Ethnicity and the Tilting Balance of Ethiopian Politics

Messay Kebede(PhD) -We know that the genesis of ethnic conflicts and mobilization in Ethiopia sprung from Haile Selassie’s policy of nation-building. Not only did the policy mean centralization and authoritarianism, but also the integration of different ethnic groups through the imposition of the dominant Amhara culture. However, the lack of necessary reforms, notably, the maintenance of a system of land ownership reducing the southern peoples of Ethiopia to tenants, and the failure of the private sector, together with the proliferation of obstacles to economic progress, mostly due to corruption and nepotism, created an acute scarcity of resources. Access to these scarce resources depended on the control of state power, which was then used to include some groups and exclude others. The outcome was that the Amhara elite group, especially of Showan origin, by far benefited from the protection of the imperial state.

Though the sense of exclusion increasingly invited elites of excluded ethnic groups to mobilize around ethnic criteria, the prevailing tendency became the search for a solution through the revolutionary ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Leaders of the Ethiopian student movement and intellectuals felt that enough revolutionary force could be gathered through the mobilization of class solidarity rather than through ethnic alignment. The establishment of socialism would consequently lead to the dissolution of ethnic dominance and to the equal treatment of all ethnic groups. Because the struggle opposed an alliance of various classes to the imperial state and the nobility, the Ethiopian Revolution became a multiethnic uprising expressing class interest rather than ethnicity.

The intrusion of the Derg with its dictatorial and violent methods of ruling alienated many revolutionaries. Above all, far from decentralizing power, the Derg significantly increased the power of the center to the detriment of regional entities, thereby failing to bring down the dominance of Amhara elite and culture. What is more, the Derg’s socialist policy brought all resources, including land, under state ownership and control, while further intensifying scarcity by the application of a flawed economic policy. The result was enhanced ethnic mobilizations by all those who felt excluded or marginalized.

By stirring up dormant or suppressed identities involving ascriptive criteria, such as common ancestry and language, the ethnicization of politics mobilized the powerful sentiment of solidarity, thereby becoming an effective tool of political mobilization for all those who longed for access to state power as the only means of controlling the distribution of scarce resources. That was indeed one advantageously mobilizing force to fight against the Derg, given the fact that the Derg had appropriated the language of class struggle and had effectively leveled class disparity through a generalization of poverty.

Ethnic mobilization proved efficient by granting victory to the TPLF and EPLF over the Derg. It brought about the secession of Eritrea and the establishment of ethnic federalism under the control of the TPLF. The irony, however, is that this very victory of ethnic politics calls for multiethnic mobilization because of the inherent drawbacks of ethnicization flowing from its gregarious nature. This is what opposition parties and their leaders understood when they speak of the imperative need of unity.

The ethnic paradigm gave birth to ethnic parties that do not allow any competition. It created a situation of dependent parties controlling the various regions under the close supervision and assistance of the central state dominated by the TPLF. The defeat of the TPLF means the demise of these dependent parties and their regional control. A struggle confined to the regional political scene is thus unable to counter the alliance between the central state and the dependent parties: the struggle must go national.

Moreover, political mobilization over ethnic issues has come to an end with the acquired rights, such as the rights to use and develop local languages, to be administered by one’s kin, even to secede. Whether we like it or not, just as class struggle had ceased to be rallying under the Derg, so too ethnicity has lost much of its mobilizing power in Ethiopia, with the exception, of course, of those parties still targeting secession. This is so true that the only ideological defense of the EPRDF is to say that its removal would entail the cancelation of the acquired ethnic rights, and hence the danger of extended ethnic confrontations.

The crucial issue that remains, however, is the huge task of democratizing the ethnic state, as shown by the dictatorial outcome of the Eritrean secession and the hegemonic practice of the TPLF. To move toward democratization means to raise issues of individual freedom and liberty, of economic development and its equitable distribution; it also means the promotion of national sovereignty and unity on which depend the prosperity and safety of all ethnic groups. All these themes are associated with individual freedom, and so are essentially cross-ethnic. For instance, the right of individuals to elect representatives of their choice is not concerned with the fact of being Amhara, Tigrean, Oromo, Gurage, Christian or Muslim: any multiparty competition within the ethnic regions requires the liberation of freedom as an individual characteristic.

Such was the profound meaning of the rise of Kinijit: it was the return of individual freedom back to prominence, the resurgence of individual rights after the primacy given to group rights or solidarity. It springs to mind that the struggle for individual rights can intensify and unit opposition forces only if the acquired ethnic rights are not questioned. Any attempt to return to unitary state––as opposed to federal structure––will only bring back mobilizations around group rights.

Prof. Messay Kebede can be reached at:

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Posted by on March 27, 2009. Filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.