Vexillology is a study of flags; Generally, the study of the history, meaning, and usage of flags. In our world, we’ve seen flags ranging from weird-looking to fancy. In this article, we’ll be talking about one of the most compelling cases of flags in Africa, the Ethiopian flag. A flag whose colours have carried the tradition of associating the rainbow with God’s promise never again to annihilate humankind (What Is the Meaning of the Rainbow in the Bible? (christianity.com)); A flag that has inspired the Pan-African movement. And a flag that’s given rise to the tricolour symbol of the Rastafarian movement and the Reggae genre in music.
History of the Flag of Ethiopia
The Flag of the Aussa Sultanate
The Aussa Sultanate (Sultanate of Aussa – Wikipedia), believed to have ruled between the end of the 16th century to the 19th century, was the first to have ever flown in Ethiopia. This Ethiopian flag had a solid red colour with no emblems on it.
The Pennant Ethiopian Flag
A pennon or a pennant flag is a flag that’s larger or wider at the hoist than it’s at the fly.
The hoist is the part of the flag closest to the flagpole, while the fly is the part farthest from the pole.
Triangular, tapering and triangular swallowtail are some of the shapes available for this flag type.
Until 1897, when Ethiopia didn’t have an officially recognized flag, the red, yellow and green pennon served as the country’s national flag.
Menelik II and the First Official Ethiopian Flag 1897 – 1914
On 6th October 1897, Menelik II was the first Ethiopian leader to officialize a national flag. Menelik II, the king who led the country into the Adwa victory against Italy in 1896, used the rectangular tricolour flag that has been in use in Ethiopia ever since. The flag consists of three colours: red, yellow, and green, from top to bottom. The king, in addition, had the Amharic letter ‘ም (‘Meh’) as an emblem on the middle of the flag. ‘ም is the initial of Menelik’s name in the Amharic language, written as ‘ምኒሊክ’. Some sources suggest a crown was placed on top of this letter.
The Ethiopian Flag has always been connected with the colours of the rainbow, and present-day Ethiopians believe the tricolour of the Menelik flag represents this notion best. And this is visible in that, even though different regimes after Menelik II have had differing emblems, all of them, including the current administration, used Menelik’s tricolour.
The Flag of the Ethiopian Empire, 1914 – 1936
This flag had the same colours as Menelik II’s flag but removed the monogram and crown. In addition, the dimensions of the tricolour Ethiopian flag were altered. This flag is the most popular one among the people of the nation to this day, despite restrictions imposed by multiple succeeding regimes against the usage of this flag. This flag has been used as a symbol of resistance under numerous governments.
The Lion of Judah Flag of Emperor Haileselassie, 1941 – 1974
Continuing the legacy of the tricolour flag into his empire Haileselassie I kept the colours and shape of the previous flag untouched, except for removing Menelik II’s emblem and adding his emblem in its place. The lion of Judah was Haileselassie I’s emblem resting in the middle of the flag. The emblem was meant to validate the claim made by Haileselassie I, just like his predecessors, that he had the Solomonic bloodline. The lion of Judah could be seen holding a cross.
The Rastafarian movement has popularized this flag as part of the belief that Haileselassie I is the awaited Messiah for black people portrayed in Marcus Garvey’s prophecy. To this day, the Rastafarians and the Reggae music can be seen decorated with variations of the tricolour of the Ethiopian flag with the Lion of Judah in the middle.
Emperor Haileselassie had succeeded in further centralizing the country and employed effective foreign diplomacy tactics that made him and his government, along with the Ethiopian national flag at the time, a lot more popular than in previous times.
The Imperial Order of Solomon Flag, 1941 – 1974
Emperor Haileselassie I also used the same green, yellow and red tricolour with a different emblem. The emblem consisted of the lion of Judah encircled in a golden circle with the Amharic phrase “ሞዓ፡ኣንበሳ፡ዘእምነገደ፡ይሁዳ።” around it.
The quoted phrase in Amharic can be roughly translated to “The lion from the linage of Judas,” further developing the king’s claim that he was a descendant of the Solomonic bloodline.
The flag also had the six-pointed star or the star of David on five places on the flag.
The Italo – Ethiopian flag, 1936 – 1941
Though an uncolonized country, Ethiopia had fallen under the partial and temporary control of fascist Italy for five years from 1936 to 1941. During this five-year rule, Italy imposed its flag inside Ethiopia to proclaim that the country had been annexed.
The flag shown in the picture was used for the ‘Italian East Africa’.
