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Dr. Tsegazeab k. A (MD, MPH) 06-28-20


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For all realistic and practical purposes, the current state of Ethiopia can be considered to be the work of two prominent political forces; The Minilik’ites and The EPRDF’ites, namely. That is setting aside the role and influences of foreign actors. Both forces had left a significant; may be an irreversible, political foot-print of theirs on modern Ethiopia.

The Minilik’ites and The EPRDF’ites pursued the same grand objective through a quite differing approach. Both had envisioned building a formidable and viable Ethiopian state against all the odds. The first designed and implemented a rigorous project of nation building, based on the theme of One History, One Language, One Culture and One Center of Power; thereby, building one Ethiopia through direct integration and assimilation policies. While the later, completely abandoned the theme of the first, intending to correct the inherent weakness of its predecessor’s approach, which was empirically proven to be disastrous; and embarked on a new expedition of nation building as enshrined in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia’s (FDRE’s) constitution: building one economic and political society. There by, building one Ethiopia through indirect or retrograde integration and assimilation policies.

In effect, The Minilik’ites and The EPRDF’ites pursued different methods but the same long term strategic objective. Some intellectuals tend to describe the nation building process of The Minilik’ites and The EPRDF’ites as thesis and antithesis of each other. The argument has merits as such, as the later has tried to review its predecessors approach critically. But, one can also argue that it fell short of a complete reversal of all the instruments of nation building employed before it. Let’s leave this argument for academicians and political scientists; so that, we shall dwell on the current tangible facts on the ground.

The fact is, to the dismay of many, both failed utterly and modern Ethiopia is at crossroads! It appears this verity is a common assessment of Ethiopian elites across all political life; from the ruling party to prominent opposition parties; from independent local and foreign observers to diplomats and friends of Ethiopia; in short, this assessment is ubiquitous.

So, what is left for Ethiopia? Can the state be salvaged? Given the current situation, these are legitimate questions, I believe. Before trying to reflect my point of view on those questions, summarizing key features of the approaches employed hitherto briefly will be helpful. 

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1.     A brief description of The Minilik’ites nation building approaches     

As the social historian Benedict Anderson has pointed out, the nation is an 'imagined political community' that can only be understood within the intersecting dynamics of history, language, ideology, and power. National identity is always a shifting, unsettled complex of historical struggles and experiences that are cross-fertilized, produced, and translated through a variety of cultures. Anderson asserts that, national identity is imagined and constructed.

I prefer the above outlook, among the many scholarly attempts to define the notion of the nation; to look back at The Minilik’ites nation building approaches. This point of view is a forward looking perspective that emphasizes the now and considers the importance of the past. The limitation of Anderson’s perspective appears to be the fact that it ignores the importance of territory in defining the nation and nation building process.

Nevertheless; it appears that the significance of territory for building Ethiopian nationalism has never been paramount. This had been proven time and again; by the fact that, the engineers of Ethiopian nationalism were willing to give up their territories to foreigners for a Pound or Lira, without significant and visible consequences to their regime. In addition, the fact that Ethiopia lost the war and survives the secession of Eritrea is an empirical evidence that the project of Ethiopian nationalism were not meant to be built by “politicization of an ethnic group looking to the future destiny by sharing the same soil of the homeland”, as B. Bradshaw stipulates in his book the British consciousness and identity. One definitely can argue territory had never been at the heart of it, at least.

Hence, Anderson’s perspective aptly describes the nation building process, including the shaping and reshaping of Ethiopian identity, pursued by the Minilik’ites. Ethiopian nationalism was meant to be established by investing on history, language, ideology and power. Basically, this process of nation building resembles that of most European nations, the likes of Germany and France.

Since the era of Minilik II, Ethiopian nationalists attempted to create a common identity by claiming glorious history that goes back to the time of Aksumite kingdom and back more; have instituted the Amharic language as the national language; implore Ethiopian highlander’s culture and Orthodox-Christianity ideology, and a centralized power which was exploited using a carrot and stick approach to empower Ethiopian’ism. In their own virtue, they have assembled all the necessary theoretical tools and worked hard to realize their dream of one Ethiopia fiercely.

So, what went wrong with this project of Ethiopian nation building?

History: - Forget the authenticity and dispute surrounding the rightful claim of the history in which Ethiopian’ism was meant to be anchored. The fact is, there was no other parallel historical fact as proven as the Aksumite history that is capable of sustaining a nation and feed the demand of a nation and a state to be connected to the past, to find a common ancestral heritage. This history has proven itself by sustaining and supporting well a nation called Abyssinia for almost a century. But since, Ethiopian nation building process was started after Abyssinia annexed a territory and diverse population, almost as twice as the size of itself; it was inevitable the need to sell a new historical narrative to be portrayed in order to accommodate the newly incorporated population, communities and people. Rather than recognizing and incorporating the history of these people into Ethiopian history, which some own a well-established and flourished historical background, the Ethiopian’ist forces choose to force Aksumite history down the throats of these communities. The effort to sell Aksumite history as a common glorious heritage didn’t take hold. Quite to the contrary, these citizens of the newly built Ethiopia that were forced to deny their own background were compelled to search deeper for their own history and ancestral roots. Since then, Ethiopia was deep down a divided nation without a common understanding of its historical past. The Effort to change the name of the state from Abyssinia to Ethiopia in an effort to include the non-Abyssinians didn’t go well, as well. The newly introduced name of the country; rather, created confusion even among the Abyssinians themselves. To date, common people do not even pronounce it correctly and the name Ethiopia remains to be the language of the clergy and elite. This on top of the internecine fight among those who consider themselves as Aksumites for supremacy and hegemony had left the county to be torn apart implicitly into many since its inception.  The Minilik’ites had really put their heavy weight on history. They have commissioned a new historical perspective to be crafted and drafted through bogus mischievous scholars and had gone as far as publishing fake and cooked historical narratives, which simply backfired and forced citizens to look for the truth. I believe the likes of Afework Weldeyeses and other historians did more harm than good to the nation building process.

