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Ethiopia: A nation in need of a new story

AFRICAN ARGUMENTS | Mohammed Girma | At the end of Zagwe dynasty around the 14th century, medieval Ethiopia was in disarray. Provincial warlords were battling for supremacy and the nation was on the brink of disintegrating. Ethiopia was at threat of breaking itself apart through internal fighting as its standing in the world diminished.

It was at this fraught moment in time that the Kibre Negest emerged. Meaning “The Glory of the Kings” and written by an anonymous author or authors, this huge text reconstructed the biblical tale of how Queen Sheba visited King Solomon in ancient Israel. The book claimed that the two conceived a child, Menelik, who went on to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia and became the nation’s first Solomonic king.

By establishing the divine origins of Ethiopia’s royal line, the Kibre Negest sought to disarm the warlords at home, while portraying the empire as unified and proud to the outside world. However, ordinary citizens soon found surplus meaning in it. Over the years, ideas of Ethiopia’s unifying and mythic origins contained in the ancient text evolved into a popular notion of Ethiopiawinet or “Ethiopianness”.

Still to this day, intellectuals debate whether or not Ethiopianness exists. Some claim that ethnicity is the overriding identity that cuts through and across the national. Others argue that the concept is the outdated invention of a Christian empire that has little relevance today.

However, for many ordinary citizens, the idea of Ethiopiawinet transcends historical debates. It not only exists, but is a matter of survival, common belonging and celebration. Religiously, it emphasises the unity of humanity by weaving together Islamic and Christian teachings. Ethically, it offers moral guidance by critiquing the imperfections of earthly life. Politically, it urges negotiation and the striking of a balance between what is good to me and what is good to my ethnic and religious neighbour.

For many Ethiopians, Ethiopiawinet also manifests as that electrifying and inescapable feeling when watching Abebe Bikila, Haile Gebrselassie, Deratu Tulu, Mesert Defar or Tirunesh Dibaba glide past their international competitors to win gold.

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