The Question of Unity: Do Words Matter?

Maimire Mennasemay, Ph.D. (26 Feb. 2009) Our Inheritance: Ethiopia without Ethiopians: Our ancestors made Ethiopia but not Ethiopians. It is this historical condition that has made the issue of ethnic diversity and Ethiopian unity a central concern of Ethiopian political discourse and practice since the 1960s, and has found expression in the ethnicization of Ethiopia in the 1994 Constitution. Our ancestors achieved the territorial unity of Ethiopia but left us with an ethnically and culturally fragmented population. As a result, our collective consciousness of Ethiopian identity is shot with contradictions; and the self-conception of Ethiopians as Ethiopians is incomplete for many, and for some, unacceptable. What is a historical achievement for some—the territorial unification of Ethiopia—is a historical calamity for others. The historical task of this generation is then to transform the inherited territorial unity into a democratic unity that embraces all who live in Ethiopia. But how? The popular answer is through “unity in diversity”. But if we step back from this answer and reflect on what it means, we may discover that it has consequences that we may not be willing to live with.

In politics, false answers, as we have seen under the Derg and the EPRDF, trap us in circumstances that derail our aspirations for freedom and prosperity. To avoid falling into the pitfalls of the past, we need to clarify what we mean by unity and diversity in considering the issue of how we could move from the already achieved territorial unity of Ethiopia to the democratic unity of Ethiopians. It is folly not to recognize that there is ethnic diversity and exclusion in Ethiopia. But it is folly compounded to deny that the history of the territorial unification of Ethiopia holds within it powerful historical aspirations—and a historical task—to make this land the home of all Ethiopians.

With the creation of an ethnic federation in 1991, the EPRDF disowned these aspirations and historical task. In reaction, the idea of “unity in diversity” gained currency among many who fear that the ethnic federation is the first step towards the disintegration of Ethiopia. This fear is fuelled by the 1994 Constitution that fragments Ethiopians into “Nations, Nationalities and Peoples”, disavows Ethiopia as the locus of sovereignty, and reduces her to an aggregate of ethnic states by declaring that “All sovereign power resides in the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia” (8/1). This demotion of Ethiopian unity is reinforced by the recognition of “the right to secession” (39/1) and the downgrading of the unity of Ethiopia to the “mutual consent” of “Nations, Nationalities and Peoples” (62/4), as if Ethiopian unity were merely a marriage of convenience. Instead of becoming a framework that transforms the territorial unity of Ethiopia into a democratic unity of all Ethiopians, the 1994 Constitution plays the role of an armed zebegna loyally safeguarding ethnic divisions and keeping them alive for posterity. And yet the EPRDF regime speaks of Ethiopian unity.

The paradox of “Unity in Diversity”

The EPRDF often encapsulates its idea of Ethiopian unity in the expression “unity in diversity”. At first blush, one is hard-pressed to deny the felicity of this choice of words for it appears to catch well the factual situation of ethnic diversity and the ideal of Ethiopian unity in a tidy three-word formulation. So, where do the EPRDF and its critiques differ? After all, both use often the same expression, “unity in diversity”.

The difference between the EPRDF and its critiques is, among other things, in their readings of Ethiopian history. Whereas the EPRDF reduces Ethiopian history to its failures, its critiques point out that no history is a straight path to unity and freedom. To be sure Ethiopian history is full of failures. But we should also recognize that the quests for unity and freedom also gestate as triumphs in these failures. The failure to defeat the Fascist invasion led to the implicit triumph of Ethiopian unity and freedom expressed in the emergence of self-organized multi-ethnic anti-Fascist grass-roots patriotic struggles (1936-40). The failures of the Ethiopian state in the 16th and 17th century (the Gragn wars and the Zemene Mesafint) gave birth to a population with multiple and overlapping identities out of the interacting Oromo, Amhara, Tigrean, Christian and Muslim inhabitants of the region extending from Begemder to Tigrai, Wollo, Damot, Yifat, Hadiya and beyond. Unity and freedom, as the history of humanity shows, realize themselves through failures also. Ethiopia is no exception. What we need to do is to give life to what in Ethiopia’s past failures is more than the failures themselves. This “more” is our quest for freedom and prosperity. Thus, our historical responsibility is not to build an Ethiopia that embodies its failures, as the EPRDF does. Rather, our task is to redeem the aspirations of unity and freedom that inhabit the failed struggles of our ancestors.

