The Atse v. Gadaa Tradition: Contradictory Governing Principles in Ethiopian Politics
By Professor Guluma Gemeda*
Current widespread protests, particularly in Oromia, and lately in Amhara and other regions, have highlighted the weaknesses of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) regime. Opposition groups are predicting possible collapse of the regime in the near future. Even some former members and supporters of the EPRDF are waking up to the possibility of regime change, and have started criticizing it for its excesses. Joining the opposition, some are now calling for reform and more inclusive political process. But they also argue that the current constitution, drafted and implemented by the EPRDF and its supporters, should remain the basis of political discussion on the future of the country.
Welcoming such proposal, other Ethiopianists believe at least some parts of the constitution, specifically article 39 which allows decentralization and ethnic-based autonomy, had to be removed before accepting it as a basis for discussion on future political arrangements. For all Ethiopianist opponents of the ERDF regime, the territorial integrity and the national unity of Ethiopia is sacrosanct that they would not accept any loophole that may infringe upon this principle. For them, session is anathema. On the other hand, ethnonationalist groups such the Oromo, Sidama and Ogaden liberation fronts may not even consider any political discussion that forecloses the option of session. Given the autocratic nature of Ethiopian political culture, even some parties representing historically oppressed ethnic groups but favoring a genuine multiethnic federal state could be uncomfortable or unable to accept a unitary state agenda as a precondition for discussion on the future of Ethiopia. Thus, due to the complex historical circumstances and contemporary political experiences, any discussion on the future of Ethiopia is fraught with thorny issues.
Why are Ethiopian political groups so divided? Why is it forming alliances against the incumbent regime so difficult for opposition political parties? What does each group want to achieve and how? What are the common goals around which political leaders can form alliances? To answer these questions, it is necessary to examine the underlying problems that complicate any discussion on Ethiopian politics. To begin with, modern Ethiopia, as it is constituted today, exhibits contradictory political traditions and governing principles. The contradictory approaches to politics and the aspirations of the peoples make it difficult to design a common agenda for the future of the country without recognizing and reconciling the historical differences and the contradictory governing principles. I call these traditions the atse and gadaa governing principles. The first is fully recognized and considered to be the official political tradition of the Ethiopian state. The second, although well known, has been ignored; and until recently, even suppressed. The dominant Ethiopian atse culture has rendered the gadaa tradition as illegitimate to be of any use as a governing philosophy. The first two Ethiopian constitutions (1931, revised 1955) were anchored on monarchical mythology and the monarchy as central political institution. They re-enforced and codified the power of the king and his royal family more than defending the rights of the ordinary people. The third constitution (1987) relied and based on
borrowed socialist principles while the internal history and political cultures of the society were given little attention. The fourth constitution (1995) instituted ethnic federalism but neglected the rich indigenous law making traditions in the country. For example, the gadaa system which could have provided ample resources in drafting the constitution was totally ignored. The document made no reference to this indigenous concept of law and governance. But the lawyers who drafted the constitution sought the advice of expatriate experts and consulted foreign constitutional models.
It is apparent that past or present Ethiopian leaders have not fully abandoned the mentality and practice of the atse political culture. Although the Ethiopian monarchy has been dissolved as of 1975, many Ethiopians still entertain special affinity to the historical image of what the institution represented. The effigies of modern Ethiopian emperors—Tewodros, Yohannes IV, Menilek II, and Haile Selassie—are still held high at homes and apparently in the hearts of many Ethiopianists. Those in the diaspora in particular are deeply attached to these anachronistic images; and their adorations of these kings sometimes parallels the Ras Tafarian religious view of Emperor Haile Selassie. Still, they nostalgically hold on to the myth of the ‘Solomonic Dynasty’ and decorate their homes with the old Ethiopian flag with the Lion of Judah, and paintings depicting the mythical stories of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. They still attempt to project the Orthodox Church as an official church of Ethiopia (not as historically significant church in Ethiopia); they insistent that all Ethiopian languages should be written in Geez (Ethiopic) alphabet, and that Amharic should not only be the working language but the official language of Ethiopia. As one writer recently said “Amharic, and in the future Geez, should not only be national languages but also be developed as (languages of) instruction for science and philosophy” in Ethiopia (Fekadu Bekele, Ethiomedia, August 10, 2016). No doubt, these Ethiopianists are committed to the unity and territorial integrity of the country, which is understandable, but their failure to embrace diversity hinders any meaningful conversation with those coming from outside the core Abyssinian atse tradition and undermines the cause they indefatigably defend. For this reason, political integration has remained very difficult and resistance to the ruling regime became inevitable every generation in Ethiopian history.
