By Hizkias Assefa
Most of the wars waged in the Horn of Africa during the past 30 years have been described in terms of ethnic conflict, both by the adversaries themselves and by external analysts. The first and second Sudan civil wars have been characterized as conflicts between the Arabized northerners and African southerners, with cleavages along religious, racial, cultural, and linguistic lines. The various civil wars in Ethiopia have been characterized as wars between the Amharas and the Tigreans, Oromos, Eritreans, and so on. The Somali conflicts have been described as conflicts between the Maraheens and the Isaaqs, or between the Darods and the Ogadenis, and so on; and the conflict in Djibouti as between the Afars and the Issas.
Although each of these wars has been termed “ethnic conflict”, one encounters tremendous difficulty when trying to analyse what is meant by this term and what these conflicts have been about. In this chapter some of the problems associated with the concept of ethnicity and ethnic conflict as they apply to the Horn of Africa will be examined. A discussion will follow of various mechanisms that have been utilized or advocated in the region to remedy the problem of ethnic conflict. The chapter will conclude with remarks on some possible responses that might open ways for the transformation and hopefully the alleviation of the problem.
What are some of the difficulties with using the concept of ethnicity as a framework for understanding and addressing the conflicts in the Horn of Africa? First, it is not clear what is meant by the terms “ethnic group,” “ethnicity,” and “ethnic conflict.” In the context of the Horn, many concepts, such as nationality, tribe, and now clan, have been used interchangeably with that of ethnic group, and it is very difficult to distinguish between them. A commonly used definition is that an ethnic group is a collectivity of people who share the same primordial characteristics such as common ancestry, language, and culture. (People have included religion in the category of shared culture.) Ethnicity then refers to the behaviour and feeling (about oneself and others) that supposedly emanates from membership of an ethnic group. Ethnic conflict has come to mean cleavages between groups based on differentiation’s in ethnic identities.
A major question that arises from the above definition of “ethnic group” is whether people must share commonalties in all the criteria mentioned to be members of the same ethnic group or to share the same ethnicity. There are instances in the Horn in which just belonging to the same religion seems to suffice to classify people as members of an ethnic group, although they might differ in other criteria. For example, in central and southern Ethiopia, if an Oromo is Orthodox Christian that individual may be classified as an Amhara regardless of his or her ethnic ancestry or lineage.1 In other instances, as in the Oromo regions, language has been used as the criterion for determining membership, despite other differences. But there are also cases where commonality in language and religion has not signified membership of the same ethnic group. Especially where groups have interacted for a long time, there are situations where people might have overlaps in one of these ethnic criteria (religion, language, culture, or ancestry) but lack commonalties in the rest. How are people to be ethnically classified under those circumstances?
Some have argued that membership of an ethnic group is not determined by objective factors such as sharing common primordial characteristics. They point to subjective factors such as perception, belonging, self-identification, and the like (Hymes, 1968:1220; Nadel, 1947: 13). They argue that a person, regardless of primordial commonalities, can become a member of an ethnic group if he or she feels and acts as a member and is accepted as such by the group. But this raises some problems. If the basis for the perceived commonality or belonging is not the primordial common factor, then what is it? Could the basis be commonalities in interests, aspirations, psychological orientations? If so, why should this kind of identity and bond be characterized as “ethnic”? Moreover, what happens in cases where some feel and act as if they are members but their membership is not accepted by the reference group?
In short, the definition of ethnic groups and the distinction between people based on ethnic criteria is difficult, inconsistent, and confusing. One could come up with different results depending on whether one uses objective or subjective criteria. This has led to great controversy concerning the identification and measurement of the phenomenon.2 But the preoccupation with definition is not simply an academic exercise. It has very important practical implications. It should go without saying that we cannot develop effective mechanisms to deal with a problem if we do not fully understand it. Frustration with the inability fully to grasp and define the concept of ethnicity has led to a tendency which says: “Let us not waste a great deal of time trying to define the concept; instead let us recognize it as a major problem and put our energies into developing mechanisms to deal with it.”
Some would take the approach used by a US Supreme Court justice to define pornography: you may not be able to define it, but you know it when you see it. The trouble with that attitude is that if we are not agreed on what the phenomenon is we might be wasting our energy by focusing on the wrong problems or by prescribing a remedy for a problem that has not been diagnosed correctly. As we will see in greater detail later, doing so could even run the risk of making the situation worse instead of remedying it.
