A theory of conventional cultural unity

Development and peace in Ethiopia are hampered by a poor social network infrastructure, low trust between the people and the government and low trust between ethnic groups. Conventional cultural unity would harmonise a peace by strengthening the psychological attachments between Ethiopians.
Geletaw Zeleke
29 February 2012

Ethiopia is one of the richest counties in the world potentially, but in practice it is one of the poorest countries on earth. The irony is that natural resources and manpower are bountiful, but due to low social capital Ethiopia cannot even be self-sufficient.

The main problem of overall development and peace in Ethiopia is reliance on a poor social network infrastructure coupled with low trust between the people and the government vertically and low trust between ethnic groups horizontally.

The current government’s clan-based federal system is destroying the horizontal network of groups. On the one hand differences are highlighted by politicizing ethnicity, which causes people to identify themselves by their group. On the other hand nationalism is shrinking as these negative attitudes bring about hatred and jealousy among groups. A slighted sense of belonging, ethnic conflicts and severe economic decline together determined the nature of Ethiopia once the ruling EPRDF party implemented their “architecture of ethnic federalism”. In the meantime, communication and the ties of solidarity between and amongst ethnic groups and their members are fading out of Ethiopian culture.  

Wherever ethnic-based federalism is introduced, ethnic groups lose their psychological attachment to the remaining ethnic groups; like fields separated geographically the independent groups take up their distinct purposes. The only thing that binds disparate groups together under the umbrella of Ethiopianism is a central government, which naturally functions as a loose horizontal network. Since politics and government are always changing, if a power vacuum develops then societal groups can no longer sustain their coexistence.

The unity that binds people together is not only politics or democracy, but also the sharing of culture and resources. It is this exchange that binds ethnic groups throughout the ups and downs of life. Whether politics are stable or not, if a society’s social capital is strong enough then they can control the effects of negative changes.

In recent history the Derg military regime claimed a platform of unity, but where there was no equality before the law, belonging to a unitary political structure alone could not provide unity for multi-ethnic Ethiopia. Cultural unity is another essential anchor of the relationships between people living in given jurisdictions or under a given political structure.

The theory of conventional cultural unity proposed here is one way of building the necessary social infrastructures for unity in the Ethiopia context.

Conventional cultural unity 

This is a process in which different ethnic groups agree to share their cultures and build common values. Culture is always in a state of change. Culture is a set of practices which can be shaped to certain ends – for example including the harmonization of peace within and between groupings; building a culture that admits of variety but is of high quality; building a culture that maximizes social skills; accumulating social capital to accelerate development. However, the shaping of culture in this way has to be a two way process that accords with people’s voluntary participation.

Historically, the classical model of nation-building was forced cultural assimilation, especially during the time of the two world wars. During that time, countries seem to have been fascinated by the expansion of territory. The motivation for forced cultural assimilation was extirpating the culture of rival nations and forcefully infusing their own in an attempt to rule and maintain their own hegemonic power. Take the period of Japanese occupation and colonisation of the Korean people, for example, when Koreans were forced to speak Japanese and use it in their official communications. During the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945) Koreans were forced to dissolve the Korean Empire, to change their names, and were prohibited from using their native language and literature in order to demolish the Korean heritage and history.

Marc E. Caprio in Japanese Assimilation Policies in Colonial Korea wrote the following of forced cultural assimilation:

“…Japanese assimilation in Korea during the final seven years of its rule witnessed the colonial administration adopting hitherto unprecedented measures to eradicate Korean culture and identity.”

During the colonial period in many countries colonizers spent their time forcing the colonized to change their religion, customs and language. The only way the colonizers could think of to diffuse their language and belief system, was to force it upon the colonized. There is no attempt to share your culture in forceful assimilation. The belief is that destroying a colonized people’s culture facilitates. Scholars agreed that this was easier and faster. The Irish and Caribbean peoples were forced by their colonizers to use the English language, and as a result, lost much of their cultural inheritance and their value systems.

The French colonial idea was a bit different. The French declared that freedom and fraternity would apply to those people who were willing to take on board French language and culture. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the French colonies assimilated French language and culture, those who gave up their culture and beliefs were granted citizenship. The belief was that assimilation civilized the colonized nations while maintaining the necessary influence over them. In West Africa, Senegal was the target of French colonial assimilation policies. In general West African people were directly and indirectly forced to accept the external culture and language.

It is quite clear why historically classical assimilation failed. Human beings need freedom. When people are forced and conscripted to culture external to theirs, it is not something they can learn to love. They will reject it. 

