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Ethnocentric political arrangement hampers the development of shared democratic values

Individuals and groups do have the right to enjoy their ‘uniqueness’ and to be proud of their cultural values. Simultaneously, they should not be manic about people who question and criticize their cultures. In this regard, politicians who chose the ethnocentric political arrangement are fully responsible for equilibrating the universal values of human dignity and their ethnic-based self-esteem, writes Kibrom Berhane.

Historical evidence suggests that ethnic politics is at the center of political arguments in Ethiopian political history. However, it becomes a regular political agenda in the country after the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) claimed power in 1991 following the ouster of the Derg regime. Shortly after it seized power from the military government of Mengistu Hailemariam (chairman of the Derg), the EPRDF-led government introduced ethnic-based federalism. Since then the government claims that ethnic-based federalism is the only solution to eliminate entrenched inequalities between ethnic groups which are supposedly inherited from the past regimes (particularly during the imperial government of Haile Selassie (1930-1974) and the Derg regime (1975-1991).

However, despite the government’s persistent persuasion about its pertinence to the country’s cultural diversity, ethnic federalism or ethnic politics in Ethiopia is subject to criticisms for fueling ethnic conflicts and inspiring ethnicity centered political arrangements. This form of governance is criticized for promoting ethnic identity as the key instrument of political mobilization in the country. Resultantly, the political argument in Ethiopia heavily centralized on ethnicity rather than on universal political and democratic values and shared concerns such as democracy, human rights, socio-economic developments, and justice.

Because political misuse is coupled with our cultural diversity, by now, ethnic politics is one of the most distinguishable social domains which are influenced by and influencing the political ecology in Ethiopia. Ethnocentric beliefs and political views permeate our daily life. Manipulating cultural diversity or socio-cultural differences become the easiest way to commence one’s political life.

According to Eugenia Siapera, author of ‘Cultural Diversity and Global Media: The Mediation of Difference’, ethno cultural groups can be specific examples of cultural diversity. Such diversity indicates the existence of groups with their own unique characteristics. Hence, when the different ethnicity centered political parties fervidly focus on particularistic demands of their own respective ethnic groups, the common ground for multiple ethnic groups will erode. This, in turn, provokes our communities to create different enclaves of tribal groups to seek support and to avoid counter-arguments to their respective worldviews and values. Thus, the ethnicity centered political arrangement in our country becomes the main source of further ethnic conflicts because, among other reasons, it impedes the development of universal democratic values which concentrate on our shared concerns.

As most of us might have observed, the different ethnicity centered groups or political parties try to misuse the essence of cultural relativism and gloss over the all-encompassing values of democracy. Rather than governed by the true essence of democratic values and rule of law that treat everyone equally, ethnicity centered political commentators prefer to justify the need for separate rules for different groups. Of course, different rules for different groups might not be a problem in itself. The problem is that these groups naively and self-interestedly seek for special treatments of their respective groups at the expense of the rights of others.

In my view, in theory, although, the very essence of ethnicity centered political arrangement may not be problematic, the hyper-ethnicity-centric political grouping, however, might adversely affect the development of the universal values of democracy such as freedom of speech and equality before the law in spite of cultural differences. In my understanding, the universal or core values of democracy basically consider humanity and human dignity as the central element. Political tribalism, to the contrary, considers ethnic background as the most important determinant of one’s humanness. This also will create inequality, continued violence, and loss of ‘unity’. Groups and individuals who criticize or challenge the views of other groups will be labeled as racists and intolerant. They will be accused of bigotry, thus, their freedom of speech will be suppressed.    

Hence, unless our politicians work hard to balance between the universal values of democracy and particularistic demands, the development of a true democracy in our country will be a fantasy. The usual ‘us’ versus ‘them’ rhetoric will continue. We will have more fragmented groups which are thin-skinned only to their particular groups instead of groups which focus on humanity and commonness across groups.

I believe that individuals and groups do have the right to enjoy their ‘uniqueness’ and to be proud of their cultural values. Simultaneously, they should not be manic about people who question and criticize their cultures. In this regard, politicians who chose the ethnocentric political arrangement are fully responsible for equilibrating the universal values of human dignity and their ethnic-based self-esteem. If they fail to balance between the national identity/Ethiopian-ness and defending their ethnocentric positions, we will have more political parties which ardently fight against all other identities and humanness. Finally, democratic values that prioritize humanity as an important attribute to evaluate human actions will completely be replaced by ethnocentric value systems.

Therefore, in my view, our politicians should consider, at least, the following important points as a solution. Primarily, parallel to defending the rights of their respective (ethnic) groups, they should have policies that can deliver equality and justice for all social groups. Secondly, if they truly need to contribute to the establishment of a sustainable democratic political system, our politicians should focus on ideological arguments rather than manipulating our social, religious, economic, and cultural differences. Regurgitating our ethnic differences (in place of focusing on key political, social, and economic philosophies) might indicate the incompetence of our so-called politicians in addressing important concerns of societies. Thirdly, they should not obsessively narrate that their respective groups have been unprecedentedly suppressed by some other historically ‘dominant’ groups. This kind of rhetoric further widens the fractures between different groups. It erodes our social solidarity and fuels group hostility. It does not help us create a strong political culture.

In sum, in my view, true leaders focus on how to expand human rights. They do not enclave human freedom and rights into the circles of tribalism like our unwitting politicians do. True political leaders know that, in the words of Siapera, “ethno cultural diversity acquires meaning only in a broader context that revolves around ideas of homogeneity, similarity, and sharedness of identity.” Had they been magnifying our similarities (as human beings) as they did on our differences, our tolerance would have not been superficial.

Ed.’s Note: Kibrom Berhane is a lecturer of Journalism and Communication at Mekele University. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by Kibrom Berhane
Contributed by Kibrom Berhane