The paradox for Ethiopia, the Land of Origins

Playing with the old power politics or reconciliation within the rule of law?

Ethiopia is now fittingly rebranded as the Land of Origins: a cultural-tourism designation that is well-intentioned to magnify its rightful position in the history of civilization, its diversified material and immaterial heritages, and the rich socio-cultural values it is endowed with.

Indeed, Ethiopia has offered many origins to the rest of the world ranging from Lucy or ‘Denqenash’ in the area of archeology to the recently recognized Gada System believed to be predating the modern conception of democracy. Also, the socio-cultural and religious conception of and commitment to the ideal of the rule of law, natural justice, tolerance, diversity and coexistence holds a central place in Ethiopian society.

Ethiopia’s place in the struggle against colonization, racial discrimination, apartheid, injustice and occupation both at the continental and global level has irrevocably been printed in the human history. It had been the source of inspiration, hope and pride for all independence and equality movements across the world and African continent. It had advocated, struggled and mobilized forces against racism and operation on behalf of the black people in South Africa using every available means including international judicial procedure before the International Court of Justice.

In Ethiopia, the country home to more than eighty ethno-linguistic nations, diversity has been celebrated as a natural endowment of beauty; inter-racial, cultural and religious marriage, solidarity and co-existence has been the lifestyle of its people, still persevering against rising challenges from radical and violent political views; social solidarity and good neighborliness are still playing critical roles in keeping its peoples together, in meeting the daily needs of its members and in defending the most vulnerable sometimes also filling-in the institutional failures of the formal security structures.

Paradoxically, it is sad to witness the country slowly succumbing into what it used to fight against at continental and international forum, barely struggling to stay on top of the course fitting to its history and civilization. In addition to green famine and political genocide (the so-called red terror), Ethiopia is being challenged by rising political radicalism, violence of dangerous proportions and, most worryingly, failures of formal state apparatus in defending the interest of its populations.

But why?

Elite politics has failed Ethiopia

Certainly, Ethiopia is not a cursed land that it has had to suffer from all forms of unfreedom over the course of its history. It is rather the failure of its elite political structure which utterly failed to abstract and nurture the rich values deeply rooted in the socio-cultural and religious systems and practices of its diversified and unified populations.

Ethiopia’s formal political culture has seldom reflected the heart and mind of its ordinary populations but rather crafted and exclusively dominated by the elite groups. It is particularly an exclusive political culture which has an apologetically hijacked and abused the peoples’ genuine quest for equal political participation in the nation building and equitable sharing of the dividends thereof.

No doubt, this elite driven political structure has been responsible for injecting, or at the very least creating a fertile breeding ground for, poisonous social practices as hatred, violence, intolerance and political operation and marginalization into its social fabrics.

These are alien socio-political evils coercively superimposed on the bulk of the society in a systematic and structured manner. In fact, it is possible to assert that had it not been for riches of socio-cultural and religious values deeply rooted in the mind and hearts of its ordinary people across the corner, the toxic political cultures would have withered away the country from the globe altogether.

In short, given all its history and natural ecological endowments, Ethiopia would have long been established as the capital of scientific research in such areas as history, civilization, archeology, anthropology, ecology, national pride and unity, hospitality, tourism, tolerance and solidarity. But its elite driven formal political culture has silently and vigorously been nurturing such alien socio-political evils as racism, radicalism, institutionalized discrimination and injustices, coercively pushing the society towards embracing these practices. This, in turn, is nothing but a typical expression of the culture of what could be referred to as the culture of power politics.

The essence of power politics

I would argue that by all its design and operation, Ethiopia’s long history of formal political structure has been fraught with a corrosive culture of power politics. Although, its scale of practice and systematization might vary, it is arguable that power politics has been the characteristic feature of Ethiopia’s formal political structure.

In essence, the system of power politics rarely concerns itself with such basic ideals as democracy, freedom, human rights, social justice and the rule of law. Whether it is by design or function, the grand goal of power politics is the creation and securing of access to power and wealth for the elite few. But in order to achieve this end, power politics must first seek to mobilize or trap certain individuals into the network of material interest and therewith maintain exclusive access to and control of power at all costs. As such, it is necessary for the system of power politics to nurture and capitalize on social fragmentation or civic disunity, mistrust, infiltration, plot, and conspiracy.