Forceful assimilation has also occurred throughout history within countries themselves. Countries having multiple ethnicities have undergone forceful assimilation where one ethnic group takes advantage of and excludes other ethnic groups. In many cases intra-assimilation or ethnic group dominance has occurred where there are large populations. In some countries, the smaller sized groups could not compete with other groups and tried to assimilate instead.

But this form of intra-level assimilation was used in most cases to seize the central power infrastructure and take economic and social advantage of other ethnic groups. Annexed and trapped groups often fought to retain their culture and languages. Since the assimilation was forceful it caused anger and jealousy amongst groups and brought about civil war. In Turkey for example in the 1930s the government of Turkey implemented a policy to forcefully and arbitrarily assimilate the Kurds. Following this policy the Kurds raised up against the Turks in an ongoing battle for their rights. They have fought forced assimilation both with arms and peacefully ever since.

The Bulgarian government implemented an assimilation policy with regard to their Turkish-Bulgarian citizens between the years of 1984-1989. The Bulgarian government started the campaign of assimilation of Turk ethnic groups.

Wolfgang Hoepken wrote the following on Bulgarian forced assimilation campaigns:

“During the Revivalist process (between 1984-1989), the party launched a direct attack on the identity of the Turkish population. It forcefully changed their names to Bulgarian ones, banned public use of the Turkish language and Muslim religion rituals.” (1997)

Turkish-Bulgarians were subjected to changing their family names and having new identity cards with Bulgarian names. These caused the deaths of many people as we have seen repeatedly throughout history. The people of southern Sudan fought for decades in order to keep from being annexed by the north. Ethnic violence has caused conflicts and cost lives in Rwanda, Burundi, Yemen, Nigeria and Kosovo, as well.

The government of the former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia cultivated a policy of forced assimilation in order to stop the flow of culture from the Albanian ethnic group. The policy was intended to maintain the status and influence of the Slavic ethnic group.

In the former Soviet Union ethnic groups whose populations are minorities have always fought against annexation. The political environment tried to entrap them in the name of unity. But this forced cultural assimilation has never succeeded.

Perhaps the most dramatic failure in recent times has been that of apartheid in South Africa where exclusion was attempted rather than assimilation. Exclusion is the act of limiting communication and interaction of a certain social group with others in order to manipulate and rule over them. The word apartheid means being separated. In 1948 racial segregation was widely practiced in South Africa. Residence, education, health care and even public recreation areas were controlled. In the 1970s non-white political representation was still restricted. Again, by not sharing their knowledge and culture the ruling group thought to maintain their advantaged position through control of and rule over other groups.

In Africa most ethnic based civil wars and ethnic conflicts have been caused by either forceful assimilation or exclusionist practices. Forceful assimilation at both the inter and intra levels has caused ethnic conflict and civil war. This is a practise which qualifies as a crime against humanity. The lesson for the twenty-first century is that no ethnic group wants to give up its own culture and tradition by force.

The philosophical foundations of an alternative model

Even without external cultural influence, groups change their own culture over time. The dynamic nature of the human mind always yearns for change as time goes by. In the theory of conventional cultural unity, culture is considered the means and the end is humanity. From this perspective human beings can be understood to use culture to satisfy their physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual needs.

Both material and non-material cultures accompany conscious human development. Since human needs are not a static matter, human beings need better instruments, better administrations, better medicines, better lifestyles, better food and shelter, better clothes and so on.  This tendency spurs the groups to internally change their food culture, medicine culture, administrative culture, material culture and their non-material cultures in general.

In a given groups’ history every generation will participate in and contribute to their own culture. As culture is passed down, generation to generation, not all culture and knowledge will be accepted. Instead it will be filtered and added to through the arts of the new generation. The contribution of the new generation to the groups’ culture is what makes culture dynamic.

We can observe cultural change without external cultural influences by taking a look at the most homogeneous societies. For example, in Japan there have been significant material and non-material cultural changes over time. Japanese and Korean civilizations are noticeably dynamic in the production of electronic materials. Through their dynamic creativity they can even challenge the world’s material culture. The new generations in both countries do not use the same material as previous generations. This dynamic nature is the result of the internal pressures to seek out a better life.

