Ethnicity Trap

Ethnicity Trap

Can Ethiopia Break Free?

With the escalation of violence resulting in the death and displacement of millions of people, the humanitarian situation in Ethiopia has deteriorated over the past six months. The number of internally displaced people in the country, which started to increase last December, reached an historic peak in April 2018. Many attribute the problem to the ethnic based politics that the country has been pursuing since 1991. Since then, politicians have especially been using ethnicity as an instrument to advance wide ranging political and economic interests. EBR’s Samson Berhane explores.

Aynase Anjelu, a mother of three, lost her brother and brother-in-law in the violence last September in Burayu, a small town 20 kilometers northwest of Addis Ababa. The attack targeted mainly members of the Gamo ethnic group in the area, to which Aynase belongs. Thousands of residents of who escaped the attacks took shelter in schools in neighboring areas including Addis Ababa. “It was an attack that left a scar on my memory because I lost my family and got displaced from my house,” Aynase told EBR.

Aynase, who was born in southern Ethiopia, is just one of the victims of internal displacement in Ethiopia last year. Currently, 2.8 million people have been displaced from their homes, mainly because of violence and conflicts along ethnic lines. In the first half of 2018 alone, Ethiopia accounted for almost a quarter of the 5.2 million new internally displaced people globally.

The violence and conflicts that have erupted in almost all corners of the country, forcing millions out of their homes, differ in the levels of execution as well as magnitude and scale of damage, but they all have one common feature: in all instances, ethnicity was used as an instrument to serve violent purposes.

Political analysts agree that almost all of the conflicts in Ethiopia in recent years have had clear cut ethnic dimensions. “Neighboring communities, which once coexisted peacefully, began showing hostility towards one another in line with their differences along ethnic lines,” explained a political analyst who spoke to EBR anonymously. “In the past 27 years, a great emphasis was given to ethnic identity at the expense of unity and now is the time to reap what has been sown.”

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) affirmed this view while responding to questions from members of Parliament a couple of months ago. “It was a tactical and prearranged chaos masterminded by those with political motives,” said Abiy, seemingly hinting that ethnicity was used as an instrument to advance political interests.

It is evident that the majority of conflicts throughout sub-Saharan Africa in the past 50 years have been motivated by identity politics. The genocide in Rwanda is one of the clearest examples of the devastation of ethnic division and its resultant violence. As a result, many African countries, like Ghana, criminalize political mobilization along ethnic and religious lines.

Ethiopia, on the other hand, adopted an ethno-linguistic federal system when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took power in 1991. The party assumed that the system would enable the country to correct the ‘misdeeds’ of the past. For decades there had been armed struggles by different nations, nationalities and peoples throughout the country for self rule and succession. These groups presented the decades of cultural exclusion and dominance by the ‘ruling class/elites’ of the time as the reason for their armed struggle.

Organizing political movements along ethnic lines in Ethiopia dates back nearly half a century. Wallelign Mekonnen, one of the key leaders of the student movement in the 1960s, published a highly influential but contentious article entitled ‘On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia’ about oppressed groups and their rights, which prompted strong ethnic discourse across the country. The then-fourth year student of political science at Addis Ababa University (AAU) argued that Ethiopia is not a one state country but a multi state country with many states who struggle for self determination. His article contributed to the flourishing of ethnic based politics in the country. Consequently, many formed ethnic-based political parties, including the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF), Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF). Although there were political parties who were organized based on national interest, those that echoed ethnic identity eventually succeeded in defeating the Dergue military regime in 1991.

The downfall of the Dergue contributed to the further flourishing of ethnicity and identity politics nationwide. Indeed ethnic politics became the shortest route to power after 1991. “Ethnic consciousness motivated the majority ethnic groups to develop regional political parties, which stimulated inter-ethnic tensions. So, ethnic politics inevitably became the main deterrent force to Ethiopian nationalism,” says the political analyst.

At the end of the last election in 2015, there were around 80 political parties registered by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia. Among them, almost a quarter were national parties who promoted civic politics, while the rest were formed on the basis of ethnic lines. Several armed groups, which returned from exile after making peace with the ruling party in recent months, have followed the same path, using ethnicity as a platform to organize themselves. It would not be wrong to conclude that each nationality and ethnic group has its own political party.

Organizing along ethnic lines is not at all uncommon throughout the world. Scholars who have tried to study why and under which circumstances ethnicity emerges as a leading political tool stress that political parties, especially in countries with many ethnic groups, tend to mobilize themselves and voters along ethnic lines in order to win a majority in elections.

Generally speaking, parties organized along ethnic lines differ from parties with mass appeal because they depict themselves as representatives of a particular ethnic group. Joseph Rothschild, professor of political science at Columbia University, explains that although mobilization along ethnic lines can be useful for administration purposes, protecting minorities’ rights and to respond to a shared set of concerns, if it is manipulated by elites, it can lead to a deliberate politicization of ethnicity.

