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From Nation-Building to Ethnonations: Ethiopia’s Backward Moving History

Messay Kebede
University of Dayton

Nothing is more confusing than the use of the term “nation” in Ethiopia. Though the country still presents characteristics that justify its status as a nation, it also exhibits others that dispute the characterization. In light of these other features, Ethiopia is not a nation, not even a federal nation. It is best described as a federation of nations, with each nation having the right to secede at will, a kind of miniaturized version of the European Union. Because of this confusing duality, political discourses and debates often turn into a brouhaha in which words do not have the same meaning for everybody. As a result, a rapprochement between political contenders has become an unrealizable goal. In demarcating nation from ethnicity, this paper hopes to bring out the inaccuracy in the use of the terms “nation” and “nationality” wherever a group of people happens to speak the same dialect.


The Concept of Nation

Whatever be one’s view on the origin of human society, whether it is attributed to a natural disposition or to utilitarian motivations, one thing seems undeniable, namely, that human social formations began with very small groups that expanded progressively, either by association or, in most cases, by conquest and forceful assimilation. It is very hard to find support for the assumption that human sociability started with large formations, whether one appeals to the presence of a biological disposition or to the utilitarian choice made by individuals. On the contrary, the need to generate cohesive, self-sufficient, and self-supporting groups necessitated limitation to smaller groups. Limitation, in turn, rested on the development of distinctive features, the very ones by which one group differentiates itself from other groups. Stated otherwise, the acquisition of a group identity is how one group separates itself and, in so doing, excludes other groups and the individuals belonging to these groups. The result of this exclusion is that an individual that does not belong to the group is perceived and categorized as a “stranger.” Exclusion is not a marginal act; it is the act by which the group fosters cohesion, self-reliance, and the absolute compliance of members to its authority and norms. The result of all this is that the individual sees no possible life outside the group.

Given this role of exclusion, the following problem arises: since modern societies required the dissolution of the original small groups and their integration into larger and larger social formations, what impulse, natural or otherwise, could explain this difficult and aberrant change? I say “natural or otherwise” because all views on the origin of human society, regardless of their divergence, face the same problem once they admit the indisputable fact that socialization kicked off with small and tightly closed groups. Let it be noted, however, that what is natural, biologically determined being ineradicable, it becomes arduous to find a convincing natural explanation for the expansion of closed groups into larger ensembles, all the more so as the expansion required the passing on of the power and magnetism inherent in the identity of the smaller groups to the larger, less harmonious, and diverse group, typical of a modern nation. On the other hand, it is no less difficult to assign the formation of the original small group to some agreement between pre-social individuals. This leads one to conclude that the formation of closed units through the total subordination of individuals to the norms of group identity cannot be explained without some biological support.

The way out to account for the expansion of the small natural groups into larger aggregates is, then, to concede that the original social formations are an extension of the organizational activity that is characteristic of life, but that their expansion into modern nations was the result of human action and creativity. In this way, the contention between conflicting views is reduced to an issue of periodization instead of being a theoretical incompatibility. Also, in demarcating sequentially the realm of nature from human additions and accomplishments, we are in a better position to expound the nature of nationness, particularly in distinction to ethnicity.

The sure clue indicating the causal intervention of human action and creativity is when the issue considered seems to involve the influence of human choice or will. In the organizational work of nature, we always encounter hierarchy, notably in the form of the subordination of parts to a center. Where, then, we find an occurrence that appears to reflect the interference of some autonomy, we can for sure say that it is where the realm of nature ends and that of human history begins. This is how precisely philosophers who developed contract theory put the matter. Whether we take Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau, they all present social contract as a moment of inflection from the order of nature to that of human beings. In other words, if we understand contract theory, not as the beginning of social life, which as we saw is natural, but as an effort to transcend nature by shaping the natural order in accordance with the human aspiration of freedom and equality, not only do we determine the nature of the change, but also properly articulate the two orders. The nature of the change sticks out when we see that, in contrast to the hierarchical order of nature, the human order begins by bestowing on the individual person inalienable basic and universal rights. As to their articulation, it is not that the human order simply replaces the natural order. Since the natural can never be eliminated, the human order has to work through the natural order. What we call progress is the continuous but always potentially reversible attempt to adjust the natural to humans’ ideal aspirations.