Because of all this, there is no good hope or future in power politics. There are already compelling reasons why this is the case in the history of political philosophy. Rousseau had rightly observed that power is essentially devoid of any moral considerations. The only thing that matters in the exercise of power is efficiency. Thus, it is only natural to assume that any system based on such conception of power risks relapsing into the kind of primitive state of nature narrated in the Hobbesian view. Although one might legitimately regard the author of the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes, as providing the substantive justification for current power politics, it is certainly Machiavelli who pushed Hobbes view of power politics to its logical, in fact, radically dangerous extreme.

Hobbes had observed the deep-seated evil nature engrained in man. This observation must have led him to imagine the state of nature as the state of an all-out war, that is, the state of war by every man against fellow man. He saw three basic antecedent reasons for the existence of this phenomenon in the state of nature. First, for him power fully resides in the hand of every man. Second, he considered man as possessing inherent egoistic personality such that he would see everything around him through his own selfish interest. Third, he saw man as extremely prudential creature with no regard to the relational interests of others except on limited prudential terms.

These three reasons make the exercise of power in the hands of a man in the state of nature a dangerous and destructive phenomenon. Against this, he had to suggest the formation of a commonwealth (civil society) with strong central sovereign power vested with the sole coercive executive power to rule over the entire human affairs. The sovereign would then use this coercive power to suppress the evil nature of man and therewith ensure order, peace and security for the common wealth. Hobbes endorses the view that power is not about morality but prudence. Nevertheless, it is hard to say that he had placed his ultimate trust in power politics than in the rule of law. Indeed, power plays an instrumental function but arguably the ultimate trust of the strong sovereign power for Hobbesian world vision remains to be the rule of law, not the reign of power politics.

Machiavelli had extremely radicalized the idea of amoral nature of political power. It is thus not an exaggeration to regard him as the father or principal architecture of power politics. For him, it is not just normal but a perfectly fitting approach for politics to employ any methods whatsoever in order to gain access to political power or maintain control of the same.

But power politics is an utterly failed and unfitting political system to organize a society. There is absolutely nothing to hope for any society under the system of power politics other than instability, conflict, destruction, fragmentation, operation, marginalization, exclusion and all forms of ‘unfreedom’. In particular, it is impossible for the system of power politics to deliver genuine peace, happiness, freedom and social justice for the bulk of the society.

The rule of law: an antithesis to power politics

Before elite driven power politics took a relative root in its formal political culture, the value of the rule of law used to be like the fear of God in the Ethiopian societies. As the late Ethiopian legal history scholar, Dr. Aberra Jembere documented, the saying ‘Be Hig Amlak’ (በሕግ አምላክ) could certainly attest this view. The same evidence could be found in the rich socio-cultural values as the Gada System.

Sadly, this does not seem to be the case in our current generation. Nowadays, law can hardly claim voluntary admiration and obedience from the heart and mind of the people. What used to be the trust of its civilization now seems to have been forcefully displaced and replaced by power politics. The current generation rarely looks into the power of law, for, if at all, there is only a thin and weak version of it. In other words, the culture and operation of power politics seems to have effectively replaced voluntary submission to the power of law with coercive power politics.

In power politics, it is necessary that the ideal of the rule of law be undone. The reason is pretty simple: the rule of law is the fundamental antithesis to the culture of power politics. In fact, it is its ardent enemy. That is why destroying the rule of law and institutions falls within the primary target of power politics. It is only the rule of law which sanctions the commitment to human rights, democratic rule, peace, stability and justice. Put differently, the rule of the law is the ultimate trust of the bulk of society, the individual and the most vulnerable. But the system of power politics is only for the network of few interest groups and hence as no interest in those fundamental values.

The hope: Rewinding and disciplining our political culture

I wholeheartedly believe that lack of genuine commitment to the values of the rule of law lies at the core of most of the recurring socio-political evils in our country. And yet, there is still no other genuine option for the hope of our good and lasting (sustainable) future but a swift return and an unwavering commitment to the value and authority of the rule of law.

So, if the society is to flourish in all aspects, as it ought to be, it must resolve to sincerely embrace the reformulated visions of the society promoted through thinkers like Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Pufendorf, John Locke and Thomas Paine. This reformulated humanistic vision has now been presented to us through a more nuanced practical ideals as human capability approaches advanced by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. And one may also add the vision of Medemer to this stock.

Few of the common threads running across these humanistic-based political values are attending to the values of human friendship (companionship, love), care (solidarity), social justice and welfare. This, in turn, requires us to, first and foremost, outrightly renounce and reject both the Hobbesian and Machiavelli power politics in its entirety and second to absolutely uphold the value of the rule of law.