Rothschild defined politicization of ethnicity as the process of reifying, modifying and sometimes virtually recreating the putatively distinctive and unique cultural heritages of a particular or many ethnic groups in order to obtain political legitimacy and power. When politicization of ethnicity is done in a negative manner, ethnicity becomes a sufficient cause for conflict, which leads to mass violence aimed at the members of other ethnic groups.

Mekonnen Fisseha, assistant professor of law at Mekelle University argues it is this politicization of ethnicity that is the root cause of the recent violence and conflicts in different areas of Ethiopia. “The violence is connected with ethnic-based politics. It is the result of politicization of ethnicity and the ethnicization of politics.”

“Ethiopia has adopted an extreme scenario,” argues Fana Gebresenbet (PhD), associate professor at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies at AAU, who specializes in internal conflict resolution. “Although it is impossible to neglect the voices of ethnic groups who claim to have been suppressed by previous administrations, the formula ‘disunite to unite’, which has been in practice over 27 years, is almost unworkable and will eventually lead to disintegration.”

Solomon Mebre (PhD), an assistant professor of political science at the same university, agrees. “Empirical evidence suggests that the formation of political organizations based on ethnicity is not a good recipe for a healthy political environment in any country. Unfortunately, the practice, which is described by both ethnic politicization and politicization of ethnicity, are not unusual in Africa,” he says.

The political analyst explains how politics is ethinicized. “The fact that the leaders of government offices are selected based on their ethnicity, rather than their skills and experience, indicates how politics is ethincized. There were several projects implemented just to make a certain group happy and to shut down the voice of a particular ethnic group, at least temporarily. This has gradually plunged the nation into chaos.”

Yet, some scholars such as Anthony Smith, professor emeritus of nationalism and ethnicity at the London School of Economics, stress that there has not been sufficient evidence to support the argument that ethnicity can result in violence. Rather, other factors such as income inequalities and the failure of governments to deliver public goods contribute for the problem. Mekonnen agrees with this argument. “Unfair distribution of wealth, power and foreign intervention also play some parts.” Bereket Simon, a key veteran figure in the ruling party, takes a similar view, but with different angle. “Ethnicity had never been a cause of violence in the country. Had ethnicity been a problem, it would have been impossible for us to run a relatively stable country for 25 years” he said. “The recent violence in the country is the lack of rule of law and the inability of the government to respond to the needs of the youth.”Of course, many economic and social problems have contributed to the violence and conflict in Ethiopia, such as alarming youth unemployment rates, corruption and maladministration.

Ethiopia is not the only country overwhelmed by ethnic-based politics. It is a major source of growing political crises in Africa’s biggest economy, Nigeria, which has a multitude of diverse, and sometimes competing, ethno-linguistic groups. Ethnic-based politics undermined the selection of responsible and responsive national leadership by politicizing ethnicity, according to a study by Joseph C. Ebegbulem at Nigeria’s University of Calabar, titled “Ethnic Politics and Conflicts in Nigeria”. The colonial administration of Nigeria along ethnic lines promoted ethnic tensions, which prevented a nationalist movement but encouraged ethnic nationalism and regional politics.

The study concluded that politicization of ethnicity influenced the formation of regional political parties and has been detrimental to national unity and the socio-economic welfare of Nigeria. “The worst might happen in Ethiopia as politics and ethnicity are more closely linked than in any African nation,” says Fana.

“The ongoing political, economic and social developments in Ethiopia are very similar to the developments that led to the break-up of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia,” argues Mekonnen. “Unless the situation is contained quickly and wisely, it is highly likely that, like Yugoslavia, we will see six or more States of the former Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.”

Other scholars, however, stress that such a conclusion is too hasty. One expert who does not believe that ethnicity by itself causes conflict or that it is innately threatening is Claude Ake, a Nigerian political scientist. In a study that appeared in The African e-Journals Project, entitled ‘What is the Problem of Ethnicity in Africa?’, Ake argued that if ethnicity is at-will and can be manipulated to serve selfish purposes, then it is only an ‘object’, and the case for calling it a cause of violence and conflicts would not be sustainable.

Of course, those who oppose the idea that organizing along ethnic lines can represent insidious manipulation by elites argue that the conflicts arising in the name of ethnicity are not problems related to ethnicity. Rather, they are problems of a particular political dynamic which just happens to be pinned on ethnicity. “We confuse our abuse of ethnicity with its inherent abusiveness. Most importantly, we tend to forget that even though ethnicity might be constructed, it is also a living presence, an important part of what many Africans are,” says Ake.

Nonetheless, experts do not deny that ethnicity has been a major element of political pluralism in Africa. Ethnic formations are still the most significant tool to hold political power on the continent. But it is served as the best defense against the totalizing tendencies and human rights. So, taking this into consideration, Ake argues it is not easy to regard ethnicity as a problem or cause for conflict. This is why scholars who are pro-ethnic say every aspect of political transformation in Africa has to come to terms with ethnicity. If nations decide to move towards progress, their direction should began with the crystallization of their identities, including ethnicity and build on that. As Ake put it, “Those who do not know who they are cannot really know where they are going.”

7th Year • Nov.16 – Dec.15 2018 • No. 68

Samson Berhane


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