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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

An alternative approach

The two conflicting demands of "nation-building" and "self-determination" have embroiled the Horn, as well as much of the African continent, in decades of bloodshed and destruction. However, we have seen that both approaches suffer from severe limitations which prevent them from providing avenues for the effective creation of harmonious societies.

Given these limitations, a more promising direction, especially in the case of Ethiopia, might be to re-examine the notion that ethnic animosity and the domination of one ethnic group by another are the causes of the conflicts in the country and that the solutions to these conflicts lies in secession or the creation of independent states.

Instead, addressing the economic and political inequities in the system (which no doubt had been disguised and confused by ethnic labels), enlarging the economic base so that there are resources to share among various ethnic groups, opening up the political system so that everyone, regardless of his or her ethnic background, can have access to it, as well as creating a system of governance that is democratic and respects the political and human rights of all citizens, could go a very long way towards remedying the so-called "ethnic" conflicts in Ethiopia.

In conjunction with this, one should work at developing systems that could prevent ethnicity from becoming a cause for further cleavages and civil war in the various societies of the Horn. First, it must be established that the question of identity is not and should not be a zero-sum issue in human relationships. All people have multiple identities which are expressed differently in different circumstances. The freedom of an individual or a group to choose its own separate identity should not, therefore, be a threat to others as long as that individual or group also recognizes that there is common identity at another level with those from whom it is distinguishing itself. Thus, as much as people endeavor to articulate and enhance what is unique about themselves, an equal amount of energy should be invested in articulating and enhancing what binds them with other people.

A mechanism must be found to legitimize ethnic identity in the Horn of Africa without making it incompatible with the formation of a larger unit of identity based on mutuality and beneficial collaboration. A promising endeavor in this context might be to adopt a very loose federal system of governance supplemented by building infrastructures for regional integration. The loose federal system of governance would allow for the expression of ethnic identity. But the tendency towards fragmentation that might arise from legitimizing ethnicity would be balanced and tempered by providing incentives towards higher levels of integration and identification with the entire region. As the various ethnic groups become reassured of their identity and security, they would also be provided with incentives for a larger regional identity by highlighting the benefits that could emerge from higher levels of association and integration.

The fear and resentment which groups have of the current state systems in the region, as well as their tendency to view separation as a solution, can be tempered if the state is viewed as an intermediate institution rather than the institution of final resort to work out problems, as it has been to date. The creation of a supra-state regional structure, in which the various groups in the region have a say but which is capable of dealing with problems that cannot be dealt with at the state level, could have a salutary effect on the conflicts between the state and the various groupings within it.

This approach could enable the societies in the Horn to work at both ends of the identity problem. While people would be reassured about being what they are or cannot avoid being, they would also be encouraged to explore greater vistas of meaningful identity with greater entities, beyond the state. The disintegration and exclusive orientation of ethnicity would become more balanced by the synthesis and inclusiveness that comes from a sense of regional identity. Creating a regional framework with a move towards regional integration could permit the relaxation of strict boundary demarcations, allowing freedom of movement and interaction between peoples. It could reduce the pressure for the creation of new independent states by disaffected groups, since there would be a new regional forum to redress their grievances or address their interests and rights without their being forced to resort to secession.

The concept of a regional identity arising from a vision of regional integration could create a less threatening, consociational process where all the actors in the region could be engaged in building a more equitable and peaceful social contract that could lead to mutually enriching relation ships.8 Regional identity would not be an end in itself, but a step in a transition to more inclusive identities. It would challenge groups to recognize aspects of themselves that could they could share beyond the ethnic group and the satate.9