The Post–Monarchy Ethiopian Flag, 1974 – 1975
The Derg militarist and authoritarian committee, after overthrowing the last emperor of the country, removed the crown from the head of the lion of Judah on Haileselassie I’s flag and changed the cross the lion held with a spear. Again, the Ethiopian flag’s green, yellow, and red tricolours were unaltered. This flag was only used for a year.
The Derg’s National Flag, 1975 – 1987
The first Derg flag and a forerunner for the upcoming Derg flags can rarely be found anywhere. In the middle was an emblem consisting of wheat stalks and farming tools. The Derg popularized the green, yellow, and red tricoloured flag as the leading national flag.
The People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) Flag, 1987 – 1991
Following Mengistu Hailemariam‘s formation of the PDRE, the nation once again saw a change in its national flag. Besides the same tricolour, the new flag had wheat stalks, the Axum Obelisk, and the infamous communist star, among many things, as an emblem.
Above the emblem was written an Amharic translation to the complete form of the acronym PDRE: “የኢትዮጵያ ህዝባዊ ዴሞክራሲያዊ ሪፐብሊክ”.
The Ethiopian Transitional Government Flag, 1991 – 1996
After Derg’s fall, the newly formed transitional government resorted to the plain green, yellow, and red tricoloured flag.
The Ethiopian Transitional Government’s State Flag, 1992
This flag was adopted a year after the fall of the Derg.
The First Ethiopian Flag under the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE), 1996 – 2009
On top of the tricolour, this flag had a central disc with a star inside it.
The Current Ethiopian Flag under FDRE, 2009 – present
This flag has the same colours and emblem as the previous one, but the central disk had been made larger and the disc-less colours bright.
The Current Flag of Ethiopia
The current flag of Ethiopia, with the horizontal tricolour of green, yellow and red, resembles the historical flag of Ethiopia since before the time of the first official flag by Menelik II. Its emblem in the centre is somewhat similar to its forerunner, the first flag of the FDRE.
The current Ethiopian flag, designed by Abebe Alambo, has been in place since 1996, slightly modified in 2009.
Proportions of the Current Ethiopian Flag
The current Ethiopian flag is a rectangular tricolour with green, yellow, and red and an emblem in the middle. The flag’s proportion is 1:2, meaning it measures one meter on the side or width for every two meters of its length. The green, yellow and red colours are placed horizontally in a 1:1:1 proportion. The central disk rests primarily on the middle or yellow part of the tricolour, with its upper and lower circular edges expanding into the green and red colours above and below, respectively.
On the first FDRE flag, the circular disk had a bright blue colour and a yellow star in the middle with yellow rays.
The current FDRE flag, with everything else untouched, has a dark blue coloured circular disk in place of the previous emblem. Here’s an excerpt from Flag Proclamation 654/2009 (Microsoft Word – 654.ae..doc (lawethiopia.com)) of the FDRE.
“The Emblem shall be a blue circle with depictions.
- Straight and equal lines of yellow that come from all directions and join each other;
- A star formed by the straight and equal lines;
- Yellow rays radiating from the points where the straight and equal lines cross each other.”
Origin and Meaning of the Current Ethiopian Flag
The origin and meaning of flags of the multiple Ethiopian empires are closely related to the rainbow and its biblical definition. Through sultanates and monarchies, military dictatorships and trials at a democratic government, the Ethiopian flag saga has reached where it is now. Below, I’ll briefly describe the constitutional meaning and representation behind the FDRE’s current flag.
- Green: Labor, fertility, and development of the country.
- Yellow: Hope, justice, and equality.
- Red: Sacrifice and heroism towards the prevalence of freedom and equality.
Meaning of the emblem according to Proclamation 654/2009:
- The circular blue background of the emblem signifies peace.
- The straight and equal lines signify the equality of Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples as well as of Religions.
- The star formed by the straight and equal lines signifies the unity founded by the Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples of Ethiopia of their common will.
- The yellow rays signify the bright prospect in sight for the Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples united of their common will.
Proclamation 654/2009 further specifies six different sizes of the FDRE flag and their proportion while also stating when and where a flag of each size should be used. In addition, in the proclamation is written further specifications like the type of the flagstaff, time of hoisting and lowering the flag, and the manners with which the national flag shall be displayed along with the regional flags.
The proclamation also states the day of the national flag and the corrective measures to be imposed on anyone found transgressing the standard rules and regulations concerning the country’s national flag.
Ethiopia celebrates its national flag day on the first Monday of its second month, Tikimt (between September and October).
Worldwide Influence of the Ethiopian Flag
Pan-Africanist colour is a term for two different sets of colours:
- The first one is a red, black, and green tricolor placed horizontally from top to bottom. This was introduced by Marcus Garvey in 1920.