The problem, however, is not only personal belief and sentimental attachment to some historical relics. Of course, many Abyssinians denounced the monarchy and joined the revolutionary camp in the 1970s either as supporters or opponents of the Derg regime. The TPLF leaders participated in the destruction of the monarchy and spearheaded the struggle for the downfall of the Derg. But despite the radical changes introduced by the Derg and the EPRDF regimes, and the different ruling ideologies of the last three Ethiopian rulers—monarchical, socialist and ‘federal democracy,’—the Abyssinian political culture has changed very little. Ethiopian intellectuals and politicians are still committed to the atse cultural tradition. This is probably because neither the Ethiopian state nor the Orthodox Church and the Abyssinian society in general had experienced any fundamental transformation from the atse tradition to modernity. Ethiopia entered the modern era without undergoing any transformation such as the Reformation and the Enlightenment that Western societies passed through as they built modern political institutions. Instead, without any fundamental and organic changes, Ethiopia remained suspicious of Western culture but selectively adapted some ideas and technologies to build a modern state system. In the nineteenth century, Ethiopian leaders were particularly eager to receive the tools and technologies of violence that suited their interests rather than democratic ideas that facilitated political dialogue and peaceful transition of power. Since the mid-nineteenth century, Abyssinian leaders imported Western firearms that facilitated their territorial expansion and consolidation.
Thus, due to lack of genuine political reform and societal transformation as opposed violent regime changes, the atse political culture remained unchanged. This political culture is characterized by autocratic practices, idolization of an individual leader (the atse, in earlier times), secrecy and conspiracies, court intrigues and betrayals, violence, humiliation and physical elimination of political opponents. Until the 1931 constitution under Emperor Haile Selassie (r. 1930-36, 1941-74), Ethiopian ruling dynasties never had written rules for an orderly transfer of power. The Kibre Negast, a document written in the fourteenth century, excludes from the throne only those who did not share the ‘Solomonic’ blood in their veins. Thus, succession and transfer of power always involved tensions and often bloody crises.
The atse or the ruling group in power sought safety by locking up or exiling all political rivals for life. The most celebrated periods in Ethiopian history were characterized by notorious royal prisons. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Amba Gishen served as a concentration camp of princes and all male relatives of the ruling monarchs. Similarly, during the Gondar period from the mid-seventeenth to the late eighteenth century, Wehni served as royal prison. It also became synonymous with modern Amharic term for prison. Now Ma’akalawi, the current equally notorious prison and torture house for the opponents of the Derg and EPRDF regimes, is serving the same purpose. In the past, kings coopted the clergy of the Orthodox Church who threatened the peasants and the whole Christian population with excommunication and expulsion from the Church if they disobeyed the monarch. In return, the clergy received generous land grants and free labor of the Christian peasantry. Now, the security forces and ruling party operatives accomplish the same job of coercion, locking up and terrorization of the citizenry. Earlier, the atse was portrayed as representative of God on earth. His (rarely her) person was sacred, his words were laws, and his judgements were final. Of course, he was also portrayed as a father figure and occasionally showed calculated sense of justice and generosity. When a vanquished leader submitted to the atse he carried piece of stone on his head and begged for mercy. The king occasionally commuted his sentence of death to life imprisonment to show his magnanimity. Emperor Haile Selassie used this tactic several times. The idea of dignity of a person and fair treatment of ‘worthy opponents’ did not yet enter into the Ethiopian political lexicon.
