Citizenship versus Identity: the current political discourse in Ethiopia

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Citizenship versus Identity: the current political discourse in Ethiopia

By Alemayehu Biru (PhD), September 26, 2019

In a Bold Experiment, Ethiopia’s Abiy Aims to Put Citizenship Over Ethnicity. Will it be a suicide?

This topic bears a very common binary way of putting complex sociopolitical issues by politicians and, at times, even by scholars, as if those binary concepts are as distinct entities as orange and banana.

This is expressed in its most rudimentary form in the current Ethiopian political discourse. Raise any kind of sociopolitical issue, you are prone to be categorized either as citizenship or identity politics promoter. The binary choices are considered to be the only two alternatives in representing political interests or ideologies of the country; And they are often presented not just as two different concepts but rather as antonyms. We are told, those who are pro citizenship are more of a political, rational and universal perspective, while those with identity politics are more of a primordial, particularistic and emotionally charged perspective. Such categorization makes no exception: It applies almost to all positions in respect to every specific policy issues such as education, economy, environment, election, democracy or any other roadmap issues that are related to the future political course the country ought to follow. Such a very general but ironically a narrow categorization has been pronounced even by the regime whose coming into being was justified by its opening-up of the political space. Opening up the political space while narrowing down the horizons of political thought itself! A very interesting paradox!

This article aims at examining whether this binary way of understanding is, theoretically, tenable and, practically, be helpful in resolving the major political issues of the country. Let me embark on the issue at once, without much methodological pedantry, by asking: Can the so called “Citizenship Politics” be exclusive to that of Identity? In order to provide answer to the question, we need to know what citizenship is in the first place.

Citizenship as Membership

I don’t think there is a single conception of citizenship as such. Leaving aside the historical disparities, there are different conceptions by different political thoughts such as liberals, social democrats, socialists or republicans. For liberals citizenship is a membership to a given political community whose primary responsibility is to fairly distribute, secure and protect the basic liberties of each member. Republicans see it as a membership to a political community that should have a practical expression in collectively participating in the decision-making-process and the corollary sense of patriotism based on a historically established public moral virtues. Social democrats and socialists give much emphasis to equality, welfare and solidarity as the most binding elements of citizenship.

Whatever differences these conceptions may mean, there is one common understanding among all of them: citizenship as membership to a political community.

Membership is not however a wholesale affair. As much as it designates inclusiveness to those it is conferred upon, it also implies exclusivity to those not. The best example to mention here is the conception of the Ancient Greek, generally, much eulogized to be the source of modern understanding of citizenship and democracy.

In ancient democracy, citizenship means membership to the free male inhabitants of the city states. The adjective free immediately implies the unfree, the slaves, who were mostly war prisoners, as much as the adjective male outrightly disqualifies the female. Citizenship is valued for the privileges it bestows upon some in exclusion of others. In other words, what makes one appreciate or enjoy the value of citizenship lies more in its exclusivity than in its inclusivity, in its negativity than in its positivity. A citizen is one who is not a slave or a female. A citizen is defined by what he is not. This is because the talk about citizenship makes little or no sense, if all human beings in that community are equally citizens.

As the saying goes “freedom for the pike is death for the minnows”, the privilege of the citizens can only feed itself on the inhibition of the non-citizens.  All those rights of citizenship – be it property right, social, legal or political rights, can only be realized by and through those who are deprived of those very rights. The liberty to be a proprietor, a politician, an artist or a philosopher presuppose in practice, as Aristotle honestly remarked, the existence of physical laborers for them to have the necessary leisure time to exercise their privileged activity. The liberty to be a slave master presuppose the existence of slaves and the necessary jurisdiction and theoretical justification for the relationship. The concept citizenship was conjoined therefore with membership to each city-state as defined and justified in its legal, political and philosophical system.

As long as this membership is in respect to individual-state relationship, not in respect to ethnic or religious identities, one may argue that the Ancient Greek conception of citizenship is purely political. But this is a very superficial understanding as the issue of ethnic or cultural diversity was not at all an issue in ancient Greek city states. All city states were culturally, linguistically and even ethnically homogeneous. Besides this fact, there is nothing political, for example, about the natural identity of a female-exclusion except, on the contrary, that ascriptive identity is politicized in order to justify male domination. What is political about the alien who became a slave because he was conquered, if it is not the otherness in him be politicized in order to justify social stratification, political domination and thereby economic exploitation? Because each city state was considered to be a sovereign political entity albeit parallel to the nation-states of the modern time, political membership was eventually determined by identity (by gender identity or the city state to which one belongs). Therefore, the interplay between political and identity based membership in defining citizenship is already apparent in Greek democracy itself. It came to be even more apparent in the Eras of the Roman Empire and the subsequent aristocratic European colonial empires.

