Why Deny Ethiopian National Identity?
By Tedla Woldeyohannes, Ph.D
The question whether there is a shared Ethiopian national identity or Ethiopiawinnet has recently become a hot issue. The main purpose of this article is to examine some of the reasons that appear to lead to a denial of a shared Ethiopian national identity or something close to a denial but not quite a categorical denial of a shared Ethiopian national identity. From the very outset, it is important to understand this: A careful understanding of the reasons that lead to denial of Ethiopian national identity or closely related views will pave a way for a clear understanding of Ethiopian national identity, what it consists in or how it is manifested.
A caveat: Achieving the goal of this article need not be predicated on the fact that there is a settled view or that there is a consensus on what we mean by a shared Ethiopian national identity. One key reason why the success of my discussion need not depend on the fact that there is a settled view or a consensus regarding what Ethiopian national identity is because the very fact that some deny it presupposes that there is a view, whatever it is, that is being denied. What is being denied must be referred to one way or another for the denial to make sense. Since it is plausible to assume that those who deny Ethiopiawinet, in whatever way they deny it, must deny what they take to be Ethiopiawinet, at least there is a notion of Ethiopiawinet that is being denied or disputed. It is incumbent upon the deniers of a shared Ethiopian national identity to say exactly what they are denying. Likewise, it is incumbent upon the proponents of a shared Ethiopian national identity to say what it consists in or how it is manifested. Note that I am not proposing a positive project in this article. I am only evaluating the reasoning that leads to a denial of Ethiopiawinet.
The reasons for the denial
Let us consider some of the reasons that appear to have led to a view that there is no shared Ethiopian national identity. Another caveat: In much of this piece, I will focus on categorical denial of shared Ethiopian national identity rather than a qualified denial that goes as follows: Ethiopian national identity as an all-inclusive identity for all Ethiopians does not exist or has never existed. I will later show that a qualified denial collapses to a categorical denial. If that is the case, I will focus on denial of Ethiopian national identity; hence, the title of this piece.
An argument from marginalization. I take this to be the major argument. This argument focuses on the marginalization of an ethnic group or groups in the following areas, among others: languages, cultures, political power, and access to economic resources in the formation of modern Ethiopia, and in one form or another at the present day Ethiopia. Among prominent deniers of Ethiopian national identity a case in point is some Oromo elites. It is uncontroversial to claim that in the formation of the modern Ethiopian state many ethnic groups were treated in manners that are unjust in various ways. Among other things, languages and cultures of most ethnic groups, especially the Oromos and people in the Southern part of Ethiopia did not have advantages comparable to that of the dominant Amhara-Tigrayan ruling class. The result of which is that a large part of the cultures and languages in Ethiopia have been Amharicized at the expense of developing other languages, mainly Afan Oromo which is spoken by the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. Granted. [There are nuances that need not concern us for now]. Now what follows from this fact? Obviously, denial of a shared Ethiopian national identity does not follow. Here are a few reasons why denial of Ethiopian national identity is not the most plausible conclusion from a premise that focuses on marginalization. Note that to say that denial of Ethiopian national identity does not follow or is not the most plausible response to the issue under consideration does not mean that what had happened in the formation of modern Ethiopia was right and without flaws. Not at all!
First, adequately understanding and addressing the root causes for marginalization of cultures and languages, lack of access to political power and economic resources for various ethnic groups need not require rejection of a shared Ethiopian national identity. Formation of cultures and identities is a complex process that does not admit only a seamless, linear direction. The marginalized people in question did actually contribute to the overall cultural fabrics in Ethiopia though the extent of the contribution falls short of dominance. For example, the Oromo culture in its various manifestations has contributed to the overall Ethiopian culture. To think of “Ethiopian” or “Oromo” culture without one affecting the other is to think only in abstraction and unrealistic. The fact that the contribution of the Oromo culture or language is not dominant like the Amhara-Tigrayan dominant cultures does not mean the Oromo and the people from the South never contributed anything culturally speaking to the overall cultures in Ethiopia. The shared Ethiopian identity can hardly be theorized in abstraction without the concrete interactions in cultures and languages in Ethiopia.
Second, it is crucial to distinguish the role of a state and the role of fellow citizens when it comes to the issue of marginalization of various ethnic groups, their culture and identity. It is a matter of fact that the head of state of a country like ours can only come from one ethnic group or another or in the case of a person from a mixed ethnic heritage we can have such a head of state, too. It is also a matter of fact and human nature to tend to treat people from one’s ethnic group in preferential terms. It is not unexpected or surprising to see that when the head of state is from one ethnic group that there is a tendency for that head of state to treat people from his/her ethnic group in a favorable way. But this need not be taken to suggest that the majority of people who belong to the ethnic group of the head of state are beneficiaries of various things in various ways just because the government is mostly composed of people from their ethnic group. Now, in this connection, there is an important point that must be noted: Even if the majority of people who belong to the ethnic group of the head of state are not beneficiaries economically and politically there is another way in which they can experience a benefit, which is an experience of a sense of superiority—typically psychological, which can be manifested in social interactions.
