The Root Causes of Ethiopian Political Crisis: Beyond Ethiopian Nationalism and Ethnicity
Yoseph Mulugeta Baba, Ph.D.*
(This essay is an excerpt from my forthcoming book entitled, Negritude as the Recovery of Indigenous African Political Leadership: The Case of Gadaa Oromo Political Philosophy)
I argue that the present Ethiopian political leadership pleads for a shift of the approach in the relationship between Ethiopian-nationalism and ethnicity. Stated differently, neither assimilationism nor isolationism can respond to the serious political and social problems affecting contemporary Ethiopia. The lack of mutual understanding in Ethiopian political philosophy arises from a failure in clarifying the mental foundations of assimilationists and isolationists, which inevitably determines the perception and thinking of different individuals. I further argue and elucidate that a shift of approach in Ethiopian political leadership will necessitate a clear understanding of a critical crisis interaction that has been existed between ultra-right and ultra-left. Last, I will present the way in which one must maintain the balance between Ethiopian nationalism and ethnicity.
The task of African societies is to formulate an inclusive concept of common good based upon ethnic identities, political consensus, and consent. To develop such a paradigm does not mean that ethnic differences must be suppressed. The challenge we face is how to orient such identities toward an overlapping consensus that fosters the common good. Such project entails developing a profound unity that respects ethnic diversity. It is not a unity that imposes uniformity, but a unity that cherishes participation and creativity in the interest of the common good. This way of proceeding is valuable because the African understanding of the common good is still limited to the framework of the ethnic community.
Aquiline Tarimo, S.J.
The African philosophers today faced with challenge of offering a viable philosophical solution to the post-colonial African political crisis. As Maurice M. Makumba has correctly sated:
African philosophers need to mould a political philosophy that is both responsible and responsive; listening to the needs of the African individual, in particular, and the human person, in general, should be conducted….Africa today needs a philosophy or philosophies that can help ‘establish the existence of supreme values which should form the ideal aim of human life and education’ and lead the way in determining how issues on the continent can be handled.
Victor Phalana, in the same vein, says:
African philosophers should have the goals of national liberation and the construction of Africa at heart. African philosophy must retain its political, emancipatory and cultural intent. Our philosophy must be that kind of philosophy which can change and direct history. We need philosophers who can analyze and offer us alternatives to these suffocating socio-political systems which we have inherited in the post-colonial era. We need these philosophers to correct misconceptions about Africa and its people.
What this shows is that African philosophical discourse cannot avoid the reality of the deplorable condition of post-colonial era. The same is true for contemporary Ethiopian political crises. Today, Ethiopia needs a proper direction as to which route to take her to good governance where mutual acceptance as well as mutual accommodation would be realized. I argue that the central question in today’s Ethiopian political leadership is that of maintaining a balance between Ethiopian-nationalism and ethnicity. In post-revolution era, the bone of contention between assimilationists (ultra-right) and separationists (ultra-left) has left the present day Ethiopia in a rather precarious condition.
The Root Causes of Ethiopian Political Crisis
Since Ethiopian revolution of 1974, assimilationists and separationists have playing the blame game: chauvinists against narrow-nationalists. One of the most pertinent issues has been the question of identity on the basis of ethnicity. On the one hand, assimilationists have been guided by a baseless philosophical approach known as Ethiopianism. Ethiopianism is nothing but a denial of the existence of differences of history and culture among Ethiopian nations. Ethiopianists seek to confine themselves to one-way of understanding the reality of Ethiopian historicity. An Ethiopianist does not acknowledge pluralism of identity. Rather, s/he promotes mono-cultural and mono-lingual political system, which necessarily negates the validity of differences of culture. S/he also promotes educational policy that favours assimilationism. For years, the Abyssinians ruling class from the north tried to treat the southern nations as “primitive” to educate them according to Northern pattern. Albeit Ethiopia is made of many nationalities, each with its own cultural identity and language, Ethiopianists reduces the country into one nation/reality. In so doing, they have been trying to shape identity of the whole country in accordance with their world-view. Ethiopianists are deeply uncomfortable with identity politics. As such, they tend to maintain and secure Ethiopian-nationalism by eliminating differences of culture. They focus only on the proud history.
