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The Curious Case of Democracy in Ethiopia and Armenia

06/12/2020 Ravenna, Italy

The Curious Case of Democracy in Ethiopia and Armenia

What might two landlocked countries—one in the Horn of Africa and the other thousands of miles away in the Caucasus, sandwiched between two hostile powers—have in common? Well, more than the fact that they’re landlocked, actually. I’m talking, of course, about Ethiopia and Armenia; for the former, having no access to water is a condition, we might say, that developed relatively recently, at least in historical terms, while for the latter, the same predicament has held for at least a hundred years. The event which brought about Ethiopia’s loss of its Red Sea coastline was the Eritrean War of Independence, lasting from 1961 to 1991, which resulted in Eritrea becoming an officially recognized country in 1993; for Armenia, meanwhile, the loss of its access to water came about because of Turkey’s refusal to uphold the terms set out by the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, which would’ve granted the small Christian country access to the Black Sea, along with regaining some of its historical lands, such as Kars. For the geographically, inept, here’s the Horn of Africa with the current post-1993 borders. Having placed it in many other articles, I won’t bother with the Armenian map this time.

Already, we have touched upon one general feature both countries have in common—loss—but this term is so vague, loose, and abstract that everyone, from the Chukchi people living on the tip of Russia’s shores all the way back round to the coast of Alaska inhabited by the Inuit, have experienced it. More interesting and to the point is the other commonality (quite uncanny, indeed) between Africa and the Caucasus—and this is Christianity.

A fact perhaps recognized by a large number of Ethiopians and Armenians—yet something almost universally unknown by the majority of people—is that both nations are among the first official Christian states in the entire world. Indeed, the religion was practiced in a clandestine capacity throughout Greece and Rome, with apostles such as Paul traveling to Athens, where he gave a speech on the famous Areopagus (once the place for the city’s council of elders 500 years before Christ’s birth), and Peter, arguably the most famous among them, whose upside-down crucifixion in the Eternal City has come to be viewed as the ultimate sign of humility towards God. Below is Caravaggio’s famous depiction of the event.

Contrary to popular perceptions, Christianity, at that time, was nothing more than a cult, really—a threat posed to the establishment no different than the one many controversial sects project today, which is why it was brutally oppressed beginning with Nero all the way down to Diocletian, and probably subsequent emperors as well.

It wasn’t until Constantine’s own conversion to Christianity in 312 AD, an event that brought about the Edict of Milan, which finally decriminalized Christian worship in the Empire. We can, thus, see Rome as one of the first Christian states, but not the first, which was Armenia (having adopted the religion officially in 301 AD) followed by Rome twelve years later, and then Ethiopia, after it likewise made Christianity its formal state religion in 330 AD.

Besides its unique Christian heritage, Ethiopia is an incredibly fascinating, complex country, full of linguistic diversity and ancient culture. Like Armenia, it managed to preserve its Christian heritage during the rise of Islam, and it’s the only country to have resisted colonial rule; in this sense, it attained the privilege of being born with the legacy of having already been a free, independent state after the Scramble for Africa (many scholars also include Liberia in this respect, but since the country’s existence began with the settlement of the American Colonization Society, it’s Ethiopia, with its ancient history, that truly represents the definition of what it means to be free of foreign powers). Indeed, it was 125 years ago that Ethiopia, under the command of Emperor Menelik II, defeated a heavily armed Italian force at the Battle of Adwa, securing its independence; in this respect, Ethiopia is the only African country to have won a decisive military victory against a European power.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the colors of the Ethiopian flag figure so heavily not only in the African cultural consciousness, but also the imagination of the entire world. The ever-present green, yellow, and red are even highly emblematic of Reggae music and the genre’s most famous proponent, Bob Marley, was, in fact, Jamaican.

It’s likewise no coincidence that both the establishment and headquarters of the African Union (a continental body consisting of fifty-five African states, roughly equivalent to that of the EU) have their basis in Addis Ababa, the capital and largest city of Ethiopia.