In addition to asserting the autonomy of the individual, the declaration of basic and universal human rights opens the natural, that is, the closed society, to larger social formations because universality is contrary to exclusion. It rather calls for inclusion, and this explains why universalist religions, like Christianity and Islam, have in the past encouraged or justified the formation of empires, as opposed to the confinement of tribal religions to particular groups. These empires did not last because their sociopolitical structures did not match with their universalist messages of equality. Here we should keep in mind that, no matter how universal the inspiration may be, it cannot materially extend to all humanity for the reason that it has to operate as a society that still maintains some boundary and a hierarchical political order, even if the scale of the hierarchy is significantly moderated. We repeat: the natural cannot be removed so that the expansion of human association has a limit beyond which it cannot go. It is reasonable to say that modern nations, as they are formed through different histories, circumstances, and geographical setups represent so many attempts to expand the limits of the natural society.

If, contrary to the natural method of closing, the act of opening initiates the formation of nations, what other means than war and conquest could explain such a result? Since any expansion has to go against the natural tendency of exclusion, we cannot assume that nations were initially the products of consent. Nations are historical outcomes, not natural or consensual gatherings. Only constraints as a result of military defeats can explain, at least in most cases, the capitulation of natural exclusions to larger and diversified social formations. Conquests, however, can take different forms. There is the case where conquerors and conquered are maintained as distinct people by means of cultural or racial distinctions. Both distinctions confer on conquerors an aura of superiority, but provide different explanations. The cultural distinction was typical of ancient slavery and, in a milder form, of feudal social organization; the racial one is more in line with modern colonial conquests. Obviously, this kind of conquest is not conducive to the gestation of nations, since it preserves exclusion in the expansion.

Different is the conquest that is accompanied by a desire to assimilate. In this form of conquest, the distinction between conquerors and conquered progressively disappears through integration by means of acculturation, mixed marriage, social promotion, etc. Additionally, an emotional component, which is quite effective in seducing the natural tendency to exclusion, usually goes with assimilation. To the extent that building a nation is a human enterprise, the very one by which humans transcend the limits of nature, it arouses noble feelings of accomplishment. Being part of this saga is to be part of something bigger than one’s individuality, and this elevates people and lifts their pride. Historians, artists, great religious masters and political leaders add their lofty ingredients to the feeling of achievement. The outcome of all this is that the nation becomes an object of love. Singled out as patriotism, this love is all the more bound to intensify as the desire to assimilate moves the process of change in the direction of the democratic ideal of equality. What more can strengthen national unity than the equal treatment of all members? Likewise, where exclusion loosens up, there grows the sense of individual freedom: as soon as the individual becomes capable of detaching himself/herself from the closed group mentality, he/she becomes a sovereign individual, a person endowed with rights, and this places the individual in the direction of the democratic ideal of freedom.


The Ethiopian Entanglement

It is this tandem between the concept of nation and the democratic ideals of freedom and equality that the modernization of Ethiopia has failed to establish. Even though the southern expansion of Menilik pursued assimilation, the subsequent establishment of an imperial and tightly centralized autocracy, together with the development of landlordism and tenancy, especially in the south of the country, resulted in a misfired modernization. The cry for freedom and equality at a time of a global call for decolonization and revolution, mostly inflamed by the ideological hegemony of Marxism-Leninism in the 60s and 70s, radicalized Ethiopian students and educated elite, the outcome of which was the far-reaching political and socioeconomic upheavals of the 1974 Revolution.

Under the leadership of the Derg, the Revolution successfully destroyed the ancient regime and its economic basis, but failed to supply the missing components of nation-building, namely, the democratic ideals of freedom and equality. The inability of the Derg to defeat the ever-increasing rebellions in many parts of the country, essentially caused by the unfulfilled democratic aspirations, translated in the creation of movements of national deconstruction. Soon after their military victory, these movements, under the leadership of the TPLF, created new “nations” by leaning on the linguistic diversity of the country, thereby undoing through linguistic exclusions the previous march toward integration.

