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Competing Conceptions of Nationhood in Ethiopia and a Potential Basis for Common Ground

Ethiopia Competing Nationalism

Yared Wolde Mariam

Two competing conceptions regarding the history, current reality and future scenarios of Ethiopia have been observable for more than half a century.  One of them conceives Ethiopia as an ancient, united and independent nation consisting of communities which maintained harmonious relationships and mutually beneficial exchanges.  This version prioritizes shared characteristics over ethnic differences, country over ethnicity, and non-ethnic politics.  The other version sees Ethiopia as an imperialistic entity which has annexed, subordinated and exploited various peoples in its pre-modern and modern history.  It sees ethnic communities as largely mono-cultural and distinct from each other.  It also prioritizes ethnicity or nationality over country to espouse the construction of an ethnically federated state or secession of ethnic groups or nations.

While both views reflect certain truths regarding the Ethiopian experience, they each make selective use of historical and current socio-political realities to propose diverging visions for the country.  The current constitution, based on ethnic federalism, largely subscribes to the second view.  Proponents of this view support its basic tenets whereas those holding the first view would like to see the constitution discarded or significantly revised.  The differing views are an important factor behind the current instability, conflict and uncertainties regarding the future of the country.  Adherents of these two views tend to lack understanding and tolerance for each other.  However, the mutual interests and survival of the country’s communities require that they accept that both interpretations and aspirations will remain part of the contemporary political reality and strive to find common ground.

A knowledge-based, holistic, inclusive and respectful interpretation of the country’s historical and socio-political reality and vision for its future is urgently needed if it is to ensure security and prosperity for its inhabitants.  Such a perspective will recognize, on the one hand, the diversity  and distinctiveness of the country’s constituent ethnic communities and historical marginalization experienced by many of them.  On the other hand, this perspective needs to embrace their long history of interaction, intermarriage, trade and cultural exchange, common traits and shared national experience including independence from European rule.  It will also acknowledge the great sacrifices by members of all ethnic groups and the significant progress made to correct historic inequities.  The latter includes the modernization process in the Haile Selassie period; the land reform in the Derg period; and upholding of language rights, identity and de-jure federalism during the EPRDF era.  It is also important to appreciate the large, multi-ethnic, integrated and mainly harmonious country that exists today.  Such understanding challenges the rationale for the strong ethno-nationalism espoused by some within or outside government which has also fostered the widespread corruption, ethnic intolerance, conflict, ethnic cleansing and even genocide that has been witnessed in recent years.  

The diverse and shared experiences and characteristics of Ethiopia’s ethnic communities noted above should therefore inform efforts to improve current political and security conditions and possible reviews of the constitution including its ethno-nationalistic bases, the federal structure and electoral system.  For instance, current differences in opinion revolve around preferences for ethno-national or regional/geographic federalism.  The impasse can be resolved by undertaking a national process to confer and decide on a federal system that would accommodate historical experience, local languages, administrative appropriateness, inter-ethnic cohesion, minority rights and people’s preferences including referendums.  This process will incorporate and expand awareness of the heterogeneous aspects of the Ethiopian experience which can be expected to mitigate apprehensions about and lessen possible adverse effects of any particular federal structure that is considered.  

The federal and political system adopted should also simultaneously promote individual and group rights, ethnic identity and national cohesion, thereby reducing the attraction and relevance of ethnic nationalism and politics which are primarily instruments of protecting group interests and identity.  Multi-culturalism and a political system that is centered on the rule of law, good governance including control of corruption, human rights, inter-communal brotherhood, freedom and democracy will instead serve as the foundation for sustainable public security, welfare and co-existence.  

Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of 


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  1. If there is good will it’s not that difficult:
    Preserve the good and improve the bad. Both the good and what needs to be improved are known.
    The problem is that those who are in power are descendants of EPRDF, and are promoting ethnic nationalism in a reckless manner. In their view, there is no room for a national cohesion.
    We have now a generation in some ethnic regions which is produced with wrong narratives and lies under these ethnic nationalism governments.

  2. In my opinion the first thing that needs to be dwelled on is the problem that exists is an inherent or imported political problem. In the name of development King Hailesillassie brought in western education in the country where it has gradually eroded indigenous education system and every educated focused on being modern and despised indigenous knowledge. On the other hand, the nineteen sixties student’s movements tried to solve the country’s political and social problem by referring other country’s political history mainly in Marxist Leninist point of view. I believe all these confusion creeped in to the country and exacerbated the problem. These problems needs to be addressed intelligently with deliberate and understandable manner. Otherwise with ethnicity egos will take us nowhere except self distraction.


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