Revisiting “Two concepts of Ethnicity” By Teodros Kiros

December 27th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

In November 14, 2006 I published “Two concepts of Ethnicity,” in which I argued: The recent explosion of the politics of ethnicity in modern Ethiopia calls for a re-theorizing of the idea of ethnicity itself. The situation is so grave that it compels a philosophical intervention. I would like to argue that ethnicity could be viewed as positive and negative, which I would call positive ethnicity (PE) and negative ethnicity (NE). We need to salvage the positive merits of ethnicity, and avoid the strong temptation of divesting individuals and groups of the psychological and historically necessary need of investing in ethnicity

as a way of defending the differences that mean so much to those who believe in them. The unnecessary contamination of ethnicity need not force us to throw the baby with the bathwater.

The essential core of PE is the idea of diversity. The attributes of diversity are distinctness of experience expressed in language, customs, traditions and ways of seeing and doing things; individuality; dissimilarity of experience; constructive articulations of unique ways of experiencing the world; and openness. NE, as most people readily and conveniently understand it, holds the core ideas of blood and kinship, and the attributes of these core ideas are the naturalization of customs and traditions as peculiar to an ethnic group; the forging of alliances and interests on the presumed existence of a group that
shares those interests and passions; the similarity of experience; destructive articulations of ways of seeing, knowing and doing things; aversion of differences; denial of the formation of factions between groups perceived to be divergent, and finally and most negatively, bolstering and systematically defending closedness as a tool of argumentation.

In his well reasoned article in the Addis Tribune, Dr. Messay Kebede, has quite convincingly articulated the political dangers of NE, particularly, when unanimity becomes the sole criteria by which groups of people are put in a single basket as if there are no individuals who would like to reserve the right of choosing the baskets in which they would like to be. The obsession with NE denies existentially serious individuals the right to choose, the crucial right to be. Instead individuals are coerced to force themselves inside uncomfortable boxes of political inconvenience, the language of ethnic bureaucrats.

Diversity has been a virtue worth defending for millennia. A generation of philosophers has linked diversity with the foundational virtue of freedom. The flourishing of the individual is dependent on how free she feels to express her diverse desires. The nature to express diverse desires or how free we feel to express them is a true facet of personality only when one looks at human history naturally, as if we are not historical beings-born to a specific space, at a specific time, to a particular region of the world. In this special sense, humans are geographical beings. As children of time, space and geography, in the course of living their lives they develop ethnicity, which is an aspect of cultural diversity. As ethnic beings with diverse desires, they further develop distinct ways of knowing, seeing, and doing which are exemplified as customs and traditions. Ethnicity in this sense is extrapolated from the ethnos that history and geography saddle our fragile existence.

It is not only groups who are diverse, as we have been socialized to think. Groups that are diverse are groups with individual distinctions of desire. Within groups, there are further individual distinctions of desire, of passion, of individual culture, albeit implicitly. For the sake of fitting in, we suppress the yearning for freedom, the passion for life. Very few of us think of diversity in this deep and sensible way. However, unconsciously, all of us suppress this desire to be free from out attachment to our ethnicity, even when it is the cement of ethnicity that never fulfills us, that never leads us to happiness. PE, as an authentic love of ethnicity does not have to suppress the individual Eros for life.

An erotic relationship with our life, as existentially serious, ought to allow us to grow as genuine individuals with specific rights, the rights that safeguard us to be open to others and for others to be open to us. Openness gradually becomes a way of life, an ethics of living within the ethnic glue and toward those who are not part of our ethnic group. By using ourselves as measures of happiness and freedom acting, we can eventually learn to understand the needs of those outside the circle of blood and kinship. These self-imposed relations are profoundly complicating relationships among the Oromos, Tigreans,
and Amharas in modern Ethiopia. The ethnic makeup of our leaders is not helping matters either.

