Op-ed: Zooming in with the kaleidoscope of institutions: the peril to Ethiopia of today is yesterday

By Mirgissa Kaba, Feyera Senbeta & Girma Gutema


The chronic contradictions of the Ethiopian state have been analyzed by various scholars both from the perspectives of history and political science. The renowned Ethiopian historian Teshale Tibebu dubbed it the “anomaly” and “paradox” of Africa in his bid to defend the “uniqueness” in history of this complex country. Similarly, having faced serious methodological challenges to conduct comparative study on Ethiopia vis-a-vis other African countries, the veteran American sociologist, social theorist and educator Donald Levine went even as far as suggesting to study Ethiopia as a separate African polity using an all out new discipline he coined “Ethiopiology”.

In a much similar trend observed in African studies about it, Ethiopia as a polity has not been free from controversies within its domestic politics. The modern Ethiopian state is interpreted differently by different ethno-national groups in the country, not least by the three major and socio-politically influential groups – the Oromo, Amhara and Tegaru.

For the Oromo elites, it’s imperative that being and becoming Ethiopian should yet be negotiated in a way that can bring equality among the country’s ethno-national groups by abolishing the ethnic hierarchy-cum-cultural and linguistic dominance still embedded within the institutional architectures of the Ethiopian state, as the veteran Oromo politician Lencho Leta argued during the transitional period in 1991. Obbo Lencho’s idea seems to somehow bode with the objective of the recently established national dialogue commission in Ethiopia, albeit lately and remotely. While the Ethiopian state that they midwifed in redefining and restructuring in 1991 is fine for the Tegaru, the Amhara elites continued to lament against this progress to this day.

In this article, we attempt to add another angle, a sociologically substantive one, to this important political discourse. Having thought about what went wrong, we came up with another sociological perspective that may explain the problem Ethiopia has faced today – the issues about its institutions. Ethiopia’s institutions are the key to the historically unfolding crisis and crumpling. Sociologists focus on institutions as key foundations of governance or behavior management. In principle, institutions are social construction or rules that govern compliance procedures that define relationships and associations of societies. There are five key social institutions in every society that are interdependent with continuous interactions and consequent influence to one another.

These are governance (politics), economy, education, religion and family. Each one of these defines rules that govern behavior of their associates. Constructing institutions is not always a stuff taken for granted. It requires thoughtful people coming together to frame what makes sense for society now and in the distant future. Going back to sociology, the five major social institutions got fundamental functions that could be calibrated to contexts and continuously amended to meet the dynamic state of life of a society. The functions of each institution could be summarized as follows:

a) Family as the fundamental social institution is considered as a building block of any society with its social units created with procreation or adoption. It is the primary unit that guides shared values, beliefs and norms that makes up the identity of a group in reference to the broader frame of reference.

b) Education as another social institution takes up what the family has started to continue to socialize people on shared values, beliefs, norms and culture in general. That is offered in reference to the ways of seeing, feeling and acting in the larger frame of reference beyond here and now. As such, education provides not only the knowledge but also skills and positive outlook to fit in and function within the social system.

c) Religion is another domain of social institutions that caters to instill moral values, purpose for life and more importantly shape the way individuals and groups view themselves and the world around them from spiritual perspectives.

d) Economy is another domain of social institutions that ensures for production, consumption and distribution of goods and services 

e) Governance (politics) as a social institution is responsible to maintain order, protect citizens from harm, ensure availability of reasonable common goods and services and be responsible for the welfare of citizens.

Institutional functions fall into cracks in Ethiopia

Nothing is wrong with these institutions per se. However, these institutions have been and continue to be the foundations of Ethiopia’s problems.  The way Ethiopia was founded defines how these institutions were formed. In our view, the defunct institutions as we see them today are the result of a country that did not complete its proper evolutionary trajectory.  The last five years have taught us a lot which wouldn’t have been possible. We have all lived together without understanding why and how we lived together? At the cost of what? On what common goal?  Writers of this article tried to echo back over the last five years as an opportunity to understand what has happened and why it really happened?  What will be next?

The social institutions that were highlighted above were constituted without much recognition of the majority of the Ethiopian peoples that it intended to serve. Let’s look at each one of those much closer.

Family: We all understand that with advances in technology, extensive mobility, more establishments of patterns of shared values such as justice, empathy, equality etc, there are tendencies to bridge boundaries of identity in forming family structure. Yet, there are efforts and more advocacy for the family to remain central in meeting its roles to procreate and socialize children. As a fundamental institution, the family has a primary role in the rest of the institutions. Now, given every culture has its own way of structuring family, recognition and respect of that would have helped to maintain family intact and remain to serve as center of smooth functioning of all other institutions. For example, the Oromo Gudifachaa and Moggaasaa are important social units that were created in addition to procreation. While that is the truth, we notice that some Amhara elite try to refute this which is nothing but trying as yet to push through non-Oromo ways of creating social units – the family.