In this regard, the rule of law essentially takes the formally expressed consent of the society as, to use Kelsen’s notion, the grundnorm or ultimate normative foundation of political legitimacy, institution building and decision-making. In other words, upholding the value of the rule of law means reaffirming and upholding the values of equal political participation, human rights and freedom, social justice and accountability. Within this framework, the function of the body politic or government is giving meaning to the promises of the rule of law: that is, maintaining peace and order, ensuring access to basic rights and opportunities and protecting the person, life and property of members of the society against all forms of standard threats and aggression.

Of course, this does not mean that society’s commitment to the rule of law will do away with socio-political conflicts. This would be a utopian dream. What it rather does is that it subjects all forms of political and other disagreements or discontents to discursive engagements, both formal and informal. It is normal for members of the society to have disagreements on fundamental political questions. It is, however, not only abnormal but unfitting to the history, socio-cultural and religious values of the Ethiopian society to try to find solutions to those disagreements via the practice of power politics.

Accordingly, it is a high time for Ethiopia’s entire formal political structure to take a step back and critically evaluate the road least taken. It is not only necessary but also urgent to discipline our political infrastructure through the value of the rule of law. It is indeed needless to say that in a society founded on the value of the rule of law, the state’s positive law system, that is, the laws and the institutions thereof, ought to adhere to an abstract ideal of law and law-systems. Even if it might fail to do so, it would pave a way to discursive engagement among its members as opposed to violence and fragmentation.

To this extent, it is perfectly allowed for us to negotiate reconciliation within the rule of law and in the spirit of all fairness. It is however neither allowed nor fitting for us to negotiate away the rule of law. There is perfectly nothing wrong with reckoning with our past. But it is absolutely paramount to give due primacy and urgency to our now and tomorrow. We may learn from our past but we should never be forced to be held hostage to it. This is what I would hope and envision as rightly fitting for the Land of Origin, Ethiopia.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Editor: William Davison.

Main photo: Hadar, Afar region, where ‘Lucy’ was unearthed.

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About the author

Getahun A. Mosissa

Getahun has a PhD in International Human Rights Law, is a former lecturer at Jimma University, and is now an assistant judge at the The Federal Supreme Court of Ethiopia.


  • How about patriarchy thrown into the mix? Power and patriarchy go together as has been shown in all societies and is manifest in some extreme ways which also shows up in many aspects of many Ethiopian communities. Perhaps one day the women of Ethiopia who seem to remain silent or (be silenced?) in all of this, can rise up and provide a vision of what tolerance, justice, respect of diversity and peaceful non hurtful dialogue could look like? especially drawing from their own traditions and faiths.

  • This essay is more like a meditation on politics and the rule of law using inspirations from the Age of Enlightenment in 18th century Europe. On the other hand, in the 1970’s Ethiopia had entered the Age of Revolution – a period of political awakening and the rise of ethno-nationalism. This led to ethnic federalism as a pragmatic response to the political dilemma and reality of the time. The intention was to stablize the country, and it did – federalism gave Ethiopia 27 years of stability. A recent public opinion survey reported in Addis Standard shows 61% of those surveyed support federalism.

    • 1. Guess who and why got the tribalists ruling the last 27 years in power? Who armed them? Who financed them? And why?
      2. Yes it’s full of NEW buildings and roads in Addis and big cities, but maybe question is if they stolen the future by debt to build them.
      3. Tribalism =/ federalism

      • Whatever your “preferred” word is to describe it, federalism is a political order formulated at that time to hold the nation together. Your economic criticism is questionable. Public debt, meaning government debt, is used to build roads to improve mobility and increase economic capacity for now and future generation. New buildings in Addis are most likely owned by private investors with loans from banks. In this case, it is a private debt, and so no burden of public debt on future generation as you seem to imply.

        • Even public debt kept rising for decades, and not just for productive endeavors. Yet even private debt is stealing from the future, since by extending a loan banks create money out of nothing (via fractional reserve), and that creates inflation, which steals from the purchasing power of everyone.
          Fiat money, or money out of nothing, or even worse, money as debt, are the worst plagues ever.

  • Even the law is very corruptible where it is autonomous from the government. Maybe Ethiopia has to hit the bottom before starting rising again. And by this I mean let those who want to secede and keep ethnic cleaning. Then maybe by tasting the resulting misery they might learn their lesson. Most of people needs to hit reality face on to learn their lesson.

