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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 confusion revolving around the subject of ethnic conflict suggests that the problem has not been well grasped, at least as it has manifested itself in the Horn of Africa. The tendency has been, however, to take the phenomenon as given and to think of building mechanisms to deal with it. Unfortunately, the solutions generated under these circumstances have also been full of contradictions and anomalies. People who have been frustrated with the existing state systems in the Horn have advocated self-determination as a way of dealing with the problem. These proponents argue for the restructuring if not the dismantling of the existing states and the creation of new ones such as Eritrea, Oromia, Ogadenia, Somaliland, and Southern Sudan. But the proposed states in many ways resemble the ones being dismantled. As long as they are not completely ethnically homogeneous they will be faced again by an "ethnic" or "minority" problem or a "nationalities question," just like their predecessors. The problem of "ethnic conflict" then starts all over again. Alternatively, if there are no minorities there is no guarantee that the "homogeneous ethnic group" will not break up into subdivisions such as the disintegration along clan lines in Somalia. From that conflict we have observed that violence and animosity between clans is not necessarily any less intense than that between ethnic groups.

The logic of a separate ethnicity or nationality as a basis for the creation of a separate state forces us to seek the highest primordial common denominator between people, in order to determine the unit for whom a state is to be created. If we pursue this logic, it is not clear at what level of social organization we might be able to attain that common ground. In the Horn, ethnic and clan identification have not yet provided that highest common denominator. One might be forced to look at smaller and smaller units, such as the family. The search for such a primordial common denominator, which the logic underlying the ethnic state seems to demand, could lead us to very absurd conclusions.

The major problem with the notion of ethnicity or nationality as a form of identity is that it is a very exclusive concept. It is preoccupied with the identification of how one is different from others. Without denying that aspect of identity which is exclusive, an equal amount of energy must be put into exploring and articulating more inclusive conceptions of identity as well. The current preoccupation with exclusiveness must be counterbalanced by notions and visions of inclusiveness. In the current debate in the Horn, and for that matter in many other places where there has been a revival of nationalism or ethnicity, it seems that it is the narrow and exclusivist voices that have carried the day.

Simultaneously, there is a sense of resignation, even among the scholarly community, that the brutal slaughter and destruction taking place in the name of ethnic and national conflicts in the Horn of Africa region and other places, such as Yugoslavia or the former Soviet Union, are sordid aspects of human nature about which little can be done. Part of the challenge for human civilization is to tame those atomistic tendencies towards greater and greater disintegration based on exclusive identity. This should be done not by ignoring or denying the need for such identities, but by working at them from the opposite end, by fusing them with a more inclusive sense of identity, and by helping people to recognize and nurture their commonality with others instead of always glorifying and celebrating their differences and exclusivity. The approach discussed in this chapter is an attempt in that direction.


1. Greenfield makes this point from his observation in Harar: "In Harar today the term Amhara means little more than a Christian" (Greenfield, 1965: 57). In Wollo people used to ask: "Are you an Amhara or a Muslim?" in order to qualify a person's religion.

2. A new law in Ethiopia defines "nation" or "nationality" as "people living in the same geographic area and having a common language and a common psychological makeup of identity." See Proclamation no. 1, 1992, on the "Establishment of National and Regional and Woreda Council Members Election Committee," p. 2. This definition illustrates some of the difficulties identified earlier. How is the "common psychological makeup of identity" to be determined? How is it to be measured? What happens to those that speak the language but do not feel the "common psychological makeup of identity," such as the Wollega Oromo and the Wollo Oromo? Or have the same "psychological makeup of identity" but do not speak the same language, such as the Shoa Amhara and the Shoa Oromo?

3. But as we will see later, bearing an Amhara name does not necessarily signify having Amhara lineage.

4. Clapham, 1988: 24. Darkwah (1975) points out that the founder of the Shoan kingdom, Negassi, was a self-made Oromo war leader who made his own position but styled it after an Abyssinian model. Others point out that the Oromo language was used at court in Gondar and Shoa and that Oromo leaders controlled many of the emperors in the north, especially during the Gondar era (see, e.g., Greenfield, 1965: 56). Haberland (1963) points out that a Shoa Ambara is largely an Oromo as a Shoa Oromo is to a very large extent an Amhara. The boundary between those identities is very fluid. Gedamu (1972: 5) makes a similar argument about the relationship between Shoa Amharas and the Gurages, as well as between the Gurages and Oromos in Shoal

5. Teske and Nelson (1974) indicate that acculturation and assimilation are separate processes, though they may be interrelated. Assimilation is unidirectional while acculturation may occur in both directions. According to Salole (1979), acculturation is the cultural changes which occur to two or more populations in close contact. Assimilation is the incorporation of individuals or groups into another culture.

6. Transitional Period Charter, 1991. Nationality was defined as "people living in the same geographic area and having a common language and a common psychological makeup of identity. "

7. For an interesting discussion of how the ideology entertained by student activists in the 1960s distorted the understanding and analysis of historical situations in Ethiopia, see Marcus, 1992.

8. See North and Draimin (1990: 245-6) for similar examples in Central America.

9. For a more in-depth discussion of the regional approach as a mechanism of countering ethnic conflict and disintegration in the Horn of Africa, see Assefa, forthcoming (b).


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