Alternatives to National Identity

By Abel Merawi

Ethiopia-nation-buildingDecember 10, 2020 ( -- When we think of a nation, various assumptions come to mind. Some consider how a group of elites gather and create a grand plan to form a nation. This cannot be any further from the truth. And whenever such attempts were made, the results were catastrophic. Recalling the Holocaust and the Gulags is enough to make us shudder. The other assumption is that nations are the result of various fortunate and unfortunate events that brought people together or separated them. In order to find out the alternatives to establishing a nation, merely defining it will not suffice without ample evidence from history or philosophy.

The crude definition of a nation may even be misleading. These are the dictionary definitions of a nation: (1) A politically organized body of people under a single government. (2) The people who live in a nation or country. (3) A federation of tribes. These definitions define them in their current state without saying anything about how they came to be. The history alone on how nations are built will not make matters any easier. If we approach the issue from a moral and ethical perspective, we find amoral and unethical nations all over the world. Instead, we can take an approach that Dr. Cornel West calls ‘Prophetic Pragmatism’. In other words, we project into the future consequences of current undertakings in our attempt to find a practical and sustainable alternative for creating a national identity. Nations have come into existence from the ‘yin and yang’ or the chaotic and ordered occurrences in history. Such nations exist but it is difficult to say that they were built because ‘nation-building’ entails a logical basis.

The renowned contemporary historian, Francis Fukuyama, has forwarded four approaches to illustrate the causes behind the existence of nations in his 2018 book, ‘Identity’. I will be discussing these four approaches to highlight their positive and negative outcomes. This last approach deserves the name ‘nation-building’ because it considers pragmatic options that transcend the bond of the past by projecting into the future. However, the first three approaches are also worth mentioning because they have been the primary causes behind national identity. Nevertheless, they also continue to be the cause of external and internal conflicts, because they solely depend on history. Since history is loaded with unfathomable interpretations of the same facts – assuming we can access the facts – we can’t entirely trust history to possesses and maintain national identity. We depend on history only as a founding narrative or as national mythology. Ergo, it must be combined with a vision of the future, which enables us to derive our national identity from a shared vision. Let us now look at each approach to national identity with the aim of particularly finding the best alternative to Ethiopian national identity.

The first alternative for building a nation is smeared with blood. This is because it is carried out by occupying land and getting rid of the natives. Francis Fukuyama explains: “The first is to transfer populations across the political boundaries of a particular country, either by sending settlers into new territories, by forcibly evicting people who live in a certain territory, or by simply killing them off—or all three.” History is filled with such a way of building a nation and I’ll mention some to shed light on it. USA can be a paragon of such national identity, beginning with the ‘discovery’ or as I call it, ‘the confused and mistaken journey’ of Christopher Columbus. As we all know, this leads to the near extinction of Native Americans or simply Americans. It developed with colonization and the shipping of slaves to this ‘New World’. Another example is Australia, which established the rule of Europeans by killing off Aboriginal tribes that lived on the continent for thousands of years. As we can see from the history of America and Australia, nations can be built through unparalleled crimes. Furthermore, the generations that follow derive their national identity by being forgetful of the past.

The second approach to building a national identity is based on racial, cultural, linguistic similarities. As Fukuyama states, “The second path to nationhood is to move borders to fit existing linguistic or cultural populations.” This is a common and, to some extent, morally acceptable path to national identity. Most African nations were constituted in such a manner. However, this also changed when colonizers created artificial boundaries that served as a time bomb for current conflicts. Ethiopian identity can also be taken as an example, but it has transcended this linguistic and cultural identity to expand the nation. Until recently, the Ethiopian model has worked marvelously as people lived in harmony by gradually forming hybrid cultures. These hybrid cultures didn’t threaten specific cultures because they were derivatives of every culture. The people in the capital city and places like Raya represent such hybrid cultures. Similarly, Canadian identity has managed to solve linguistic differences, like French, English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi are able to exist in harmony. As a result, most Canadians speak more than one language since it is part of the curriculum, which can also help Ethiopia through the integration of Multilanguage education in the curriculum. Accordingly, this second approach can create a national identity as long as it aspires to expand.

