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Nationalism in Ethiopia

Nationalism in Ethiopia

Assefa A. Lemu June 9, 2019



The concept of nationalism was emerged in Europe when freedom from religious restrictions led to the enhancement of national identity in the mid-15th century and was intensified by the French Revolution of 1789 where the sovereignty passed from the hands of an absolute monarch to the French citizens and  strengthened by American Revolution of 1765-1783  where Americans revolted against British colonialism and claimed that all men are created equal, they have God-given rights, and all legitimate authority must come from consent. Nationalism-in-Ethiopia.jpg

Nationalism has been one of the points of contention in the world and in Ethiopia. “Nationalism is today a maker or breaker of states, an agent of peace, stability and progress as well as a cause of horrendous bloodshed, destabilization and destruction” (Gedlu, 2013, P.1).  Nationalism has been seen by some as a positive thing and by others as negative. In this article, I will briefly discuss nationalism in Ethiopia with particular emphasis on ethnic nationalism.

What is Nationalism?

The term nationalism presumes the very existence of “nation”. Black's Law Dictionary defines nation as “A people …. inhabiting a distinct portion of the earth, speaking the same language, using the same customs, possessing historic continuity, and distinguished from other like groups by their racial origin and characteristics, and generally, but not necessarily, living under the same government and sovereignty”.  Nation is the collection of individuals who have common bondage and nationalism is a sentiment or belief that produces loyalty and devotion to one’s nation.

According to Merriam Webster online dictionary, nationalism is “a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups”.  Per this definition, nationalism is characterized by the promotion of the interest of specific group (nation, nationality, or people) as opposed to that of others. The objective of nationalism is developing and maintaining national identity based on the common characteristics such as language, culture, race, history, religion, political goal, territory, or belief in common ancestry and making the group which has the common characteristics free from unwanted interference.  According to Indian historian Dr. Hareet Kumar Meena “The term nationalism is essentially a sentiment of unity arising among a number of people usually of the same territory, sharing a common language, similar history and traditions, common interests with common political association and common ideals of political unity. The presence or absence of any one or more factors does not necessarily imply the presence or absence of a spirit of nationalism. What is important is the will of the people to live together free from all external control” (Meena: 2016). The key points here are “common characteristics”, “to live together” and “free from all external control”.

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For nationalism to exist, the existence of common characteristics is important. For example, the Black Nationalism in America has centered on race and color. In his famous speech “The Ballot or the Bullet”, Malcom X who was one of the leaders of Black Nationalism requested African Americans to leave their differences such as religion at home and unite around the political, economic, and social philosophy of Black Nationalism where black man and woman should control the politics and politicians in their own community (self- administration); to unite against the enemy who is common to all of them. He argued that blacks are attacked not because of being Christian or Muslim or nationalist, but because of being black. He further argued that African Americans suffered from the same political oppression, economic exploitation, and social degradation from the same enemy ( because of being black. The objective of Black Nationalism was to unite blacks around their color and race which are their common characteristics to struggle for their rights.  Other nationalisms may focus on other common characteristics such as language, culture, history or territory.  Eritrean nationalism for example united Eritreans based on common territory and common history; Oromo nationalism is based on common ancestry, common language, common culture, and common history.

In countries like the United States of America where migration created diverse communities and no visible sense of homogeneity, the idea of citizenship is dominant than being a member in specific nation or nationality.

Types of Nationalism

Nationalism can be divided into various types based on different factors and considerations. In this article, we will see only limited types of nationalism. Based on its foundations, nationalism can be divided into three main types:

1.     Ethnic Nationalism— Ethnic nationalism is a sentiment or movement that creates a sense of belongingness, loyalty, and devotion based on ethnic group’s common culture, language, history, territory, or race.  It focuses on the preservation of the identity, solidarity, and tradition of the ethnic group and respect of the right of that ethnic group. Ethnic nationalism is mainly expressed on the basis of “given” factor such as common descent, or ken connection, or blood ties, or race and considered as having exclusive nature. It is also called biological or organic nationalism.


