Part II: (Re) Imagining the diaspora: solidarity beyond nationalism

Written by Mohammed A

by Tiyya B

I received several emails from different readers suggesting that I was simplifying the issues concerned.

While I recognize the issues are complex, my aim is not to pass judgments or privilege certain perspectives over others. It is also not to solve the problem of the Ethiopian state or predict its future. My aim, simply, is to suggest that we need to start thinking differently about how we approach and relate with each other.

Being a part of the Ethiopian diaspora is a complex and paradoxical experience. One is keenly aware of the implicit boundaries, stern differences and nonnegotiable subjects of discussion. Still, those of us interested in searching for alternatives to the status quo must continue to navigate this difficult reality, aware that the issues at hand are complex and cannot be reduced to simple solutions. Here, I do not intend in any way to provide prescriptions or set guidelines for how to build solidarity, but rather I want to map out the conditions I believe are necessary to move in that direction. In this regard, I welcome all perspectives which would contribute to furthering this dialogue.

Whenever the idea of solidarity comes up in discussions of the Ethiopian diaspora, two competing and interrelated perspectives arise. The first suggests that differences must be ignored, minimized or repressed. This group does not consider issues such as religion, ethnicity, or history as relevant, ‘we are all Ethiopians’, they suggest. In stark contrast to this view, another group suggests that we are so different that we cannot come together. There is no room for dialogue, compromise and understanding according to this group. These two perspectives are engaged in a pull-push contest—one seeks to unite (read: homogenize) the other seeks to disrupt and resist such claims. Of course, each perspective is deeply rooted in specific understanding of identity. The problem is that the first perspective is dismissive and the second one too rigid. There are other perspectives but these have been the most dominant in my experience.

Given these perspectives, solidarity must begin with open negotiation of these contested claims to identity. This might start with recognizing that we are not all the same people. Ethiopia may be a state, but it is not a nation. Considering it so would be to ignore the diversity and complexity of the Ethiopian reality. In 1969, university student Walleligne Mekonnen penned an important article addressing the issue of nationalism. His conclusion is quite relevant here, “in Ethiopia there is the Oromo Nation, the Amhara Nation, the Gurage Nation, the Sidama Nation, the Wellamo [Wolayta] Nation, the Adere [Harai] Nation, and however much you may not like it the Somali Nation. This is the true picture of Ethiopia. There is of course the fake Ethiopian nationalism advanced by the ruling class and unwillingly accepted and even propagated by innocent fellow travellers.”

Not only is it important that we keep this view of Ethiopia in mind, but also how each of these nations have come to be included under what is now Ethiopia. That means considering historical (as well as ongoing) injustices and social, economic and political inequalities that still persist. To expect each of these nations to assume they are all the same is not only unproductive but will also be met with extreme resistance. Of course, it is also important that we keep in mind some groups have more stake in the current hegemonic Ethiopian state and identity than others. This identity has historically been used to suppress, silence, and privilege certain groups over others. It is important then that we pay sufficient attention to the sensitivity of the Ethiopian reality.

While recognizing our differences is the first essential step, it is by no means an end by itself. Recognizing differences is useless if we seek to withdraw into individual and collective self-recognition that is ‘tightly-bound, exclusivist and essentialist’. To this recognition must be a willingness to engage perspectives that are different from our own. We need to find creative ways to work within differences without imposing on others a certain universal truth about the world.

What I am suggesting above is based on two fundamental assumptions. The first is that the world might appear differently based on the positions we assume. However, this does not suggest that one position is right or wrong, but that it is incomplete by itself. Thus, dialogue is necessary in order to gain a more complete understanding of the world. The second point entails becoming cognizant of the importance of differences on the one hand, and on the other, recognizing that ‘notions of difference should encompass, rather than replace, notions of equality’

At the core of my proposal is the need for dialogue and reflexivity. The latter suggests being aware of our own positionality and how it impacts our picture of the world. The former, on the other hand, requires willingness to enter into a dialogue with those who we perceive as different and to commit to engage with their point of view. Such conception of dialogue does not entail that boundaries are suddenly transcended, but rather that boundaries are part of the dialogue process, and said dialogue involves accepting and recognizing that not all conflicts of interests are reconcilable. Ultimately, dialogue and reflexivity must be integral to any attempt to build lasting solidarity.

The Ethiopian diaspora (in all its diversity and complexity) still has great unrealized potential. We do not have to share the same ethnicity or nationality to work together to respond to natural disasters, or collaborate on long term projects of agricultural sustainability. Realizing our full potential requires building alliances which transcend religious, national or ethnic lines. The first step is addressing the animosity, distrust and suspicion that shape our interactions—on an individual and collective basis.

Read Part I here :

*Tiyya B is a graduate student studying International Development. She can be reached at



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Mohammed A

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