Citizenship as Kinship

Under the Roman Empire and all the subsequent empires, social stratification and the corresponding privileges have been diversified with more hierarchical membership to the state. Though that hierarchy has been changing with the ever expansion of the empire, there were generally four kinds of membership to the Roman Empire: proper citizens of Rome who were called cives, Latins, the surrounding Latin language speaking people (who had some abrogated rights with the possibility of promotion to cives), the so called peregrines, the alien or outlandish, and finally the slaves, the conquered, devoid of any human rights whatsoever. The qualification for citizenship emanated not merely from residence membership to Rome but rather from the status of parents. It was to be inherited by birth. Therefore, simple membership must be determined by kinship.

In order to control and verify citizenship as a kinship, the Roman Empire is known for its creation of what we know today in the Western world as a three-part name – whereby the last one should bear the name of the tribe from which the individual under discussion descended all through generations. The tria nomina, as it was called, was a sign of Roman citizenship, legally prohibited for others to adopt it, in order to protect and preserve the purity of the Roman citizenship.

This tradition has descended to the later emerging feudal systems to the point the concept citizenship be identified only with the aristocratic class by reducing all others to mere subjects. Later on, even the aristocratic class came to be denied that status with the ascendance of absolute monarchy to the point the very purpose of State and politics itself became nothing but to full fil the Will of God in and through the Emperor. Since the Emperor was constitutionally above the law, there was no any sort of right or liberty of any one that could be taken for granted. Even members of the ruling class were not all citizens as long as their liberties and rights are ultimately dependent on the Will of the Emperor – not on the law of the state. The law itself is an institutionalized expression of the Emperor’s Will, which was tantamount to the Will of God as the Emperor was proclaimed to be an elect of God Himself. So there was no basis of the concept citizenship under the system of empires, which were basically territorial states rather than nation-states.

Ethiopian Political Orthodoxy

There is no a more perfect example in the modern time than the Ethiopian Empire in demonstrating the alienation of the entire political community itself to the status of subject,  not to speak of the mass of peoples.

I don’t really know the etymological root of the Amharic word zega or zeginet, equivalent of the concept citizen and citizenship, respectively. But we all know for sure that the concept must be alien to Ethiopia since there have never been citizens in the entire history of the country to this date. A minister or a senate dignitary in the parliament oaths and presents himself as a personal servant of the Emperor, never of the Nation-State. This tradition has continued to be practiced even after the abolition of the monarchy under the personal dictatorship of Mengistu and Meles Zenawi. Loyalty to the leader is the most important measure for public office. Government and heads of government are the only sovereign entities.

Even the concept state is missing in Ethiopian vocabulary in the sense that the modern world understands state as an organized political community based on the will of its people. The Amharic word for government is Mengist, but it also means state. It appears therefore that government and state are conceptually interchangeable as they have been in political practice. Mengist in Ethiopia is apriori to society and state both in its practical importance and logical primacy. In other words, Mengist has always been the raison d’etre for the existence of state and society, not vice versa. This is true not more about Ethiopian political history than it is about its present political condition.

In Ethiopia, citizenship has never been a reality so far in which ever form it may be. However, it became everything all of a sudden in the current Ethiopian political discourse, particularly, for those political forces who consider themselves unitarist as opposed to those federalists. The reason is obvious. The unitarists consider the issue of citizenship as uniting, but not clear as to how it can be uniting without appealing to the issues of identity which much of the largest political community consider of the essence in defining the very concept of citizenship itself. In order for the concept of citizenship to be uniting, universal and political, as the unitarists often claim it to be, it needs at least, conceptually, to be inclusive of what it considers to be particular, primordial and sentimental. Otherwise, the concept citizenship would turn out to be a universalized particularity, to the best, or an empty abstract concept which has no political relevance whatsoever.

The issue at hand is not whether the question of citizenship should occupy a central importance in the future Ethiopian politics but, rather, whether it should be all inclusive or not. All federalist forces recognize its importance but not as a means of self-negation. They conceptualize citizenship as membership to a political community in which different interests are considered to be independent agents in determining the very nature and form of that political community. That means citizenship for them is more of a substantive right than being merely a procedural one. It must include among others the right to make the political community itself, not just the right to maintain it as unitarists consider it to be. According to the unitarists, citizenship right in Ethiopia would be achieved, if fair and free election takes place without much structural change. According to the federalists, however, citizenship cannot be achieved short of making a socio-political contract that guarantees the sovereignty of the peoples as it is the case with all modern democratic societies. Citizenship should be understood as authorship.