Another difficulty with the concept of ethnicity and ethnic conflict is the common assumption that ethnic similarities and differences are the basis for social harmony or discord. Thus, it is expected that those who share a common ancestry, language, culture, and religion should have a relationship of solidarity and harmony with each other but one of cleavage and conflict with those who do not share their ethnic identity. This concept is also full of problems. There are societies in the Horn where ethnic similarity has not assured social harmony nor avoided the outbreak of large-scale conflict. Especially where there is no perception of external threat, there is a great deal of evidence that ethnic groups have divided into lower-level identities and fought each other with as much zeal as they might fight other ethnic groups. Alternatively, there are also societies in the region where ethnic diversity has not been a prescription for violent conflicts.
These problems can be illustrated by examples from various contexts in the Horn of Africa. As indicated earlier, in Ethiopia ethnicity has been identified by many as a major cause of conflict. That country’s major civil wars were between the central government, which was seen to have been dominated by the Amhara people, and various insurgency groups bearing the names of ethnic groups such as the Oromo, Tigre, Afar, Ogaden, and Beni-Amer Liberation Fronts. The liberation fronts claimed they were fighting to break free of the political, economic, social, cultural, and religious domination of the Amhara people over their particular ethnic groups.
Problems of definition
Once one goes beyond the labels and begins to decipher the claims and counter-claims in the Ethiopian conflicts, all the problems associated with the concept of ethnicity discussed earlier begin to surface. To begin with, the definition of the “oppressors” and the “oppressed” in ethnic terms becomes an insurmountable task. Who are the dominating Amhara people? How is membership in this group defined? What is the Amhara culture? Is “Amhara domination” a code word that disguises other grievances or does it signify supremacy of one population over another, as the term implies?
It is true that most of the symbols of the Ethiopian state (official religion, official language, etc.) have taken the identity of what has been labelled “Amhara culture,” and the persons who have occupied power and privilege have, by and large, borne Amhara names. But this situation does not mean that the great majority of the Amhara people have been “dominators” or beneficiaries of the political, economic, or social system that bore their name.
First of all, not all people that speak Amharic as their mother tongue and are Orthodox Christians consider themselves as one ethnic group. The Gondare Amharas are distinct from the Shoan Amharas, as the Gojam Amharas are from the Wollo Amharas. There had been a history of rivalry and warfare between these subgroups. In the past several centuries, the subgroups had formed various alliances with other ethnic groups such as the Oromos, the Gurages, and the Tigres to fight other Amharas. The same phenomenon of internal division and warfare has also prevailed among other groups such as the Oromos, the Afares, and the Somalis.
Second, in the last century, the major beneficiaries of the “Amhara dominated” state were primarily the Shoans, who held most of the government leadership positions, controlled much economic power, governed most of the provinces, owned large estates in the southern provinces, and managed to make Shoa’s capital, Addis Ababa, the centre of economic activity for the entire Ethiopian state. The other Amharas (Wolloyes, Gojames, and Gondares) were excluded from this system as much as those who belonged to other ethnic groups.
Third, even with “Shoan domination,” the beneficiaries of such privilege were the aristocracy and the educated elite, who constituted a very tiny percentage of the Amhara population. The vast majority of the Shoan Amharas have been as poor, powerless, and exploited as any other Amhara or non-Amhara groups such as the Oromos, Gurages, or Sidamas. In fact, the poverty of the Shoan Amhara peasant was in some cases worse than that of the “subjugated peoples” of southern Ethiopia such as the Kaffa and Adere people, who were “outsiders” to the state system.
Fourth, even the ethnic identity of the Shoan rulers has been subject to controversy. As far back as the 1760s, Oromos have assumed very significant leadership roles in the Abyssinian kingdoms or empires based in Shoa and the other Amhara regions of Begemder, Gojam, and Wollo. According to Clapham (1988/9: 217), the Shoan leaders have been as much Oromo and Gurage as Amhara. He points out that most of the Shoan emperors, and many of the generals and governors who served these rulers in the expansion of Shoan control to the south of the country, had Oromo or Gurage lineage. Emperor Haile Sellassie, the latest and one of the strongest symbols of “Amhara domination,” was “in terms of his parentage more Oromo than Amhara, and also had a Gurage grandmother. He married an Oromo.”4
Fifth, there is a big question as to whether the so-called Amhara culture was merely the culture of one ethnic group which was imposed on other ethnic groups. It has been pointed out that the Amhara culture interacted with the cultures of other peoples in Ethiopia not by assimilation but rather by acculturation.5 Although its name stayed “Amhara,” the culture allowed others to influence and change it. Asmeron Legesse (1973: 9) argues that “the process of cultural exchange cannot be reduced to a simplistic picture in which Gallinna [Oromo] speakers [for example] become Amhara… It is a rather complex situation in which many cultural vectors are interacting to produce a resultant [sic] that is fundamentally new.” This aspect of the so-called Amhara culture has enabled Clapham (1988: 23-4) to call it a core element of a multi-ethnic culture which, despite its name, is not the exclusive property of any particular group of people.
