Based on naturalistic framework taken for granted by scientifically validated common sense, human beings are considered to be a particular sort of evolved animals, homo sapiens. Thus, undeniably, as a particular animal species, human beings have common attributes that distinguish them from other animal species.
However, unlike other animals, human beings have passed through intricate processes of identity development which takes us far beyond the philosophy of human being. Human identity is just that animal identity reflecting the collection of material parts suitable for the support of human existence and continuation of the species. Thus no one with in the home sapiens species can be born with out the common, universal attribute that distinguishes this species from other animal species. Otherwise that particular individual should be classified as a non-human being.
Beyond human identity, we find a distinct personal identity defined on the basis of the functions rather than the underlying nature of that being. This refers to a man as a moral agent or a moral or a rational being. This identity is as distinct as it is an essential attribute of humanity. In the absence of such distinct personal identity the essential attributes of man as a rational being do not exist. Then, the attribute of all animal species including home sapiens can be conveniently compared with the attributes of other animal species where donkeys, cats or dogs belong. However, human individuals posses a morally vital sense of personal identity. Both necessary and sufficient condition for the existence of such morally vital sense of identity is consciousness. A person is not just a moral being but also a moral and a conscious being. Issues such as accountability for ones actions emanate from the very existence of morally conscious being. Thus, it is not the universal attribute of human identity but the attributes of personal identity that are the most important objects of societal concern.
Human evolution bestowed human individuals with verities of identities. On top of the universal human identity and personal identity, we also find racial identity, ethnic identity and political identity. Racial and ethnic identity are critical parts of the overall framework of individual and collective identity. Thus they can not be dubbed as accidents of historical contingencies. Ethnic identity development consists of an individual’s movement towards a highly conscious identification with their own cultural values, behaviours, beliefs and traditions. This is a higher stage of human identity development compared to a rudimentary human identity and a more conscious personal identity. This is because a sense of ethnic identity is developed from shared culture, religion, geography, and language of individuals who are connected by strong loyalty and kinship or genealogy none of which are accidents of historical contingencies.
In advanced western societies with a common race and language, ethnic identity is manifested in mostly unconscious ways through their behaviours, values, beliefs and assumptions. For them ethnicity is usually invisible and unconscious because societal norms have been constructed around their racial, ethnic and cultural frameworks, as well as values and priorities which could be referred to as a culture of a country X. However, in underdeveloped countries such as ours, one can not talk of the “Ethiopian culture” because here societal norms have been constructed around specific ethnic and cultural frameworks as well as values and priorities, unless of course we force the various ethnic groups to submit to a societal norm of one politically dominant ethnic group.
Apart from this, in multiethnic societies an individual naturally integrates ethnicity into his/her self-concept or self-image. This leads to the development of ethnic self-identity. This is a full recognition of ones ethnicity and the subsequent self-identity that flows from the values, and norms of that ethnic group regardless of the opinions and the prejudices of the dominant ethnic group against it. Ethnogenesis is a very complex process. It involves an interaction of contextual and developmental factors. As opposed to racial identity which is defined on the basis of hereditary particles or genes and physical characters and that can disappear from time to time due to geographic and cultural isolation, ethnic identity is a continuous process.
In this context, therefore, ethnic identity is the most important element of human development and can not easily be reduced into an accident of historical contingency.
When the geographic boundaries of an ethnic population and a political state coincide, ethnic identity refers to national identity, i.e. a nation-state. Therefore, in this sense, ethnic identity is the basis of political identity. In this case there will be no conflict between ethnic self-identity and political identity. The problem arises when a political state extends beyond the geographic boundaries of an ethnic population as in the case of the present day Ethiopia.
Under these circumstances conflicts between various ethnic groups for the control of resources with in that geographic boundaries is inevitable. In the absence of clear and agreeable socio-political contracts among these various ethnic groups (which is often the case), the dominant group is bound to oppress and exploit the minorities or the less dominate ones. Anthropologist and historians suggest that such conflicts among ethnic groups should be resolved in one of two ways: first, the legitimacy of modern states must be based on notion of political rights of autonomous individual subjects. According to this view the state should not acknowledge the ethnic, national or racial identity, but instead enforce political and legal equality of all individuals. The second and the most dominant view is that the autonomous individual it self is a cultural construct and hence it is not possible to separate it from ethnic identity. According to this view states must recognise ethnic identity and develop a process through which the particular needs of ethnic groups can be accommodated with in the boundary of the state. If the state fails to address this fundamental problem, it is incumbent upon the ethnic groups to fight for their own separate nation state as we observe in Ethiopia at present. This process can be accentuated by irredentism or grievances with in the state boundary.
Thus the issue of ethnic identity in multiethnic countries like Ethiopia is of paramount importance. First ethnic demands and their legitimacy must be fully recognised. Then the state must clearly indicate which approach it follows to resolve conflicts among the various ethnic groups (most often between the dominant ethnic group and the rest) with in the state. It must be clear whether the state follows the notion of political rights of autonomous individual with no recognition to the ethnic identity or it recognises ethnic identity and agrees to develop a process to accommodate the particular needs of the ethnic group with in the boundary of the state, period.
There is no in-between solution to this fundamental human demand. However, the views of some Ethiopian scholars on this fundamental demand of humanity are inherently flawed. Instead of addressing the issue, the scholars choose to follow what Pascal calls the philosophy of diversion. Instead of addressing a rather straightforward question of ethnic identity, they try to divert the issue by reverting to unnecessary comparisons with universal human attributes that separates us from other animal species which are irrelevant here. They fail to understand and appreciate the value of ethnic self-identity in social development. They try to portray as if ethnic identity contradicts political identity. They try to deny the fact that the foundation of modern nation state is ethnic identity. Our preceding argument clearly indicated that there is no inherent contraction between ethnic identity and political identity. This incoherent attempt of diversion is a reflection of the most disturbing and the most fundamental principle of diversion in Ethiopia, i.e. trying to present Ethiopia as the country of “one people and one language”.
That is the reason why I began my rather short article on ethnic identity with a quote from one of the greatest philosophers, Pascal. We have one and only one choice: use scientific knowledge humanity has accumulated over time to address the problem. Stop diversion. Discover the truth. Avoid an inevitable death to the country.