From Making Ethiopia Safe for Ethnic Diversity to Making Ethnic Diversity Safe for Ethiopia: The Ethiopian Political Elites’ New Challenge

(Abdissa Zerai (PhD)

When World War I broke out in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson announced that the United States would be neutral in the conflict. It was believed that his decision was based on the desire to preserve the lucrative U.S.-Europe sea trade. For two and a half years, the President was able to maintain the position of neutrality; but soon Germany made it clear that no merchant ship servicing Britain and Continental Europe would be safe from U-boat attack.

What is more, there was news that Germany was seeking an alliance with Mexico. Now Woodrow Wilson knew that America had to enter the war. On April 2, 1917, the President appeared before a joint session of Congress to seek a Declaration of War against Germany. In his famous line of justification for the need to take the bull by the horns, Woodrow Wilson stated: The world must be made safe for democracy. Throughout the twentieth century and beyond, this thesis has increasingly gained significant currency in political discourse around the vast swathe of the globe.

In a seminal article titled The Rise of Illiberal Democracy published in 1997 in Foreign Affairs, Fareed Zakaria (1997), a well reputed Indian-American political journalist who is the host of GPS (Global Public Square) on CNN, a Washington Post columnist and the author of The Post-American World, argues that for a century or so in the West, democracy has meant liberal democracy, i.e., a political system marked not only by open, free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. According to Zakaria (1997), the latter bundle of rights (the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property) is what is referred to as constitutional liberalism, which is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy.

Referring to a political scientist Philippe Schmitter, Zakaria (1997) notes that liberalism, either as a conception of political liberty, or as a doctrine about economic policy, may have coincided with the rise of democracy, but it has never been immutably or unambiguously linked to its practice. It is only gradually that the two strands of liberal democracy have been interwoven in the Western political fabric. However, while these two strands of liberalism (democracy-conceived as political liberty- and constitutionalism) have become inseparably linked to each other in the West, he argues that they are coming apart in the rest of the world.

As a result, says Zakaria (1997), in the rest of the world, democracy is flourishing, but constitutional liberalism is not. While democracy often focuses on the procedures for selecting government, where such procedures include having open, free and fair elections, constitutional liberalism is about the goals of the government. According to Zakaria (1997), constitutional liberalism refers to the tradition that seeks to protect an individual’s autonomy and dignity against coercion, whatever the source-  state, church, or society. The term marries two closely connected ideas: it is liberal because it emphasizes individual liberty; it is constitutional because it rests on the tradition of the rule of law.

In the Western tradition, constitutional liberalism developed as a defense of the individual’s right to life and property, and freedom of religion and speech. In order to secure these rights, says Zakaria (1997), it emphasizes checks on the power of each branch of government, equality under the law, impartial courts and tribunals, and separation of church and state. For Zakaria (1997), constitutional liberalism, almost in all of its variants, asserts that human beings have certain natural or “inalienable” rights and that governments must accept a basic law, limiting its own powers, that secures them.

However, tension often exists between constitutional liberalism and democracy; and this tension centers on the scope of governmental authority. According to Zakaria (1997), constitutional liberalism is about the limitation of power, whereas democracy is about its accumulation and use. From the beginning, liberals saw in democracy a force that could undermine liberty. Since the very essence of democratic government consists in the absolute sovereignty of the majority, early liberal thinkers warned against the danger of ‘oppression’ coming from the majority of the community or against the ‘tyranny’ of the majority.

In the post-1991 world in Latin America, Asia and Africa, where constitutional liberalism historically had little or no root, dictatorships have suddenly given way to democracy. But the rapid pace with which the political system was opened up and multiparty elections were instituted produced an illiberal outcome that was incompatible with democracy as we know it. Following the multiparty elections, political forces in diverse societies found it easier to organize support along racial, ethnic, or religious lines. As elections require that political forces compete for people’s votes, the success of these disparate groups with incompatible interests would depend on their ability to rally the masses behind their respective particularistic causes.

