Opinion: A new approach to forge Ethiopia’s unity

Leenco Lata

Addis Abeba, May 04/2020 – Two approaches have been tried to date with the view to forging Ethiopia’s unity. Since both have proven unsustainable, it is high time to consider a third alternative. Both of the approaches that have been attempted to date have faulted their intended purposes on a number of grounds. However, explicating their various egregiousness is not the aim of this brief op-ed. What will be attempted here is looking at the premises on which they drew and argue that they happened to be unworkable and even ultimately counterproductive.

The earliest approach to forging Ethiopia’s unity was the one that lasted until 1991, replaced by an alternative one thereafter. Both of these approaches were premised on dividing Ethiopia’s sub-state nations or fanning discord among them. They may have served the purpose of prolonging the dominance of the successive ruling elites but they went nowhere close to uniting Ethiopia’s numerous sub-state nations.

The approach to forging Ethiopia’s unity that lasted until 1991 was premised on dividing Ethiopia’s sub-state nations except the one whose attributes (language, culture and history) were elevated to the National status merely by fiat. Particularly, administrative divisions of the country were conducted to serve the purpose of balkanizing the targeted sub-state nations.

Apparently, the proponents of this approach hoped that these communities would identify themselves with the artificial provinces and not by such attributes as language, culture and history. Practically, however, that did not happen. Instead, communities continued to identify themselves based on their languages, cultures and histories.

We ask the proponents of this approach: “How could dividing parts of the Ethiopian population add up to the unity of the whole?” Indeed, the proponents of this approach harbor a strange sort of arithmetic notion. Obviously, this strange arithmetic did not work. What actually unfolded is the stubborn quest for unity by the targeted sub-state nations. They increasingly struggled to restore their unity in some cases by armed means.

By the time the regime-change of 1991 took place, the unworkability of this earlier approach to forging Ethiopia’s unity was obvious at least to those who took over the administration of the country.  Thereafter, the administrative division of the country was carved out to partly coincide with the homelands of Ethiopia’s sub-state nations.

Unfortunately, the incoming rulers employed two policies with the purpose of preserving the pre-eminence they achieved by militarily, unseating the military regime. First, they tried to suppress solidarity within each of Ethiopia’s sub-state nations by dubbing such a tendency as either chauvinism or narrow-nationalism. Second, they also fanned discord among Ethiopia’s sub-state nations.

The incoming rulers of Ethiopia in 1991 defined both chauvinism and narrow-nationalism in such a way that they, and they alone, are supposedly exempted from harboring both sentiments. As the result of this definition, members of the society from which they emerged were free to extend solidarity to each other whereas all the rest were barred from doing so. This sleight of hand was also destined to prove unsustainable.

Pitting Ethiopia’s sub-state nations against each other in order to remain at the helm was the other sleight of hand deployed by those who ascended to power in 1991. Again, we ask the proponents of this approach: “How could fanning acrimony among Ethiopia’s sub-state nations enhance amity among them?” This approach also proved equally unsustainable other than serving as the quintessential divide and rule strategy to prolong the pre-eminence of the ruling group. When some of these targeted communities started collaborating against their common abusers, the pre-eminence of the ruling group came to an end thereby ushering in the ongoing effort to transition to a democratic political order.

Both of the previous rulers of Ethiopia talked, as they continue to do, about “Ethiopia’s unity” ad nauseam. Don’t be fooled by their rhetoric, what they actually mean is “without us at the helm the country is at risk.” To me it has always been obvious that they merely want to restore or preserve their dominance and not to base Ethiopia’s unity on solid foundations.

The other sleight of hand both of the former rulers have tried to employ was restricting the approaches to forging Ethiopia’s unity only to one or the other of previous ones. Only these two are on the menu for forging Ethiopia’s unity, according to them. Nothing could be further from the truth since both previous approaches have practically proven unsustainable.

As the result, during this period of transition, we have the opportunity as well as the responsibility to articulate an alternative approach to forging Ethiopia’s unity. This alternative approach, unlike the previous ones, builds the unity of Ethiopia on the unity of its component nations. Each of Ethiopia’s sub-state nations would serve as the building blocks of the overall unity of the country in this emerging dispensation. A more robust Ethiopia’s unity would, hence, come to rest on the unity of its component nations.

Ethiopia-wide solidarity would also come to rest on the extension of solidarity within Ethiopia’s sub-state nations and amity among them. Those who care about their fellow nationals are more likely to come to the aid of their fellow Ethiopians than the unfair practices of the past.   

For this approach to succeed, we have to give up the imagination of Ethiopian society as a boring monochromatic (mono-religious, mono-cultural and mono-language) entity. Instead, we have to imagine the Ethiopian society as a colorful quilt work in which its sub-state nations are recognized and rendered recognizable in its official portrayal.

One could rightly ask: Why bring up this issue in the midst of the threatening COVID-19 pandemic? My reason for doing so at this critical moment would be obvious from the lesson that the pandemic is trying to instill in us. That very important lesson is that the safety of each one of us amounts to the safety of all of us during this critical time. By the way, this is the lesson that Ethio-telecom drums into our minds every time we place a telephone call.

As the result, we can prevail over this deadly but invisible enemy only by each one of us taking care of ourselves, which adds up to the safety of all of us. Under such a circumstance, each of Ethiopia’s nations should mobilize its intellectuals, professionals and other resources in the fight against COVID-19, which would add up to the total mobilization of all Ethiopians.

Hence, this pandemic is demanding us to start practicing the kind of Ethiopia’s unity that I am advocating. What could happen at the end of this pandemic is hard to predict. But one thing is obvious to me: For all Ethiopians to survive each one of its component nations has to also survive. Let us join hands in making that a reality.

The main deficiency of the past approaches to forging Ethiopia’s unity is the failure to involve the concerned societies in articulating and endorsing them. Hence, let us use the present hiatus in our usual political work, imposed upon us by the pandemic, to exchange views on this crucial matter. AS


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