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close this bookEthnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (UNU, 1996, 298 pages)
close this folder2. Ethnic conflict in the Horn of Africa: Myth and reality
View the document(introductory text...)
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

The role of ideology

In the case of Ethiopia, particularly in the past 20 years, ideology has also played a role in sustaining and exacerbating the notion that ethnic animosity and supremacy of one people over the other is at the root of the conflicts in the country. The radical student movement of the 1960s and the early '70s, which was the forerunner of the 1974 Ethiopian revolution, was strongly Marxist-Leninist in orientation. During the rise of this movement, Lenin's discourse on "the nationalities question" and his prescription of "self-determination up to secession" (along with other Marxist ideas of "dictatorship of the proletariat," "collectivization of agriculture," etc.) were lifted wholesale from the history of the Soviet Union and grafted onto Ethiopian realities, thereby forming a major tenet in the political discussions at that time. There was not much debate about these concepts' relevance to the Ethiopian situation or about the operational problems involved in implementing them. Although the term "nationalities issue" grated on many people's ears, they acquiesced to it, since it was the paradigm of the day.

After the 1974 revolution, the soldiers who took power from the monarchy did not have much knowledge or experience of how to restructure the society following the destruction of the old social order. The radical Marxist student leaders were brought into the government, where they became the revolution's advisers and ideological leaders. Those student leaders then had the opportunity to make the "nationalities question" a national agenda. According to Markakis:

As militant Marxists, the radicals [student leaders] were obliged to confront the national issue and, after some agonising, they opted for the Leninist principle of national self-determination and declared their support for the Eritrean rebels... From then on, the national issue was forced on the agenda of every political movement in the country... Since it [the government of Mengistu Haile Mariam] espoused Marxism as its ideology, the new regime could not formally reject the principle of national self-determination. (Markakis, 1989: 4-6)

Even after Mengistu's overthrow in 1991, the new government leaders were those who had been socialized in the radical Marxist Leninist ideology of the 1960s and who still held entrenched views on the nationalities issue. As soon as they took power they declared that the most important issue facing the country was the "nationalities question," and proceeded to decree that all ethnic groups, nationalities, and peoples in the country could define their own territory, form their own governments, and exercise self-determination, including declaring independence.6 Towards this objective, the map of the country was redrawn, eliminating the old multi-ethnic administrative provinces of the country and replacing them with ethnic zones. As demarcating boundaries based on ethnicity is never an easy task in Ethiopia, the new map has reportedly been redrawn at least twice already.

The fallout from this policy has already started. People have been forced out of land they have inhabited for generations and told to return to their ethnic homelands. Of course, there is no home awaiting them in their places of origin, for they migrated generations ago. In some areas violent conflict has broken out between members of different ethnic groups in attempts to draw their own ethnic boundaries or claim territories that were considered common in the past.

Ethnic claims over resources that were considered common, such as minerals, land, ports, etc., are likely to become very explosive issues.

In the 30 years prior to the demise of Mengistu's regime, the civil wars in the country were waged between the central government and insurgencies bearing ethnic names. But in the current situation people are being pitted against each other. Neighbours who have coexisted peacefully for decades, if not centuries, are being encouraged by official government policy to emphasize their ethnic differences so that ethnically homogeneous political structures can be created. Age-old relationships between peoples, intermarriages, cultural interactions and continuities, are in peril of being disrupted or wrenched apart. As the reality in the country has been a long history of coexistence and cooperation between ethnic groups at the grass roots, people are speaking out against the ethnic segregation that is being imposed on them from the top. However, unless the implications of this new ethnic policy are examined carefully and the policy itself revised, the government might end up creating more ethnic conflict than it deters.

Close observation of the Ethiopian situation makes one wonder whether the preoccupation with "the nationalities question" and its prescribed remedy of "national self-determination" are products of an ideological framework rather than an outgrowth of the country's realities. Instead of the reality on the ground determining the model of theoretical framework to be used in diagnosing, understanding, and dealing with it, an ideologically dictated theoretical framework seems to have been imposed on the reality, which is then forced to conform with the framework. As the saying goes, if the only tool you have is a hammer, then you think everything else is a nail.

Similarly, since the most dominant analytical framework in Ethiopian politics since the late 1960s was the ethnic framework, it seems that every problem in the country was viewed as emanating from this basic question. Class analysis, elite exploitation, or even regionalism would have gone a long way to explain the country's situation, rather than an exclusive focus on ethnicity and the nationalities issue. If those other frameworks had been used, the emergent remedies would have differed from the current proposed solutions, which could drag the country into another cycle of bitter civil war.

This is not to argue that political leaders invented the nationalities problem in Ethiopia. There is no question, however, that they distorted it, inflated it out of proportion, and exploited it.7 Ethnicity all of a sudden became the predominant explanation of many of the things that went wrong in the society. √Člites sold the idea to the people and now the people are carrying the banner. A myth is developing that the creation of new states will solve the problems people have experienced with the current state systems in the region.