Once an ethnic group or a coalition of ethnic groups comes to power, it tends to centralize control of power, often by extrajudicial means, and exclude other groups. Owing to the incompatible interests, compromise becomes impossible; hence, the Darwinian political struggle easily degenerates into destructive conflict and violence. Rather than serving as a means of mediating divergent interests and managing societal conflicts, democracy has ironically become a potent instrument for the effective exercise of exclusion and marginalization, which in turn contributes to the exacerbation of societal tensions and conflicts. Disillusioned with the rise of such illiberal type of democracy with the potential to eventually destroy the legitimacy of democracy in the eyes of these societies and beyond, Zakaria (1997), revisiting Woodrow Wilson’s earlier commitment to making the world safe for democracy, resets the task of the 21st century to be that of making democracy safe for the world.

Upon a closer reading, one cannot not observe some parallelism between Woodrow Wilson’s idealism about democracy in the twentieth century and Fareed Zakaria’s disillusionment with the state of democracy as the end of the century approached and the latter’s plea for course revision going into the 21st century, on the one hand, and Ethiopia’s embrace of ethnic federalism a quarter of a century ago, how it has lately run amok and the imperative of rethinking it as we go forward, on the other hand. Thus, the title of this piece is structured by essentially inflecting Woodrow Wilson and Fareed Zakaria’s respective calls for action with respect to democracy. The difference is that in the latter’s case, the operative word is democracy, whereas in the case of this piece, it is ethnic diversity.

Since the emergence of modern Ethiopia as a nation-state, her political history has been punctuated by political conflicts with varying degree of intensity, ranging from passive resistance to violent confrontations. Due to the changing international environment following the end of the Second World War, the attendant decolonization frenzy set in motion in the Third World, and the Cold War ideological divide that structured the world into two contending camps, the political struggle in Ethiopia took on a new dimension.

Armed with new theoretical and conceptual tools derived from Marxism and Leninism, the emerging Ethiopian intelligentsia started articulating the nature of Ethiopia’s problem. Although the Ethiopian intelligentsia of the time invariably shared the existence of oppression, exploitation and marginalization of the Ethiopian masses, they differed on defining the nature of such oppression, exploitation and marginalization. While some of them wished to articulate the problem in terms of class, some others, though acknowledged the class-centric characterization of the problem, were keen to define the problem largely from the national perspective, i.e., taking the ‘national question’ as the primary analytical category.

As the way a problem is defined has a bearing on the way it would eventually be resolved, the disagreement among the Ethiopian intelligentsia on the nature of Ethiopia’s problem later proved consequential. Unable to narrow their differences, the cohort plunged themselves into an orgy of fratricide. The military took advantage of the situation and seized the lever of power. It then embarked on carrying out land reform, uprooting the landed aristocracy, nationalizing private property and took upon itself the task of reorganizing the Ethiopian society into a collective socialist utopia.

Soon, it found itself besieged by both external and internal forces, such as Somalia’s irredentist regime, separatist forces, and ethno-nationalist liberation fronts. Although the military junta took good care of the threat from the irredentist regime of Somalia, the separatists and ethno-nationalist liberation fronts waged a protracted war of attrition against the Mengistu regime, and eventually brought its demise in 1991. In the aftermath of the military overthrow of the Mengistu regime, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – a coalition of four ethno-nationalist fronts- assumed control of power, marking the beginning of a new political dispensation that has radically reorganized the Ethiopian state.

Since the armed struggle had ostensibly been waged on the ground that despite the fact that Ethiopia was constituted by diverse ethno-linguistic communities, the Ethiopian state, instead of reflecting such diversity, had for long subjected these communities to oppression and had forced them to endure the life of indignity. In fact what had traditionally been billed as the Ethiopian state was nothing more than a state that had effectively been captured by and been the mirror-image of a particularistic group. In other words, the argument was that the existing Ethiopia was not hospitable to the various ethno-linguistic groups that constituted it.

