve the conflicts that have plagued our country, the government should prioritize democratic means over the use of force as the sole option. For instance, in regions such as Amhara, Oromia, Tigray, and parts of the Southern regions, the people have legitimate political concerns related to human rights and democracy that require immediate attention and answers from both the Federal and Regional Governments. Deploying the National Defense Force alone cannot address these questions. Therefore, it is preferable to seek resolution through democratic means, fostering dialogue and inclusive decision-making processes.

 Endale Haile (PhD) is Ethiopia’s Chief Ombudsman.

Contributed by Endale Haile (PhD)

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Video from Enat Bank Youtube Channel.


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