27 January 2013

Ethiopia: Who Is More Ethiopian?


In every way, the political opposition parties of the 2005 elections were irresponsible hooligans who did not even know their own goals. Given their smear campaign, I have always wondered how they could have undertaken the job of governance had they succeeded in their quest for power.

They were dividing the nation even before gaining votes. They were contradictorily promising tax cuts, whilst still planning to increase public spending. They lacked the minimum internal stability necessary for smooth administrative functioning.

Amazingly, they also invited the international community to interfere in the internal affairs of the nation they were seeking to administer, with little concern for its sovereignty.

I am always surprised to hear people lamenting about the 2005 elections, as if it was the turning point for Ethiopian democracy, whereas, rather, it was the point where our aspirations for democracy were crushed.

By and large, Ethiopian minorities were deeply concerned by the opposition's failure to give due attention to their interests. The most popular political figures at the time failed to recognise minority rights as an important issue, and thus, draft policies, which would have addressed their concerns, did not appear.

Instead, they were obsessed with the concerns of the urbanites, as if the nation were 100pc urbanised. They overlooked the fact that the majority of the population still reside in rural areas.

Despite the deep-seated flaws in their campaigns, they were consistently claiming to be nationalists; they seem, however, to understand it in a very narrow and incorrect way. A group that claims to be nationalist must, in consequence, represent the interests of the people indiscriminately. Otherwise, it will remain the unwanted stepmother to the majority of Ethiopian people.

Sure, had the political opposition of the time, whose members are still around under different guises, been skilled enough, they would have made the unaddressed issues raised by Ethiopian miniorities the integral part of their campaign. Sadly, though, it was rather based on the interests of the urban elite.

The facts on the ground, however, remain far from what was proclaimed. As Gay McDougall, a United Nations independent expert on minority issues, once noted - "from the Americas to Europe, from Asia to Africa, we can see that degradation in the rights of minorities threatens the security of whole societies."

Minority groups are the most likely to be subject to discrimination and disadvantage in society. The world is full of examples of individuals and groups who suffer because they are part of a minority; whether they are followers of Falun Gong in China, members of the Bahai community in Iran, or Aborigines in Australia.

Health, financial status, age, education, gender and class, can all be the basis for the creation of minority groups. These factors may create minorities even within the minority groups themselves.

There is a misconception with the concept of minority in Ethiopia. Being a minority entails only numerical differences. It does not have any qualitative connotations. And democracy's peculiarity originates from its ability to treat them fairly.

If anything, the political opposition of 2005 further popularised this misconception. They put forward the pro-diversity sentiments of the Ethiopian constitution and abused it, in order to forward their own damaging propaganda.

Of course, every system or facility has to be built to suit the demands of the majority. But, too, there is no cause to deny minorities the same privileges enjoyed by the majority, simply because their numbers are small. They are also part and parcel of the nation. That is what the opposition failed to see in 2005.

It is undeniable that the majority has no inherent source of legitimacy to impose its values on the minority. Women, children, the elderly, people with disabilities, the homeless and the unemployed are all likely to experience discrimination, if such is the rule of the game. They would all simply become invisible in society. They would be forgotten, rather than being made the focus of attention, as is the case in many developed nations.

In a democracy, it is essential that all minority groups remain free from discrimination and racism. Their identities must be recognised and valued by members of the wider society, within which they live.

That is exactly why peaceful coexistence has to be the cornerstone of democracy in countries, such as Ethiopia. It is the only solution for a stable future, although the opposition does not recognise this.

Equality is one of the most decisive components of a democracy, and hence citizens in a diversified Ethiopia must be equal, irrespective of their differences. A democratic Ethiopia that ignores the concerns of its ethnic minorities cannot be viably realised.

The political oppositions must widen their understanding of the national interest, if they are to achieve a meaningful change for some of our country's most disadvantaged people. Otherwise, a narrow understanding of the national interest, in favour of the majority, forgetting the concerns of minorities, will not serve well the endeavour of creating a democratic Ethiopia. After all, none of us should claim to be more Ethiopian than the other.

Tagel Getahun is a legal advocate.

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