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The Clash of Cultures in Ethiopia

Assefa A. Lemu 7-21-19

1. Introduction

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 “ erro 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.
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