NDERITU: Ethiopia’s chicken and egg: Ethnicity or citizenship?

Monday October 28 2019

Oromo youth chant slogans during a protest in-front of Jawar MohammedÕs house, an Oromo activist and leader of the Oromo protest in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on October 24, 2019. PHOTO | REUTERS


Does the 1995 ethnic federal constitution hinder Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed by entrenching ethnicity as an identity right from the preamble and demarcating states on ethnicity rather than geography? Last week, I argued it was partly responsible for the mushrooming of ethnic-based political parties, militias and even banks.

Liban Guyo engaged me in a lively discussion stating that the Ethiopian Constitution was crafted to accommodate demands for regional autonomy while managing inter-ethnic tensions.

Guyo said ethnic federalism, with security as the responsibility of central government, is embraced by groups such as the Oromo who suffered either real or imagined domination by the Amhara ethnic groups.

It was intended as a solution for social consequences of growing inequality and political powerlessness. With this in mind, Guyo said, Abiy is best placed to work towards a unitary system of government.

Throughout history, racial, ethnic and other groups such as women have organised to demand recognition on the basis of difference.

However, ethnic political mobilisation often informed by a shared history, language and sometimes religion raises different challenges for national citizenship.


Is the case of ethnic belonging and national citizenship that of the chicken and egg story? Which comes first and which is a subset of the other? Is it a threat to the citizenship and the nation when groups push for political recognition on the basis of ethnicity? In itself, ethnic-based social identity is not a problem.

However, it becomes a political problem because it identifies who we are but in the same breath, who we are not. It therefore makes it easy to be Oromo, if you are not Amhara, Hutu if you are not Tutsi, Kikuyu if you are not Luo and Dinka if you are not Nuer.

It becomes categorisation when ethnic identity marks boundaries between those in “our group” and those in “other.’’ This is dangerous for national citizenship and I will tell you why.

In circumstances where clear political divisions between ethnic groups exist, we perceive those in our group as similar in thought and behaviour. We also assume the “other” group thinks alike and what we know about one, applies to all of them.

For many people the immediate family and ethnic group, and not information from other sources, becomes the key shaper of opinions. We then pay more attention to differences, rather than commonalities. We translate this into actual discrimination against those who do not “belong” to our group.

This has important consequences on ethnic political identity as a source of violence. Identity- based conflicts such as witnessed in Northern Ireland and Myanmar, are very difficult to solve.

Leaders are often challenged to hold together a multi-ethnic society under a national identity. Citizenship in itself is an indicator of national cohesion when linked to efficient and non-discriminatory government services and policy practice in fields such as voting, stable economy, rule of law, and promoting equality of opportunity for diverse populations, in for instance, education and health.

It is the work of governments to budget for these services and grow economies. Contention usually begins when groups feel excluded from services as citizens especially when ethnic leaders appropriate state resources.

Ethnic federalism comes with challenges such as homogenizing and therefore weakening of national political parties and disaggregation of unions. This weakens citizenship.

Without a shared interconnected history, citizens see themselves as disconnected from the whole. The challenge for leaders is to lead citizens towards a common civic culture without devaluing ethnic identity or citizenship.

Resolving violent conflict, ethnic or otherwise, consumes immense resources that would otherwise be allocated to services such as education.

Ethiopia’s ethnic federal constitution lays a foundation for framing citizenship at the local level. Future governments may not escape from this variable in formulating national public policy and political programs.

What is guaranteed is that ethnic insecurity will require a political response that links the local to the national.

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism. Mukami Kimathi, Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides, [email protected]