The country is widely considered by many scholars to be the place where modern humans originated from. The unearthing of two fossils have been recognized, according to a report by Nature magazine, to be “the oldest known members of our species,” and additionally the “discovery adds yet more weight to the argument that Africa, and Ethiopia in particular, was the birthplace of humans.” Pretty impressive.

That’s a lot of responsibility for a country to bear, which is why it was a founding member of the UN and continues to be one of the strongest economies in East Africa—accomplishments which have not managed to bring the country out of poverty, hunger, and corruption. Armenia, in many ways, suffers from the same problems. Although the distinction of being the civilizational cradle can’t be conferred upon this tiny Caucasus country, its problems nevertheless can be traced back to the Soviet influence that took hold of the society. Much less known is the fact, however, that Ethiopia, too, was under communist rule for quite some time. Naturally, although geography prevented the nation from becoming a part of the USSR, it was nevertheless ruled by the Derg, which was essentially a Soviet-backed military dictatorship.

Another aspect that’s not often mentioned is that the Cold War is in many respects a misnomer, especially as it relates to Africa. Everyone is aware of the events surrounding Vietnam, but not many know that the US and USSR, in fact, conducted the majority of their proxy wars in Africa. In this sense, the conflict was very much a “hot war” because there was actual fighting and much of it was fierce, as in the Angolan Civil War, which continued until 2002.

Besides the communist influence that couldn’t be any more foreign to the cultures of both countries, there are also modern civilizational ties between Ethiopia and Armenia. In 1924, on a trip to Jerusalem, Haile Selassie I, visited an Armenian monastery and there he encountered forty orphans who had escaped the atrocities of the Armenian Genocide. The so-called “Arba Lijoch” children made such an impression on him that the Emperor decided to adopt them all and bring them to Ethiopia, where they apparently received instruction in music. Thus, according to an article in How Africa, the Armenian influence on modern Ethiopian music is clearly visible. Under the tutelage of musical director, Kevork Nalbandian, also an orphan of Armenian descent, Selassie asked Nalbandian to compose a coronation hymn on his behalf, and on November 2nd, 1930, “the anthem, Marsh Teferi, was unveiled with the Arba Lijoch performing and Prince Ras Tafari becoming the Emperor of Ethiopia, King of Kings, Haile Selassie I.” The group of orphans continued to perform in the imperial brass band. Emperor Selassie is pictured below.

According to the Joshua Project, there are still 700 Armenians living in Ethiopia today, although a March BBC article from this year puts the figure at under a 100.

Despite the fact that their numbers were never very big, Armenians have contributed positively to the development of Ethiopia throughout the years; ever since their arrival, they’ve “played a vital role in the court of Emperor Menelik II. And later, in the early 20th Century, a community settled that went on to have an economic and cultural impact,” according to the same BBC article quoted above. It must also be noted that trade between the two peoples can confidently be traced back to the first century AD. Under Emperor Haile Selassie, the country embarked on a rapid modernization program and “Armenian courtiers, businessmen and traders played an important role in this transition,” further highlighting the impact this small, yet influential community had on Ethiopian society.

Besides their contributions to music and culture, the alphabets of both countries also bear uncanny resemblances to one another. The similarities are indeed incredible and, according to a 2003 article published in the International Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Ayele Bekerie provides three hypotheses for the emergence of the Armenian alphabet: The first is that it was entirely invented by one man, Mesrop Mashtots, which is the commonly-held view among the majority of Armenians; the second hypothesis states that the alphabet emerged out of previous, older alphabets that were present or known to Mashtots at the time; the third hypothesis, and perhaps the most interesting, is that “Jerusalem, the most sacred city of Christianity, is the likely candidate for the place of scholarly exchanges between Ethiopians and Armenians,” and this is why the similarities arose in the first place. Given that both countries are pretty much the first Christian states in the world, it’s highly likely that their interaction in Christianity’s holiest city may have been responsible for shaping Armenia’s writing system, which was invented in 405 AD.

The so-called Geʽez script, which the Ethiopian language uses, had already been in existence for approximately 300 years by that point so its presence in Jerusalem before the invention of Armenia’s alphabet wouldn’t have been a far-fetched possibility, by any stretch of the imagination.