2.     Civic/Social Nationalism-This is a nationalism based on a sentiment of social and cultural ties rather than common descent. In this type of nationalism, outsiders or immigrants can join the social or cultural group by assimilating themselves into the culture, by complying with their living standard, and integrating into that society.


3.     Official/State Nationalism- This is a nationalism of state including all citizens of the state irrespective of their ethnicity and cultural identity. It is expressed in term of loyalty to the state or patriotism. It is usually taught at state level by government agencies. Official/state nationalism takes national sovereignty and territory/place of birth as an outstanding value. According to Dr. Assefa Tefera Dibaba, Medemer (unity in diversity or integration) which aims to reintegrate the culturally and socio-politically divided ethnicities and ethno-nations in Ethiopia is a “neo-official-nationalism”(Assefa Tefera Dibaba July 30, 2018).

Some of nationalisms such as Oromo and Amhara nationalisms have the combined characteristics of ethnic nationalism and civic nationalism because they accept anyone who integrates himself or herself as part of that group. They are not pure biological or organic nationalisms.  For example, OLF used to have non-Oromo members and fighters who were integrated into Oromo national movement. Oromo’s inclusive cultures such as guddifacha, moggasa, harma hodha, and michu made Oromo nationalism to cross the boundary of ethnic nationalism and enter into civic/social nationalism. Therefore, Oromo nationalism can be categorized as civic/social nationalism.

Based on its objective, we can divide nationalism into two:

1.     Oppressor/Expansionist Nationalism- Oppressor/ Expansionist nationalism is an aggressive form of nationalism that aims at extending its group hegemony to others and incorporating autonomous territories or recovering what it claims “formerly owned” territories by force. It forcefully imposes its cultures and values on peoples who live in the occupied/incorporated territories. It is also called chauvinistic nationalism because it seeks to disparage the other nations and nationalities whilst glorifying its own distinct nation. Oppressor/ expansionist/ chauvinistic nationalism was a problem in Ethiopia in the past and in the process of resurfacing once again. 


2.     Nationalism of Conquered or Oppressed Peoples- This is the nationalism of the oppressed group and its objective is to reject or challenge the oppression.  They oppose the domination by the more powerful ones who denied them their rights. According to Dr. Meena (2016), Indian nationalism arose basically to meet the challenge of British’s foreign domination.  He argues that the British rule facilitated the growth of national sentiment among the Indian people. Dr. Asafa Jalata argues that Oromo nationalism is the nationalism of the oppressed emerged in response to Amhara nationalism that aimed at expanding to others’ territories, controlling and dominating other ethnic groups. Oromo nationalism is aimed at defending the Oromo nation from external oppression and preserve Oromo identity, culture, language, history, and values ( ).

There are also other types of nationalisms such as liberal nationalism which is based on liberal values ​​(freedom, equality, tolerance, and rights of individuals), religious nationalism which is based on particular dogmas or affiliation, nationalism of minorities where minorities in a given country who have common interests come together. For example one of the leaders of Southern Ethiopia Green Stars Coalition  Mr. Shimelis Kitancho argues that the minorities in Ethiopia are “sleeping giant” and if they wake up they will change Ethiopian political landscape  and become dominant power( and ).

Nationalism in Pre 1991 Ethiopia

Nationalism has been one of the points of debates in the world politics for centuries. In Ethiopia, ethnic nationalism became popular topic following the emergence of Ethiopian Students’ Movement (ESM) in mid- 1960s. As Assafa Endeshaw  wrote “The introduction of ‘the national question’ into Ethiopian politics, even the very formulation of the problem as such, owes its origin, largely and almost exclusively, to the influence of Marxism in the Ethiopian student movement of the 1960s and 1970s”(January 12, 2017). In its 1969 congress held in Philadelphia, U.S.A, Ethiopian Students Association in North America (ESANA) which was later named Ethiopian Students Union in North America (ESUNA) discussed the problem of regionalism in Ethiopia as the major agenda. In the 1971 ESUNA congress held at the UCLA in Los Angeles, USA, the main agenda discussed was “the national question” (Alem Habtu, February 25, 2015, P. 3).  Papers like “On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia” written by Walleligne Mekonnen and published in the student magazine called Struggle on Nov. 17, 1969 and “The National Question in Ethiopia” written by Tilahun Takele (1971) made nationalism one of the discussion points among Ethiopian students. Because of the historical linkage between the rise of ethnic nationalism and ESM, some Ethiopian politicians accuse ESM of 1960s and 1970s as a source of Ethiopia’s political problem of today. For example, the current Deputy Leader of Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party Mr. Andualem Aragie says:

