The Rise of Ethnic Extremism in Ethiopia is an Opportunity for Failure

Do the current boxes of ethnic regions represent the diverse nature of Ethiopians’ identities? Thousands of identities are possible if we explore the three-generation family tree of Ethiopia’s population. While the unity within this diversity of Ethiopians has overcome generational challenges, including the victory of Adwa, tribalistic agendas continue to thrive at home and in the diaspora today, making the nation vulnerable to internal terrorism and foreign interest.

Several scholars have raised the danger of tribalism and ethnic extremism in modern nations. Although Ethiopia is a melting pot with thousands of identities that coexisted for centuries, tribalistic ideological movements with the name of “liberation” have been on the rise since the 1950s. Tribalistic movements started shaping Ethiopia’s politics as different groups claimed their fight for specific ethnic groups’ rights, including Tigray, Eritrea, Oromo, etc., against Emperor Haile Selassie.

In the 1980s, the armed struggle of Tigray People’s Liberation Front dominance with Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) allegiance took the political window by overthrowing a communist regime in Ethiopia that opened doors for ethnic federalism to be formally institutionalized in the country.

Following a TPLF-dominated regime taking over power in Ethiopia, internal ethnic boundaries were constructed, and an ethnic-based constitution was enacted in 1994. The constitution only recognized Ethiopians with their ethnic group and ethnic rights rather than individual rights. As a result, Ethiopians were forced to have state IDs with their ethnic identities displayed.

While TPLF is a minority, at the same time, a supremacists group within Ethiopia, it designed ethnic-based federalism to subjugate, divide and rule Ethiopians and secure political and economic power for generations to come. Even though the claim of constructing internal boundaries in Ethiopia was to give the different ethnic groups self-ruling privileges to the extent of self-determination, it denies more than 90 percent of the Ethiopian ethnic groups such rights.

In the current regional structures in Ethiopia, there are eleven regions; only the three regions, Gambela, Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region, and South West Ethiopia Peoples' regions are not named after an ethnic group. However, the remaining eight regions (Oromo, Amhara, Afar, Tigray, Somali, Sidama, Benishangul-Gumuz, and Harari) use ethno-linguistically driven regional names. Furthermore, the remaining ethnic groups, 75 of 83 ethnic groups, do not have regions based on their ethnic names.

Although these eight regions use regional names that are ethnic groups, millions of Ethiopians from different ethnicities and identities exist in these regions. One may ask why these regions are named after a specific ethnic group and exclude other ethnicities and identities within them?

For generations, Ethiopian identity and ethnicity have been mixed through marriage, economic relocations, harvesting reasons, etc. The identity definition TPLF instituted in Ethiopia still uses ethnic boxes or a binary form that denies the reality on the ground.

For example, looking into two generations of a family tree with a grandfather (Amhara) and grandmother (Oromo), their offspring become a father with an identity of (Amhara - Oromo). Similarly, a mother with the identity of (Amhara - Tigray) from a grandfather (Amhara) and Grandmother (Tigray) could marry a husband with an identity in the previous scenario (Amhara - Oromo). The two could have a son with an identity mix of the three ethnic groups (Amhara - Oromo - Tigray).

Within the TPLF institutionalized ethnic federalism of the past 30 years, every individual is required to have an ethnic identity or choose an ethnic affiliation to have civil protection in a region. Thus, in the example above, what is the ethnic identity of the son? Is he an Oromo, Amhara, or Tigray?

The answer is that this person has all the above identities, given his family taught him about those ethnic cultures. As a result, a new identity is formed to accommodate the three ethnic and religious cultures.

Such scenarios in Ethiopia are common; perhaps more than half of the Ethiopian population have a family with two or three ethnic background. Based on the mathematical concept known as Combination, we can estimate the number of identities (ethnic combinations) someone with two ethnic backgrounds could have in Ethiopia.

Where n = 83, where n is the total number of ethnic groups in Ethiopia, and r = 2, where r is the selected ethnic groups someone can have within three generations. The result is mind-blowing; more than 3,400 possible identities could exist, and most Ethiopians could have one of these identities. This tells us that eight ethnic boxes will never represent Ethiopians’ intricate ethnic web and identity.

Clearly, Ethiopia is home to several ethnicities and thousands of unique identities that bring cultural diversity with significant values to its existence. While recognizing their rich cultural diversities, strong national pride has always existed in the mind of Ethiopians from all ethnic backgrounds.

So, why is ethnic extremism in Ethiopia, perpetrated by some political mercenaries that deny these facts, on the rise? Their push to undo the diverse settlement of Ethiopians in different parts of the region is worrisome, and it’s against the idea of a nation-building process. What TPLF sowed 30 years ago, now the new generation of Ethiopians are reaping it for the past 15 years– ethnically targeted displacement, a notion of cleansing a region as if a region is for only a specific ethnic group.

To make matters worse, some groups in the diaspora who live thousands of miles away from Ethiopia, are creating groups in the name of Tigray, Oromo, Amhara and so on, followed by Association, Libration, Front, etc., and continue their rhetoric that they are defending a particular ethnic group. The same group blames the ethnic-based constitution for existing issues in Ethiopia. At the same time, they continue their tribalistic organization in the diaspora and weaken the fabric of Ethiopian unity that has survived for generations.

In addition to their attempt to break the long history and fabric of tolerance between different ethnic groups, some are setting a time bomb by suggesting to arm each ethnic group to protect themselves as a temporary solution for internal displacement. However, the long-term impact is crystal clear. Creating rivalry and armed ethnic groups is the path to self annelation with the rise of ethnic extremism.

Therefore, building a strong Ethiopia that values and cherishes national diversity would give protection to all Ethiopians and their ethnic identities. Undoing the tunnel vision of ethnic-based politics is a challenge that this generation must face.

Ethiopians, at home and in the diaspora, should support the ongoing national dialogue to identify frameworks for embracing individuals’ rights and appreciate all ethnic backgrounds - perhaps, disarming organized ethnic groups in Ethiopia such as TPLF and OLA and banning ethnic-based political parties that tend to deepen differences between ethnic groups and inflame conflicts.

As the TPLF continues its effort to subdue Ethiopians by force, the fight against TPLF tribalistic agenda and its supremacist endeavors should continue. TPLF is preparing for another round of attacks in Welkait, Humera and other parts of northern Ethiopia; unity is the only viable solution to overcome this insurgency and terrorism campaign that is threatening the nation's sovereignty.