Identities in Ethiopia and the Struggle for the Nation State

The Horn of Africa has been destabilised by the recent conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia and by the many internal conflicts in countries such as Somalia or Ethiopia. Beside the war against Eritrea, another reason for the difficult situation in Ethiopia is the fact that the country is ruled by the Tigrean minority with consequences for all parts of the society, including repression, monopolisation tendencies on all levels and obstruction of access to financial and political power resources for most people in Ethiopia.

The project area was the Kenyan-Ethiopian Highway in southern Ethiopia. Such a road not only divides a country and its ethnic groups but also connects the centre, the cities and the periphery. This particular road is used as a communication line bringing central state decisions and developments to far away parts of the country but also as a trade and smuggling route connecting the hinterland of Somalia to the south-eastern regions of Ethiopia. An advantage of using a road as a unit of observation is that it allows the exploration of different ways of life: the crowded capital Addis Ababa as the trade and power centre of the country, from agricultural areas and rural towns to the nomadic societies of cattle and camel herders in the south, from western consumer attitudes to traditional ways of life. Besides being the lifeline of the south, the road is used for military purposes, namely to control the area and, depending on the political circumstances, as a route for refugees.

Although Ethiopia has dozens of different 'tribes' and languages, the vast majority belong to just four main groups: the Tigre (ca. 5% of the whole population), the Amhara (ca. 15%), the Somali (ca. 15%) and the Oromo (ca. 40-50%). Other than the Somali, who are struggling for a degree of autonomy approaching independence in the Ogaden, all other ethnic groups claim Addis Ababa as their capital. The Amhara, as the former rulers and the elite of the country, claim the political power with pan-Ethiopian ideals. Many of them mistrust both the Tigre and the Oromo, and are convinced that the Amhara are the only people who are able to rule the country in the long run, as they did under the emperors. The Tigre have ruled the country since the fall of the communist regime of Mengistu (1991). They confiscated most of the weapons of the army and started controlling the rest of the country. Today, in many parts of Ethiopia they are seen as occupiers because a coalition government of different liberation fronts failed soon after the fall of the Mengistu regime. Since taking over the government in Addis Ababa, the Tigreans have started to monopolise power in every sense. Media and all levels of administration were made to toe the line, circles close to the government monopolised the economy, the absence of human rights, repression and a permanent control by the secret service became conspicuous. The largest population are the Oromo. Although the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the military and political arm of the Oromo opposition movement, claim their own nation state, the struggle is not as strong or as successful as some of the leaders, especially those in exile, expected. The reasons for this are different levels of identity among the Oromo.

The Oromo do not seem to be as homogenous as some of the other peoples of Ethiopia might be. Although, according to many of my informants, some main criteria, such as a common language, a common history, a common system of social structure, a common consciousness of belonging to a discriminated group or common demarcations to others can be pointed out, a strong common Oromo identity does not seem to exist. Identity markers are far stronger on micro levels such as on the family or sub-clan based daily life practices. For most people it is more important to get support from their brothers and sisters of their own family or other small units than to have a political idea of a 'Free Oromia'. On a meso-level, clans and sub-ethnicities are the most important base for any identity. The feeling of belonging to such a unit is much stronger than an uncertain belonging to the Oromo people. On the meso-level, life together with other ethnicities is organised and implies processes of negotiation, to gain access to resources for example. One proof that sub-ethnicity based identities are more important than the idea of being Oromo is the number of clashes between the former.

It is obvious that identity is multidimensional. In the case of Ethiopia the struggle for the nation state will continue in different but complicated ways, especially against a background where identities can shift easily, not only from smaller to larger units but also between other demarcations such as profession, religion, education, social status etc. The research will discuss and compare some different theoretical concepts of identity, ethnicity, nation and nationalism that can be observed in the context of struggling for the nation state in Ethiopia.

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