In sum, Greenfield (1965: 58) scans the history of the Ethiopian peoples’ interaction over the centuries and observes: “This latter word [Amhara] no longer has close definition and it is clear that the word ‘tribalism’ is not suited to Ethiopian studies.”
Thus, we find the ethnic explanation of the conflict that has gripped Ethiopia for the past 30 years, such as the theory of “Amhara domination,” very inadequate and misleading. This is partly because it is very difficult to define the actors in ethnic terms (for instance, who are the Amharas?). Secondly, even if it were possible to define the actors in ethnic terms (if one were to define easily who the Amharas were), the reality on the ground does not support a conclusion that what was witnessed in Ethiopia was ethnic conflict.
In fact, a good case can be made that ethnic conflict, in the sense of one ethnic group waging a war against another, or pogroms motivated by ethnic hatred, such as we have seen in some societies, has been a very rare event in the history of Ethiopia. The norm in the country, if not in the region, with the exception of recent developments in Somalia, has been ethnic coexistence rather than ethnic warfare.
Ethnicity and social harmony
Now let us look at the other problem with the ethnicity framework the assumption that ethnic similarity or difference is the basis for social harmony or cleavage respectively. When we examine this assumption in the context of the Horn, we find that it is also full of difficulties.
Not long ago Somalia was the envy of many African states because it was one of the very few nation states that existed in the continent. It was a territory inhabited by people who shared the same ancestral origin, language, religion, and culture – all the elements of common ethnicity. But that ethnic or nationality bond was not strong enough to prevent disintegration. Currently an extremely bloody civil war is being waged between clans and sub-clans. In the capital, Mogadishu, alone, over 30,000 Somalis have been killed in the past two years from inter-clan clashes. Hundreds of thousands have been made refugees. Interestingly, some analysts have begun to describe the clan conflict as ethnic or tribal conflict. If the term “ethnic conflict” is being used synonymously with “clan conflict,” could it also be used to mean conflict between sub-clans or between family groups? If so, how useful is a term that could mean so many different things in different contexts?
When we look at the Eritrean/Ethiopian conflict, however, we observe the opposite configuration. Some of the major justifications given for the independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia have been that the Eritrean people are different from Ethiopians; that Ethiopia itself is not a legitimate nation state since it is a conglomeration of very diverse peoples; and that, as a separate people, Eritreans have a right to exercise their right of self-determination. But when one examines Eritrea itself, one sees that it is also an entity composed of nine major ethnic groups, having nine different languages and cultures. The population is divided into two major religions (Christianity and Islam) and two ecosystems (highland and lowland) which more or less correspond with the religious divisions. If we pursue the logic for Eritrean separation, could we say that the lowland Beni-Amer and Beja Muslims in Eritrea, who are different peoples from the Christian highland Tigreans, and who constitute a large percentage of the Eritrean population, have a right to self-determination and to a separate state? Where does the disintegration stop? Does it continue until we get to an area occupied by one pure ethnic group? Is that possible? Is it desirable? As indicated earlier, there are always cultural, linguistic, ancestral, and religious continuities between ethnic groups that have interacted with each other for long periods. How will it be possible to separate groups from each other without wrenching apart families and communities, and without provoking hostilities between the groups?
Alternatively, if such diverse ethnic groups could come together in Eritrea and form a nation, why shouldn’t the same logic apply to the rest of Ethiopia? Do Eritreans believe that all these diverse people will make one nation, or is this just wishful thinking? Is it ethnic similarity in Eritrea that created a sense of common antipathy towards the Ethiopian state, or is it the oppression Eritreans commonly experienced from the economic and political system imposed on them by the �lites who controlled the Ethiopian state (which, by the way, also included Eritreans)? If so, is the remedy to the problem the removal of the oppressive system or is it separation and the creation of a new state?