The fact that the new “nations” originated from exclusion based on a feature assumed to be distinctive to each ethnic group shows that their formation contrast with the idea of nation, which, as we saw, originally means an inclusion transcending race, blood, or other types of barrier-forming characteristics. On the other hand, the fact that the new “national” demarcations considered themselves as products of emancipation from the discrimination and oppression of a distinct group, to wit, the Amhara, they construed the whole process in terms of national liberation. In thus adopting the model of decolonization to interpret the history of modern Ethiopia, they were embracing, despite the numerous disjunctions between the two cases, the most glaring being the absence of a racial barrier in the Ethiopian case, the confusion between an indigenous expansion and nation-building effort with an overseas colonial undertaking. Other than the use of the colonial paradigm, the baptism of linguistic territories as “nations” rested on the claim of carrying the democratic ideas of freedom and equality. As national liberation movements, in distinction to social reforms or revolutionary movements, they take on a national mantle to clearly indicate that the democratic rights coincide with the formation of a national community.

Even so, the fact remains that the common language to which the new “nations” refer to justify their nationness does no more than constitute them as ethnic groups. However, the colonial paradigm and the ideal aspirations that they invest in their new-found unity give them a national significance. The proper term for them is “ethnonations” rather than nations, since instead of being civic, that is, of uniting people on the basis of equal rights and their willingness to live together, their union is derived from the possession of an attribute that demarcates them from other people.

It goes without saying that the idea of nation based on an exclusive characteristic is prone to all kind of derailments, one of which being the dangerous slide from patriotism to ethnonationalism. We saw it with the history of fascism in Europe and elsewhere: no sooner is an exclusive trait magnified at the expense of the universality of human rights than it quickly degenerates into a bellicose attitude, first by looking for purity, and then for superiority and domination, the consequence of which is none other than the dropping of democratic ideals. Unsurprisingly, the designer and implementer of the ethnic compartmentalization of Ethiopia, namely the TPLF, exactly took this road and established a dictatorial rule favoring the interests of Tigrean elites. Some Oromo elites are now aspiring to achieve a similar ethnic hegemony over the country. In addition, Ethiopia shows clear signs of derailment toward ethnic conflicts, as evidenced by the numerous displacements of populations, the proliferation of hate-spreading political movements, and the many disputes over border demarcations. All this is alarming enough for many observers to fear an Ethiopian repeat of the fate of the former Yugoslavia.

Still, what is feared need not become real. As the German poet Hölderlin put it: “Where the danger grows, grows also what saves.” The error to avoid when one thinks of finding a way out from the danger of disintegration is to reason in terms of cause and effect. It seems indeed logical to argue that the fragmentation of the country along ethnic lines being the cause of the problem, the solution is to dissolve the ethnic regions and establish a federal system based on criteria that are less divisive. Some such solution has the obvious disadvantage of trying to solve the problem by aggravating it. At this stage of the country’s evolution, the depoliticization of the ethnic criterion has little support because ethnicity has become the main legitimizing reason for political demarcations, alignments, and mobilizations, especially for elites vying for the control of state power. Because all political demands and grievances are soaked in identity politics, the country has reached a point where doing politics amounts to ethnicizing. Any attempt at depoliticizing ethnicity is perceived as a unitarian bid to reverse the gains of identity politics since the fall of the Derg.

Given this line of argument, depoliticization of ethnicity cannot be on the agenda, since its effect would be the exasperation of ethnic conflicts. On the other hand, there seems to be an agreement on the impossibility of integration by the use of force, which, as we saw, was the main method used in the past to forge nations. The point of contention that defenders of today’s ethnic federalism have against their opponents being that the depoliticization of ethnicity can only result in the restoration of a unitary state, what if, instead of restoration, we think in terms of reinvention and reconstruction? This kind of thinking wants neither a return to the past nor the status quo. Rather, it calls for the creation of institutional mechanisms enabling ethnicity to support national unity instead of undermining it.

As I have said in my previous write-ups, the way to tame ethnicity institutionally is to superimpose on its political representations, which is the parliament, a presidential system with clear and extensive unitary and national functions. While the ethnic regions elect the parliament, the president is elected by direct universal suffrage, and so is invested with powers transcending ethnic representations. The assumption here is that a presidential candidate cannot have a majority of votes unless he/she presents a program that suits the majority of voters in the country. In this way, we counter the tendency to dispersion inherent in the parliament with a unifying instance incarnated by the presidency. To use an image borrowed from physics, presidential power will be to the parliament what a converging lens is to rays of light passing through it. I add that this solution provides a remarkable synthesis between unionists and ethnic federalists: instead of opposing unity to ethnicity, it proposes a living, self-adjusting process that produces unity out of diversity and diversity out of unity.

Mesay Kebede



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