Identity Politics: Ethiopia and the Quest for Sovereignty

Published on 28th May 2019

Are countries sovereign? Or are people sovereign? Confusion over this issue has contributed to, even created, conflicts and wars. International law in fact is muddy on the question of whose sovereignty trumps whose, with numerous scholars mired in one side of the dispute or the other. But although the theory is decidedly muddy, the overwhelming practice is decidedly clear – territorial integrity, history shows, counts for less.

More on the matter later, but for now, let’s examine the back story; the nucleus that leads to the above discourse in the first place: Identity politics.

Identity in it’s simplest form is an image people or individuals have of themselves in relation to others. It is part of our cognitive wiring as human beings to deal with our wariness of others.

Identity politics is not a new phenomenon, it has come to occupy a major space in most of humanity’s interactions, and throughout history large part of our public life is conducted through identity politics based on religion, political ideology, race, color, class even social clubs.

For example, with the emergence of institutional religion, affiliation toward a particular belief was the driving force in politics. For centuries, arguments over how wealth should be created and distributed defined the political paradigm. In such circumstances, people identify themselves as liberals, conservatives, communists, and so forth – based on their view on political economy.

Nevertheless, of all the identity politics none has profound impact and endurance as ethnic based identity: Ethnic Nationalism. Ethnic nationalism [identity-based politics] is rooted around shared personal characteristics, lived experiences, historical ties and common convictions.

For centuries, one of the dynamic features of societies has been the division of people into tribes of the like-minded. Attitudes toward race and ethnicity dominate even the contemporary political divide. Now tribe trumps class or religion. Today we are increasingly defined by the tribe we belong.

All societies draw on nationalism of one sort or another to define relations between the state, the citizen and the outside world. But what we are witnessing in many parts of the world is – ethnic based nationalism is on the march.

Contemporaneously, ethnic solitudes increasingly dominate the public square, each determined to drive the other out, each testing the ability to retain some residual sense of trust and common purpose without which nation states cannot endure. In other words, depending how one handles ethnic nationalism – can make or break a country.

Ethnic nationalism is a slippery concept, which is why politicians find it so easy to manipulate. On one side, at its best, it unites people around common values, to accomplish things they could never imagined; It appeals to universal values, such as freedom and equality. Such is Democratic Nationalism.

Undemocratic Nationalism, on the other hand, is a zero-sum game, aggressive, nostalgic; which draws on selective or exclusive history – setting the people and the nation state apart.

Europe has been more successful in dealing with ethnic nationalism. Most European countries come of negotiations designed to better align with their identity and region of residence in 18th and 19th centuries. Often more than one kick at the can was required to get the alignment rights.

But following the end of WW2 the Europeans reversed course and decided to create supranational union of European nation states. At first it seemed attractive, especially in terms of economic benefits. However, as the bureaucrats in Brussels [head-quarter of the European Union] attempted to constrain the internal affairs of member states enthusiasm for the union started to fizzle.  At this very moment, European societies are witnessing a shift from the universal, civic nationalism toward the ethnic sort - - are fracturing into segments based on ever-narrow identities.

Consequently, the world’s greatest experiment in “post nationalism state” has foundered. The architects of the European Union [EU]believed that nationalism, which dragged Europe in to two ruinous world wars, would wither or die. European elites assumed national identities would eventually blend into a continental bouillabaisse – the EU would transcend national rivalries, they assumed. However, in large part of EU that never transpired.

Francis Fukuyama, one of the renowned political scientists of our era has an explanation to the European nationalism revival. In his new book “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment”, he argues that the leftists’ embrace of identity politics over its traditional role as champions of the working class has forced the redefinition of the terms of political combat along group or tribal lines. This in turn has prompted a shift on the right… to indulge in Nativism: another form of identity politics.I am certain you have heard or red about the “Three thousand-year Ethiopian history” … That’s hogwash. Sure, there is an epoch of three millennia civilization in that neck of the woods. But that magnificent advancement has very little correlation to the country we call Ethiopia.

