Identity politics on the scales of democracy and justice (Geletaw Zeleke)

An article published last week on opendemocracy.net calls Ethiopians ‘to get rid of ethnic-based politics and engage in the counter movements of justice and democracy’. Though intended for an Ethiopian audience, the article makes a general claims that identity politics is irreconcilable with the basic tenets of democracy and justice. That is based on the premise that identity politics thus identity based parties, is inherently hostile to individual differences and irrational.

As the article refrains from gratuitous remarks and stays on topic, I decided to post it here.

Read below:

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Identity politics on the scales of democracy and justice

It is true that a genuine democracy respects and cultivates natural differences. Democracy in this manner is an art of governing people in the principle of respecting human differences. But where does human difference really lie?

This question should be answered before the political system is installed otherwise it cannot meet the complex needs of its citizens. When politicians build their political house they should carve out a workable human difference before they begin to erect a political pole.Those groups which base their politics on real human difference are democratic by nature, supporting the free flow of democratic and just ideas.

The ultimate unit of human difference in a multiethnic society is not an ethnic group but individual difference.The ultimate comparative unit of human difference is found at the level of the individual.

Within the borders of today’s Ethiopia there are a number of groups categorized according to their ethnic difference including the super-ethno classification of the Sematic and Cushitic tribes and further geographic designations. Below the ethnic group there are the sub-ethnics, the mishpocha, the family and other geographic and psychological differences.The ethnocentric politics of Ethiopia when it shaped its house, cut out human differences from both above and below and shaped itself instead by ethnic group.The question is – why haven’t these politicians recognized the importance of individual differences? And the answer is -  such kinds of politics are not democratic by nature.The driving motive behind ethnocentric politics is not democracy but more precisely gaining an advantage to attain a better life at the expense of others.

In this kind of irrational politics, leaders normally espouse the doctrine of ‘survival of the fittest’ directly or implicitly. For their followers, they preach this gospel of the natural undemocratic. Those supporters drunk by their own self-satisfying banter and doctrine do not have any good sense or rationale left over for the rest of the people. Furthermore, due to this process of self-alienation they even lose compassion for groups outside of their own when they thirst for freedom, democracy or justice.

The heart of identity politics is not democracy but instead a question of bloodline superiority. Instead they try to favour their group by any means. Those coming to control such centralized power repeatedly and throughout history have always wanted to maintain their ‘status quo’.  Because of this, the multi-ethnic country of Ethiopia will never have mutual understanding or rational discussion among its groups.

Identity politics are not progressive  -  in fact they can be dubbed ‘change proof’. At the heart of this politics is a disregard for the dynamic forces of a democracy.

Another monumental problem of identity politics is that it disregards the core reliance of a democracy on the voice of the majority. Democracy is concerned with the cohesion of the voice of the majority governing the minority. In the ethno-political country there is no guarantee of a power transfer taking place in a national-level election because the ruling ethnic group will never have respect for the voice of the majority.

Here, when we say majority and minority we are not talking about the size of ethnic groups. I personally do not believe that there is such a thing as  ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ ethnic groups. Before democracy all groups are equal in their ethnic nature. No one person’s culture or language is more or less important than another. Amhara and Derashe ethnics are equal in terms of their ethnic nature. Tigray and Hadya culture and language, Oromo and Hareri values cannot rival the others.

The question of majority and minority has a significant value for a democracy, but this is not measured in ethnic terms. There is no proverbial tall or short ethnic group by its nature. The roles of majority and minority bring about huge confusion when the idea of a democracy is corrupted by the prejudice of ethnic politics.

When we politicize the size of ethnic groups, the tendency to hurt the lesser populated groups is the immediate result. This political environment will create hopelessness in accessing the arena of power. Meanwhile, these lesser populated groups will choose to take up arms.

When bloodline-based politics governs, the trust between ethnic groups horizontally and the trust between people and the government vertically inevitably break down. Communication ceases and governance must become unreliable.

Political parties who establish themselves with respect to individual rights or the essence of human difference can be democratic. These parties will be equipped with the moral capability to respect and govern the natural rights of citizens, their will, their knowledge and their capacities and talents. This important founding principle of a democracy is a guarantee for group and citizen equality.

Politicians who dedicated themselves solely to family members or their home towns have split personalities. One the on hand they are leaders for their interest groups and on the other hand they try to lead the nation. The split personalities of these identity politicians continuously confuse nations by their self politicizing. What is more, because high ranking individuals within the political base are usually relatives of the dominant bloodline, it is impossible for citizens to trust their government. Parties who shape their philosophy on bloodlines, culture or language cannot say that they are democratic.

As long as politicians continue to ignore the right of the individual to liberty the core values of democracy, namely the voice of the majority, equality, and freedom will be eroded while injustice, inequality, and disrespect for the voice of the people will flourish.

Ethnocentric politics encourage homogeneity and discourage diversity and union. In this era we are seeing the fact that even homogeneous societies cannot sustain their own culture. Their values are growing horizontally towards globalization.

Exclusionary bloodline-based politics have wiped out compassion for other groups to where it is almost eroded in Ethiopia. In fact the upper handed group almost always achieves a better life at the expense of other groups. The group that comes to control central power will always have a tendency to maintain the status quo. Because of its nature those who are waiting for TPLF to govern in a manner of justice and democracy are waiting for a boat that has already sailed.

GPDO, SDAF, ANDP, OPDO, ANDM, TPDU, WPDF (political parties in Ethiopia, ed.), and more all have the name “democracy” but they are not democratically principled parties. In fact these groups are more appropriately described as political groups or parties who stand only for their own local benefit.

Culture and language are not eternal differences. When people can agree to build a common house for themselves their lives will improve. Ethiopians should stand together to get rid of ethnic-based politics and engage in the counter movements of justice and democracy.

* Originally published on openDemocracy.net, on May 24, 2012, titled ‘Identity politics on the scales of democracy and justice’, authored by Geletaw Zeleke. [The article may be republished with attribution for non-commercial purposes following the CC guidelines.]

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Source: HornAffairs.com

Daniel Berhane
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