By Teodros Kiros (Ph.D)
The present crisis in Ethiopia, however, dangerous it may feel, and for now it is that, can be an opportune moment for Ethiopians from all nationalities and ethnicities to look inward and develop answers to two foundational questions:
What is Ethiopianity? and Which Way Ethiopia?
In this paper I will attempt to briefly address these monumental questions. A full answer might demand a book length analysis of Ethiopian history, which is a future project. For now I will merely provide an outline of a response in the form of a short essay.
The first part will diagnose the Ethiopian condition. The second part will propose a modest solution.
- What is Ethiopianity
Ethiopianity is a historically grounded definition of an Ethiopian person’s sense of self, often expressed in an ethnic group’s language, rituals, music, dances and cuisines. These practices are sources of value for those who believe in them. This sense of self has two dimensions, a local one and a universal one.
(A) The local aspect presents itself in the languages and local practices which are forged by ethnic groups over a vast stretch of time in the form of a living and dynamic culture from which ethnics draw their psychological makeup, pride and sense of selfhood. Ethnics consciously and proudly hone their cultural practices and joyously and positively share them with the other ethnicities. Thus Oromos, Amharas, Tigreans, Gurages, Gambellans, the people of the South and many others display their cultural practices and ornaments at home with their families and when appropriate on public streets and halls. At these events what we witness is the display of harmless pride and belonging. There are healthy quests for perfection and flare among the musics and dances of performers within a particular group guided by constructive competition which delights the aesthetic sensibility of many viewers. Sometimes there also intra competitions among ethnics. None of these quests for greatness are hostile or discriminatory. They are merely expected performances of aesthetic pursuits and expressions of great art. Many times however bad regimes can use these aesthetically found ethnic habits as sources of rivalry and spread venoms of hate. The recent upheavals of the university campuses of Ethiopian universities could be studied from the distortion of ethnicity. We can easily socialize the young to look at one another as enemies, as the situation between the Amharas and Oromos, as easily as we can socialize them to treat each other as Ethiopians who wear and live the fabrics of Ethnicity. This is unfortunate but smart individuals within ethnic enclaves can see through the veil of ignorance and replace them with garments of good will, love and compassion. This too is part of the local aspect of ethnic lives. The New Ethiopian draws from the waters of ethnicity to cultivate the repressed power of universality where Ethiopianity is located.
(B) The universal aspect of Ethiopianity is even more tantalizing and fulfilling. The new Ethiopian citizen thinks and acts universally. The local aspect drives the universal aspiration of the new Ethiopian citizen but does not exhaust the possibilities of the New Ethiopian citizen. The New Ethiopian can also use religion and morality to cultivate the idea of Ethiopianity.
Ethiopian history is a history of the practices of ethnics sedimented in the totalizing power of the idea of Ethiopianity. The New Ethiopian is a synthesis of the musics, dances, languages, cuisines of the Ethiopian ethnics whose local practices interpenetrate one another and cultivate the idea of Ethiopianity as that which belongs to all of us, as Oromos, Amharas, Tigreans, Gambellans, Ben Shangulis and Southerners. The musics, dances, languages are intimately every Ethiopian’s, produced locally but consumed and lived universally. The joys and pains of the local practices belong to us all. The New Ethiopian is socialized to mourn and celebrate as an Ethiopian. When local practices are distorted and our brothers and sisters are killed as has happened for the entire year, we should mourn and not celebrate, and when one day the new Ethiopian citizen emerges, as she will, we will celebrate together. She knows that Ethiopianity is the living feature of all ethnics. She does not discriminate. She embraces diversity. Diversity itself is a feature of Ethnicity. Diversity enriches Ethiopianity by giving it content. Universality gives ethnicity form. Together they become form and content. The New Ethiopian citizen is this form and content of history and everyday existence.
Religion and morality give this form and content the needed life blood. Since Ethiopia is graced with two dominant religions and the spiritualties of the South, the youth who are battling in our towns and cities could begin to save us by drawing from the timeless principles of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Islam and spiritualties of the people of the South and learn how to love other ethnics as themselves, as their neighbors and friends. The spiritual forces could give the much needed power to love others as we love ourselves. This vision of our possibilities is the most potent definition of the human, under ideal conditions. The universal principle of love and friendship can be extended to all those whom we think are our enemies. Infact, they are our neighbors with whom we are destined to live and die in this short life. We must learn how to love them and befriend them as our neighbors with whom we share the Ethiopian lands.
We are also moral beings who are potentially rational. The moral feature in tandem with faith in a loving God, Allah, and other spiritual forces can give us the new Ethiopian Self which we desire. Exercising these two features may ultimately give us a new road map, which I articulate below.
- Which Way Ethiopia?
The New Ethiopian can simultaneously draw from both the local and universal aspects of Ethiopianity. The modern Ethiopian is both a living practitioner of her ethnic practices and her Ethiopian soul. It is Ethiopianity which gives ethnicity its soulfulness, its being.
At this turning point in Ethiopian history, those who are protesting and dying in shanty towns and crowded streets of Ethiopia devoid of food, medicine and housing should invigorate the universal dimension of Ethnicity, Ethiopianity itself, and fight for an Ethiopian society where every Ethiopian is fed, housed, sheltered and clothed, and choose a national leader who does not manipulate the localized Ethnicity but galvanize support from the Ethiopian masses to stand for a Single Ethiopia- by engaging the universality of Ethiopianity. At this point what we need is the unity of Ethnics, their fraternity and solidarity, and not hate and rivalry.
I call such a leader the Ethiopian citizen of a revamped Federalist state and the masses who support him, such as the Ethiopian youth, New Ethiopian citizens. The new leader in concert with the masses must articulate an original idea of Development, committed to a vision of eliminating poverty and creating wealth at the same time, through a developmental strategy which I will propose in a future article, a theme I wrote about in my seminal book, Moral Philosophy and Development (Ohio University Press, 1992). I will revisit that book and update its claims to address the contemporary Ethiopian condition.