By Teshome M. Borago
Former Member of Ethiopian Parliament Girma Seifu Maru has called for the official recognition of multiethnic mixed-Ethiopian identity on the upcoming 2019 Census. Girma was an official of the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) opposition party led by its leader Judge Birtukan Mideksa, who is now the head of Ethiopia’s election commission.
The former MP said “it should be up to Ethiopians to choose how and who they want to identify as or to not identify with any group at all” during the Census. And Girma wants Census officials to provide an alternative option and ask citizens whether or not they want to be classified as mixed-Ethiopians or choose one tribe.
Tens of millions of Ethiopians are believed to have two or more mixed ethnic ancestry; however most select one ethnicity based solely on mother tongue during recent Census collections. Some mixed-Ethiopians living in homogeneous tribal areas usually select the local tribe in order to escape persecution economically and socio-politically. Others are pressured to randomly pick only one fraction of their family, or one tribal label: particularly those residing in urban centers like Addis Ababa, Adama, Dire Dawa and Hawassa.
The Ethiopian Census has been politicized since the arrival of the TPLF ruling party, as its former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his Oromo allies imposed an ethnic based federalism throughout Ethiopia in the 1990s. Initially, Zenawi’s ethnic-federalism project faced two major obstacles nationwide: one from cosmopolitan mixed-Ethiopians who refused to pick a tribe; and the second from rural Amharic speakers who refused the “Amhara” label in exchange for their regional identities like Shewan, Gondare, Wollo and Gojame.
However, after two decades of institutional tribalism, the new generation northern Amharic speakers have gradually adopted the “Amhara” label recently. Yet, urban mixed-Ethiopians remain opposed to tribalism, as the current constitution virtually denies their existence and thus representation.
Due to being stateless, mixed-Ethiopians often support opposition parties, like Ginbot 7, who promote individual rights over group rights. Meanwhile, mixed-Ethiopians in Addis Ababa established a new organization known as Movement for Ethiopian Nationalism (MEN), led by its founder Andualem Buketo Geda, a staunch opponent of ethnic federalism. Also the diaspora organization, Gosaye Ethiopia Movement (GEM), advocated for the rights of mixed-Ethiopians, transforming the name “Ethiopia” itself into an ethnic group: one that promotes multilingualism while maintaining similar culture, shared history, geography or common polity and consciousness.
They scored a small political victory last year when Addis Ababa government was pressured to remove ethnic labels on identification cards in the capital city. The move by the city government was criticized by ethnic nationalists like Tsegaye Ararssa but praised by the multiethnic citizens of the capital.
While multiethnic mixed-Ethiopians have historically opposed ethnic federalism; the system has recently been challenged by its own proponents as ethnic violence continues to grow exponentially. The raging ethnic conflicts near ethnic borders all over Ethiopia today have triggered a virtual self-destruction of ethnic federalism. In contested towns like Moyale, claimed by both Oromos and Somalis as their homeland, the carnage has been gruesome and historic. A new op-Ed on New York Times (NYT) Thursday urged the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to scrap ethnic federalism in favor of territorial federalism based on citizenship.
According to the New York Times article, the Ethnic federalism crisis created “an additional layer of privilege” and “the fiction of an ethnic homeland creates endless minorities;” adding that “Ethiopia’s 1994 Constitution evoked the classically Stalinist definition of ‘nation, nationality and people’ and the Soviet solution to ‘the national question.’”
For the millions of multiethnic mixed-Ethiopians in the country, being recognized in the 2019 Census does not only benefit them; but they also might become a bridge to unite the rest of a country that was artificially and unnecessarily divided by ethnic politics.