The Danger of Ethnocentric Democracy in Ethiopia: A Call for Dialogue

By Rev. Tegga Lendado, PhD

September 29, 2011 (SSNA) — The dynamics of democracy and ethnocentricity set a puzzling paradox to my layman’s mind. I am troubled by thinkers who juggle with both political concepts. I will therefore, try to show the danger of African or Ethiopian ethnocentric democracy that advocates the principle of separate but equal. My objective is to provoke healthy and tolerant discussions in view of initiating dialogue for peace, justice and reconciliation among political and religious factions. I do not wish to sound a politician because I am not one. I am sharing my views from a biblical stand point, moral stance and principles of justice while at the same time appreciating other religious and non-religious philosophies. In trying to understand the opposing views, i.e., ethnocentricity and populist democracy, I came across the discussion between two scholars, namely Tesfaye Habisso and Harold Marcus. Dr. Marcus comments:

“The other difference concerns my puzzlement at the striking allegation that prompted me to write a response in the first place: the claim that "the bloody chaos and disruptions that occurred after the May 2005 national and regional elections in Ethiopia were undoubtedly . . . the outcome of Western interference and attempt bent on ousting the current nationalist and populist developmental regime and replacing it with a client government in Ethiopia that would serve the interests of the West and its multi-national/ trans-national corporations, and not Ethiopia and the Ethiopians….I find it difficult to imagine that many EPRDF members accept this claim”. (Taken from: Harold Marcus comments on Tesfaye Habisso).

What does ‘current nationalist and populist developmental regime’ mean? Was not Mengistu’s dirgue nationalist and populist, at least at the outset? Was not Adolf Hitler nationalist to the core? Could nationalism mean ruthlessness, racism or trivial tribalism in these contexts? Is not current Ethiopian nationalist and populist developmental regime based on ethnocentricity? What does populist mean? If populist democracy means a government ‘of the people, for the people and by the people’, as in the ideals of ‘democracy’, then it is antithesis to tribalism, ethnocentricity, “nationalism” and neo-apartheid. Just as Professor Harold Marcus asserted herein above I also find it difficult to swallow. Regarding tribalism (which I call ethnocentricity here) David Lamb says, “It is one of the most difficult African concepts to grasp….. Publically, modern African politicians deplore it. Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi calls it the cancer that threatens to eat out the very fabric of our nation.” Yet almost every African politician practices it— most African presidents are more tribal chiefs in their inner sentiment and conviction than national statesmen serving all on equal grounds. This very phenomenon remains perhaps the most potent force in the day-to-day African polity and life”.

In most post-independence African countries political leaders have been pulled apart between the onslaughts of divisive colonial-tribal legacy and the new nationalistic order. In the process the leaders seem to have set themselves apart as demi-gods and bonafide dictators. In the case of Ethiopia, primitive feudalism with its malice had held the country hostage to its painful and glorious past. Modernization had been taboo for the feudo-ecclesiastical empire which kept Ethiopia as a deserted island in the sea of the dynamic contemporary world until the 1974 revolution.

Prof. Marcus says, “In a disastrous turn of events, a small group of junior military officers hijacked the revolution and emerged as the most formidable force that defined the course of the popular uprising. What started as a nonviolent movement for change ended in bloodbath when the army officers turned their guns against the idealist young men and women who had a better vision for their people? During the dark era of the Red Terror, hundreds of thousands of fellow Ethiopians were tortured and slaughtered in cold blood. The 1991 ethnic-based revolution was dictated by two northern rebel groups that speak the same language, i.e. the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TEPLF) and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). With the full complicity of the TPLF, EPLF succeeded Eritrea and declared independence. TPLF monopolistically controlled state power in Ethiopia and chose the colonial way of “power sharing” with its subservient puppet ethnic liberation groups it organized and created in its own image.”

Interestingly, the above statements suggest that, based on its own shrewd making, EPLF-single-handedly sponsored all other ethnic liberation fronts including TPLF. Now that Eritrea is gone with its EPLF elites of ethnocentric political philosophy, why would Ethiopia’s leaders adhere to EPLF’s schemes? Why should Ethiopia dwell on ethnic or tribal liberation front mentality even after liberating the ethnic groups which aspired for equality and justice? In other words, why shouldn’t TPLF and all the other liberation fronts exist in a federal democratic arrangement? The existence of such movements may be redundant and problematic; particularly since their objectives have long been achieved; unless it is a matter of satisfying one’s own hunger for power or greed for amassing wealth.

This leads me to say that all those liberation fronts including the TPLF should now join hands and hearts to form a reunited democratic Ethiopia. I suppose that would then close the chapter of ethnocentricity all together; and opt for engaging in broad-based dialogues for conflict-resolution, peace, justice and reconciliation. It also means that Ethiopian well-wishers and humanitarian entities need to save the Ethiopian people from the onslaughts of ethnocentric extremism by pressuring the government and opposition parties to a negotiating table as peace partners aspiring for national democracy as opposed to ethnic based feud. It also means that religious and other community leaders could pop-in to broker such proactive and peace-led engagements of political party leaders.

