No government before it ever got mired in controversies over a national flag as much as the current regime in Ethiopia which took power some quarter of a century ago. And yet, it appears that this is the first government to proclaim a national Flag Day, held in October every year since 2008. Ethiopians are now accustomed to it.
The period before October 2008, however, had continually seen heated debate on the national flag versus the state, putting the regime in the dock of public opinion. Aware that the national flag has a nostalgic attachment to the hearts and minds of the majority of Ethiopians, the government introduced the National Flag Day almost ten years ago. Critics, however, considered the move “too little and too late” for the government to try to rally people behind a common cause.
The fact that the introduction of the Flag Day came merely three years after one of the most contentious general elections in Ethiopia has given food for thought to the opponents of the government. It is in many people’s eyes the closest any opposition party has come to threaten the incumbents’ grip on power. Many observers agree that a lack of consensus on the flag issue played its fair share to influence the election.
When a Flag Day gained focus, and its advocates became none other than people in the government, it was obvious to anyone familiar with the recent Ethiopian politics that this was an effort to redeem the government’s reputation. Still, people question the rationale behind its observance on the first Monday of Tikemit, a date corresponding to the first week of October in the Julian calendar, which Ethiopia’s civil calendar is based on.
The question is why this date rather than any other?
I do not think there is anyone in a position to clearly explain the matter.
Does it have anything to do with the Parliament’s ministers return from recess? Or, is it about setting a national mood in time for the annual Nations, Nationalities & People’s Day that comes in early December?
If we assess how and when other countries, including the United States, observe their own Flag Day, we find that it either traces back to a period when the national flag was adopted or an important historical event. Ethiopia, of course, has many of these, that the observance of the Flag Day should correspond to, but that is not the case.
Ethiopia is the first African nation to defeat a Western colonial power, the first in its region to adopt a national flag and the first to frame a constitution when most others in Africa were colonies of European nations.
The idea of selecting the first half of October as the date of the Flag Day, which has no significant historical meaning behind it, makes little sense for a nation with a rich history of abundant alternatives.
In spite of all the discrepancies, we have come a long way in honouring the Flag Day, during which businesses and government bodies display the Ethiopian national flag as a means of celebration.
This year will be no different. Ahead of the actual date on which the observance of the Flag Day will take place, October 16, schools and public institutions have already engaged in various ceremonies as part of an effort to promote reverence for the flag. As in the case of most countries around the world, Ethiopians too find a lot in common over their national flag across-the-board.
The more things people have in common, apparently, the less their differences are. In their diversity, they embrace values commonly appreciated by all. The various socio-cultural values and norms become a foundation for the country’s multi-ethnic demography. Values cherished by a nation, often to the annoyance of the ultra ethno-nationalist forces that advocate identity politics.
Reverence for the national flag is an age-old tradition most Ethiopians practice. If one deviates in any form from absolute respect towards the flag, it is taken as a personal slight by many citizens.
Perhaps, the most controversial comment about the flag had come from none other than the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. He had reportedly equated the flag to a piece of clothing (saying that what matters is the message behind it), thereby belittling what it represents. By and large, the continuous public outrage against his comment had persisted until the former prime minister passed away.
Mesfin Woldemariam (prof.), one of the foremost human rights activists, is just a fraction of the many who disagree with the statement. He would go on to say that although the flag may be made from cloth it has already been designed for a different purpose and should be considered in that light.
The controversial comments aside, let’s explore a few exceptional factors about our national flag worth noting in the historical context.
The national flag of Ethiopia represents a shared value for the majority of its citizens. The flag’s green-yellow-red colours – some type of symbol has been added by each of the last three governments – are vertically ordered in a rectangular shape. This flag has endured a change in regime and a few more national anthems. But every change of government has not tampered with the flag much, at least no one as of yet has gone to the extent of altering the three all-important colours.
For many years in the past, the flag was held with high a regard as a symbol of unity and patriotism. Ethiopians never hesitated to rally behind the flag and, in most cases, voluntarily.
Claims by some over the misperception and manhandling of the flag have simmered controversies. Different views still prevail over the objective for which the flag stands and what symbol it should carry.
The truth is that this same flag symbolises Pan-African activism. Above all, the flag has an exceptional attachment to the Ras Taferian movement in Jamaica and around the world. It is also the first national flag ever hoisted in a free land of an African nation way back during the heydey of colonialism.
Back in the early 1960s, as more and more African nations emerged free from the yolk of colonial rule, the three-coloured flag apparently became the basis for a number of other countries’ national flags.
Now, October 16, will see the Ethiopian flag commemorated for the 10th time, which is quite a milestone. We need to celebrate it enthusiastically for a flag is an addition to our national pride, patriotism and unity.
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