Unity in Diversity versus Diversity in Unity

By Messay Kebede

In an article titled “The Question of Unity: Do Words Matter?,” Maimire Mennasemay exposed the poison wrapped in the TPLF’s catchphrase “unity in diversity.” His insightful analysis reveals that the slogan is “diversity-centric,” in that it gives primacy to ethnic identities and conceives of unity as an agglomeration of sovereign and static ethnic groups. As an assemblage of diverse entities, unity is less the overcoming of fragmentation than the political consecration of its artificiality.

Worse yet, so conceived, unity becomes “inherently inimical to democracy.” Because it freezes divisions, it promotes the politics of divide-and-rule that is so characteristic of dictatorial regimes. It also hampers the development of universal norms, by which people assert their common interests, beyond ethnic particularisms, and come together, thereby perceiving unity as the realization of their common aspirations. With an acuminous grasp, Maimire shows how the imperial regime, the Derg, and the EPRDF have used different strategies to achieve a similar goal, namely, the coagulation of ethnicity, either through rejection or consolidation, so as “to implement their divide-and-exploit policies.” After all, whether ethnicity is accepted or rejected, in both cases it is set against unity.

Instead of “unity in diversity,” Maimire proposes the formula “diversity in unity,” which, he says, is “unity-centric” and, as such, friendly to democratic developments. Indeed, the suggested formulation no longer seeks the petrification of ethnic identities; rather, it promotes unity through the development of norms transcending particularisms. Not only does it thus give primacy to unity, but it also turns unity into the framework of diversity. It does not obtain an artificial gathering by reducing unity to a mere sum of diverse entities; on the contrary, it lays out a diversified, rainbow-like unity, as opposed to conglomerate unity. In the rainbow-like unity, the parts belong to the same unity and are in solidarity with one another, unlike the conglomerate unity, which is composed of heterogeneous entities that remain distinct as oil and water.

While conglomerate unity is perfectly propitious to a divide-and-rule policy, given that a hegemonic center becomes necessary to keep together the heterogeneous entities, the spectral quality of a diversified unity accentuates fellowship and solidarity, and so replaces divisive politics with the pursuit of consensus. In such a union, a hegemonic force becomes superfluous, since diversity becomes a component, an expression of unity rather than an entity in an artificial assemblage. Where people are united by common interests and traits, they resent divisive and dictatorial rule.

My own contribution suggests that Maimire’s analysis contains more than a prescription, an ought-to-be; it is also quite reflective of modern Ethiopian history. The beginning was unity rather than diversity. The ethnic problem of Ethiopia presupposes the territorial unity achieved by Menelik’s expansion and the consolidation of the Ethiopian state under Haile Selassie. Prior to the expansion and integration into the Ethiopian empire, most southern peoples lived under tribal organizations that significantly fell short of being nations, still less nation-states. By contrast, the northern part of modern Ethiopia had developed the sense of being a nation through a long history of unity under an organized state.

When the north conquered and integrated the south, a territorial unity was achieved, but which was fraught with deep contradictions, since it immediately took a hegemonic form. In addition to marginalizing the representatives of the southern peoples, the conquerors appropriated their land and implemented a policy of assimilation that was insensitive to their cultural legacy. And as the competition for scarce resources intensified with the process of modernization, the educated elites of the southern peoples and those of Tigray and Eritrea responded to the hegemony of Amhara ruling elite by increasingly rejecting unity and construing themselves as representatives of oppressed or “colonized” nations. Clearly, the historical reality does not show a movement from diversity to unity; rather, it displays the process of diversity emerging from unity as a result of hegemonic practices. Diversity is thus a posterior creation, not an initial point of departure, as suggested by the expression “unity in diversity.”

Unlike “unity in diversity,” which is an attempt to rewrite history by changing an outcome into a beginning, “diversity in unity” acknowledges the movement toward diversity. By conceptualizing diversity as the product of elite conflicts caused by hegemonic practices, it naturally sees it as bifurcation or divergence, which can become the basis of democratic unity, provided that it is not solidified by detrimental ideologies, notably by ethnonationalist beliefs. Ethiopia would thus evolve from territorial unity to democratic unity via bifurcation or internal differentiation. Differentiation is a mediation in the process of transition from imposed unity to diversified unity.

It is important that Ethiopian forces opposing ethnonationalist ideologies adopt the principle of “diversity in unity.” In so doing, they emphasize unity while integrating diversity in such a way that it is no longer antithetical to unity. Better still, by converting diversity into a construct triggered by elite conflicts, they counter its hypostatization, whose consequence is that diversity is approached as a political problem liable of a democratic solution, and not as a primordial attribute that is refractory to a sub-unit status. To say that diversity grew out of unity maintains the integrity of the whole, whereas the opposite, that is, the generation of unity from initial dispersion at best obtains a collection, which certainly does not amount to a nation.

(Dr Messay Kebede can be reached at [email protected])