The question of nations and nationalities is, by far, the most contested concept in Ethiopian politics in the past three decades. The so called “question”, which made its debut in Ethiopia around half a century ago, was first articulated by the late Walelegn Mekonnen, who still remains to be a controversial figure among the country’s political elite and intelligentsia alike, as manifested by the recent panel discussion organized by the Institute of Strategic Affairs (ISA) commemorating Walelegn’s five-pager article that changed Ethiopian politics forever. Regardless, “the question of nations and nationalities” has come a long way in Ethiopia without any lasting resolution to speak off.
The short yet provocative article penned by Walelegn, entitled “On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia,” was first presented to the then students of Haileselassie I University, now Addis Ababa University, in 1969. This article is considered by many as one of the most controversial, and impactful articles in the political history of the country.
Some regard the article as a tool employed to weaken the unity of the country, with an eventual outcome of disintegration. Walelegn’s critics state that he was serving the interest of other political groups, who has felt disfranchised by the existing political order in Ethiopia.
To the contrary, the article also received appreciation and was regarded as emancipatory, an eye opener and an iconoclast, especially from the point of view Marxist lenient students, who were spearheading the Ethiopian Student Movement at the time. Hence, the praise, the article has received emanates from a perspective that the article questions the longstanding cultural, political and social norm in Ethiopia, which was largely considered to be a taboo subject matter and difficult to discuss, let alone to pose the question.
The 50th anniversary of the article was commemorated last week in an event organized by the Institute for Strategic Affairs (ISA) formerly known as the Ethiopian Foreign Relations Strategic Studies Institute (EFRSSI). In the event, discussion was held over the impact the article has had on the political landscape of the country.
The event: “Walelegn’s ‘on the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia’ Revisited at 50” was indeed one of a kind, where former revolutionaries, academicians, politicians with diverse and contested backgrounds were invited to reflect their views and to revisit the impact of the article.
Among the speakers were Martha Kuwe Kumsa (Prof.), Dima Negeo (PhD), Tamirat Kebede, Semeneh Ayalew and Semir Yusuf (PhD).
The speakers and the discussants were passionate to recall their first encounter with the article. Moreover, some were noticed being nostalgic about the moment and the event. For example, Martha, before she started her reflection on the walelegn’s work, she burst into song, commemorating one of the popular revolutionary songs of the student movement. “Why was Walelegn killed?…Why was Martha (another student revolutionary) killed?…,” she sang, inviting the participants to sing along with her.
In his article, Walelegn was convinced that addressing the national question in Ethiopia and finding a just solution on the basis of self-determination, held the key to its continued survival. And many agreed that this was indeed his most important contribution to the political sphere of Ethiopia. Moreover, despite the fact that the question was instigated half a century ago, the pivotal question, which was raised by Walelgn, is still the most dominant one in the political environment of Ethiopia.
In his article, he critically questioned the interactions of Ethiopian peoples’ and their cultures which persisted in the country for centuries and was described as Ethiopian Nationalism. However, he referred to this longstanding interaction as ‘fake Ethiopian Nationalism.’
“What are the Ethiopian people composed of? I stress on the word people because sociologically speaking, at this stage; Ethiopia is not really one nation,” he argued. Asserting that Ethiopia is a land of many nations and nationalities, “It [Ethiopia] is made up of a dozen nationalities with their own languages, way of life, culture, history, social organization, and territorial integrity. And what else is a nation? It is not made of people with a particular tongue, particular ways of dressing, particular history, and particular social and economic organization? Then, may I conclude that in Ethiopia there is the Oromo Nation, the Tigrai Nation, the Amhara Nation, the Gurage Nation, the Sidama Nation, the Wolayta Nation, the Harari Nation; and however much you may not like it, the Somali Nation,” this is the true picture of Ethiopia. There is of course the fake Ethiopian Nationalism advanced by the ruling class and unwillingly accepted and even propagated by innocent fellow travelers,” he emphasized.
The five page article, written 50 years ago, is all in all, questioning such interactions of the country. That is why many were gathered at Sheraton Hotel, to reflect on the article after it was introduced to the center of Ethiopian political landscape.
During the event, different views were entertained ranging from its contribution to serve as a manifesto to the subsequent struggles of separatists in the country and to introduce the culture of self-criticism. Martha for example said: “What Walelegn did was a very courageous act of self-criticism given his background. Criticizing others is easy, Walelegn teaches us to criticize ourselves.”