No nation or ethnic group can sustain their language and culture unchanged over time. Some cultural resources are used and some are retired as historic treasures. When we take a look at language for example it changes over time as the result of internal pressure. Science, language and thinking have strong mutual associations, so that members of the same group would have difficulty communicating with years of separation in their same language. The people of a community would not communicate the same way with members of their same group who lived 200 years before them. Even for the new generation of Ethiopians, it is difficult to read and interpret ancient manuscripts.

My grandmother and I have experienced a bit of a communication gap even though we both speak the same language, Amharic. My ways of expressing my ideas, my vocabulary and sentence construction are a bit different from those of my grandparents. If I were able to speak with my great-great-great-grandparents I cannot  assume that we would be able to communicate, even though we would be using the same Amharic language.

But a specific culture or language can also be influence by external culture. In the twenty-first century the world has become a village due to the high rate of both intra-cultural and inter-cultural change.

According to linguists the majority of the English lexicon, for example, originates from foreign borrowings:

“English is a Germanic language, having a grammar and core vocabulary inherited from Proto-Germanic, however, a significant portion of English word hoard comes from Romance and Latinate sources. Estimates of native words (derived from Old English) range from 20% to 33% with the result made up of foreign borrowings. (Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia)

Ethiopian diversity and cultural unity

In a given multi-ethnic country like Ethiopia the flow of culture from one group to another is greater than the rate of inter-cultural exchange.  This is because the rate of interaction between groups is relatively higher. In the process of creating cultural unity, spatial factors still play a critical role in accelerating the rate of cultural exchange. People of diverse groups interact in traditional markets, public areas, institutions and at different events.

In Ethiopia there are over 82 ethnic groups. Some of their cultures and languages are extremely different from one another. Since they are under the umbrella of a single country they need unity. This unity can be realized only through some process of cultural unification.

The concept of cultural unification is different from that of forceful assimilation. Writers differ over which has been more important in Ethiopian history. Those who think that forceful assimilation has played a major role recall the use of renaming Oromos and other southern nation peoples to Amahara names calling it “Amharization”. The camp who believe that cultural unification has created unity in the past cite the spread of slight psychological impacts resulting from the higher status and economic class of the Amhara nation. But whichever route you take, most can agree that there was no balanced participation in the creation of a new cultural unity.

Conventional cultural unity is a process in which groups work together in the process of building a new culture and values and a certain equilibrium is thereby achieved. The goal of conventional cultural unity in Ethiopia is not only to build strong nationalism, but also to satisfy the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual needs of Ethiopians through a variety of cultural practices.

When Ethiopian ethnic groups contribute to their own culture and language in order to unify it does not mean that their own culture will vanish. In the process of their active participation in building common values groups start to enjoy one another’s culture. They enjoy a variety of food, dance, hairstyle, wedding ceremony, holiday observance, material and non-material cultures in general. As time goes by the new high quality and varied purveyors of culture holders will emerge as unified Ethiopians, not pertaining to a certain group.

Individuals must be free to choose the best quality foods, their preferred clothing, favourite style of dance and so on. This selection from the available material culture should be based on convention, not arbitrary. The preferences for non-material culture should be based on genuine choice and not delimited by ethnicity. The general atmosphere of policy-making in the sharing of culture should allow people to comfortably choose useful material cultures and put the rest of their obsolete material and non-material cultures to rest in the shared vault of national history.

When we take a look at the food culture of Addis Ababa the capital and most diverse city of Ethiopia, we see the tradition of a variety of ethnic foods in the Ethiopian diet. Kitfo is the national dish of Ethiopia. This delicious minced meat dish originates from the Guraghe ethnic group from the southern province. The Guraghe did not try to influence other groups or force Ethiopians to nominate it as the national dish. Kitfo is the national dish of Ethiopia because the majority of Ethiopians, from all the different ethnic groups, chose it.

Kitifo spread to the Amhara group and it was adopted to be eaten together with the Amhara traditional bread ingera. Kitfo is the Guraghe contribution to the staple food diet of Ethiopians who also eat it with Kocho but have adopted the Amhara ingera to their diets as well. Ethiopians will continue to search for more innovations and adaptations to please their tastes or satisfy their real needs. 

The Dorze arts in weaving have combined with the Amhara and Tigray fine cotton cloth to make the most beautiful and preferred styles of clothing for women in the city; again it is not because women are forced to wear Dorze weaving or the fine cloth of the Amhara and Tigray by government, state or church. It is sought after because it is of fine quality, it is conventional and it has become a tradition.