On the other hand, the separationists have been guided by a baseless philosophical approach known as essentialism. Essentialism tends to deny the very importance of Ethiopian-nationalism/nation-building under the guise of the existence of cultural diversity. Separationists overemphasize cultural differences and define ethnicity as the only identity isolated from other realties of human existence. As such, they tend to refuse and reject anything that they have inherited outside their own culture. They propagate as if Ethiopian-nationalism has never existed. Separtionists maintain an extreme political position of secession as the only solution to eliminate the root causes of ethnic oppression. They focus only on the common conflict history.
What this clearly shows is that, the relationship between assimilationists and separationists is deeply disturbed by virtue of a selective reading of history that exalts one’s own claim while completely ignoring the other side. The lack of mutual understanding in Ethiopian political philosophy arises from a failure in clarifying this mental foundations of assimilationists and separationists, which inevitably determines the perception and thinking of different individuals. I argue that neither assimilationism nor separationism can effectively respond to the special Ethiopian situation. It is my strong conviction that the philosophical approach proposed by assimlationists and separationists doesn’t seem to be the most adequate solution. This philosophical essay pleads for a shift of the approach in the relationship between the two contesting parties. Political malaises affecting the present sovereign state of Ethiopia is crying out for a shift of approach in the relationship between assimlationists and separationists. Where should Ethiopian political philosophy go from here?
Beyond Ethiopian-nationalism and Ethnicity
To begin with, cultural differences are not a problem per se. The most important question one has to ask is that how one ought to act in relation to the alien cultures in ways that promote unity in diversity as opposed to violating existing institutions that based themselves on different indigenous paradigms and models of each distinctive society? For instance, the present government of Ethiopia, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front—EPDRF, has confronted the challenge of assimilationism by recognizing territorially based ethnic groups. It is beyond dispute that EPDRF has transformed a war-torn country into relatively stable societies, which combines elements of both democracy and authoritarianism. Yet, Ethiopia has been deeply affected by ethnic problem. Some scholars argue that:
In sum the ethnic-based model of federalization of power has neither satisfied the hitherto marginalized ethnic groups nor pacified the privileged groups of former years. Judged less kindly, it has created a lot of problems rather than solved the existing ones. And, as a result of a hidden agenda of imposing a new type of central control by the new hegemonic elite, the decentralization initiatives falls far short of empowering the subaltern group…[The federal system] designed to facilitate central control rather than to bestow genuine local autonomy to divers peoples of Ethiopia…centuries of imperial rule whose legitimacy was based on the ‘mandate from heaven’ has left a legacy of an authoritarian political culture, what Bahru (1999) calls the ‘burden of history,’ which has serious implications for Ethiopia’s quest democratic governance. The new modus operandi of the Ethiopian state and the continuity of the authoritarian culture…which existed in the North for centuries promoted as unifying culture and ideology.
Currently, there is a difficulty in maintaining a balance between Ethiopian-nationalism and ethnicity. There is a need to make a massive effort to overcome ethnic dissension of the past as well as the present. How do we recognise our similarities as Ethiopian citizens without losing sight of the importance of the different historical experiences between Ethiopian nations? I argue that that neither assimilationism nor separationism can strength the sense of nationhood and common citizens. Ethiopian political leadership pleads for a shift of the approach in the relationship between assimilationists and separationists. Meaning: We need to balance national patriotism —Ethiopian-nationalism and ethnic consciousness—ethnicity.
To begin with, in contemporary Ethiopia, cultural differences should not be regarded as non-existence. As Tarimo and Mawelo have correctly asserted,
Cultural diversity should be viewed as a possibility to be realized, not a problem to be overcome. There is no need to fear it, for it is a part of social life. What we have to do is to struggle with the challenge of maintaining continuity with the past and dialogue between cultures….We are no longer able to speak of one cultural tradition as being superior to others. Cultural fundamentalism has no room in a democratic society. Claims of superior and inferior cultures, or of true and untrue religions are irrelevant and raise unnecessary competition. In the modern world we ought to talk of different traditions as partners in the process of building a democratic culture.