This experience of feeling superior to other ethnic groups can and does manifest itself in the use of derogatory terms to refer to people who do not belong to the ethnic group of the regime in power. No need to mention the derogatory terms with which various ethnic groups were called during the period of the Amhara-Tigrayan dominance in the Ethiopian state formation. As a matter of fact, using derogatory terms to belittle and degrade people from other ethnic groups is not limited to those who belong to the regime in power due to their association with the regime in power in virtue of their ethnic identity. Using derogatory terms for people from other groups, ethnic or religion, or other categories people use to distinguish themselves from others, is a universal human phenomenon. I call this innocent but unfortunate human experience. It is “innocent” because it is often a result of ignorance of the fact that there are no superior or inferior people, but people do hold a false belief about others. It is “unfortunate” because it is always with us and will always be with us, to one degree or another.
Recognizing Derogatory Terms
Now, let us further develop the role of derogatory terms in the debate regarding Ethiopian national identity. What is the role of the derogatory terms used by people from the dominant culture? It is hard to establish how many people had engaged in using derogatory terms in reference to ethnic groups such as the Oromos by the Amharas, etc. Should all Amharas ever existed be held accountable for the use of derogatory terms, say, in reference to the Oromos? How do we go about determining an answer to this question? Similarly, what should people from the South, say, from Wolaytta, do about the fact that they were also called in derogatory terms during the time of the Amhara-Tigrayan dominance in Ethiopian history? I know the experience firsthand. What should someone like me do to this experience? I see no reason that leads to the denial of Ethiopian national identity as a reasonable response to such experiences. There is no reason to believe that the state had forced, by law, individual citizens to refer to people from other ethnic groups in degrading ways. After all, we all know that referring to people from other groups in derogatory terms is not limited to those who belong to an ethnic group of a dominant culture or the ruling class at one point or another. Having said this, I am not, by any means, condoning any use of degrading and belittling terms by any group whatsoever. How we handle such human experiences makes a huge difference going forward.
Properly Handling Derogatory Terms
Those of us who have had opportunities to study and reflect on the human nature and the human condition find no basis in reality that justifies referring to fellow human beings in derogatory terms. We all know that we are all humans and all human beings deserve to be treated with dignity, period. Furthermore, we all know that identity formation allows mixing myths with truth in such a way that encourages a tendency for people to falsely believe their ethnic group or any group they belong to is better than others. Since we know this and we know that this is wrong, the right response to the use of derogatory terms is to educate people that we are after all humans and there is no better human or superior human since we all belong to the same family—the human family. I think the right response to those who called us names is not to respond in kind. Remember that no ethnic group is blameless when it comes to referring to others in derogatory terms. Hence, there is no moral ground that justifies responding in derogatory terms to those who call us in derogatory terms. There is no moral progress in doing so. It is rather a regress. Repeating the past mistakes and expecting a better future is paradoxical and futile.
Those victims of derogatory terms who understand and know why people engage in such degrading human actions can rightly have a pity on those who called them names and can forgive them because those who truly believe that we all deserve to be treated with dignity would not engage in such belittling actions. It is better to forgive them than to respond in kind since to respond in kind is to repeat the same mistake. However, this does not mean that those who belittled their fellow human beings would have nothing to do about their actions. The right thing for them to do is to apologize to the victims of their dehumanizing actions when that is feasible and possible. Now the real question is how we, as a society, can engage in apologizing to our actions and forgiving those who wronged us. It is easier suggesting the above as a general solution to our societal ills in the midst of examining the question why one would deny Ethiopian national identity, but the practical way to handle the suggestion is complicated. From what I argued above, one thing seems to be clear: Denial of Ethiopiawinet is not the most reasonable response to such experiences from our shared yet flawed history.
