Opinion: Political dichotomy in Ethiopia: Unitary Nationalism, Ethno-nationalism or Ethio-nationalism? A rejoinder

Participants of the founding conference of Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZema) in Addis Abeba

Ephrem Madebo, for Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, September 02/2019 – I was half-asleep and half-awake when the voice of an incoming email on my iPhone ended the hallucinating hypnagogic state that should have ended naturally anyways. I gathered myself, reached to my phone, opened an email sent by a friend and clicked on the URL link that took me straight to an article on Addis Standard. The title of the article (Beyond Ethiopia’s shades of identity politics: Exploring class cleavages) attracted me and I went through it twice. At the end of the article, there is a note by the editors that says: Goitom Gebreluel (the author) is a PHD candidate at the University of Cambridge. This additional piece of information made me want to read the article again, and I did.

In his article, Goitom touches upon a variety of hot button issues in contemporary Ethiopian politics, but emphasizes on two very important areas that have literally choked the Ethiopian political space since the 1974 revolution: the politics of ethno-nationalism and pan-Ethiopian nationalism. In doing so he acknowledged the misery identity politics has created in Ethiopia, and further argues how both sheds of nationalism are costly and ineffective path to justice and equality. The problem with this article is that, as much as it criticizes ethno-nationalism, it also goes after not only a non-existent unitary nationalism in Ethiopia, but also equates, needlessly, citizenship based politics to “a mere polished version of the old, hegemonic pan-Ethiopianism.”

There are two arguments in this article that I’m willing clarify. Just like I do, the author seems to unequivocally acknowledge that identity politics is tested in Ethiopia for more than a quarter of a century and has proved itself toxic and detrimental for the survival of Ethiopia as a unified state. He has also come to realize that the concept of citizenship based politics lacks articulation, and as perplexing as the concept is (even to the elite), Goitom says it loud and clear that the concept of citizenship based politics has not been presented by its advocates in a way most Ethiopians understand it.

Furthermore, Goitom seems to be embracing the idea of “citizenship based politics” as a commendable alternative to identity politics. The only thing missing is an attempt to push the edge of the envelope citizenship politics a little further, which basically means that, instead of just mentioning it in its generalized form, the article could have mentioned a word or two about the concept of citizenship or social citizenship in contemporary political philosophy.

There are some assertions made in the article that are either elusive, incoherent or contradictory. Here are three statements that clearly show where this was visible.

The repeated use of ambiguous terminologies such as “pan-Ethiopainism” and “hegemonic pan-Ethiopianism” throughout the article falls short of defining these terminologies and depicts instead what the writer means by them every time he uses them. 

First, neither of the two predominant and polarized narratives are feasible while many consider the new political phrase in town, ‘citizenship politics’, as a mere polished version of the old, hegemonic pan-Ethiopianism.

Second, the alternative competing form of organization has been unitary nationalism or pan-Ethiopianist organizations.

And third, EZEMA’s idea of a politics based on citizenship is a laudable attempt at overcoming the identity politics cleavages.

Towards the end, the article somewhat recommends that the addition of class politics to the current political reality in Ethiopia is necessary to water down identity politics. But again, other than presenting it as a viable solution to our current political predicament, the article does not outline what actually class politics is. But what exactly is class politics in the current Ethiopian political context? Doesn’t class politics ideologically fall in one of the two camps defined in the article?

Initially, the article argued that neither of the two predominant and polarized narratives were feasible. I am not quite sure what exactly “neither of the two polarized narratives are feasible” mean. Of course, in the current Ethiopian political context where there are numerous stakeholders with conflicting interests, choosing and implementing either of these two extremes is not feasible (if this is what the author says by neither are feasible). This doesn’t worry me at all because we are in a nation building process where we don’t choose between black and white; we rather enlarge, enrich and decorate the common house that we build with both colors. 

There is no doubt that, regardless of the nature of political system we build, the kind of political, legal and democratic institutions of the future Ethiopia in particular, and the future of Ethiopia as a political entity in general should be a negotiated product of the Ethio-nationalist and the Ethno-nationalist camps. By this I don’t mean that members of these two camps are the only stakeholders in Ethiopia. However, ideologically, I see everybody else aligning with either of the two camps.  When the two camps negotiate in the future of Ethiopia, the objective of the negotiation is not and should not be to choose between ethnic nationalism and Ethiopian nationalism. It’s to bring together the better of the two sides and forge a united and enduring Ethiopia that treats all of its people equally. 

