Dark Side of Ethnic Politics in Ethiopia

I was driving in the Southern part of Ethiopia with a European colleague when, amid our endless talks, he asked about my wife. I took my wallet out and handed him a photograph of her and me. After studying it for a while, he asked if we belonged to the same ethnic group.

Are you originally from the Sidama Zone or the Amhara or Oromia regional states?

No. I answered every time.  And on and on went the conversation – as he put to the test his knowledge of Ethiopia’s demography, and I resisted his efforts to box me into a cultural category.

Ethiopia is a diverse country, with more than 70 linguistic-cultural groups. If it is true that the Italians called it ‘The People’s Museum,’ my family can be a testimony to it. My parents are from different regions of the country – Amhara and Oromia, while I make a living in Addis Abeba. My wife’s parents are from the Tigray Regional State, although, like me, she also grew up in the capital. It is, therefore, no wonder that it has lately proven difficult to put boundaries that demarcate such diverse people who have had an interwoven existence for millennia.

In my view, Addis Abeba symbolises the future of a modern Ethiopia, where economic, political and demographic forces have brought people together and created a tapestry of ethnicities in one geographic location. This can be seen both as an opportunity and a problem. Those who appreciate the values of multiculturalism and ethnic co-existence will see an opportunity for the realisation of unity in diversity.

In Ethiopia, however, where ethnic identity forms the foundations of a federal state, the capital poses a serious political challenge. It appears as an oddity. It is located within the Oromia Regional State, but it contains people from different regions as well. The language that is widely spoken is Amharic, but the capital is populated by people whose mother tongues are many other. Although a hub of many ethnic groups, Addis does not belong to any one of them.

In a country where political power and resources are being allocated on the basis of ethnic identity, Addis Abebans like myself have become aliens in our own country. Ethnic federalism has given recognition to the diverse nations and nationalities of Ethiopia, and ensured their rights to develop their own culture, and learn in their mother tongue. This is a significant achievement considering the long history of Ethiopia where ethnic and religious diversity was suppressed.

The current development of politicising ethnicity, unfortunately, is equally unfair, if not outright dangerous. Ethnic politics has given corrupt politicians and businessmen carte blanche to do whatever they want, from embezzling public property to exercising nepotism, and even holding the entire country hostage to their interests. Self-interested elites have got a perfect alibi for seizing and consolidating power and resources without accountability. Since ethnicity has become the organising principle of the federal government down to wereda level, the decadence and chaos of tribalism have infiltrated all levels of government hierarchy. The country’s political environment – already weak and fragmented – has become even more polarised and ineffective.

Corruption and economic inefficiency is not the most critical consequence of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia. The most significant damage is the corrosion of social capital and trust that has been built among the country’s diverse people through centuries of co-existence.  Politicians and elites now openly use identity politics to shore up support, discredit opponents and promote personal or ethnic gain at the expense of national interest.

The sense of national pride, which was a thread that held together competing ethnic and religious interests for centuries, however imperfectly, has given way to fragmented, conflicting and highly polarised narratives that expound differences than similarities. Petty politicians pull the strings of identity politics to sow seeds of anger and mistrust and play the dangerous gambit of pitting one ethnic group against another. In a political drama increasingly dominated by a chorus of fragmented and hostile diatribes, politicians with more inclusive values and vision are becoming a rare sight.

Ethnic federalism was a bold experiment that has now grown into a monstrosity that threatens the entire country. Ethnic conflicts have killed and displaced thousands, from the conflicts between individuals who identify themselves with the two main linguistic cultural groups in the Gambela Regional State to the recent clashes along the borders of the Oromia and Somali regions.

The only reason these problems have not affected the political landscape as would be expected is that they occurred far from the centre. The problem, however, has reached a critical level and deserves to be openly discussed. It is time to start an open public debate on how to tame the violent side of ethnic politics, and what it implies for the current federal system of the country.



By anonymous
The author of this article has requested to remain anonymous.

Published on Nov 04,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 914]



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