The dangers of ethnic-identity based politics, the way forward


Now that TPLF and its attempt to use violence to return to the helm of state power is put out effectively, a unique opportunity to transform Ethiopia’s politics is laid bare. In this article, I attempt to propose an all-inclusive national consensus to end ethnic-identity politics once and for all. The article revisits the political developments of modern Ethiopia in the light of larger global political context to debunk ethnic federalism. It proposes short term and long-term plans within the larger framework of the philosophy of Medemer.

Strange federalism in Ethiopia

Federalism, as a form of nation-state organization is neither new nor problematic. However, the federalism practiced in Ethiopia is not only rare, but also highly problematic. Federalism in Ethiopia is based on ethnic identity and thus it is often deservedly called “ethnic federalism.” Its proponents argue this version of federalism was born out of the Ethiopian context of ethnic oppression and the struggle for liberation. The claim of ethnic oppression suggests some ethnic groups were held captivity and colonized in the Ethiopian empire. The blame encompasses whole people group on the account of the supposed ethnic origin of the emperors of the feudal monarchies of Ethiopia. A prime example is the Amhara people viewed as oppressors because the territorial expansion and exploitation of the feudalist imperial rule emanated outward from its origin in Amhara areas. Another example is that some people erroneously conflate the Tigrayan people with the Tigrayan people’s liberation front (TPLF). Leader’s ascent to and their stay in power in modern Ethiopia did not come through democratic means. Nor was the process of national unity and establishing territorial sovereignty of contemporary Ethiopia. A more functional reason for federalism relies on the fact that such system helps decentralization and self-governance as means to ensure justice and development to various people groups in Ethiopia. This school of thought assumes ethnically homogenous rule is good for egalitarian unity, development and resistant to maladministration. However, self-governance does not necessarily guarantee equality, democracy, and development of all individuals within the given community. On the contrary, it could easily pave a way for despotism and tyranny by sacrificing the rights of individuals for the honor of the group, in whose name some benefit more than others.

Patriotism and cry for justice

Ethiopians take pride in their patriotic past; defeating the Italian invader and resisting foreign aggressions that spared its sovereignty, rarest and historical in the continent. Nevertheless, the formation of modern Ethiopia took place under an agrarian feudalist monarchy with sparsely settled chiefdoms in the peripheries. Both pre-war unification that ended the lawlessness of the era of princes and post-war reconstruction did not solve widespread inequalities, underdevelopment and injustices overnight.

Even though each regime achieved some progress in modernization of Ethiopia with prominent focus in health and education, but realization of social development, fair and inclusive governance that could administer justice for all, without discrimination and favoritism, remained unrealized dream for most Ethiopians. Despite their efforts to develop the country, the needs and demands of better livelihood challenged Ethiopian administrations of varying ideological persuasion. The uprising in Eritrea, Tigray and Bale in the 50’s, the attempts of reform and revolt by the Neway brothers in the early 60’s, the popular revolution of 1974, coup d’état attempts against Mengistu Hailemariam regime, the ethnic liberation wars, the overthrowing of Derg, relentless resistance against TPLF led EPRDF rule with the mass protests leading to reform in 2018, all of these struggles had one thing in common, a cry for justice and good governance.

But there are others who suggest the core problem of Ethiopia goes beyond good governance. They claim the origin of the problem lies in the way modern Ethiopia was constructed. They attribute the Ethiopian problem to the imperial monarchies more specifically to the process of territorial expansion and consolidation around the turn of 20th century. There are fiercely contested discourses with claims and counterclaims, the blame on monarchs, warriors as well as mass migration. Like many other countries, Ethiopians, inherited unhealed wounds, unpleasant memories of mistreatment of people and misuse of power. Today we struggle to construct an inclusive national history. Nevertheless, the claims of widespread grudges against each other among the diverse ethnic groups in the county are unfounded. There hardly any evidence to suggest any collective or mass suppression one people group by the other(s). Part of the narratives of interethnic suppression were crafted by colonial academia with scant contextual knowledge coupled with ideological interest of planting mistrust to weaken the communal bond as strategy to conquer. Obviously inter-communal conflict and competition over resources and power were always part of the Ethiopian society towards building a modern nation state.

Liberation and imposition

Starting from 1970 Marxist ideological thoughts inspired the Ethiopian student movement to dramatically transform feudalist society into a Marxist utopia on one side and ethno-liberationist radicalism on the other hand. Ethiopia’s journey from feudalism to Marxism did not end well. It led to ethno-liberationist struggle against a Marxist regime with resolute patriotism. The Eritrean liberation front (ELF), the Tigrayan people’s liberation front (TPLF), the Oromo liberation front (OLF), and the Ogden national liberation front (ONLF) claimed to have gone in war seeking secession from Ethiopia. It must be noted that secessionist claims were imposed on the people by the political elites that waged the armed struggle in the geopolitical context of cold war. Some of the secessionist positions mostly abandoned during the transitional period including ELF that got what it wanted. Amongst the Oromo community, secessionist attitude continued to influence subsequent generations of Oromo youth. I am not sure how this applies to the situation in Ogden, but I suspect it could apply there too, although maybe to a lesser degree. Sidama Liberation movement aligned to its aspirations to regional statehood.

