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Catastrophic When Unbridled Nationalism Tramples Civism. Be Warned!

September 10 , 2021.

What dominates a customary display of festivities during Ethiopia`s New Year weeks is the yellow colour, symbolic of the sunflower. Lately, the overwhelming scene in the capital, conveniently projected by the media, is joined by the green and red colours. With the star emblem on the centre, the federal flag adorns the streets and buildings of Addis Abeba.

It comes just in time for what the Prime Minister’s Office wants to be a week of celebrating "patriotism, service, virtue and heroism."

Abstractly, it is tough to be against such things on a conceptual basis. They are overlapping, albeit loaded, concepts that crowd religious and morally sentimental literature. If only they have a tangible leg to stand on in a material world. A world where citizens live in perpetual scarcity, the competitions over constrained resources are fierce, and social organisations where legal and institutional systems are dysfunctional lead to deadly conflicts. The lofty words of "patriotism" and "heroism" become weaponised in partisan warfare where "authority" clashes with "identity", the first to consolidate power to ascertain law and order, the second to resist to claim autonomy and self-rule.

At the start of yet another new year - 2014 - the hopes and promises of millions stand at the crossroads. Ethiopia is on the precipice!

It is a country of fear and wants, dominated by deadly militarised conflicts and deepening profound economic crises. The social fabric is ripped apart, with citizens helplessly divided and communities polarised frighteningly. The political, social, cultural, and faith institutions have their leaders mired in partisan warfares they conclude are existential; they appear to pursue conflicts of "beliefs". But, Ethiopia is at the height of a crisis of "values".

Abstract concepts constructed to advance a certain set of beliefs may charm the urban middle- and upper-middle-class (it would be a mockery of definition to speak of an upper-class) whose share remains itsy-bitsy, despite its growing size. The vast majority, the rural communities, are in constant struggle on several fronts of poverty, conflicts, displacement and utter starvation. A joint survey conducted by WFP-FAO places Ethiopia, alongside Madagascar, as the "new highest-alert hotspots". If the ongoing war is not to freeze, there will be over 400,000 people facing deadly famine until the end of this month, the highest number the world witnessed since Somalia a decade ago.

Alas! In the face of such a terrifying reality, the ultimate choice of leaders of all fronts and sectors is to dance with such exalting concepts of salvation and redemption.

Never mind that it has been a tried and tired game in deflection. If the challenges of insecurity and economic hardship cannot be satisfied, blame it on a boogeyman. There may be a real threat, but it is usually pushed out, abused and humiliated until it bites back. This is the story of much of Ethiopia’s civil strife, where the "Ethiopianist ideology" fights to assert authority against the exclusivist ethnonationalism of many variants that resist preserving its identities. The overriding conflict is a clash of nationalism. And nationalism - from the Anglo-Saxon to French and from Russian to German - is nothing but a quest for political power. Ethiopia`s is no different. But almost all nationalism have perfected the art of concealing their thrust for power in the rhetoric of struggle for human rights, accountability and transparency, the rule of law and democracy.

Ironically, world history presents an abundance of lessons to organise society for course correction.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) is keen to point out, quite often, every country has its times of unprecedented hardship. This is true. But it seems Ethiopia is one of the very few to be too verbose to fail to learn. Lessons are forgotten as fast as the challenges passed. Look no further for proof. The political leadership on both sides of the war came of age since the bloody revolution of 1974 and the subsequent civil war. This experience did nothing to prevent another eerily similar war from breaking out, this time under their watch.

This should be depressing for the outcome is not to be of surprise. The elites' constant utility of unbridled nationalism for a social organisation has created an impasse against an open, tolerant and pluralist society. The Ethiopianist or ethnonationalist ideologies leave no room for one another. One is a jingoist, and the other is mainly insecure. Each is determined to see its existence at the demise of the other. Historical grievances, identity and fear are the most convenient tools for establishing coherence within the in-group and protecting against even moderates.

In the long history of social organisations, nationalism is a recent phenomenon. It is the most powerful political force in the modern age. Nonetheless, its brief shelve-live has demonstrated it could be silenced temporarily. But since it is intertwined with identity, it always comes back as long as the group that espouses it lives on. Talk to the Scottish, the Catalans and the Québécois to find out.

It often takes only one charismatic personality with the right platform (nationalist doctrine) and a restless segment of a population (nationalist behaviour) to embolden the mass into action.

Nationalism, defined by the academic lexicon as "the doctrine of self-determination", does not form on an island. It is created and mounted as an affront to an ambiguous imposition of authority and identity. For every exclusive or assimilative nationalism, an equal and opposite nationalism doing the same emerges. When societies strike, economically or militarily, fear takes hold, and it is easy for many to hide under the hungry embrace of nationalist doctrines that had long been crying wolf. Suddenly, the doctrines become credible and appear to offer false promises for security and order.

The world is full of diverse groups that, by and large, tolerate one another enough to co-exist. There always exist fringe radicals on the sidelines preaching intolerance. But most of the rest of the population endures in the centre, perceptive enough to learn when hawks take over, and the moderates disappear from the public discourse; the consequence is always pain and suffering. Today`s Ethiopia serves as a grim reminder of this.

This is not to argue that individuals should have no pride in their community and country or shared heritage and history. It is disingenuous to claim culture and history do not figure into one’s worldview. Individuals are products of their environment. More crucially, as a highly evolved social species, human beings often need to belong in some group. Individuals go to great lengths to associate with others that share their own culture, language, experiences and worldview. Humans are social animals, after all.

But such affinity to the collective can be abused. The delicate line between civism and unbridled nationalism is often erased by emphasising that the sanctity of country, tribe or ethnicity be held above every other consideration, most horrifyingly human welfare and decorum. The consequences of this have been played out too frequently in Ethiopia’s political history in the form of wars.

There can be a cause for exhilaration seeing initiatives for a peace movement in Ethiopia, albeit belatedly, very few and far between. But before any enduring peace can be realised, the peace coalition in Ethiopia`s society must pull the rug upon which the war camp comfortably stands: unbridled nationalism. It is the not-so-secret spice used to spruce any worthwhile public discourse into a dismissive and belittling exchange of words. When such an unbridled nationalism captures the state, it all becomes catastrophic.

Where one gets consolation, however, is with the realisation that times of disaster are often short-lived, bar countries such as Somalia, Congo, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. War may be the romance of history, but it is also not fun to live through for eternity. Citizens would rather not live in war and be governed by the fear that holds them, forever. It remains worrisome because the war camp would not allow the conflict to ease without seeing its side victorious. It will dig deeper into its toolkit of prejudice, fear and insecurity to make a case for continuing the war and argue that a concession amounts to loss.

The coalition of peace could take on this challenge not by digging deeper into respective nationalisms but by reimagining a shared future for co-existence under a state that is transparent, accountable and based on the rule of law. A state that is to ensure the dignity of all under its sovereign duty.

PUBLISHED ON Sep 10,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1115]

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