The third approach to national identity is assimilation or integration, upon which minorities are accepted into majorities by becoming like them. As Fukuyama puts it, “The third path is to assimilate minority populations into the culture of an existing ethnic or linguistic group.” The success of this approach depends on the measures taken for assimilation. When assimilation results from the consent and will of minorities, it can foster a stable national identity. However, if minorities are forced to assimilate with a dominant culture, it will also engender hatred and violence. In the case of Europe, most European nations have gone through assimilation of minor cultures until a single culture becomes the symbol of national identity. This has worked in England for the most part, but it has failed in the case of North Ireland as the force was used for assimilation. In America too, the dominant white culture has systematically tried to assimilate African Americans. But this continues to be a failure because it is based on ignorance and intolerance to minorities. Thus, the success or failure of this path to national identity depends on the manner of assimilation.

The fourth approach to national identity is based on the current and common realities of citizens. Fukuyama explains: “The fourth path is to reshape national identity to fit the existing characteristics of the society in question.” He further explains that nations are not ‘biological entities’ but ‘socially constructed’. This means we can, “deliberately shape identities to suit people’s characteristics and habits.” Currently, the world is moving in an atavistic manner by focusing on differences rather than similarities. The narrative of former president Donald Trump and the move by TPLF are enough to make us realize that the future demands unity rather than division. Ethiopian identity is not limited to language and culture. It retains but also transcends them because being Ethiopian means harmony within diversity.

This last alternative to national identity is what Ethiopia currently needs. We Ethiopians have defended our land from foreign invaders through unity. We Ethiopians struggle to overcome poverty, which is a national problem. We Ethiopians aspire for a kind of development that lifts every citizen out of poverty. We are Ethiopians because we share values and aspirations as citizens of the same land, this is our national identity. William James in ‘The Meaning of Truth’ explains, “True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot.” Ethnic identity has failed the test of truth. But national identity within this forth framework is something we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify to meet our national need in our shared fate as Ethiopians.


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

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

Ethiopia in Conflict - Part II: A National Stand for Unity

Ethiopia in Conflict - Part I: EPRDF and the Creation of Ethnic Division

Forms of Human Violence (Part II)

Forms of Human Violence (Part I)

The ‘Having’ Mentality

Group Narcissism

Segregated Justice


Free but in Chain, Part IV: Personal Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part III: Economic Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part II: Social Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part I: Bondage of Worldview

Unemployment and Economic Growth in Ethiopia

The Underestimated Human Ignorance

Is America the Land of Freedom? (Part II)

Is America the Land of Freedom? (Part I)

Capitalism Becoming an Impediment to Morality

Ketman: Living in Disguise to Gain Acceptance

The System and the 'Criminal'

Trust as an Economic Force

Do You Trust the Government?

Our Online World

Fame Mistaken for Expertise

The Heavy Burden of Healthcare Workers

A Time to Reflect

The Plague by Albert Camus: Fiction Becomes Reality!

History of Pandemics in Ethiopia

Human Struggle Against Pandemics: Historical Perspective

Crisis Profiteers

You Can Make a Difference

Rule of Law for a Free Society


The Origins of Law

Determinants of Market Value: Part II

Determinants of Market Value: Part I

Your life Matters Too

Manifestations of Artistic Expression

Achievements vs Natural Accidents

The Grip of Sacrifice

Injustice is Never Justifiable

Education Demands of the Future

Job Security, Life and the Unpredictable Future

The Shift From Racism to Culturism

Sacrificing Meaning for Power?

Culture and Market Forces

Intersubjective Reality

Seeking Cosmic Justice

National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations

Are We Truly Free?

Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy

Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group

The Value of Work

The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System

Intellectuals and the People

Where Are Our Pathfinders?

The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

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

Join us on social media:
Like on Facebook and get Ethiopian News updates regularly.
Get the latest Ethiopia News by following us on twitter @Ezega_Official.
Follow Ezega on LinkedIn for Ethiopia Jobs and Ethiopian News Today.



Contact News Editor

Name :
Email :
Phone :
Message :
Enter text shown in the above image :

You may also like...