The past weekend heralded yet another instance of mass flag-waving. Thousands of residents of Bahir Dar, mostly youth, came out to rally in support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) at the city’s stadium.
Understandably, it has unnerved many who followed the rally from their homes on TV screens and social media in realising that the current political narrative is gearing towards nationalism. It was hard to miss the long green, yellow and red flag that circled the entire football field of the Bahir Dar Stadium.
Though the flag was displayed on a more grandiose scale, a similar phenomenon had taken place at the rally in Mesqel Square last month. There are reports and accounts in social media, in some cases even about city police officers, who were photographed donning and waving the Ethiopian flag without its five-pointed star emblem.
It is not just the display of the flag, there is also the relentless championing of “Ethiopianism” by the media, public figures, the diaspora community and most famously by Abiy himself. Given the lack of details, the interpretations and the concepts attached to the slogan “Medemer” has remained fluid, although it has mostly been ascribed to embracing national unity under a single government.
This is worrying many in the community. The last thing a nation lacking in democratic maturity needs is chauvinism. Lessons from history should by now make us acutely anxious to the destructiveness of fervours of nationalism.
The fact that nationalism is driving the national discourse may not be the worst idea. It is the lesser of two evils, the other one being ethnonationalism – a concept that is narrower, more selective and highly toxic in a country with so many lingo-cultural groups.
There was a time in the early 1990s after the liberal order secured its global victory and following the dissolution of the Soviet Union when it was believed that travel visas and national borders around the world would disappear within decades. That is the ultimate utopian dream, a world without borders. The problem was that the idea failed to consider the power of nationalism, especially in the face of economic adversity.
Nationalism thrives everywhere where internal problems are ascribed to external ones, such as immigration.
For Africa, it has been even worse. Tribalism has heavily influenced politics. Even in Somalia, one of the most ethnically homogenous nations, it has not been possible to secure a stable central government let alone establish political stability.
Thus, nations such as ours are expected to heal their wounds by removing ethnonationalism while they attempt to conform to the ambitious agendas of intergovernmental bodies such as the African Union, which advocates strengthening regional economic integration. For a group of nations with varying levels of economic standings, crippling corruption and weak institutions these are Herculean tasks.
With the rising tides of nationalism in Ethiopia, I have not yet heard of a better and practical way to counter ethnonationalism.
Indeed, ethnonationalism is a symptom of the perception of growing economic inequality and lack of representation in government.
But even in instants when such drawbacks are considered addressed, there is no denying the fact that creating a shared sense of identity, history and a competent government is possible. It is important to realise that even in more democratic countries such as Kenya and developed nations such as the United States, political allegiances often fall along tribal lines, fashioned along multicultural lines or political ideologies.
Nation building, and creating a state we can all be proud of necessitates more than just making institutions autonomous. It should be able to create a national identity. This should be as inclusive as possible; it should be one the majority agrees on but the minority should not be forced to adopt. We should be able to live with others that hold diverging views from us as long as they stay within the bounds of the rule of law.
Nationalism could serve a positive purpose as long as individual rights are protected. Patriotic feelings can be realised by creating consensus around hot-button issues such as the official language, administrative demarcations and the right to secede.
There are pitfalls here too. In trying to find a shared identity and norms, our efforts could fall prey to the worst of our instincts. Along that road, we can lose the liberal quality of our constitution or could leave the country more fractured than we currently have.
It is here that autonomous institutions, a vibrant media landscape and moderate voices amongst us can be of help. The liberal utopia we deserve should not by any means be imposed but subscribed to.
“Education can inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. And it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty,” said Thomas Jefferson, one of the United States earliest presidents.
Almost two centuries after his death, those words still ring true.
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