Ethiopia: Identity Politics and Transition to Democracy – Alemayehu G. Mariam

by Alemayehu G. Mariam

History Keeps Repeating Itself in Ethiopia

Last week, the Voice of America Amharic radio program reported on the forced official removal (“displacement”) of a large number of people from the southern part of Ethiopia. According to the report, numerous Amhara farming families from the town of Gura Ferda were ordered by local officials to pack up and go back to their “kilil” ethnic homeland. A number of these displaced persons told the VOA that they were summoned by local officials and ordered to “leave their lands” and get out of town before sundown. Many of them were born in the area or had lived there for decades. Before leaving, the victims of official displacement were required to sign an official document which stated that they had “illegally acquired, held and farmed land in the area” and now are voluntarily returning it to the local administration. Hundreds of displaced families left town headed to the capital of Addis Ababa to petition Zenawi’s regime for redress of grievances. As they gathered outside the “Parliament”, they were rounded up by security officials and trucked out to parts unknown. A representative of Zenawi’s regime told the VOA she knows nothing about the situation and that an investigation is underway. In the recent past, tens of thousands of other citizens have reportedly been removed from Benji Maji Zone in the “Southern Nations” region.

Forced removal of populations (under different designations “resettlement”,”villagisation”, “displacement”, etc.) has a sinister and ugly history in Ethiopia. In the past few years, Zenawi’s regime has undertaken a massive program of “villagization” (permanent removal of local populations from ancestral lands) in the Gambella region in Western Ethiopia to make way for the Indian agrobuiness multinational Karuturi and other “investors”. Zenawi’s top agriculture official said “there is no movement of population” in Gambella. But that is contradicted by a UNICEF field study which concluded:

The deracination [uprooting from ancestral lands] of indigenous people that is evident in rural areas of Gambella is extreme. It is very likely that Anuak (and possibly other indigenous minorities) culture will completely disappear in the not-so-distant future. Cultural survival, autonomy, rights of self-determination and self-governance are all legitimate issues for these indigenous groups, and these are all enshrined by international covenants and United Nations bodies – but all are meaningless in Gambella today.

The military junta (Derg) that ruled Ethiopia from the mid-1970s until 1991 used “resettlement” as a political and tactical counter-insurgency weapon. The Derg “resettled” populations in rebel-controlled areas in the north of the country to create military buffer zones and to deny the insurgents local support. At the onset of the 1984 famine, the Derg initiated a resettlement program for 1.5 million people from insurgent-controlled and drought-affected northern regions to the south and southwest of the country. The Derg claimed the people were relocating voluntarily. Tens of thousands of people died in that resettlement program from illness and starvation. Families were separated as people fled the ill-equipped and ill-managed resettlement centers.

Ironically, the northern insurgents, who have now wielded power in Ethiopia for the past 21 years, condemned the Derg and characterized the “resettlement” centers as “concentration” camps. In 2012, the very leaders who fought against such inhuman practices have become the chief architects and engineers of a new and systematic program of forced resettlement and transfer of population in Ethiopia. It seems history repeats itself over and over again in Ethiopia. But for the record, “deportation or forcible transfer of population”, (defined as “forced displacement by expulsion or other coercive acts from the area in which they are lawfully present, without grounds without grounds permitted under international law”) is one of the specified crimes against humanity under the Article 7(d) of the Rome Statute.

Kililistans and Bantustans

For the past two decades, Zenawi has been repackaging an atavistic style of tribal politics in a fancy wrapper called “ethnic federalism.” He has managed to segregate the Ethiopian people by ethno-tribal classifications and corralled them like cattle into grotesque regional political units called “kilils” (literally means “reservation”; semantically, the word also suggests the notion of an exclusion zone, an enclave). “Kilil” is basically a kinder-and-gentler form of Apartheid-style Bantustans (“black African tribal homelands”). The ideology of “kililism” shares many of the attributes of Apartheid’s “Bantustanism”. Both ideologies aim to concentrate members of designated ethnic groups into “homelands” by creating ethnically homogenous territories which could ultimately morph into “autonomous” nation states. Zenawi made sure to insert Article 39 in the Ethiopian Constitution which provides: “Every nation, nationality or people in Ethiopia shall have the unrestricted right to self-determination up to secession.” In other words, the “kilils” could secede and become sovereign nations, which was precisely the ultimate aim of the Bantustans.