Our analysis so far reveals some major problems with the concept of ethnicity as a framework for analysing the conflicts in the Horn of Africa. Is this framework helpful? Does focusing on the ethnic differences or similarities of people in the region give us a good understanding of the conflicts or of what needs to be done to contain them? Could there be other explanations that would capture these situations better?
Clapham (1990: 10) argues: “Viewed across the region as a whole, economic marginalisation provides a much clearer guide than either ethnicity or even political exclusion to the incidence of warfare in the Horn.” On a more cautionary note, Bhardwaj argues:
The importance of the ethnic factor [in the Horn of Africa] is recognised by all. But it is our contention that, along with the role of the ethnic actors, the socio-economic basis of the ethnic hostility must also be given due weight. A clash of interest of the exploiters belonging to different ethnic groups and the masses in general precipitates the ethnic hostility. The struggle of the nomads of Ogaden and Tigre of lower Eritrea against the Amharas of the Ethiopian plateau – all bring ethnic differences to the fore and distort a basically socioeconomic conflict into an ethnic one. (Bhardwaj, 1979: 169)
It can be argued that, to a large extent, what has been called ethnic conflict is elite-driven conflict. When one talks of ethnic conflict between the Amhara and the Tigre in Ethiopia, or the Arabs and the Africans in the Sudan, for example, it is more accurate to talk about conflict between elite groups who come from different ethnic backgrounds than about people-to-people violence among the masses arising from ethnic animosity, as the term “ethnic conflict” implies. However, such an elite-driven conflict has a powerful capability of turning into widespread conflict among the masses.
It is true that the region’s ethnic groups have their own prejudices and stereotypes about each other. But these attitudes have not normally turned into conflict at the people-to-people level unless manipulated and organized by political leaders. �lites find ethnic prejudices and stereotypes fertile ground in which they can easily cultivate support for their political and economic aspirations. Expressing their objectives in ethnic or nationality terms (such as “advancing the interest of our own people” or “protecting ourselves from another ethnic group”) ennobles the pursuits and gives them more legitimacy.
As we have seen in many instances in the continent, the major beneficiaries of such aspirations might be the �lites, but the whole ethnic group becomes associated with these aims since they are pursued in the name of the entire group.
Once this cycle starts and conflict begins to be waged in the group’s name, fear and further animosity pervade the whole group, since all members become perceived as the enemy by those against whom the conflict is being waged. Pre-existing ethnic prejudices further fuel the conflict because they simplify the complex motivations of the actors, making it easy to create an immediate “us” and “them” perception as well as to demonize the adversary. Thus, a conflict started by the �lites ends up, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, engulfing the entire ethnic group. Interestingly, despite such efforts by �lites, at least in the Horn of Africa, the incidence of people-to-people violence and pogroms has been quite rare.
Despite the confusion generated by the concept of ethnic conflict, many analysts have latched on to this simplistic concept, implying people-to-people antagonisms based on ethnic differences to describe the conflicts in the region. As Clapham and Bharwaj have indicated, analysis of “inequitable economic and class stratification” or “monopolization of access to state and economic power by an ethnic based elite” (in the case of Ethiopia, a multiethnic elite under the name of Amhara oligarchy) might provide an equally sound if not better explanation of the conflicts in the region.
The role of ideology
In the case of Ethiopia, particularly in the past 20 years, ideology has also played a role in sustaining and exacerbating the notion that ethnic animosity and supremacy of one people over the other is at the root of the conflicts in the country. The radical student movement of the 1960s and the early ’70s, which was the forerunner of the 1974 Ethiopian revolution, was strongly Marxist-Leninist in orientation. During the rise of this movement, Lenin’s discourse on “the nationalities question” and his prescription of “self-determination up to secession” (along with other Marxist ideas of “dictatorship of the proletariat,” “collectivization of agriculture,” etc.) were lifted wholesale from the history of the Soviet Union and grafted onto Ethiopian realities, thereby forming a major tenet in the political discussions at that time. There was not much debate about these concepts’ relevance to the Ethiopian situation or about the operational problems involved in implementing them. Although the term “nationalities issue” grated on many people’s ears, they acquiesced to it, since it was the paradigm of the day.
