Building National Identity

By Abel Merawi

Ethiopia-UnitedSeptember 19, 2019 ( -- Imagine how you would feel if you wake up one day and absolutely no one recognizes your existence. People pass you by without even glancing at your direction, as if you don’t exist. You try to speak to people, but people do not hear or respond to you. You become invisible to the world. You no longer have friends or family members for you to be part of society. Let us stretch the point in a realistic manner by assuming that you are visible but have no one with whom to identify yourself with. You have cut ties with your family, you have no friends, and you do not belong to any religious, ethnic, political or social group. The question is, when there is no one or nothing to associate your existence with, can you have an identity?

The fear of being oblivion to others can play a dominant role in our constant quest for attachment. This pursuit for identity begins at an individual level, and gradually encompasses most aspects of life. Aristotle in ‘Politics’ states, “Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.” Accordingly, as we are neither beast nor god, it is necessary for us to identify ourselves with society, which entails enjoying the privileges of membership and fulfilling the required duties. However, we should be cognizant of the fact that by finding our identity in one, we may have enmity with another.  

Throughout human history, war has been a constant variable. We wage wars in the name of our nation, our religion, our ethnic group, or any ideology that constitutes our identity. The 21st century is no exception, with most countries shying away from globalization and restricting their identity to a national or ethnic level. Britain voting to leave the EU, America electing Trump, South Africa persecuting and killing other Africans through xenophobia, the Arab uprising, the numerous ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia, and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Rohingya Muslims in Myanamar can be examples of conflicts in the name of identity. Taking these global problems into consideration, let us try to examine the formation of identity, and the healthy benefits we can derive from it.

About a year ago, Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called ‘Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.’ I will be relying upon the insights of this author because I found it to be a work that addresses the underlying problems of the world in general and our country in particular. When treating the issue of national identity, he states that we build national identity by following four major paths. The first is occupying another territory through settlement, eviction or killing of natives. The second is adjusting borders based on existing linguistics or cultural similitude. The third is assimilating a minority into an existing ethnic or linguistic group. The forth way is reshaping national identity into the existing characteristics of the society. The last path is realistic and suitable because national identity is created deliberately from the characteristics and habits of the people. Since nations are not biological entities but rather social constructs, building a nation in a bottom-up process that accommodates every member is the viable solution. Simply stated, a national identity ought not to be the identity of a dominant group but a representative identity of everyone. In the case of our country, being Ethiopian means having a national identity that represents every ethnic, religious or cultural group that resides in the country.   

Socrates in ‘The Republic’ comes up with three expressions: Thymos, Isothymia, Megalothymia. The part of us that craves recognition and dignity is called Thymos. When we demand our dignity in equal footing with others, it is called Isothymia. But when we desire to have superior dignity than others, it is called Megalothymia. A group that demands more dignity than others is like a disease to a national identity primarily because it can only have such privilege at the expense of others. George Orwell in Animal Farm states the motto: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” Likewise, if some ethnic groups are more equal than others, it creates a vicious circle in which the oppressor and the oppressed switch places indefinitely. A demand for identity is also a demand for dignity. When a certain group demands dignity in its nation, we should remember that it is demanding equality. It is seeking economic, cultural and political equality that should be rightfully endowed to any member of a nation.

National identities built upon democratic and liberal values can bring diverse communities together that, as Fukuyama claims, bring the following benefits to the citizens. Firstly, it brings physical security that translates into having a powerful nation that can play a dominant role internationally. Secondly, it raises quality of government because in a unified country the government serves public interest rather than narrow interests. Thirdly, it brings economic development since the people have national pride and work for a common goal. Fourthly, it brings trust that serves as a social capital, which means cooperation of people based on shared norms and values. Fifthly, it helps to maintain a strong social safety net that can mitigate economic inequality. All of these combined brings the last benefit of having a liberal democracy.  

Having a national identity on paper is not the same as actually believing in it and living by it. Placing a genuine feeling of national identity in the hearts of the people is the task of policy makers and public figures. The educational curriculum, the state policy of the government or opposing parties, and the teaching of religious groups should echo a national identity that represents its people. Everyone must participate because it is through the educators, artists, historians, elders, and ordinary citizens that stories of peoplehood are fostered.

As we can learn from history, a divided nation is bound to bring its own destruction. To claim that our difference is our identity is a common but ruinous argument because the core element of identity is having a common goal through deliberation and consensus. We should define our identity in a broader way so as to include everyone and protect the marginalized. Fukuyama states, “That I am born a certain way does not mean I have to think in a certain way; lived experience can eventually be translated into shared experience.” So I humbly request every Ethiopian to focus on our shared experience and find our national identity. It is only through our national identity that our distinct individual and group identity can be realized.   


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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