Citizenship as Authorship

It was only in 18th century pioneered by the Enlightenment movement that nation-state started to emerge as a reaction to the extremely suffocating empires. Nationalism became the new galvanizing ideology that gave birth to democracy and nation-states. As Habermas correctly put it “The nation-State and democracy are twins born out of the French Revolution. From a cultural point of view, both have been growing in the shadow of nationalism”. Freedom of the individual from the tyranny of the state and society, on the one hand, and freedom of nations from the yoke of empires, on the other, are considered to be necessary corollaries.  Thus a new conception of citizenship as authorship.

Since the French Revolution, democratic nation-states started to understand themselves as associations of free and equal citizens. Membership to a political community depends on the principle of voluntarism as it has been articulated in socio-political contract theories by the great minds – ranging from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke through the Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the contemporary American political philosopher, John Rawls. They all underlined in their theories that no state or political authority should any longer be justified by appealing to Nature or God. Because all human beings are by nature rational and therefore free and equal, they are autonomous agents whose will and only will matters in the creation and maintenance of a political community. The social agreement made among its inhabitants is the only source of legitimacy both for its coming into being and further maintenance. All the institutions such as state and government emerged thereof are only instruments of that popular covenant and, therefore, means never ends in themselves. Peoples’ sovereignty is sacrosanct. It is precisely this sovereignty which is the bedrock of citizenship. Citizenship is not just a set of rights that enable citizens only to elect their government every four or five years but essentially authorship to the very law that creates and governs a political community. Freedom and authority are no longer contradictory in this case since people should abide only to their own will.

Those great contractarian theorists assumed ethnic and cultural homogeneity for their theories to be true. Nation-State was both their premise and objective. In case assimilation is successful, as it was with France, the nation-state is the premise from which the contract should proceed. If a nation failed to be a state as it is the case with pre-Bismarck Germany, the contract theory provided the rational to create it. And in empire states like Austro-Hungary, the contract theory has justified their disintegration and encouraged, instead, the emergence of new nation-states as natural course of socio-political development.

Alternatively, it also envisioned federal system as a means to coup-up with the new reality in those empires like Great Britain, Spain, Belgium etc. so that group identities be preserved, protected and promoted within the larger political union. Multicultural citizenship is taken, in this last case, as a mediating concept between the universal values of freedom of the individual, on the one hand, and freedom of cultural, linguistic or ethnic communities, on the other. Self-determination (voluntarism) both at the level of individuals and communities became the key to understand what modern citizenship should be. This has become an international norm particularly in post 2nd World War and even more so in post “Cold War”. With the ever globalization of democracy as a World order, it became imperative to recognize collective identities such as race, ethnic, culture, gender etc. Ironic as it may sound, globalization must be conjoined with pluralism – as the coming into being of the European Union became the main reason to thematize pluralism as the most important concept of political philosophy in our time.

Liberalism, communitarianism & Pluralism

In the last three decades, there have been a steadily growing interest in the issue of group diversity by political philosophers. Tension between globalism and nationalism, mass immigration and the rise of minority rights, ethnic conflicts and breakup of nations in  Eastern Europe, increasing integration of the European Union conjoined with the persistence of sense of distinctness among members, ever rising strive of gender, sexual orientation, environmental movement etc. are some of the major practical reasons for this. Explaining the issue of how right claims of those diverse forms of group identities be related or connected to the established liberal-democratic principles of freedom is the major theoretical issue of our time. Basically, liberalism and communitarianism are the two contending school of thoughts in that regard – theoretically initiated by an American philosopher John Rawls in his monumental work A Theory of Justice. The third line of thinking I termed above as pluralism is a dialectical outgrowth of the debate between the two.

