By Desta Heliso
Over the last few weeks, I have been following a debate relating to ethnicity, shared national identity and particularly certain people groups in Ethiopia having a common origin. The debate, based on literature produced in different forms, seems to be very heated and emotionally charged. In this brief article, I would like to share my thoughts, for what they are worth, in relation to shared national identity and contribute to the debate. My thesis is very simple: Ethiopia is one and all Ethiopians are sisters and brothers. But to arrive at this deceptively simple proposition, one should accept that Ethiopia as a nation is a political construct and being Ethiopian is a state of mind. Ethiopia, as a nation, was created from different people groups through promotion of ideals that unite these groups and help transcend differences without necessarily dissolving distinct identities and their expressions. This resulted in what we now refer to as shared national identity under a nation-state called Ethiopia. This important construction was achieved over many generations and reinforced by the overarching narrative of Ethiopianness.
Very often, this narrative goes back to references to Aithiopis in Homeric poetic legends and Herodotus’ writings. References are also made to the Bible where Ethiopia represents the end of the earth in the extreme south. The Hebrew Bible uses Cush and the Greek Aithiopis. But nominal expressions of Cush or Aithiopis do not represent the status of Ethiopia as we know it today. What the Old Testament refers to as Cush could include Nubia and the Arabian peninsula. The classical writers’ use of Aithiopis, instead of Cush, may not necessarily negate this. For the Greeks, Aithiopis is ‘a far-off country of a black race who lived by the fountains of the sun’ and Ethiopians were most un-Greek in appearance because they were ‘black and smitten by the sun’. We cannot be absolutely certain as to how the Greeks came up with this name and these expressions. But we know that names are coined to a group of people on the basis of their geographical location, their religious persuasion, their social roots or even their skin colour. It is possible that the ancient Greeks came up with the name Aithiopis because of the skin colour of the ancient Ethiopians. Whatever the case, how many of the people groups in today’s Ethiopia this name represented from the time of Homer to the Roman period, we simply don’t know.
As the Greeks portrayed, ancient Ethiopia may well have been a respectable state with well-organised and courageous army. And ancient Ethiopians may well have been freedom- and justice-loving people. The portrayal of Ethiopians by the Jewish historian Josephus, in his Jewish Antiquities, is even more intriguing. He talks about Ethiopia’s prominence as an independent state of considerable military power, the marriage of a beautiful princess of Ethiopia called Tharbis to Moses, and the admirable and wise Queen of Sheba becoming Queen of Egypt and Ethiopia. Josephus’ story of the Queen of Sheba in particular has undergone extensive Arabian and other elaborations. It was further elaborated in a unique manner in the 14th century Ethiopia in a document called Kebra Nagast. According to these elaborations, Yemenis, Egyptians, Ethiopians etc could claim that the Queen of Sheba was their Queen. Then, which territories did Sheba represent? I don’t think we can say that it represented only the present political and geographical Ethiopia. I met a Kenyan who argued that ancient Ethiopia included some parts of Kenya. He may or may not be right. All this leads one to conclude that we cannot know with any degree of certainty as to how much of the land and which groups of people of the present Ethiopia were part of that ancient Cush, Sheba or Aithiopis.
What we can safely claim, however, is that a nation-state called Ethiopia was created and recreated, defined and redefined. From the history of Ethiopia, we know that the goal of creating and recreating, defining and redefining Ethiopia – as we know her today – was politically and economically motivated. It was achieved predominantly through bloody battles, political manipulations and imposition of certain ideals. We have moved from disparate kingdoms – whose vassals were loosely connected to the Suzerain – to T’eqlay Gizats under Emperor, then to Kifle Hegers under President, and now to Kilels under Prime Minister. Goodness knows what kind of administrative arrangements the next generation will come up with. All this shows that the concept of ‘nation’ is not a fixed one.
Prof Kwame Anthony Appiah in his BBC 4 Reith Lectures 2016 – titled Mistaken Identities (with special reference to Creed, Country, Colour and Culture) – argued that the idea of national sovereignty has ‘an incoherence at heart’ and that a nation is defined and redefined and political unity is never underwritten by some ‘pre-existing national commonality’. I agree with Appiah. Ethiopia’s singular nationhood is dependent not on pre-existing national commonality but on previously disparate people groups with their own autonomous or semi-autonomous territories accepting ideals believed to transcend differences without dissolving certain particularities; associating themselves with shared historical and cultural values and aspirations; developing national consciousness; and committing themselves to a shared national identity under a shared narrative of Ethiopianness.
Ethiopianness is a unifying state of mind developed by people of different ethnic groups, cultural backgrounds and religious persuasions. It is a mental disposition shaped by ‘history’ and ‘traditions’ of Ethiopia. It is something that is so deeply embedded in the societal psyche that it is almost unconscious. It is an inner passion for and emotional bond with the country, which can be described as love for Ethiopia. Through music, arts, sport and national anthem, this passion is rekindled and commitment to the uniting symbols is renewed. The whole thing can at times border on the irrational and can even be dangerous if it is not kept in check through rational reasoning. One cannot explain it comprehensively but it is a reality.
In Britain, a concert called BBC Proms is organised every year. It takes place in the Royal Albert Hall. In the final night of the Proms, one of the final songs refers to Britain or England as the Land of Hope and Glory. Another one is the well-known Rule Britannia. Many young people would wrap themselves with the British flag and sing these songs with incredible enthusiasm and tears in their eyes. The reference in the songs is to the colonial Britain, about which they are often embarrassed, and is of no relevance to the Britain they know and live in today, but it still seems to emotionally charge and strengthen their sense of Britishness and their love for Britain. This feeling is not always explicable but it is there for good or ill.
Similarly, Ethiopianness is something abstract, mentally constructed and emotionally strengthened. It is a unifying narrative that is shared by more than eighty people groups who have happened or chosen to live on a piece of land and share God-given resources together. These groups also voluntarily share common values, common cultural heritage and expressions, and uniting symbols. Through this, the vast majority of them have come to recognise and love this country called Ethiopia. Shared narrative has resulted in shared identity, so they have become – to use a metaphor – children of the same parent. That is, they have become sisters and brothers. Like all sisters and brothers, of course, they engage in sibling rivalry (sometimes in a rather unhealthy and deadly manner). But they could still love that Ethiopia with her symbolic motherhood. What they actually love is not that geographically determined land of beauty and serenity or that incorporeal political construct. What they actually love are those women and men whose lives and historical destinies are tied up with that of a country called Ethiopia. It is, therefore, unhelpful or even futile to attempt to prove that certain people groups in Ethiopia (to the exclusion of others) have a shared origin and identity. We should all declare in unison that Ethiopia is one and all Ethiopians are sisters and brothers!