Furthermore, consider this scenario: Take the Oromo people and the Amhara people. Now to the questions: Are the whole living Amhara and Tigrayan people expected to apologize to the Oromos and other ethnic groups for the practice of using derogatory terms for generations? Is it the case that we have evidence that all Amhara and Tigrayan people have engaged in such degrading actions against all other ethnic groups because the Amhara and Tigrayans belonged to the dominant culture? Or, is it the case that the Amharas and Tigarayans in power have made it an official policy of the state to degrade people who are not members of the dominant culture? Do we have in our history something like the experiences of African-Americans who were denied, for example, to vote, to intermarry with the whites, to live in the same neighborhoods with the whites or to go to the same school with the whites? Also, as I suggested above, no ethnic group is completely free from using terms to belittle others even when the others belittled are not part of the dominant culture or they are not part of the ruling class. What should we do about all these? Did the Oromos actually never commit anything that violated the rights and dignity of members of any other ethnic groups or even fellow Oromos in the long history of state formation or scrambling over scarce economic resources? Are all Oromos innocent of any wrongdoing? All of us know that typical state formations and scrambling over scarce economic resources lead to conflicts and animosity among any people groups. When we talk about state formation, we are not talking about a “democratic Ethiopia” a hundred years ago while we’re acutely aware of the fact that there is no democratic Ethiopia even at this very moment in our history. The examples about the Amharas and Tigrayans and the Oromos are only meant to illustrate the issues under discussion. I am not suggesting that these are the only ethnic groups who carry scars from the time of state formation over the centuries. The moral of the preceding questions is this: Our view about our past must be realistic and it must be based on an adequate understanding of state formation that had very little or no room to discourage human rights violations. One thing is clear: The way we understand our past and how we handle it makes a significant difference to the future we want to have and shape. Furthermore, to understand our past does not imply that we should accept everything from our past uncritically or we should believe that our past is without flaws. Neither view is correct.
The State vs the Citizens
Going forward, in my view, an open and honest national conversation on this topic is absolutely important. A government can facilitate such a national conversation. [Note: I did not say “the government”—the regime in power.] However, to be realistic, a government can hardly control what people believe about others in such a way that ethnic stereotypes and false beliefs about others will somehow go away. That is an impossible task for any government. The role of the state or a government and citizens must be clear and distinguished. The government in the case of Ethiopia can and does impose some policies and institutions with an intention to benefit some people who belong to the ethnic group of the regime in power as it is the case for the current regime in power. In my view, the present Ethiopian government is the WORST example of the past governments in our history. Consequently, the regime in power itself and its predecessors are part of the inherited problems we, as a society, need to deal with. In this connection, to fight the regime in power for its unjust policies and institutions must be distinguished from addressing issues of grievances with fellow citizens. There is no readily available formal platform for citizens to address historical grievances which I am aware of. To facilitate inter-ethnic reconciliations we need to create platforms where citizens can address social ills they caused to one another in a realistic manner, when that is possible. I am just making a suggestion in general terms. It is for all of us concerned citizens to work out on a sketch and details of how we can go about seeking and achieving reconciliation and peace among fellow citizens.
Finally, in my view, the Ethiopian government is the greatest obstacle for any progress we want to make as a people. If we have a government that listens to the grievances of its citizens and responds to the cries of its citizens, Ethiopia as a country can be a place where the citizens from any ethnic group can live together in peace and with dignity. A response to all the injustices and crimes committed against the Oromos, the Amharas, and other ethnic groups in Ethiopia, in my view, need not lead to denial of Ethiopian national identity. What must be denied is the legitimacy of the brutal regime in power which never had legitimacy to govern Ethiopia in the first place. There is no compelling reason why a democratically elected government in Ethiopia cannot meet the just demands of the Oromo people, or the Amharas, and other oppressed people in Ethiopia. The fight, going forward, should be against the regime that brutalizes citizens from any ethnic group whom the government believes are threats to its grip to power.
To make a case for an all-inclusive Ethiopian national identity on the premise that Ethiopian national identity has never been all-inclusive for citizens from all ethnic groups comes down to this: The reason that some ethnic groups, more than others, have been subjected to unjust treatments, that they have been deprived of their rights politically and economically including the marginalization of their languages and cultures is due to the governments that have ruled Ethiopia over generations. Hence, a realistic response to such injustices and oppression is fighting the regime in power to bring about a much needed change for all the oppressed people in Ethiopia. Rejecting Ethiopiawinet as oppressive or exclusive and unjust to some ethnic groups need not be the name of the struggle since there is no Ethiopiawinet, or institutionalized Ethiopian national identity that commits acts of injustice and oppression against some ethnic groups or others. The real oppressor, which is the enemy of all oppressed Ethiopians, is the Ethiopian government, which is not synonymous with Ethiopiawinet or Ethiopian national identity. Ethiopiawinet need not be identified with the Ethiopian government because the two are not identical. For example, Ethiopiawinet will not go away when the regime in power goes away. Denying legitimacy to the brutal regime in power, which is what the people of Ethiopia need, must be distinguished from denying Ethiopian national identity [categorical or qualified] since there is no compelling reason to deny the latter when there are compelling reasons to deny the legitimacy of the former. It is very important to have a clear understanding of what Ethiopian national identity is, but we do not need to settle this debate in order to fight the number one enemy of the Ethiopian people about which we do have a clear understanding. Seeking an answer to the question regarding what Ethiopiawinet consists in need not distract us from fighting the enemy of the people of Ethiopia with urgency and resolve as one people.
Tedla Woldeyohannes teaches philosophy at Southwestern Illinois College and can be reached at email@example.com