6 October 2018

Ethiopia: A State Divided


Like most nations across the world seem to be these days, Ethiopia is divided. The likes of the United States or the United Kingdom, however, could cushion the impact from the divide that exists in their societies, because they have historically independent institutions.

Ethiopia has not been so lucky. This was scant a priority with the leaders and governments that have been in charge of the country throughout its modern existence.

But it gets worse.

Although there are racial elements to the divide that exists in the US and the UK, the fault lines are generally drawn along ideological beliefs, the conservatives versus the liberals. For Ethiopia, where many still strongly identify with their ethnic identities, first politics, and now most of social life is being stratified along lingo-cultural lines.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) has said that the federal structure of the nation, drawn to conform to the languages and cultures of groups, would be fine as long as citizens realise they are just administrative demarcations. There is truth in that statement. That understanding would have allowed for the demarcations to become fluid, subject to change whenever the migrations and movements of people necessitate it.

This is an argument around which camps have formed in Ethiopia, creating that divide. Although most of the ethno-nationalist groups in the country are profoundly wary of each other, we can reasonably put them in one camp because they all support the federal status quo, with perhaps some amendments.

They also see a country that we are seeing, one that is steeped in ethnic conflicts that are causing mass displacements and the death of innocent civilians. But they hold that the cause is not the structure of the federal system but the lack of democracy and good governance.

No doubt, a more egalitarian distribution of wealth would have made matters less unfortunate, but neither has that happened nor is there a mentality now that allows it to happen. This is what the pan-Ethiopianist camps posit.

Everyone sees a nation in a state of transformation and where resources are up for grabs. Citizens believe that they need to mobilise to win a piece of the pie, but they are doing so through channels that are fairly easy to establish or have already been established, such as ethnic identities.

People are right to point out that while a person's ethnic group should not say anything about political or ideological affiliations, the architecture and laws of the state have made it impossible to believe otherwise. From political groups to financial institutions, from TV stations to state-issued identity cards, stratification takes place along lingo-cultural lines. Even public universities have been captured by this sad state of affairs. In Ethiopia, one cannot escape from being boxed into acquiring an ethnic identity.

But the pan-Ethiopian camp seems to me to be arguing along a rather rigid line. Too many fall into the trap of calling for the complete eradication of lingo-cultural identities from the socio-political life of the nation, while they should be concentrating on the de-institutionalisation of ethnicity.

It is vital to remember that language and culture make up the history of a people. They are the glue with which people feel they connect with their ancestors' lives, deeds, hopes and sorrows. It is not an evil unto itself.

We should thus not ridicule or dismiss people's attachment to it. Otherwise, it is likely to be entrenched far deeper. It is when a deeply held value is attacked that many usually find a reason to protect it against all costs.

The ill is the pervasiveness of lingo-cultural identity in politics, which has made ethnicity a means of acquiring control over resources. This is likely to cause conflicts because there are never enough resources to go around for everybody. This is why that such an emotionally entrenched cultural and historical invention such as ethnicity cannot be allowed to determine how resources should be distributed.

Ethnicity should be treated in the same manner that religion was with the secularisation of the state. Citizens can choose to affiliate themselves with any lingo-cultural group of their choice, but the state should not have anything to do with it. It should not be used to demarcate regions or in choosing who gets to run public institutions.

Civic nationalists ought to be able to argue that any citizen has the right to have a say over all the resources of the nation without dismissing individuals' choice to identify with any group.


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