The Significance of Ethnic Identification:
Clarifying the Essentials and Dispelling the Illusions

By Tesfaye Habisso
August 05 2010

"The conflicts that have occupied most men over the past two or three decades and which have led to the most horrendous outpouring of blood have had precious little to do with ideological divisions...In a world of the jet engine, nuclear energy, the computer, and the regionalized organizations, the principal conflicts are not ideological but tribal [ethnic]. Those differences among men which were supposed to be swept away by science and technology and political revolution are as destructive as ever." [Said & Lerche, 1995:247].

In recent times the world has been shifting away from nation-states and toward cultural states, or states based upon a common people or ethnicity. In many places national allegiances have been superseded by cultural allegiances, weakening people’s attachment to their nation-state or multi-nation state/state nation and strengthening their attachment to their cultural groups. Ethno-nationalist tension has been a recurrent feature of post-communist evolution in east and central Europe, including the former USSR. Sub-Saharan Africa has been criss-crossed by fighters of various ethnic and national origins, mainly arising from the horrific genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The Indian sub-continent has revisited the Indo-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir, while the war of attrition between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers has snuffed out the lives of millions. Yes, the news magazines and papers are full of it: From the quagmire of Yugoslavia to the clan-sub-clan, even sub-sub-clan, wars in Somalia and the ethnic wars in the Congo and the Sudan to the lawless frontiers of Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Punjab and Kashmir to the longstanding face-offs in Northern Ireland and the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the separatist movement in Quebec and the War Council of the Assembly of Canadian First Nations with their threats of armed uprisings. Something quite appalling is happening. In the September 2000 issue of THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY we read that Pakistan could be a Yugoslavia in the making, but with nuclear weapons. The bewildering complexity of ethnic and religious divisions is what makes it so fragile. And I would add that the now-universal availability of sophisticated technical, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction is what makes this surging tide of tribalism [ethnic nationalism] so appallingly dangerous [Pat D. Hutcheon, 2009: 1].

Ethnic identity may best be understood as a construct useful to both groups and individuals. It is not 'tribe' or 'tribalism' as derogatorily attached as a tag on Africans by the former colonial masters, who believed contemptuously that these peoples were at the lower level of social development than the Westerners and thus labelled as 'tribes' and not ethnic groups or nations/nationalities. It is self-demeaning and falling into the trap of Eurocentric and racist ethnocentrism to downgrade our nations or ethnic groups in Africa and call them 'tribes', as my friend Professor Sisay Assefa, wittingly or unwittingly, calls them in his e-mail message to me and my friends on May 24, 2010, in which he appreciates the democratisation process and the pace and progress of infrastructure development in Ethiopia but advises us to "move away from ethnicity and ethnic federalism" as well as "tribal or ethnic and religious identity" and forge mono-ethnic Ethiopian identity and evolve from 'tribal' sentiments to fully fledged democrats. Worse still is Mr. Tegegne Werku’s emotional outburst, categorizing the present Ethiopian regime as “a nasty cannibalistic tribalist regime in Ethiopia”. The National Question has been one of the most cogent and palpable issues for many millions of Ethiopians since the past several decades, and it is not, and will never be, I believe, a petty ‘village affair’; neither will it be treated as belonging to the camp of ‘nasty cannibals’ or ‘tribalists’ as Tegegne Werku frets to contemptuously dispose it off [Tegegne Werku, LETTER TO THE VOA, August 4, 2010]. The issue is not as simple as these gentlemen may want to portray; many hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians have sacrificed their lives for the cause. Let us open up a respectful debate and civilized dialogue on this sensitive question as worthy citizens of our common homeland instead of denigrating it as ‘foul and filthy’, so to speak, without presenting any plausible and convincing arguments to nullify the social experiment of ‘ethnic federalism’ as explicitly argued by Professor Sisay Assefa earlier or as implied by Mr. Tegegne Werku in his August 4, 2010 letter to the VOA. Whatever the case, this brief expose of mine is aimed at clarifying some salient points and dispelling the illusions surrounding the question of ethnicity and ethnic self-identification in Africa and elsewhere.

Ethnicity today is a major organizing political principle not only in Ethiopia in particular but throughout the world, including Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, India, UK, China, Russia, post-Soviet states, Jews and Cubans in America, and so on. We cannot wish it away or make it illegal through decrees or canons. Cultural democracy is a major challenge to liberal democracy today, and not less powerful a challenge to liberalism than radical Islam, autocracy or conservatism. This stark reality must be well understood when we talk about 'ethnicity' or 'ethnic identity'.