My biblical Christian ethics and principles do not allow me to think and act ethnocentric or tribal; or even think in terms of majority or minority; but rather think of universal, human, and transcendental. I believe a human being is larger than the individual (him/herself); or his/her tribe; or even his/her own daily life; because he/she is created in the likeness of Almighty God; for fulfilling God’s eternal human purpose. As the bearer of God’s own words of ethics I must therefore love and respect my neighbor. Any hatred or contempt toward my neighbor irrespective of his/her color, creed, national, racial, or tribal-tag is an assault on God’s very image; for the Bible says: “He who hates his brother is a murderer”. That is why I have to start with humanity first (Obang Metho, Solidarity Movement) to describe my ethos. All other elements of my complex ethos come after my humanity. Probably, closer to my humanity is my Ethiopianness and followed by my ethnic or regional identity.

Ultra-ethno-centricity essentially defies human dignity and morality. It promotes nepotism, corruption, attitude of superiority, inferiority, racism, tribalism and clanism (ex. KKK, apartheid, slavery, segregation, ethnic cleansing, etc.). I believe in the Eternal, All-wise, Very Different and Sovereign God. This is the only way I can make any sense of this life even in tragedies and sufferings; and the rule of evil. The principle of democratic governance by representation is a biblical principle: “…thou shalt provide men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness (unjust gain); and place such over them, to be rulers…” Exodus 18:21.  Representative democracy is thus the closest system that may insure peace and prosperity; but it has to be led by people of optimum integrity, dedication, transparency, humbleness and humility.

A good model of ethnocentric democracy was the former Republic of South Africa. Let us review a short recent history of apartheid which I gathered from and my own recollections. The apartheid system in South Africa was a system that promoted ethnic and racial segregation. Apartheid (apart-ness) was a system of legal racial segregation enforced by the National Party government of South Africa between 1948 and 1994, under which the rights of the majority ‘non-white’ inhabitants of South Africa were curtailed and minority rule by the whites was maintained. Apartheid was also practised in South West Africa, present-day Namibia under South African administration under a League of Nations mandate, until the territory’s independence in 1990. The system of racial segregation and bantustanization of the black South Africans classified inhabitants into four racial groups, namely, native, white, colored, and Asian, and residential areas were segregated, sometimes by means of forced removals. From 1970, black people were deprived of their citizenships legally becoming citizens of one of ten tribally based self-governing homelands called Bantustans, four of which became nominally independent states.  I had the opportunity of witnessing the “independence” celebration of the last state of Venda in 1980 when I visited the country.

Since the 1950s, a series of popular uprisings and protests were met with the banning of opposition and imprisoning of anti-apartheid leaders. As unrest spread and became more violent, state organizations responded with increasing repression and state-sponsored violence. Reforms to apartheid in the 1980s failed to quell the mounting opposition, and in 1990 President F.W. DeKlerk began negotiation with apartheid culminating in multi-racial democratic elections in 1994, which were won by the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela.

Evidently, Mandela, Bishop Tutu and DeKlerk led the ending of apartheid by opening the way for the drafting of a new constitution for the country based on the principle of one person, one vote. The rest is recent history from which we can learn a great deal.

In conclusion I would say that no political system that defies human dignity, equality and freedom would bring lasting peace, justice and sustainable prosperity to a nation. The term majority-minority in politics should only be used to denote political divisions as per ideologies, principles, policies, programs, etc., but not tribal, linguistic or ethnic affiliations. Otherwise, an ethnic minority would be perpetually oppressed by the tyranny of an ethnic majority and vice-versa! A majority’s rights are not guaranteed until those of the minorities or even that of the individual are guaranteed. In God’s sight, when it comes to the human soul and spirit, the individual is just as important as the majority or minority. Indeed the individual is as significant being within his/her ethnic group; just as much as he/she is in the universe. The sense of ‘unitary national feeling’ that our forefathers crafted zealously and seriously; by eventually establishing a nation known as Ethiopia; should not be derailed by the newly brewed consciousness of ethnocentric heterogeneity. Certainly, if we want to live as one people, one nation, one flag, indivisible, under Almighty God, then Ethiopian national conviction and dedication should come before ethnic affiliation. What is good for one ethnic group or tribe should be good for all others in today’s ethnically and linguistically rich Ethiopia. In principle, accentuated ethnocentricity and democracy are incompatible. If they are not kept in balance, one may eliminate the other. The impending danger of ethnic violence in Ethiopia and, for that matter in the rest of Africa, can be avoided if all parties come in terms with the human reality on the ground; and the respect it demands among one another. Otherwise, the prevailing political polarization may result in, yet misguided and destructive, revolutions. To avoid such mishaps, visionary leaders at all levels must be proactively engaged in solidifying nationalistic attitudes among the Ethiopian citizens. If the Ultimate Supreme authority, Almighty God says: “Come and let us reason together” (Is. 1: 18), why not our Ethiopian and African political leaders in power invite their opponents into physical and mental prison; instead of inviting to a common platform for dialogue? I dare to say: Ethiopia should set the tone in this regard.

May God grant us courage to be humble in His sight! May we experience the power of Christ’s love in this Meskel celebration in Ethiopia and elsewhere! God bless all.

The Author can be reached at [email protected].

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