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Cesran International

Ethnicity, Ethnic Conflicts, and Secessionism in Ethiopian Politics

BY BEZAWIT BEYENE** | 19.08.2011

  • Theoretical Overview

Ethnicity is one aspect of identity around which people organise themselves; it is often the core element by which people mobilize and seek political power. Harff and Gurr defined ethnic groups as ‘psychological communities’ whose members share a persisting sense of common interest and identity based on some combination of shared historical experience and valued cultural traits; beliefs, language, ways of life, or a common homeland (2004:3). Moreover, ‘ethnicity is not a thing or a collective asset of a particular group; it is a social relation in which social actors perceive themselves and are perceived by others as being culturally distinct collectivities’ (Malešsevic̕ 2004:4).

Flag_of_EthiopiaEthnic groups and their characteristics are viewed in a number of different ways. For some scholars, ethnic groups have a certain characteristic unique to the group which is consistent and ‘inherent’, whereas for others, elements of the group character are ‘mutable’ and marked only when viewed in relation to other groups. However, it is important to understand that these characteristics are not always consistent and changes are almost inevitable. Solidarity within the group is strong, which creates the potential for the group to mobilise members around their shared ethnicity in order to protect common interests or needs.

The Human Needs Theory explains the causes of identity (ethnic) group mobilisation and conflict as the consequence of a failure to fulfil human developmental needs. John Burton and Edward Azar argued that ‘protracted social conflicts’ are caused when people are not able to acquire the means to meet their basic needs. Basic needs, as explained by Azar, include ‘security, recognition and acceptance, fair access to political institutions and economic participation’, in general referred to as developmental needs (1990:7-10).

Azar argues that individuals predominantly attempt to meet these developmental needs through the formation of identity groups, and that the rise of politically active identity groups stems from two sources. The first of these sources is colonial legacy, from the period when various European powers used the ‘divide and rule’ system, privileging certain groups over others. The second source is an historical pattern of rivalry and contest among communal actors. In this case, the capacity to fulfill human needs presupposes the ability to access political and economic power, which is thwarted if power is dominated by a single group or by a combination of groups which tends to discriminate against others. The inability to share power and ensure equitable distribution is influenced by the acceptance or rejection of group identity (Azar 1990:7-10). In most instances dominant groups try to assimilate other groups by coercive means (Burton 1990:37).

When ethnicity is not managed through peace-oriented and democratic policies, it inherently involves and perpetuates conflict; notwithstanding that ethnicity is also a major cornerstone of social organisation. Ethnic politicization and conflict occur for various reasons, the major ones being economic, political, and cultural inequalities. Harf and Gurr describe ethno-nationalist groups as ‘relatively large and regionally concentrated ethnic groups that lie within the boundaries of one state or of several adjacent states; their modern political movements are directed towards achieving greater autonomy or independent statehood’ (2004:23). Secession, ‘is the formal withdrawal from membership of a polity by section. It is the attempt by an ethnic or regional group(s) to withdraw its region from the control of the state of which it is part’ (Baker 1998:6). Most African countries in the post-independence era are facing rebellious tendencies from secessionist groups who in one way or another consider themselves different, marginalised from the existing system of governance and culturally discriminated against. Political secession is pursued either by groups who have no hope of achieving their political and economic interests (their developmental needs) within the existing state system, or by those who believe their national identity is totally distinct and would be better expressed through the existence of a separate state.

  • Ethnic Politics and Secessionist Movements in Ethiopia

Historical Background

The political history of Ethiopia is permeated with ethnic rivalry and conflict. Since the early dynasties, rulers descended only from certain ethnic groups, thus reinforcing the belief that they were the people chosen by God to lead the country. The Amhara dynasties in particular traced their origin from the Old Testament, claiming that the first king who founded the dynasty in the first century A.D was Menelik I, the son of King Solomon of Israel, and Queen of Sheba of Axum (Axum was the first dynastic state from which the later Abyssinian dynasties had their origin). This line of ancestry, sustained until 1974, received strong support from the Orthodox Christian Church, and the history of the Axumite and Amhara dynasties was glorified and used to give legitimacy to the ruling power.

Throughout the Zemene Mesafinet (Era of Princes) from 1769 to 1855, competition and conflict between the central power or emperor and the regional lords or princes was prevalent (Aalen 2002:2-3). Since this period, when control over central power was pursued by lords, sultans and chiefs organised along ethnic lines from different regions, Ethiopia has exhibited precisely such a pattern of rivalry and contest amongst key actors and, as Azar noted, this is one of the reasons for the emergence of ethnicbased political groups (1990:7).


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*Published in Journal of Conflict Transformation & Security (JCTS) Vol. 1 | No. 2

** Bezawit Beyene has a Masters of Arts Degree in Peace and Reconciliation with distinction, from Coventry University, UK, and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science and International Relations from Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. Bezawit’s experience includes working for international organisations in the fields of development project management, coordination of care programs for refugees and displaced people, and leading local peacebuilding and reconciliation projects. Currently Bezawit is working on research programmes in Ethiopia on the issues of multidimensionally indexed poverty as well as gender-based violence. Bezawit hopes to pursue further academic studies on the impact and effects of ethnic rivalry and secessionism in Africa.

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