Ethnicity is not about Descent - Mesay Kebede

This short article refers to the ongoing heated debate about Fikre Tolossa’s book on the origin of Oromo and Amhara. My intention is not to intervene in the debate by supporting this or that side; nor is it to contribute a missing piece to the debate. I openly confess that I have not read the book; more yet, I do not intend to read it. By contrast, I have read some of the reviews, which clearly indicated to me that the dispute has to do more with ideological positions than with scientific accuracy. Those who reject the book denounce the lack of credible materials in support of the allegation of a common origin of Amhara and Oromo; those who defend the book do so because it counters the discourse of secessionist Oromo who speak of the Ethiopian colonization of the Oromo.

I say the whole debate is ideological because veracity matters little for the issue at hand. The supporters of the idea of a common origin think that it will significantly decrease the ethnic tension between Oromo and Amhara. If Oromo and Amhara are related, then the arguments of secessionist Oromo go down in flames. On the other hand, those who maintain that the idea of a common origin is just a fantasy actually share the same assumption only to say that the idea is unfortunately untrue. They do believe that the attempt to base Ethiopian unity on a fantasy is a dangerous game if only because it misunderstands and underestimates the Oromo grievances. Still, instead of confronting the supporters of the idea of a common origin with political arguments, they try to refute the scientific value of the book. In so doing, not only do they miss the political dimension of ethnic conflicts, but they also engage in a genealogical argument as though things would have been different if indeed Oromo and Amhara had the same origin.

The bare truth is that ethnic conflict is not about having or not having a common origin, religion, or language. Take the case of the Somali: you have literally people with almost identical features in what defines them as a distinct group. Yet the Somali state collapsed and was replaced by smaller hostile states. Another highly relevant example is the growing hostility between Amhara and Tigreans: though they formed a political union that goes back centuries and share crucial defining features, many Tigreans consider themselves as a separate nation. The conflict between Sunnites and Shiites is another example: the identity of race and language could not prevent the proliferation of hostile divisions in the Arab world over an issue that can be considered minor.

One could multiply examples proving that ethnic conflict is less about genealogy and more about politics. Equally obvious is that the appropriate response to a political issue can only be political. To turn it into a genealogical dispute is to evade the issue altogether. And in saying that it is political, one essentially involves elites and their competition for the control of power. That politics is about elites, mere common sense establishes it for the simple reason that two ordinary people living side by side have no cause to quarrel. Why would the fact that the Oromo speak a different language and have different customs antagonize the Amhara or vice versa, unless there is an underlying competition for the control of power?  If you take away the desire to rule, control, and expand, you have no business with politics. The old Marx knew this: he specifically attributed the rise of the state to the emergence of classes.

The whole method of ethnic politics is to construe cultural characteristics into an instrument of organization and mobilization, as confirmed by the expression “politicization of ethnicity.” Elites invent discourses whereby what is just a legitimate and apolitical cultural difference turns into a reason for hostility, mostly through dichotomic valorization contriving the superiority or inferiority of a given culture. The invention of suspicion and hostility enables elites to call for the unification and mobilization of ethnic groups under their leadership and for the control of power to assert or counter the claim to superiority. Once this stage of mobilization is reached, the attempt to dilute or disprove ethnic mobilization is little efficient. Not only is such a solution inadequate, but more importantly, it is also dangerous because it is inappropriate.

The real and only solution is political means the reaching of a viable consensus among competing elites. The consensus must be about power-sharing prior to any election or the verdict of the people. Election cannot be used to marginalize or eliminate rival elites, especially if these elites come from minority ethnic groups. The role of election must be to legitimize the consensus that was reached and make it operational in terms of governmental organization and legislation. Accordingly, the process requires the establishment of democratic rights allowing elites to freely speak and compete while an equally free popular verdict delivers the final arbitration so that the competition between elites remain peaceful. In a word, it is about real decentralization of power by which alone competing elites can have a say in the running of the country.

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