Doing what makes you happy and free will ultimately lead toward make others feel the same way. Developing empathy for your fellow man, whoever he may be, and you cannot help but open up to him. Once we develop this open disposition, we can
comfortably accommodate other human beings not as the “other” but as a human being made out of the same fabric, but who seems an other only because history and geography have determined the different ways of seeing and being. Difference itself becomes a historical product which can be accommodated by love and understanding.

The accommodation of difference does not require the death of the individual. The recognition of difference requires of us to emerge out of the cocoon of dealing with those who are like us. That is easy. Genuine recognition begins with the modest assumption that no other human being is outside the region of our understanding if we sincerely try. The catastrophes of the holocaust, ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, and closer to our home, the present situation in Ethiopia are caused less by the impenetrability of the other, and more directly by the overwhelming saturation of our modern consciousness with the negative
form of ethnicity, that sometimes blends itself with philistine nationalism. NE contaminates the current reality in Ethiopia to a degree that has hopelessly offended some of the minority ethnic groups, such as the Amharas that are not in power now, but were power holders not very long ago. Kebede is quite right when he astutely observes that “ previous Ethiopian regimes had ruled Ethiopia in the name of Amhara people while maintaining the people in a abject condition of poverty and silence, so too the new leaders rule Ethiopia for Tigray while shutting up and dislocating its people” (Addis Tribune, part 2, p, 8). This example is a classic illustration of the crass form of NE. There are more such appalling examples.

To hide real issues that continue to affect the lives of millions of Ethiopians, our leaders manipulate blood and kinship ties. Through these insidious tactics of NE, the Ethiopian masses are deliberately kept ignorant. Democracy is centralized precisely because ethnic leaders do not want them to see through it, to go behind the veil and unmask the machinations of power and intrigue. The willing members of these ethnic groups among the most numerous, the Oromos, and among the numerical minorities, the Tigreans, are bamboozooled by the myths of history and are defined by degenerate forms of difference that convince them that their needs, desires and passions can only be represented by their blood brothers and kin.

All that one has to do is roam the tin houses and plastic shelters of Addis where millions fester to realize the hollowness of the claim. If a blood member of these ethnicities dares to point out the miserable reality, she is hounded by the blood leaders, and silenced by intimidation, and when absolutely necessary is brutally killed, in the name of an atrocious ethnic solidarity, the back
waters of the abuse of ethnicity. African political reality is marred by this deliberate misuse of ethnicity as NE. If ordinary Ethiopian peasants, workers, civil servants and many others were encouraged to think for themselves, divisive ethnic leaders will be stunned by the emergence of independent thinking far removed from the coercive frames and fences of negative ethnicity. PE provides potent dosage of the desperately needed virtues of authentic individuality, dissimilarity of experience,
difference and distinct ways of experiencing the world. The peoples economic needs, their passions, their aspirations and plans for their children’s future will be guided by rationality and compassion consecrated in the formation of smart alliances. Again PE provides the necessary cushion.

The stagnant and shameful Ethiopian economic geography that has been dormant for centuries will begin to change precisely because the people will have discovered how to use ethnicity positively. When PE is used shrewdly the Oromo peasant and worker will immediately sense that there is a commonality of suffering and shattered dreams that ties with his Amhara peasant and worker, and with his Tigrean peasants and workers, and that in the end it is the most upright and morally and technically intelligent leader that she must choose. A leader will be chosen not because he is an Amhara or Oromo. His leadership qualifications and his moral makeup impose themselves on the voters. Once again Kebede is right, when he wisely advises that, “We Ethiopians must learn that when it comes to politics, it is better to trust aliens than kin, just as we must understand
that sane politics is a game resulting in everybody becoming a winner. The main requirement for instituting this kind of game is the use of Pan- Ethiopian standards” (p, 4). Wise indeed.