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But there are many other similarities. One of the major policy aims of “Bantustanization” was to make South Africa’s blacks nationals of the homelands instead of the nation of South Africa. By politically disempowering them and diminishing their national citizenship and human rights to travel freely and establish residence in any part of the country, Bantustanization effectively atomized black African communities. The forced removal of disapproved ethnic groups from the southern part of Ethiopia accomplishes the same purpose. “Bantustanization” was based on forced relocation of the black African population from different parts of South Africa to the “homelands”. It aimed at eventually accommodating every black person in South Africa into one of the 10 “homelands”. Kililism has effectively achieved that objective by corralling Ethiopians in 9 “regional states” (kililistans) organized exclusively on the basis of ethnicity. “Bantustanization” was used strategically to prevent alliances between the various African ethnic groups. It was an effective tool of the Apartheid government’s policy of divide and rule to cling to power. “Kililism” serves the same purpose in Ethiopia today to the point where a handful of individuals exercise absolute power . According to the International Crises Group, (a research organization that gives advice to the United Nations, European Union and World Bank):

Once close to their rural Tigrayan constituency, the TPLF and the EPRDF top leaderships now largely operate in seclusion from the general public. This has led to a situation in which an increasingly smaller number of politicians – the TPLF executive committee and the prime minister’s immediate advisers – decide the political fate of the country.

Playing the Ethnic Card to Divide and Misrule

My basic belief is that tyranny, despotism and dictatorship thrive and flourish when the people are disunited and fragmented particularly along ethnic lines and the tyrants and their supporters maintain their ironclad unity. Ethnicity in Ethiopia, as in other parts of Africa, is a source of division, weakness, conflict and violence. Unity is a source of strength, harmony, peace and reconciliation. African dictators have used ethnicity as a powerful weapon to divide and rule.

In October 2011, I wrote a weekly commentary about the “ultimate weapon found in the arsenal of tyrants and despots– divide and misrule”:

For the past two decades, the maxim of those who have riveted themselves to the platform of power in Ethiopia has been: “We, the rulers of the people, in order to form a more perfect disunion…” They have put to use the ultimate weapon found in the arsenal of tyranny and despotism. They have divided and misruled, divided and subjugated, and divided and parceled away the land in bits, pieces and chunks. They have managed to systematically divide the people by region, city, town and even neighborhood. They have succeeded in dividing the people by corralling them into homelands (Bantustans) in the name of “ethnic federalism”. They have sought to divide the people by language and religion, and even rupture the bonds of affection between Ethiopians living in the country and those in the Diaspora.

This past January I wrote a commentary encouraging all Ethiopians to unite around a common purpose and destiny and celebrate the very idea of unity among peoples of a nation and warned of the dire consequences of failing to bridge the artificially manufactured ethnic divide: “A nation divided by race, tribe and ethnicity is doomed to poverty, ignorance and strife. I have always marveled at the majestic opening phrases in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a perfect Union…”

Overcoming Identity Politics in the Transition to Democracy

In the transition from dictatorship to democracy, one of the greatest challenges Ethiopians will face is the problem of identity politics at the ideological level and “kililism” at the structural and constitutional levels. One could surmise that the current political rationale for “kililism” could create a chaotic, if temporary, situation in the transition to democracy and potentially impair much needed efforts to create national unity, preserve the country’s territorial integrity and guarantee its political sovereignty. The challenge, in my view, is how to transform the politics of identity and ethnicity into a dialogue over strengthening national unity and furthering the common cause of our humanity through cooperation, accommodation and reconciliation (while avoiding the path to conflict and violence).

