Waving the Ethiopian flag: Its beauty and contradictions

Etyopian Simbiro (PAMBAZUKA NEWS)

Looking back on the historical and political significance of the Ethiopian flag, Etyopian Simbiro considers the role and use of the ‘tri-colour’ in developments in the country. The flag has proven a double-edged sword in its ability to both divide and unify, Simbiro contends, but should ultimately prove the inspiration for a new Ethiopia based on tolerance, trust and respect for the rule of law.

The Ethiopian flag contains the universally recognised tri-colours (green, yellow, and red). Different regimes have always embellished it with emblems that define their political ideology. The founding fathers of the nation chose those tri-colours for political and religious reasons. The flag gave legitimacy to their monarchical rule and authenticity to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which practices a unique brand of Christianity, the official religion of the monarchy until 1974 – the military junta (1974–91) ended the church’s monopoly as a state religion.

Some foreigners, who love reggae music and admire Rastafarianism, have no clue that the tri-colours, which Bob Marley popularised, actually represent Ethiopia. I have met many people, young and old, who thought the tri-colours were Marley’s patented colours; little did they know that both Marley and the Rastafarians drew their inspiration from Ethiopia, which also inspired Marcus Garvey, the early ‘back to Africa’ campaigner whose teachings influenced generations of African-Americans and other black people.


Classic poems have been written revering the flag. Many writers and patriots throughout the world still squeeze their last drops of inks to coin mighty words of praise for their flags.

The flag is synonymous with the nation. It defines the nation; the nation is the flag. Otherwise, angry protesters across the world would not bother burning it in order to release their anger, to express their frustration and to send a strong message to the particular nation they strongly oppose or detest. The flag epitomises nationalism and patriotism. It reflects almost everything that the nation consists of: the constitution, the government, the mainstream culture, the politics, the militarism, and the diversity or singularity of the people. It is not without reason that the flag is displayed almost everywhere in a given nation: from one’s bedroom (not to mention one’s underwear, necklaces, bracelets or wrist bands) to major public spaces.

Sports events and other activities that stir the national consciousness are always decorated with national flags. For example, it is common to see Ethiopia’s world class athletes shed joyful tears during the green-yellow-red flag-hanging ceremonies after their major international wins. Those droplets of joyful tears have the power to agitate even the least patriotic person. Another great example is the United Nations. What makes the UN most special is the display of flags of the many nations.

The flag (along with maps, anthems, the constitution, historical relics and other national symbols) gives legitimacy to the sovereignty of the state. People throughout the world have paid a bloody price for their flags. At every national struggle, either peaceful or violent, flags are always present, symbolising the strength of the struggle.

For the ideologist or politician, the flag is a potent weapon with which to mobilise people and to rejuvenate a group consciousness. The flag embeds within itself the spirit of togetherness among different groups despite conflicting interests. It is a connecting thread. It transcends barriers. It serves as a guiding star of the nation, whether oppressive or democratic.

The flag motivates the individual to persevere, and to either win or lose as part of the group that he or she belongs to. For instance, Abdissa Aga, the famous Second World War Ethiopian hero, was captured by fascist Italy during occupation and taken to a notorious prison in Sicily, but later escaped and became the leader of international dissidents, former prisoners like him. He and his colleagues fought against the fascist forces in both Italy and Germany, collaborating with the Allied forces. He surprised the British and the Americans, who gave him the rank of major. His group finally liberated Rome from the hands of the fascists and he drove around the city waving the Ethiopian flag. This same brave man, who deeply loved the flag, his country and his people, was later to be oppressed and stripped of his title upon his return by the then aristocrats, who considered his international stature a threat to their position and who perhaps thought of him as a second-class citizen because of his ethnic background: he was an Oromo from Wellega, Western Ethiopia.[1]