After the 1974 revolution, the soldiers who took power from the monarchy did not have much knowledge or experience of how to restructure the society following the destruction of the old social order. The radical Marxist student leaders were brought into the government, where they became the revolution’s advisers and ideological leaders. Those student leaders then had the opportunity to make the “nationalities question” a national agenda. According to Markakis:
As militant Marxists, the radicals [student leaders] were obliged to confront the national issue and, after some agonising, they opted for the Leninist principle of national self-determination and declared their support for the Eritrean rebels… From then on, the national issue was forced on the agenda of every political movement in the country… Since it [the government of Mengistu Haile Mariam] espoused Marxism as its ideology, the new regime could not formally reject the principle of national self-determination. (Markakis, 1989: 4-6)
Even after Mengistu’s overthrow in 1991, the new government leaders were those who had been socialized in the radical Marxist Leninist ideology of the 1960s and who still held entrenched views on the nationalities issue. As soon as they took power they declared that the most important issue facing the country was the “nationalities question,” and proceeded to decree that all ethnic groups, nationalities, and peoples in the country could define their own territory, form their own governments, and exercise self-determination, including declaring independence.6 Towards this objective, the map of the country was redrawn, eliminating the old multi-ethnic administrative provinces of the country and replacing them with ethnic zones. As demarcating boundaries based on ethnicity is never an easy task in Ethiopia, the new map has reportedly been redrawn at least twice already.
The fallout from this policy has already started. People have been forced out of land they have inhabited for generations and told to return to their ethnic homelands. Of course, there is no home awaiting them in their places of origin, for they migrated generations ago. In some areas violent conflict has broken out between members of different ethnic groups in attempts to draw their own ethnic boundaries or claim territories that were considered common in the past.
Ethnic claims over resources that were considered common, such as minerals, land, ports, etc., are likely to become very explosive issues.
In the 30 years prior to the demise of Mengistu’s regime, the civil wars in the country were waged between the central government and insurgencies bearing ethnic names. But in the current situation people are being pitted against each other. Neighbours who have coexisted peacefully for decades, if not centuries, are being encouraged by official government policy to emphasize their ethnic differences so that ethnically homogeneous political structures can be created. Age-old relationships between peoples, intermarriages, cultural interactions and continuities, are in peril of being disrupted or wrenched apart. As the reality in the country has been a long history of coexistence and cooperation between ethnic groups at the grass roots, people are speaking out against the ethnic segregation that is being imposed on them from the top. However, unless the implications of this new ethnic policy are examined carefully and the policy itself revised, the government might end up creating more ethnic conflict than it deters.
Close observation of the Ethiopian situation makes one wonder whether the preoccupation with “the nationalities question” and its prescribed remedy of “national self-determination” are products of an ideological framework rather than an outgrowth of the country’s realities. Instead of the reality on the ground determining the model of theoretical framework to be used in diagnosing, understanding, and dealing with it, an ideologically dictated theoretical framework seems to have been imposed on the reality, which is then forced to conform with the framework. As the saying goes, if the only tool you have is a hammer, then you think everything else is a nail.
Similarly, since the most dominant analytical framework in Ethiopian politics since the late 1960s was the ethnic framework, it seems that every problem in the country was viewed as emanating from this basic question. Class analysis, elite exploitation, or even regionalism would have gone a long way to explain the country’s situation, rather than an exclusive focus on ethnicity and the nationalities issue. If those other frameworks had been used, the emergent remedies would have differed from the current proposed solutions, which could drag the country into another cycle of bitter civil war.
This is not to argue that political leaders invented the nationalities problem in Ethiopia. There is no question, however, that they distorted it, inflated it out of proportion, and exploited it.7 Ethnicity all of a sudden became the predominant explanation of many of the things that went wrong in the society. �lites sold the idea to the people and now the people are carrying the banner. A myth is developing that the creation of new states will solve the problems people have experienced with the current state systems in the region.
Now, if we focus on the solutions that have been traditionally applied to the problem of ethnicity and the conflicts it generates, we notice that the remedies seem to present as many difficulties as the problem itself. The traditional responses have been either “nation-building,” which has meant forging one nation out of diverse peoples, or, in rare cases, “self-determination,” which in many people’s minds has been associated with separation and the formation of another state.
