Ethiopian Institute for Nonviolence Education and Peace Studies

Ethiopia - a Nonviolent History

Ethiopia is an ancient country with one of the oldest states in the world. It has an uninterrupted history of independent existence aside from five years of Italian occupation. It has been, from the very beginning, home to the three great monotheistic religions of the world (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), and it is a platform for the development of a rich and diverse, even unparalleled in some respects, spiritual and material culture. This includes Africa’s only indigenous script, ancient centers of worship with distinctive traditions, along with a plethora of peoples and languages that inhabit the country. During the long and cherished history of its existence, Ethiopia has passed through periods of glory and agony. Developments in national politics, among others, could exemplify changing fortunes in the nation’s tortured political history.  

Ethiopia developed one of the great old monarchies of the world. The monarchy ruled the country continuously with only brief interruptions until 1974. Usually, succession occurred smoothly, with the eldest son succeeding the father as the next ruler. Notwithstanding, there were many occasions of the use of violence to effect political transition. Dynastic rivalries, fueled by Byzantine politics in the imperial court, caused opportunities for palace coups, imprisonment of royal aspirants, and at times rebellion. Dynastic crises were more intense and national fragmentation was more particularly common between the end of the 18th and the middle of the 19th centuries. This was a period known in Ethiopian history as the Zemene Mesafint (the Era of the Princes).  

In 1855, Tewodros, who was not a member of the royal family ended this period, unified political power and political authority and restored the Solomonic monarchy. He accomplished this through violent force, absent of persuasion or compromise. He set a tradition in which military muscle, not royal blood became the foundation for the assumption and retention of political power. The removal of the emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 through a revolution and the military junta in 1991 following a series of military disasters is definitive proofs of the primacy of violent methods over peaceful democratic ones in political transitions.  

Yet, this is only one side of the complex history of Ethiopia. There are numerous instances of peaceful if not democratic transitions in the country’s history. Cases of non-violent political activism in where the public used nonviolence to effect changes in leadership and government are evident in the past. In recent decades, Student the student political activism in the 1960s and 1970s and the election in 2005 are two principal examples of this positive development. Although both ended in disaster and the hopes for change were dashed violently, the quest for freedom and democracy and the commitment to achieve them peacefully remain alive.  Developments over the last few decades indicate progress in the direction of a conscious, engaged citizenry and a democratic political culture.

Still, the hurdles are numerous and they include institutional, cultural, legal, and political challenges. Through education and active, responsible political engagements, the traditions of non-violence rooted in the culture of Ethiopians have potential to develop, evolve, and spread. It is essential to valorize and enrich these traditions, through inputs and experiences from other areas. Success in this collective endeavor is possible not only because Ethiopians have had a tradition of nonviolence but also because the fight for freedom and democracy using primarily peaceful methods has gained wider global currency. 

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