Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique
Conselho para o Desenvolvimento da Pesquisa em Ciências Sociais em África
مجلس تنمية البحوث الإجتماعية في أفريقيا

STIAS Public Webinar Series 2021: The Vexed Question of Identity in Ethiopia: A Historical Perspective

Date: 14 October 2021
Time: 15:45 SAST
Platform: MS Teams
Register: by 13 October

Number of visits: 3016

On the surface, Ethiopian identity should be a given. It is a country with a long history and an identity that is globally recognised. But, as its current predicament makes it abundantly clear, the issue has forced the country to be delicately poised between renewal and disintegration. How did this come about?

I will simplify the lecture by dividing it into three components: thesis, antithesis and possible synthesis. The thesis is the narrative of a country with at least two millennia of recorded history, with a multi-ethnic ruling class and a tradition of ethnic interaction. More than once, its people rallied to successfully resist external aggression (in 1875-6, 1896, 1936-41, 1977-8 and 1998-2000).

The antithesis started to appear in the 1970s, with a narrative that gave primacy to its constituent nationalities. It was accentuated by the emergence of ethno-nationalist “liberation fronts”. The climax was attained with the promulgation of the 1995 constitution that enshrined this primacy, to the extent of recognising the right of “nations, nationalities and peoples” to self-determination, up to and including secession. As the recent spate of ethnic conflicts all over the country has shown, a medicine that was ostensibly intended to cure a long-standing ailment is threatening to bleed the country to death. The synthesis is still work in progress but, there is general consensus that the ill-fated constitution has to be revised substantially. While the federal arrangement is an inescapable reality, its ethnic element has to be attenuated significantly. Accommodating ethno-nationalist identity need not come at the expense of pan-Ethiopian identity. Above all, the promotion of democratic institutions is a sine qua non for the exercise of genuine federalism.

Bahru Zewde is Emeritus Professor of History at Addis Ababa University. He is Founding Fellow of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences and Fellow of the African Academy of Sciences. He was Chair of the Department of History and Director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University. His major research interest has been Ethiopian intellectual history, resulting in two books: Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia: The Reformist Intellectuals of the Early Twentieth Century (2002) and The Quest for Socialist Utopia: The Ethiopian Student Movement c. 1960-1974 (2014). Other major publications in English include: A History of Modern Ethiopia 1855-1991 (second edition, 2001) and an anthology of his major articles, Society, State and History: Selected Essays (2008). He led the Forum for Social Studies, a think tank that he helped to create with four other colleagues, first as Chair of its Advisory Board and next as its Executive Director. He has also served as Principal Vice President of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences, Vice President of the Association of African Historians and Resident Vice President of the sub-regional research network, Organization for Social Science Research in Eastern and Southern Africa (OSSREA).