I appreciate the author’s courage in stating that EZema’s idea of politics based on ‘citizenship’ is a laudable attempt at overcoming the identity politics cleavages. However, it also asserts that ‘citizenship politics’ is a mere polished version of the old, hegemonic pan-Ethiopianism. This is where academics clashes head on with utility oriented politics, and this is precisely where the incoherence the article is exposed the most.

It is safe to say that the author should not be new to the history of the ancient City States of Greece, hence, he should definitely understand that the concepts of politics, democracy and citizenship are inseparably fused to each other and were added to our pool of political vocabulary at about the same time. Citizenship based politics in Ethiopia is advocated by three generation of Ethiopians who fought and defeated feudalism and military dictatorship; the three consecutive repressive regimes identified in the article as “the old, hegemonic pan-Ethiopianism”. Besides, Ethiopia never had citizenship based politics in its entire history. Hence, depicting citizenship politics as a mere polished version of the old is counterproductive to the very objective of the article, and it is as pointless as it gets. The whole notion of reducing “citizenship politics as a mere polished version of the old, hegemonic pan-Ethiopianism” doesn’t at all sound or look like a product of research.

Anatomy of citizenship based politics

To appreciate the anatomy of citizenship based politics, one has to make a distinction between the individual and a citizen, and recognize the similarities and differences between the two. An individual can be a subject or a citizen depending on the kind of political system she/he lives. For example, in a feudal or any kind of authoritarian regime, there are individuals, but these individuals are subjects whose human rights are not respected, or they are just individuals who do not have political and civil liberties. In order to have rights, individuals must be more than just human beings. In fact, as opposed to merely being human, an individual must be recognized as a member of a functioning political community where the single criteria of joining this political community is citizenship. This is where the very concept of citizenship based politics comes from, because after all, citizenship is nothing but the right to have rights.

The subject matter explained in the article was a very important and relevant subject matter to current Ethiopian political reality. But, as attractive and as important the topic is, the article focuses only on problems like most articles of Ethiopian origin; and doesn’t provide or indicate towards any possible solution to the problems.

Although I’ve been in politics for a good part of my life, I may not have the academic or scientific touch of politics that Goitom has. But, I’m much closer to the daily realities of Ethiopian politics. In the last 10 months, I’ve met politicians of left, center and right orientations and people from almost all walks of life. In all of these personal and organizational encounters, I never met people who implicitly or explicitly advocate the unitary form of state structure for Ethiopia. To put it clearly, I don’t think there is a group in Ethiopia that advocates “Unitary Nationalism” as was asserted in the article. In fact, federalism seems to be a unanimously agreed upon state structure in Ethiopia.

Of course there are differences among the different political stakeholders on the type of federalism that Ethiopia needs to embrace, not on the choice between unitary and federal state. The fault lines in current Ethiopian politics are: Ethnic based politics and citizenship based politics. The main philosophical difference between the two is the emphasis given to “group rights” and “individual rights”. Ethno-nationalists and Ethio—nationalists may differ on the question of how, but both want to see a large, united, prosperous, plural, accommodating and democratic Ethiopia.

I strongly agree with Goitom’s idea of political dichotomy in Ethiopia, but not with the substance of his argument, especially, his classification of the dichotomy. Yes, there are two polarized camps in current Ethiopian politics. But if this is the reality in Ethiopia, I’m not sure why the author uses terminologies likeUnitary Nationalism” that does not at all reflect political realities in Ethiopia. Politically loaded words like “የድሮ ስርአት ናፋቂ” “ነፍጠኞች” “ትምክተኞች” “Unitary-nationalist“ and “Assimilationist” are usually used by far-right ethnic political elites to undermine everything moderate centripetal political forces do. These are politically charged terminologies that truth seeking people should not take at face value.

Politics is very much different when it is presented by academicians and practicing politicians. Practicing or office-seeking politicians maximize politics until the assumptions underlying the median voter model is satisfied; and of course, politicians use all means at their disposal to maximize their utility function. To political scientists or academicians of social science orientation, politics is a whole lot different animal. To them, there is nothing to maximize in politics, all they do is seek the truth and go as far as the truth takes them.

I hope this piece introduces me with many more truth seeking Ethiopians and opens a constructive dialogue in which we all grow, and most importantly, our country Ethiopia grows. AS


Editor’s note: The writer can be reached at emadebo@gmail.com

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