Lesson from Addis to Africa: Ignore ethnic question at your peril

Monday November 15 2021

People hold candles and Ethiopian flags in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on November 3, 2021 during a memorial service for the victims of the Tigray conflict. The memorial was organised by the city administration. PHOTO | EDUARDO SOTERAS | AFP


Will Ethiopia disintegrate into its constituent ethnic nations? This would be tragic because Ethiopia has for long been one of a handful of purposeful states in Africa. A purposeful country is driven — from the leadership to ordinary citizens — by national development goals.

In these kinds of countries, there is a sense of a commonality of purpose; a sense of commitment and readiness to sacrifice in order to reach defined national goals. Any activity by officials or citizens that undermines the commonality of purpose is, therefore, viewed as gravely dishonourable.

The developmental states, otherwise known as the Asian Tigers, are characterised by this sense of everyone feeling responsible — whatever their station in life — for the achievement of national development goals. Thieves and sloths in government suffer social censure even before harsh punitive laws take their course. Sometimes the shame is far greater than fear of a long period in jail. Some culprits commit suicide because their actions have not only brought shame to themselves, but also to their families and community.

It is this sense of national purpose that most African countries have failed to develop. We seem to be merely administrative units with flags and national anthems. We feel no responsibility for fellow citizens. We steal medicine meant for the sick and dying. We have Covid billionaires. We have billionaires from land grabbing. We have tender billionaires. We have billionaires from stealing funds for the youth.

There is no national rhyme or reason. We feel no shame when we flag off relief food trucks, instead of hiding our heads in shame. Our leaders gallivant around the globe with no sense of shame about their impoverished and dysfunctional countries. The red-carpet receptions give them a sense of importance. And that, to them, is enough.

Ethiopia was beginning to develop the attitude and culture that characterises the Tigers. The results were telling. High growth rates that, for a decade, averaged 9.5 percent. Efficiency and innovation in delivery of services. Huge infrastructure built in time and within budget. Minimal thievery.


These achievements were nothing short of spectacular, given Ethiopia’s history of secessionist wars, famine, wasteful monarchical despotism, military dictatorship, ethnic tensions, and so on. So many people were cheering Ethiopia on as they began to solve the development puzzle.

And yet even Ethiopia’s attitude has not been enough to save it from the demons of ethnic nationalism. While the federal government could have done better in managing and minimising ethnic tensions, it is also clear that ethnic consciousness is a deeply ingrained psychological sense.

And so the lesson Ethiopia is teaching the rest of Africa is that we continue to ignore the ethnic question at our peril. We can continue blaming colonialism as we like to do or we can finally face the reality of ethnic nationalism and find solutions.

As I often say, Africa always has a choice. She just makes choices that are ideologically correct or convenient, not realistic and difficult.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator