While the concept of unity was highly propagated during the military regime, the concept of diversity and recognition to ethnic identity was viewed in contempt. However, following the downfall of the military era and the introduction of federalist system of government in Ethiopia, this long-standing tradition was slowly overshadowed by regionalism and ethnic diversity. However, Neamin Ashenafi observes aggravation of diversity in the recent two decades might have created another problem: undermined Ethiopian unity.
One of the most contested ideas in Ethiopia’s political history and sociological makeup is the subject of unity; also the most used and abused word throughout regimes and time periods. The different regimes in Ethiopia had been adopting it to suit their ideological interests and to help them garner the support of the diversified public. They repeatedly used the concept at least rhetorically as their ideological stance to rule and administer the citizens of this country.
However, the concept of unity was highly propagated during the 17-year military regime more than ever, up until its overthrow in 1991. With its slogan “Ethiopia First”, the military regime applied the concept of unity mainly to portray its contenders such as the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF), which was waging a liberation struggle in the northern part of the country, as a secessionist. This was because EPLF’s main target was to gain Eritrea’s independence.
Similarly, the military regime also portrayed the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) as another danger to the unity of Ethiopia and used the concept of unity as a major tool to taint any political demand in the country and to win the hearts of the public in its fight against the then rebels.
The military regime was so fanatic in pursuing the unity narrative that it used past leaders of the country who had contributed to the unity of Ethiopia. In this regard, it was fashionable to preach and talk about unity in different forms; to the extent that different forms of art were subject to magnifying this gigantic concept.
As a result, during the late years of the military regime, it was a de facto rule to include at least one song that is dedicated to Ethiopia while artists produced their music album.
While the concept of unity was highly propagated during the military regime, the concept of diversity and recognition to ethnic identity was viewed in contempt. However, following the downfall of the military era and the introduction of federalist system of government in Ethiopia, this long-standing tradition was slowly overshadowed by regionalism and ethnic diversity.
The emergence of the four-party coalition the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) as an overwhelmingly dominate force in Ethiopian politics after 1991, Ethiopia quickly moved to adopt ethnic federalism and secularism as form of governance, laying the foundation for the accentuation of identity politics in the country.
Fasil Merawi, a lecturer at Addis Ababa University Department of Philosophy, argues that the cause for eroding the subject of unity in Ethiopia is dissatisfaction with the grand narrative of “Ethiopian modernity”. According to him, this dissatisfaction gradually led the ruling party to see “modern Ethiopian” state as assimilationist and homogenizing.
“As such it saw the new foundation of the Ethiopian unity as unity in diversity,” Fasil says. In all fairness, in countries like Ethiopia which is composed of diverse ethnic groups and nationalities, it is almost impossible to turn a blind eye to identity rights. It is also unthinkable to reject the rights of nations and nationalities to gain recognition and develop their culture and language.
However, even prior to the 1974 revolution that ended the imperial regime, discussions on ethnicity and nationalism were confined to certain groups of students, student unions or groups in exile, particularly in Europe and North America. However, after the current regime took power in 1991, it brought the subject of ethnicity into the table and became one of the defining features of both the administration and social fabric of the country.
The recognition given to all ethnic groups and nationalities was welcomed by many during its inception; however, it also entertained severe criticisms from many who regarded the central place ethnicity had occupied as destructive to the longstanding unity of the nation.
These opponents of the introduction of the federal system based on ethnicity feared that it will be cause for identity-based conflicts that in turn will affect the survival of the country and its peoples.
As far as Fasil is concerned, the focus on differences rather than the historical unity has led to abandoning the classical Ethiopian grand unity.
Fast forward to today, the country is facing one of the strongest political unrests in the past 27 years. As the government staggers to manage the situation in the country, others were of the view that their long prophesized fear and frustration has become true and that ethnic politics has started to threaten the survival of the country and its people. This fear emanated from reports of people being targeted and attacked for their ethnic identities during the three year-long protest and the erosion of the subject of unity from the political and socioeconomic formation of the country.
The unrest and the chaos that rocked the country resulted in the resignation of the former Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn on February 15, 2018 leading to the appointment of a new face at the top ranks of the country’s leadership.
Nevertheless, the conflict and the unrest have made something very clear to commentators and observers: that the Ethiopian federalist system and its base have contracted a series disease; a disease that comes from misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the whole “unity in diversity” thing.
The newly appointed Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed (PhD), was perhaps the first among members of the EPRDF to go public with the realization of fracturing the unity under diversity narrative. In his inaugural speech delivered to the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR), unlike his predecessors, Abiy emphasized the role of strengthening unity and mention Ethiopia 40 times during his 35 minutes speech.
