Why Deny Ethiopian National Identity ? (Tedla Woldeyohannes, Ph.D.)

By Tedla Woldeyohannes, Ph.D.
December 30,2016

The question whether there is a shared Ethiopian national identity or Ethiopiawinte 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. (To continue on page 2 click below)

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