True, both the Imperial regime and the Derg failed to complete this task. But the EPRDF has done worse in that it has turned the historical clock back by fragmenting Ethiopian territory in terms of an ethnic taxonomy. It has thus rendered even more difficult the transformation of Ethiopian territory into a commonly shared democratic space in which we could recognize in Ethiopia the fulfillment of our aspirations for freedom, justice and prosperity. The EPRDF’s carving of the Ethiopian territory into exclusive ethnicstans has made Ethiopians from one Killil resident aliens in other Killils. No wonder, Meles’s publicly remarked in 1992 that Axum, Lalibela, Gondar have no significance to Oromos, Gurages, and Wolaitas.

In this context the EPRDF’s claim that it promotes “unity in diversity” is paradoxical. But then again, perhaps it is not. Could it be that the EPRDF chose the expression “unity in diversity” precisely because it captures its intent to keep the country ethnically fragmented? What if “unity in diversity” encapsulates perfectly the EPRDF’s intention to prevent the growth and solidification of the trans-ethnic Ethiopian identity that was being born, like all births, painfully, through the ups and downs of Ethiopian history?

Words Matter

History and life teach us that words matter. Consider the disagreement on a couple of words in the Wuchale treaty that led to the Ethio-Italian war in 1896, or saying to a person the words “I promise….” In many cases, words are, especially in politics, like actions; that is, they have, as some put it, a performative function. One finds an acknowledgment of this performative function of words in Ethiopian wisdom, encapsulated in proverbs such as: “The wound inflicted by a word cannot be cured by a doctor”, or, “Let your mouth fast”, indicating that words have real consequences and must be used carefully. Words mould reality, consciously and unconsciously. With words, we narrate our lives, our relations with others and our surroundings. Words have the power to reveal and hide the world.

Our question then is: What does the expression “unity in diversity” reveal and hide? What are its implications? What if we substitute for it another expression, “diversity in unity”? Would there be a politically crucial distinction between the two formulations that could be of capital importance for the future of Ethiopia?

Unity in diversity

One way of grasping the meaning and implications of “unity in diversity” is to refer to institutions such as the United Nations. In the United Nations, like in all international organizations, each diverse element, that is, each member state, is treated as a sovereign entity. The constitutive principle of such organizations is “unity in diversity”, for each member is perceived to be a bearer of a distinct, single identity. The idea that members could have multiple and overlapping identities is unthinkable. That is why “unity in diversity” makes possible the co-existence of democratic and dictatorial states in the same organization. An international organization is then an aggregate of distinct entities, each defending its own interests. Consequently, “unity in diversity” is diversity-centric and operates in terms of a static conception of diversity that makes it the immovable horizon of politics. Inevitably, “unity in diversity” has perverse implications in that, by making diversity the unsurpassable horizon of politics, it institutionalizes division, leaves no place for trust and democracy as ways of resolving conflicts of interests, and makes asymmetrical power relations the foundation of all transactions. Those states who have the power—economic, diplomatic, or military—to bend the will of member states will use this power in the pursuit of their goals. When this is not possible, the powerful pursue their interests despite the opposition of the majority (the US invasion of Iraq), or, as in the defunct League of Nations, the institution disintegrates, unable to go beyond the horizon of conflicting interests. Thus, “unity in diversity” leads to either imposing one’s will through power, or to unilateral action by the powerful, or to disintegration.

Consider now the 1994 Ethiopian Constitution. It attributes sovereign power to “the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia” and makes each ethnie a bearer of a distinct, single identity. It thus treats Ethiopia as if she were the “United Nations” of ethnies. To render palatable this divisive and toxic conception of Ethiopia, the EPRDF uses the expression “unity in diversity”. But given the diversity-centric logic of “unity in diversity” and its dependence on asymmetrical power—and the holder of power in Ethiopia is the TPLF, the creator and manager of the EPDRF—“unity in diversity” is inherently inimical to democracy and, therefore, to the democratic mediation of ethnic diversity towards unity. It is an almost insurmountable obstacle to the development of multiple, overlapping and trans-ethnic identities without which a national identity cannot emerge. In such a context, the practice of elections cannot have any democratic or unifying potential, because elections themselves reinforce diversity, that is, ethnic divisions, instead of opening up a universally shared democratic space of political discourse and practice. Not surprisingly, trans-ethnic national parties are repressed in Ethiopia, because such parties undermine the EPRDF’s “unity in diversity” strategy which makes ethnic diversity the horizon of politics at all levels of government. The EPRDF itself is an aggregate of ethnic parties organized and run by the TPLF. In other words, in Ethiopia, voting under the EPRDF’s policy of “unity in diversity” means: “one ethnic person, one ethnic vote, no Ethiopian voice”. Consequently, then, “unity in diversity” cannot but lead to authoritarian rule such as the one we have now, to an increase in ethnic conflicts, and possibly to an ethnic disintegration à la Yugoslavia. So, when Meles says, without the EPRDF, Ethiopia will disintegrate, he is candidly telling us what “unity in diversity” means: the perpetuation of ethnic divisions. At least, on this point, Meles is telling the truth. We should listen to him and draw the appropriate conclusion.