Thus, with some variations, the objective of the struggle was to dismantle the system that had legitimized the domination of a particularistic group over the various ethno-linguistic groups and thereby build a new Ethiopia where all the constituent ethnic groups would enjoy equal treatment and respect; to put it differently, it could be said that the armed struggle was arguably aimed at giving birth to a new Ethiopia that would be safe for ethnic diversity.

In order to address the hitherto sense of domination, marginalization and exclusion felt by the various ethno-linguistic communities constituting the Ethiopian state and in so doing build a new Ethiopia that would be hospitable to ethnic diversity, the new EPRDF government devised a federal system that is structured along ethno-linguistic cleavages. In the new dispensation, each titular group or a group of titular groups was empowered to control a regional state. In this manner, the new constitution recognized the centrality of ethnic cleavages in regulating access to power and resources.

The assumption was that if ethnic groups were to exercise self-rule in their respective federal sub-units and participate, via their representatives, in the federal government, it would engender the sense of inclusion on the part of constituent ethnic communities and thereby create a fertile ground not only for better inter-group relations but also for the emergence of one strong politico-economic community.

However, after more than a quarter of a century long experiment with the new federal system, our problems have increasingly become intractable, prompting one to wonder why a system that was ostensibly meant to effectively redress historical ills has produced such pathological signs. How does one account for such state of affairs? Although both proponents and detractors of the system might have different explanations for the current debacle, here below I would like to draw attention to some important factors, which I think, have contributed to the current state of affairs.

One of the factors, which I think, have partly contributed to the current outcome is the sudden opening up of the political space and the institution of a multiparty democracy. By the time the EPRDF came to power in 1991, there was a seismic change in the international system with respect to ideological reorientation, following the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Domestically, the new government had to show the public that it was qualitatively different from the military dictatorship that it had replaced. The convergence of these external and internal factors forced the new government to commit itself to a sudden opening up of the political space and the embrace of a multiparty democracy.

In a society where the tradition of constitutional liberalism was nonexistent and where democratic practice was alien to both the political elites and the citizenry at large, such sudden opening up of the political space let loose the ‘beast in us.’ Instead of seeking a common ground where compromise could be achieved, the political struggle among the various groups turned into a gladiatorial contest where the winner’s sense of security and satisfaction is ensured with nothing less than a complete defeat and humiliation of the opponent. The long cherished democratic ethos of majority rule and minority right gave way to something akin to the tyranny of the political majority and the withering away of the political minority.

In a deeply divided society such as ours, groups with incompatible interests vie for state capture in anticipation of seizing the opportunity to monopolize the exploits that would potentially accrue from such a capture. No matter how lofty the ideals codified in the constitution which makes such electoral contest a possibility are, the end result invariably becomes domination through electoral means.

As Elshtain (1995) notes, democracy is not simply a set of procedures or a constitution, but an ethos, a spirit, a way of responding, and a way of conducting oneself. A democratic drama is the playing out of the story of self-limiting freedom. Conducting oneself democratically entails a continuous exercise of self-discipline and an unwavering commitment to be governed by ‘the rule of the game.’ This is not as easy as writing a celebrated constitution or delivering captivating speeches about democracy with rhetorical embellishment. The exercise exacts demands on fellow men and women to ‘walk the talk’ and to live and breathe it on a regular basis; and by any measure, this is a tall order. In the Ethiopian context where such a disposition is chronically in short supply, it is my contention that the sudden and dramatic opening up of the political space and the institution of multiparty elections has partly contributed to our current predicament.

Secondly, the new political dispensation, which boasts of building a new inclusive Ethiopia, sought to effect such inclusion through exclusionary means. The new government’s principal accusation against the old Ethiopian state was that it had excluded and relegated the various ethno-linguistic groups to the margin. But in order to redress such exclusionary injustice, the EPRDF government empowered groups to organize and mobilize themselves along ethno-linguistic cleavages with the goal of securing self-determination, whatever that means.

