Ethiopia: Curbing Ethnic Nationalism via Integration and Demography




Written by Asfaw Dargue Meshal

In a recent post on the dangers of ethnic nationalism in Ethiopia, I explained why I agree with the idea now fashionable among followers of Ethiopian politics to establish Afaan Oromo as a federal language equal to Amharic. This policy will have two ‘effects’ – an integrative effect – it will help increase inter-ethnic integration – and a ‘placating’ effect – it will have a psychologically soothing effect on ethnic nationalists and reduce their zeal, so to speak. In this article, I’ll explain that the integrative effect is the strongest and most effective and that the placating effect will be minimal. In addition, unless accompanied by other policies that advance inter-ethnic integration and policies that ensure demographics do not favour ethnic nationalism, the policy step of making Afaan Oromo a federal language, by itself, will not have much effect..

But going further, let me again review why ethnic nationalism is dangerous for Ethiopia as a whole. First, what is ethnic nationalism? We know there are different kinds of it – soft nationalism, hard nationalism, opportunistic nationalism, ideological nationalism, etc. For our purposes here, let’s define an ethnic nationalist as one who places his ethnicity ahead of his country. The type of person who says, for example, I’m Tigrean first, then Ethiopian. We all know what this means at the gut level, but let’s try and spell it out with an example.

Let’s say that in a given province the language of the ethnic group that is a large majority is not an official language. If members of this ethnicity campaign to have their language made the official language, it would benefit them but be a disadvantage (depending on how they take it) to those who belong to other ethnicities as they would have to learn this new language. For the province as a whole, though, the benefits are greater than the costs because a large majority have their wishes respected. Let’s consider a similar example, except that the ethnic group requesting that its language be the official language is a small minority in the province. Obviously having their language be the official language would benefit the small minorty, but it would place the vast majority at a disadvantage. Yet, the minority insist. They put their ethnic demands ahead of the greater good, they put their ethnicity ahead of their province. This is what I call ethnic nationalism.

The costs of such ethnic nationalism to a nation are, again, at a gut level, quite clear. The theory is obvious as well. Christopher Clapham put it succinctly in an article just after the 2005 election – to paraphrase: When in a multi-ethnic country such as Ethiopia centrifugal forces begin to exceed centripetal forces the nation begins to pull apart. This is what is being tangibly proven in Ethiopia today, so much so that even the ethnic nationalist EPRDF is worried about it. They’ve always been worried about it to some extent, identifying ‘narrow nationalists’ as a threat to the nation. But now they’re realizing that even their kind of ethnic nationalism is causing dangers that might require significant reform, such as even changing their ‘front’ from a group of ethnic based parties to a single non-ethnic entity! (They’ve seen that political oppression and ethnic identity is a dangerous mix. People are much less tolerant of a small amount of oppression that they perceive is ethnic-based than worse oppression that is not ethnic-based!)

While insisting on the dangers of ethnic nationalism to Ethiopia, I in no way deny that ethnic sentiments and identity and are part of Man’s nature, or to use a modern term, a human right. As far as I am concerned, ethnic nationalism too is a human right. As such I think it is futile and even dangerous to repress ethnic identity and ethnic nationalism. If an Oromo wants Afaan Oromo to be the federal language, or if he wants Addis Ababa to be devolved into Oromia, or even if he wants to have Oromia secede from Ethiopia, he has a right to these views and to exercise them politically. Of course, like any other right, the rub lies in the extent to which these conflict with others’ rights.

Again, though ethnic identity arises from Man’s natural desires, it is, when it crosses the line I mentioned above, a danger to the society at large. One clearly cannot have a country where in every sphere everyone favours their own ethnic group at the expense of the country as a whole. It is for this reason that we Ethiopian nationalists must do our share to reduce ethnic nationalism in Ethiopia.

That was a long review! On to a discussion of integration as a tool to reduce ethnic nationalism and increase civic nationalism… Integration is the social and political mixing of ethnic groups so as to create new groups whose loyalty is to the mixture – the nation. We all know it as an age old formula for creating new kinship, and kinship is what we are really talking about here. The reason that Ethiopia as a nation still stands today is the result of thousands of years of integration.