Diversity in unity

The alternative, “diversity in unity”, has a different focus. It is unity-centric in that, in its very formulation, it makes unity the framework of diversity and the horizon of politics. That is, it affirms the existence of shared principles and norms that mediate diversity and transform it into a rich and complex unity. It suggests thus a dynamic conception of diversity that posits the potential of each ethnicity to generate from within itself universal principles and norms that go beyond the limitations of its own particularity, enabling it to evolve deliberative practices that engage it with other elements to create overlapping, multiple and trans-ethnic identities that find their fulfillment in unity. Trust and democracy thrive in “diversity in unity”, because, in making unity the horizon of political practices, it gives one the opportunity to break through the barriers of one-dimensional ethnic identity and to recognize the universal dimensions that go beyond one’s particular demands. Thus, the internal dynamic that results from making unity the political horizon of ethnic diversity discloses politics as a practice that could transform people’s identities, expectations and visions through a democratic collective will that goes beyond particular, corporatist, and ethnic interests.

One could cite the examples of India and South Africa—two multi-ethnic nations—as practitioners of “diversity in unity” and, consequently, of politics as a deliberative practice that creates a democratic collective will that goes beyond ethnic interests. Unlike the 1994 Ethiopian Constitution which fragments Ethiopia into “Nations, Nationalities and Peoples” and makes them the locus of sovereignty at the expense of the Ethiopian nation, the Constitutions of India and South Africa identify their populations as “a people” and attribute sovereignty to the national state only. These two countries do not suppress ethnic diversity. By adopting a policy of “diversity in unity” and making thus unity the horizon of politics, they give, on the contrary, full latitude to all ethnic groups to develop their cultures in ways that liberate the universal dimensions that resonate in them. In these countries, politics opens a universal democratic space that allows the inhabitants to reach beyond their particularities. In the process, they develop multiple and overlapping trans-ethnic national identities. Unlike these countries, in EPRDF’s Ethiopia, politics, garbed as “unity in diversity”, is subordinated to ethnicity, and the individual to a one-dimensional ethnic identity, implying that one’s loyalty is primarily to one’s ethnie in the same way that one’s loyalty of a member of the United Nations is primarily to the state it represents.

Ethiopian Democracy through “Diversity in Unity”

If we agree that words matter, then in light of the anti-democratic, anti-unity and anti-Ethiopian implications of “unity in diversity”, the democratic opposition must jettison this expression and opt for “diversity in unity”. “Unity in diversity” sucks Ethiopia into a deadly vortex of ethnicity that condemns her to authoritarian rule, breeds ethnic conflicts, and encourages ethnic secessions. Only “diversity in unity” embodies the idea of politics as a practice that goes beyond ethnic loyalties and opens the door for a politics that will make the land of Ethiopia a democratic home for all Ethiopians. For those who might be tempted to wilfully misunderstand the meaning of “diversity in unity”, it is interesting to point out the striking parallelism between the previous regimes and the EPRDF on the issue of ethnic diversity and unity.

Despite differences in political packaging, the Imperial Regime and the Derg were, as the EPRDF is now, against “diversity in unity”. All three consider ethnic diversity as a natural datum. In all these regimes, ethnicity is reified and not recognized as a historical process that is breaking out of and going beyond its particularisms. The Imperial regime put ethnicity out of sight: one has to be Amharized to be visible; the Derg criminalized it; and the EPRDF transformed it into a fetish. All three developed mechanisms to keep Ethiopian ethnies apart in order to implement their divide-and-exploit policies. Despite institutional differences, the political goal in all these regimes is the same: to stifle the universal democratic potential that gestates in the historical transformation of Ethiopian ethnies. No wonder then that all three regimes are stuck with the vicious alternative of either authoritarianism or disintegration. The idea that diversity could be mediated democratically to deliver national unity (“diversity in unity”) is totally alien to these three regimes. But no Ethiopian regime has gone as far as the EPRDF in using ethnic divisions, tagged as “unity in diversity”, to territorialize ethnic identities (ethnicstans or Killils) and to implement so brazenly the practice of “divide-conquer-exploit”.

It is then imperative to recognize that words matter. We need to use words that give voice to our ideal of a democratic, prosperous and united Ethiopia. “Unity in diversity” is logically and historically inimical to this ideal. The idea of “diversity in unity”, on the other hand, recognizes the universalizing potential of politics, liberates particular identities from their self-enclosures, and generates the principles, norms, and practices necessary to transform the territorial unity of Ethiopia into a democratic unity of Ethiopians.

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Posted by on February 26, 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.