Unfortunately, there has always been outrageous discrimination based on ethnicity in Ethiopia. Even the supposedly socialist regime did not escape from suppressing those who advocated for regional autonomy because of its fear that regionalism could overshadow Ethiopian nationalism, though in its final days it tried to negotiate with regionalists, but it was too late. Also today the status quo remains the same, despite having a regime that apparently recognises ethnic self-determination and acknowledges the historical marginalisation of the oppressed. The Zenawi regime ironically continues to repeat the same old mentality that politics is a zero-sum game and one group is destined to dominate others undemocratically. The constitution, which the regime fails to fully implement, acknowledges and states in its preamble:

‘Fully cognizant that our common destiny can best be served by rectifying historically unjust relationships and by further promoting our shared interests; convinced that to live as one economic community is necessary in order to create sustainable and mutually supportive conditions for ensuring respect for our rights and freedoms and for the collective promotion of our interests … have therefore adopted this constitution.'[2]

Nevertheless, the rule of law and free and fair elections, which are the basic requirements of any democracy, are yet to be realised in Ethiopia.


As much as the flag is a symbol of liberty and a source of national pride, it also carries the ills of the nation; it reminds of oppression, and awakens old wounds. For example, in the United States, while ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ stands for freedom, the Confederate flag represents a legacy of racism and slavery. Particularly for black people, the latter revives old memories, scars of racial and economic marginalisation.

No doubt that the Ethiopian flag is the most politicised national symbol. The whole burden of Ethiopian nationalism rests heavily on it. It is not an exaggeration to say that the flag is at the centre of the Ethiopian political crisis.

For Ethiopian conservatives, the national flag means the blood their ancestors spilled to build the empire and to free it from the jaws of external forces. It is the most idolised, perhaps next to God. Such idolisation has the potential to justify historical injustices and to only glorify the past, regardless of its contradictions.

Right-wing nationalists still hold a grudge against Zenawi, who once bashed the flag as ‘a piece of rag’. This statement and the ‘self-determination up to secession’ phrase in the constitution are perhaps the two most debated issues, other than the 2005 election, that have earned the former rebel the title, ‘anti-Ethiopia’.

A blogger for nazret.com once wrote:

‘If things were to be judged by their prices, one of Zenawi’s winter-time jackets would have been more valuable than a nylon flag. But that is not the case. When hard-line Somalians got angry at Meles led military intervention in their country, they did not look for one of his most expensive suits; they simply burned our Green-Yellow-Red because it stands for Ethiopianism.'[3]

A supporter of Zenawi fired back:

‘The reality is that during a televised debate about the state of the union of Ethiopia’s Nations, Nationalities and Peoples, the Prime Minister, in good faith, remarked that the moot point was not the fabric but what it carried with it. While his government had no qualms as far as the tri-color was concerned, today’s Ethiopians were unwilling to come under the oppressive rule of an outlandish Lion embossed on the flag.'[4]

One of the few successes of the military junta, or the Dergue, was its validation of the flag as the ultimate manifestation of Ethiopian nationalism. The popular motto ‘One Ethiopia or death!’ was to defend the flag but not the constitution, which did not even exist until the regime’s last days. The junta exploited the inflated nationalism to effectively mobilise the largest army in Africa during the Cold War era. Some sympathisers of the Dergue justify its crimes, arguing that it was okay for the regime to kill, bomb or destroy its own people because it fought against rural and urban guerrillas that threatened ‘Ethiopia’s unity and the flag’. It seems they are unaware that it is the rule of law that keeps people together and protects the flag, but not the other way around; the bloodthirsty dictator only brought his own demise in the end. If one has to agree with Mengistu’s sympathisers, then one will have no choice but to accept Zenawi’s justification of locking up or destroying his opponents; after all, he also does it in the name of Ethiopia.

For the proponents of ethnic self-determination, the national flag is the ultimate symbol of the contradictory nature of the Ethiopian state. The sociologist Asafa Jalata, an Oromo nationalist, argues, ‘Although the historical meaning of Ethiopia is applicable to all Black peoples, its contemporary meaning applies mainly to Amharas and Tigrayans, who have successively dominated Ethiopian state power.'[5] This statement also implies that the national flag and other symbols that represent the state belong to the two mentioned groups.

