By Prof. Messay Kebede
A leitmotiv of ethnic politics in Ethiopia is the use of retrospective logic as an essential argument to justify its ideological stand. By this I mean the view that Menelik’s southern march, which is responsible for the creation of modern Ethiopia, was nothing else but a violent destruction of preexisting nations. Such statements as “Ethiopian colonization” and “the invention of Ethiopia” as well as the description of Ethiopia as “prison of nations and nationalities” all signify that modern Ethiopia has emerged on the ashes of annihilated preexisting nations.
Far from me to deny the violent and annexing character of the southern expansion. But it is one thing to point out conquest and domination, quite another to speak of eradication of existing nations. The present ethnonationalist discourse is a product of the derailment of modern Ethiopia. It does not predate modern Ethiopia; rather, it is what modern Ethiopia has given birth owing to its socioeconomic failures. What is in play here is a thinking that throws back into the past what is but a product, thereby transfiguring the effect into a cause.
Unsurprisingly, objections proliferate. The Eritrean insurgency, peasant uprising in Bale, the Oromo mutiny of 1966 led by General Tadesse Birru, etc., are events that not only occurred prior to the Ethiopian revolution of 1974, but were also eminently part of the general discontent that brought down the imperial regime. Agreed, but the whole question is to know whether these uprisings, including the Eritrean one, were really triggered by nationalism or whether they were part of the general demands of the Ethiopian people for equality, justice, and economic development. The fact that the forces that destroyed the imperial regime were inspired by the then prevailing Marxist-Leninist ideology suggests that social divides and subsequent confrontations were more based on class alignments than on identity politics. The debate within the Ethiopian student movement over the question of knowing whether the primary contradiction is the contradiction between classes or nationalities is proof enough that the issue of the primacy of identity politics was by no means a settled matter.
To be sure, groups promoting ethnonationalist ideologies were present, but their presence was marginal for quite some time. Precisely, their influence started to grow as a result of the Derg’s repressive policy and its utter inability to respond to the demands of equality and economic development. Stated otherwise, what was an issue of equality progressively grew into ethnic alignments as the new regime not only dashed all the hopes raised by the Revolution, but also aggravated all the ills of the imperial regime. Last but not least, the revolutionary regime could not even defend the integrity of the country: its shameful military defeat against armed ethnonationalist forces announced the beginning of the downward trend of Ethiopian nationhood in favor of ethnonationalist movements under the hegemonic control of the TPLF. Once in control of Ethiopia, the TPLF launched an active and deep-going ethnicization of the country, which is essentially a policy of divide and rule by which alone it could sustain its hegemonic position.
This is to say that ethnonationalism in Ethiopia is a product of all the above prior developments and occurrences, and not, as the retrospective logic claims, a fact that existed prior to the formation of modern Ethiopia. The correct expression is not “the invention of Ethiopia,” but the invention of ethnonationalist movements in Ethiopia. In so saying, my purpose is not so much to demean such movements as to assert that, as any ideologically driven movement, ethnonationalism is a construct by which elites vying for the control of power mobilize people. Still less am I implying that its posteriority to modern Ethiopia turns ethnonationalism into a negligible political nuisance. On the contrary, I am stressing the undeniable fact of changed Ethiopia to the point that any viable and lasting remedy for the ills of the country must include the ethnic factor.
Understanding ethnonationalism as a byproduct of modern Ethiopia is a theoretical position that has a great beneficial outomce. It views ethnonationalism as a protest rather than as a clash between incompatible or alien cultures. Protest is manageable being but a demand for reforms, however far-reaching the reforms may be. By contrast, the view that modern Ethiopia resulted from the sequestration of already existing nations has nothing to offer but the dismemberment of Ethiopia or, as the TPLF’s solution demonstrates, the preservation of a political unity so structured as to ensure the hegemonic position of one ethnic group. Obviously, this last solution does nothing more than defer the inevitable dislocation of the country.
To sum up, the retrospective reconstruction of Ethiopian history puts us neither in the path of peace and stability nor of democracy. Stability and democracy demand concessions and compromises, neither of which is possible with the claim that today’s Ethiopians actually belong to different nations.