Much has happened since then, and my thoughts have also evolved considerably. At one point I thought that PE will outwit NE. That is not what is happening now. Our current regime continues to use NE at the expense of PE. The regime has gone mad and became an ETHNOCRACY using NE as a tool of the governance, and an instrument of domination. In contrast to Ethnicity in both its forms, Ethiopianity is the identity, which Ethiopians wish to wear.

What is Ethipianity other than syntheses of all the ethnics and language groups in modern Ethiopia? An Oromo is merely an Ethiopian who lives all over the vast stretches of the Ethiopian lands, so it the Tigrean, the Gambellan, the Shoan, the Gurage and the Southerners and all the others. The list is long but Ethiopianity is short. So my new thinking is that Ethiopianity is enough and ethnicity in both its forms is not necessary. What we need now is a new Federalism that should replace ethnic federalism and ETHIOPIANITY as a definitive displacement of ETHNOCRACY.

Teodros Kiros
Professor of Philosophy and English (Liberal Arts)
Berklee College of Music

  1. Zeygerim
    | #1

    Dear Professor Teodros,

    I like your philosophical enquiries and moral appeals on a wide range of economic, political and social issues. Your argument to return to classical Ethiopianity and do away with (Negative) ethnicity is far-sighted and commendable. jero yalew yisma new negeru

    keep writing

  2. Shimelis
    | #2

    Tewodros Kiros

    we are tired of you. Do us just one fever. Tell TPLF members to stop shrinking and selling the country. The rest you are talking about just WORE

  3. Haq
    | #3

    Mr Kiros whilst seemingly sympathetic to Amharas deliberately dismisses these people as a small minority. This is not true as numerically Amharas and Oromos are more or less equal, as obtained during the 2 accurate censuses done before the current regime. In fact there is no ethnic group with a clear preponderant majority in Ethiopia. Before the current poisonous atmosphere, there was little to distinguish Tigreans from Amharas apart from language and certain aspects of music. Coalitions with other like ethnic groups, were always possible. It was by radically and aggressively making themselves separate by emphasizing differences that the Tigrean petite bourgeois now perceives that Tigreans have became the small minority that Mr Kiros wants the Amharas to be. It seems Mr Kiros has to make Amharas small to make himself big, thus revealing a hidden animosity. Anti- Amharanism comes in different and hidden flavors.

    We should all put our humanity and our allegiance o Ethiopia (birthplace of humanity) before our ethnicity. Working people everywhere need to put solidarity first to make a cruel world more worthy of humanity.

    However, distorting facts does not lead to a healthy outcome or positive ethnicity.

  4. teodros kiros
    | #4

    Dear Zeygerim;

    Readers like you inspire to write and improve my craft. I thank you for your immediate response. As you know my thoughts keep on evolving; my t as I move towards death- my thoughts become clearer and wiser.

  5. Samuel
    | #5


    How long should we beat this dead horse? It is as if some one wakes up one morning and suddenly find himself hallucinating about the “would be better Ethiopia” in his own mind, not caring about the preopnderance of opinions to the contrary. As long as there are web sites that will entertain such ‘no-effect” thoughts, they continue on taking our time.

  6. Drama
    | #6


  7. Zeygerim
    | #7


    I think your life is full of drama, detachecd from reality, as your name suggests. What do you want Prf.Tedodros to do? He is one of the few Ethiopians from Tigray who is making every effort to be a voice for our voiceless people back home. By the time you are bashing Teodros Kiros for calling the Amhara minority, many hodam Amara are working with the fascist regime to destroy the country. I myself am Amhara and I know Amhara is a minority, though the second largest ethnic group in the country. Even the Oromo are a minority, though they are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. As far as I know, no ethnic group in Ethiopia is a majority. Please first try to learn the difference between “majority/minority” and “largest/smalles” ethnic groups before opening your bad mouth at the honourable Professor.