To this end, the new federal sub-units were established where separate titular groups would have their own separate administrative sub-units. It appears that in order to be deemed equal, ethnic groups would have to be separate from each other in self-governance. In this logic, being separate is equated with inclusive equality. Although the historical context and the target objective was obviously different, the thinking behind this logic is reminiscent of a legal concept infamously known as separate but equal, which was a legal doctrine in the U.S. constitutional law that was used to justify racial segregation in the old days.

As separate is inherently unequal, the attempt to bring about inclusion by an exclusionary means is bound to produce an outcome that is incompatible with the original intention. Once access to power and resources is predicated on difference, you essentially remove the incentive for ethnic entrepreneurs to commit themselves to the task of building an inclusive polity. What is more profitable for the political entrepreneurs is making sure that ethnic and cultural boundaries are reified and solidified to extent that they become impermeable. As part of the endeavor, they would revive and manufacture cultural symbols which their respective community members could easily relate to. They would rally their communities behind these symbols with a missionary zeal. The group would then position itself as communal contenders vis-à-vis other competing cultural groups for their share of power and resources.

In such an environment, dissent within the group is seen as tantamount to treason or betrayal of the community. To be critical of the behavior or actions of the leaders is taken as aiding and abetting the enemies of the group and endangering the unity of purpose among the collective. Judgment of individuals is no longer based on their behaviors or actions but on ontological basis or on the basis of their group membership, i. e., whether they are in-group or out-group members.

If an in-group member is found in a compromising situation, the common retort would be, Well, he may be son of a bitch, but guess what! He is our son of a bitch, and with this, the individual would easily evade accountability, setting a bad example for others to follow. Any wrong doing or practice of corruption by sons of the soil is not only condoned but also receives a tacit approval because it is seen as taking their share of the ‘cake.’ If there is ever a time when the group might express an outrage, it is when the same ‘sin’ is committed by an out-group member. It is the spread of such evasion of accountability throughout the body politic that is partly responsible for the current paralysis.

Another crucial factor that might have partly contributed to the current uncertainty is the lack of commitment on the part of the governing elites in making sure that constitutional liberalism takes root. In the theoretical discussion presented earlier, I have noted that constitutional liberalism is essentially marked by the supremacy of the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion and property.

Although in the classical sense of liberalism, these liberties were primarily connected to individuals, nowadays many political theorists believe that they would also apply to groups or collectivities as one is not necessarily antithetical to the other as some political elites would have us believe. Thus, in this piece, I do not intend to delve into a theoretical debate about individual versus group rights, as I do not see the two as mutually exclusive, and the readers should take note of that position. I have also argued that there is inherent tension between constitutional liberalism and democracy since the former is about the limitation of power, whereas the latter is about its accumulation and use.

In ethnically divided society like ours, the political elites’ primary obsession is with procedural democracy that emphasizes plebiscite and universal suffrage since they understand that this is the path to power that would enjoy some degree of respectability and legitimacy in the eyes of both internal and external audiences. Through the use of ideals, such as equality, freedom, rights, autonomy, self-determination, etc., the political elites mobilize their particularistic constituencies to rally behind their causes whenever elections pope up.

Since elections produce winners and losers, the stakes are high for the disparate groups vying for power and influence. Especially in an ethnically divided society where interests of the various groups are often incompatible, elections are a matter of life and death, and not a political exercise that right-bearing citizens engage as a sign of their civic duty. Electoral gain for one group is tantamount to a complete loss for the other group. As a result, the whole process is structurally fraught with apprehension and tension, and part of the reason why we quite often observe an overwhelming electoral turn out in the third world, particularly in Africa, is attributable to such a phenomenon, and not because the electorate in these places are much more conscious of democracy.

Once such tension filled electoral cycle is over, neither the winner nor the loser would feel secure in the real sense of the word. The difference is that the winner would have structural advantages to consolidate its power and ensure that the loser never rises up from the ashes to pose any meaningful challenge to it. This is often done by centralizing power. In relation to this phenomenon, Zakaria (1997) notes that over the last decades, governments claiming to represent the people have steadily encroached on the powers and rights of other elements in society. It is a usurpation that is both horizontal (from other branches of the national government) and vertical (from regional and local authorities as well from private business and other nongovernmental groups).