While Atse Tewodros and the Girmame crew respected the existing history and went with it, the students had no esteem for the history of Ethiopia. It is impossible to find a historical event in which at the very least Oromos, Agaw and Tigres did not take part. However, the students embalmed the entire history of Ethiopia as feudal and Amhara. The thread of racism/xenophobia that is still shaking the foundation of our country can be traced back to this student movement. In addition, even though a show of force has for years been used to climb to the top of power and to resolve differences, the student movement also introduced the culture of using writing to disparage one another. In particular, as some maintain, the paper by Tilahun Takele on the issue of ethnic groups can be cited as an example. A student protest that began with vilifying one another ended with killing one another (Aragie May 24, 2018).

Most of the political organization which emerged from Ethiopian students’ movement including EPRP, AESM/MEISON, and WPE acknowledged the rights of nations and nationalities in Ethiopia. Regardless of opposition and suppression directed to it, the issue of ethnic nationalism became popular in Ethiopia since mid-1960s and has been a factor which divided Ethiopian politicians in to two main groups—those who support ethnic nationalism and those who oppose it. It has been used as a means to bring people who have common characteristics and common purposes together and organize them against common oppressors.  The attempts to put all nationalisms in one basket to create a single Ethiopian nationalism with the characteristics of the values of the ruling/dominant group were failed repeatedly. It failed under Hailesellasse and Derg regimes. Dozens of armed nationalist organizations picked up guns to defend the rights of their respective ethnic group/nation. These nationalist struggles lead to the weakening of the central government of Ethiopia, downfall of Derg in 1991, separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia, and changing Ethiopia from unitary to federal state.

Nationalism from 1991-2018

Learning lessons from the failures of Hailesellassie and Derg regimes in handling national questions, EPRDF came up with the idea of embracing multiple nationalisms in Ethiopia through federation of nations, nationalities, and peoples which is believed the middle ground between those who demand the right for self-determination including  secession and those who want to maintain unconditional unity by all means. 

With the favorable political environment created in 1991, ethnic groups that had been assimilated and close to vanishing joined the movement for the promotion of nationalism and multiple nationalisms flourished in Ethiopia. Some of the factors that contributed to the promotion of nationalism in the post 1991 Ethiopia are the following:

1.     Existence of Legal Basis- Following the approval of the Transitional Period Charter of Ethiopia in July 1991 which affirmed the rights of nations, nationalities, and peoples to self–determination and enshrined the right of every ethnic group “to preserve its identity and have it respected, promote its culture and history and use and develop its language”, nationalism is legally backed principle in Ethiopia. According to Article 88 of the constitution of FDRE, Ethiopian Government has the duty to promote and support the People’s self-rule at all levels and to respect the identity of Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples. Therefore, ethnic groups in Ethiopia have constitutional rights to promote nationalism and the government has a duty respect this constitutional right.


2.     Unifying Regionalization-In pre-1991 Ethiopia, nations/nationalities like Oromos have been divided into different provinces or administrative units. However, after 1991, the majority of the ethnic groups got the chance to get their own region in which they administer themselves, develop their values, and use their own languages. These strengthen a sense of belongingness and bondage.


3.     Expansions of Education- With the opening of many public and private schools and universities, the opportunities for education have been expanded in the last 28 years. This created more educated persons who become more conscious about their individual and group rights.


4.     Ease of Transportation and Communication- The expansion of road networks which made the mobility of people easier, the expansion of ICT particularly emails, social media, and internet which made the sharing of information easier facilitated mobilization of members of certain ethnic groups for their common objective.


5.     Role Modelling- Some ethnic groups took others as their role model and replicated what they are doing including organizing themselves along ethnic line, establishing their local development associations, promoting their culture and language.

