The flag of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia has been essentially unchanged since 1996 after the communist regime fell and the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi redefined it. In 2009 the blue disc was darkened, and government Proclamation No. 654/2009 dispelled all doubt about the legal status of the flag, how it was to be used, and the penalties for using a flag not conforming to the official description.
Article 23, sub-article 1 of the Proclamation says “It is prohibited … to use the Flag without its Emblem …” and Article 24 sub-article 2 describes the punishment if you do: “contravention … shall be punishable with a fine up to 5000 birr or rigorous imprisonment up to one year and six months.” Which is why much of the population of Addis Ababa now needs to be rigorously imprisoned, because the city is festooned with flags with no emblem. Emblemless flags are draped on the bonnets of cars and taxis; they hang from many lamp-posts, they are flying (sometimes literally) from the roofs of vehicles and are carried by motorcyclists. Some people have been wearing the flag this weekend, and we saw one guy with a head-dress in the flag colours. See if you can spot him in this 4 ½ minute video, along with an awful lot of sheep, goats and chickens enjoying their last day on earth:
Noah was one of my students at Bingham Academy back in 2007. A bright 14-year-old lad, who soaked up my IT lessons with enthusiasm. One day Noah asked me if I could supervise his chemistry project. He had no idea what to do, so I suggested we do experiments to determine the best proportions of carbon, sulphur and sodium nitrate to make gunpowder. It all went quite well and we had a lot of fun, although on one occasion we accidentally set light to a science lab bench. I was aware that Noah’s father was in prison, but at the time I had no inkling as to why.
Later that academic year and after Chris and I had returned to the UK Noah and his younger brother Iyassu had to flee to the USA. Their father, a well-known and vocal opposition leader, had been released from prison, but had to leave the country with his family immediately. I had no idea that I had been teaching the son of such a controversial, powerful and important politician.
Professor Berhanu Nega’s story is told in full on his Wikipedia page. While in exile he formed an opposition group known as “Patriotic Ginbot 7” based in Eritrea, along with Dr Andargachew Tsige – a British passport-holder recently released from death row in Ethiopia and interviewed on the BBC News Channel’s “Hard Talk”. A New York Times article, published just before the violence of October 2016 erupted, reported an interview with Prof Berhanu and painted a scary picture of possible violent revolution in Ethiopia.
Since 2016 we have seen two spells of martial law, a popular uprising, the release of thousands of political prisoners, the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, and the rise to power of Dr Abiy Ahmed. With popular approval Dr Abiy is seeking reconciliation and forgiveness between the government and opposition groups, and a unification of the country with the minimisation of old ethnic divisions. As the emblem on the flag reminded people of the previously Tigrayan-dominated government of Meles Zenawi and his successors, Dr Abiy has not discouraged the use of the old plain tricolor flag of the Ethiopian empire from before the days of Emperor Haile Selassie.
Hence the purposefully emblemless flags all over the city this weekend were in celebration of the return to Ethiopia of Noah’s father – perhaps deliberately timed to coincide with the New Year celebrations. A New Year not only for Ethiopians, but also the New Year for the Islamic calendar on the same day - an extremely rare occurrence. Prof Berhanu received a massive welcome with closed streets around the airport and a capacity crowd in the national stadium where pretty much everyone was bearing a plain flag. I expect Proclamation 654/2009 has had its day.
While the rest of the city was welcoming Noah’s dad back to Ethiopia, we successfully made our way to church, where an Amharic choir had assembled and were celebrating the imminent new year. The theme was “forgiveness”, to coincide with Dr Abiy’s policy of reconciliation. Here’s a few seconds of what we enjoyed, made even more enjoyable by the cutest little singer with a microphone you have ever seen, front and right:
Change is in the air. The weather has changed - we've had a week of much less rain, more sunshine and clearer skies. The birds have changed - there are fewer vultures and the yellow-billed kites are returning. The government has changed - Dr Abiy Ahmed is moving towards real democracy at lightening speed and is showing mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation and humility like a Christian should, in a way I have never seen from a politician before. New Year and change are often associated, and this year change in Ethiopia is happening at a dizzying pace. there's optimism, sprinkled with some doubts and fears. Change is never easy, but the future for Ethiopia looks brighter than it has for a long time. This is Ethiopia's third revolution in my lifetime; this time without guns and killing. Largely ignored by the developed world, what's happened over the weekend has been a bit of a mini "Mandela moment" for the country. Watch this space.