Liberals are generally well known for their individualism.  As they are here represented by John Rawls, the individual, as free and rational being, is said to be autonomous by his/her nature. The practical implication is that liberty of the individual must be protected not only from political authority but also from the cultural one – as social norms and traditions have been oppressive to the development of human rationality.  Not only state is oppressive but also customs and cultural values. Therefore, individual liberty and freedom should be seen in contradistinction to any particular collective identity. As John Rawls aptly puts it, the priority of individual liberty is uncompromising “that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.” As the self is prior to its ends, individual right should be pursued independent of any conception of good. According to Rawls, the essence of citizenship lies in the liberty of the individual to form, revise and change social conceptions of the good – not in sharing definite moral values or some distant collective or national goals. Otherwise, he argues, the whole idea of social contract does make little or no sense. The social contract should serve not to come up with a pre-shared conception of Social-Good but rather to make possible a difference-blind social arrangement that can promote the right of each contracting parties to form, revise, change or pursue her/his conception of good.

For such a neutral standpoint be achieved, Rawls assumed a hypothetical society he called the Original Position. He further assumed what he calls “the veil of ignorance” in representing the contracting individuals’ ignorance about their conception of the Good or social identity prior to the agreement.  Both assumptions are justified by the need to achieve an impartial state of mind of the contracting parties in order to arrive at a neutral principles of social arrangement. It is based on these two important assumptions that Rawls later arrived on his famous two principles of justice.

The reaction to Rawls’ work was so immense that it awakened political philosophy from its long time slumber. His critics can generally be classified into two schools of thought, namely, communitarianism and pluralism. Both critics refuse to accept Rawls’ individualism. They consider his conception of individual autonomy as utopian to the best and tricky and manipulative to the worst. According to them, real individuals are not “unencumbered selves” as the priority of right to social good, the self to its ends or the assumption of the veil of ignorance under the original position suggest. In actual life, our identity is a given one, not even a matter of choice. It is often what Martin Heidegger calls “thrownness”. In real life, we all are with dense identity, as bearers of particular social role, as someone’s son or daughter, a member of this clan or that tribe, this or that nation, whose native language is this or that etc.

Although both streams of critics concede to the liberal’s main thesis that individuals are indeed the only living social agents, they simultaneously claim that collective identities are not less real than the individuals themselves. This is because, they argue, individuals are not born and raised in void. Family, neighboring and local communities, stories, tales and languages, schools and childhood memories etc. are all constitutive of the very agency of the individual. Individuals become agents only as social beings. The fact that their agency itself presuppose society as a field of self-realization shows that the rationality and freedom of the individual is anchored in being social by nature. Individual human beings are embodiments of their natural and social environment as much as they are rational agents in adopting to or changing those environments. Therefore, collective identities are real and objective as forms of social relations if not as entities.

For communitarians, particularly, those social relations are stable as a cultural or moral mark of the group under discussion. They are comprehensive and historical by their nature to be constitutive, in the strongest sense of the term, of its individual members. In this sense, communitarianism clearly stands in a diametrically opposite direction to liberalism. It postulates the primacy of community over the individual, the importance of particularism over universalism. It tends to classify and rank collective identities according to certain established meritocratic values. Communitarianism appears therefore to be a modern version of republicanism in its conception of citizenship too. Sharing a virtuous moral life, forging collective responsibility and common goals are the mark. Difference is seen as a social challenge, not as an opportunity. Here depart the pluralists.

Unlike communitarians, the pluralists value group identity not just for its own sake but, rather, for the practical relevance it has in determining the life of the individual. Its version of communitarianism is, therefore, not primordial or essentialist.  Collective identities are fluid social relations – not given and static as communitarians assume. Group identities can be better understood, according to pluralists, as dialectical phenomena – relational and changing.

We always talk of group identity visa-vice another group. Their relation is often marked by conflict and hierarchy. Institutionalized oppression and domination are the major forms of socio-political relations in determining group identities. The strength of self-awareness as a group hinges most of the time on the strength and intensity of domination-relation perpetuated by another group. This is not because groups have their own sense of rivalry by nature, but essentially because the position of the group has a direct effect on the individual members of the groups.

The opportunities and challenges of the individual agency would ultimately be determined by the position of the group to which the individual belongs or associated. A group identity can be an enabling or disabling to the individual agency depending on the power-position of the group to which one belongs. The distribution of opportunities and challenges is therefore predetermined in a multi-cultural state. This means the individual in its relation to the state is mediated through group identity to which the individual belongs (be it race, cultural, ethnic, gender or even sexual orientation).  Therefore, citizenship cannot be conceptualized as a simple unilinear individual-state relationship without considering that mediation.