Under the atse political culture the leader is worshiped; although a human being, he is allowed to do anything he wished. This practice survived even after the monarchy ended. In this context, it is easy to understand why and how the Derg leader, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, emerged as a very powerful man, knowing everything and capable of doing anything, within a very short time. At the beginning of the revolution he was just one of those middle ranking officers, but he quickly emerged out of the collective leadership as a brutal and decisive leader. Then, all his colleagues obeyed his orders without any question while a few who dared to challenge him were eliminated mercilessly. Similarly, his successor Prime Minister Meles Zenawi became undisputable leader of the EPRDF and the country shortly after he occupied Menilek’s palace. His subordinates looked up to him for his ‘vision’ to lead them and the country out of poverty. Four years after his death, loyalists are still committed to his vision. Both Mengistu and Meles acted as ‘uncrowned kings’ and received enormous power and reverence while they were in power. Both leaders gained such respect and loyalty only because the people are accustomed to the atse tradition according to which a leader is considered anointed by God and obeyed religiously. While in power, the ruler is ‘beloved’, all-knowing, and infallible. So the Amharic saying goes: ‘The sky cannot be cultivated and the king (atse) cannot be criticized or accused.’ The first two Ethiopian constitutions (1931, 1955) make this point crystal clear. They state: “By virtue of his imperial blood, as well as by the anointing which he has received, the person of the Emperor is sacred, his dignity is inviolable and his power indisputable.”
Thus, as the cases of the last three rulers—Haile Selassie, Mengistu and Meles—show, even when the constitution guarantees personal rights, in practice, the power of the king is unbounded. Instead, their words were laws onto themselves. In the case of Meles and the EPRDF regime, the façade of autonomy and ethnic federalism in the constitution are tricks to deceive the public and the international community. Despite a lip service to modernity and modern democratic governance, the EPRDF leaders—the Tigrayan People Liberation Front (TPLF) in particular— practice undemocratic political culture in the best atse tradition. For this reason, it is irrelevant whether the constitution as whole, or some parts of it, is accepted as precondition for a discussion on the future of Ethiopia. Unless the autocratic political culture changes, it is futile to put too much confidence in a constitution in the Ethiopian context. When there is no culture of democracy and no commitment to implement the document, it is difficult to expect anything better.
Yet, nor is it all the fault of political elite and rulers. If the constitutional contract has to be respected and the rights enshrined in it are to be enjoyed, the governed should boldly demand from the leaders that they abide by it and implement it faithfully. If they do not, the citizens should be prepared to make the necessary sacrifices needed to defend the constitutional contract. But the dilemma is, under the atse tradition, rulers are not supposed to be questioned, criticized or accused. That is how the Derg manipulated the land proclamation and dispossessed the farmers who thought they had earned the right to the ownership of the land they cultivated at the beginning revolution.
The 1995 EPRDF constitution was drafted by legal experts who consulted modern constitutions and legal experts. It incorporated ideas from previous Ethiopian constitutions. As a legal document, the constitution is reasonably well written. It is, however, defective on several grounds. It was written primarily for external consumption, to give the regime a democratic image and an aura of modernity. But the spirit of the law was not meant to be implemented because the leaders who sponsored it lacked neither the commitment nor the tradition to do so. For this reason, basic democratic freedoms enshrined in the constitution were routinely violated. The crucial article on land ownership was written in an ambiguous language to allow the government to manipulate it, as revealed in subsequent practice. Farmers were once again cheated. Although the constitution is the supreme law of the land, several other laws, enacted after the constitution was approved, gradually eroded its effectiveness and made it hollow. Then, what is the value of a constitution if the atse (the ruling group) is regarded above the law? To be a stable progressive modern state, Ethiopia should get rid of its atse political culture. In the final analysis, the root problem of Ethiopia’s political crises is the failure of its leaders to shed their atse ruling mentality and recognize that it is unfit to usher in modern democratic governance for the country. If Ethiopia had followed a genuine democratic path that incorporates alternative indigenous governing models such as the gadaa system, there would have been greater national integration and less ethnic groups yearning to get out of the empire now. Although, Western democratic model is always available to borrow, Ethiopian leaders could have adopted an alternative governing tradition—the gadaa system—long time ago and probably may have saved the country from its current impasse.
