National Flag Day conundrum

Wednesday October 21st 2015

By Zecharias Zelalem

Yesterday was the eighth Ethiopian National Flag day, an annual holiday where the sanctity of the flag is remembered by the descendants of so many patriots who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in defense of the honour of the glorious tricolor banner. Many of these patriots were veterans of Ethiopia’s ultimately victorious armed resistance to repeated Italian incursions of their territory. This struggle was deemed righteous by Africans across the continent themselves knee deep in anti colonial struggles of their own, to the point that these Africans chose to adopt different renditions of the same flag as their own upon the obtaining of independence from the genocidal European rule, source of endless African misery, past and present.

In Ethiopia, National Flag Day is normally commemorated with colourful celebrations at Addis Ababa stadium, where school children march in unison, clutching the flag singing songs of love and dedication for the motherland. Circus performers and other entertainers make it a scene worth watching, and dignitaries are present to read over rehearsed speeches calling on the generation of young Ethiopians to join the fight against poverty and ignorance. The national anthem is played, and everyone goes home until it’s done all over again the next year. Similar ceremonies are held in all the state capitals across the country.

Crowds gathered at Addis Ababa stadium in commemoration of Ethiopian National Flag Day (Photo: Diretube)
Crowds gathered at Addis Ababa stadium in commemoration of Ethiopian National Flag Day (Photo: Diretube)

For an outsider, the harmonious scenes would be evidence of an obviously very nationalistic people with a romantic love for the history and traditions passed on from generation to generation of hardworking patriotic Ethiopians ready to spill blood for the sake of national sovereignty. And there’s nothing wrong with that assumption; for the most part it is pretty accurate. With Ginbot 20 celebrations, Adwa War holiday, Patriots Day and others, Ethiopia is a country where the past exploits of generations of warriors is unlikely to ever be forgotten.

Ethiopian resistance fighters carrying giant Ethiopian flags, trek across the banks of the Omo river in Southern Ethiopia during the Second Italo Abyssinian war of 1935-1941 (Photo credit:  Ibiblio)
Ethiopian resistance fighters carrying giant Ethiopian flags, trek across the banks of the Omo river in Southern Ethiopia during the Second Italo Abyssinian war of 1935-1941 (Photo credit: Ibiblio)

The outsider’s depiction of Ethiopia’s National Flag day would be spot on if it wasn’t for the highly contentious and divisive issue of the flag itself.

The current Ethiopian national flag is adorned with a golden star upon a blue disc background in the center of the flag. This flag was officially adopted in 1996, with the new emblem said to be representative of Ethiopia’s ethnic diversity. Although this flag has now been flying atop state buildings, schools, churches and mosques across Ethiopia for nearly two decades now, there is a significant segment of the population who strongly reject the idea that this nearly twenty year old flag is representative of the Ethiopian nation, reducing it to nothing more than a logo representative of the oppressive regime and its dictatorial undemocratic practices. To these people, the current flag is an outright abomination to the Ethiopian identity.

Official flag of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia since 1996.
Official flag of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia since 1996.

Ethiopia’s social media news and entertainment outlets all featured posts mentioning Ethiopian National Flag Day in one way or another. The comment sections of these posts are very representative of the stand Ethiopians have on their national flag. The threads were filled by outspoken Ethiopians voicing their pleasure or displeasure with the current flag. It is evidence that unlike what the government might like to have you believe, there has been no real national debate, forum or discussion on this highly controversial topic. With no consensus, opinion polls or town hall meeting style gatherings done on the issue of the Ethiopian flag, it is impossible to declare that the Ethiopian flag question is a settled one. Perhaps with the culture of censorship and muzzling cultivated by a government notable for taking punitive measures against its own citizens (most notably journalists and critics who step out of line and criticize the government established norms), it may appear that there was an open consultation of the various peoples across the country before the newly established government passed the resolution adopting this flag as the one to be flying atop our skyscrapers. But this simply isn’t the case.

It’s virtually impossible to find an Ethiopian with no stance on the touchy issue of the country’s national flag. Everyone has a say, everyone has a flag hanging in their home which he or she declares is the only legitimate flag. There are three main Ethiopian national flags which people swear loyalty to, and dozens of other flags, representative of ethnic groups or regions that many others pledge their allegiance to. But for all these flags, we can classify the various views Ethiopians have for their flags into three main groups:

1.Right wing/traditionalists.
Ethiopians with right wing political leanings for the most part, abhor the national flag currently flying atop of the Ethiopian parliament. Out of a loathing for the current EPRDF leadership, flags bearing the star and blue disc on it are seen as symbols endorsing the regime and as such, are considered tools of oppression. These Ethiopians for the most part consider the plain green yellow and red flag as the only flag deserving of being worn by celebrating athletes at the Olympics and flown among the flags of other countries at the UN headquarters in New York. A smaller segment of them also espouse the displaying of the Ethiopian imperial flag. That is the one with the lion of Judah logo across it. Other than these two flags, any other Ethiopian flag is considered null among right wingers and those who argue otherwise are considered guilty of high treason.