Though Ethiopian nationalists were equipped well with the tools required to build the Ethiopian nation; they never had succeeded to create a national consensus about what defines Ethiopian’ism in terms of historical perspective.

Language: - Language is a marker of ethnic identity; a vehicle for expressing a distinct culture; a source of national cohesion; and an instrument for building political community. Yet the relationship between language and ethno-national identity is a contested matter. There is no question that language is one of the elements defining collective consciousness. In the 19th century language was considered the major defining factor of a nation, at least in Europe; and it was almost taken for granted that each linguistic community deserved to have its own state [Wiliam Safran, University of Colorado]. The Minilik’ites introduced Amharic as the national language; and it was made to flourish at the expense of every other language. Along the way, Amharic lost its luster as a national language as it was gone out of its way to serve its purpose of a communication medium and had had clearly become an instrument of assimilation. All languages; except Amharic, were overwhelmed by the structured imposition of a preferred language. The systematic imposition goes as far as converting citizen’s full name, and some native languages were forced to cease their existence as a result. Many were perplexed by the development that obliged citizens to deny themselves and consequentially forced to look after their native languages as a show of resistance. This has pushed back citizens to look and stick to their roots and emphasize more on the importance of maintaining their identity which is expressed by their language in order to save it from being extinct. More to the point, the preferential treatment of Amharic language has also created a new social structure, where by Amharic native speakers have become a “born privileged”. This has further contributed for a megalothymic tendencies to be widespread among the native Amharic speaker elites and lead to socio-economical contention along the linguistic divide. 

Ideology: - The predominantly Orthodox Christian culture and ideology of the highlanders was rejected vehemently by the lowlanders and non Christian communities. Forced and voluntary religious conversions failed to yield an overwhelming cultural and ideological change. The lowlanders strongly resisted cultural domination; and in the event of helplessness, they were forced to look for a refuge and got a legitimate and safe exist mechanism, adopt another religion. Hence, most accepted Protestantism.  

Power: - Power was centralized and kept strictly among a certain group of the ruling class and their trusties. Both soft and hard powers were employed merely for the purpose of rewarding those who comply and prescribe to the cause of the assimilation project; and punishing those who questioned the regime and/or were categorized as potential threats. Societies were devoid of their sovereignty and were unable to exercise their right to even control their communal power structure.     

In conclusion:- The rejectionist and non-inclusive historical narrative, the domination of one language, the ideological incompatibility, and the exclusion of nations from then existent power structure lead to marginalization of a significant majority of nations and nationalities politically and economically. This led the general population to demand for recognition, equality and dignity; thus resentment against the regime was installed. In his book Identity, Francis Fukuyama iterates “the demand for recognition often takes a more particular form, centering on the dignity of a particular group that has been marginalized or disrespected. For many, the inner self that needed to be made visible was not that of a generic human being, but of a particular kind of person from a particular place and observing particular customs. These partial identities could be based on nation, or they could be based on religion. Because they demanded recognition of the dignity of the group in question, they turned into political movements that we label nationalism or Islamism”. As a result of the wrong policies of the Minlik’ites, social strife has risen to maximum, and nationalist and ultra-nationalist movements were established, which later were organized under the umbrella of the Ethiopian people’s revolutionary movement (EPRDF) to successfully overthrow a 100 years old unitary Ethiopianist regime.

2.     A brief description of  The EPRDF’ites nation building approaches  

Born along the fault lines of the Minilik’ites adventure, The EPRDF’ites had a clear reading and understanding of what went wrong with their predecessor’s approach of nation building. They determinedly tried to correct the inherent weakness of the previous system and address strategic issues that have tangled the country to be a viable state. As it is clearly put in the preamble of the constitution (scripts shown below); they have tried to correct the historical, language, ideological, and power instruments of nation building.  