Ethnic competition or ethnic outbidding usually gives rise to more ethnic based parties.  These ethnic based parties may sustain or threaten a democratic system depending on how they are handled. EPRDF introduced the idea of “democratic nationalism” in which individual and group rights could be respected in a balanced way, nationalism is promoted in a democratic way, and extreme nationalism is discouraged.

Nationalism in Post 2018 Ethiopia

With the weakening of EPRDF and greenlight from the current EPRDF chairman on the need to change the current constitution and the federal arrangement which in turn created expectation and demand for change, crimes linked to nationalism have been seen in an increasing number and type. We saw extremisms among university students, soccer/football fans, urban dwellers, and rural residents. These extremisms and other crimes such as homicide, armed robbery, and intentional destruction of private and public property which are punishable in every part of the world have been tolerated in Ethiopia after 2018. Nowadays, there is a suspicion that the government of Ethiopia is tolerating crimes committed under the name of nationalism to show case them that the current constitution and federalism are bringing disaster to the country and to mobilize support to change them.

In the post 2018 Ethiopia, expansionist nationalism that claim the territories in other States/Regions by undermining State borders and preparation for war to recover what they claim “the former territory (rist)”, evicting people for the simple reason that they do not belong to ethnic group that is dominant in that State/Region, and media that disseminate hate speeches and extreme and radical ideas that provoke conflict have been tolerated. In short, nationalism in post 2018 Ethiopia is going in the wrong direction and reaching at the extreme point where it may pose danger to the lives of Ethiopians.  The failure of government to maintain law and order is making its existence irrelevant and leading to the high demand for guns to protect oneself and family and influx of illegal armaments into the country. This may lead to the emergence of warlords like in the failed state of neighboring Somalia.


The challenge that Ethiopia currently facing is how to keep the balance between respect to multiple nationalisms or multiculturalism and liberal values on which democracy is based so that the unity of the country is not undermined by contending nationalisms and claims to the rights to association and self-determination. Nationalism by itself is not a negative thing. However, like any other belief or sentiment it poses danger when it goes to the extreme.

The attempt to remove one side of the equation instead of searching for the right balance (equilibrium) between multiculturalism and unity of the nation-state may take the country back into the cycle of conflict. The possibility of nations and nationalities accepting the proposal to give away some of their rights such as self- administration, promoting their cultures and languages, and being under one regional administration is very slim. I don’t think Tigraway, Somalis, Afars, and Oromo like to be divided into different administrative regions and replacement of their languages with another for conducting official businesses.

We heard several times EPRDF saying it has been decayed, but we didn’t expect that the leaders of the decayed EPRDF contradict its core principles like multiculturalism and federalism and vilify the constitution in which EPRDF members put lots of effort to bring into effect.  EPRDF leaders’ lack of interest to respect the constitution and its core principles shows that the decayed EPRDF could no longer be the guardian of the constitution. I am not against any change to the constitution or state border that followed the procedures stipulated in the constitution, but I have a worry that the collusion of the decayed EPRDF leaders with anti-multiculturalism forces to contravene the constitution may lead the country to the wrong direction. 


1.       Transitional Period Charter of Ethiopia:

2.       Meena, Hareet Kumar. (2016 ). Understanding the Nature and Growth of Indian Nationalism in the Latter Half of 19th Century. American International Journal of Research in Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

3.       Dibaba, Assefa Tefera. (July 30, 2018). “Ethiopianism,” The “Neo-Official-Nationalism,” and the “Oromia First!” Trend. Ethiopian Observer.

4.       Habtu, Alem. (February 25, 2015). The Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM): My Experiences in ESUNA, 1964-1971.

5.       Aragie, Andualem. May 24, 2018. Delivering an unborn dream left to us. Ethiopia Nege.

6.       Endeshaw, Assafa. (January 12, 2017). Nationalism in Ethiopia Revisited.

7.       Gedlu, Tewodros Hailemariam. (2013).A History of Nationalism in Ethiopia: 1941 To 2012. Department of History, Addis Ababa University.

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