Ethnic identity may be built around group members' perceptions of shared descent, religion, language, origins, or other cultural features. What motivates members to create and maintain a common identity, however, is not shared culture but shared interests. Once created, ethnic groups have persisted not because of cultural conservatism but because their members share some common economic and political interests, thus creating an interest group capable of competing with other groups in the continuing struggle for power. The construction and destruction of ethnic identities has been an ongoing process. By and large, robust and all-encompassing economic development and the process of ‘voluntary assimilation’ into one dominant culture, if the latter exists, will have a tremendous impact in undermining the sentiments and attachments of ethnicity and ethnic identity, giving way, in a considerable measure, to the supremacy of utilitarian interests in a free market economy. Whatever the case, ethnicity and ethnic identity are destined to persist for many decades to come.

Let us leave the Ethiopian case of constitutionally recognizing the self-determination rights of the more than 80 ethnic groups or "nations, nationalities and peoples" for the moment and examine another African country, for example, Zaire. The name Ngala, for example, was used by early colonial authorities to describe a 'tribe' or an ethnic group that they imagined existed and lived upriver from the capital and spoke Lingala. The name Ngala figured prominently on early maps. The fact that Lingala was a lingua franca and that no group speaking Lingala as a mother tongue existed did not prevent colonial authorities from ascribing group characteristics to the fictional entity; they gave Ngala further substance by contrasting its characteristics with those of downriver peoples such as the Kongo. In the pre-independence era, some of the upriver Africans briefly adopted the identity of Bangala; they found it useful as a rallying point in creating a political party. Unfortunately, the party failed to win significant electoral support. Without the prospect of winning political and economic spoils, the Bangala identity was perceived as useless and was quickly discarded.

Other ethnic group identities have proven more enduring. Zaire's two largest ethnic groups, the Kongo and the Luba, have been widely mistrusted by many other Zairians as excessively arrogant, ambitious, and inclined to nepotism. Here again, however, traits considered to be innate to the group are in fact ascribed, products of specific historical conditions. Both groups were early adapters to the influences of the West. Their numerical preponderance in Zaire's postcolonial business, church, educational, and governmental hierarchies is a product of their history of early schooling and early acquisition of the skills of literacy rather than of any timeless expression of innate characteristics of ambition and arrogance. Groups on the borders of Kongo and Luba influence have sometimes affirmed their common identity with their larger neighbour or denied it, depending on the historical advantages or disadvantages to be gained.

The significance and divisiveness of ethnic identities were highlighted during the struggle for political power at the time of independence and in the period preceding it. The politically ambitious seized on ethnic identity as the most practical basis for organizing political parties, and a nation fragmented along ethnic lines was the result. In Kasai Province (now Kasai-Occidental Region and Kasai-Oriental Region), ethnic conflict broke out between the Lulua and the Luba-Kasai. In Katanga Province (now Shaba Region), tension had long existed between the Lunda and others (such as the Tabwa from eastern Katanga), who consider themselves "authentic Katangans," and Luba-Kasai immigrants, whose material success the Lunda resented. When Katanga seceded in 1960, its Lunda president, Möise Tshombe, briefly attempted to expatriate the Luba-Kasai from Katanga back to Kasai Province; the net result was to exacerbate hostility between the two groups.

When Mobutu came to power in 1965, his first concern was the re-establishment of public order; ethnicity was widely perceived as having contributed to intra-Zairian conflicts, so Mobutu began a concerted campaign against its expression both in political parties and in government. The several hundred existing political parties, most of them organized along ethnic or regional lines, were banned. They were replaced with one national party, Mobutu's Popular Revolutionary Movement (Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution--MPR). Ethnic associations and appeals to ethnic unity were proscribed. Within government, administrative centralization led to a reduction in the number of provinces and other administrative units and the abrogation of the autonomy of such units. The staffing of government ministries and of high-level posts was consciously balanced to ensure ethnic diversity. Also, the constant rotation of both civilian and military heads of regional and sub-regional units prevented anyone from building an ethnic following in his or her home regionl.

Despite these measures, Mobutu's government has been widely perceived as having if not an ethnic, then a regional Équateurian bias. Équateur Region is sometimes knowingly referred to as "Bethlehem" or "The Promised Land" by non-Équateurians. One major factor in this perception is the fact that Équateurians have profited from Zaire's equivalent of an educational affirmative action program. Education is perceived as the key to social mobility, and the government's establishment of a regional quota system for university admissions (allotting set numbers of entry places by region) has effectively disadvantaged secondary students graduating from regions with numerous schools, such as Bandundu or Bas-Zaïre, relative to those with fewer schools, notably Équateur and Haut-Zaïre. Students from regions rich in schools have long been angered by the fact that lesser-qualified graduates are occupying university seats solely because they come from the north. In addition, many key posts in the security network generally have been staffed by Équateurians.

