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Tribalism Leads Nowhere!

Ethiopia _ Tribalism
Image : SM

By Addissu Admas

As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, tribalism is “a behavior, attitudes, etc… that are based on supporting and being loyal to a tribe or other social group”. To this definition, I would like to add, more to the point, that tribalism as manifested in most countries, is the belief that one’s tribe members deserve particular status, advantage, special consideration, for any perceived or real reason. The word itself may have been created by colonialist anthropologists in reference to the politics of the colonized peoples by the West. However, tribalism is a reality in the colonizer as in the colonized, though the terms may change from one shore to the other. Thus tribalism, by whatever name we call it, is a human trait found in all human societies. 

To be fair, we need to distinguish two kinds of tribalism: One that is spontaneous and instinctive and the other intentional and programmatic. The first kind is spontaneous in the sense that people tend to aggregate and interact easily and without fear with people who look, speak, behave like them and share basic common values with them. They are guided by a solidarity that the French sociologist Durkheim would call mechanical, i.e. the cohesion and mutual aid derives from a commonly shared feeling and belonging to the same group. This kind of tribalism, in and of itself, reinforces cohesion rather than promoting intentionally the exclusion of those perceived as “the others”. For centuries, in Ethiopia, this was the kind of tribalism that prevailed among the multitude of ethnic groups. This is clearly seen, for example, when members of one group migrate into another territory where they form a minority group. Their fundamental impulse is to help one another, not to work as such against the interest of the other groups. It does not follow however from this that there were no clashes between the many various ethnic groups sharing a common space. In fact, there have been and continue to be far too many to count. It is logical that pursuing the interest and advantage of one’s own group will inevitably lead to some friction or outright hostility.  However, the overall intention is not the exclusion, marginalization, or much less oppression of the others. It is more about reinforcing group cohesion and mutual support. As such, we can only mitigate the undesirable manifestations of this type of tribalism, but it would be an exercise in futility trying to eradicate it completely; after all, we are only human. 

The second type of tribalism, the one we may call from here forward “intentional tribalism”, is exclusionary, power driven and hegemonic by design. This kind of tribalism has come to dominate the political reality of Ethiopia since the fall of the Derg. Its ultimate goal is to seek the advantages of one’s own group exclusively at the expense and to the detriment of the other ethnic groups. It aims to capture as much power as possible for one tribe by inundating the state machinery with – and elevating to the top of the military, security and diplomatic bodies – members of the same tribe. The goal is to become hegemonic at any cost. Its justification for implementing explicitly tribalist program emanates from a politics of grievance, rivendication of one’s demographic importance, or worse to claim “one’s historical turn” (what today is sometimes referred to as Teregñanet).

The politics of intentional tribalism may have existed, un-articulated in programmatic terms, under the imperial regime. However, it has become a conscious, methodical and programmatic policy under the Woyane (i.e. TPLF) regime. For nearly three decades, Ethiopians were made to think, behave and act in terms of members of specific tribes. The Woyane regime’s effort was to weaken, if not out rightly obliterate the cherished feeling of Ethiopiawinet (Ethiopian-ness). It went about implementing its program in a manner not dissimilar to the one adopted by the architects of the Apartheid system in South Africa. They disingenuously proclaimed that this was “rivendication of one’s own tribal space, language and culture”. In reality, their system was only designed  to weaken the bonds of Ethiopiawinet that united Ethiopians, a concept they claim deceptively was invented by the Amhara for their own benefit. I am not sure why a concept that supposedly helped the Amhara could not have helped them!? We know, of course in retrospect, that Ethiopiawinet stood in stark contrast to their politics of divide and rule. Had they adopted ironically Ethiopiawinet, they may have even succeeded to stay in power longer. Unfortunately for them, they couldn’t help suppress their deep-seated exclusionary tribalism. 

Ethiopiawinet is as vital for the Amhara as for all the other Ethiopia’s peoples, especially for the smaller ethnic groups. The Woyane’s politics of grievance and resentment of the Amhara led it to proclaim that Ethiopiawinet was an Amhara invention that has no value. Why the Woyane failed spectacularly is that not only it offered nothing as an alternative to Ethiopiawinet, but revealed itself to be the most narrow-minded tribalist despite its undeserved reputation of being dyed in the wool Marxist party. The present regime, as confusing and confused as it is, seems to have embraced Woyane’s negative claims about Ethiopiawinet

The current situation is the logical outcome of what the Woyane regime has planted and nurtured. The ethnic group “in charge” may have changed, but the intentional programmatic tribalism has not. Indeed, it is in full bloom again! The justification to continue a tribalist agenda is as ridiculous as it is disheartening. The whole Ethiopian modern history is being seen as a succession of tribal hegemonies, rather than a striving to create a cohesive nation-state. A nation with so diverse ethnicities cannot survive with such narrow-minded tribalism. It will only lead to the disintegration of the country sooner rather than later. 

The reasons why the intentional tribalist agenda will never succeed are obvious and many. First, it is informed and guided by its deliberate “othering” of the multitude of ethnicities within Ethiopia. There is an unwritten code that the ones not belonging to the hegemonic group are undeserving of rights and privileges that members of the hegemonic group claim as their birthright. The hegemonic group is called upon to enjoy its historic victory at the expense and in disregard of the other ethnic groups. 

It is mind-numbingly idiotic to think that the others will simply submit passively and resignedly to this supposed historical inevitability. On the contrary, “the others” will only be pushed to resist whatever erodes their rights as full citizens of the nation. They may even be compelled to unite among themselves to resist, oppose and even actively mobilize to unseat the hegemonic group. This is where we stand today in Ethiopia!

Secondly, intentional tribalism is by its very nature regressive. Not only in the sense that it is primitive and retrograde, but also because it is guided by the logic of division and subdivision. In Ethiopia, for example, there is not one kind of Amhara, Oromo, Tigrean, Gurage, etc….peoples. Each of these, indeed, is subdivided into smaller groups, and these in turn into further smaller subdivisions, etc… If one applies the logic of intentional tribalism, at what point does one stop defining one’s group? Is there indeed an end to this regression? This seems to lead nowhere or achieve anything!

The desire for unity expressed in the idea of Ethiopiawinet presents undeniable benefits that we need never forget.

What Ethiopiawinet signifies above all is that Ethiopia is first and foremost home to some 80 or so ethnic groups occupying variable spaces, of differing sizes, language and culture. Thus, a “mosaic of peoples” as the great Italian Ethiopianist Conti Rossini described the country. Ethiopia, however she has come to exist, belongs to all who inhabit within a well-defined territory. No one particular ethnic group has a “special” claim upon her. No one particular ethnicity can arrogate to itself exclusive dominance upon her. Every member of this commonwealth we call Ethiopia, and that is every member of every ethnicity, is her stakeholder and a full citizen with the same rights and obligations. If we do not agree with this premise and its logical inferences then the very notion of Ethiopiawinet will ring hallow. 

Not Oromummaa, not Amhara or Tigrean supremacist ideology will restore the peace and stability that Ethiopia needs today in order for her to escape dire poverty, instability and fratricidal war. She needs to re-embrace and infuse in the young the spirit of Ethiopiawinet. It is the only “ideology” that can prevent the disintegration of what has been once a unique empire/nation. 

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

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1 COMMENT

  1. An interesting article with valuable content and well-delivered ideas! However, Amharas should be pragmatic. The reality in Ethiopia is tribalism. The solution for them is to reclaim ancestral lands, unite, and prepare for a fresh start, similar to how two partners would after a difficult divorce. Otherwise, the future generation of Amhara will be labeled as failures.

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