Confronting the taboo in multi-ethnic state

10 Aug 2017

For a country like Ethiopia that has upwards of eighty ethnic groups, local and national administration does not come easy. Reconciling the interests of different groups and establishing a working system for unity and development is always a major challenge. The long standing measure has been the complete denouncement of ethnic identity and a common allegiance to nationality. In case that fails, would the recognition of ethnic identities be an option?

After the bloody scenes of World War II that saw millions perish on account of the racist views of the powerful, a national approach to the administration that is based along ethnic lines has generally been renounced. A paper by Alem Habtu entitled “Ethnic federalism in Ethiopia: background, present conditions and future prospects,” states:

Following World War II and the start of decolonization, newly independent countries in Africa struggled to create viable nation-states combining different ethnic groupings within the territorial boundaries inherited from colonialism. For these countries, modernity entailed the transformation of disparate ethnic groups into a unitary nation-state with a common language and citizenship. France was the model nation-state par excellence. Such a nation-state came to be regarded as a badge of modernity, while “ethnicism” was associated with backwardness and repudiated by modernizing elites. Many African countries followed the nation-state model and attempted to create a unified nation out of disparate peoples.

The paper goes on to explain that the belief that ethnic identity should be denied public expression in political institutions has been conventional wisdom in the continent ever since decolonization. As a result, it asserts, the 1960s witnessed the rise of state nationalism in Africa and state nationalists attempted to undermine ethnic nationalism, which they saw as an obstacle to modern state formation. The author identifies that replacing ethnic identity that had been held high by the people with national identity became the major challenge for African nations.

The importance people attach to ethnic identity has, however, not been extinguished in the continent over the years as numerous liberation movements and conflicts between various ethnic groups were recorded in the meantime. The nation state model has repeatedly been exposed as insufficient in administering multi-ethnic societies as demonstrated in Rwanda, Sudan, Nigeria, Morocco and Ethiopia to name a few.

In the case of Ethiopia, as indicated in various history books, state formation was a long process of empire expansion that annexed neighboring societies into it. The paper by Alem Habtu argues that three forms of ethnic social engineering have been attempted in Ethiopia over the 20th century.

The first social engineering, it contends, was designed by Emperor Menelik (1889-1913) but significantly elaborated by Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-36, 1941-74). The author argues that it attempted to create a unitary state on the basis of cultural assimilation, using Amharic as the sole language of instruction and public discourse and Abyssinian Orthodox Christian culture as the core culture of Ethiopian national identity. It goes on to say that cultural and structural inequalities typified imperial rule, with ethnic and regional discontent rising until the revolution of 1974 overthrew the monarchy. The paper asserts that the policy of assimilation into mainstream Amhara culture provoked some subordinated ethnic groups into initiating ethnic movements in various regions of the empire-state.

The second ethnic social engineering (1974-91), it contends, was the military government’s attempt to retain a unitary state and address the "national question" within the framework of Marxism-Leninism. To address the latter, the paper explains, it set up the Institute for the Study of Nationalities in 1983. Based on the Institute's recommendations, it goes on to say, the military regime created twenty-four administrative regions and five autonomous regions within the unitary form of state, but no devolution of authority was discernible. According to the paper, the regime initiated a mass National Literacy Campaign in 15 Ethiopian languages in 1979. At the same time as it was making these and related efforts (e.g., in legitimating ethnic folk music and dance) in the direction of cultural pluralism, analyzes the paper, the regime waged a military campaign against ethno-nationalist armed groups. In the last decade of its rule, ethnic based opposition organizations had intensified their assault on the military government and ethnic nationalism became a major factor in the demise of the centralizing military regime.

After the failure of the two attempts in 1974 and 1991, the third ethnic social engineering (1991-present) by the EPRDF government to maintain the Ethiopian state on the basis of ethnic federalism as well as cultural, language and political autonomy at regional and sub-regional levels has been underway.

The paper argues that the ideological antecedents of EPRDF’s ethnic federalism project can be traced to Marxist-Leninist ideology and its conception of “the national question.” The Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM) at home and abroad had introduced Marxism-Leninism to Ethiopia in the mid-1960s. The paper notes that "the national question" had soon emerged as the burning question. While explaining the historical adoption of the doctrine, the paper states:

The ESM was initially divided on the “correct” resolution of the national question. In the end, the ESM attempted to legitimate ethno-nationalism within the ideological compass of Marxism-Leninism, marking a radical departure from the inherited pan-Ethiopianist ideology … The ESM saw its resolution within the framework of the Marxist-Leninist doctrine of "the right of nations to self-determination, up to and including secession." By 1971, the ESM worldwide adopted this doctrine. When the ESM gave birth to Marxist-Leninist political parties, notably Mela Ityopia Socialist Niqinaqe (MEISON) in 1968 and Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (EPRP) in 1975, it also bequeathed them this doctrine. When the military junta adopted the Marxist-Leninist orientation of the ESM, it conspicuously rejected "the right of secession" doctrine … When EPRDF assumed power in 1991, this doctrine became the basis for constructing a new federal state structure.

The current federal state structure recognizes the importance of ethnic identity and provides people with the chance to administer them while maintaining national unity through their willful consent. It gives ethnic groups the room to grow their culture and retain the respect they deserve in their relations with their fellow citizens. It also provides them with the opportunity to use their own languages in education.

Along with these rights granted to ethnic groups comes the responsibility to form an economic and political society. The economic integration of the nine states carved out along linguistic and ethnic lines has grown tremendously over the past couple of decades as the country has experienced an unprecedented level of economic growth and development. The relief from the state imposed measures to keep ethnic identity on the down low has also created a conducive environment for social groups to create a stronger political unity.

Considering the fact that the two previous attempts of social engineering by former regimes failed, the option of ethnic federalism that gives due attention to both ethnic identity and national unity is a viable alternative to administering multi-ethnic societies. African states need to take one good look at Ethiopia’s experiment and try their own versions of Federalism.


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