  8. tegadalay
    | #8

    Honey in his mouth,knife in his heart-chinese proverb

  9. kambor
    | #9

    Imposters are sick, loosers and really suck. Dr. tewodros has once again properly diagnosed the sick ethnic philosophy of woyane. However, Dr. tewodros is a bit too nice to the tplf by regarding the problem as a mere negative ethnicity. It goes much deeper than that. Tigreans are perpetually trained by woyane to be xenophobic to the extent of loosing their humanity, balance of judgement and wisdom. They are being told endlessly that all non-togreans are their enemy and if tplf is not there tigreans will immediately perish ( meles once told a collection of tigreans that if tplf ceases to exist tigreans would not even get show shining job). That is negative ethnicity. Tplf goes much further than that. TPL’s negative ethnicity almost overlaps with ethnic apartheid.

  10. Argii Amani
    | #10

    Aite T. Kiros,
    why are people like you, like Tekola Hagos and like Getachew Reda (Tigrean scholars) tirelessly advocating Unitary Ethiopia these days? Is it the move of Amhara elites (who traditionally support this Unitary Ethiopia) and Oromo elites (who tend to prefer Independent Oromia) to make a compromise and agree on GENUINE “ethnic” federation as a common ground, in order to forge alliance against your kins (Weyane fascists), which made you so restless? I also observed some of your friends trying to advocate Independence of Oromia! Why is it so interesting to your likes that you do push Amhara to support Unitary Ethiopia (to one pole) and do persuade Oromo to promote Independent Oromia (to another pole)? The two getting a compromise centeral position, which can unite them is surely your nightmare. You people are smart protectors of the Weyane regime! Otherwise enjoy the following:

  11. teodros kiros
    | #11

    Dear Zeygerim:

    I write to say thanks for your consistent support of my agaenda, which is to unite all Ethiopians under the banner of Ethiopianity-only then can we outsmart this tyrannical regime, which is staying in power by dividing us, through the mantle of Ethnocracy.

    Your brother, Teodros Kiros

  12. Assta B. Gettu
    | #12

    Professor Teodros Kiros,

    Negative ethnicity and positive ethnicity are too complicated and abstract words to comprehend, and when you are unable to explain them to us logically and clearly, you go to Dr. Messay Kebede for help as the Amharic adage says: “ያይጥ ምስክሯ ድንቢጥ.”

    Dr. Messay Kebede, who believes in secession, should not have preferred the Oromo liberation to the Ethiopian unity if he has not been an advocate for negative ethnicity – separation, exclusiveness, aloofness, and distinctiveness from the rest of the other Ethiopian tribes; therefore, your evidence in defining negative and positive ethnicity should not be from the separatist Dr. Messay Kebede.

    You generalize that “the attributes of diversity are distinctness of experience expressed in language, customs, traditions and ways of seeing and doing things; individuality; dissimilarity of experience; constructive articulations of unique ways of experiencing the world; and openness,” and you believe these are the fundamental elements of positive ethnicity. All these attributes, however, can also be found in negative ethnicity, even in those who are born from the same mother and father. Have you heard the saying: የናት ሆድ ዝንጉርጉር ነው? This means a mother can bring to the world two or many children who don’t look alike, who don’t think the same, and have different life styles, and yet they can learn from each other the different skills each of them possess without one forcing the other to learn, to speak or not to speak.

    Throughout the years, the Ethiopian people have benefited from their strong unity, regardless of blood and kinship, and what has unified them so far is not individuality, or dissimilarity of thinking and viewing their surroundings or the world at large but coming together, respecting each other, and working together for a common goal – the love of their country, Ethiopia.

    Words such as positive ethnicity and negative ethnicity are simply the creations of confused professors who have nothing to do but to confuse the Ethiopian people by designating such and such Ethiopian tribes belong to positive ethnicity if those tribes accept the ideologies of professor Teodros Kiros and Dr. Messay Kebede, and if not, they belong to negative ethnicity. There is no such thing as negative or positive ethnicity because every ethnicity has its own color, its own taste, its own beauty, its own ugliness, its own moment, its own life, and its own death.

