Unity in Diversity: Ethiopia

Kebour Ghenna

Ethiopia’s politics is overwhelmed by bitterness and rancor. For the last few years, many people worry about the growing ethnic pandemic of polarization. Each group feels it’s under perpetual attack and is fighting against one another, when in fact it should be fighting for one another. Each group is tearing the fabric of our society apart as well as our relationships, especially our communities.
The solution is not a new and improved theory of identity, although in time the country could use one. Instead, a practical solution would require us to begin by pivoting from philosophy to institutions. It is all well and good to debate the various theories of identity. But our leaders should also focus on building and sustaining those institutions that can concretely ground a functional civic life – one that works in practice even if it sometimes seems as though it couldn’t work in theory.
Indeed, given that the whole of human kind now constitutes a single civilization, with all people dressing almost the same across the globe, watching the same TV programs, speaking the same one language, or sharing the same common challenges and opportunities, why do we feel that a return to ethnicism offer real solutions to the unprecedented problems of our citizens? Is it because we haven’t yet grasped the degree and extent of the key problems all of us across the world face, namely climate-driven natural disasters, technological disruptions, health pandemic and the persistent and increasing inequality, these are just a few examples. Is it because we don’t know the gravity of our current state of affairs that we keep rationalizing away the absurd?
We have no answers. But we know we haven’t also learnt from history.
Take Eritrea, in those days it was unthinkable it would secede one day to become a separate and independent country until it did. And like Eritrea, the Ethiopia we know today also can fall apart. So let’s think ahead much further, planning for the complex, emerging challenges that the country might likely encounter by midcentury.
Look at the climate change case, any one of Ethiopia’s ethnic state, or even the nation state itself is simply the wrong framework to address these threats. The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its life forms – including humanity – is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts. Our political dysfunction in this regard looks like both a failure of individuals and a corrosion of our entire political culture and its institutions.
Yes, identity is important to all communities. Keeping our Timket, Eid, Ereecha or our Chembelala are just a few things that generate true community identity and in all sense, pride. We should not ask people to forget about those things, but we should ask people to go beyond their pride and have a candid dialogue about the future of the country and our communities. We know that change isn’t openly embraced by all, but we know our country is changing at a greater pace in today’s world. Change doesn’t happen by accident. It is a product of vision, disciplined thinking, energy, passion, and an unwavering commitment to see the challenge through. A famous politician, I now forgot the name, says ‘Individuals make history, and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skilled leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.” That’s why I argue we need to bring new leaders to fore during the upcoming election. We need to bring leaders who bring people together; leaders who can heal divided population; leaders who can reduce conflict and resolve difficulties. For most of us, Ethiopia is about something much bigger than what tribe you come from; and yes, it may be nearly impossible to solve our core national challenge in theory, but we can solve it in practice, as Ethiopians so often have.
How can leaders help unify people and bring everyone together?
First, let’s acknowledge that the public is tired and engulfed by despair. Many people are at the end of their rope. People are looking toward Dr. Abye Ahmed, expecting him to conduct itself in a way that overcomes personal interests and immediate political calculations. The public longs for leadership that will give it strength and hope, and most of all, give meaning to the price it paid and the sacrifices it has been asked to make for nearly a year. It longs for a leadership that will talk to the people and tell them the truth, even when the truth is hard to hear. The public wants success, but expects its leaders to be honest enough to admit to failures. These are the ABCs of rebuilding trust between society and the government – any government. The coming election, which is perhaps the most important in our lifetimes, will be about keeping Ethiopia united, and this will require strong and inclusive national institutions that can function amidst polarization, and bind individuals under a single identity: citizen of Ethiopia.