Conformist Realism in Ethnic Federalism

By Abel Merawi

Ethiopia FederalismDecember 20, 2020 ( -- The following article revolves around a single vital question: Why are Ethiopians focusing on how ethnic federalism operates while failing to question why ethnic federalism is even necessary? Following the germination of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia, people in almost every realm of life have posited notions that attack or favor the workings of ethnic national identity. Many are the scholars who showed how one ethnic group has triumphed at the expense of others. Countless are the songs that championed ethnic rather than national identity. Numerous are historians, with both good and evil intentions, who tried to voice ethnic identity using history to their service. Legions are the lives lost due to ethnic conflicts, which resulted in making all groups both oppressed and oppressor. What is lacking is an attack on the very notion of ethnic federalism.

We, humans, have a tendency to confuse social and political reality with existential or physical realities. Explaining the difference, Rudolf Rocker in ‘Nationalism and Culture’ explains, “In the realm of physical events only the most counts. In the realm of belief, there is only probability: It may be so, but it does not have to be so.” Currently, we are confusing human beliefs with natural reality. As the contemporary historian Yuval Noah Harari further explains, this misconception emanates from confusing objective reality with ‘intersubjective’ reality. This confusion arises when we blur the line between subjective reality and the communally shared reality of a given society. I have further explained this concept in my previous article, ‘Intersubjective Reality’. Briefly explained, intersubjective reality occupies the space between objective and subjective reality. To demonstrate the idea, consider the fact that primitive or feudal societies hadn’t had an inkling about Socialism and Democracy while modern-day people consider them as an objective natural fact. This shows that intersubjective reality assumes the role of objective reality when many people accept it. Currently, the theory of realism is mostly based on such intersubjective reality.

Realism is an attempt to describe human behavior and surroundings or to represent figures and objects exactly as they act or appear in life. This means realism in the medieval period is essentially different from contemporary realism. For this reason, realism is incapable of representing the complex and irreducible aspects of the world. What logically follows such realism is conformity. When we consider political and social beliefs as reality, we also tend to accept them as inescapable facts of life. The worst part of such conformism is that it makes us myopic in our interpretation by forgetting that it was us, human beings, who have created the existing political and social realities. In our conformity, we neglect to see the aftermath of our reality too. We fail to see the consequences of our actions. Criticizing the realists of his time in relation to the atomic bomb, Erich Fromm in ‘The Sane Society’ argues:

“What realists, who are playing with weapons which may lead to the destruction of all modern civilization, if not of our earth itself! If an individual were found doing just that, he would be locked up immediately, and if he prided himself on his realism, the psychiatrists would consider this an additional and rather serious symptom of a diseased mind.”

Returning to the idea of ethnic federalism, I think the realist intellectuals in Ethiopian politics are, for the most part, conformists. They manifest a similar approach as the realists Erich Fromm had criticized. There are many erroneous assumptions in the political realism of intellectuals who deal with ethnic federalism. Firstly, they consider reality to be a representation of only Ethiopian reality, confined in time and space. If we are taking a truly realistic approach to ethnic federalism, we have a duty to recognize other countries that follow capitalism, democratic socialism, and also the Islamic states. Such recognition will help us see ethnic federalism as one of the possibilities rather than the only one.  

Secondly, our conformist realism has left out the most important aspect of reality – human capacity. We ought to remember that the current reality is partly the work of human beings. Ethnic federalism is not bestowed upon us by divine power; it is rather the work of men. As it has been created by us, it can also be changed by us. These erroneous assumptions of reality are the outcomes of our confusion between physical/natural realities with social/political realities. Rudolf Rocker has rightly remarked, “Every social process, however, arises from human intentions and human goal setting and occurs within the limits of our volition. Consequently, it is not subject to the concept of natural necessity.” Directly speaking to Ethiopians, ethnic federalism is not like the gravitational force, and so it can be changed.

At this juncture, I deem it necessary to explain that this criticism is not a denial of ethnic identity but a rejection of ethnic politics. Celebrating ethnic identity in Ethiopian sociocultural life is essential. Ethiopia is a land of diversity and it is vital to show respect to the various cultures in the country. It is the life-affirming and uniting spirit of Ethiopians that enabled us to harmonize the various ethnic identities. It is truly wonderful to recognize how Ethiopians lived for thousands of years in unity by respecting distinct ethnic identities. In most European nations, we don’t find such coexistence because they were built at the expense of various ethnic identities until only a dominant culture remained to represent all. As a social reality, ethnic diversity has not prevented them from creating a marital bond or from sharing each other’s joy and sorrow. We shouldn’t forget that Ethiopians are identified with noble hospitality that extended even to foreigners. Sadly, all was forgotten when ethnic identity left the social realm and entered politics.  

When ethnic identity became part of politics, it had been argued that the goal was to defend every ethnic group in Ethiopia. Now I ask: Has it defended or threatened ethnic groups? Is it not ethnic politics that took the lives of Ethiopians? When citizens are identified primarily by their ethnic group, it strips them of their individuality. Personally, I don’t want to be defined as a member of this or that ethnic group; I am a citizen of a great nation – Ethiopia. Thanks to ethnic federalism, the political voice and economic opportunity of Ethiopians is defined by their ethnic affiliation. I understand the diabolical intention behind politicians who thrive on ethnic politics. If ethnicity is removed from politics, they will end up unemployed and unemployable. We must ask: Is it political leaders who champion ethnicity or the people that benefit from ethnic federalism? I don’t see the benefit for the people of Ethiopia. Moreover, it has constrained citizens from living and working in the various regions of the country.

I think it is time we transcend ethnic federalism. We need to make Ethiopian politics representative of each and every citizen. This is not a threat to ethnic identity in our sociocultural life. It is only the removal of it from the political and economic life of the country. The conformists of ethnic federalism are unable to see anything beyond it. In the past, we have included religion in politics, and we had seen the atrocities committed all over the world because of it. We have made ethnicity part of politics, and enough lives are lost to make us realizes that we must rid of it. If we consider ourselves realists, we need to expand our vision and see the various realities existing across space and time. Above all, in our realism, we need to recognize the human capacity that both creates and alters political realities.


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

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

Alternatives to National Identity

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

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