Ethiopia needs a politics of citizenship

Journey to democracy

Ethiopia is on a path to democracy. However, historical injustices and identity questions are still central to the Ethiopian politics. Paving sustainable way for democratic transition in the country requires understanding how different nations and nationalities have been incorporated into, and most importantly how some have been excluded and marginalized within the Ethiopian political structure. This requires a fine-grained ethnography of how people experienced, understood and expresses their experiences in the process of Ethiopian formation.

That being said, ‘state” represents the most dominant political structure in the world today. Citizenship identity, which principally reference to the relationship between individuals and the state (state-ness) makes an important and most accepted political identity. Yet in practice people are members of multiple and shifting political communities at different scales. I believe, the politics of citizenship provide both inclusive and feasible alternative in Ethiopian politics.  


Politics of citizenship: Meaning

The politics of citizenship is a contentious interaction over the institutionalization and realization of substantive membership, legal status, rights and participation in the socio-political and economic system of the country. The politics of citizenship provides an integral framework for overcoming political contentions over cultural, legal, social and political exclusion and inclusion by focusing on recognition for cultural inclusion, redistribution for social justice, and representation for political inclusion.

 Image result for citizenship pictures

There is an increasing attention but also increasing ambiguity on the politics of citizenship. The concept of citizenship by itself is an essentially contested concept that contains a variety of meanings with disputes over its proper use, and no agreed upon way of settling those disagreements. It is a complex concept where the core characteristics and dimensions remain open for competing conceptions. This complexity even increases when citizenship is contrasted with nationality.

In certain disciplines citizenship and nationality are used interchangeably while in others, they embody distinct meanings. In technical legal sense "citizenship" and "nationality" are essentially the same concept but reflecting two different legal frameworks; "citizenship" being confined to domestic legal forums, while "nationality" is connected to the international law forum. In anthropological/sociological sense citizenship and nationality are in a complex, even contingent relationship to one another. The two concepts belong to different spheres of meaning and activity that citizenship is a political/legal concept deriving from people`s relationship to the state (state-ness) while nationality is a cultural (anthropological) concept, which binds people on the bases of shared identities. Thus, state-ness and nation-ness need not be, and increasing are not, aligned.


The Ethiopian Dilemma: Citizenship vs Nationality

Ethiopia is a veritable mosaic of cultural and linguistic groups. There are two major contradictory characterizations of this nature of Ethiopia. One is that see Ethiopia as a homogenous and indivisible nation-state where the cultural identities (nation-ness) have melted into political identity (state-ness). According to this group, the two identities are intertwined at least over the last 100 years and therefore, Ethiopian identity (Ethiopiawinet) is conceived as both citizenship and nationality. The other see Ethiopia as a home to dozens of nations and nationalities with unique cultural traits and hence a multi-national state with a distinct citizenship and nationality. According to this group Ethiopiawinet is a citizenship identity and each nation has its own nationality.

In general, the Ethiopian identity (Ethiopiawinet) has lived in a dilemma of being a citizenship or a nationality. This dilemma, I believe has hampered political and social discourses in the country. Over the last two decades the government has been manipulating this contradiction and the country has been suffering from lack of smooth communication and dialogue among its diverse people. The Ethiopian people need to act before it is too late. With the changing political landscape, the elites must embark on building national consensus. The first step in moving Ethiopia forward is resolving this dilemma and forging a common identity for Ethiopians. An ideal entry point for that is treating citizenship and nationality as distinct identities and then building common values while recognizing differences and appreciating living in diverse communities. 


Way Forward

Ethiopia lived a polarized identity politics over the last 130 years. The country has most probably stacked into what anthropologists’ call chiefdom, a form of sociopolitical organization where a single person or group of few individuals exercises the political and economic power. The evolution of the political system into a civilized state with fully developed citizenship identity has been hijacked. Successive Ethiopian rulers have replaced the assignment of state building, creating national consensus and developing inclusive citizenship identity with cultivating their own personality cult in the external world.

The expansion of Amharic and Christianity that were given a lion’s share of gluing people into “one nation” during the imperial eras, the scientific socialism that were entrusted by the Derg and the revolutionary democracy that aimed at creating one economic empire all failed to unite the Ethiopian people. None of them succeeded in creating national consensus and building a unified nation.

The safest way forward for Ethiopia is developing an all-inclusive citizenship identity (Ethiopiawinet). This should start from de-ethicizing and secularizing Ethiopiawinet, making it an essentially non-national, encompassing form of political identity. It should be an umbrella identity for all nation, nationalities and people of Ethiopia.

Moreover, it should be underlined that the Ethiopian identity shows a general pattern of fragmentation. The Oromo, the Amhara, the Somali, the Tegarus and all other nations, nationalities and people of Ethiopia have had their lives intersect one with another in overlapping and complex circles of identity construction and rejection. The shape and edge of Ethiopian identity is thus historically changing, often vague and to a degree malleable.

The main question in the country today is the question of making Ethiopia a fairly just multinational and multicultural country. This needs some sort of de-ethnicization and loosening “Ethiopian” as a nationality and strengthening it as a citizenship identity. Ethiopians barely recognizes citizenship as an important identity. But citizenship is a “right” identity in the modern world – the right to have right. Instead, Ethiopians are preoccupied with a politics of 19th century - deconstructing national identities - a failed policy. An alternative politics and a prerequisite for our path to democracy in unison now is a politics of citizenship. We need to develop an all-inclusive common identity –Ethiopian citizenship. We also need to chart a fresh road of dealing with the conditions that engender ethnic nationalism rather than blaming those who are forced by circumstances to embrace their identity as “narrow nationalists”.




Read 37470 times Last modified on Monday, 13 August 2018 11:39

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EAPRI aims to fill the gap between research, policy and practice not only by providing objective policy research that influence policy agenda and choices but also by strengthening capacity in policy evidence utilization and political commitment for its implementation. 

At EAPRI, we believe in the power of critical information in building a brighter future. Our focus is on the opportunities and challenges of attaining the development visions and goals of the nations of East Africa region. Currently having our East African Office located in Addis Ababa, we are collaborating with governmental and non-governmental organizations to provide evidences that influence policy in the region. In Ethiopia, we are currently working on, among others, urban social reconstruction, youth development and employment, dialogue and reconciliation, and rural development and food safety.