Scripts from the FDRE’s constitution preamble - [ We, the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia: Strongly committed, in full and free exercise of our right to self-determination, to building a political community founded on the rule of law and capable of ensuring a lasting peace, guaranteeing a democratic order, and advancing our economic and social development;  ….. fundamental freedoms and rights, to live together on the basis of equality and without any sexual, religious or cultural discrimination;  Further convinced that by continuing to live with our rich and proud cultural legacies in territories we have long inhabited, ….. Fully cognizant that our common destiny can best be served by rectifying historically unjust relationships and by further promoting our shared interests;  Convinced that to live as one economic community is necessary……]

The good will of the architects of the constitution; the EPRDF’ites, can be clearly seen in here. They have envisioned to correct the historical unjust relationships, scraped the ideological umbrella by recognizing the religious and cultural discrimination, and devolved centralized power by recognizing self-determination. So, the historical, ideological and power domains appear to be addressed here in paper, but not to the fullest range. The language aspect is also pocked; Article 5 of the constitution stipulates that (1) All Ethiopian languages shall enjoy equal state recognition; (2) Amharic shall be the working language of the Federal Government and (3) Members of the Federation may by law determine their respective working languages. Thus, Aksumite history was replaced by incorporating the history of the Oromo’s, Somali’s, Sidama’s, Wolayta’s and so forth; the highlanders’ ideological baptism was replaced by multiculturalism and centralized power was divided among the nations and nationalities through self-determination, and language was to enjoy equal status, according to the constitution. The nation building process was left, practically, to economic integration and insuring peace, tranquility and democratic order.

The gap between the vision and practice was huge, though. The measures taken were not swift and galvanizing; in some aspects, the EPRDF’ites actually recoiled from their original stand along the way.

The salient drawbacks appear to be on the power and language aspects. Power, though it was devolved through a federal arrangement, had never left the Minilik’s palace at “Arat kilo”. All the regions were not allowed to exercise their constitutional right of self-determination and governance. Everything was concentrated on a clique of 20 later 36 individuals, and finally in the hands of very few individuals at the helm of a party mechanics and the federal government. In this regard, the sovereignty of regional governments; and thus the people, was eroded if not decimated at all. Loyalty, a very difficult concept to measure, to a party order and individuals had become the absolute criteria to access even the lowest possible meaningful power. The real question of the Ethiopian people that had been at the core of their struggle against the unitary forces ended up to be a paper work. Worst is, most significant nations were swallowed in what is deemed to be a little Ethiopia, Southern Nations, nationalities and Peoples’ region (SNNPR), and other major regions like the Amhara region.

The language aspect was a mess. Though, the constitution clearly stipulates that all Ethiopian languages shall enjoy equal state recognition, Amharic remained the favored language. The art and film industry remained to be dominated by Amharic language; the state owned Ethiopian National Theater has never produced any work of art in languages other than Amharic; the media remained to be dominated by Amharic channels; universities remain in favor of Amharic; education continued to favor Amharic language, nothing substantial was changed. Language equality has become a luxury. The fact that the constitution declares Amharic to be the working language of the Federal Government was a blower. The federal government essentially stayed to be dominated by one ethnic group. In most cases, more than 70% of the federal task force remained to be occupied by Amharic speakers.  

Though, the constitution states that members of the Federation are allowed by law to determine their respective working languages; only four regions [Tigray, Afar, Somali and Oromia] adopt own working language. The regional states of Amhara, SNNPR, Gambella, Benshagul gumz, Hareri; and city administrations of Addis Ababa and Diredawa remained Amharic speakers. This, on top of the federal government’s one language environment, has failed to correct the inherent problem of language favoritism. At the end of the day, the right to exercise native language was meant to tackle the economic disadvantage that emanates from political restrictions on utilizing your own language. The mere privilege of speaking once own language doesn’t yield to equality. It should have been supported systematically to encourage using own language and doing so should have paid off the long disadvantaged citizens.  

In conclusion - The failure of the EPRDF’ites to address these two significant tools of the Minilik’ites nation building approaches radically [Power and language], has resulted in the resurgence of unitary forces from their graves. 

With all its drawbacks, the EPRDF’ites had achieved a great deal in terms of reversing their predecessors way of nation building. Their reluctance to respect and ignore implementing the constitutional details in full package; and focus on economic development had cost them their very existence. The downfall of the EPRDF’ites started earlier and was cemented when the EPRDF central committee took the assessment that the main problem of the country is the fact that Ethiopian’ism was neglected and diversity was promoted at the expense of unity. This was the time, I believe, the EPRDF’ites pull on the trigger unto them. It still intrigues me, why they couldn’t see the connotation of this assessment; given that conclusion, there was no way to save the constitution and their revolutionary democracy ideology which promotes unity in diversity.

So, here we are; after a 130+ years long systematic trials of nation state formation, we got two aborted Ethiopian nation building process’. Condemning past regimes and, putting the curse and blame on them won’t solve an ounce of our problems; nor will it alleviate our pains. Reviewing the journey we travelled hitherward is only important; if and only if, we are willing to learn from it and draw conclusions that serve us as a spring board to move forward; may be also making a leap.  

As we stand here, the grand question is “can Ethiopia be salvaged”? And salvaged, in the sense that, can Ethiopia be a formidable and viable state that cherish its citizen’s freedom, development and peace?

My understanding is yes; Ethiopia can be salvaged theoretically, but the country is not moving on the right direction.

[Thanks for taking the time to read my note and will come on part two with my views on the above question.] 



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