Assimilationism has stripped Ethiopian’s people of the dignity of building their nations on their own indigenous institutions. It is true that to return to indigenous institutions as the bases of building contemporary Ethiopia would risk the collapse of the same country. Yet, it must be underscored that disregarding ancestral identities and values would also be tantamount to build Ethiopia on loose sand. It would prove suicidal for Ethiopian political philosophy and self defeating for assmilationists to assume homogeneity amidst diversity. In present Ethiopia, ethnicity is not one’s mental impression, but has a concrete existence. We ought to manage ethnic diversity within the unity of Ethiopia. Ian S. Markham clearly states that:
Instead of a unity culture where one language, one religion, one history, and one set of images dominates, we need diverse culture where different languages, many religions, several narratives, and images coexist in stimulating alternative thinking. Let us welcome the diversity and plurality of foods, the different religious options, and the variety of perspectives. Instead of the schools and media promulgating one idea, let different communities articulate different ideas.
There are some politicians who seek to enforce uniformity of culture in contemporary Ethiopia. This is absolutely mistaken and unacceptable philosophical approach. The idea of imposing one’s cultural identity on everybody would eventually lead to secession. As Makumba argues, “One need not abandon his tribe in order to become a nationalist; on the contrary, the tribe becomes the necessary vehicle towards the formation of a strong nation.”
So long as tribes exist with their strong influence on the lives of many peoples, and tribal particularism survives in the rural areas, where the majority of the people live, the attempt to un-tribe oneself before becoming a nationalist shall remain as unrealistic as it is illusory. It is the same as trying to ‘off-load’ one’s country in order to become a Pan-Africanist. The same should be said of the opposite attempt to dig onself in, in fear of the other tribe(s) or the other nation(s) motivated by a peculiar sense of security….The roots of nationalism are in the tribe positively understood.
Therefore, one must not give up his/her ethnicity in order to become an Ethiopian or a Kenyan. Must one become other than his/her tribe in order to be truly Ethiopian or Kenyan? No! “It is never possible for one to be completely absorbed into a new culture. This would be tantamount to dehumanization.”
The undeniable fact that all of us must learn to accept is that we are born into a culture, we are brought up in a culture, we conduct ourselves according to cultural defined social systems that assure and help us reach the necessary maturity. In other words, we are what our cultures have helped us to become. We do admit that as we move out of our cultural environments or come to contact with other cultures, we integrate many of the values of those other cultures. But the fact remains that our own cultures are given us the foundation of our meaningful existence. It is upon that foundation that any other cultural influence has to build, no matter how primitive that culture may be. To despise one’s culture, therefore, is to launch an unwarranted attack on the source of one’s identity and to destroy the foundation of a meaningful existence. To do that is to destroy the person completely, because without a culture, a person is without identity. Such a person cannot understand himself or herself any more. That is why it is always advisable to respect others’ culture.
The famous slogan “when in Rome do as the Romans do” does not make one a Roman. What this shows is that ethnicity is not something negotiable; rather, it is so self-evident and so natural or ontological and cannot easily be impugned.
Hence, cultural or ethnic differences should be translated to imply neither superiority nor inferiority. In contemporary Ethiopia, difference of identities ought to be acknowledged, tolerated, and appreciated. Ethiopian nationalism would never be realized where ethnic differences is ignored, abused/despised, and negatively understood. The formation of nation-state, argues Aquiline Tarimo, does not diminish the significance of one’s identity for several reasons:
First, family, clan, and ethnic group are still the essential structures of social relationships. Second, one’s identity is ethnic, not national. African leaders “have done very little to convince their people that nationhood offers more benefits than ethnicity.” Third, African leaders have failed to define the relationship between an ethnic group and nation-state with respect to the common good. Fourth, African states have failed to appropriate inherited cultural traditions to help come to terms with the cultural realities of the times in order to emerge with a new vision for the future. Fifth, the approach of nation-building has not attempted to find a way of welding together several ethnic groups into a large cohesive political community, nation-state, intended to eliminate confusion and transfer ethnic loyalties to the larger political community. Sixth, there have been no efforts made to formulate contextualized ideologies for contemporary Africa. Seventh, there have been no effective ways of dealing with traditional moral standards that seem to crumble in the wake of rapid socio-political change. Eighth, most governments do not respect the freedom of the judiciary and the rule of law, which result into disregard to political morality and responsible leadership.