In fact, the PM dealt with this issue directly at the public conference held at Mekelle a week before in which he responded to a question saying: “In past 40 years we have waged struggle to make sure that the identities of diverse Ethiopian nations and nationalities are properly respected in their own country.” Nevertheless, Abiy also admitted that in doing so the ruling party has dropped the ball and excluded the “one Ethiopia” and “unity” narratives to most past.
“Now, if we wait for the individual Ethiopian identities to grow and overshadow the Ethiopian identity, it means that we are going into another problem,” the PM explained, and in that regard he admitted his party should have done more to balance this equation.
Many regard the speech by the PM as a springboard to restore the somewhat eroding sense of unity in Ethiopia.
In this regard, the seasoned scholar Bahiru Zewdie (Prof.), in one of his rear public statements, said that the speech by the new PM can be regarded as paving the way to restore the eroded unity of the country. Bahiru shared his views in a recent conference which was organized by the University of Gondar to commemorate fall of the late emperor Tewodos II at Meqdela 150 years ago.
The conference gathered many scholars from across the globe to deliver on different topics regarding the roles of Tewodros II to the unity of Ethiopia, his reform agenda, the desire for technology and so on. In his keynote speech, Bahiru addressed various issues in the evolution of the history of the country and mentioned major contributions of the emperor.
In his lengthy speech, one of the major issues that he highlighted was how the subject of unity was represented in the country and the emperor’s role in this regard; and how the subject was eroded in the past two decades. However, he regarded the recent speech by Prime Minster Abiy as a turning point to restore the unity of the country. He also urged that everyone should take part in the process. But above all, he is hopeful that the light to restore and apply unity over ethnicity is now ignited.
For Fasil, the speech by the new PM about strengthening unity is a good start, however, he suggests, “focusing on ways of life rather than primordial identities”. According to philosopher, there is also a need to address some of the contradictions in the Ethiopian project of modernity. This can be accomplished, he says, by resisting ideology that only focuses on cultural differences that other fundamental social, political and economic problems cannot be exposed. “Developing a new narrative of Ethiopian identity that is more inclusive and appeals to the contributions of different cultures is very important,” Fasil explains.
The other historian that offered a presentation at the conference was the historian Abebaw Ayalew whose theme was how the heroes of the country are contested to get the credit for their contributions. He argued that following the introduction of ethnic-based federalism, the contribution of hero’s in the country were contested than shared among all Ethiopians and this is purely the manifestation of the regime’s effort in solidifying ethnicity over the subject of unity.
He further argued that, in the past two decades, history was not regarded as a history per see; rather it was a political weapon and it became the source of confusion than a common factor for unity. His idea was highly appreciated by the audience and received a warm applause.
Similarly, Adane Alemayheu, a lecturer at the Addis Ababa University, argues that the subject of unity was eroded because of the nature of the regime that advocated and propagated the issues of regionalism than unity.
When one talks about unity, they were regarded as sympathizers of the “old regime” and labeled to a certain category as chauvinist, narrow-minded and others. For this reason, even those there are politicians who want to advocate the subject of unity within the ruling party whoever would prefer to avoid talking about the subject in fear of the labeling and its political consequences, Adane highlighted.
Adane further highlighted on the benefit of unity and stated that: “Ethiopia is surrounded by so many threats; therefore, if we are not unified and stand together so as to defend the interest of the country and the threat from across the region, it would be easy to twist our hands for the enemies to make us do whatever they want us to.”
Regarding the speech by the new Prime Minister, he believes that though it is too late, it is very good to hear from such a higher official of the ruling party to talk about the relevance of unity for development and other efforts made by the government. However, he urged “Abiy to walk his talk”.
“Look, the subject democracy and development have been repetitively stated in the country in the past to the extent that they have become clichés. However, we know our status in terms of democracy and development. Therefore the speech about unity by the Prime Minister should be changed into reality so as for it to support the efforts of building a democratic system, ensuring peace and security and development in the county,” Adane occluded.
The conference, which was organized by the University of Gondar, was mainly to commemorate the roles and contributions of emperor Tweodros II in unifying Ethiopia and his reform agendas, as well as to understand emperor’s modernizer and unifier drive.
Historical documents also regard him as one of the most magnificent Ethiopian leaders and the founder of modern Ethiopia. He attempted to implement a number of reforms including land reform, the introduction of a standing army, the collection of books in the form of a library, tax codes, church rules, and above all a centralized political system with respective administrative districts.
Unfortunately, Tewodros II, was laid to rest after 13 years in power (1855-1868) before his dream of founding a strong and united Ethiopia beyond what he had accomplished. Nevertheless, he set forth the reunification of Ethiopia and laid the cornerstone for its modernization.
Long after Tewodros is gone, however, he remained popular king among Ethiopian youth and patriotic Ethiopians in particular. But because he was radically different from his predecessors, uncompromising in his principles, and at times cruel and lunatic, he became controversial in the Ethiopian history.