During the war, (1976-1991) TPLF made effective use of ethnic identity for mobilization and material support. Once in power, the liberation front-turned-party dodged away from resolving ethnic nature of the struggle. Instead, it institutionalized ethnicity in federalism and enshrined the right to ethnic self-determination in the constitution. Over the last 27 years, TPLF became a party with two faces: acting as ethno-liberationists for Tigray, while wielding its influence over the federal state apparatus, in effect dividing and ruling over all other groups. TPLF surrogate parties and their cadres were appointed at many levels to watch report and control supposedly autonomous regions. On the surface, ethnic federalism promises, freedom and equality of all groups, but not all groups enjoy equal treatment. The idea of ethnic federalism as a form of self-government offered a shortcut for the rebels-turned liberator political elites to wield power over the people. Had the citizenry been consulted, Ethiopians would have most likely turned down such transition from Marxism to ethno-federalism. By introducing ethnic federalism, the TPLF-EPRDF constitution took away the Ethiopian people’s legal rights of ownership in every part of their country.

A national-state; not ethnic-states

In a traditional society, ethnicity is the most natural form of human organization after family and kin. As society modernizes, the nation-state occupies more prominent role in the lives of citizens. Even hardcore supporters of rehabilitating ethno-cultural heritage cannot deny the fact that a modern nation-state is the only legitimate form of organization to sustain human societies with ethnic and religious diversity in just ways and on an inclusive form. It is only a well-functioning nation-state that guarantees the rights of each individual citizen. It is within the framework of the rights of the individual that the rights of culture, freedom of association, expression, and so on, should be granted as inputs of political organization. In this regard, ethnic identity, just as religious identity or other forms of identities, could not serve as a basis of broader political organization because they are, by default, exclusive. It is with good reason that we should not have political parties based on such characteristics as race, religion, ethnicity elsewhere. In addition to universal human rights declaration, constitutions of many countries’ forbid discrimination and favoritism on the bases of race, religion, ethnicity etc. On the contrary, the constitution of our country promotes a federalism based on ethnic identity.

Accommodate the Ethiopian mosaic

Ethiopia is a mosaic of heterogeneous ethnicities and cultures. Its people are inter-twined by mixed settlement patterns, intermarriages, coexisting religious heritages, and other forms of socio-cultural and economic assimilations and accommodations. Despite the efforts to use ethno-identity for political mobilization to grab power, I contend ethnic identification in our society largely based on a shallow linguistic differences and diversities. Even though some might claim ethnic purity, if we dig deeper into generational history, we could discover more inter-ethnic heritage in many of us. Prior to the ethnic federalism, Ethiopians commonly identified and addressed each other with reference to their places of birth, rather than their ethnic group. They were Wolloye, not Amhara, for example. An Oromo would be identified from Bale or Wellega. Even though a given ethnic group settle in one place predominantly, many of the Ethiopia’s regions and towns were not perceived as places belonging to the dominant group. It is in this era of ethno-federalism that even land, and location became associated with ethnic identity. In earlier times, all towns and villages assumed to belong to all Ethiopians.

The tragic experiences of Rwanda and Yugoslavia in recent decades, and scars of colonialism, fascism, racism, Nazism, and terrorism, clearly provide enough evidence to refrain from using ethno-religious-racial identity based political mobilization. The problem comes not from how one promotes oneself but how the problems and the pains of a group is justified and defined in relation to the other. The perceived opponent, the enemy, the threat, the colonizer, or the “other” becomes object of hate and ridicule and the target of the struggle to defeat. Ethno-exclusivism can easily obstruct our sight to failing to see the humanity of others. It is an erroneous road for individuals, for society and for nations.

Way forward

Ethiopians have inherited a heroic legacy that preserved the sovereignty of their country through collective sacrifice. We also have inherited a country with deficit of good governance including hostile political culture. The opening of the political space under the Abiy Ahmed’s administration presents a new opportunity for national reconciliation and transition. I trust prime minster Abiy Ahmed with his project of forging national consensus or Medemer presents a momentous opportunity. But the reform and transition need further consolidation. Various commissions must deliver much-awaited results and solutions. The political discourses need accommodative environment of mutual commitment, ethics and openness that unites the political elites as well as the general public. There is an urgent need to engage the political elites across the dividing lines to chart the future of the country.

Ethiopia needs national consultation that includes all registered political parties, leaders of the faith communities, elders, and notable personalities at home and in the diaspora, representatives from the academic community, various civil society organizations, trade unions, media and artistic communities and business leaders. Such a consultation should strive towards a consensus in transforming the current ethnic identity-based politics to a new political culture of inclusivity and mutuality. We need to end using ethnic identity for political mobilization and organization. Humanity of each Ethiopian should precede ethnicity and other forms of identifications. The immediate implication of such approach is an agreement to transform the current ethnic federalism to a territorial federalism. Territorial federalismis, a form of federalism, emanating from reorganizing administrative structures in Ethiopia in to a territorial/geographic unit. Such re-organization could build on the territorial administrative structures of the last three regimes (the feudal monarchy, the Marxist Derg and EPRDF). Territorial federalism will serve the dual purposes of decentralization, local representation and agency as well as shift the political focus from ethnic identity to meritocracy and legitimacy in governance. The current language policy with necessary modifications could be accommodated towards multilingual policies. Such a deliberative process envisages long-term consequences that may well include among other: revisions of the constitution, redrawing of administrative structures, and rewriting laws for political organization and participation in Ethiopia. An all-inclusive national consensus-seeking process should be open to the public for its educative, informative, trust building and participatory purposes. It should result in a binding national covenant signed by all political actors agreeing to refrain from relapsing into ethno-identity politics. It should also include a commitment to educate the public about the dangers of ethno-centric views. Such views should no longer be tolerated in the Ethiopian political life. It should even be banned. All actors should commit to take responsibility for raising awareness about the mutuality of each other beyond diverse socio-cultural heritages and religious afflictions. We must acknowledge our interdependence, and shared destiny of our country, and the Ethiopian people.

Editor’s Note: The views entertained in this article do not necessarily reflect the stance of The



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