Ethnic identity-based politics and it’s negative effects are more pronounced in developing countries. This has to do with the way those nation states are structured and the methods they employ to address ethnic politics; such as, using sovereignty and territorial integrity as a rational to thwart peoples’ right to self- determination.

Ethiopia as a nation state was envisioned in the 13th century. Back then, its territorial and demographic constituents were no more than a third of today’s Ethiopia, which like many African countries was recreated and reconstructed in the 19th and 20th centuries.  It is a nation-state envisioned and expanded with the use of force, with little consideration to the inhabitants. Unlike the Europeans countries, it is a country amalgamated with no alignments of the people with their national boundaries amalgamated.

The failure of pre-EPRDF administrations to discern Ethiopia as a multiethnic nation state and deny citizens of those ethnic entities having specific and separate anxieties and demands that need be addressed or putting the issues of nations and nationalities under the rug led to violent conflicts. Furthermore, the sustained paternalistic tactics of central authorities to contain and limit the people’s aspirations led most nationalities to emotionally withdraw themselves from the Ethiopian mindset.

Inevitably, the country of more than eighty nations and nationalities has been the place of numerous conflicts of ethnic in nature. Political historians point out that one of the main issues that led to the popular uprising that eventually led to the overthrow of the last monarch [ King Haileslessie] was the issue of ethnic national rights.

To its credit, the fascist regime [Derg] which replaced the king did recognize the issue nationality. Nevertheless, it never attempted to address it. That led to the promulgation of the issue. Ethiopians rose against the Derg regime for a lot of reasons: democracy. Ideology, class and nationality. Eventually it was able to defeat all but one group of its opponents: NATIONAL LIBERATION MOVEMENTS. During the last days of the regime there were 17 well organized and armed ethnic based groups, powerful enough and willing to disintegrate the Ethiopia-state and go their own way.

The country was spared of the fate of the likes of Somalia or Yugoslavia thanks to the brilliant politics of the TPLF led EPRDF government which assumed power after the downfall of Derg. The EPRDF government gave the issue of identity politics [nations and nationalities’] its at most attention and come up with a clever political arrangement. It created a federal state with an Ethno-Regional Constituent.

At the core of EPRDF’s principle is that democratic ethnic nationalists can reach in to an understanding of those who are different from them, which is, rather explosively, the absolute pillar of diversity philosophy; that diversity broadens and enriches and expands people’s moral and political boundaries by the blend and intervention of all our different selves.

For the most part of the last 28 years, that philosophy brought peace to Ethiopia, with peace came stability, stability brought economic development in unprecedented pace in the continent of Africa. The country, which was synonymous with famine, war, destitution for the most part of the 20the century came to be known as the “ African Lion”, became a force to be reckon with [feared by its enemies and respected by friends] and was entrusted to lead by its African peers.

In spite of the indisputable benefits the federal arrangements have brought to the country it has had opponents from the start. That opposition comes mainly from the Amara elites and nationalists. They claim ethnic-based federalism undermines “national [Ethiopian] unity” and would lead to balkanization.

To the contrary, Ethiopians under EPRDF were more united, the people more patriotic. The reason is obvious; they have become proud Ethiopians by choice not by force or coercion.

But that didn’t dissuade the Amara extremists from their animosity to the system. To prove their point, they are leaving no stone unturned to undermine the federal system and promote their vision of “Ethiopian nationalism” – A nationalism that speaks one language and celebrates one culture. So, you see, the Amara elites’ cry of Ethiopian nationalism is a sinister ploy to advance their own national interest.

Once they realized their pontification did not sell well with the rest of Ethiopia, they have changed their tune, have adopted an open Amara nationalist politics. You would think that is good, because now they would understand why other ethnic groups sought representation and recognition. Unfortunately, the kind of nationalism they have adopted is the ill-favored one.

Case in point, the party running the regional state of Amara, which has fallen under the spell of the extremists is acting like a demagogue. In addition to conducting an extermination campaign against minorities within the state, it keeps beating war drums directed at neighboring regional states in the name of “revanchism.”

