To Whom Does Ethiopia Belong?

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      By Bitsiet Alemu

      When discussing the current political situation in Ethiopia, one cannot escape the 1960s Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM) since it has brought changes to the political culture of the society. The ESM is considered as a crucial turning point in the modern Ethiopian history, particularly the movement has articulated the question of nationality, religious equality, and land right which was considered taboo for so long and made it a subject matter of public discourse.

      The inherited Legacy

      Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which came to power in 1991 after overthrowing the Derg regime, is believed to take the legacy of ESM to coin a solution for reconciling ethnically mobilized warring parties during the Ethiopian Civil War (1974-1991). Accordingly, EPRDF proposed ethnic federalism as a system of governance by considering it as a way to accommodate the multi-ethnic compositions of modern Ethiopia; this presented recognition and self-determination to become at the epic center of political life in Ethiopia. Through ethnic federalism, the regime attempted to address the issue of ethnic diversity. However, in the extreme end, it became one of the major reasons that made Ethiopia immerse into a situation where ethnicity became the sword of political conflict creating polarized nationality questions where the answers are deep-rooted into the political and socioeconomic structure of the state.

      Recently, polarized views regarding the best way to manage diversity are pulling the Ethiopian state from two opposite directions. On the one hand, there are people advocating for self-determination and recognition in a way that institutionalizes diversity. On the other hand, there are those who capacitate on the idea of unity as the only prescription for the current headache of the country due to the cleavages created through the politicization of ethnicity. This contemporary debate is impacted by the historical contributions of two prominent figures of the 1960s’ ESM, Wallelign Mekonen and Ibssa Gutema, who attempted to reflect on the idea of to whom  Ethiopia belongs? and Who is an Ethiopian?

      The iconic figures of ESM

      Wallelign Mekonen published an article in 1969 that brought the nationality question into the political arena by voicing deep-rooted issues of the society regarding equality and justice. He dismisses what he calls “fake Ethiopian nationalism”, which is considered as exclusionary and assimilative, where “Abyssinian Culture” was used as a melting pot against the diverse culture that existed in the country and denied a political space. He also calls for building a genuine national state through a violence-based revolution with a motive of building an egalitarian state, as Wallelign asserts, “The revolution.…… has the final aim, the liberation of the Ethiopian Mass with due consideration to the economic and cultural independence of all the nationalities.” This became the basis for ethno-nationalist forces that later on dominated the post-1991 political landscape.


      Wallelign emphasized the demand for recognition of diverse groups in Ethiopia and was also critical about the issue. He was against those movements who exclusively struggled for their own agenda. Rather, Wallelign appeals for international outlook towards supporting other regions’ struggle and bringing about a genuine Ethiopian national-state together. However, his defect was that he perceived the only possible way to build a genuine national state is through violent armed struggle and revolution. Here, Wallelign forgot about the issues that he himself raised are deep-rooted into the political history of the country and that there are lots of questions to be answered first to mobilize all the people towards the common agenda and principles.

      The other prominent figure of ESM was Ibssa Gutema who wrote a politically informed poem that challenged the status quo. The poem addresses an important question, “Who is an Ethiopian?”, thereby poetically capturing the brinks of radicalization of the national question. Ibssa accentuates the tendency towards ethnic as well as class belongingness against “Ethiopian identity”. He was concerned about the resultant impact of the politicization of class and nationality that created cleavages leading to the blurring of the big picture of unity and matter of Ethiopian nationality.

      Ibsa was anxious regarding the fate of Ethiopia if the cleavages escalate and he was wondering who an Ethiopian is? On his poem, he asks,

      “Tell me, O you who are the wise

      The conundrum of who an Ethiopian is?”

      The message he wants to address is that if we all categorize ourselves into different groupings based on identity markers, whose Ethiopia are we talking about? He criticizes people’s tendency of hiding in the shelter of class or ethnicity. Ibssa was in need of solutions to be kept in mind while mobilizing along with class and ethnic nationalism against belongingness towards the state we all are born in, Ethiopia.