Though the speakers reflected their views from different perspectives, understanding and analysis; one major issue was at the center: The fact that of all the serious problems that took place in the country, none has proved to be more elusive or challenging than the question of nationalities.
Since the 1974 revolution, there has been a proliferation of liberation movements calling for either regional autonomy or outright secession from Ethiopia. Although the Somalis and the Eritreans have long sought to break-away from Ethiopia and have waged an armed struggle for many years, the Oromo and Tigrean movement has followed the same path and has resulted in the current political structure.
Commentators, who have been writing or speaking about the crisis, see the Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM) of the 1960s and 1970s as the original instigators of the current political crisis of the Ethiopian state.
The ESM is accused of importing a foreign ideology that has divided the Ethiopian peoples’ into ‘tribes’. The late student leader, Walelegn, is blamed as the main culprit. His provocative article is considered to be the root of the crisis.
However, the debate on the article is still relevant and seems to haunt the politics of the country for the coming many years. This is mainly because the article is courageous for some and problematic for others. His supporters defend the article as a means to ensure justice in and between all of Ethiopians while his criticizers argued that his article opens the door for disintegration.
There are groups who still argue that the problem he described and the solution he suggested, are pertinent today as they were in 1969.
Leulseged Girma, a geopolitical analyst, argued that the only way to address the question raised by Walelegn and still being propagated by different politicians is through “political inclusion.” He believes that the ongoing effort made by PM Abiy Ahmed (PhD) to invite former politicians in exile, who used to be labeled as terrorist, to play their role in the politics of the country could be considered as the starting point to open the political space for all players.
Similarly, one of the discussants in the event, Semir Yusuf (PhD), a researcher with Institute of Security Studies (ISS), firmly argues that the question raised by Walelegn, is still a dominant factor in the political activity of the country and has become a ‘puzzle.’ Henceforth, he suggested the need for a genuine and frank discussion, which includes all stakeholders.
Furthermore, Leulseged says that in the past 27 years, what has been propagated was the politics of ethnicity which has been considered as a major political factor and the orientation of political parties also revolved around this issue. However, the ongoing political developments in the country and the recent effort and realization of the establishment of the Prosperity Party, which includes regions which were marginalized previously from the center, will pave the way to solve the problem through time.
Similarly, he recommended that addressing this question requires time and effort both from state and non-state actors such as media and civil societies. “When the media and the civil societies along with the government, work tirelessly to awaken the consciousness of the society to narrow such differences; and when everyone becomes part of the center and political parties are established on the basis of national vision, it would then provide to address the question once and for all, but it is a time taking effort,” he concluded.
Semir, who recommended a genuine and an all-inclusive discussion, described the current affair regarding the matter as follows: “Ethiopian nationalism and ethnic nationalism are quite similar in many ways. They are based on absolute truths, foundational, based on stories of sacrifices. And that’s why they are in conflict.”
The fact of the matter is that the question of nations and nationalities, the right to self-determination and self-determination up to secession is not an original concoction of Walelegn’s. Rather it was part and parcel of the times socialist literature developed by Vladimir Ilich Lenin and Joseph Stalin of the old Soviet Union. These two leaders perfected the concept of nation and nationalities and the right to self-determination up to secession over time and later on picked up by the young student revolutionaries in Ethiopia. In way, Walelegn was swept across by the fashionable taught of the time but he managed to bring issue back to his country objective reality.
As much as the controversial article that Walelegn has penned, the life and personality of Walelegn Mekonnen was also far more interesting and intriguing. The demise of Walelegn was also as historic as his article. Apparently, he finally lost his life while hijacking an Ethiopia plane taking off from Addis Ababa together with seven other including his closest comrade Martha Mebratu in hope of redirecting the light to abscond the political persecution back home. Sadly, Walelegn and five of his friends met a tragic end as the anti-hijacker forces onboard the fateful flight fired their weapons to neutralize the situation.
Nevertheless, how Ethiopian political elite will manage the problems going forward is yet to be seen. How they will bargain over this polarizing issue also remains to be puzzle. “Similarly, can a genuine and an all-inclusive discussion provide a lasting solution to the problem?” is another question? If so, “when could this discussion kicked-off?” “Is it this year Or the next?” are all questions that need answers.