Ethiopia: Broken Window

By Kebour Ghenna

Governing the state of Ethiopia used to be uncomplicated. Citizens were, and still are, generally docile, or rather kept docile.

But in the past months things have become more tumultuous. In many parts of Oromya local leaders and activists are threading identity politics to contest the lacuna of political representation. Their inability to pressure the government to make decision in their favor is posing a direct threat to the integrity of the Ethiopian state. Remember TPLF forty years back!

Yes, such events can be circular if not addressed properly.
The problem with identity (or ethnic) politics is that it is one-sided and undialectical. It treats identities as static entities; such politics, even when “successful,” necessarily ends at the limits of identity itself. And once set, it remains a trap from which no one escapes.

Obviously the issue of identity is a rather complex one. It has, and continues to occupy the global minds of academics and policy makers alike. Let me say at the outset I know no more about identity politics than I do about my neighbor’s Bajaj. But these days I have spent some time thinking about it. I know how important identity is for many of us. I know it’s also part of the problem and not part of the solution.

Our current model of identity, for example, comprises a list of overlapping identities. You are from Addis Ababa, or Oromya, or Welayta, or Dire Dawa…but you also are from Ethiopia, Africa, Planet Earth. The question we all leave unanswered is which of the identities, if any, has priority. By which identity do we want to be identified by others? Which identity might we be entitled to betray in order to save the others. Here we certainly don’t have any answer.

I don’t know about you, I like to identify myself as an Ethiopian who speaks Amharic. I know a friend who likes to say ‘I am Afar by nation, but Ethiopian by citizenship’, and another who insists ‘I am an Oromo. Period.’

Question: is there a unifying Ethiopian Culture?

I doubt it. But the variety of nationalities that express their culture in Ethiopia allow for the toleration and acceptance of what makes us different, and because of those differences, our society is enhanced.

In the old days, the story goes, people would ask a stranger: ‘Where do you come from’…and he or she will answer from Sekota, or Urso, or Shahemene. Today people are more often asked who they are – an overloaded question… and it looks that they are increasingly becoming closed, insular, and conservative, uninterested in building unity in our diverse societies. We probably are far from living through an identity (or ethnic) crisis, but the confusion is there, and it makes people insecure and unsure of their future.

It is fair to say, and many observers come to the same conclusion, the current union of Ethiopia’s nations and nationalities is moving along in gradual steps. It is not tidy or symmetrical in its progress. It’s best expressed in the idea of an imposed compact between nine nations (plus many other groupings,) and should therefore be no surprise if confusion exists over identity. The least we can do then is to strive to ensure for all respect for human rights, equity and responsibility.

Today’s grand experiment of Ethiopia’s polity encourages nation and nationalities to maintain the multiple identities which are natural to most of us, with autonomy for self direction and development (at least on paper). The early signs of this experiment have not been atrocious, as many had predicted. To a large extent the system has delivered peace, unity, and development. Yet in spite of what seems like encouraging results, today the common folk in Oromya is frustrated – unemployment, underemployment, peewee wages, unfair distribution of wealth… So they run to the streets to break and build a ‘fire wall’ around resource rich Oromya.

Will they succeed? On breaking things: YES; on building a ‘fire wall’: we don’t know. What we know, however, is that many in Oromya feel alienated. They feel left out in the cold by such policies favoring those smart people close to the “bank cartels” or with “political connections”. They feel angered by practices that enrich a small layer of ‘outsiders’ who are good at using government to get wealth and power for themselves. Their complaints is about not being full partners in the government, and not fully sharing in the spoils of power. Now that they have understood how the system works, they don’t want to be taken for fools any more.

So what is the government doing about it? So far it’s using force to quell the disturbances. We doubt this will prevent the next eruption.