Although the two ethnic groups dominated state power, it is actually difficult to talk about contemporary Ethiopia without mentioning the numerous contributions of Oromos and other ethnicities that willingly or unwillingly participated in the making of the Ethiopian state. One of the notorious generals of Menelik II, Gobena Dache, for example, was an Oromo who succeeded in defeating forces that resisted surrendering to the king, though some Oromo nationalists consider him a sell-out who betrayed his own people.[6] It is believed that even Haile Sellasie had an Amhara, Gurage and Oromo heritage, though he dedicated his entire life to building an Amharic-speaking, Orthodox Christian nation like his predecessors; he was an ambitious empire builder who strongly believed in a unitary state.

There were many notable Oromos and non-Oromos, including Eritreans, who sacrificed their lives while serving Ethiopia during and after the Italian invasion. When Haile Sellasie fled the country to save his life and to appeal to the League of Nations in 1936, what gave the Italians a heart attack was the resistance of rebels, comprised of various ethnic groups, such as the forgotten patriot Jagama Kello, whom the BBC profiled recently. These rebels fiercely engaged and obliterated the fascist forces from day one. But, unfortunately, Haile Sellasie, upon his return from exile, mistreated most of them because they advocated for a fair and democratic system, which the monarch saw it as a threat to his supremacy; some, such as Belay Zeleke, were even noosed because they dared to challenge his unjust rule and shameless favouritism.

The student movement that led to the overthrow of the Haile Sellasie regime was also the product of the majority of ethnicities inside Ethiopia.

It is true that despite all the sacrifices made in the name of Ethiopia, there has been an unequal distribution of power and wealth in the country. Even if that is the case, the solution is not to utterly abandon the idea that today’s Ethiopia belongs to both the oppressed and the oppressor. The acknowledgement of historical injustices and a formal reconciliation must be considered, which will not only resolve the national crisis but will also reaffirm the historical meaning of Ethiopia, a land that belongs to all black people. Today’s Ethiopia belongs to all of us and we all must fight for it. Those of us in the diaspora (left or right) must help those inside the country (either political parties or NGOs) financially, morally and through the transfer of knowledge. Those that fight for freedom inside the country are the ones who will ultimately bring the change we all desire. Preaching dangerous politics while enjoying our comfortable life in the West will only make matters worse domestically. It won’t help our poor people who have been behind bars despite regime changes.


The official flag of the monarchy, which had the Lion of Judah emblem, signified the link between the church, the state and the people. The flag’s symbolism further validated the legend that the monarch descended directly from the kingdom of Solomon and that his God-given power was unquestionable.

After Menelik II, the rise of Haile Sellasie to power and his effective foreign diplomacy and domestic centralisation further popularised the flag. The tri-colours on the flag had green for land and hope, yellow for church, peace, natural wealth and love, and red for power and faith. Additionally, the colours also had a religious connotation, symbolising the Trinity.[7]

Once the military junta deposed the monarchy, it removed the Lion of Judah emblem from the flag, and eventually replaced it with its version of a socialist emblem. The military interpreted the tri-colours as green for the fertility of the land, yellow for freedom, and red for the blood sacrificed to keep the nation together.[8]

Today, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church remains the definitive custodian of the feudal tradition; it is common to find the Lion of Judah flag displayed in some churches. In addition, Rastafarians and admirers of Haile Sellasie also revere this old flag; nevertheless, as mentioned earlier, those against the old system unequivocally reject it and they have their reasons.

The former rebels that now control state affairs have also modified the flag, replacing the socialist emblem with their version while keeping the tri-colours.

According to the current constitution (Article 3), ‘The Ethiopian flag shall reflect the hope of the Nations, Nationalities, Peoples, and religious communities of Ethiopia to live together in equality and unity.'[9]

Undeniably, there has been a significant change in the country, though most of it is still on paper. However, despite the progressive constitution that we currently have, which is subject to amendments, the country has not yet declared the superiority of the law above the individual who rules. The individual, either the local policeperson or the prime minister of the country, is still above the law practically. The democratisation process has not gone past its baby steps.