What is confusing is inhabitants 0f those territories are non-Amaras. Their rational - - - those regions were under their control in the past. Such claim is problematic to say the least. If the Amaras think interjecting history as rational for claiming territories is justifiable, they should know others can play the game too. For instance, historical Tigrean territorial boundaries include a substantial chunk of the Amara regional state.

As it turns out the Amara extremists could use more rather than less introspection, a healthy dose of examining their own contradictions and predispositions.

In fairness, the opposition to federalism is not the domain of the Amara extremists. There are non-Amaras [though very few] who voice against the system. But what unites all rejectionists of the current federal arrangements is their lack of common sense and their disregard of Ethiopian peoples’ rights and yearning. The overwhelming numbers of the people have in no uncertain terms declared the current federalism to be inviolable.

Notwithstanding, critics of federalism are not deterred from coming up with objectionable perspectives and promotion as an alternative to federalism.  Few months ago, I read a piece written by a decrepitude professor who proposed re-arranging the country based on rivers and mountains – go figure. And now, there is another similarly stupid idea being promoted as a substitute to the identity-based federalism. They call it “citizenship nationalism”. If you are wondering what does even mean, don’t bother, I have listened to its proponents and I couldn’t make sense of it either.

Furthermore, detractors keep pointing out at the current chaos engulfing the country and are happy to point fingers at the federal system. Such claim is of course disingenuous for two reasons. First, the root cause of the country state of anarchy in most part of the country is uncertainty fuelled by the Manchurian Prime Minister’s irresponsible and often contradictory statements concerning his commitment to the federal system. Second, there are credible signs that makes us believe some of the mayhem are in fact instigated and sponsored by the enemies of federalism and blame it on the system.

The point is, nationalism in multi-ethnic country like Ethiopia requires the cultivation of collective identity and sustain it. The ethno-regional federal system has redefined Ethiopian identity by readjusting the relationship and affirming the rights of nations and nationalities and their responsibilities to their people.

Hence, created a new and modern patriotism based on fairness, tolerance and partnership. Restored an overwhelming sense of being a proud Ethiopian and created an impervious unity. It did so, on the key principles, that Ethiopia is stronger together than apart, all constituent regions are united than separate, stronger together than the sum of their parts. And that the people are enjoined to believe there is no contradiction between, say, membership in Oromian and Ethiopian nationalism.

Bottom line: I am not asserting that the ethno-regional federalism is perfect. It by no means is not, has a lot of room for improvement. But, for a heterogeneous country like Ethiopia there is no other system of governance that is suitable. But most importantly it is the people’s choice.

To emphasise my point, allow me to go back address the question I raised at the preface of the article – Who is sovereign?

In international law, people are sovereign – president Woodrow Wilson indicated so toward the end of WW1. The principle of self-determination would be reaffirmed time and again over subsequent decades, including by the United Nations after WW2. But confusingly, countries are also deemed sovereign under international law, their territorial integrity considered sacrosanct.

The outrage some Ethiopians expressed over the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia was based on the view that the territorial integrity of Ethiopia was violated. Yet when the people of Eritrea decided to exercise their rights to self-determination by force and later in a referendum, Ethiopia’s claim to sovereignty and the Eritrea people’s claim to sovereignty clashed.

Obviously, one could not simultaneously uphold both claims to sovereignty. So, what is one to do? The just answer is what actually materialized.

Borders and possessions change all the time – in the last century most countries experienced changes, often dramatic ones. In fact, most countries that exist today didn’t exist at the turn of the century. Just as clearly, history shows that sovereignty lies in people, who tend to have more staying power than here-today, gone-tomorrow countries.

The people of the US, after all, were the first in modern times to assert a right to self-administration, when “we the people” wrote the US constitution. Wilson’s 14 points again revolutionized the modern understanding of the rights of the people.

To those of you who think Ethiopia is worth saving HAPPY GENBOT 20!

By Ezana Sehay  

Courtesy: Aigaforum

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