Wednesday, June 12, 2024
CommentaryQuo vadis Ethiopian nationalism

Quo vadis Ethiopian nationalism

An economic community is necessary to create sustainable and mutually supportive condition for a political community. This would not only facilitate interethnic communication and interaction but also create middle income and ethnic transcendent generation, writes Yohannes Gebeyehu.

Political historians, politicians and policymakers are highly divided on how the Ethiopian state comes into being; state formation in Ethiopia. The scholarly schism, however, can be reduced into three major categories of thoughts: the reunification, the expansionist/national oppression, and the colonialist school of thought.

The reunification school of thought traces Ethiopia’s state formation back to more than 3,000 years and claims that the state formation project was started by Emperor Tewodros II, completed by Menelik II and consolidated by Haile Selassie I which is part of the reunification of what were parts of Ethiopia’s empire. This is the project of reunifying what were parts of Ethiopia at a point in its political history.

The expansionist on the other hand believe that state formation came in the form of the South ward expansion of the highland Christian kingdom under the leadership of Menelik II at the pinnacle of his leadership. The expansion was followed by assimilation of different socio-cultural groups into the dominant Amhara-Tigrai religious and cultural domain, to the expansionists.

The colonialist thesis, on its part, asserts that state formation was indeed a colonial activity of the Abyssinians/Habesha. To this school of thought, the ‘‘Amhara/Tigrai dominated’’ feudal colonized the rest of the ethnic groups that make up what is today called Ethiopia. The Ethiopian state has come into being through the thesis of the ‘Amhara colonial domination’ and the antithesis of the anti-colonial struggle of the rest of the ethnic groups.

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Nation building as a process of collective identity formation in the political sphere by which elites of the new state give meaning to the formal set-up they had partly inherited from the past takes its shape within the context of the above debates of state formation. Accordingly, one can see nation-building in Ethiopia as a compromise among civic nationalism, ethnic- nationalism and pluralism.

According to political scientist David Brown, civic nationalism, at least in theory “offers a vision of kinship community of equal citizens which is formed on the basis of contract, commitment, loyalty and love. Individuals of various ethno-cultural backgrounds may enter this community by committing themselves to loyalty to the public institutions and way of life of their residential homeland”. The basic strategy for accommodating ethno-cultural diversity offered by this vision of nation is neutrality with respect to ethnicity in the public institutions of the state and the policies passed in the law-making institutions.

Institutions of the Ethiopian state as a mixture of religion and political interaction were not for much its existence neutral to ethno-cultural and religious orientations. In fact, in the post-liberation period run up to the advent of the Derg, ‘‘the Haile Selassie I regime engaged in a deliberate and conscious effort to construct Ethiopian national identity around language, religion and national flag’’. (Abebe, 2000:101)

This approach is found to be problematic to Ethiopia where there has been diversity in the interpretation of the political history of state formation. It is also problematic because elites have been divided on the beliefs, world views and historical understanding of the dominant (ethno) cultural groups of the current Ethiopia; Christian- Amhara-Tigrai ethno-culture and on the process of Ethiopian State coming into being up on which civic nationalism could have been founded. Elites are divided on their common past which could have been able to bind the loyalties of the future nation.

Civic nationalism, in Ethiopia, is alleged to be a mask for hegemony of the endeavour of what some call the Amhara-Tigrai Orthodox Christian culture trying to superimpose its vision of past, present and future on the other ethnic groups.

Some also argue that, citrus paribus, civic nationalism could fairly work well in an ethnically homogenous and economically developed setting that Ethiopia is devoid of.  Thus, civic nationalism has no socio-economic, religious-cultural, politico-historical foundation to establish self in Ethiopia.

Imperial Ethiopia’s nation building for much of the late 19th and early 20th century was primarily political and territorial centralization and integration of early autonomous territories. This phase of centralization/integration was more concerned with establishing a uniform political administration. It can be traced back to Emperor Menelik II’s establishing the first western style of ministries, building infrastructure and establishing modern education. It was the political identification of the population with the state.  It was a process of nation building/state formation through bureaucratic rather than cultural incorporation. Then from 1941 onwards, the approach to nation building changed from territorial and political centralization (bureaucratic incorporation) into transforming the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious (ethno-cultural incorporation) into a homogeneous national state through education, economic development and the creation of national awareness.

Emperor Haile Selassie I’s attempt of cultural incorporation and the 1960s socialist and communist consciousness transformed ethnic groups in the multi-ethnic Ethiopian state into an ethnic self-conscious political entity. Ethiopia’s nation in this understanding might be interpreted as a politicized ethnic community, which demands group rights including the right to secession. The process was hijacked by the usurp age of power by the Derg which failed to resolve the national question resulting in the 17 years of war between the Derg and the dominantly ethnically organized groups culminating in the secession of Eritrea and the advent to power of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) with nations, nationalities and peoples at the heart of the rule of the political game.

Ethnically oriented political actors have tried at “grabbing” the state for the nations constituted by taking recourse to ethnic criteria; though the constitution aims at recognizing nations, nationalities and peoples being an accepted partner in a concert of equals within one multinational state. Nationalism in contemporary Ethiopia, as enshrined in the constitution, goes for a compromise between civic nationalism and ethno-cultural nationalism. It deems to be pluralistic nationalism where there are ethno-cultural groups of equal rights with polycentric political universe with more than 80 dialects, nine regional states, two city administrations, and multi-religious establishments all having their degree of loyalty to their ethno-religious-cultural constituency.

Pluralistic nationalism borrows ethno-cultural group as structural device which structures the interaction between the units of political agency as it is the most fundamental pillar from ethno-cultural nationalism and the principle of equality and equal rights from
civic nationalism. Even if the inter-ethnic balance might be precarious in the long
run, there is no need for either cultural assimilation or extreme counter-nationalism,
which challenge an official state-nationalism, as the basic needs of all nations can be safeguarded in the common state.

Nation building project in contemporary Ethiopia as political strategy to sustain the viability and survival of the multi-nation state is approached in what the constitution referred to as building a political and economic community. The preamble of the constitution lies out building a political community founded on the rule of law and capability of ensuring a lasting peace and guaranteeing a democratic order, and advancing economic and social development as important pillar of nation building. The full respect of individual and people’s fundamental freedoms and rights, determination to live together on the basis of equality and without discrimination of any sort, building up common interests and contributing the emergence of common outlook through continuous interaction on various level and forms of life, promoting shared interests are identified to be pre-conditions/foundation to establishing a political community.

Building one economic community is necessary in order to create sustainable and mutually supportive conditions for ensuring respect for fundamental freedoms and rights, for the collective promotion of shared interests, consolidating as a lasting legacy, the peace and the prospect of a democratic order, the constitution reiterates. An economic community is necessary to create sustainable and mutually supportive condition for a political community. This would not only facilitate interethnic communication and interaction but also create middle income and ethnic transcendent generation.

However, despite the official assertion of building a political and economic community, some cautioned that Ethiopia is in national failure at an increasing rate where members of the federation do have an ever-increasingdivided loyalty where they claimed that they are first their ethnic group and Ethiopia second, calling for proactive implementation of what the constitution referred to as the project of building a political and economic community.

Ed.’s Note: Yohannes Gebeyehu has a Master’s Degree in Diplomacy and International Relations. He can be reached at [email protected].


Contributed by Yohannes Gebeyehu


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