Ethnicity, Conflict and Festivalisation of Politics in Ethiopia

Izabela is a passionate Ethiopianist who has lived and worked in the country for extensive periods of time. She studied Ethiopian languages and cultures in her native Poland at the Institute of Oriental Studies, University of Warsaw. In 2006 she earned her PhD in African History from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. In the same year she has won a prestigious British Academy post-doctoral fellowship to continue her work on the symbolism of power in Ethiopian history at the University of Edinburgh (2006-9). While working on this project she developed her interest in visuals ranging from the unique aesthetics of the Ethiopian church paintings to political posters. Since then she has conducted numerous research projects (British Academy, National Science Foundation U.S, Alexandra von Humboldt) in Ethiopia and Europe and held a position at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. During her research she has interviewed elders, collected oral histories and discovered unpublished manuscripts in rural churches.

While working at Addis Ababa University she taught BA and MA students and developed lasting relationships with local academia, western research institutes (French and German) and the local art scene. Living, working and researching in Africa has made her passionate about showing how tackling many of the world’s development challenges requires serious consideration of local cultures, religious practices, histories and societal norms and an understanding of how such norms are different from those in the western context.

Despite receiving her PhD in African history from the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), she has worked and co-authored with geographers, religion specialists, social anthropologists, ecologist and biologists applying her knowledge and experience more broadly. Working together with an international multidisciplinary team she engaged in research involving biological assessment of the endemic forests surrounding Ethiopian Orthodox churches in northern Ethiopia and the socio-religious dynamic underpinning their successful management. This project has allowed her to directly apply her knowledge of society, culture and religious practice for research on biodiversity, climate change and deforestation.

Izabela organised academic workshops, participated in scientific committees helped to implement European initiatives in Ethiopia, such as a scholarship scheme (Germany) and an academic writing workshop (UK). She has also given interviews (TV and Radio) on the politics, society and culture.

Her current project focuses the intersection of culture, heritage and politics in Ethiopia.


This study proposes to explore the connection between ethnicity, heritage management and conflict in Ethiopia. Ethnic federalism was established in Ethiopia the early 1990s as an attempt to deal with historic hegemony of certain groups and marginalisation of others. It provided a framework for the multiethnic state to fit the global rhetoric on ethnic equality. Ethiopian ethic federation conceptualises the nation as nations, nationalities and peoples with equal rights to self-determination.

The focus on ethnicity and diversity has triggered new interest in heritage of the diverse ethnic groups comprising Ethiopia of today. The federal government has appropriated heritage of different groups by drawing on the past and by encouraging celebration of what has been labeled as ‘authentic’ cultural expressions. Festivities associated with specific ethnic groups have been encouraged, reinvented and appropriated, such as e.g. the Oromo irricha ritual or the Chumbalala celebration of the Sidama.

Despite the attempts at nation building and the official rhetoric of ‘unity in diversity’, Ethiopia has recently experiencing outbreaks of ethnic conflict. Research has shown that the federal arrangement has in fact intensified ethnic conflict (Abbink 2006).

This project proposes a closer look at the complex processes and different ways in which social groups create, convey and experience their cultures and the ways in which social groups interact and experience tensions often mobilised by regimes in the processes of identity formation, inclusion and exclusion. The proposed study has a potential to shed light at the unexplored complexities and triggers of conflict in this part of the Horn of Africa.

The Research Idea

This project is to take a pioneering approach to the study of ethic conflict by linking it with heritage management, namely state-led enactments of local cultures. Since contemporary concerns shape the ways in which the past is represented and remembered (Lentz&Lowe: 2018) this project proposes to explore the role of heritage related projects (e.g. cultural festivals, posters/billboards celebrating local cultures, or establishment of local museums) in the production of difference and diversity in Ethiopian. Cultural exhibits have been known to deliberately inspire critical reflection on heritage and the values and power dynamics attached to it. Globally many of such approaches are inspired by theoretical ideas and methods from critical heritage and museum studies, indigenous or community archaeology and are intended to facilitate dialogue. In Ethiopia the federal structure and the focus on ethnicity has triggered new interest in heritage management. Museums and cultural centres have been established throughout the country and museology and heritage management have received a prominent place within the country’s higher education system.

