Ethnocentric Politics and Reinforcing Psychology in the Ethiopian Context
By Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia
February 25, 2004
The first requirement of a rational thinking is the ability to define relevant concepts that are the underlying themes in any given discourse. What is ethnocentric politics? As per Freud and generations of succeeding social psychologists, the phenomenon of ethnocentrism is attributed to group identification based on a shared emotional tie among [its] members who value a set of ideals, qualities, and experiences. In other words, ethno-nationalism is a psychological makeup forged by members of a nationality who share same language, culture, and territory.

I don’t see any problem with the above definition of ethno-nationalism, and since the latter is historically constituted and universal in its dimension, we can’t do much about it. The emotional dynamics of ethno-nationalism, however, could breed particular mode of self-orientation that, in turn, sustains generic psychological predisposition, and it could be dangerous if it is permitted to evolve from insipid and innocuous manifestations to the most venomous practices.

In this article, I like to dwell on the politics and psychology of ethno-nationalism in Ethiopia, its negative attributes, as well as suggested solutions. From the outset, however, a word of caution for readers: I have no intention of engaging interested discussants in semantic ambiguity, nor compel them to be caught in the crossfire fire between opposing views. My intention is to help and/or appeal to the reader to critically examine ethnocentric politics and conflict in Ethiopia and further delve into the prosaic exterior or façade that seemingly obscure the secret machinations of the conflict (Gambella, Harar etc.)

As I have indicated above, ethnic politics could have a hostile edge, but we must be extra cautious not to simply equate ethnic strife with a presiding government. There is no doubt that the current regime has deliberately fostered an ethno-linguist federal apparatus. There is also no doubt that the government has failed to prevent ethnic clashes in the country. As we all know, the Gambella and Harar incidents are preceded by the Oromo/Amhara confrontations in Wellega. But, whether the government incites the Gambella massacre of the Annuak is a matter of further investigation that we have to make. As a scholar, I do not accept ‘conspiracy theory.’ On the contrary, I am in favor of a credible vital clue that could help us crystallize our findings and inferences.

When I argue that we must have a vital clue first before finger pointing on government officials, I am not implying that it is ok for some loose cannons in the government to get away with murder. More importantly, I am interested in saving the Ethiopian intellectual pedigree from a congealed conventional wisdom. In plain language, I want to urge Ethiopian intellectuals and professionals to focus on real and fundamental issues and refrain from a ‘fault finding’ mission that could altogether be distractive and meaningless.

If we want to save Ethiopia from the dynamics of disintegration (the negative implication of ethnic politics), as a matter of historical necessity, we must diagnose the larger picture of ethno-nationalism without limiting ourselves to the standard repertoire of accusations leveled against the regime in Addis Ababa. While there is so much talk about ethnic politics EPRDF-style, there is almost no analysis and reflection made on the history, psychology, and current practices by the broad masses, including the elite and the opposition.

Ethnic politics and the reinforcing psychology are not unique to Ethiopia. As has been stated, they are worldwide phenomena. In point of fact, as I write this article, of the world’s 190 countries, 120 have politically significant minorities. In light of this reality, therefore, the challenge for present generations of Ethiopians is to confront ethnocentrism and rather emphasize on a pan-Ethiopian agenda. The latter, of course, should not be treated superficially and given a facile slogan-type chorus as we now witness among various Ethiopian political groups. Even those who carry the banner of ‘Ethiopia’ or ‘Ethiopian’ are essentially ethnocentric in their deeds and/or composition.

Among the Ethiopian political groups, the most advanced ones are leaning toward a genuine pan-Ethiopian movement and do exhibit some program that can promote Ethiopia’s national interest. At the other end of the continuum, however, there are the extremely narrow and vicious elements who enjoy publicly insulting and denigrating nationalities outside their own “nationhood” (example: some Ethiopian radio services in Washington D.C.) This backward psychology of viewing ones own nationality as superior and others as secondary or inferior definitely breeds animosity and conflict. In fact, it is a major disservice to the mosaic of peoples like Ethiopia.