Instituting equal citizenship requires, first of all, the recognition of difference as a fact of life in general. It requires the recognition of those collective identities as political agents – in order to enable individual members can redress their disadvantaged standing vis-vice the state. For example, recognizing the Oromo language as a state language would enable an individual Oromo, who is not in good command of Amharic, to have equal access to public office or public hearing. Here we need to emphasize that the recognition of the collective identity, in our case the Oromo language, should not be made for its own sake or for the value one may attach to it. It is rather for its mediating role in enabling or empowering the individual to have equal opportunity, by removing the unjustly created institutional obstacle. There can be no reason consequently to consider that such recognition is not consistent with universal values of democracy which puts individual agency at the center of its conception of citizenship. There is no theoretical inconsistency between federalism as a multi-cultural conception of citizenship and that of the liberal conception based on universal freedom. Pluralism in this sense is a splendid synthesis of the two extreme doctrines, individualism and communitarianism.

This brings me back to reconsider the Ethiopian political discourse in the light of this lately developed conception of “multicultural citizenship”.

Indifference to Difference

I assume there is no question or debate about the multiethnic or multicultural nature of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a self-declared empire just four decades ago and, a multi- nations-state since the monarchy was abolished in 1974. It was only in the last 25 years that those multi-nations and nationalities were acknowledged as political entities to govern themselves and take part in the affairs of the federal. This is just to mention the official policy of the ruling EPRDF regime as articulated in the constitution, not to imply anything further. Ethiopia is also one of the most backward countries in its overall economic development and therefore with little or no liberal or republican democratic tradition.

Given these facts, it is simply perplexing to continuously hear an ever increasing louder voice by those unitarist forces and the new government in charge of the “transition” about the citizenship politics as a magical remedy to all problems of the country in the way it reminds us of scientific socialism and revolutionary democracy during Mengistu and Meles Zenawi, respectively. More perplexing is the fact their conception of citizenship often contrasted to federalism.

In a country where inequality and, as a result, a long standing conflict alongside ethnic, cultural or religious identities have had deeper root, I hope they are not imagining that Rawls’ veil of ignorance is at its magical function in letting those living people abandon their collective identity for the difference-blind-principle to rule. There is a common man temptation to consider blindness to difference as impartiality or neutrality, though. But blindness to an existing difference is to ignore the difference so that it should further be perpetuated unnoticed. Particularly differences as a result of past inequalities and domination-relation, as it has  been the case with Ethiopian polity, need full attention – not just blatant indifference called difference-blind-principle. How indifference to difference can result in principles of justice that promote equal citizenship in the first place?

Indifference to difference is not an innocent standpoint as it appears to be. It is rather an active coverup in diffusing strives of those marginalized or dominated identities. It is an ideological maneuver in maintaining the already existing overall structure by means of reducing all group identities to what is common to all, namely, the individual. But then they portray the individual after their own image as a yardstick for all individuals so that the larger unity continue to be reproduced in the old way. It goes on camouflaging the particular for the universal. Liberal individualism is just a recipe to forced assimilation as communitarianism is to segregation. Both consider difference as otherness but, differently. Liberalism wants to do away with it through assimilation. Communitarianism wants to essentialize difference so that hierarchical social form of organization be maintained.

The Ethiopian state have attempted so far both ways: exclusion and assimilation by the Monarchy and the Dergue, respectively. But both failed; and they failed devastatingly in the way they can never resuscitate again. It is absolutely beyond the scope of this paper to explain why. But it may suffice here to echo the famous statement: “an empire dies of indigestion”. The indigestion is even more likely when the minority tries to swallow the majority as it has been the case with Ethiopia. Ethiopia has died as an empire, already, long time ago. It only continued to persist as a state. It may has been deformed or disfigured for some of us who remained nostalgic of her past but, still persisting. Another trial to swallow the different, the otherness, may even result in a very risky business of getting her chocked up for ever.

Therefore, compromise on middle ground should be a categorical imperative for co-existence of diversity in unity and vice versa. The middle ground is to adopt a dual system of rights: liberal universal rights which are the same for all and specific empowering rights to group identities. The middle ground is a position that forwards an ideal of deliberative or “talk centric” democracy alternatively to “vote centric” or just liberal democracy that depoliticizes public life in general. That is precisely what I tried to term so long as a pluralist conception of citizenship as opposed to the monolithic one proposed by those who call themselves “unitarists” – while continue assuming speaking Amharic language, dancing eskista, adhering to a Coptic Church, adoring Menelik II, promoting the legendary tale of Queen Sheba and the Jewish descent of the Ethiopian dynasty etc. as a measure of a true Ethiopian citizen, Ethiopiawinet.

The author can be reached at alemayehubiru@gmail.com

 

 

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