It’s not really surprising, then, that both countries decided to round out this strange year, 2020, much the same way, embroiled in political turmoil and war. The similarities between PM Abiy Ahmed and PM Nikol Pashinyan are almost eerie; they’re basically the same age—44 and 45, respectively; they both assumed office in 2018, promising to bring sweeping, revolutionary political changes, which they did bring. Pashinyan, for his part, took radical steps to rid the state of corruption, which brought unprecedented freedoms and economic growth to the nation while Abiy made similar reforms to allow for greater liberties and transparency; he made peace with Eritrea, which earned him a Nobel Prize in 2019 and reconciled religious tensions within the country.

Both leaders were widely praised for their liberal, progressive reforms, until those measures started to backfire. In the case of Pashinyan, the liberalization measures alienated Armenia’s closest ally, Russia, which made the fragile Republic of Artsakh (Armenia has a mutual defense agreement with Russia) very much susceptible to war and Azerbaijan certainly took advantage of that—by starting a conflict which they were sure to win and the aftermath of this victory ended up erasing all confidence that the public had in Pashinyan’s ability to lead the country (external events destabilizing internal progress, in a sense); Abiy’s problems, on the other hand, emerged internally. On his part, the democratization caused some ethnic groups within the country, such as the Tigrayans, to feel excluded, mainly because Abiy was an Oromo, and the hallmark of his political career had been fighting for the social and economic rights of his own ethnic group.

When the Tigrayans decided to revolt, Abiy started an offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (a regional political party of considerable power that for 27 years dominated the Ethiopian political landscape until Abiy came to power) on November 4th, and roughly three weeks later, captured the Tigray capital of Mekele. This should’ve ended the war but a recent article in the Washington Post paints a much bleaker picture: “The TPLF’s leadership remains largely intact despite abandoning Mekele last week. On Thursday, in a message aired on a regional television network, one prominent leader called on supporters to ‘rise and deploy to battle in tens of thousands.’ TPLF officials did not respond to requests for comment and have kept their whereabouts secret.” That the TPLF, like Azerbaijan, is willing to fight until the very end isn’t promising, at least so far as the status quo is concerned. Below is an image of the horrors currently engulfing the country.

The strange thing is that these occurrences aren’t anomalies. In fact, much of Africa in the 90’s was experiencing rapid waves of democratization, and contrary to the expected positive results people were hoping for, the outcome was utterly negative. Take a nation like Ivory Coast, for example; it achieved independence from France in 1960 and saw a man by the name of Félix Houphouët-Boigny come to power. Under his moderate political leadership, the country prospered and became one of the most stable in the entire continent. Like other African states at the time, the government functioned with one-party elections, which ensured stability and efficiency.

During the 1970’s and 80’s, however, when the oil crisis and the neoliberal reforms of the Washington Consensus began to take a toll on the “economic miracle” of Ivory Coast, conflicting interests and dissenting voices could no longer be appeased and placated with the same success. Calls for multi-party elections were increasingly on the rise and although Houphouët-Boigny conceded to these reforms (he nevertheless ended up winning his first contested election in 1990), his death in 1993 brought an end to the stability the country had enjoyed for so long.

The generally favorable attitude towards immigrants under Houphouët-Boigny’s leadership subsequently disappeared, with ethnic clashes occurring regularly, and a full-scale civil war eventually erupted in 2002. Occurrences like these were quite common throughout Africa in the 90’s and 2000’s, further highlighting the fact that democratization, while appealing and preferable, is nevertheless a risky business, especially if it opens the door for conflicting interests and gives those previously excluded the “right” to fight for them in a liberalized environment which has invariably allowed it.

Indeed, both Pashinyan and Abiy entered the political scene at the same time with similar idealistic visions for their countries, but their premierships have increasingly focused on repressing those voices which either have a different vision of what “freedom” means to them or the ones who feel like they’re excluded from it. Only time will tell how people will remember the legacies of these men.


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