The assumption of this project is that co-opted celebrations of cultural heritage can lead to reshaping of ethnicities, which might have a negative effect. In Ethiopia ethniciziation of politics has led groups, who did not view their differences considerable to engagement in practices of ‘creating’ difference in order to gain access to benefits offered by the state.


Cultural diversity and difference raise some of the most pressing dilemmas in the contemporary world. Globalization is often used to describe the disappearance of cultural and linguistic diversity on the one hand, and the co-presence of greater diversity, e.g. in the form of migrants and officially recognised formally marginalised groups.

In Ethiopia diversity and various ethnicities have been used as a tool of exclusion and/or inclusion, which in fact often encourages ethnic conflict (Schlee & Shongolo 1995:18; Donham 1999:129). Ethnic federalism, established in Ethiopia in the early 1990s, has been an attempt to adhere to the global trends on ethnic equality to offer a framework for a multiethnic society. Ethiopian federalism is based on ethnicity and conceptualises the nation as nations, nationalities and peoples with equal rights to self-determination. The country’s regions are supposedly based on ethnicity and language, but ethnic groups (cultures) do not neatly fit these boundaries. Research has shown, however, that the politics of unity in diversity that came with the federal structure actually intensified conflict along ethnic lines (Abbink 2006). Problems with ethnic federalism have been now, at least partly, acknowledged by the newly appointed Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who called for a commission to investigate the federal arrangement.

What scholarly research has little to say about is how ethnically based identifies are manufactured with the use of performative cultural events (festivals and cultural production such as appropriation of cultural heritage). The proposed research has the potential to fill this gap.

The Focus

Recent violence in the city of Hawassa located in the region of the Southern Nations serves as an example to illustrate the connection between cultural heritage, ethnic federalism and conflict. In June 2018 the Chumbalala celebration of the Sidama ethic group – a traditional celebration that has been co-opted by the state and takes place at a government constructed Chumbalala Park in Hawassa has been followed by an outbreak of unprecedented violence in this city. Immediately after this festival celebrating Sidama culture and the newly forged sense of ‘sidamaness’ of the city of Hawassa, the Sidama began attacking a different ethnic group, the Welaita, partially due to their sense that urban Welaita are occupying Sidama land. This example shows how official attempts to compartmentalised identities based on ethic affiliation trigger new tensions.

What has not been much explored is that the connection between seemingly innocent celebration of local heroes, the revival of traditional rituals other cultural expressions and conflict.

Plurality of views and interpretations of the past offer to Ethiopians different pictures of what constitutes the national narrative and how the regional identities fit into it. For example, Emperor Menelik (1989-13) is seen by some as a hero of colonial resistance (the Battle of Adwa against Italy in 1896) and by others he is considered a coloniser of the southern territory of todays Ethiopia. The revisionist approach to the past and to regional and ethnic heritage often clashes with the idea of ‘unity in diversity’.

Theoretical Novelty

Theoretical novelty of this project lies in linking seemingly unrelated areas of scholarly inquiry, namely heritage management and performative cultural expressions to causes of conflict.

This project’s methodology draws on the idea that stimuli evoked in visuals, performative and symbolic action have the ability to effect common sentiments and, as such, are useful in the process of forging opinions (Linke 2006: 218). I base my approach on the Geertzian assumption that it is the symbolic repertoire embedded in local culture that allows political authority to advance its claims (Geertz 1985: 30). Values and idioms invoked in this way play a crucial role in forging identities and cultural codes allowing for a feeling of unity and a common world-view (Kertzer 1988: 2–5). I also draw on the work of Lina Khatib, who postulates that leaders and citizens both engage in politics as visual performance and Katrien Pype’s analysis of political billboards, which offers insights of how political actors mobilise passions stirred up by visuals in negotiating boundaries of political discourse (2012).

