What does genetics say about ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia?

by Tesfaye Mersha, PhD and
Tilahun Abebe, PhD

Ethiopia prides itself as the center of diversity of life on earth.1 It has a complex topography, ranging from the peaks of the Simien Mountains (4,550 meters or 14,928 feet above sea level) to the arid Danakil depression (100 meters or 328 feet below sea level), which harbors rich fauna and flora. In addition to such varied environmental conditions and biodiversity, there is considerable linguistic and cultural diversity among its people. According to the linguistic map of the world (Ethnologue)2, Ethiopia has 86 indigenous languages, classified into four major groups: Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic, and Nilotic. The first three are part of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Hominids (mammals – including humans – that walk upright) have lived in Ethiopia for over 3 million years.3 One of Ethiopia’s famed hominids – Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) – is thought to have lived 3.2 million years ago.3; 4 DNA studies and archaeological findings tell us that present day humans around the world descended from hominids in Ethiopia and surrounding territories5 (Figure 1). Early humans migrated out of Africa some two million years ago. The final migration of modern humans out of Africa occurred about 60,000 years ago and inhabited all continents except Antarctica.6 Geographic separation and adaptation to local environmental conditions subsequently produced recognizable phenotypic variations in humans in different parts of the world.

In spite of its glorious history as the center of human evolution and diversity, Ethiopia is facing a catastrophic debacle from ethnic conflicts. Because Ethiopia is the origin of modern humans and its people share deep genetic roots, with very little subsequent genetic drift or selection, the risk of ethnic conflicts should have been remote. In this article, we will argue that, from a biological point of view, ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia are indeed nonsensical. First, though, we must acknowledge that historical and social interventions, not genetics, divided people into different racial and ethnic categories. Different words have been used to describe humans based on geographic location and physical features. The term “race” was formally used in the English language around 1580, from the old French “rasse” and the Italian “razza”, to categorize modern humans. In the 16th and 17th centuries, scientists attempted to classify humans according to geographic locations using skin color, stature, and other distinguishing characteristics. Later, the words nations, and types were introduced to describe humans living in different continents. Carl Linnaeus (1758), the Swedish biologist who developed the technique for classification of plants and animals into similar groups, gave modern humans the scientific name Homo sapiens. Linnaeus further divided Homo sapiens into Europaeus (white skin), Asiaticus (yellow skin), Americanus (red skin), and Afer (black skin) on the basis of geography and skin color.7 From this description, we can see that race is a social construct that is used to  categorize humans based on certain distinctive environmental and physical characteristics. Ethnicity is a sociological term that emerged in the 20th century to replace the word race. Ethnicity refers to shared culture, language, physical attributes, and religion. While race and ethnicity overlap, claims of racial identity often call on phenotypic attributes (skin tone and facial features almost exclusively). As used in the modern world, the two words are social constructs and do not delineate biological categories.8

Recently, ethnic-based conflicts have become increasingly threatening to Ethiopians. Mobs in different parts of the country attack individuals whom they categorize as “others”, resulting in displacement of over three million people in the country. Following malignant historical precedent in Ethiopia, political elites use ethnicity as a tool, infusing linguistic and cultural differences and competing historical narratives for political gain. For them, the history and culture people developed together, the country their ancestors defended from invaders, and the centuries of peaceful coexistence means nothing. It is now nearly impossible to separate a criminal act from ethnicity. A person who committed theft or a heinous crime, such as killing an innocent person, will hide his crime by claiming that he is targeted because he belongs to a different ethnic group. Furthermore, ethnocentrists always blame another ethnic group for the repression, injustice, and inequality in Ethiopia. They fail to accept the fact that leaders from the ethnic group they claim to represent had committed worse human rights abuses on others in the recent past. They repeatedly tell their followers malicious lies and innuendos to control and establish their own legitimacy upon the ethnic group they represent.

Does ethnic identity (as a categorical variable) make sense in the Ethiopian context? While all societies are susceptible to exploitation of ethnic or racial labels, one would think Ethiopia to be the least likely candidate for identity politics – it is a multi‐ethnic nation with diverse cultures, languages, beliefs, and religions that lived peacefully side-by-side for centuries. Moreover, internal migrations and intermarriages have occurred for thousands of years and this constant mixing of people makes ethnic groups to tolerate each other and become more genetically similar. Unfortunately, in the current federal structure, ethnic affiliation based on language is given more precedence than everything else that brought citizens together. One of the sad outcomes of ethnocentrism is that, neither the government nor the constitution recognizes mixed individuals, the exact number of whom is unknown. People with mixed ancestry must choose the ethnic groups their parents identify with in order to receive certain services, for example, obtain an identification card. If they are not willing to do so, the government will pick one for them. The interests of people of mixed ancestry are not represented by the growing ethno-nationalist political discourse, which imposes its collective views on others. It is disturbing to see that some individuals with mixed ancestry endorse this arrangement instead of being a stabilizing force by embracing their multi-ethnic heritage.

