The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia’s Constitution of 1995 envisions present-day Ethiopia as a grand political community to be founded on the ‘rule of law’, ‘capable of ensuring lasting peace’, ‘guaranteeing democratic order’ as well as ‘promoting the rapid socio-economic development’ of its inhabitants. Admittedly, there is no such thing as nation-building word by word in the entire text of the constitution, writes Merhatsidk Mekonnen Abayneh.
In a country which is, by far, not short of national, regional and international conferences, another glorious symposium of its kind was hosted on the 16 and 17 of January 2018 in the town of Bishoftu, Oromia Regional State. According to the concept note circulating to the table at the time, the main pre-occupation of this one was to discuss nation-building as a buzz concept first and gradually develop a model that would perhaps suit Ethiopia on an inflated impression that it currently needs to reconfigure itself as an emerging federation on the soil of discord. Setting the stage of the discussion were quite a good number of enlightening presentations from such eminent scholars as Christopher Clapham, from the Center of African Studies, Cambridge University, (UK), Fantu Cheru (Prof.) from the University of Lieden (the Netherlands), Zeresenay Alemseged (Prof.) from the University of Chicago (US) Adebayo Olukoshi (Prof.) from the Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), Richard Joseph (Prof.) from the Brookings Institution (US), Mohamed Salih (Prof.), from ISS Erasmus University, (the Netherlands) and Gunter Schroeder (PhD), an independent analyst from Germany.
With that tremendous intellectual resource, it was originally anticipated that this high-level conference would conceptualize nation-building in the contemporary era, critically scrutinize into its essential ingredients and subsequently come up with a meaningful instrumentality capable of lifting the country out of its abysmal state of affairs feared to accelerate or hasten its political collapse. Nevertheless, it seems to me that it has ended up without even producing an agreeable formula of what the terms ‘nation’ and ‘nation-building’ themselves constitute from the standpoint of our current domestic predicament.
With the presence of a few senior government officials noticeable, invitees to the symposium were largely drawn from the spectrum of the society such as the academia, opposition political parties, civic and religious groupings, the media and foreign embassies based in Addis as well as the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) war veterans and other prominent personalities far and wide. Definitely, the academic community from the Addis Ababa University appears to have dominated the attendance and spearheaded the discussion in the symposium.
The issues on the table
Following our exposure to a series of presentations, participants of the symposium had, at the initial stage, to desperately grapple with a plethora of crude and complex issues engulfing the entire deliberation, so to speak.
In that regard, some of the questions that needed addressing include, what constitutes a nation as a concept? What does nation-building mean in the context of state formation? Is there any significant difference between the ideas of nation-building and state-building having due regard to comparative experiences brought about from various regions the world over? And is nation-building relevant to Ethiopia today? and if so, why?
For the purpose of the symposium, a nation was roughly defined as a collective aspiration of people having ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural diversities towards the formation of a common state on behalf of all in a single political community to which they belong territorially and psychologically while still preserving their respective identities intact. Hence, the term is believed to represent an idea or allegiance of an organized community to a preferred authority with a genuine sense of belonging and a shared vision more than a territorial space occupied and controlled by a government of the day imposed in whatever manner.
That said, however, none of the distinguished scholars were able to cite for us a single instance in history in which a viable nation-state was purportedly born out of this kind of smooth and democratic process. Moreover, almost all of them agreed that nation-building is an evolving and an unfinished business by its very nature, as far as they are concerned.
Regardless of slight variations, both nation-building and state-building were used by the participants almost interchangeably throughout the deliberation. Although comparative experiences vary from one region to another, the Swiss and Scandinavian models sounded high in the discussion. An element of compulsion is always inevitable at the initial stage of state formation conducted anywhere in the world. Success in nation-building does, however, lie in the negotiation and conclusion of a social contract aimed at including or holding a multitude of diverse communities desiring to live together and thereby develop a collective ideology with a unifying state apparatus in a continuous interaction for ages.
The process of nation-building historically recorded to have been undergone in Africa is inextricably linked with the colonial occupation of its vast territories and the merciless subjugation of its different peoples by sheer force. In the majority of instances, nation-states in present-day Africa are simply the mechanical creations of European colonialism and do suffer real legitimacy when it comes to their territorial incorporation and citizenship identity.
Second thought on the value of the symposium
Unlike the entire Africa, no doubt that Ethiopia is a nation-state with an age-old political independence that had never been colonized by any foreign power from antiquity. Thus, there were few elements from among the gathering who had a second thought on the substantial value of the symposium from this perspective. Some even remarked behind the podium that Ethiopia is neither South Sudan nor Somalia in need of being built afresh as a nation long after it has established political system way back 3,000 years ago.
Towards the conclusion of the symposium, Ephraim Isaac (Prof.), a distinguished scholar in Near Eastern Languages and the pioneering founder of the Afro-American Studies at Harvard University (US), went deep into the history of ancient Ethiopia and called upon the congregation that our longstanding traditional and religious values and norms be seriously taken on board in the reinvigorated consideration and accomplishment of its overall renaissance. Beyene Petros (Prof.), deputy chair of the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Forum, (Medrek), on his part, earlier reiterated that the pressing need of the country today is for the widening of democratic space as well as submitting for national truce and reconciliation instead of nation-building as proposed on the part of the initiators of the latest symposium
The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia’s Constitution of 1995 envisions present-day Ethiopia as a grand political community to be founded on the ‘rule of law’, ‘capable of ensuring lasting peace’, ‘guaranteeing democratic order’ as well as ‘promoting the rapid socio-economic development’ of its inhabitants. Admittedly, there is no such thing as nation-building word by word in the entire text of the constitution. Yet, one is here reminded at best to critically examine such vital phrases in the very preamble of the constitution as ‘mutual interest’, ‘emergence of common outlook’ and ‘common destiny’ which might be well taken to carve out the essential building blocks of the concept in view.
Ironically, the country resembles to be less a nation than those which formally make it up in a rather crude-looking construction from the very start. In other words, it is the So-called ‘nations, nationalities and peoples’ which are declared to have formally constituted Ethiopia as a mother nation of the whole conglomeration. That does not, however, reduce the status of the country to the extent of disqualifying it from continuing to act as a sovereign nation-state duly recognized under international law, as the isolated segment of few participants were trying to suggest in an apparently extreme scenario.
My first-hand impression is that one cannot and should not totally dismiss the value of the proposed nation-building project for Ethiopia provided that it be implemented in an inclusive and democratic process. After all, we have unanimously conceded to the preposition that nation-building is a continuous and an unfinished business in any given political landscape roughly explored by the successive presentations. Nevertheless, the theoretical discourse on the nation-building project ought to be accompanied or complemented with the guiding principles of ‘national reconciliation’ which the country badly needs to also go through in the wake of its pressing challenges at the moment.
Ed.’s Note: Merhatsidk Mekonnen Abayneh is a senior expert in law as well as peace and security studies. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter or the institution he is affiliated with [email protected].