Attempts at building new nation states out of a multitude of ethnic groups has generally taken two forms. One has been the creation of a multi-ethnic culture, which all groups identify with and voluntarily adopt as their own. The other is the assimilation of different cultures into a dominant one, usually by the direction of a highly centralized and coercive state. The first approach is complicated and normally takes a long time to develop. The second approach, seemingly expedient, has been adopted by many post-colonial African states in their eagerness to generate quick results. But this approach has often been associated with manipulation and at times outright repression by those in power. The 30 years of experience with this approach since independence has shown that not many new nation states have been forged in Africa. In fact, it might be said that the efforts made in this direction seem to have backfired. More recently, animosity and violence along ethnic lines has been on the increase in many African societies, especially as the highly centralized nature of these states is being challenged with the movement towards multi-party politics.
As another response to ethnic conflict, people have proposed “self determination” as an alternative to “nation-building.” But the concept of “self-determination” is so riddled with confusion that it does not provide a viable alternative. The term itself is composed of two concepts, “self” and “determination,” whose definition and operation raise a multitude of problems. What constitutes the “self”? Is it a group that is connected by primordial ties like an ethnic group? Could any other group form the “self”? Can the “self” be engineered? And what is the meaning, implication, and scope of the term “determination”?
If the “self” were to refer to a group having primordial ties, we are again faced with all the problems discussed earlier regarding group definition, especially in cases of a long history of intergroup interaction. The distinction between objective and subjective criteria again becomes an issue. Mayall argues that it is not clear whether some of these aggregate identities like nations exist “as an objective reality, as claimed by nationalists, or should be understood as an imagined community or creative fictions as others have claimed” (Mayall, 1990: 2; see also Gellner, 1983).
If one uses the objective criterion of primordial ties for defining nations, then there are many who feel that their primordial roots do not solely dictate their interests, needs, aspirations, and ability to forge common purpose as well as affiliations with those who do not come from the same roots. If one uses the subjective criterion – and there is a lot of merit to that – a major problem becomes how to identify those who feel they belong to an ethnic group so that they are clustered in one territory? What if those who feel they belong are not accepted by others as belonging?
To the extent that self-determination has meant separation and creation of a state, how might it be possible to build a state around an ethnic group without provoking chauvinism, ethnic animosity, and the wrenching apart of communities, given the cultural, linguistic, ancestral, and religious continuities between ethnic groups that have interacted with each other for long periods? The search for the pure ethnic group as a foundation for building a state has led to fascism, Nazism, pogroms, massive dislocations, and genocide’s in many parts of the world, including the African continent itself.
If, on the other hand, the “self” refers to an “imagined community” or “creative fiction,” as Mayall argues, could one then stretch one’s imagination to include others in the community so that “the self” becomes a larger and more inclusive unit?
Aside from the definition of the “self,” there is still a problem with the content of “self-determination.” What is to be determined? What is the scope of the “determination”? Some have defined self-determination as the aspiration “to have control over one’s affairs in order to ensure one’s economic and social well-being” (An-Na’im, 1989: 21; see also Assefa, forthcoming (a)). But the ability to determine one’s own affairs or economic and social well-being is increasingly being complicated by the realities of an interdependent world. One is constrained not only by one’s own capabilities but the interests and capabilities of others. Except in a world of autarky or complete isolation, any actor must recognize how his or her needs and actions are compatible with those of others in the system. The more interdependent the world becomes, as the trend seems to indicate, the more one’s orientation might need to be towards coalition-building, coordination, negotiation, and consensus rather than unilateral determination of one’s own affairs. If so, how much autonomous control can one sensibly exercise in this modern and rapidly shrinking world? How meaningful is it to absolutize “self-determination” in such circumstances?
The major limitation in all of these approaches to defining the “self” for the purposes of “self-determination” is the failure to recognize that primordial elements constitute only one consideration in that definition. It cannot be denied that there are other considerations based on human choice rather than mere coincidence of birth. Common perceptions, needs, aspirations, and interests can also enable people to include others who share these sentiments in their definition of “themselves” even if they do not share primordial links with them. Therefore, to define the “self” exclusively in terms of primordial givens by creating ethnic states seems to ignore, artificially and detrimentally, the various dimensions that enter into people’s definition of themselves. The challenge becomes how to recognize and legitimize the unavoidable and undeniable fact of primordial roots, but to temper its detrimental and exclusionary tendencies by encouraging broader definitions that can accommodate others. In other words, how might it be possible to encourage and emphasize the consociational aspect of “self”-definition as much as the primordial aspects?
An alternative approach
The two conflicting demands of “nation-building” and “self-determination” have embroiled the Horn, as well as much of the African continent, in decades of bloodshed and destruction. However, we have seen that both approaches suffer from severe limitations which prevent them from providing avenues for the effective creation of harmonious societies.
Given these limitations, a more promising direction, especially in the case of Ethiopia, might be to re-examine the notion that ethnic animosity and the domination of one ethnic group by another are the causes of the conflicts in the country and that the solutions to these conflicts lies in secession or the creation of independent states.
Instead, addressing the economic and political inequities in the system (which no doubt had been disguised and confused by ethnic labels), enlarging the economic base so that there are resources to share among various ethnic groups, opening up the political system so that everyone, regardless of his or her ethnic background, can have access to it, as well as creating a system of governance that is democratic and respects the political and human rights of all citizens, could go a very long way towards remedying the so-called “ethnic” conflicts in Ethiopia.
In conjunction with this, one should work at developing systems that could prevent ethnicity from becoming a cause for further cleavages and civil war in the various societies of the Horn. First, it must be established that the question of identity is not and should not be a zero-sum issue in human relationships. All people have multiple identities which are expressed differently in different circumstances. The freedom of an individual or a group to choose its own separate identity should not, therefore, be a threat to others as long as that individual or group also recognizes that there is common identity at another level with those from whom it is distinguishing itself. Thus, as much as people endeavor to articulate and enhance what is unique about themselves, an equal amount of energy should be invested in articulating and enhancing what binds them with other people.
A mechanism must be found to legitimize ethnic identity in the Horn of Africa without making it incompatible with the formation of a larger unit of identity based on mutuality and beneficial collaboration. A promising endeavor in this context might be to adopt a very loose federal system of governance supplemented by building infrastructures for regional integration. The loose federal system of governance would allow for the expression of ethnic identity. But the tendency towards fragmentation that might arise from legitimizing ethnicity would be balanced and tempered by providing incentives towards higher levels of integration and identification with the entire region. As the various ethnic groups become reassured of their identity and security, they would also be provided with incentives for a larger regional identity by highlighting the benefits that could emerge from higher levels of association and integration.
The fear and resentment which groups have of the current state systems in the region, as well as their tendency to view separation as a solution, can be tempered if the state is viewed as an intermediate institution rather than the institution of final resort to work out problems, as it has been to date. The creation of a supra-state regional structure, in which the various groups in the region have a say but which is capable of dealing with problems that cannot be dealt with at the state level, could have a salutary effect on the conflicts between the state and the various groupings within it.
This approach could enable the societies in the Horn to work at both ends of the identity problem. While people would be reassured about being what they are or cannot avoid being, they would also be encouraged to explore greater vistas of meaningful identity with greater entities, beyond the state. The disintegration and exclusive orientation of ethnicity would become more balanced by the synthesis and inclusiveness that comes from a sense of regional identity. Creating a regional framework with a move towards regional integration could permit the relaxation of strict boundary demarcations, allowing freedom of movement and interaction between peoples. It could reduce the pressure for the creation of new independent states by disaffected groups, since there would be a new regional forum to redress their grievances or address their interests and rights without their being forced to resort to secession.
The concept of a regional identity arising from a vision of regional integration could create a less threatening, consociational process where all the actors in the region could be engaged in building a more equitable and peaceful social contract that could lead to mutually enriching relation ships.8 Regional identity would not be an end in itself, but a step in a transition to more inclusive identities. It would challenge groups to recognize aspects of themselves that could they could share beyond the ethnic group and the satate.9
The confusion revolving around the subject of ethnic conflict suggests that the problem has not been well grasped, at least as it has manifested itself in the Horn of Africa. The tendency has been, however, to take the phenomenon as given and to think of building mechanisms to deal with it. Unfortunately, the solutions generated under these circumstances have also been full of contradictions and anomalies. People who have been frustrated with the existing state systems in the Horn have advocated self-determination as a way of dealing with the problem. These proponents argue for the restructuring if not the dismantling of the existing states and the creation of new ones such as Eritrea, Oromia, Ogadenia, Somaliland, and Southern Sudan. But the proposed states in many ways resemble the ones being dismantled. As long as they are not completely ethnically homogeneous they will be faced again by an “ethnic” or “minority” problem or a “nationalities question,” just like their predecessors. The problem of “ethnic conflict” then starts all over again. Alternatively, if there are no minorities there is no guarantee that the “homogeneous ethnic group” will not break up into subdivisions such as the disintegration along clan lines in Somalia. From that conflict we have observed that violence and animosity between clans is not necessarily any less intense than that between ethnic groups.
