By Teshome Abebe*

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Book the First, Chapter I.

Some of my readers might consider this short piece a nostalgic harking for a bygone world or even a world that probably never really existed in the first place. Still, I am somehow compelled to move forward with it partly because I have been quite impressed by the speed of events of the past few months, and partly because, though optimistic, I worry about the social fragmentation and the potential emergence of even wider fissures that could become unbridgeable in what remains between us as a nation: our unreachable shared history.

Many notable scholars and politicians have written about Ethiopian society as a cultural area fused by interethnic contacts where people did not feel strangers to one another.  The late Professor Donald Levine observed that even in the medium of communication, there was the commonality of the use of Amharic and Oromifa (my label). As far back as 1620, anyone could converse intelligibly where ever one goes throughout the country. Many others have written about the commonality of traditions as it pertains to a single deity, norms, dwelling and worship structures and even names. Yet, even Levine concluded, “To have similar orientations and traditions and to be part of a complex relational network is not, however, to belong to a single society.”

Ethnic identity is a very complex construct, and studies on group identity have expanded our understanding of how a sense of commonality and shared circumstances encourage groups to become politically active. Social scientists have further delineated the multidimensional and distinct components of group consciousness among ethnic groups as: group identity, recognition of disadvantaged status, and desire for collective action to overcome that status.  One thing we know for certain is this: Sociologists assert that when community identity is challenged or questioned in anyway, the community asserts and defends that identity.

Knitting back a nation!

The attempt to knit together a national society- a nation- has been in the works for over 450 years. These have taken the form of organizing relatively discrete, in some cases autonomous, local systems under various names, including the current iteration: ethnic federalism within a republic.

If the ideal is a nation of people who see themselves as ‘citizens’, how has the federal system of government based on ethnicity fared in Ethiopia?  Has it succeeded, where the attempts of the past five centuries or so of nation building have, arguably, failed?  And what is its promise for the future? I will devote the following few paragraphs to render an opinion.

In a highly celebrated speech (now available in print), Ernst Renan (1832-1892) argued that a nation cannot be formed based on ethnicity, not based on race, not based on language, not based on religion, or not even based on geography. He argued that a nation is a ‘soul’, a ‘spiritual principle’. This soul or spiritual principle is one but has two sides: one lies in the past, one in the present. He affirms that it is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories, along with present-day consent, amplified by the desire to live together so as to perpetuate the value of the heritage so endowed in undivided form. Specifically, “A nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future. It presupposes a past, it is summarized, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life.”

Although the most recent iteration of organizing states based on ethnicity is not new (remember Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points Plan for Peace in Europe after WWI?), some believe that the impetus gained momentum in the 1970s when European intellectuals were forced to abandon their Marxism Leninism because of its obvious catastrophic and murderous rampage where ever it was in place around the globe.  With the decline of Marxism Leninism, a new attempt at resurrecting ethnic fissures for the purpose of gaining power—some will argue to address the well being of the oppressed—found currency anew. Class warfare had to be replaced with ethnic conflict! It is, therefore, no accident that within three years of the collapse of the former Soviet Union, ethnic federalism was introduced in Ethiopia. The most generous thing that could be said about those who shifted gears so abruptly to hoist this on the country is that they may have dreamed of elevating hope into truth. 

Ethiopian society has witnessed both the disadvantages and the dislocations that ethnic federalism has wrought upon it. Our national story today is one of political dysfunction, of emergency rule, of unreachable shared history or values and more. Arguably, it is not a story that could sufficiently create a ‘soul’ or a ‘spiritual principle’. The attempt to forge a nation of spiritual partners has given way to a system where every group has divergent interests far from the national need so much so that it is difficult to observe common strands as to what unites the country.

I suggest that there is a contradiction between our claim that we are a nation of shared values and history versus our reverence for a political system based on ethnicity and the contempt it has spawned both for government and fellow citizens, who are now seen as outsiders and with whom they have no bond.

What Value Ethnic Federalism?

To help us reflect thoughtfully on this question, and paraphrasing P-J. Proudhon (1851), I wish for you to imagine the following:

Imagine being watched; imagine being inspected; imagine being spied upon; imagine being directed; imagine being numbered, regulated, and enrolled; imagine being indoctrinated, preached at, and controlled; imagine being checked, estimated, and valued; imagine being censured; imagine being commanded, by individuals who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so.

Imagine being jettisoned from the place you called home; imagine being an itinerant and homeless in your own country; imagine being forced to attend every meeting called by the neighborhood boss; imagine being registered, and counted; imagine being taxed excessively; imagine being stamped, and measured; imagine being numbered, assessed, and licensed; imagine being authorized, admonished, prevented, and forbidden; imagine being reformed, corrected, and punished.

Imagine being forced to be under the pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution; imagine being drilled, fleeced, and exploited; imagine being monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed and silenced; imagine!

Imagine being ‘other-zed’; imagine being labeled a newcomer; imagined being labeled loud, disobedient, manipulative, lawless, and even lazy; then imagine that at the slightest resistance or the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, or deported; imagine being sacrificed, sold, and betrayed; and to crown it all, imagine being mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, forced to abandon your property, and dishonored. Imagine all this to be the legitimate tool of government inquiry or of the justice system.

Imagine reassuring yourself by saying, ‘but this happens only where selfish, dishonest and small-minded people run things in secret and where there is no respect for a Constitution’; and then you begin to imagine multiplying these by a factor of nine! Just imagine. 

Imagine, if you can, that we are an imperfect nation with a dignified heroic past along with a hopeful future to continue a common life, and try to contain your excitement or anger! Can you imagine?

*Teshome Abebe, Professor Laureate and Professor of Economics is a former Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, and may be reached at:




Article first published here

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