Such centralization and usurpation of power is often effected by deliberately destroying independent centers of power that are supposed to exercise checks and balances as well as those that would guarantee citizens’ liberty. In such a manner, the various institutions would become instruments used by the party in power for the exercise of political and economic ‘lynching’ of the ‘enemy’ in general and the opponent in particular, all in the name of the absolute sovereignty of the political majority. In the absence of a functioning rule of law, separation of powers, independent judiciary, impartial courts and tribunals etc., or indirectly speaking, in the absence of constitutional liberalism that limits the power of the political majority, citizens’ rights, be individual or collective, would easily become subject to the vagaries of the political majority, essentially stalking the ‘tyranny’ of the political majority, which would further guarantee the continuation of the vicious cycle with no end in sight.

The instrument that is ostensibly meant to make the country safe for diverse ethno-linguistic communities would, thus, end up exacerbating the grievances among the various groups and thereby pose an existential threat to the integrity of the country itself. In general, in a deeply divided society, once the political elites use elections as a Trojan horse to seize the lever of power, they do not see it in their best interest to ensure that constitutional liberalism takes root, as doing so would constrain their power. On the other hand, as Zakaria (1997) argues, democracy without constitutional liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous, bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, hyper-nationalism, ethnic divisions, and even war, and this seems to be where we are now.

If this is the case, then the question that confronts the Ethiopian political elites now is what to do to make ethnic diversity safe for Ethiopia.

With respect to this question, there are cacophony of voices being heard from disparate political forces. Their only point of convergence is their common aversion (albeit for quite different reasons) to the EPRDF. Such aversion to the EPRDF centers on the place of ethnicity in our national politics. For the present discussion, I will focus on two major voices on this important matter.

In the first category are political forces who view ethnic politics as anachronistic and antithetical to and incompatible with democracy. They view ethnicity as a mere social construct which ethnic entrepreneurs exploit it in order to gain access to power and resources. They argue that it is a diabolical plan hatched by the EPRDF for the express purpose of divide and rule. If the EPRDF is removed from power, ethnic politics will wither away and national politics will be restructured along ethnic-neutral citizenship axis, and Ethiopians will live like ‘one happy family. Thus, the focus of attention ought to be on the removal of the EPRDF.

On the other hand, those political forces that fall in the second category argue that one cannot imagine Ethiopia without its constituent ethnic groups and the viability of Ethiopia depends on ensuring the rights of ethnic groups to govern themselves, utilize their resources, cultivate and nurture their cultures and languages, and be able determine their own destiny, among others. And anything short of these cannot guarantee peace, tranquility and harmony but would lead to conflict, chaos and eventual fracture. They blame the EPRDF for the current state of affairs since they believe that the crisis is the outcome of its apparent failure in living up to the provisions of the constitution.

I contend that the two views advanced by the two groups are problematic as to be able to cure our political ills as they both seem to suggest. With respect to the views advanced by the political forces in the first camp, it is important to acknowledge that the issue of the ‘national question’pre-dates the birth of the EPRDF. The EPRDF might have made ethnicity the most salient political variable but it did not manufacture it out of the blue. Secondly, it is a misplaced hope to assume that ethnic politics will wither away once the EPRDF is gone. As it stands now, ethnic politics has taken the life of its own and does not, as such, depend on the existence or the decimation of the EPRDF, and it will continue to shape the Ethiopian politics for sometime to come. This is not a value judgment but it is a statement of political fact.

As far as the views advanced by forces in the second camp is concerned, politics structured along ethnic fault lines cannot be a panacea for guaranteeing durable peace and harmony among diverse constituent groups. As Horowitz (1985) asserts, there is nothing as responsible for the conflict-promoting character as the ethnic party systems. When the dimension of democracy is added to the mix, the danger cannot be underestimated. According to Zakaria (1997), there is often a mistaken notion that the forces of democracy are the forces of ethnic harmony and of peace, but neither is necessarily true.