In my previous work, I have used a combination of approaches bridging history, anthropology, philology and art history and proving my awareness of a number of academic discourses and my ability to apply them in a single research topic. I derive important inspiration and guidance from the works mentioned above and apply knowledge and experience gained in the course of previous research projects in Ethiopia.


The proposed research engages with questions such as: What guides engagement with the past? Who gets involved and who is left out and for what reason? How is power distributed among people and institutions involved in such projects? How is knowledge about the past and heritage negotiated? What are the long-term effects of such endeavours? Can/are these practices leading to the establishment of ‘neutral’ national heritage, such as in the case of Lucy, the human fossil found in the Ethiopian desert that symbolically represents the idea of Ethiopia as the cradle of mankind. Or is the sense of common, national identity better captured by the symbol of the development state in the form of the Ethiopian Renaissance dam? Both have been proposed by the state in different campaigns.

My knowledge of Ethiopian languages allows me to consult a wide range of available written materials (pamphlets, local press, magazines and official reports) essential to the project. Having lived and worked in Ethiopia (for five years excluding research stays) allowed me to conduct ethnographic research and to conducted extensive archival research, especially in the capital at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa University. Over the years, I have gathered a personal archive of newspapers, political posters, records of festivities as well as personal observations, which I now intend to use to investigate annual celebrations of national days.

Work Plan

Work plan for 12 months of the award:

  1. Comprehensive literature review on fesitvalisation and politics, the use of performance and visuals in politics and memory studies (commemorations and anniversaries).
  2. Selection and analysis of images and recordings from an extensive personal collection consisting of: photographs, posters, urban murals, postal stamps, recordings of festivities), newspapers such as Addis Zemen and Ethiopian Herlad (scanned) and occasional brochures produced for the Victory Day (the fall of the previous regime), Nation, Nationalities and Peoples’ Day celebrating all ethnicities, Pastoralists Day, Flag Day, Ethiopian Cities’ Day, Adwa Day as well as images of regional sites of recently erected monuments in several Ethiopian provinces celebrating local cultures and offering interpretations of the past (e.g. Hawassa and Harrer).
  3. Selection of useful interviews conducted over the years, e.g.: the former director of the School of Fine Arts, Addis Ababa University, who was involved in training several generations of students, including poster artists. He is also the author of the logo for the Ethiopian millennium campaign and the monument in Adama commissioned by current government (two interviews in 2011, 2015) a young artist recently commissioned to produce a mosaic for the celebration of Ethiopian Nations, Nationalities and People in Asosa (May 2015).
  4. Writing up of two articles and developing a book proposal (see below).


The first result of this research has been published in the article in Nations and Nationalism 19(2) 2013, 296-316. ‘Forging a Nation’ examines contemporary attempts to create symbols of national unity as part of the project of ethnic federalism (Orlowska 2013).

The fellowship funding would allow me to develop a deeper understanding of the proposed topic. It would give me the opportunity to organise and analyse the material I have collected over the years, as well as further engaged with the literature on memory, heritage and commemoration as well as on ethnic politics and conflict.

The fellowship would also be an opportunity to explore a new area of interest for me, namely public history in the non-western context.

I plan to write two journal articles and develop a book proposal on the topic. The two articles will be based on the material that I have already collected.
1. A Hero Never Dies: deciphering the visual campaign for Meles Zenawi;
2. Irricha and Chumbalala – the celebration of ‘authentic’ culture and their political consequences.

Importantly, I also plan to develop a book proposal during the time of the fellowship and a follow up research agenda to conduct further investigation necessary for the book. The long-term results are expected to be of use to both the scholarly community, the policy makers and development agencies.