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close this bookEthnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (United Nations University, 1996, 298 p.)
close this folder2. Ethnic conflict in the Horn of Africa: Myth and reality
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentConceptual problems
View the documentProblems of definition
View the documentEthnicity and social harmony
View the documentThe role of ideology
View the documentTraditional remedies
View the documentAn alternative approach
View the documentConclusion

Traditional remedies

Now, if we focus on the solutions that have been traditionally applied to the problem of ethnicity and the conflicts it generates, we notice that the remedies seem to present as many difficulties as the problem itself. The traditional responses have been either "nation-building," which has meant forging one nation out of diverse peoples, or, in rare cases, "self-determination," which in many people's minds has been associated with separation and the formation of another state.

Attempts at building new nation states out of a multitude of ethnic groups has generally taken two forms. One has been the creation of a multi-ethnic culture, which all groups identify with and voluntarily adopt as their own. The other is the assimilation of different cultures into a dominant one, usually by the direction of a highly centralized and coercive state. The first approach is complicated and normally takes a long time to develop. The second approach, seemingly expedient, has been adopted by many post-colonial African states in their eagerness to generate quick results. But this approach has often been associated with manipulation and at times outright repression by those in power. The 30 years of experience with this approach since independence has shown that not many new nation states have been forged in Africa. In fact, it might be said that the efforts made in this direction seem to have backfired. More recently, animosity and violence along ethnic lines has been on the increase in many African societies, especially as the highly centralized nature of these states is being challenged with the movement towards multi-party politics.

As another response to ethnic conflict, people have proposed "self determination" as an alternative to "nation-building." But the concept of "self-determination" is so riddled with confusion that it does not provide a viable alternative. The term itself is composed of two concepts, "self" and "determination," whose definition and operation raise a multitude of problems. What constitutes the "self"? Is it a group that is connected by primordial ties like an ethnic group? Could any other group form the "self"? Can the "self" be engineered? And what is the meaning, implication, and scope of the term "determination"?

If the "self" were to refer to a group having primordial ties, we are again faced with all the problems discussed earlier regarding group definition, especially in cases of a long history of intergroup interaction. The distinction between objective and subjective criteria again becomes an issue. Mayall argues that it is not clear whether some of these aggregate identities like nations exist "as an objective reality, as claimed by nationalists, or should be understood as an imagined community or creative fictions as others have claimed" (Mayall, 1990: 2; see also Gellner, 1983).

If one uses the objective criterion of primordial ties for defining nations, then there are many who feel that their primordial roots do not solely dictate their interests, needs, aspirations, and ability to forge common purpose as well as affiliations with those who do not come from the same roots. If one uses the subjective criterion - and there is a lot of merit to that - a major problem becomes how to identify those who feel they belong to an ethnic group so that they are clustered in one territory? What if those who feel they belong are not accepted by others as belonging?

To the extent that self-determination has meant separation and creation of a state, how might it be possible to build a state around an ethnic group without provoking chauvinism, ethnic animosity, and the wrenching apart of communities, given the cultural, linguistic, ancestral, and religious continuities between ethnic groups that have interacted with each other for long periods? The search for the pure ethnic group as a foundation for building a state has led to fascism, Nazism, pogroms, massive dislocations, and genocide's in many parts of the world, including the African continent itself.

If, on the other hand, the "self" refers to an "imagined community" or "creative fiction," as Mayall argues, could one then stretch one's imagination to include others in the community so that "the self" becomes a larger and more inclusive unit?

Aside from the definition of the "self," there is still a problem with the content of "self-determination." What is to be determined? What is the scope of the "determination"? Some have defined self-determination as the aspiration "to have control over one's affairs in order to ensure one's economic and social well-being" (An-Na'im, 1989: 21; see also Assefa, forthcoming (a)). But the ability to determine one's own affairs or economic and social well-being is increasingly being complicated by the realities of an interdependent world. One is constrained not only by one's own capabilities but the interests and capabilities of others. Except in a world of autarky or complete isolation, any actor must recognize how his or her needs and actions are compatible with those of others in the system. The more interdependent the world becomes, as the trend seems to indicate, the more one's orientation might need to be towards coalition-building, coordination, negotiation, and consensus rather than unilateral determination of one's own affairs. If so, how much autonomous control can one sensibly exercise in this modern and rapidly shrinking world? How meaningful is it to absolutize "self-determination" in such circumstances?

The major limitation in all of these approaches to defining the "self" for the purposes of "self-determination" is the failure to recognize that primordial elements constitute only one consideration in that definition. It cannot be denied that there are other considerations based on human choice rather than mere coincidence of birth. Common perceptions, needs, aspirations, and interests can also enable people to include others who share these sentiments in their definition of "themselves" even if they do not share primordial links with them. Therefore, to define the "self" exclusively in terms of primordial givens by creating ethnic states seems to ignore, artificially and detrimentally, the various dimensions that enter into people's definition of themselves. The challenge becomes how to recognize and legitimize the unavoidable and undeniable fact of primordial roots, but to temper its detrimental and exclusionary tendencies by encouraging broader definitions that can accommodate others. In other words, how might it be possible to encourage and emphasize the consociational aspect of "self"-definition as much as the primordial aspects?