From Assimilation to Convergence: An Overview of Nation-Building in Ethiopia

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By Prof. Mesay Kebede
Though in many ways this article continues my previous article titled, “On Transitional Government and Ethnic Federalism” (, logically speaking, it precedes it in that it provides the social dynamics behind Dr. Abiy’s vision of መደመር, which I translate by the English terms of “conjunction” or “convergence.” Both terms presuppose a prior movement of separation that is followed by an inverse movement of convergence or of coming together. To fully understand this tendency toward conjunction subsequent to a prior phase of separation, we must have in mind the various stages of nation-building in Ethiopia since the start of the modernization process.

As shown in the above diagram, following the southern expansion of the Ethiopian state under Emperor Menilik––which expansion made possible Ethiopia’s resistance against colonial onslaughts––a nation-building process was put in place that is best described as assimilationist. Notably, Emperor Haile Selassie and the ruling elite used the Amharic language, modern education, Orthodox Christianity, open intermarriage, and social mobility to unite the various ethnic groups through the forging of a common Ethiopian identity. However, the serious limitations of the imperial regime in terms of political opening and economic developments as well as the lack of recognition of religious and cultural diversities ignited a revolutionary process that terminated monarchical rule in Ethiopia.
The regime that replaced the imperial state, namely the Derg, pursued the same policy of assimilation but with different means. It acknowledged the cultural and religious diversity of the country, but also wanted to solidify national unity by adding to the already existing instruments of assimilation the Marxist-Leninist ideology of the common interests, beyond ethnic diversities, of the working masses. Again, the complete banning of political freedom, the use of military force to crush resistance against the tight control of the central government as well as the generalized incompetence of the military elite brought about serious military defeats against insurgent forces leading to the collapse of the regime.
The insurgent forces shared the common feature of using ethnicity as a mobilizing force against what they termed “Amhara hegemony” and advocated secession as the best solution to the plight of the ethnic groups they claimed to represent. The most important ones were the EPLF, the TPLF, and the OLF, respectively promoting the secession of Eritrea, Tigray, and Oromia. Their secessionist ideology can be construed as a logical and strategic reaction to the assimilationist and centralizing policy of the two previous regimes. The EPLF successfully accomplished its secessionist agenda by declaring the independence of Eritrea. The TPLF, which by then had become the ruling power in Ethiopia, recognized the Eritrean independence, but fell short of pursuing its original secessionist agenda. Instead, it came up with a vision of a federal system based on ethnic divisions. As to the OLF, it never succeeded in creating a vast movement, mainly because of its inability to convert most Oromo to the idea of secession from Ethiopia.
With the TPLF at the head of the Ethiopian state, a new phase begins that I call the ethnic clustering of Ethiopia. Presumably, it is still a nation-building process but upheld by a Stalinist version, according to which semi-autonomous states are formed around linguistico-ethnic divisions headed by a federal government that is supposed to be representative of the groups. This political organization was intended to dismantle the Amhara dominance while providing the basis of self-rule for each ethnic group. One formidable stumbling-block of the whole system was  the question of knowing what could possibly keep together the various ethnic clusters since the parliament and the prime minister had no any other legitimacy than the one granted by the ethnic groups themselves. The Soviet model of democratic centralism came in handy: power belongs, not to the peoples, but to the ethnic parties that control the states and compose the federal parliament. These political instances are, in turn, controlled by a centralized leadership in which the TPLF exerts absolute power thanks to its grip on the security apparatuses and the armed forces. The working method being that lower instances owe complete obedience to higher ones, the end game of this tight hierarchical structure is that it usually falls under the absolute control of one person (the chief of the dominant party) or a group of persons (usually called the politburo).
It is obvious that the downside of establishing ethnic clusters is none other than the sacrifice of democracy in favor of a centralized system, given that only authoritarianism can keep together disparate states. Unsurprisingly, this very stifling of democracy became the reason for the inability of the regime to deal with mounting protests arising from the clustered peoples against the hegemonic rule of the dominant ethnic party and its consequences, namely, regional inequalities, rampant maladministration, and gross abuses of human rights. The fact that the social protests took the form of ethnic demands represented a clear danger of disintegration of the country. At the same time, however, it was also an opportunity for a renewed commitment to unity, given that both the absence of democracy and the perception of a common obstacle to social progress gave way to a sentiment of solidarity among the discontented clustered groups. This situation of danger but also of opportunity brought about a reformist tendency within the EPRDF, the most consequential outcome being the rise to leadership of young and trans-ethnically minded leaders from the OPDO of the likes of Lemma Megersa and Abiy Ahmed. As Hölderlin, the poet, said: “Where danger grows, grows also that which saves.”
That ethnic clustering gives birth to leaders promoting convergence ceases to be a paradox as soon as we understand that, short of secession, which anyway is a human failure in the same way as divorce is, democratic spirit and methods alone can make it work properly. When the democratic spirit extends to other ethnic groups, it turns ipso facto into a cross-ethnic attitude for the obvious reason that it cannot overcome its own closed nature and exclusiveness without seeing the other, not so much as a member of a different group, but rather primarily and simply as a human being endowed with universal rights, that is, with rights equally shared by members and non-members of one’s ethnic group. After all, what else is democracy but openness? In other words, as when lane markings end, the lanes naturally merge into a single roadway, so too ethnic clusters converge toward unity as soon as the hegemonic rule that feeds on divisions is replaced by the democratic spirit. So renewed, unity is no longer due to the centralized force that keeps people together; it is rather a goal, a program that all concerned groups forge as their common good.
This movement from state sponsored unity to unity as the common doing of mutually respectful peoples seems to be the new path in which Ethiopia is engaged under the leadership of Prime Minister Abiy. Such a path is no doubt extremely difficult and sown with numerous and knotty obstacles. Failure is not to be excluded any more than success, provided that Ethiopians reconnect with the inspiration that enabled them to be the holder of the longest unbroken surviving polity in the world.
Messay Kebede
University of Dayton