Ethnic Politics and Individual Rights: An Alternative Vision for Ethiopia

By Messay Kebede

The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain government.” Patrick Henry

The prevailing assumption, which originates from the ideologues of ethnic politics, is that identity politics is a direct consequence of social inequalities resulting from the political or/and economic marginalization of groups of people defined by linguistic, racial, cultural, or religious particularisms. In response to the discrimination perpetuated by dominant groups, excluded groups politicize their particularisms to fight back and win equal treatments. They thus draw on their particularisms to forge political organizations that give them unity of purpose, articulate their grievances, and design strategies to implement their demands.

Let us agree that groups suffering from discrimination have the absolute right to protest and fight to redress the inequalities. The question is to know whether the creation of ethnic parties is a sine qua non for achieving such a goal. There is no doubt that the unification under an ethnic organization has a practical advantage, obvious as it is that no better representative for their demands can be found than an organization led by ethnic kin and exclusive committed to the well-being of the group. The downside, however, is that the strategy advocates the primacy of group rights and tends to devalue the importance of individual rights, without which democracy is simply an empty word.

Indeed, the condition of ethnic politics pushes individual rights into the back scene. The primacy of the groups means that individuals are defined by their membership to the group. In thus being an element of the group, individuals forsake sovereignty or autonomy; whatever rights they have, they are a derivation of the group. In this condition, the group or those who speak in the name of the group are not accountable to individuals. In contrast, modern or real democracy advances the notion of the individual as citizen, thereby investing rights, not in the group, but in the individuals. In fact, the group has no rights; only individuals have rights. The community is a free association of autonomous individuals, that is, an association to which individuals transfer some of their rights to ensure and protect collective well-being.

One undeniable lesson of history is that ideologies based on the primacy of group rights invariably institute dictatorial regimes. Whether the group is defined in terms of class, as in Marxism-Leninism, or ethnicity, as advocated by various ethno-nationalist ideologies, or religion, as promoted by theocratic movements and states, the outcome is always the rise of authoritarian regimes. Ethiopia has consecutively experimented two dictatorial regimes, first in the name of class emancipation and, second, in the name of ethnic liberation. Even though the ethnonationalist ideology resulted in the independence of Eritrea, the outcome was no different:  Eritrea is languishing under a terrible dictatorship.

Strange indeed is the Ethiopian response to ethnic marginalization. If one is convinced that the major problem of Ethiopia is the ethnic issue, then the remedy should not have been the creation of ethnic bantustans. How can the disease become its own cure? The right approach should have been the depoliticization of ethnicity through the creation of a political system bringing people together not by ethnicity or religion, but by the shared values of freedom and equality. Unlike ethnicization, which only aggravates the problem, this last solution would remove it by making ethnicity politically irrelevant. This irrelevance would, in turn, allow the protection of ethnicity as a cultural characteristic of Ethiopian diversity. Better yet, it would even advocate the rehabilitation of ethnicity as a prerequisite for the restoration of freedom and equality.

A specific impairment of the ethnonationalist ideology is the undermining of national cohesion, the outcome of which is that the national entity to which ethnic groups claim to belong become permanently infested with political instability and lack of legitimacy. Most African countries regularly remind us that, once the ethnic disease has taken root, the resulting tendency to recognize legitimacy only to the state that has clear ethnic references seriously damages national cohesion and with it the possibility of wide agreement on the workings of a truly representative democracy. So far, democracy has not emerged from political systems comprising groups defined as sovereign entities and probably it will never will.

The question that needs to be asked here is the reason why ethnic politics either institute dictatorial regimes or undermine nations by the constant threat of secession or effectively end up in secession, without however delivering the promised democratic outcome. No need to beat about the bush, we have to question the proclaimed goal of fighting to remove inequalities. The claim is nothing more than the apparent or seeming reason hiding the real intention, which is that ethnic politics is not so much about eliminating embedded inequalities as competing for the control of state power. In other words, ethnic politics is about elites vying for power: it is how elites amplify and use existing grievances to mobilize ethnic groups behind their leadership and try to seize power in their name. Short of power, these elites can also be quite content to become partner of the elite controlling state power, provided that they are given authority over their own ethnic groups. In the language of ethnic politics, the group achieves self-determination when it is ruled by kin elites, regardless of the type of rule to which the group is subjected.

Accordingly, the fundamental shortcoming of ethnic politics is that it does not contain the imperative of intra ethnic freedom and equality. It definitely protests against ethnic inequality, but it does it in the name of the group. This way of positing the problem does not subject emancipation to the effective exercise of freedom and equality by individuals. The group can be promoted to equality or even to hegemony over other groups, without thereby implying that the individuals composing the group should themselves be free or treated equally. This is the gist of the matter: unless individual rights are placed clearly above collective rights, the institutional mechanisms liable to put the representatives of the collective power under a democratic control are simply lacking.

As a matter of fact, the opposite tendency is more in line with ethnicization: those who claim to represent the group are not accountable to the individuals for the simple reason that sovereignty is invested in the group and individuals are not the source of authority. The ethnic constitution of Ethiopia begins with the statement, “We the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia.” What comes first is not the free individual, but the group, that is, the nation or the nationality. And to dispel all misunderstanding, the constitution adds: “All sovereign power resides in the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia.” By contrast, the American Constitution, for example, begins with, “We the People of the United States,” and immediately specifies that the Constitution is ordained and established by the people so that sovereignty belongs to the people, and not to tribal, ethnic, or religious groups. The contrast resides in the singular usage of people by the American Constitution to signify united individuals forming one nation whereas the Ethiopian version refers to a collection of sovereign entities subsuming individuals reduced to the common characteristic of language, race, or religion.

Since ethnicization targets the liberation of the group as a distinct and self-sufficient group, freedom and equality are not natural rights of individuals, but entitlements as members of a group. The dispensator of rights is the group, and so rights are not natural, that is, inherent in individuals as individuals, prior to any membership to a group. Opposing the primacy of the group, the article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Equality and freedom are not derived from affiliation to a group; they are innate rights and, as such, inalienable. It is only as possessors of these natural rights that the ethnic or religious identities of individuals are protected since any discrimination violates article 2 of the Declaration stipulating that individuals enjoy all rights and freedoms, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” In other words, group rights are derivation of individual rights, and not the other way round.

A constitution advocating the primacy of group rights misses the fundamental shift in thinking that brought about modern democracy, namely, the notion of individuals as the source of all sovereignty. It belongs to the dustbin of history, given that it is no different from past monarchical systems in which sovereignty was invested in the monarch, the consequence of which was that the people were just subjects of the monarch. The thinking among ethnicist thinkers is that embedded ethnic inequalities cannot be overcome through the primacy of individual rights so that the primacy of group rights is the inevitable path to liberation. Precisely, the whole issue about the choice for a democratic society is that it requires the transformation of natural groups into free associations of sovereign individuals. Only thus can the group itself or those who claim to speak in the name of the group become accountable to the individuals composing the group. The condition of democracy is the dissolution of the group into sovereign individuals, who then recreate the group as a free, that is, as a contractual association.

What is more, without the effective guarantee of the primacy of individual freedom, group equality is meaningless. The ascendency accorded to a group leads to the mistaken thinking that the condition of its liberation is to deny all rights to the oppressor. This is to forget that the shackles by which you oppress the oppressors are also those that will silence you for the simple reason that the policy to oppress requires the establishment of a dictatorial system. Freedom is a special commodity: it exists only to the extent that it is shared. This truth has been stated loud and clear by none other than Nelson Mandela when he wrote: “Freedom is indivisible . . .  To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

We catch here the fundamental derailment of the Ethiopian intelligentsia since the 60s, to wit, the thinking that the freedom of some groups is conditional on the taking away of freedom from other groups. This manner of positing the problem invariably results in the institution of dictatorship. Thus, the Derg’s red terror started, not with the massacre of EPRP’s members, but with the educated elite’s approval of the summary execution of 60 dignitaries of the imperial regime. What happened next was simply the reaping of what the same elite had sown.

That is why national reconciliation is the only way out for countries torn by internal conflicts. The pursuit of reconciliation rather than revenge admits the indivisibility of freedom; as such, it targets the generation of a win-win situation, aware as it is that the refusal of reconciliation does no more than invite dictatorship, the end product of which is the loss of freedom for everybody. Freedom gained at the expense of another comes back as a boomerang and shatters itself.  Freedom, like charity, begins at home.

What all this amounts to is that the recognition of the sovereignty of individuals, which is, as we saw, the sine qua none of all democratic systems, must have precedence over everything, including the creation of ethnic regions. In Ethiopia, the opposite direction was taken: guerrilla elites, who represented no one but themselves, imposed the ethnic regions on the Ethiopian people by sheer force of arms. Accordingly, undoing this illegitimate act is the first step toward democracy through the restoration of the primacy of individual rights. Only when the people regain their absolute right to decide without any precondition and give their free consent by a majoritarian vote after an open and sustained debate between supporters and opponents of ethnic politics can ethnic regions become representative democratic units.

Those who now rule Ethiopia are quite aware of the severe drawbacks of ethnic politics. That is why we hear them glorifying the Chinese model, even though the ideologue and the founding father of the system, namely, the late Meles Zenawi, had repeatedly asserted in the past that multipartism is a must for Ethiopia owing to its ethnic diversity and protracted conflicts. To take China as a model is not only to reverse the prevailing thinking, but it is also to try to apply a model to a country that has little similarity with China, the most decisive difference being, of course, the Chinese unfamiliarity with ethnic entities. The recent infatuation with the Chinese model is an attempt to find a new justification for dictatorial rule, i.e. the continuous suppression of freedom and true democracy in exchange for economic advancement of the people. Since the divide and rule strategy of ethnicization has exhausted its ability to guarantee the continuous rule of the TPLF elite, there is need for an alternative ideology justifying dictatorship: hence, the exaltation of the Chinese model.

In the face of this futile attempt to delay the inevitable, genuine opposition must continue to demand the restoration of the right of Ethiopian people to decide whether or not they approve the ethnic fragmentation of the country. The divide of the Ethiopian opposition on the question of the acceptance of the TPLF constitution must give way to a unified stand demanding that the Ethiopian people must first be in a position to exercise its full sovereignty. The legitimate order is not first ethnicity and then individual rights; rather, it is first individual rights and then ethnicity, if the people so choose by a clear and free vote. The first method puts the cart before the horse and, as such, gives up legitimacy in favor of a dictate by force of arms; the second starts from freedom and yields a legitimate power, thereby avoiding the deadly contradiction of promising freedom in a political system whose founding act is the denial of freedom by sequestrating people behind ethnic borders.

Messay Kebede is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton in Ohio. He taught philosophy at Addis Ababa University from 1976 to 1993. He also served as chair of the department of philosophy from 1980 to 1991.


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