In between the two extremes of ethnocentrism lies another minuscule group organized along local Awraja lines; a much lower political status compared to other ethno nationalists. These groups are neither dangerous nor cynical but they manifest the last vestiges of ethnic (sub-ethnic in this case) psychology and they are victims of a relatively narrow social milieu. Real and phantom associations such as Emiye Minilik, Ya Gondar Meredaja Mahber, Ethiopian Patriotic Association, Agazi Alumni, Queen Sheba Alumni, Atse Yohannes Alumni etc best exemplify these groups.

The major challenge to Ethiopians is to combat localism and uphold an all-Ethiopia political agenda and transcend the reinforcing psychology of ethnocentrism. In an effort to rally Ethiopian discussion forums, three years ago, I wrote an article entitled The Historical Significance of Ethiopian Unity (East African Forum, 3/22/2001) and this is what I tried to convey then:

“Ethiopia, like other Third World countries, did not create a uniform national culture, but the pan-Ethiopian agenda can still be attained if the various ethnic groups that make up Ethiopia transcend their “nationality” boundaries and think in terms of Ethiopia First. How can such an outlook (or ideology) evolve in order to promote Ethiopian togetherness, and collectivity? In 1992, I wrote “Ethiopia’s Challenge: Nation Building Beyond Ethnic Nationalism” in the Ethiopian Mirror. Eight years* later, I am still dealing with the same leitmotif of Ethiopian unity. What is almost astounding is that a century and half ago the idea of Ethiopian unity was sacrosanct for the incipient modern Ethiopian nation. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, Ethiopians are entertaining ethnic nationalism, and it seems that the fad of ethnocentrism has altogether caused amnesia among Ethiopians of their patriotic past.” [*Now, eleven years later]

Mentioned in the above quotation is my other article published in 1992. Although the content of this article was not strong enough and also implied that the then Transitional Government of Ethiopia was on the right track in redressing the nationality problem, its title is still relevant to our present discussion. Ethiopia’s challenge is indeed to foster nation building beyond ethnic nationalism.

On top of transcending the psychology of ethnocentrism, the Ethiopian opposition forces have an obligation to undertake a massive campaign and/or informal education pertaining to a pan-Ethiopian program directed toward all Ethiopians. In a nutshell, well-meaning Ethiopians and political groups must advocate, with some intensity, the accommodation of cultural diversity as a foundation for national political integration.

Genuine national political integration, however, cannot be achieved by mere pleasant sounding nostrum such as “ I am Ethiopian first,” although the latter is symbolically significant. What we need to do at this juncture in our history is to boldly address problems associated with ethnic politics and psychology and furnish concrete solutions in order to lay a strong corner stone for Ethiopian unity.

One solution to defeating ethnocentrism is the devolution of power from the center to the periphery, i.e. granting political power to the respective nationalities. Decentralization or devolution of power was attempted under the Derg and the EPRDF regimes with leniency toward centralism in the former and toward periphery in the latter. In both cases, unless counterchecked on time, one could witness inherently fragile unity at best and disintegration at worst. A more balanced solution, therefore, should be sought in order to forge a strong and secured unity. A case in point is the French experience. France and Ethiopia are of course antidotes when it comes to economic development, but as we emulate public polices, constitutional frameworks, and the ideals of democracy from Western nations, France could also be considered as our point of reference. By and large, France is a unitary state but it has loosened its grips through devolution to accommodate nationalist movements by creating 22 semi-state regions with their own budgets.

Europe, like Africa and Asia, is ethnopolitically divided, but it managed to create a greater unity by the process of accommodation. Corroborating the above idea and Europe’s exemplary experience, The Economist (September 20, 1997) writes as follows:

“…Devolution has proved widely popular without generally leading to secession; indeed it can hold a country together. When strong regional or national identities, silent or suppressed for many years, are suddenly given a voice, the paradoxical result has often been greater harmony and a greater desire to stick together rather than anguish, chaos and disintegration. The end of the Cold War and the inexorable rise of the European Union have both weakened the grip of Europe’s main states but without threatening to break them up…”

In the final analysis, we Ethiopians have no choice but to follow Europe’s path to unity. We should be alert and show concern to incidents such as that of Gamblella, but we should not be terrified by the idea of a decentralized political system as long the objective is to strengthen Ethiopian unity by defeating the relics of ethnocentric psychological makeup.

The author, Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia, can be reached by email: