Reality check | The Ethiopian Flag qua Politics
Ethiopians are celebrating the National flag day for the fourth time today.
The previous three took place on July 5/’08 (Sene 28/’00), on Oct.5/’09 (Meskerem 25/’02), and on Sept.20/’10 (Meskerem 10/’03). The discrepancy in the dates is partly explicable.
The first National flag day was arranged in a catch-as-catch-can manner, since the idea came up very late and the government wanted the practice to begin alongside the celebrations of the 3rd Ethiopian Millennium. The then Minister of Foreign Affairs , Seyoum Mesfin, credited the idea to a journalist/presenter of Ethiopian Television.
The flag day celebration turn out well, but the difficulty of organizing such a national event just two days before the closing date of the fiscal year was also noted. Thus, the need to set another day for the event.
However, it is not clear how the second National Flag day took place on the last Monday of the Ethiopian month Meskerem – that is; Oct. 5/’09 or Meskerem 25/’02.
Because, the Flag Proclamation issued that year states that ‘the National Flag Day shall be celebrated at the national level every year on the second Monday of the Ethiopian month of Meskerem’. That Monday falls, on any given year, between Sept. 19 and 25 (or between Meskerem 9 and 15).
A literal translation of the Amharic version of the proclamation would be ‘every year on the month Meskerem on the second week Monday’. In that case, the date falls, on any given year, between Sept. 12 and 19 (or between Meskerem 2 and 8).
The third National Flag day concurs with the English version of the Flag Proclamation. But the second anniversary is inconsistent with either versions.
Nonetheless, whether by accident or by design, the second National Flag day nearly coincided with another historic date 114 years ago. The date Emperor Minilik issued a flag. Even, generally speaking, it is curious how the legislature picked, of all the days in a year, a Month and week that lies near to another historic day. A matter highly improbable to escape the person who proposed the date.
Of course, that is not how the public remembers the 2nd Flag Day rather by how the extreme Right of Ethiopia reacted to the Flag Proclamation. The part of the Proclamation that displeased the extreme Right reads:
Art. 16 [Flag Proclamation]
Unity of the Flag
The Flag of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia shall only be of the colors of Green, Yellow, Red and blue circular background as provided here in above, together with the Emblem at centre, as specified in this Proclamation.
While many stood in opposition to the Flag Proclamation, either out of a habit of rejectionism or lack of information, the leaders of the political Right waged a persistent media campaign against it. A few, like Gebru Asrat, frm. President of Tigray Region, now one of the leaders of the opposition coalition Medrek, organized a meeting putting the flag without the emblem – apparently, trying to make it a sign of defiance, though the government simply ignored him.
But, as usual, Eng. Hailu Shawel, frm. Chairperson of the major opposition opposition coalition CUD/Kinijt in 2005, now Chair of AEUP (All Ethiopian Unity Party), trumped them all by taking the most extreme position on the matter.
He didn’t waste time to call the public to sign a petition that, he pledged, would be submitted to the United Nations, but, apparently, never did. The petition reads:
The Ethiopian Ruling party has changed the Ethiopian flag that has existed for more than 5000 years. In consequence, banned its use in all aspects of life, such as work places, weddings, and all ceremonies. However, the All Ethiopian Unity Party(AEUP) opposes the action taken by the government without the consent of the people. It has been collecting signature that will be presented to the United Nations for the retraction of the relevant proclamations. Consequently, the AEUP cordially requests to put your signature here bellow.
While the idea of petitioning to the UN for the ‘retraction of the proclamation’ sounds bizarre, what’s more intriguing is how he figured out that Ethiopian had flag for 5000 years and its specific color composition all along.
After all, it is widely believed among historians that the ancient Indians or the Chinese were the first to use Flags, with the ‘white flag’ of the Chou dynasty in China (about 3000 years ago) considered the first. Hailu Shawel et al appears to believe that the Ethiopian Flag predates that of Chou dynasty’s by some 2000 years. A claim I would like to believe if it were a historically supported one.
Quite to the contrary, Whitney Smith, who is Director of Flag Research Center and author of ‘The Flag Book of the United States and Flags and Arms Across the World’, states that:
Pennants of those three colours had been displayed before the first official flag was established by Emperor Menilek II on October 6, 1897; his flag bore on the yellow stripe the first letter of his name in Geez script.
Noticeably, it was a year after the Ethio-Italian war of 1996.
Of course, the three colors, green, yellow, and red, are not alien to Ethiopia. Several sources indicate that the three colors ‘appeared in different orders during different reigns, and sometimes white was substituted for yellow, and blue instead of green. Emperor Yohannes IV also used an additional banner of two red horizontal stripes separated by a yellow stripe.’
An account of an Italian historian, Manoel Barradas, indicates Ethiopians attachment with the colors dates back to the 17th century. Yet, according to Barradas, the red color was at the top until the 19th century.