The threshold issue for me is whether it is productive to play Zenawi’s “ethnic card” game. He has used it as an effective tool to justify his one-man, one-party divide and misrule. He has used the “ethnic card” to anger and distract his opponents and divert public attention from the desperate economic situation in the country (“a recent report by the Addis Ababa-based research group Access Capital SC stated, ‘Ethiopia had the second-highest inflation rate in the world last year, when it peaked at 40.6 percent’”). It is best to leave the ethnic polarization game to Zenawi and focus on ethnic reconciliation, cooperation and collaboration.

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There is much social scientific literature to suggest that “identities are constructed and can be deconstructed and reconstructed anew”. In other words, ethnic identity like other forms of identity is malleable. It can be transformed over time by processes of immigration, marriage, education, national integration, nation-building, economic development and other factors. (Zenawi’s antidote to this process is segregation of people in kililistans where there will be little opportunity for “ethnic fusion” or assimilation.) Often, ethnic identity trumps all other issues and leads to conflicts where there is an absence of social and legal justice, poor governance and denial of the equal protection of the laws and opportunities. The real challenge for Ethiopia’s opposition political leaders, scholars, elites and ordinary folks today is to re-conceptualize the politics of identity which for so long has been based on historical and current grievances to a politics based on promoting and implementing human rights values. I believe a paradigm shift in the way we understand and discuss the question of ethnic identity; and that necessitates first and foremost a change in the very language of communication we use to construct, deconstruct and reconstruct ethnicity and its associated social, economic and political problems.

Inventing a New Language for a New Identity

I have previously argued for and proposed a new “language” for dialogue on the question of ethnicity in Ethiopia. (I even “invented” words (neologisms) for the occasion, one of the privileges of an academician.) I find it necessary to re-articulate those ideas once again. I view ethnicity as the flip side of the coin of unity. The coalescence of ethnic groups is the fabric of unity in any nation. When subnational groups are fragmented, divided and are at odds with each other, a nation faces the threat of disintegration. Zenawi sees Ethiopia as a collection of 9 distinct and autonomous kilils. In other words, Ethiopia for Zenawi is a patchwork of “nations and nationalities” that have very little in common (a convenient cover for divide and rule) and with mutually exclusive interests. We believe Ethiopia is a variegated mosaic of multiculturalism where all citizens have the same rights, freedoms, opportunities and protections under the law. They can live, work, play and pray in any part of their country without any limitations or restrictions whatsoever!

In the transition from dictatorship to democracy, it will be necessary to build a new kind of unity based on our common humanity. This special unity is grounded in a fundamental belief that our common bonds of humanity are greater than the sum of our bonds of ethnicity, nationality and communality. Our common yearning for freedom, democracy and human rights is greater than our narrow ethnic interests. Our commitment to each other’s human dignity is nobler than the arrogant ethnic identity.

Unity that is based on our common humanity draws not only on universal ethical and moral values but also on the African ethic of “Ubuntu”, often used by Nelson Mandela to teach us about the essence of human existence: “A person is a person because of other people. You can do nothing if you don’t get the support of other people.” “Ubunity” is unity that requires us to see each other as brothers and sisters and relate to each other on the basis of the principles of sharing, caring, trust, tolerance, honesty and morality. We do not see each other with a colored ethnic lens that filters for Oromo, Amhara, Tigrean, Gurage and so on but with a clear lens that is calibrated to illuminate justice, equality and fairness. The special unity of which I speak is also grounded in an unshakeable belief that our individual liberty must be protected against those who commit crimes against humanity and acts of atrocity, sneer at public accountability and abuse their authority and act beyond the limits of constitutionality.