    The basic lesson is that there is no a power good for its subjects, that less governing is better governing, that less laws are the best laws, and that prosperity comes only from the free will of individuals and free trade. Those who think that “it is their turn to eat” by tribalism are the first in line to get their lesson.

  • The origin of human beings and if you have wached the movie -History of the world- politics started here, the doctor
    Is right that power politics has arrived
    Here after centuries of human transformation. Don’t worry much, because personally I believe politics
    Is visceral.

  • The rule of law demands that “a political prisoner” that advocates violence, murder, displacement, inter and intra ethnic and religious hatred, wars, mayhem and destruction be held accountable. The rule of law supersedes any political group, any utopian dreams of political movements and collection of cadres. The rights of the Individual Ethiopian to live, travel, receive due process of the law and be represented in in participatory and democratic governance in any and all parts of the country MUST NOT be held hostage to the utopian and pipe dreams of any ethnic or political group. This bitter pill ? is one ethno-fanatics and extremists find hard to look at and shudder at the thought of swallowing it. But swallow, they will.

    Fifty years of chaos, mayhems, murder and mass displacement are the results of the politicization of every aspect of Ethiopian lives through the corrupted lens of the illiterate but semi- educated “political elites and cadres” in Ethiopia. It can be argued that the rule of law as practiced in the 1950s and 1960s was much more rooted in legal basis and belief and commitment to due process. Mengistu Neway, responsible for the massacre and extra judicial killings of 14 top ministers and the deaths of some 400 soldiers was represented in court, tried and convicted. Would the derg regime or the Melesse EPRDF regime or the current regime have done the same? The derg first executed 60 plus top ministers and officials of the Imperial regime, sang “yefeyel wotete”. Some people clapped. Then to the shock and horror of the clappers, they witnessed and experienced the massacre of tens of thousands by the derg. Corpses were thrown in the streets to shock and frighten. Mass emigration, famine followed. Members of the derg themselves were not spared, out of some 120 initial members over half perished, turning on one another. The public was told “Abiyot lijochaen tebelalech”. The Eritrean and Ethio Somali wars consumed another over 200,000-500,000 lives. The famine of the 1980s another estimated 1,000,000 (10 times worse than the famine a decade earlier”. The TPLF and its partners came, only for Ethiopians to end up up rooted, divided, exiled, murdered, imprisoned and tortured for decades. Ethiopians first observed their neighbors bussed out by the thousands and expelled to Eritrea, from the place they called home, where their children were born and raised. The war of 1998 ensued, close to 80,000 perished from both sides. Mass exploitation, human trafficking and millions of refugees all over the world keep happening.

    All these for what? So a few thousand political elites, opportunists and vultures can steal state properties, amass wealth without working and earning an honest living for one hour in their lives, feel good about their psychological diseases of inferiority complex and antisocial sickness. They told Ethiopians we know everything, it is Marxism-Leninism we need. We have read the communist manifesto, we are “scientific- socialists”. When everything collapsed, they turned around, no we are “ethnic-federalists” we can solve all the problems of the country just like that. No! No more! They are half-educated. They do not know what they are talking about. And it is time for every sensible Ethiopian, silently bowing his or her dead down to lift your heads up and call them out. You are AN INDIVIDUAL impostor, fraud, a charlatan, who has been hiding under the cloaks of group protection calling yourself a Marxist, a socialist, a communist, an ethnofederalist, an ethnolberator. Meanwhile you have been stealing, taking what does not belong to you, what you did not earn, you have been murdering, imprisoning, violating human rights and committing crimes against humanity. You will be tried as an individual, you will be held accountable as an individual, and sentenced as an individual for transgressing on the rights of the individual Ethiopian.

    • B/S is free, it comes at no cost and with no effort. Either Ethiopians learn about classic liberalism or they will be forever be slaves of ghosts, fantasies and inventions.

  • Good analysis.

    The elites who claim to understand political science could get some lessons from this article. Unfortunately, they would rather take the easy route and boil down every problem to how they like to see it. I.e. ethnic politics.

  • A setting judge on the bench is promoting the rule of law. Not bad thing
    at all except that there is hardly rule of law now in Ethiopia and it has never been that great for over century. Also, it wouldn’t necessarily change for the better any time soon. The good Judge should be talking about something he informed and he is in privy about this in his capacity : the imprisonment of the opposition leaders and the ongoing of other human rights abuses as we speak and how that squares off with his admiration for the ” Medemer” mantra. Otherwise, this whole rhetoric seems divorced from reality on the ground.

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