Besides the Oromo, the gadaa democratic system was widely practiced by several communities such as the Sidama, Burji, and Konso in the Horn of Africa before they were annexed by the Abyssinian state in the late nineteenth century. Gadaa is a democratic system which evolved over several centuries among the Oromo and their neighbors. In an open public forum, the Oromo gadaa system involved all members of the society in decision making process. From birth to death, all male members were organized into ten gadaa grades. At each stage, the grades were assigned specific tasks appropriate to their age level, including warfare, governing and advising roles. Leadership was both collective and individual. Talented and tested individuals assumed positions of leadership, such as war leader (abbaa duula), leader of the gadaa assembly (abbaa gadaa) and advisors (haayyuu), very eight years. Collectively, each grade assumed leadership responsibility when its turn came. Transfers of power took place regularly and peacefully every eight years because the system was backed by rituals and religious practices presided over by the qaalluu (the high priest) and the abba muudaa (the anointer) and respected by all people.
Gadaa democracy was an open and participatory system. Governing laws were enacted through transparent and exhaustive processes. No disagreement was left to fester until it reached a crisis level. There was no physical coercion of dissenters because differences were settled through persuasion and consensus building discussions. The governing laws included the protection of all members of the society—men, women and children—and nature, including domestic and wild animals and plants. Of course, as all institutions of human societies, gadaa was not perfect. But it had mechanisms for reform and improvement. Such mechanisms allowed it to survive and flourish for centuries. It only started to decline in some parts of Oromia since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a result of some internal and external factors. Finally. it was totally suppressed when Oromo territories were annexed by the Abyssinian state in the late nineteenth century. In Borana and Gujii areas, however, it survived the challenges of the Ethiopian empire and continued to this day. Even with the current EPRDF coercion, the gadaa system has shown remarkable resilience; and it is swinging back to life. Oromo elders are trying their best to reconstruct this tradition and make it usable for Oromo democratic governance. But could it function well as a governing principle within the Ethiopian system dominated by the atse culture? Are Abyssinian political leaders willing to accommodate an indigenous democratic institution which is antithetical to the atse tradition? Or are the Oromo willing to sacrifice the gadaa system for the sake of Ethiopian unity? Ultimately, Ethiopian politicians must make a decision. They have the option of living in the past with the autocratic atse tradition while claiming to be federalist democrats. But the country can’t be transformed into a modern democratic society while being led by politicians who pretend to adhere to democratic principles while practicing autocracy.
To get to a democratic path, the mentality, the governance practices and political structures that sustain the atse culture should be totally revamped and replaced by open consensual democratic institutions. However, the mentality is so entrenched and the idea of integration seriously damaged, the chances of keeping the empire together is slipping away every day. On the other hand, Oromo political leaders have a hard choice to make as well. They can either continue to beg, cajole, and pressure Ethiopianist politicians hoping that they would change their behavior, reform and adopt a genuine democracy to save Ethiopia from disintegration, which may not happen at all, or they can boldly go forward with a project of rebuilding a democratic Oromia based on its rich gadaa traditions. At any rate, there is not much time left for all to ponder endlessly.
*Guluma Gemed is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Michigan-Flint. He can be reached at email@example.com