However, although being different is normal, ethnicity is extremely harmful for future of Ethiopia, if it continues to be regarded as an issue of prime importance. It must be noted that a certain degree of cultural homogeneity is required lest one undermines national unity. For instance, the tendency to treat individuals as members of a group than as individual citizens has its foundation in specific failure of understanding about the importance of national unity. One should not have a romantic attachment to cultural differences for its own sake. The existence of cultural differences should not necessarily deny the importance of Ethiopian-nationalism.
Again, it must be noted that a racial philosophy is extremely harmful for the future of Ethiopia. “And racial is what philosophy cannot subscribe to for the love of wisdom is universal and its universality consists in being open not only in thought but also in relation to the truth of reality.” J. Nyerere has correctly asserted that “The true African socialist does not look on one class of men as his brethren and another as his natural enemies. He does not form alliances with the ‘brethren’ for the extermination of his ‘non-brethren.’ He rather regards all men as his brethren-as members of his ever extending family [or Ujamaa].” In Ethiopia too, the African concept of common good should be taken in to account.
Above all, ethnicity should not be used as the political tool. Meaning: Political as well as religious leaders should refrain from creating enmity and suspicions among Ethiopian nations. The politics of identity should not be used to promote one’s ambitions as opposed to common good. Politicians who are using the instruments of ethnicity to achieve their economic and political goals have to exposed and criticized for their immoral actions. It must be borne in mind that albeit ethnicity is so natural, it can also be manipulated, which can easily lead to ethnocentrism.
Ethnocentrism sets in when the cultural differences are translated to imply superiority, which causes tension, bias, prejudice. Ethnocentric attitude emerges when the ethnic factor is used to despise, sideline, or look down upon those from other ethnic background. Ethnocentrism is also manifest when an individual grants favours to a few individuals on the basis of the ethnic factor regardless of whether they merit it or not. Ethnocentrism has no concern for human rights and the common good.
As I mentioned earlier, ethnic differences are not a problem per se. Rather, the danger is when ethnicity is manipulated under the pretext of politics and religion that can lead to a devastating destruction of life. As Aquiline Tarimo has shrewdly observed, “the strength of ethnicity is a two-edged sword. Ethnicity, on one hand, when manipulated, can be the root cause of internal problems connected with disrespect to human rights and social justice. If appropriated properly, on the other hand, ethnic identities could be ingredients required for the realization of the ideal of civil society, political integration, participation, and common good.”
Dialogue Not A Choice!
Today, Ethiopia’s socio-political leadership needs a proper direction as to which route to take her to good governance where mutual acceptance as well as mutual accommodation would be realized. I argue that both assimilationists (right-wing politicians) and separationists (ethno-nationalists) ought to make great efforts to prevent misunderstanding and win mutual recognition. Dialogue is a tool to be used to prevent misinterpretations, which can lead to genuine collaboration and mutual trust. A common ground can enhance collaboration and flexibility. The two contesting parties must fight for justice, freedom, and equality of ALL PEOPLE IN ETHIOPIA.
The diversity of religio-cultural identities is a common feature of social life. The existence of such reality does not necessarily negate unitary models of citizenship. An inclusive methodology of building a political community founded upon collective identity must be open to diversity so as to avoid imposition. In order to form an ordered society that respects inclusion and equality, the following conditions must be respected: first, organize a legal constitution that reflects different psycho-social realities operating in terms of political, cultural, and religious identities; second, build a platform upon which all citizens can feel attached in order to strengthen the sense of common citizenship and nationhood; third, construct a collective identity with a possibility of providing a room for each social group to exercise the right of self-determination; and fourth, construct institutions founded upon principles of diversity, inclusion, and the common good. Such a collective organization can overcome the urge of compelling citizens to conform to one model that is possibly derived from dominant social groups. The convergence of identities could be achieved through public debate and free interaction founded upon social interdependence and political compromise.
