Meditating about Leaders: the Ethnic Self

Nov 9 , 2019
By Dawit Wondimagegn

Our existential challenge is not that people have embraced their ethnic identity, it is that we do not have the competence that is mandatory to negotiate living in diversity, writes Dawit Wondimagene (MD), an associate professor of psychiatry at Addis Abeba University’s School of Medicine and chief executive director of Tikur Anbessa Hospital. He can be reached at

Mental health professionals would agree, of all the different types of abuse that lead to suffering, emotional neglect is probably the most painful one for any person to experience. The key element being the deprivation of attention in emotional neglect.

Whereas other forms of abuse are bad, they come from bad and unnecessary attention. In most cases of physical abuse, for example, victims tend to rationalise that the perpetrator of the abuse did it because they care. Of course, that is not the case. Any form of abuse for any reason cannot be condoned. That will be another discussion. The current issue is leaders and their unquenchable desire for attention.

It is established that leaders can use histrionic trolls to entice violence between groups. Histrionics love to be the centre of attention. They care more about appearance than substance. Their most important focus is one and only one: themselves. They will use others for their own good with no hesitation. They will use any course of action with no assessment of risk to others as long as it is going to focus attention on them. When they feel the spotlight is on another, they go into severe withdrawal.

The one thing they hate most is quiet and peace. They crave noise. If there is none, they will create it. They suffer from an extreme sense of insecurity. They believe the world is not a safe place. They will amplify that every time they get scared. That is when they use their trolls to just check if there is anyone who cares for them. Knowing that nobody cared for them in their lives, they want everybody to care about them now.

If why they do this is clear, then why do others respond to them?

For any intelligent being, which we all are, it should be a no-brainer to see them for who they really are. People should just dismiss them as irrelevant. They are used to being irrelevant to such an extent, that it will not be a surprise for them if we ignore them. But we cannot. We all are bound to respond.

Some would respond to their call and others against their call. Either way they get what they want: attention. People spend time talking about them, cursing them, arguing about them, defending them and defending against them. Some call out for justice, some for them, others against. In the end, their purpose is served, everybody is giving them attention.

What makes people so vulnerable to their manipulations?

One simple answer could be that human beings are suggestible. Suggestibility is the tendency to incline to believe suggestions that are false. Children love stories, because they are suggestible. They believe the stories as true and fascinating. If the same story is told to adults, they will not even let us finish, because they know it is not true. Adults listen and believe stories only when they think they are true. But remember they are still stories.

The news is a story, and people follow the news. When it turns out that some news is not true, they blame the media. The media’s function is to provide the information; we choose to believe it or not. Why do we believe information that is conveyed to us through the various sources?

We believe the stories, because we have a reliability criterion in our head, but there is no evidence of that. We believe because we are prone to follow people and their suggestions.

Why do people follow leaders? The class monitor, the captain of the football team in the village and leaders of the recent past - why do people follow them? Remember Gadhafi? The last image I have of him is lying inside a ditch, not the Gadhafi that used to bring a small army to occupy the streets of Addis. Is it not strange that it is the same person? He had followers too. Why could they not see that he is as fallible as the next person?

One simple reason for people following leaders with all their antics is that they are just suggestible. Suggestibility may indeed explain some of the unexplainable atrocities witnessed these days. However, it is too simplistic a model to explain the atavistic nature of the violence that is threatening the lives of many. Something more complex must be happening in all of us that needs unpacking: The ethnic self.

There is the internal ethnic in all of us. Ethnicity is one of many identities in a person. I have neither the intention nor the expertise to deconstruct and analyse ethnic politics. I leave that to the people who are making a living out of it. There are so much boundary issues going around, I do not have the appetite to start a professional one. I will only focus on what I think I know and make my living out of: identity formation. How do we become who we are?

Identities are in the person. No one has one single identity. Ethnicity is one of many identities in a person. We are multiple beings lumped into one body. Among the many identities in a person, the ethnic self is just one. No one can claim that they do not have an ethnic identity. There is the internal ethnic in all of us.

As many as identities are, there are many ways they are developed. In general, identities are given to us. Children are raised from outside-in. Whatever is in us is something we got from the outside. In a way we have no choice as to what is given to us, because we are helpless creatures, and whoever is around to ensure our safety will determine who and what we take in. We have no way of knowing what that will make us.

The process of development forces us to continually internalise others from the external world. One of these internalised identities is ethnicity. This is a very reductionist version of the complex development of the self. It just helps to understand some of the internal (self) and external conflicts.

From the spectrum of the (psychological) ethnic self, two types can be easily identified. There is the ethnocentric self that only recognises the specific ethnic identity as the most important organising principle of the person. There is also the state-centric, in our case Ethio-centric, self that only recognizes the state as the single organising principle of the person. These look quite opposite on the surface, but they are actually quite similar in that both do not recognise the possibility of the other.

They are always in an antagonistic relationship. It is this deep-rooted ethnic self that the trolls from leaders who need attention induce easily. The primal nature of the violence we see becomes less gruesome once we recognise what is activated in all of us.

Bad leaders will remain bad, because it is within their nature. What can be done to come out of this conundrum?

I am suggesting two ways forward, one for the adults in the house and another for children.

All versions of ethnic identities are premised on a Eurocentric version of the self: the egocentric individual. That is one culture and one way of looking at reality. Modern education with all that it promises has subjugated most adults to submit to this single notion of reality. There is only one goal of history and all should follow that pathway to development. However, the same platform has also shown that there are multiple realities and multiple ways of knowing and knowledge.

There is the cosmo-centric self, where the cosmos and the transcendent is the organising principle. Spiritual and religious identities are of such nature. The echo-centric self, where land and the environment play a more prominent role in determining the self. There is also the socio-centric where communities determine the self more than any notion of the individual.

A quick look at the way of life will indicate that people who live in Ethiopia (for a lack of a better word to stay away from the controversies) are people of the social, environmental and cosmic ilk. All the good and bad history is written based on our relationships. Our relationship with land, our relationship with each other and our relationship with the cosmos. We are bound together by these realities. It is important that adults wake up to this truth about our nature and the way we are constructed. It is only when we realize this that we will be able to build a new world for our children.

Children: the unfortunate victims of our adult irresponsibility. They are so unfortunate that they do not know we are in a race to rob their future. Some are actually made to be part of the process of destroying their own future. The world has gone through a gradual shift in changing the nature of generations. The generation “WE” of the past is being replaced by the generation “ME” of the present. There is very little that can be done to halt that process. Every generation is entitled to a style of existence that suits the challenges of the time. One thing that can be done to help this transition is to equip children with the necessary competence that takes them through their time with as little adversity as possible.

Children of all identities in Ethiopia need education in ethnic competence. We have the historic accountability to do this for them. We should be advocating for policy to adopt the teaching of ethnic and cultural competence across all formal and informal channels.

Our existential challenge is not that people have embraced their ethnic identity, it is that we do not have the competence that is mandatory to negotiate living in diversity.

The only way we can deal with it is by staying in the discussion.

PUBLISHED ON Nov 09,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1019]

Dawit Wondimagegn (MD) (, associate professor of psychiatry at Addis Abeba University’s School of Medicine and chief executive director of Tikur Anbessa Hospital.

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