- The second one is a green, yellow, and red tricolor placed horizontally from top to bottom. This Pan-Africanist tricolor has gained more popularity over the first one and has been incorporated into the national flags of many African countries after their independence from the colonialism of the West.
Ethiopia, being one of two uncolonized countries in Africa, influenced a lot of African nations into opposing colonialism. Consequently, the Pan-Africanist tricolour was derived from its national flag. Many countries in Africa have incorporated this Pan-Africanist colour into their national flags. The first to do so was Ghana in 1957.
Read more about Pan-Africanism.
Try picturing the late Reggae artist Bob Marley in your head. Chances are you pictured him wearing a green, yellow, and red tricoloured cloth. A Google search for the word ‘Reggae’ and a glance at the Images tab (reggae – Google Search) will produce a vast amount of depictions of the Ethiopian flag tricolours in multiple variations. And as you might have guessed by now, this didn’t happen by accident.
The last emperor of Ethiopia, Haileselassie I, inspired the Rastafarian (Rasta) movement. Rastafarian’s name is derived from the king’s name before his climb to the throne, Ras Tafari. ‘Ras’ was his title equivalent to ‘duke’ in English. ‘Tafari’ was his birth name.
Most Jamaicans, including Bob Marley, revered Ras Tafari, in effect considering his country Ethiopia as the promised land of fertility and blessings; thus, the Rastafarian movement has adopted the tricolour combination of the country’s flag. Many Rastafarians are seen using the emperor’s flag with the lion of Judah in the middle to this day.
It’d be an insult to vexillology to consider the Ethiopian flag just another combination of colours on plain cloth. Its persistence despite the change of emblems on top of the tricolour shows the continuing Ethiopian spirit despite political differences. From rainbow to Pan-Africanism and the Rastafarian movement, the three Ethiopian colours have represented a lot more than it might seem at first.
How the Ethiopian Flag is Pride to African Countries
Ethiopia’s stunning flag is one of Africa’s oldest and most recognizable national flags. This flag has a lengthy history that predates the creation of contemporary nation-states. Ethiopians view their flag as a representation of their country’s long and illustrious history as well as of its ongoing dedication to freedom and independence. It serves as a potent reminder of Ethiopia’s victories over colonialism as well as of the resilience and fortitude of the Ethiopian people.
At the same time, the Ethiopian flag is a symbol of pride for the African country. It holds a special place in the hearts of many other African countries as well. This is because Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of the African Union, which is a pan-African organization that promotes unity and cooperation among African nations. Moreover, Ethiopia is the only African country that was never colonized by Europeans, which has made it an example of independence and resilience for other countries in the region. This makes the Ethiopian flag a proud representation of the continent’s vast and complicated history and a symbol of the continent’s determination to continue to strive for a better future for all.
While the red color in the Ethiopian flag is meant to represent the blood that has been shed in Ethiopia’s struggle for freedom, it has served as an inspiration for Africans across the continent in their fight against colonization, oppression, and injustice. It served as a reminder to them of the courage, resilience, and strength of their ancestors and of the African people as a whole. As a result, many African countries have adopted this red color in their flags, embodying the same message of sacrifice for the sake of liberation.
Moreover, the green on the Ethiopian flag is a symbol of labor, fertility, and the development of the country, which further encourages Africans to remain optimistic and believe in their potential for growth and development. Accordingly, many African countries have followed the same pattern, adding green to their flags in order to represent their shared aspirations of a brighter future.
Controversy Over The Flag
The Ethiopian flag has been the subject of debate for a very long time. The star in the middle of the Ethiopian flag, which represents federalism, is the source of the biggest controversy. While some demand that the current flag remain in place, others want Ethiopia to remove the blue star from the flag. This is exacerbated when some people, during public declarations, say that there is no need for a star on the flag.
The conflict stems from a belief that claims that the original Ethiopian flag was without a star and the TPLF added the star to the flag. However, the current Ethiopian government is taking a stand on it, declaring that the official Ethiopian flag has a star.
The Ethiopian government was initially tolerant and held no crackdown against the people who were carrying or selling the flag without a star. But the government nowadays seems to be more serious and is taking a tougher stance against what it perceives to be an Ethiopian symbol. The Ethiopian police have even released a statement telling citizens not to use the Ethiopian flag without the star sign during national celebrations and protest marches.
However, this doesn’t seem to halt protesters from doing so, as there have been cases of people being arrested for carrying the flag without the star sign at public occasions. Especially during the Timkat festival, the flag without the star is widely observed. Following this, the flags without star signs were confiscated by police officials. Many politicians believe that these disagreements can only be narrowed through community dialogue and compromise. Ethiopia’s newly established National Dialogue Commission is expected to come up with a solution.