Recognizing the complexities of the challenges we face with respect to ethnicity will help the political forces to seriously think about designing a political solution that centers not on what is ideal but on what is possible, given the circumstances, and it is prudent to refrain from purveying false hopes to the public.

This begins with the recognition that in diverse societies, social conflicts are bound to exist. According to Reinhold Niebhur (1932), what makes social conflicts inevitable is the limitations of the human imagination, the easy subservience of reason to prejudice and passion, and the consequent persistence of irrational egoism, particularly in group behavior. For Niebhur (1932: 14),

”…though human society has roots which lie deeper in history than the beginning of human life, men have made comparatively but little progress in solving the problem of their aggregate existence. Each century originates a new complexity and each new generation faces a new vexation in it. For all the centuries of experience, men have not yet learned how to live together without compounding their vices and covering each other “with mud and with blood.”

In a futile attempt to do away with potential social conflict, there is a temptation to wish away ethnic identification in favor of civic identification. However, notwithstanding its fluidity and the contested nature of traditions, Levy (2000) advises that we need to take seriously the enduring power of group loyalty or attachment, and durability of ethnic and cultural groups. And ethno-cultural identities are strongly felt, and experienced by many people.

According to Levy (2000:5),

“Persons identify and empathize more easily with those with whom they have more in common than with those with whom they have less. They rally around their fellow religionists; they seek the familiar comforts of native speakers of their native languages; they support those they see as kin against those they see as strangers. They seek places that feel like home, and seek to protect those places; they are raised in particular cultures, with particular sets of local knowledge, norms, and traditions which come to seem normal and enduring. These feelings, repeated and generalized, help give rise to a world of ethnic, cultural, and national loyalty, and also a world of enduring ethnic, cultural, and national variety. Nations are felt (if not always thought) to be ancient in origin, continuous in history, and unified in spirit. These feelings are powerful, sometimes latent but easily and quickly mobilized, and ignored at our peril.”

There is no doubt that such attachments are susceptible to the emergence of factionalism. And yet, the solution does not lie in wishing to do away with such group identifications. As Levy (2000) notes, if we wish to control the ‘mischief’ of faction, ‘relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.’ Faction cannot be done away with, so it ought to be made use of or constrained, as the case may be. And he believes that this is how we ought to treat ethnicity. Ethnic attachments should be seen as a given, a fact to be channeled productively if possible and constrained if not. From the point of view of Levy (2000), in a multiethnic/ multicultural society, what we need to do is to think about the terms of our coexistence, the institutions and norms that can help us prevent the worst outcomes of that coexistence.

Thus, in order to make ethnic diversity safe for Ethiopia, it is incumbent on all concerned political forces to have serious conversations about what ought to be the terms of our coexistence; about what ought to be the nature of the institutions and norms that should be brought into existence in a bid to helping us preempt the most egregious consequences of that coexistence.

I believe these ought to include the entrenchment of constitutional liberalism where the rule of law is sacrosanct, where the separation of powers is the norm, where impartial courts and tribunals are citizens’ refuge, where not strong men but strong institutions reign supreme, etc. To date there has been too much focus on procedural democracy and too little attention paid to constitutional liberalism. As Zakaria (1997) reminds us, however, constitutional liberalism has led to democracy, but democracy does not seem to bring constitutional liberalism. Hence, it is imperative that due consideration be given to the notion of constitutional liberalism going forward.


1/ Elshtain, Jean B. (1995). Democracy on Trial. New York: Basic Books.

2/ Horowitz, Donald L. (1985).  Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press.

3/ Levy, Jacob T. (2000). The Multiculturalism of Fear. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

4/ Niebhur, Reinold. (1932). Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics [PDF].

5/ Zakaria, Fareed. (1997). The Rise of Illiberal Democracy. Foreign Affairs, November/December 1997.


* The writer, Abdissa Zerai (PhD), can be reached at [email protected]

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