By Keshav Khanna
In 2018, when Mr. Abiy Ahmed came to power in Ethiopia, he did so on the platform of a new political philosophy, Medemer. Fresh off signing a peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea, Mr Ahmed promised to unify the Ethiopian people. To him, Medemer meant “addition: the action or process of adding something to something else”. This approach promised unity and togetherness among the people of Ethiopia, a coming together of a society that comprises an array of diverse ethnic groups. Three years later, Ethiopia’s Tigray region is the site of a heavy civil war between the government forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Similar violent movements can also be seen arising across the country. This has spurred a humanitarian catastrophe with the UN Security Council warning of an impending food security crisis in the country. As Ethiopia goes to the polls on June 21, the country is as divided as ever, with one-fifth of the 500 parliamentary constituencies unable to vote.
In another part of the world in 2014, Mr. Narendra Modi was elected as the Prime Minister of India on a similar promise of national unity. His party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), blames centuries of colonisation and foreign rule on disunity between Hindu rulers. As a result, the BJP enshrines unity in its core ideology and messaging. Mr. Modi’s adoration for the concept was such that he commissioned the world’s largest statue which he named the “Statue of Unity”. Yet, Mr. Modi has pursued a divisive agenda of majoritarianism since taking power. Through both legal and extrajudicial means, his government has created deep and long-lasting chasms in Indian society. Seven years into his term, the vilification of minority groups is at an all-time high. Large protests and their subsequent repression have worsened communal tensions in the major cities and in the hinterlands. The Modi government is now mooting physically dividing states where it has lost or seems to lose elections. Despite this, Mr. Modi has continued to emphasise his message of unity even as the Indian republic has become more divided than before.
While Ethiopia and India are different in a variety of ways, they seem to be allied in having leaders who espouse unity. Their choice of the concept of unity constructs a much larger problem in diverse, multi-ethnic societies. As a concept, unity defines a state of unbrokenness, wholeness or totality. This wholeness stands in stark opposition to diversity, which it tends to characterise as an aberration; a transitory state that needs to be overcome to create a more perfect society. Unity, thus, can easily morph into conformity. This political conformity decrees that you either adapt or perish. You either comply with what the majority community or ethnic group demands, or you are excluded from the political process. However, any idea that desires complete cohesion and harbours an often violent disgust for diversity, is ultimately flawed. It perpetuates divisions and conflicts as it suppresses those who refuse to conform. This is especially true for the multi-ethnic, multicultural societies where diverse sects, religions and ethnicities live at the precipice of conflict.
Leaders like Mr. Ahmed and Mr. Modi have also utilised the idea of unity to push for more centralisation of power. Ethiopia’s current predicament comes from the Tigray region’s decision to conduct elections in September 2020, in defiance of the cancellation of elections in 2020 decreed by Mr. Ahmed. Critics argue that he is now making Tigray pay the price of his desire to consolidate power in his federal government. His moves towards centralisation have created a sense of unease and urgency in Ethiopia’s regions and ethnicities. In Mr. Modi’s case, this centralization has manifested in an utter disregard for the idea of cooperative federalism. His harassment of duly elected opposition-led state leadership through federally appointed governors is one such example. His desire to autonomously make decisions affecting a broad swath of people, such as demonetisation or farm legislation is further reflective of this strategy of centralisation. In both cases, unity has inevitably meant coalescing around the agenda set by the respective prime ministers, even when this is done with little regard for regional circumstances or diversity. Alternative claims to governance are disregarded at best and delegitimised and demonised at worst, to be sacrificed at the altar of national unity.
It is interesting to note that there is an underlying sentiment of resentment against the now persecuted minority communities in both cases. Mr. Ahmed won the election in 2018 on the back of discontent with the Tigrayan-led regime that was perceived to engage in ethnic favouritism. Mr. Modi’s overwhelming victory in 2014 came in part due to the resentment building up in India over the previous regime’s supposed politics of minority appeasement. Both leaders came to power by consolidating the votes of their domestic majority communities. They also appear to be aware that their rhetoric and actions undermine social and national harmony by pitting communities against each other. Yet, they seem willing to compromise and challenge social stability and cohesion for short-term political ends. This is what makes them dangerous to the very fabric of a diverse society.
Leaders who are earnestly trying to create imagined communities in post-colonial societies will choose to espouse more inclusive ideas that address the inherent differences in their societies. Pluralism comes to mind, wherein communities or individuals need not subsume their identities into a collective union to thrive and survive together. However, the leaders who do promise this concept of unity should be looked at with a great deal of scepticism. Frequently, it is their political self-interest that is the priority, often at the expense of societal stability. Mr. Modi remains remarkably popular even as India deals with a barrage of consecutively more devastating crises. As for Mr. Abiy Ahmed, he is widely expected to win the Ethiopian election. Opposition groups have strongly criticised these elections due to the use of harassment, manipulation and threats of violence that seems to echo abuses of the past. With elections suspended in 100 out of 547 constituencies, there’s little doubt that the promised unity or Medemer has remained unfulfilled.
Keshav Khanna is a second year Master student in International Affairs. Instagram: @keshavkhanna. Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/keshavkhanna02.
Photo by Tom Mossholder