      Voices on the stage

      Both Wallelign and Ibssa brought relevant discussions into the scene by critically examining the socio-economic as well as political lives of the people. Their core inquiries are not yet addressed as a result they have continued to be sources of contention among competing political forces. It is clear that, currently, we have two major arguments on the stage; one is related to recognition for diversity that remained unaddressed for centuries, thus there is a need for mobilization based on ethnic nationality for attaining recognition and self-rule. The other is related to unity in confrontation with ethnic mobilization and proposes the dismantling of ethnic federalism that institutionalized ethnic diversity and calls for unity based on “Ethiopian nationalism”. The contestation between the forgoing groups forces us to resurface the questions and concerns of Wallelign and Ibssa. But this time we shall not misfire as the EPRDF regime did while searching for answers to the just but misunderstood questions.

      Wallelign’s article is critical in addressing the issue of recognition, justice, and equality. We cannot find a solution for the current chaos if we continue to deny our diversity that Ethiopia is a multi-national state. Unless we accept that, there won’t be moving forward because historically speaking recognition was impossible for the various ethnic groups that lead to grievances and the claims for reparation to damages incurred in the past. If we don’t address questions related to the issue of recognition which has a huge impact on unity, categorization will escalate so does confrontation and conflict. Thus, we should accept diversity, past injustice against recognition and the need to find fundamental solutions for the survival of the state by supporting each other.

      Today, ethnic identity has been politicized to the point where contending nationalism has reached at the apex and manifests itself through power politics, militarization, and extremism. The proliferation of armed groups along with competing narratives of historical injustice lead to intolerance and escalation of conflict among ethno nationalist groups by creating the “we” and “they” dichotomy in which one drives the other out from the region which the members perceive, it belongs to them. Thus the question of land becomes at the center, unfortunately, we couldn’t find an answer to whom it belongs to.

      A Way Out: Conventional Unity

      The modern state formation process has shaped the current map of Ethiopia where various ethno nationalist groups are destined to live together in correspondence. In the world of politics where the fittest and strongest survives, emphasizing unity to establish one strong state is better than breaking into small nation-states, thus instead of rejecting the idea of Ethiopia and trying to reverse it back to where it was, our task shall be to make more inclusive through an inward-looking approach that involves employing indigenous knowledge, norms, and traditions of all social groups. Today where globalization brought a cosmopolitan world, it is very odd not to celebrate our diversity and not to use it as a treasure map where clues are written all over the place.

      As discussed above, to maintain conventional unity in such diversity, there should be a dominant principle that has the ability to get the consent of multi-ethnic groups in the state. The question is what kind of principles can be used to unite us together in a place where we consider as a safe haven. In every ethnic group there exist democratic principles that the members admire and call for its recognition. If we understand the quest for recognition, it is not only about recognition for a cultural trait but it’s about getting recognition for relevant traditional democratic practices, and fortunately, it goes in line with tolerance and respect for others.

      Establishing robust indigenous institutions that specialize in studying histories, relevant traditional practices, indigenous democratic principles, and myths, is very important because unless we know our people, the solution we make would be an imposed one. Thus, the institutions are useful to come up with a hegemonic democratic principle that all are ready to be abiding by in this way national policies would be shaped by the idea of establishing an egalitarian state like the one Walleligne adheres, a “genuine national-state in which all nationalities participate equally in state affairs” through indigenous institutions.

      Both radical ethno-nationalism (that rejects accepting others) and extreme romanticization of the notion of “Ethiopiawinet” (that neglects recognition for diversity), are very destructive and responsible for the current chaos, therefore we have to be critical about the proposition that we make since the issue is very sensitive and needs a deep understanding of the political history of Ethiopia. Most of the questions staged by different groups emanate from the idea of equality, justice, recognition, and most importantly the issue of land that remained unanswered and our survival as a state depends on it.

      If we want to clarify things for the future generation, there has to be an answer for the question of Ibssa, “whose Ethiopia are we talking about?”, and “To whom does Ethiopia belongs to?” Besides, we have to recall Wallelign’s insights, who notes the need for people’s struggle for living on to logical principles (i.e., recognition and justice) and the struggle is not only for a particular region but for all regions to build a genuine Ethiopian state (I prefer to call it conventional Ethiopian state), where all have consented to live together by their own will to be governed by commonly agreed democratic principles because principles transcend locality, region, and even state. We need to come up with a truly representative approach to administer and manage the diversity we have. In this way, we can manage to create a conventional entity that we all admire and claim our belongingness and proudly answer the question and say, it belongs to us since we are going to agree on the idea of “us” after we built the conventional unity.

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