Photography lesson

Lesson from Addis to Africa: Ignore the Ethnic Question at Your Peril


Will Ethiopia disintegrate into its constituent ethnic nations? That would be tragic because Ethiopia has long been one of the few determined states in Africa. A purposeful country is guided – from leaders to ordinary citizens – by national development goals.

In these types of countries, there is a sense of common purpose; a sense of commitment and willingness to sacrifice to achieve defined national goals. Any activity by officials or citizens that undermines the community of purpose is therefore considered seriously dishonorable.

Developmental states, otherwise known as Asian Tigers, are characterized by this sense that everyone feels responsible – regardless of their position in life – for achieving national development goals. Government thieves and sloths face social censorship even before harsh punitive laws run their course. Sometimes the shame is far greater than the fear of a long period in prison. Some culprits commit suicide because their actions have not only brought shame on themselves, but also on their families and communities.

It is this sense of national purpose that most African countries have failed to develop. We seem to be simple administrative units with flags and national anthems. We do not feel responsible for our fellow citizens. We steal medicine for the sick and dying. We have Covid billionaires. We have land grabbing billionaires. We have loving billionaires. We have billionaires stealing funds for young people.

There is no rhyme or national reason. We feel no shame when we report relief food trucks, instead hiding our heads in shame. Our leaders walk around the world unashamed of their impoverished and dysfunctional countries. Red carpet receptions give them a sense of importance. And that is enough for them.

Ethiopia was beginning to develop the attitude and culture that characterizes the Tigers. The results were revealing. High growth rates which, for a decade, averaged 9.5%. Efficiency and innovation in service delivery. Huge infrastructure built on time and on budget. Minimal theft.


These achievements were nothing short of spectacular, considering Ethiopia’s history of secessionist wars, famine, unnecessary monarchical despotism, military dictatorship, ethnic tensions, and more. So many people applauded Ethiopia as it began to solve the development puzzle.

And yet, even Ethiopia’s attitude was not enough to save it from the demons of ethnic nationalism. Although the federal government could have done better to manage and minimize ethnic tensions, it is also clear that ethnic awareness is a deep-rooted psychological sense.

And so the lesson that Ethiopia teaches the rest of Africa is that we continue to ignore the ethnic question at our peril. We can continue to blame colonialism as we like to do or we can finally face the reality of ethnic nationalism and find solutions.

As I often say, Africa always has a choice. It just makes choices that are ideologically correct or practical, unrealistic and difficult.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator