By Kebour Ghenna
September 19, 2020
Today let’s reflect about history and national identity: Two subjects that can (most of the time) influence each other.
Goethe, the 18th Century German writer is reported to have said: “Not all that is presented to us as history has really happened; and what really happened did not actually happen the way it is presented to us; moreover, what really happened is only a small part of all that happened. Everything in history remains uncertain, the largest events as well as the smallest occurrence…”
In other words History is generally written wrong and is always written, and rewritten in the present, making the present the past.
Learning about history is not about making any one person or group of people feel guilty. One cannot be guilty of actions that took place before she or he was born. But one can be guilty for remaining ignorant and not learning about his or her history, and then repeating the same mistakes in the future. That’s why history is so important.
Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s history is highly disputed. We don’t seem to know what it is. We don’t want to remember exactly what happened. There is no authoritative or generally-accepted position as to precisely what our past entailed. Everyone can choose the facts they like and dismiss those that are challenging or ugly? Ethiopia’s history written by an Oromo and an Amhara is likely to be the history of two seemingly different countries.
Indeed, a century after the end of Menelik’s era the battles about the right interpretation of his reign are still being fought in Ethiopia. Politicians have claimed a dominant role in these debates, often engaged in historical reconstruction: trying to define or redefine national identity often with little sensitivity and, if I may say so, some degree of unreality or abstraction. Now, that period has come to an end. So why persist in fighting enemies long gone or in conquering territories that no longer exist? The world has changed, Ethiopia has changed, and a new narrative is necessary for Ethiopia to achieve its declared aim of equality and prosperity.
Let me now switch to national identity. In Ethiopia we seem today to be confronted by three competing political tendencies to form the ‘new’ Ethiopia: The First is the civic nation, which is based on citizenship of Ethiopia, rather than on any form of ethnic characteristics (unitary or federal system of government). The second is a community of nation states – which supports ethnic based nation states and opposes the concept of a civic nation (the existing system). The third, perhaps the most hedonistic of all (advanced by a small fringe of Oromo nationalists): the call for a state on the basis of the sovereignty of one particular ethnic group – the Oromos.
In each group, a small section of political and media propagandists are trying hard to construct the foundation of a national identity. The problem is that there isn’t much ‘usable past’ to anchor the new Ethiopia as a cohesive one nation upon which unity and identity are founded. The reality is that each of Ethiopia’s nation seeks to use Ethiopia to protect its own particular national identity and develop its own idea about statehood. The more obvious reality is the Ethiopia statehood is competing with its individual nations’ desires for statehood.
From this standpoint we ask: who are WE? What are the foundations of our identity? What do we understand by the term “Ethiopian” and to what extent do our concepts of national identity vary with age and ethnicity? Why remain silent about the issue of identity? By avoiding this vital question on the pretext that this is not the time to discuss this matter or it brings discomfort to some political actors, the present leaders are contributing to a weakening in support for Ethiopian integration and unity.
Can Ethiopians unite again around a shared national story?
We first need to recognize (my observation) that many young people in Ethiopia have shallow and superficial notions of identity and, at best, an ambiguous attitude to other nationalities. Obviously within the context of the current Ethiopia, this narrow parochialism needs addressing – the question is how?
Nation-building is undoubtedly complex and contested, it involves a shared sense of national identity, built on elements that tie people together – such as shared culture, language, and history. Today’s Ethiopia has no agreed vision or destination, has no common goals as a nation. As a society, we have not yet decided to be good at anything. We prefer the easy way to heaven on earth. We prefer handouts rather than work hard. We dispute economic struggles and efforts to maintain the maintainable. What drives politics in Ethiopia is not the massively corrupt, unequal economic system that benefits the few more than the rest of the nation, regardless of ethnicity, but ethnicity. Yes, ethnic politics is tearing this country apart. That is what EPRDF has achieved, and that’s what is still tolerated today. I believe this is the greatest moral challenge of our time – but how do we construct a nation identity?
Where to even begin? Well, here’s one way.Let’s move away from basing our identity on borders, and instead turn the relationship the other way around. An identity based on a shared homeland, or territory, along with shared law. National loyalty makes possible the kind of self-sacrifice that is necessary for living in peace with stranger, for contributing to common treasuries whereby we provide for one other regardless of our ethnic background and religion. The border is just what you draw around this home. Let’s make sure that all citizens live in a country where no one has to constantly consider his or her ethnic identity. Let’s create shared prosperity in the face of a rapidly changing global economic landscape and increasing inequalities, in other words let’s not leave anyone behind. Of course these elements are not enough for building a national identity… You can add some more.
Editor’s note : This article appeared first on the personal facebook page of Kebour Ghenna.
Join the conversation. Like borkena on Facebook and get Ethiopian News updates regularly. As well, you may get Ethiopia News by following us on twitter @zborkena