What Makes a Nation

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Kebour Gena (Photo: Anteneh Aklilu)

What’s worrying about Ethiopia is that anyone who has read Teklesadik Mekuria’s history books can grow up to believe that we leave in an identifiable ‘Ethiopian’ nation with an identifiable ‘Ethiopian’ people.

Is that really so? I will leave it to you.

First it may be necessary to clarify the term ‘nation’. In general discussion, a nation-state is called a ‘country’ or a ‘nation‘ or a ‘state.’ But there are quite a lot of different kinds of states and countries and only some of them are nations (or nation-states, which is when the nation and the state coincide, or shall I say, are homogeneous, in factors such as common language or territory). A ‘country’ is a territory with its associated polity (organization, institutions); some countries are not states at all, for example, Wales, which is a country within the multi-national state of the United Kingdom) and while most of the world is divided up into states now, it was not always so. Mongolia was a country long before it was a state, for instance.

States come in different forms too. Quite a lot of post-colonial states are actually composite multi-national states, like Ethiopia, functionally posing as nation-states (this, is perhaps one reason they tend to be so fragile).

Now that I have opened this can of worms and I am here talking about Ethiopia, I would argue that the better term that defines Ethiopia today is ‘Empire’. Yes Empire, which is defined as “a “political unit” made up of several territories and peoples… “usually created by conquest, and divided between a dominant center and subordinate peripheries”, plus a top Decider with a maximum power (my add-on).

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Let’s look first at the basics.

The rather unusual modern configuration of states, I think, fools a lot of people into imagining that the nation and its political expression, the nation-state, are the normal way that humans organize themselves. That’s not exact. The nation-state is sometimes framed as what you get when a nation acquires statehood, but the concept of a nation-state is more an ideal than a reality. Many of the world’s people do not feel that the ruling elite in their states promotes the people’s national interest, but only that of the ‘nationality’ of the ruling party. And since most of the world’s states right now are nation-states, or at least try to present themselves as such, many people are quick to assume that the nation-state is normal or even the correct form of state.

Ethiopia obviously fails the nation-state definition. It isn’t even remotely close. After all, what shared history, shared myth of origin will you draw upon that all Ethiopians (over 80 nation-nationalities) will find valid and applicable to them? What you could perhaps have is civic unity, a different thing with different causes which connects to the one shared identity, citizenship. rather than a shared past. The key thing here is that for societies like Ethiopia that possess strong cultural diversity which are territorially based and backed by strong sub-national identities, the nation-state model is ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst

You see, there is no single dominant Ethiopian story, but a collection of Ethiopian stories, none of which can claim primacy because none of them represent even a significant plurality of the population’s own personal origins. Our history is a history of Ethiopia (not exaggerating), not Ethiopians. Indeed,  an appeal to the ‘nation’ for unity is always going to leave quite a lot of Ethiopian ‘citizens’ – perhaps even most of them – cold. Try calling Ethiopians to war to fight for the ‘bones of their ancestors’ and you see the problem immediately: whose bones? Which ancestors? Buried where? Different Ethiopians will give very different answers to those questions! But call Ethiopians to war because “your fellow citizens were attacked” and the response may, I repeat may, turn out to be real and emotive.

So what form of polity for Ethiopia?

Attempting to make policy on the assumption that Ethiopia is a nation begins with a category error. The effort to form a nation generally fails because the basic ingredients are wrong. The necessary binding agent has been actively removed, though that hasn’t stopped regular efforts to replace it with crude populism and xenophobia. In a way, one may feel pity for us who emotively long for the comfort of the nation because it is something we cannot have, but then there ought to be a country for the people who would rather not be in a nation.

Successful efforts to actually unify Ethiopians should focus not on national identity but on citizen identity, though I recognize citizenship does not make people Ethiopians. Citizenship over nationality has its advantages; the nation is an exclusive identity, but citizenship co-exists more easily with other identities – a necessary advantage in a country as unbelievably diverse as Ethiopia. Check out the United States, for example, a nation that puts emphasis on the citizen body over the nation, note its exceptional ability to deliver results, impact communities, embrace large numbers of immigrants successfully. That’s an ideal we should build the republic around. An ideal where the Gamo citizens of Ethiopia give their loyalty to the constitution of Ethiopia (hopefully to a new one), while still being able to practice their inherited Gamo traditions and run their lives the way they want, trying to get what they want by working, saving, learning, inventing and so forth. … so long as they do not infringe upon the basic rights of others.

For quite some time the national or central governments in Ethiopia possessed actual powers to manage economic and ideological energies. We see now that era is over. We need a real change. The key point is to understand what makes a nation is constructed…. and that requires exceptional leadership, which we lack, and exceptional political infrastructure, which we have not even begun to conceive.