The longest serving flag of Ethiopia is this one, the plain tricoloured flag.
The longest serving flag of Ethiopia is this one, the plain tricoloured flag.

2. Reform nationalists.
These are the Ethiopians who for the most part, either support the current government, or simply don’t adhere to the traditional right wing version of Ethiopian nationalism. These Ethiopians consider the imperial flag as a token of the monopolized Ethiopia of the feudal age. For the most part, these Ethiopians have no problem accepting the current flag as the one and only official one. Many are outright opposed to the idea of the right winger’s holy grail, the plain green, yellow and red being seen as nothing more than a relic of history.

3. Reform demanding left wingers.
This group of Ethiopians consists of people who due to the plight of their ethnic or linguistic kin, or communities, do not feel affiliated to the flag or even the nation at all. Due to a desire to overhaul the system or bring about much needed institutional and policy changes which would see the people of their ethnic or linguistic group included in national dialogue and seen as equals, they share little concern for what flag is flying over the national palace. Leftists are sometimes outright opposed to the idea of a flag. Seeing the green yellow red coloured flags as the colours of an empire, many have declared their loyalty to flags representative of their specific ethnic group or a resistance group fighting for their cause. Ethiopian National Flag day is meaningless to this third group of our countrymen.

Flag of the Oromia Liberation Front (OLF).
Flag of the Oromia Liberation Front (OLF).

These groups don’t include the millions of Ethiopians born during the rule of this current government, many who are too young to understand the connotations of the various flags and many who weren’t even born when Ethiopia adopted its current national flag. But nearly all the assertive flag bearers or flag burners can be placed into these three groups.

Indeed, the idea of a common flag uniting a country like Ethiopia is a dilemma, the most complex of labyrinths, one could say. Since Ethiopians have a near religious attachment to the flag of their choice, the idea of even creating a panel discussion to debate the flag’s future would be seen by many as completely compromising on their ideals or selling themselves short. Ethiopia’s former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was forever chastised for his declaring that the flag was a mere cloth, whatever context the late EPRDF strong man may have had in mind. With this in mind, one can understand how the sugarcoated ceremonies at Addis Ababa stadium, are hardly able to unite the 85 million people of extremely diverse opinions and political backings. The National Flag day celebrations are beautiful frilly curtains hiding a raging fire behind them. But what must we as Ethiopians do to prevent the curtains from being completely engulfed in flames?

Knowing that history has been kinder to some Ethiopians than others, we must simply abandon the archaic viewpoint that a certain flag has more legitimacy than another simply because it has been around longer. For many Ethiopians, history has been cruel to them. And by history, I am referring to the formation of our country. The bloody expansionist conquests led by imperial regimes of yesterday, saw unspeakable crimes being committed within eyeshot of this same green yellow and red flag. Despite the fact that the green yellow red flag long predates these expansions, for many the original green yellow and red flag remains a symbol of the horrific expansionist era.

Meanwhile, we can’t expect Ethiopians, the proud heirs of a millennia old history, culture and identity to forcibly comply with the ruling that a flag first spawned two decades ago is the one and only legitimate flag worthy of being carried into the international arena. After all, the plain green, yellow and red flag has its storied history of being the banner of Ethiopian excellence, with some of our greatest sons such as Abebe Bikila putting endless hours into their grueling training routines in a bid to watch from atop the podium as the plain tricolour flag is proudly hoisted into the heavens for the world to see. Regimes come and go, but the plain tricolour flag is free of the political tags long associated with it, despite people’s efforts. Because of this, it would be wrong to associate the flag with the abusive practices of generations of brutal murderous governments. This flag predates the “Ethiopia tikdem” slogan and the red terror it inspired. For generations of inspired, influenced admirers, one cannot simply tell them that this timeless artifact has reached its expiry date.

Regarding the third group, the leftists, if we as Ethiopians truly seek a democratic Ethiopia we should start for standing up for the virtues of democracy among ourselves. We cannot force a belief or a love of a particular flag or emblem upon anyone. Trying to do so would be repeating the mistakes of yesterday and pouring salt into the wounds of our own countrymen and women. The “we know what’s best for you” attitude has failed us miserably throughout history and for the sake of our battered compatriots we ought to completely give up this way of propagating Ethiopian nationalism and a flag’s importance. The reactionary backlash that most nationalist Ethiopians are known for when flags of ethnic groups or regional states are waved at protests or public gatherings, is totally counterproductive to the Ethiopian cause.

Flags of some of Ethiopia's various ethnic groups, many which double as state flags being waved as part of Ethiopia's Nations and Nationalities annual celebrations in Asosa last year (Photo: Geeska Afrika)
Flags of some of Ethiopia’s various ethnic groups, many which double as state flags being waved as part of Ethiopia’s Nations and Nationalities annual celebrations in Asosa last year (Photo: Geeska Afrika)

Above all, we must accept some basics. The Ethiopian national identity, MUST NEVER come at the expense of a person’s personal identity and thus, a national flag must not come at the expense of another flag an individual might also feel inclined to call his/her own. Like it or not, we must accept that the true diverse, opinionated Ethiopia is represented by all of these flags and not just one.

To assume that yesterday’s Ethiopian National Flag day celebrations, which took place in a country where it is illegal to own any flag other than the current emblem clad one, were celebrations able to unite the Ethiopian nation would be plain simple mindedness. To assume that colourful show of plain green yellow and red or imperial flags seen at the annual North American football tournament gathering of expat Ethiopians is an accurate display of one united nation would be equally farcical.

Ethiopians gathered at the Ethiopian Sports Federation of North America's (ESFNA) annual sports tournament and festival. The 2015 edition was held in Washington DC (Photo credit: Ethiotube)
Ethiopians gathered at the Ethiopian Sports Federation of North America’s (ESFNA) annual sports tournament and festival. The 2015 edition was held in Washington DC (Photo credit: Ethiotube)

For a real of what an authentic Ethiopian flag day should look like, simply do a Youtube search for Ethiopia’s national football team performances at the 2013 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) in South Africa. Thousands of Ethiopian fans turned out to support the Walyas in their maiden major international tournament appearance after a 31 year hiatus. There, we saw Ethiopians of all ethnic and religious backgrounds wearing national team jerseys and waving flags. But free from the grasp of Ethiopian regime forces or far right wing diaspora community leaders, Ethiopians decorated the stadiums with hundreds of flags, imperial flags, plain flags and star emblazoned flags. It was a colourful display of unity for a love of the game and our national team. Even flags of various resistance groups including the Oromia Liberation Front (OLF) were seen. No reports of politically motivated disagreements or violence, no riots, nothing. Ethiopian fans were in unison, with no self elected national saviour telling people what was allowed and what wasn’t allowed at the stadium. In the end, international media were astounded at how much passion our fans had, totally contrasting with the barren atmosphere of most of the games at that edition of the AFCON. Journalists lamented our first round elimination, upon realization that the colourful frenzy of Ethiopian flag waving supporters wouldn’t be seen again.
So friends, let us remember what happened in South Africa. Our diversity was the spectacle of the tournament. Being uniform in nature isn’t what makes this country Ethiopia. When it comes to politics, we are a feuding bunch, hence my saying Ethiopians must open their minds and mustn’t expect a nation to accept one above all.
I cannot stress the point I made several paragraphs earlier enough. The Ethiopian identity and flag must NEVER come at the expense what makes a person unique or different.

Ethiopian football fans at the 2013 African Cup of Nations in South Africa (Photo credit: The Guardian)
Ethiopian football fans at the 2013 African Cup of Nations in South Africa (Photo credit: The Guardian)

If we could all adhere to this, we wouldn’t judge or chastise someone for his/her choice of flag. But if we chose to do so, then we cannot claim to be seekers of democracy, freedom of speech and basic rights.

The Ethiopian colours predate all the imperfections of modern Ethiopians by several centuries. The 16th century map of Africa drawn by Belgian cartographer Abraham Ortelius attracted thousands of European explorers keen on seeing what the continent had to offer. These explorers frequently depicted Ethiopians in green yellow and red clothing, referring to the colours as a part of the culture. The fact that these colours were already embedded as part of ancient Ethiopian society as early as 500 years ago shows that the flag wasn’t a creation of the expansionist era and if anything, hijacked to sugarcoat dastardly deeds.

17th century era depiction of Ethiopians based on a 16th century map showing modern day Ethipoia and Eritrea drawn by famed Belgian cartographer Abraham Ortelius. The images include a women wearing a green yellow and red shawl and dress. Described as the colours of the people, it is proof that the flag predates the expansionist era that was the base for modern Ethiopia's creation (Image: Emperor Tewodros Library Washington DC)
17th century era depiction of Ethiopians based on a 16th century map showing modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea drawn by famed Belgian cartographer Abraham Ortelius. The images include a women wearing a green yellow and red shawl and dress. Described as the colours of the people, it is proof that the flag predates the expansionist era that was the base for modern Ethiopia’s creation (Image: Emperor Tewodros Library Washington DC)

So it goes without saying that the green yellow and red colours are deeply rooted in the fiber of our history and identity. The colour combination symbolizes who we were and who we are. So let’s not continue to sully the value of these colours by turning them into weapons of tyranny. It’s wrong to tell people to think a certain way.

For all the pure hearted men and women who throughout history and until today, gave their lives or well-being in service of the various flags throughout Ethiopian history, I salute you in 2015. I will never stop saluting you. Ethiopians are a tough nut to crack. But at least thanks to their sacrifice, our destiny is in our hands.
It is up to us to rise from the ashes or go down in flames. We are at our own mercy, and that is something to be thankful for.

And for that we must forever be grateful to those who decided to march in service of the Ethiopian flag, the glorious green yellow and red. Star, lion of Judah or nothing on it.

Happy eighth Ethiopian National Flag Day.

My name is Zecharias Zelalem.

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