I ask all Ethiopians to strive for a special kind of unity which I call both “humunity” and “younity”. “Huminity” is unity based not on ethnicity or nationality but on a blend of core universal values of human dignity and the African ethic of “ubunity”. It requires individual moral commitment to respect and uphold human rights, an allegiance to the rule of law, a belief in the consent of the people as the only legitimate basis of power, and strict adherence to principles of constitutional governance, accountability and transparency. If we could develop wide and deep consensus on these values, we would have achieved unity of thought, purpose and consciousness, the prerequities to all other forms of unity. More importantly, if f we put these values into action by defending the rights of victims of human rights abuses, working for improvements in the observance of human rights conventions, organizing, teaching and preparing the youth for a democratic society, exposing corruption and abuse of power, strengthening our interpersonal relations across ethnic, religious and class lines, we will have achieved unity in action and deeds. Is it not true that the things that divide us, sow discord and hatred amongst us are rooted in and fester because of the very absence of these universal values in our lives?


Tyrants divide the people by magnifying the smallest of differences. Often, the people fall prey to the schemes of tyrants and sing their songs of discord and division. But in my conception of “huminity”, it is possible to have diversity of opinion, views and approaches because I believe “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” If we embrace and practice the universal principles of human rights, we will realize that it is not about our ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, region or anything else, but what we can do collectively and individually to remove the yoke of oppression and tyranny, institute democracy and the rule of law to uphold human dignity.

My conception of “younity” is a simple idea about you and I together standing up to tyranny, corruption and abuse of power. It is based on the notion that each one of us is a link in a long chain of both oppression and freedom. Our yearning for freedom welds the links in the chain of unity; tyranny melts the links. I believe we all have an individual civic and moral duty to strengthen the links and bonds of unity in the Ethiopian people by embracing and practicing the core values of human dignity and rights. Political leaders must adopt a new and more powerful language of “huminity” to bring the people of divergent views together. Religious leaders must speak of “huminity” in the language of divinity. They should preach and pray for unity. Civic leaders must speak up and advocate for “huminity”. Academics must teach the ways of “huminity” to the youth; and the youth must teach the older generation of the necessity of “huminity” for a new and enlightened Ethiopian community. Most importantly, ordinary people in the street must speak in the language of our common humanity (ubunity) to achieve ultimate unity.

Playing the ethnic card game with Zenawi is to fall victim to destructive identity politics that breeds division, hatred, conflict, and cynicism. We can choose to play Zenawi’s zero-sum ethnic card game (a game in which he always wins and we always lose) and express outrage over the spectacle he has created in Gura Ferda, Gambella, Benj Maji and wherever else. But we can also rise above ethnicity and the politics of identity and help build a national Ethiopian identity. But how…?

“Establish New Relationships, Devoid of any Resentment and Hostility”

The most direct way to build a new national identity is to establish new relationships and discard the old and tired ways of hatred and domination. We must look to a vision of Ethiopia that is not only free of dictatorship and tyranny but also united. On the occasion of the establishment of the permanent headquarters of the Organization for African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa on May 25, 1963, H.I.M. Haile Selassie made the most compelling case for African unity. One-half century later, that same message rings true for Ethiopia:

We look to the vision of an Africa not merely free but united. In facing this new challenge, we can take comfort and encouragement from the lessons of the past. We know that there are differences among us. Africans enjoy different cultures, distinctive values, special attributes. But we also know that unity can be and has been attained among men of the most disparate origins, that differences of race, of religion, of culture, of tradition, are no insuperable obstacle to the coming together of peoples. History teaches us that unity is strength, and cautions us to submerge and overcome our differences in the quest for common goals, to strive, with all our combined strength, for the path to true African brotherhood and unity…. Our efforts as free men must be to establish new relationships, devoid of any resentment and hostility, restored to our belief and faith in ourselves as individuals, dealing on a basis of equality with other equally free peoples.

Close ranks regardless of ethnicity or regionality; reaffirm our basic humanity in our Ethiopianity; renounce our old enmity; openly declare our steadfast unity and trumpet our Ethiopian nationality at every opportunity. Let us strive to establish a new identify in Ethiopian unity!

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