I do see no irreconcilable conflict between the two contesting parties to liberate their country—Ethiopia—and to overcome the present neo-colonialism. In the first place, both sides must confront the truth that their historical relationship is deeply disturbed. Each side has to make an effort to understand the historical experience of the other side, especially to come out of the shadow of misunderstanding and disrespect. A balanced approach toward historical understanding and interpretation can yield a point view of acceptable to all. A change of each one’s attitude is a guarantee for the transformation of contemporary Ethiopian socio-political leadership.
Yoseph Mulugeta Baba was born in Konchi/Nekemte, Ethiopia. He holds a B.A, M.A, and Ph.D. degrees in Philosophy from The Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA), Nairobi-Kenya. He also holds a B.D, in Sacred Theology (Magna Cum Laude Probatus) from Pontifical Urbaniana University, Rome. His research interests involve: Metaphilosophy, Oromo Philosophy, Continental Philosophy, Post-colonial African Philosophy, Sage Philosophy, and Post-modernism. His publications include, Metaphilosophy or Methodological Imperialism? (2015); Philosophical Essays (2016); The Oromo Concept of reality: Epistemological Approach (2016); የኢትዮሮፒያንስ የአስተሳሰብ ቅሬ፤ ‹አበበ በሶ በላ› vs ‹ጫላ ጩቤ ጨበጠ› (2017). His book titled, Negritude As The Recovery of Indigenous African Political Leadership፡ The Case of Gadaa Oromo Political Philosophy, is forthcoming. Currently he teaches African philosophy at CFIPT. He can be reached at: email@example.com
 Maurice M. Makumba, Introduction to African Philosophy (Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 2007), 125, 195.
 Victor Phalana, “An African Philosopher Today: A Custodian of African Culture or Catalyst of African Construction?” in Michael C. Kirwen (ed.), African Cultures and Religion: Field Research Papers of Maryknoll Institute of African Studies vol. 1, no. 3, (August 1999), 7.
 Merera Gudina, Ethiopia: Competing Ethnic Nationalisms and the Quest for Democracy, 1960-2000, 143-144.
 Aquiline Tarimo, S.J. and Paulin Manwelo, African Peacemaking and Governance (Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 2007), 137-138, 140
 Ian S. Markham, Plurality and Christian Ethics (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press 1994), 189.
 Maurice M. Makumba, Introduction to African Philosophy, 162.
 Emmy M. Gichinga, “Issues In Inter-Cultural Living,” in Inter-Cultural Living ed. Sr. Loretta Brennan CSB and Br. Peter Roddy OSF (Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 2003), 20
 Quirine K. Ong’om, “Sharing Our Unique Gifts Across Cultural Barriers,” in Inter-Cultural Living, 38.
 Joseph M. Nyasani, “The Meaning and Implication of Ethnicity,” in Ethnicity Conflict and the Future of African States eds. Aquiline Tarimo, S.J. and Paulin Manwelo, S.J. (Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 2009),14.
Aquiline Tarimo, S.J, “Competing Identities, Loyalties, and Interests,” in Ethnicity Conflict and the Future of African States eds. Aquiline Tarimo, S.J. and Paulin Manwelo, S.J. (Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 2009),31.
 J. Nyerere, Freedom and Unity: A selection From Writings and Speeches 1952-1965 (Nairobi: Oxford University Press), 170
 Mary N. Getui, “The Ethnicity Factor in Politics, Religion, and Conflict,” in Ethnicity Conflict and the Future of African States eds. Aquiline Tarimo, S.J. and Paulin Manwelo, S.J. (Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 2009), 44-45.
 Aquiline Tarimo, S.J, “Competing Identities, Loyalties, and Interests,” 29-30.
 Aquiline Tarimo, S.J. and Paulin Manwelo, African Peacemaking and Governance, 134-135.