Ethnic identity has remained a potent force, and ethnic tensions have festered, exacerbated by the country's economic and social deterioration. Events in Shaba and Nord-Kivu in the early 1990s amply demonstrate this renewed tendency toward ethnic violence. Some groups have come to feel threatened by others they perceive as more successful. And, in a climate of economic collapse and increasingly fierce competition for scarce resources, they have taken action to rid themselves of the offending groups, witness the "authentic Katangans forcing Luba-Kasai out of Shaba and the resentment of indigenous peoples in Nord-Kiva of the numerous Banyarwanda. Many observers also believe, however, that the Mobutu regime has deliberately encouraged this ethnic tension in order to foster anarchy and undermine mass political mobilization against the regime.

Nevertheless, despite the persistence of ethnic tensions demonstrated by inter-ethnic violence in the early 1990s, from the individual Zairian's standpoint, ethnicity is still but one source of identity among many, one that may or may not be expressed depending upon the advantages to be gained or lost. Class identity, for example, may well be more important than ethnic identity to a member of the politico-commercial elite in determining how he or she reacts to a given situation. Religious identity might be more significant than class or ethnic identity to clergy. And patron-client ties throughout the society may undercut or strengthen religious, ethnic, or class identities. Few contemporary analysts would attempt to predict either an individual or a group's probable course of action based on ethnic factors alone.

Whatever the case, ethnicity and ethnic identity are bound to remain as part and parcel of the social fabric of all modern nations throughout the world today. As the famous American political scientist Samuel Huntington correctly stated:
"What ultimately counts for people is not political ideology or economic interest. Faith and family, blood and belief, are what people identify with and what they will fight and die for."

By way of concluding remarks, let us not mystify the significance of ethnic identity and try to wish it away or ban it through laws or decrees because it does not address the core problem. The best social engineering would be to positively approach it and design political institutions and mechanisms of accommodation for all ethnic groups or nations to co-exist in peace and harmony based on equality of opportunities as well as conditions, cherishing democratic and voluntary unity through federalism and interdependence. This is the way forward for Ethiopia as well as for all Africans. The days of the liberal nation-state blueprint of nation-building through ethnic homogenisation by the crude method of forceful assimilation into one dominant culture (Amharic in Ethiopia and English, French, Arabic, Portuguese in other ex-colonial Africa) are over. Africans choose to cling to their ethnic identity and do not want to trade off for some alien identity. It is for this crucial reason that Cultural Democracy has gained the ascendancy in multi-national, multi-cultural and multi-lingual societies in Africa and elsewhere today. There is no better alternative, as "free institutions are impossible in divided societies" unless they disintegrate into component entities, according to the champions of liberal democracy such as Stuart Mill, Francis Fukuyama, David Horowitz and their disciples. Do we indeed seek to disintegrate in order to become democratic or choose to maintain our unity through diversity and build ethnic-based democratic federalism? Do we really want to assimilate into one dominant culture and ‘melt away’ into extinction or opt to cherish our diversity like a “bouquet of flowers” and still strengthen and nurture our unity and common citizenship? These are the stark choices before us, and for each and every one of us to make. As far as I am concerned, if Ethiopia or other African countries seek to remain as sovereign and self-preserving plural states-- states inhabited by many different nations or ethnic groups—we need to put in place institutional designs such as ‘ethnic federalism’ or ‘multinational federalism’ and devolution of power or other similar decentralized arrangements and conflict prevention, management and resolution mechanisms for a meaningful accommodation of ethnic diversity, and I strongly believe that such constitutional engineering must be the guiding ideology and principle of any democratically elected government worthy of the name in today’s world. No sane political leadership in Africa would opt for the path of disintegration of their country and state, and no dignified countrymen and women would accept any other blueprint of nation building that disregards ethnic identity and the significance of ethnic identification. The following quote says it all:

"... Politically, the era of centralization seems to have come to an end, and this is as it should be. A multi-ethnic, multilingual and multi-religious society such as ours cannot and should not be administered in a highly centralized manner. That people in their respective localities have the right to administer themselves, exercise a degree of command over their own resources, and develop their own cultures and languages must be taken as axiomatic...But there must also be unity within diversity. In the past we emphasized unity at the expense of diversity, and we have paid dearly for it. Let us hope that now we will not move to the other extreme and emphasize diversity at the expense of unity.” [Eshetu Chole, “Ethiopia At the Crossroads...”, Dialogue, Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, 1992].

Who would contest Dr. Eshetu’s words of wisdom and inspiration?

“If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then and only then will I drop my defences and my hostilities, and I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit." [Ralph Ellison]