Conventional cultural unity is a guarantee for groups who as time goes by pursue a continually renewed and refreshed higher quality of life, complemented by a variety of cultures with rich traditions. This cultural unity does not attempt to create only one single culture as this is impractical, but to maximize the potential of all cultures in order to build the strongest, most reliable national social capital. It is a two way system working through the process of sharing. Values and knowledge flow through communication channels and all peoples select for themselves what is timely and important for human development.

Building social cohesion

In order to maintain trust in Ethiopia, addressing issues of spatial diversity is of critical importance. The federal system should take into account the need to provide a fully conducive environment when assigning terrain to ethnic groups. This is not only a question of language. The current federal system in Ethiopia has failed to provide adequate means for groups to communicate and interact, because groups are bound to their immediate localities.

Conventional cultural unity emanates from big hearts, accepting differences and embracing differences; it also includes the highest levels of respect and appreciation people can have for one another. Therefore the necessary social infrastructure has to be put in place by government so that more people can develop these types of constructive interactions.

There should, for example, be a policy of encouraging and building diversity into government offices, school systems and public institutions. All regions and their constituent parts need to be accommodated and involved. The various ethnic groups should all be seen visibly participating in administrative positions, the professions, and public jobs throughout the regions of Ethiopia.The government should encourage ethnic groups to live together by implementing and encouraging diverse resettlement policies whereby members of different ethnic groups can live in the same regions. In the special case of the Ethiopian highland area residents, there is a crisis due to the population explosion. This problem can be resolved by letting go of the limits on ethnic group settlement.

Ethnic-based federalism highlights differences and meanwhile brings about separatism. Psychological attachment can be brought about between groups only when political strategizing begins with parties built from ideologies and not racial groups. The Ethiopian political parties have to be national and focused on individual rights. The government should work hard to build up this kind of nationalism. Promoting justice and democracy makes the psychological attachment among and between groups stronger.

Building cultural exchange institutions is very important. Cultural exchange events allow people to learn from one another. Cultural exchange programmes and policies build stronger communities. This involves teaching Ethiopians about diverse ethnic groups of Ethiopia: their history, contributions, achievements, languages and cultures. This understanding will build the vital social capital necessary for the process of peacebuilding and development. We should open languages institutes in regions to encourage multilingual citizens and build a multilingual nation. Encourage Amharas to learn the Oromiffa language[7]; encourage Oromos to learn the Tigray language and so on.

What should we do about our national language? This must become a symbol of the unity of Ethiopians. It is possible that all groups can contribute to the national language standardization of the Amharic language. But Ethiopian linguists have to standardize the national language by focusing on our multiculturalism. The Malaysian national language Malay Bahasa was standardized after independence in 1967. The language is a mixture of many ethnic groups. Likewise Ethiopian linguists should aim to develop the national language through the contributions of different languages. Meanwhile, cultivating the English language will help Ethiopia to develop its external social capital and prepare its competences for the future.

A trustworthy diverse political system

As mentioned above, conventional cultural unity does not set out to destroy one culture and build a single culture. Rather, it is a process of allowing all knowledges and cultures to make a contribution, building on that variety to attain a better quality of life. Because each group has something to contribute to the common good the process of contributing knowledge and culture is a continual process. Supporting groups so that they may develop their culture and language is a vital element for the common good.

All cultural practices should be given recognition, while the group is encouraged to exercise their culture freely. Encourage new generations to add its own arts to the already existing cultural practices in business, technology, manufacturing, medicine, farming, and other trends. Encourage groups to teach their kids in both their local language and the national language. Promote affirmative actions in order to build strong trust and a sense of belonging.

Trust between groups starts with a trustworthy diverse political system. Whenever ethnic nature and religion are politicized it destroys national social capital. For multi-ethnic Ethiopia, horizontal trust is one of the most vital constituents of a whole healthy country. Horizontal trust means trust between and amongst ethnic groups and their members. The rhetorical play of those who indulge is politicking must be replaced by genuine ideological debate, in which all groups have an interest in being leaders in economics and politics. The political atmosphere cannot always provide us with the certainty we would wish. Loss of certainty about the future has often led groups in the past to be suspicious and react negatively towards competing localities, forming attitudes which make the horizontal network and trust weaker.

But groups that have reached an equilibrium in their relations to each other are a social capital for the government. This theory is intended to harmonize a peace by strengthening the psychological attachments between Ethiopian ethnic groups. Among the very basic foundation stones of a precious national unity, cultural unity is a profound influence.

The forgoing piece was edited by Magill Dyess. The writer can be reached at [email protected]

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