Read Aloud:   Before getting late rescue Ethiopia

Assignment of identity based on ethnic affiliation in Ethiopia is like slicing a soup: you can cut wherever you want, but the soup stays mixed. There are three major reasons why it is extremely problematic to divide Ethiopians along ethnic lines:

  1. Cities, such as Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, Harar, Nekemt, Bahir Dar, Adama, etc., are the melting pot of ethnic diversity. Many people who live in cities have mixed ancestry.
  2. It is impossible to assign ethnic identity to people who live close to boundaries that arbitrarily demarcate regional administrations (the so called KILLILS) because there is constant migration and intermarriage. When the government divided the country in 1993 based on language, it forced people who lived along the boundaries into a region without their consent. In so doing, the regime ignored the fact that the history, geography, demographic distribution, shared cultures, and heritage of people are so intertwined that it is impossible to create regions based exclusively on ethnicity. This approach creates “us” vs. “others” sentiment and fumes ethnic tensions.
  3. Segregation based on ethnic identity is an alien concept in Ethiopia because people have lived intermingled for generations. Ethnic segregation in Africa is the legacy of colonialism9, which is the primary source of conflict in the post-colonial10 The government that was in power in Ethiopia for the last 27 years was dominated by the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF leadership orchestrated adoption of the current ethnic-based constitution in 1995 and fragmented the country arbitrarily along ethnic lines (like the system promulgated by Italian colonialists who invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and occupied it for five years) because they knew divide-and-rule was the only way that would keep them in power.

The fact is ethnicity exists in our minds but not in our DNA. There is no genetic evidence on which to separate Ethiopians into distinct ethnic groups. It is one of the least likely countries in the world where genetic difference would be scientifically proven. Modern DNA sequencing technologies have revolutionized our understanding of the human genome (our entire DNA) in ways which could not have been imagined before. We can now read all 3.2 billion nucleotides (A,T,C and G) in our DNA in a matter of hours. Scientists have investigated the DNA of thousands of people from around the world trying to find racial or ethnic differences. Human DNA is 99.9% similar, even at the race level, whether we are from Africa, Asia, Europe, or the Americas. The 0.1% difference does not determine our racial or ethnic identity because this variation is minute compared to the overwhelming similarity in our DNA. It is, however, important to mention that the small differences in our DNA had helped us adapt to local environmental conditions in the six continents since the migration of humans out of Africa thousands of years ago.12 This is true whether we are white, black or Asian, tall or short, brown-eyed or blue-eyed. Let us look at three examples how environmental conditions selected some alleles for local adaptation in humans. Alleles are different versions of a gene or a segment of DNA that are the products of mutations (changes in the DNA sequence).

  1. The people in Africa belong to the same “black” racial group (but have multiple ethnic categories). People in Africa have dark skin and brown eyes because we produce the pigment known as melanin, which protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation (UV). In the absence of melanin, we would not be able to tolerate the excess tropical sunlight that could burn our skin and eyes and lead to skin cancer and other ailments. When people migrated “out of Africa”- away from the tropics thousands of years ago- they developed lighter skin to absorb enough light that is required for the synthesis of vitamin D. Vitamin D absorbs calcium and promote bone growth.
  2. Sickle cell anemia is an inherited disease, which distorts the shape of red blood cells (RBC). RBCs in patients with this disease are sickle-shaped and do not carry adequate oxygen. In addition, sickle cells are very fragile and break easily, leaving the patient without enough RBCs (anemia) to carry oxygen. RBCs live 120 days, but sickle cells have a life span of 10 to 20 days. Sickle cells cannot move through the blood vessels and clump easily. This stops the flow of oxygen-rich blood, causes pain, and damages major organs. The sickle cell disease is deadly without medical attention. Despite this, the genetic variant (allele) that causes sickle cell disease is widespread in many countries in West Africa. This variant is not common in people of European descent. Why, because the allele that causes sickle cell disease also protects people from malaria in West Africa. Each of us carry two alleles for every gene, one inherited from our mother and another from our father. People who carry one sickle cell allele and one normal allele for hemoglobin are resistant to malaria. At the same time, they have a very low risk of developing anemia. Therefore, being a carrier (having both normal and sickled RBCs) is advantageous in areas where malaria is prevalent.
  3. APOL1 kidney risk variant. Apolipoprotein L1 (APOL1) is a minor component of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or ‘good cholesterol’. One of the functions of APOL1 is that it kills the Trypanosoma parasite (trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense), which causes the disease known as East African sleeping sickness. Interestingly, only one of the variants of APOL1 gene, kills Trypanosoma. However, this risk allele makes people vulnerable to chronic kidney disease (CKD) especially those infected with HIV. Because the vector that carries Trypanosomes (Tsetse fly) is absent in the Ethiopian highlands, people living in these areas do not carry the APOL1 variant and show very little symptom of CKD compared to West Africans. Kidney protection during HIV infection probably emanated as an adaptation to high altitude and the associated hypoxia (low oxygen) at such elevation.13
Read Aloud:   Who were they then? Who are they now? By Gebre Medhin Arara,