    Geography or location, river or mountain, winter or summer has never confined any Ethiopian to travel freely from east to west, from south to north and from any direction whether he belongs to the people who believe in negative or positive ethnicity: these negative and positive ethnicity are simply coined artificially by people of quicksilver characters to divide the Ethiopian people.

    Ethiopians have always been Ethiopians, and because they have lived together for centuries, does not mean they think the same; it does not mean they don’t have variety of skills, and impressive of doing different things that makes others happy, free, and friendly. According to Professor Kiros’ philosophy of positive diversity, we Ethiopians should invite the Turks, the Egyptians, the Italians, and the Germans to live in our country for the sake of diversity or positive ethnicity so that we could learn new ideas from them instead of from our own native people.

    In this case, what is the advantage of positive ethnicity that the Professor is telling us to embrace? Is it to hand over our country to foreigners for the sake of diversity or positive ethnicity as Meles Seitanawi (Zenawi) is giving some of our fertile lands to the Arabs and to the Indians for some dollars? We Ethiopians, by nature, are diverse, sociable, and generous people: we don’t need someone to tell us that we belong to negative ethnicity that we only care for our own blood and kinship. That is not so! Didn’t the Oromos, the Gurages, the Amharas, the Tigray, and the other Ethiopian tribes march to Adwa and defeat the Italians? Negative ethnicity didn’t force the Amharas not to be neighbors to the Oromos or the Oromos to the Amharas, because they are all Ethiopians and believe in their Ethiopiawinet. Dr. Messay Kebede and Professor Teodros Kiros are responsible for introducing the Ethiopian people to negative ethnicity that the Ethiopian people have never known before. It is well known, Ethiopia, regardless of positive or negative ethnicity, the invention of Messay and Kiros, has produced different capable and distinguished leaders from its different and impressive tribes.

    Professor, you think Kebede is right when he wrote: ‘We Ethiopians must learn that when it comes to politics, it is better to trust aliens than kin….’ He is wrong! There is a saying in Amharic that contradicts Kebede’s statement: “ካለመዱት መልአክ የለመዱት ሰይጣን ይሻላል.” I am sure the Ethiopian people would prefer to be governed by Meles Seitanawi, a devil with whom they are accustomed for over twenty years than to be governed by Barak Obama, whom they do not know much about.

    Your Sophists’ statement: “By using ourselves as measures of happiness….,” does not fit with the religious Ethiopians’ thinking: “ኩሉሰ ሐላፊ ውእቱ” (everything is evanescent), and, especially, it contradicts Martin Luther King’s famous statement: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

    Finally, I believe Ethiopiawinet can be achieved without giving up one’s own ethnicity, tradition, culture, language, religion, blood and kinship.

    Assta B. Gettu

  13. Ethiopiawiu
    | #13

    Dear Tewodros Kiros(Phd).First of all I would like to say congratulation for your intention to help unite all Ethiopians under the banner of Ethiopianity there after we could be able to out smart the tyrannical regime.As professor of philosophy as you are to start with given the fact of the the degree of the atrocity in which the none-Tigrae Ethiopians are subjected by the tplf is concerned, you ought to think,speak,write and act as that of Gebremedhine Araya(true Ethiopian from Tigray).As was said by Dr Gregory Stanton(World Genocide Watch president and expert on Genocide)”for the tplf’s crimes against the Ethiopian people the Tigres will pay the price”,so I would like to remind you that in todays Ethiopia Amaras,Guragaes,Oromos,Ogadenis etc are being tortured by Ethiopians of Tigray origin for simply belonging to their respective ethnics and for the alleged treasonous crimes which they are accused of by tplf.Therefore we can always unite as Ethiopians as we are and have been how ever we shall never conquer tplf through cyber war unless we have what it takes to remove tplf from power that is what I and many Ethiopians believe is the right thing to do in order to out smart the the apartheid regime in Ethiopia.”who fills it knows it” God bless Ethiopia.Best Regards.

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