11 May 2019

Ethiopia: Narratives and the Trajectory of a Nation

opinion

The word "narrative" has become particularly important in policy and politics research. Public narratives of a given nation can determine the outcomes of policymaking and, eventually, the patterns and outcomes of nation-building. Unfortunately, many policymakers and politicians underestimate the role played by narratives. Meanwhile, those stakeholders who know the value of narratives use them for their benefit. Narratives can impact various aspects of public policymaking: for example, racial and gender equality rhetoric has been increasingly powerful reframing public policies in the United States. As such, any narrative can become a key to uniting or destroying nations as they are struggling to produce better results for their people.

The role of narratives in nations' policymaking cannot be fully understood without defining their meaning. Overall, narratives are stories that provide a perspective on a policy issue and inform the development of policy solutions. According to Davidson (2016), a narrative "is a collection or body stories of characters, joined in some common problem as fixers, causes or the harmed victims in a temporal trajectory leading toward resolution within a particular setting." That is, a narrative, regardless of the context in which it is constructed, always has a protagonist, a villain, a hero, a problem, and a proposed outcome. As such, it acts as a frame for interpreting local, state or national issues and provides ideas about the best possible way to approach the problem.

The role of narratives in policymaking and nation-building has been thoroughly evaluated. Davidson (2016) suggests that narratives influence policy at three different levels. Firstly, it is individual decision-making: narratives interfere with the mental models and beliefs of individuals (Davidson, 2016). Secondly, narratives greatly influence the patterns and outcomes of the policy process: they can promote a better understanding of policy issues from a variety of perspectives, and this understanding will further guide the process of developing and implementing policies (Davidson, 2016). Thirdly, narratives change society and culture (Davidson, 2016). It is possible to assume that they function as macro-level instruments that facilitate prioritization and analysis of issues at a societal level and create an overarching understanding of the social and cultural reality within and across countries.

This is the case of gender and racial equality narratives. Since the beginning of the 20th century, equality has been a top policy and political issue in the United States. By the beginning of the 1950s, the US was undergoing a profound cultural, social, and cognitive change, as African Americans and communities of color, in general, were struggling to eradicate racial discrimination and create a climate of equality and justice. It is true that the United States has been at the forefront of the global fight for equality, equity, and justice. However, it took time and effort for the power of the equality narrative to overweigh the historical and cultural legacy of racial discrimination, slavery, and inequality.

The US civil rights movement was a radical attempt to rewrite the country's narrative. People went to the streets to articulate their dissatisfaction with persistent discrimination and injustice based solely on their skin color. The passage of the Civil Rights Act and other steps taken by government reframed and redesigned the dominant narrative. The same was true for promoting gender equality. The growing number of women feature top corporate and political positions in the US is an example of a positive narrative. These two narratives have undoubtedly predetermined the country's future successes along many different lines.

Despite its positivity, the equality narrative requires time to get the optimal result. On the one hand, stories of gender and racial discrimination abound. The current state of equality is far from being perfect. However, the achievements of the civil rights era have reinforced the power of the equality narrative, which can hardly be reversed.

Sadly, not all narratives are positive. In Ethiopia, the ethnicity and language narrative is destroying the very fabric of our society. The issue of Ethnicity and language has always been controversial in Ethiopia. The Fascist in the 1930s and 1940s sow the seeds of division among Ethiopians. These divisive narratives were further strengthened by writings and teachings of influential professors of the 1960s-1970s with support from their respective governments.

To make matters worse, Ethiopia's youth embraced Marxist philosophy and advocated for its implementation. The Ethiopian government's overreaction to the Fascist invasion-pushed the pendulum to the other side pursuing a single language policy and promoting assimilation. The overreaction aggravated many and resulted subsequently in the era that followed. The combination of all these instigated first generation western educated Ethiopians to embrace Ethnic based consciousness and narratives. These narratives, in turn, created the perfect storm that hounds our land since the 1970s with tragic consequences.

In reality, it is an example of the way powerful stakeholders reframed individual and public attitudes toward Ethnicity and language, using narrative disposition. The consequences of such narrative created an insular ethnic identity outside of the unionist-Ethiopian domain. These narratives produced many fissures that undermine our unity and created failures with dire repercussions for the nation. That said, it is not to minimize the past wrongdoings or the inequalities that persisted in Ethiopia before or after the 1970s. Ethnicity and language should have been dealt with embracing our diversity with the pursuit of our greater good for all, creating positive narratives, and building a diverse but a united nation.

In conclusion, narratives are potent mechanisms for designing and implementing policies. They influence the way politicians, and the populace constructs the reality in which they live in. These perceptions further define their actions and steps. In the end, narratives can set the stage for the success or failure of a given nation. They should be taken seriously to minimize the damage of misbalanced or overtly false stories. Well-crafted and truth-based narratives could act as a roadmap for the future of Ethiopia we would like to build.

Ed.'s Note: The writer gives credit to his friends: Dr. Mezgebe Gebrekirstos and Dr. Abebe Fisseha for their invaluable comments. Samuel Alemu, Esq is a partner at the ILBSG, LLP. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, and Addis Ababa University. Samuel has been admitted to the bar associations of New York State, United States Tax Court, and the United States Court of International Trade. The writer can be reached at salemu@gmail.com. Samuel's twitter handle is @salemu.

Contributed by Samuel Alemu

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