Thoughts on chauvinism in Ethiopia

By Eskinder Nega / December 12, 2010
“What is it about this (new) cabinet that attracts so much attention?” asks Tsegaye Chama in an article posted on Ethiomedia (Attacks on fair cabinet, ethnic minority group, Tsegaye Chama December 1, 2010). “The explanation for this gruesome fixation is simple,” Tsegaye assures readers. And he waves an accusing finger, assumes the moral high-ground, and, quite obviously aiming below the belt, drops the dreaded C word: “(To the Chauvinists) this cabinet is unnatural. It stands in absolute defiance and violation of the natural order of the Ethiopian political power sharing tradition,” he says.

The heresy, as Tesgaye relates it: The rise of Haile-Mariam Desalegn , an ethnic Welayta, one of the more than 45 minorities that make up the Southern region, to the position of Deputy Prime Minister and heir-apparent to PM Meles Zenawi; who is officially due to retire in 2015. “The hostility towards His Excellency Haile-Mariam Desalegn is unfathomable. Diaspora opinion-makers are stereotyping and stigmatizing him,” complains Tsegaye.

And lest anyone needs reminding, “the details of our despicable background (history),” is posted in three episodes on YOUTUBE; courtesy of Ben’s (the superfluous pro-EPRDF website. Aiga is the preferred venue of the tiny maladjusted Diaspora) interview with “His Honorable Ato Shiferaw Shigute (President of the Southern region.)”

Little surprise then, if there were the oppressed, there then logically must have been the oppressors. Ideally, twenty years after the triumph of the EPRDF, all are now humbled, guilt-ridden, and eager to uphold the promotion of minorities -- their worst victims. “But the reality is the other way around,” laments Tsegaye. Chauvinists---the die-hard oppressors of yesteryears -- are instinctively distressed; and even worse, are “conspiring to perpetuate the historical marginalization of minorities.” To back his claim, he provides links to four articles (by Abebe Gellaw, Elais Kifle, Ephrem Madebo and Eskinder Nega.) And this is “another original crime against (Ethiopia’s) minority ethnic groups,” proclaims Tsegaye.

Chauvinism is a French word. It derives from fictional French soldier, Nicolas Chauvin, who stunned mere mortals with his many prodigious traits in the 18th century. In its political application, though, it is a hate word. A chauvinist is conceited, reactionary, a hater, and ultimately, deluded by a false sense of superiority.

Chauvinism as a political dictum was first extensively used by Soviet Communists, who, as revolutionary champions of “oppressed nations and nationalities,” loudly admonished “Russian chauvinism.” And soon, “progressives” around the world were hard pressed to find a local context. In the US, “white chauvinism” competed with racism to describe the bias against blacks in progressive circles. Even in post-1949 China, only a few years removed from 300+ years of minority Manchu dynasty rule, there was still room for “the evils of Han chauvinism.” (Hans are the over 90 percent majority in China.) More than four decades later, when the first batch of Ethiopia’s progressives finally emerged in the early '60s, there was even less ambiguity about the certainty of home-bred chauvinism -- that of Amhara.

But while chauvinism has seen its rise and fall elsewhere, it has persisted, undiminished and potent as ever, in Ethiopia. Tegaye’s charge is no hasty blunder. Nor is it, as some may suspect, a throwback to a relic of a bankrupt ideology -- now a preserve of no more than the dustbin of history. Rather, it is a cold calculation to exploit differences and fears. And thus, a clear and present danger to the nation’s democratic aspirations.

Ethiopia is famously the lone African claimant to national exceptionalism. This self-perceived exceptionalism dates back to the 16th century, when all foreigners were expelled and contacts with the outside world severed. The case for exceptionalism stresses the exclusivity of Ethiopia’s religions and historical trajectory; and no less, the uniqueness of the nation’s cultures, diets, script and national spirit -- what Ethiopian progressives of the '60s called psychological makeup. And for centuries, the Davidian defense of this exceptionality had been the principal -- acclaimed and romanticized -- national aim.

Akin to historical Israel, which had multiple languages and 12 tribes (ethnicities), Ethiopia, too, has always been a multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic entity. More than 15 languages flourished at the core of Axum between the third and the sixth centuries, the height of the Kingdom’s power and prestige. But as in Israel, where the collective case of exceptionalism and national will was expressed chiefly through one language, Hebrew; Ethiopia’s collective ethos invariably had to be dominantly expressed through one language—first, Geez; and later, Amharic. Charges of Amhara chauvinism conveniently discount this colossal historical fact.

But that the stories that accurately describe modern Ethiopia are complicated is also true. Neither do we live in historical times, with their limited standards and expectations; but rather, we now inhabit a sophisticated, modern world with heightened standards and expectations. And not only Ethiopia’s politics but the core of the collective ethos must adjust to the changed times and circumstances. And in fairness to Ethiopia’s contemporary elites, old and new (barring the disingenuous Machiavellian leaders of the EPRDF), that adjustment, in the form of support for multi-culturalism and thriving Federalism (as opposed to the two-decade centralization of the EPRDF), is virtually unanimous. Ethiopia’s multi-culturalism is not only acknowledged and celebrated, but a broad consensus has emerged for the state’s role in its preservation and cultivation. This is unprecedented in Africa, where indigenous cultures are being uncontroversialy undermined; and thus, perhaps, stands as an additional case for Ethiopia’s claim to a unique historical trajectory.

As to Haile-Mariam’s specific case, Tsegaye’s insincere charges notwithstanding, his ethnicity, however historically victimized, should not protect him from legitimate criticism. He should be held to the very standards we hold other public officials. And gauged by that standard, he fails miserably. There is a story behind his public façade of the heir-apparent. There lurks the true tales of conspiracy and greed. And, far more menacingly, danger to our nation.

With Putin’s Russia serving as the role model, Haile-Mariam, who has no power base in the party, government or the security apparatuses, has been slated to play the Medvedev role in post 2015-Ethiopia, where Meles will, if all goes according to plan, continue to call the shots from behind the scenes. As a “Southerner” in a nation without a Southern people, Haile-Mariam has no recourse but rely on the goodwill of Meles.

What’s Tsegaye’s take on this, the real issue?

The writer, prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years of tug-of-war with the 'system,' Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: