The Emergence of Paramount Chiefs in Ethiopian Politics

(Ezana Ze Axum)

Are we observing some western countries are endeavoring to impose the paramount chief’s system into the Ethiopian political-economic system?

During the colonial period, the European colonialists were the architects of extractive political and economic system in Africa. In that case, history showed the British outsmarted another colonialist in designing, implanting, and exploiting the indirect rule to govern its former colonial preys.

In their best work titled why nations fail, Daron and James (2012) explained how the British created the system of indirect rule to govern Sierra Leone, as they did with most of their former African colonies that continued for one century since 1896. At the base of the system were the paramount chiefs, who collected taxes, distributed rents, and kept order.

There were two types of paramount chiefs: the constructed one and the nurtured. According to Daron and James, for example, the British created the warrant chefs in eastern Nigeria for the Igbo peoples who had no chiefs when the British encountered them in the nineteenth century.

In Sierra Leone, however, the British would base their indirect rule on existing indigenous chiefs and systems of authority. Throughout history, the British were enjoying to subvert the institutions, in other ways, too, such as replacing legitimate chiefs with people who were more cooperative.

Evidence showed that the paramount chiefs were in a phobia of having a strong army. Even the postcolonial paramount chiefs were afraid of the presence of strong army around their kingdoms. Siaka Steven, Sierra Leone’s leader who came to power in 1967, for example, was threatened by the presence of strong army thereby he took measures to undermine it.

It was for this reason that he emasculated the army, cutting it down and privatizing violence through specially created his own loyal paramilitary units.

Daron and James described the case happened at that time in Sierra Leone in the following way: Instead of the army, first come the internal security unit, the ISU, which Sierra Leone’s long-suffering people knew as I shoot u. Then comes the special security division, the SSD, which the people knew as Siaka Steven’s Dogs.

Therefore, the paramount chiefs that installed by the colonial forces are the best example of extractive and persisting political institutions in Africa.

However, the extractive political institutions were complemented by the extractive economic institutions. For instance, under the cover of helping farmers, a marketing board was established by the colonial office to control the wholesale of cocoa and coffee products from West Africa. All export activities of the country were passing only through the so-called marketing board’s channels. The British also set up a diamond monopoly and tried to keep out African miners.

In summary, extractive political institutions lead to extractive economic institutions, which enrich a few at the expense of many, in turn, creates a vicious circle. Therefore, someone can ask so what? That happened in the ninetieth and twenty centuries so what relates to the current Ethiopian situation?

I think lesson drawn from historian can help us to develop perspectives to comprehend situations in our affairs. I would like to evoke the readers thought using the following quote extracted from the history books. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In fact, history repeating itself is a common warning in all walks of life.

Nowadays, in the name of color revolution, some western countries seem to strive to instill the modern era forms of paramount chiefs’ system in Ethiopia, as they did five years ago to the Middle East countries. Regardless of the subtle difference in tactic between the two cases (i.e. the color in Ethiopia and the Middle East), there were underlined with a similar purpose installing the indirect rule through the modern day’s paramount chiefs.

In the processes of the Middle East color revolution, civil societies, activist, the unemployed youth, organized political oppositions, and hacktivist were the main actors who involved in the revolution. In that case, the westerns were sources of training, finance, communication technologies and so on to support the revolutions from the back seat.

However, they also applied their coercive power to dismantle the Libyan government lead to permanent chaos and created dispersed many paramount chiefs. In Syria, they are warring via proxies and satellite groups, which has resulted in the collapse of the state and mass massacres. In the case of the Middle East, the revolution was taking place mainly in the major cities of each country except the case in Libya.

What happened in the Ethiopian case?

In the beginning, genuine public resentment in bad governance was manifested through peaceful demonstration and some violence.

Gradually the case evolved into the form of full violent, vandalism, and ethnic centric attacks. Eventually, the public demand is totally hijacked by the paramount chiefs’ interest and the external forces as well. In short, the reemerging chiefs consumed the situation to ride their horse towards power at the pinnacle.

In contrast to the Middle East one, the Ethiopian color is emerged and cultivated from within elements within the ruling party and government in complement with the external forces. In this case, the war domain is the mind space, the government’s as well as the party’s machinery, fueled by the unemployed youth from the rural area as front-line fighters, supported by the Internet as organizing medium.

The strategy of the revolution is focused on creating a crisis of legitimacy of the state and the ruling party as well. Here, the essence of the fighting is targeting at demolishing the concept of the federal democratic republic of Ethiopia.

During the crisis of legitimacy, people are transferring their primary allegiance away from the state to other entities: to tribes, ethnic groups, religions, gangs, ideologies, populists, gangsters, and any causes (Lind and Thiele, 201204). It seems, thus, the same thing is happening at this moment in Ethiopia. The paramount chiefs are reemerging here and there.

The colonial offices are embarking the ship to aggravate the crisis so that they can able to foster the fertile ground through which the indirect rule implant. Fighting is taking place to grab the power at the pinnacle. So far, the paramount chiefs have gained some ground that enabled them to control resources thereby can create constituencies and mobilize them to the higher cause.

The essence of the fighting is beyond of power struggle it is about replacing FDRE with the extractive neo-liberal systems. So the situation is calling to defend the FDRE.

Now we are at the critical juncture: use the situation as an opportunity to leapfrog challenges and transform the country into next level in line with the constitution, or to put ourselves in the hands of paramount chiefs and their godfathers and allow melting our hopes as an ice did in a hot temperature.

I think inquiry may help us to explore and understand the nature of the situation through which we can develop perspectives and engage all positive forces as part of the solution. Few of the issues which could be a subject of inquiries are questions such as is the nature of fighting targeting at power mongering or driving to change state? What vested interest is going on behind the denouncing statement of some western forces against the state of emergency?


* Acemoglu, D., Robinson, J., A. (2012). Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity. and Poverty. United States

* Lind, W., S., Thiele, G., A. (2014). 4th Generation Warfare Handbook (Kindle Location 86). Castalia House


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