Education: Education has been well recognized to build shared values and culture while not neglecting non-shared ones that are given recognition and prominence. Knowledge, skills and attitudes instilled within the framework of shared culture while recognizing every other culture and tracking its development is the foundation for development.  Any country’s level of development depends on the foundation of its educational system. For us, we don’t even know, surely, which country’s educational system we have adopted and why? We kept on refuting the hitherto established wisdom, skills and experiences among the different cultures in Ethiopia. We all understand every country does not neglect such wisdom, skills and experiences in their educational systems. They rather build on those and they do so in a way everyone considers to own. That did not affect the contribution of such a country to the development of science and technology. German, France, Japan, China, Russia and many more are good examples on this count.

Religion: Writers of this article believe every society has its own way of nurturing moral values; rationalizing life and death and has its own institutionalized system to worship in connection with its creator. Unfortunately, the way religion was introduced to the different societies with their own religion and sacrifices people have paid not to accept has had an unprecedented effect on the role that religion plays now in Ethiopia. Religion is about morality while that morality is lost in cracks and the moral wrongs as we see in everyday life processes the outcome of it. Neither people were allowed to exercise their religion nor were the religious teachings based on the original function of the religion.

The founding fathers of some countries negotiated with spiritual leaders on how best religion could contribute to the development of their country. That could be a luxury in Ethiopia for we do not have founding fathers yet. Ethiopia has been and remains to be a country where thought of GODNESS is LOST. People are being condemned for their beliefs in supernatural power or any specific religious practices. For instance, the belief in Waaqa among the Oromo, known as Waaqeffannaa, is critical that has been written well. The Oromo belief in Waaqa is believed to have shaped the way the Oromo looks at its relations with humans, animals and nature at large. This can be seen in everyday life processes of the Oromo.

Economy: Economy in Ethiopia is another institutional framework that suffered the setback from lack of agreed on rules of economic game in production, consumption and distribution of goods and services. Economy is dynamic with values coming from the country’s ability to meet its citizens’ demand for goods and services and finding its niche and potential in global economic conduits. In view of this, a country should continuously assess its economic basis, potentials and relevance. Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s economy remained the same with gross deficiency to innovate and look for alternatives for relevance locally and globally. There is no space for innovation by cultural groups nor is there recognition for potentials to develop. Mine is mine and yours is mine has been the case and remained to be so in this twenty first century.

Governance or political system: In Ethiopia, this has followed the same order since the era of a feudal emperor Menilik – a top down system of governance where people have no role in politics. Politicians go at length to justify this wrong, however. In addition to provision of goods and services including health and education, the government should maintain order, protect citizens from harm and take charge of citizen’s welfare. In Ethiopia, this is not the case. Government’s main engagement is to keep itself in a ‘sweet seat’ in contravention to its fundamental roles. No one government in Ethiopian history made fundamental changes in the course of governance structure so long as centralization of political power is concerned.

What is the implication?

The implication of this is obvious – breakdown of social fabrics, weak, unstable state and sustained poverty of the population with little to no light of hope on how and when we could get out of these complex challenges. Ethiopia needs the institutions that respect and recognize all; and not crush all the rest for the dominance of the hitherto privileged one.

Some societies in Ethiopia have lost their identities and yet have not embraced the new one so much so that the confusion left them in complete disarray. Some others have paid much sacrifice to maintain some of their identities which they want to revitalize and re-institute. The writers of this article believe that the noise and the dust blowing against others’ identity in Ethiopia serves no purpose other than pushing the precarious country to the edge of a cliff.

The solution is to come back to the round table and talk to draw a common agenda that may bring the majority of Ethiopians together. Key is also re-framing secular institutions and leaving the religious one to sort out itself. The outcry of religion as a unifying factor irrespective of culture is against its fundamental role. Nowhere in the world religion overrides identities and it can not be one in this part of the world. 

Editor’s Note:

Mirgissa Kaba (PhD) is an Associate Professor at Addis Ababa University. A sociocultural epidemiologist in specialization, Mirgissa is also an ardent advocate of social justice. He tweets @MirgissaK

Feyera Senbeta (PhD) is an adjunct Professor at Addis Ababa University. He is also an advocate of social and environmental justice. He tweets @feyera17

Girma Gutema (MSc) is an independent researcher and human rights defender based in Oromia, Ethiopia. He is member of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC). He tweets @Abbaacabsa

The views expressed in the article are that of the writers and do not necessarily reflect AS’ editorial stands.

No comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.