In the last 114 years, the horizontally striped green-yellow-red colors of the flag remained unaltered while the emblem had been altered at least 5 times.
The first written Constitution of 1932, enacted during the reign of Emperor Haileslasie I (1892-1975), stipulated that the flag consists the green-yellow-red colors with an imperial coat of arms in the middle. The coat of arms, named the ‘Conquering Lion of Judah’, had been a lion holding a staff topped by a cross with ribbons in green-yellow-red.
The Marxists-military junta led by President Mengistu Hailemariam, known as Provisional Military Administrative Council(PMAC), aka Dergue, made three alterations.
First, immediately after seizing power in 1974, it removed the crown and replaced the cross on the lion with a spear,naming it ‘the Lion of Ethiopia’.
It was changed a year later, in 1975, however.
The lion was removed altogether and replaced by another emblem signifying the socialist character of the state.
The new emblem, which lasted from 1975-1987, consisted a man and a woman standing facing each other with a hammer and a sickle on their hands held above their heads.
In 1987, when the military junta declared to the establishment a Peoples’ Democratic Republic with a new Constitution, a new emblem was put at the center of the horizontally striped green-yellow-red colors of the flag. The new emblem consisted a five pointed star and rays over a cogwheel surrounded by a wreath of green leaves. The shield was circular in shape, its blue bearing the obelisk of Axum, a cogwheel, a red ribbon depicting a golden lion’s head, an spear and a scepter, a yellow star on red and a the country’s new name, People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, written at the top in Geez scripts.
The current ruling party, EPRDF, simply removed the coat of arms and used the horizontally striped green-yellow-red colors as a flag from 1991-1995 – the transitional period. Perhaps, that was the only time, at least in the last century, the a simple green-yellow-red flag served as official flag of the nation.
However,the 1995 Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, declared that:
Article 3 [of the Constitution]
The Ethiopian Flag
1. The Ethiopian flag shall consist of green at the top, yellow in the middle and red at the bottom, and shall have a national emblem at the centre. The three colours shall be set horizontally in equal dimension.
Subsequently, in 1996, the Federal Parliament issued a proclamation that defines the Ethiopian flag as follows:
Colors and Shape of the Flag
1/ The Flag shall have the colors: green at the top, yellow at the middle and red at the bottom together with a National Emblem of circular blue background. The Emblem shall be set at the centre of the Flag in such a way that its circumference curves on the midpoint of the width of both the green and red colors.
2/ The colors shall be bright and basic.
3/ The colors shall be structured horizontally and be of the same size. The length of the Flag shall be twice its width.
4/ The Emblem shall be a blue circle with depictions;
a) straight and equal lines of yellow that come from all directions and join each other;
b) a star formed by the straight and equal lines;
c) yellow rays radiating from the points where the straight and equal lines cross each other.
According to the 1996 Flag and Emblem Proclamation, the meaning of the colors and the emblem is:
Meaning of the Colors of the Flag
The colors of the Flag shall represent the following meanings:
1/ the green for labor, fertility and development;
2/ the yellow for hope, justice and equality; and
3/ the red for sacrifice and heroism towards the prevalence of freedom and equality.
Meaning of the Emblem
1/ The circular blue background of the Emblem signifies peace.
2/ The straight and equal lines signify the equality of Nations, Nationalities and Peoples as well as of Religions.
3/ The star formed by the straight and equal lines signify the unity founded by the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia of their common will.
4/ The yellow rays signify the bright prospect in sight for the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples united of their common will.
The new Flag Proclamation, issued in 2009, merely repeated these provisions and provided for the unity of the flag. That is: The Flag of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia shall only be of the colors of Green, Yellow, Red and blue circular background as provided hereinabove, together with the Emblem at centre, as specified in this Proclamation.
The Proclamation also provided a list ‘prohibited activities’, as follows:
It is prohibited to commit any of the following:
1) to use the Flag without its Emblem as provided under this Proclamation;
2) to deface the Flag by writing or displaying sings, symbols, emblems or picture;
3) to use an old, faded or torn Flag;
4) to fasten advertisements, notices or other Flags or emblems on the staff of the Flag;
5) to disrespect, dishonor or damage the Flag by writing or word or act in public places;
6) to prepare or use the Flag without the proper order of its colors and size or its Emblem;
7) to fly the Flag beyond the permitted time;
8) to use the Flag for table or any other material covering at meetings or similar gatherings;
9) to use the Flag as a covering for a building;
10) to use the Flag in any form of commercial advertisement;
11) not to show the proper respect at the hoisting and lowering of the Flag;
The 2009 Flag Proclamation, in addition to detailed stipulations on the use of the flag in various places and occasions, had established, for the first time in the modern history of the nation, a National Flag day.
Download the Flag Proclamation – Proc. 654/2009 here – [PDF | 191 kb]