The rule of law, free and fair elections, accountability and transparency seem dreams that may not come true anytime soon, even if the current regime is replaced. In a country where the adult literacy rate is 36 per cent (according to UNICEF’s 2000–07 report), where the citizens are not fully aware of their rights and responsibilities engraved in the constitution, and where the constitution’s superiority has not been genuinely declared, we will have a long walk to freedom. Ethiopia not only needs a non-violent political change, but also a non-violent cultural revolution. We have to renew our mentality. Sometimes, just like in any other Third World country, being in Ethiopia is like being one or two centuries behind the rest of the world. I would not be surprised if my hairs turn grey, like my father, without witnessing a fully democratised Ethiopia, where non-partisan politicians reign and where the police understand the meaning of human rights.

Pessimism aside, I do believe that Ethiopian politicians (left and right) have a better chance today to move the country towards democracy. If they sincerely dedicate themselves to democratic ideals, they have the power to make the Ethiopian dream come true, and that, in my hope, is establishing a truly democratic state. An opportunistic mindset and ego aside, if they work together, then miracles can happen in that country.

Some, who oppose the current regime, advocate that Ethiopia must copy Ghana’s centralist system. I am sure there is a lot Ethiopia can learn from Ghana, especially in the fields of building democratic institutions and respecting the rule of law, two of the many qualities that have made Ghana a shining star in the continent. However, it can be dangerous to wholeheartedly imitate Ghana’s centralist policies. Ethiopia has already welcomed a federal system that favours decentralisation in theory, though this has not been yet fully realised practically. In addition, everything that works in Ghana may not work in Ethiopia; the two countries have evident cultural and historical differences. I would argue that Ethiopia, as the second most populous country in Africa, could draw better lessons from other democratic yet federalist countries such as Canada, India, South Africa or the USA, whose diversity/geography-based political systems resemble ours comparatively. Nevertheless, the solution to end Ethiopia’s political crisis is not to simply imitate other countries but to look at our own values and traditions and to combine these native ideas with what we have learned or have borrowed from outsiders. We have been imitating others throughout our history; it is now time to think and act locally, while keeping our eyes open on the global.

One of the successes of ethnic federalism, despite its obvious failures, is that it has revived an ethnic consciousness and has ingrained the idea of self-rule in the minds of Ethiopia’s diverse ethnic groups: two issues that are a ‘dream come true’ for the historically marginalised but a ‘nightmare’ for the historically dominant ethnic elites. Today, neither bringing back the Lion of Judah nor playing the pseudo-socialist or pseudo-democratic trick will have the significance to make the country a better place. However, in order to positively exploit the growing ethnic nationalism in Ethiopia, we have to come up with a better and all-encompassing democratic system, which can fully address present and future challenges. We must come into contact with reality and accept the fact that we cannot return back to square one. We must compromise, see the long-term benefits and advocate for the supremacy of the rule of law, which will have the power to decide whether we should redesign the national flag or should keep it the way it looks now.

Politics aside, we all know that the Rastafarians use the tri-colours in the spirit of love and peace. After what Ethiopia has gone through, every Ethiopian, I am sure, is tired of old politics. It is time for change, time for a renewed Ethiopia. I believe the Ethiopian union is worth keeping, but should we want the union to prevail, we shall have to advocate for a real change to come, a change that leaves no room for dictatorship and corruption. Let the spirit of love guide us. As Erich Fromm once said, ‘love is a union with somebody, or something, outside oneself, under the condition of retaining the separateness and integrity of one’s own self.’

Let’s say goodbye to the age-old Ethiopian mentality: character assassination, suspicion, vengeance, finger-pointing, holier-than-thou trickery, cynicism, stubbornness, empty pride, infighting, hate mongering and self-denial. Let’s instead listen to each other, respect one another, compromise, genuinely acknowledge past and present failures, reconcile, trust one another, forgive, celebrate our differences, agree to disagree, encourage a culture of debate or dialogue, walk the talk and advocate for the supremacy of the rule of law more than anything else!