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Ethiopia’s Challenge: Multiple Identities vs. Mono-Identity

Identity conflicts abound globally. Africa is no exception, and the Horn of Africa seems to have had more than its fair share. Ethiopia was at war with its neighbour, Somalia, and with its erstwhile province, Eritrea. Ethiopian history is replete with instances of multiple identities, at both the center and the periphery. While ethnic origins have been diverse, pan-Ethiopian sentiments have been no less conspicuous. In the second half of the twentieth century, pan-Ethiopian sentiments came to be progressively eroded and ethno-nationalist or regionalist sentiments became ever ascendant. This shift had both objective and subjective bases. Objectively, the scars of Menilek’s military campaigns to incorporate the southern peoples resurfaced and led to an assertion of ethnic identity. The Tegreans, who were for all practical purposes protagonists of “the Abyssinian core” through much of Ethiopian history, came to resent their marginalization. Paradoxically, the rejection of pan-Ethiopianism was loudest among those who were relatively less oppressed and degraded. Conversely, the ethnic groups that have now been clustered in what is loosely called the Southern Region have made their ethnic identity subservient to their pan-Ethiopian identity.

At the subjective level, modern education and the Ethiopian Student Movement that arose out of it led to the erosion of pan-Ethiopian identity. One of the major questions raised by that student movement was “the question of nationalities”. Its adoption of the Stalinist principle of “self-determination up to and including secession” in 1971 eventually culminated in the enshrinement of the principle in the 1994 Ethiopian constitution. In recent months, however, the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has emerged as the passionate advocate of a pan-Ethiopianism that has reverberated both at home and among the sizable Ethiopian Diaspora.

At STIAS, I plan to broaden and deepen my investigation of identities in Ethiopian history, which goes back to 2004, culminating in the devotion of one whole chapter of my latest book to the question of nationalities I plan to use the fellowship to give theoretical depth and comparative breadth to my research by utilizing the available library resources as well as through interaction with other Fellows.


Fellows involved in this project


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Is any information on this page incorrect or outdated? Please notify Ms. Nel-Mari Loock at [email protected].