The logic of a separate ethnicity or nationality as a basis for the creation of a separate state forces us to seek the highest primordial common denominator between people, in order to determine the unit for whom a state is to be created. If we pursue this logic, it is not clear at what level of social organization we might be able to attain that common ground. In the Horn, ethnic and clan identification have not yet provided that highest common denominator. One might be forced to look at smaller and smaller units, such as the family. The search for such a primordial common denominator, which the logic underlying the ethnic state seems to demand, could lead us to very absurd conclusions.
The major problem with the notion of ethnicity or nationality as a form of identity is that it is a very exclusive concept. It is preoccupied with the identification of how one is different from others. Without denying that aspect of identity which is exclusive, an equal amount of energy must be put into exploring and articulating more inclusive conceptions of identity as well. The current preoccupation with exclusiveness must be counterbalanced by notions and visions of inclusiveness. In the current debate in the Horn, and for that matter in many other places where there has been a revival of nationalism or ethnicity, it seems that it is the narrow and exclusivist voices that have carried the day.
Simultaneously, there is a sense of resignation, even among the scholarly community, that the brutal slaughter and destruction taking place in the name of ethnic and national conflicts in the Horn of Africa region and other places, such as Yugoslavia or the former Soviet Union, are sordid aspects of human nature about which little can be done. Part of the challenge for human civilization is to tame those atomistic tendencies towards greater and greater disintegration based on exclusive identity. This should be done not by ignoring or denying the need for such identities, but by working at them from the opposite end, by fusing them with a more inclusive sense of identity, and by helping people to recognize and nurture their commonality with others instead of always glorifying and celebrating their differences and exclusivity. The approach discussed in this chapter is an attempt in that direction.
1. Greenfield makes this point from his observation in Harar: “In Harar today the term Amhara means little more than a Christian” (Greenfield, 1965: 57). In Wollo people used to ask: “Are you an Amhara or a Muslim?” in order to qualify a person’s religion.
2. A new law in Ethiopia defines “nation” or “nationality” as “people living in the same geographic area and having a common language and a common psychological makeup of identity.” See Proclamation no. 1, 1992, on the “Establishment of National and Regional and Woreda Council Members Election Committee,” p. 2. This definition illustrates some of the difficulties identified earlier. How is the “common psychological makeup of identity” to be determined? How is it to be measured? What happens to those that speak the language but do not feel the “common psychological makeup of identity,” such as the Wollega Oromo and the Wollo Oromo? Or have the same “psychological makeup of identity” but do not speak the same language, such as the Shoa Amhara and the Shoa Oromo?
3. But as we will see later, bearing an Amhara name does not necessarily signify having Amhara lineage.
4. Clapham, 1988: 24. Darkwah (1975) points out that the founder of the Shoan kingdom, Negassi, was a self-made Oromo war leader who made his own position but styled it after an Abyssinian model. Others point out that the Oromo language was used at court in Gondar and Shoa and that Oromo leaders controlled many of the emperors in the north, especially during the Gondar era (see, e.g., Greenfield, 1965: 56). Haberland (1963) points out that a Shoa Ambara is largely an Oromo as a Shoa Oromo is to a very large extent an Amhara. The boundary between those identities is very fluid. Gedamu (1972: 5) makes a similar argument about the relationship between Shoa Amharas and the Gurages, as well as between the Gurages and Oromos in Shoal
5. Teske and Nelson (1974) indicate that acculturation and assimilation are separate processes, though they may be interrelated. Assimilation is unidirectional while acculturation may occur in both directions. According to Salole (1979), acculturation is the cultural changes which occur to two or more populations in close contact. Assimilation is the incorporation of individuals or groups into another culture.
6. Transitional Period Charter, 1991. Nationality was defined as “people living in the same geographic area and having a common language and a common psychological makeup of identity. “
7. For an interesting discussion of how the ideology entertained by student activists in the 1960s distorted the understanding and analysis of historical situations in Ethiopia, see Marcus, 1992.
8. See North and Draimin (1990: 245-6) for similar examples in Central America.
9. For a more in-depth discussion of the regional approach as a mechanism of countering ethnic conflict and disintegration in the Horn of Africa, see Assefa, forthcoming (b).
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