In today’s Ethiopia, integration promoting policies are things like promoting inter-regional migration, business, infrastructure such as transportation, etc. Assuming the ethnic-based regions stay as they are, the best way to promote migration is to have people learn languages of other regions so that they can migrate there, and so that people of the other region can also come here, so to speak. So for example if Afaan Oromo is taught in school in Amhara region and is made a priority, teachers from Oromia would have to be brought to Amhara, and they would probably settle there if properly welcomed. And of course the main goal – Amharas having learnt Afaan Oromo will find it easier to emigrate to Oromia.

At the start of the article, I mentioned making Afaan Oromo a federal language equal to Amharic. This makes sense for various reasons, including integrating the vast number of Oromo youth who for the past 25 years, thanks to ethnic nationalism, have not been taught Amharic or in fact have been taught that speaking Amharic is not a good thing. It also makes sense in the context of the Oromo being the largest or close to the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. And as I described above, this policy will have an effective integrative effect, it will increase kinship and identity at the national level, reducing ethnic nationalism, in this case Oromo nationalism.

I will note here that I’m afraid many who advocate this policy also, mistakenly, think that the placating effect will be high. That is, they think that making Afaan Oromo a federal language will be seen as a gesture of goodwill by the Oromo public and result in a major reduction in Oromo ethnic nationalism. This, I think, is a very wrong assumption. We can see throughout the world examples of cases where concessions to ethnic nationalism had no such effect. From Canada to Spain to Belgium to Scotland etc., we see the central government making concessions to ethnic nationalists, and these concessions end up reducing only the rate of acceleration of ethnic nationalism!

In the case of Ethiopia and Oromia, there’s no reason to think the same won’t happen. As soon as Afaan Oromo is made a federal language, Oromo ethnic nationalists will demand that Addis Ababa be absorbed into Oromia State. Against democracy, so to speak, since the majority of Addis Ababans would not want this. This demand is driven purely by grievance and history and is exactly the type of demand that prioritizes the desires of an ethnic group over that of the population at large. And after this demand, others will follow.

However, if the central government and the governments of the other states follow policies of integration and demographic balancing in concert, then Oromo ethnic nationalism will be curbed. Again, if we look world wide, the ‘success’ stories of reducing ethnic nationalism involve either integration or demographics. Consider Quebec… Its geographical setting is on the edge of most of Canada, sort of like Eritrea to Ethiopia. For this and other reasons, even with official bilingualism (English and French), integration with the rest of Canada remained minimal. However, demographics did the job of burying Quebec ethnic nationalism. Like all of the West, Quebec has brought in lots of immigrants (it has tried to focus on French speaking immigrants) to augment the labour force, pay taxes, etc. These immigrants are very much anti-Quebec nationalism, and their numbers have increased so much that they have tilted the balance in Quebec. If a referendum for secession were called today, a small majority of White French Quebecers would vote to secede, but their majority would be easily overcome by the immigrant vote. Where all sorts of policies failed, the reality of demographics did the job.

So too in Ethiopia civic nationalists have to ensure that the proportion of civic nationalists to ethnic nationalists in the population does not get too low. Encouraging population growth in urban centres, which tend to be civic nationalist, is one such policy. Amhara State, being a non-ethnic nationalist state, also has to ensure that its population does not decline relative to other states in the country. And so on.

In summary, ethnic nationalism is a right which citizens must be allowed to exercise politically. However, too much ethnic nationalism, such as what we’ve had for the past 25 years, destabilizes the nation and is dangerous enough to result in a failed state. Therefore ethnic nationalism must be curbed, and the force that will curb it, through thoroughly democratic means, is the Ethiopian or civic nationalist constituency. The policy instruments to curb ethnic nationalism is the promotion of policies that advance inter-ethnic integration and keep a healthy balance between the ethnic and civic nationalist constituencies.

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