The above examples demonstrate how small changes in our genetic makeup determine our ability to adapt to new environmental conditions. But, these genetic changes are not ethnic-specific. The changes can happen to any human population in the world if the environmental conditions are the same. Genetic testing has become a booming business in the west. For example, 26 million people in the USA have taken genetic tests in 2018.14 Companies that do ancestry DNA testing (e.g. 23andMe, AncestryDNA) use complex mathematical models to determine single nucleotide changes that occurred in the DNA of our ancestors in different continents hundreds and thousands of years ago– Asian, African, and European descent. Trying to find genes that make one ethnic group different from another in Ethiopia is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Because someone speaks Oromifa does not mean he/she has the genes to speak this particular language as opposed to a person who is born from Tigrawai, Gurage, or Amhara parents. Ethnicity is a human construct, which is defined based on language, religion and culture but it does not make us genetically different. Language, culture, and other aspects of ethnicity are things that we all humans learn based on where we grow up or live and can be altered and redefined.15 Our DNA is what we inherit from our parents and it is not dictated or altered by ethnicity. In fact, according to human population genetic studies, there is more genetic diversity within a single ethnic group than between two or more ethnic groups.16 That is, Oromos who live in Welega are more likely to be genetically similar to Amharas in neighboring Gojam than Oromos who live far away, say in Harar. The writers of this article immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia. Their children speak English but very little Amharic. That does not make their children genetically different from people in Ethiopia who speak Oromifa, Guragigna, Somali, Afar, Amharic or Tigrigna. All Ethiopians are more similar than they are different!

Ethiopian politics is heavily ethnicized and some of the politicians who pushed for reform and came to power in 2018, including Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, seem to understand its danger. However, they are reluctant to move beyond the rhetoric and amend the constitution, which is the primary source of tensions in the country. It is impossible to constitutionalize ethnicity and expect the “us” vs. “others” mentality will go away, or peace and harmony will prevail. The government must demonstrate a vision for Ethiopia that is different from the TPLF regime. It must take bold actions to prevent the impending chaos including ethnic cleansing, and find a solution that is mutually agreed by all parties, and lead the country in a different direction before it is too late. Steven Covey is a Professor and founder of the Covey Leadership Center and author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which sold over 25 million copies. Covey stated, “accountability breeds response-ability.”

Read Aloud:   A misplaced moral outrage

Ethnic politics is not restricted to a certain administrative region. The timing may differ. But, it will engulf every ethnic enclave and lead to conflicts for generations. Who is going to stop conflicts between people who speak the same language but have different cultures or live in different parts of the same ethnic region such as the Oromos in Shewa and Welega, Amharas in Gojam and Gonder, Tigrawais in Adwa and Enderta or even between Christians and Muslims? Ethnicity has been a defining feature of most civil conflicts since World War II.17 This begs the question: why have we Ethiopians failed to learn from history including the multi-ethnic conflicts in Yugoslavia and Rwanda? We need to wake up as human beings and ask why a federal system that encourages administrative regions to secede any time is allowed in multi-ethnic Ethiopia and nowhere else in the world. A system that renders the right to secession can be easily exploited by ethnocentrists who will never accept the existence of other ethnic groups. There are no scientific or political reasons that can justify the bizarre experiment that the TPLF regime started. Ethiopians must seriously debate the pros and cons of ethnic politics and stop the twenty-eight years failed experiment. If not, sooner or later, Ethiopia’s system of ethnic federalism will fall in the hands of ethnocentric politicians playing on atavistic sentiments.

In summary, ethnic grouping based on language is a zero-sum game, and it is not supported by biological studies. All Ethiopians indisputably share a common genetic origin, a unifying homogeneity, regardless of the different languages we speak. The current ill-conceived ethnic federalism imposed by the TPLF is immoral and unacceptable. A federal system that takes into account the geography, history, and culture of all Ethiopians is more sustainable. As Ethiopians, we should all be proud and embrace diversity. Diversity is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts serving as an essential binding force. The government, politicians, and activists have the responsibility to be rationale and advocate for tolerance, not hatred. They should champion the diversity of languages and respect all cultures (big or small). The school system should create a curriculum that embraces Ethiopia’s diversity and colorful history. We also believe that scientists (geneticists, historians, anthropologists, archeologists, etc.) have much to offer a common national narrative to the debate on ethnicity. Citizens from all walk of life should do everything possible to deescalate the current ethnic tension through open dialogue and design a roadmap for the country and their own future. The existence of a united Ethiopia is critical for the peaceful coexistence of all ethnic groups in Ethiopia.

The writers can be reached at: tesmersha@gmail.comtabebes@gmail.com


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