The Right Nationalism Can Save the Federation

The very first book at the top of my bookshelf is “Life in the United Kingdom.” As most Ethiopians living in the United Kingdom would know, this book is written to help immigrants prepare for a test that they need to take in applying for residency or citizenship in the United Kingdom.

Having lived in London since 2010, I am preparing for the test I will take in February next year. The test is not about my ethnicity, the colour of my skin or my religion, but whether or not I fully understand and can abide by Britain’s national values.

My upcoming test has made me reflect on how we, as Ethiopians, think about our national identity. Like most Ethiopians across the planet, I have been glued to the internet for the last five months, and I am encouraged by the reforms being implemented by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) and his team.

And like most of us, I am saddened by the inter-communal violence and internal displacements. The more I reflect on the ongoing tensions in the country, the more I am convinced that they have to do with conflicting views of our national identity.

There are broadly two competing views on Ethiopian nationalism at present, both of which have merits and serious flaws. For some, the sole idea of Ethiopia is that of an amalgam of nations, nationalities and peoples, where group identities and group rights take precedence over shared history and individual rights.

Others are more suspicious of group identities and want to ground Ethiopian nationalism on a historical “Abyssinian” narrative.

The ethno-nationalist perspective is a response to real or perceived historical grievances of the various ethnic groups in the country. They feel that a dominant and oppressive Abyssinian state had suppressed their identity.

The only viable basis for Ethiopian nationalism for this camp is a nationalism explicitly based on the rights of the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia. A call for a unionist, Ethiopian-based nationhood, is then interpreted as a return to an exploitative and a repressive past where a break-up of the country is a plausible outcome.

This view that emphasises the need to respect group identities and unity, but using ethno-nationalism as a basis for the political organisation of a country, is replete with problems.

Identities such as ethnicity and religion are not fixed. They evolve, change and traverse imagined identity boundaries. People migrate and intermarry. I was, for instance, born to a father who comes from two different ethnic groups and a mother from a third.

Who do I say that I am? By which ethnic identity should I be politically represented?

Creating political entities out of ethnic identities as though they were fixed in time and space politicises them. Suddenly, feelings of identity that used to be latent become politicised.

One starts to define oneself at the expense of the “other”. Ethnic-based conflicts unfortunately follow. This is what led to the Biafran War in Nigeria in the 1960s and the civil war in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, not to mention the chilling breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Even where outright conflict does not materialise, ethnic-based political systems give rise to their own forms of injustice. Indigenous groups are given disproportionate political, economic and social privileges over and against other groups even when the latter might be the majority in a particular locality.

A good example is Malaysia, where political control is by and large in the hands of ethnic Malays, while the ethnic Chinese and Indian population are considered second-class citizens in a country they have lived in for generations.

Those in the “unionist” camp want to build Ethiopian nationalism on a history that depicts a country possessing deep roots, an ancient civilisation and having stood as a beacon of independence from colonialism.

They credit the various ills currently plaguing Ethiopia to the ethnic federalism of the past almost quarter of a century – a system that they believe should be abolished. They argue that the ethnicisation of politics for the past almost three decades has not resulted in equality and justice, but rather in repression, economic exploitation, human rights abuses and communal violence, which is threatening to break up the country.

The unionist view fails to take into account the sense of injustice that various members of ethnic groups feel and unwittingly belittles their struggle for equality and justice for decades. This view bases itself on a historical narrative of the Ethiopian empire that is seriously contested – a history many see as written by the victors, ignoring and reinterpreting the experiences of the defeated.

A nation that does not recognise the real or perceived sense of injustice of its people can never achieve positive peace characterised by justice and equality. Even if unity is achieved, it will be through force, much like the unity of China, with its troubling treatment of its Muslim Uighur minority and its complicated relationship with the Tibetan people.

Would we want a similar kind of unity that is enforced by the barrel of a gun?

If both options for nationalism will not work, we desperately need to carve out a third way of conceptualising Ethiopian nationalism. I would argue the best option left to us is an Ethiopian nationalism based on a set of values.

We need to take time to debate and agree on a set of values that define for us what it is to be Ethiopian, a set of values that reflect the concerns and aspirations of both the ethno-nationalist camp and the unionist camp or any other one that may exist.

There are existing values such as “hospitality,” “peaceful coexistence” and “respect for elders” that we all share, irrespective of whether we want federalism along lingo-cultural lines to continue. We may also decide to come up with new sets of values we want to aspire to.

Nationalism based on values is a model adopted by liberal democracies, and I would argue it is a model of nationalism that is fit for the diverse, peaceful and democratic Ethiopia that we all espouse to build.

I am not suggesting that liberal democracies are perfect – the rise of right-wing politics in Western Europe and the United States since the financial crises in 2008 would point to the contrary.

However, it is the basis for nationalism that can bring together groups with divergent and competing views. A value-based nationalism will also empower us to come together in a national dialogue and a grand bargain, enabling us to develop values that we choose to define ourselves.

Thus, as I sit down to study for my UK residency test, I find myself daydreaming about another immigrant thousands of miles away in Ethiopia sometime in the future, studying for a citizenship test to become Ethiopian.

Maybe they are from another African country as we open up our borders to our African brothers and sisters. Or maybe they are from China or Britain or the United States, wanting to call Ethiopia their home.

Would it not be wonderful if we were clear on our national values and were united behind them, prepared to extend the right to become Ethiopian even to foreigners so long as they can abide by our values?

By Hiruy Teka
Hiruy Teka works in humanitarian response, international development, anti-corruption and security sector reform and has worked for Oxfam, UNICEF, Transparency International and Plan International. He can be reached at

Published on Oct 20,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 964]



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