Subjects of History: Administrative Categories, Ethnic Labels, and the Limits of Cultural Citizenship in Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, as elsewhere in Africa, the boundaries of political belonging have always shifted. They continue to do so. Since the 1995 constitution, in a both peculiar and complex manner, ethnicity has been included in the apparatus of rights and practices, with often far-reaching consequences for Ethiopian nation-building. Since 1991, citizenship in Ethiopia can hardly be discussed without reference to the post-1991 ethnofederal system, which was the result of the restructuring of domestic politics based on ethnolinguistic criteria. This reformation of the administrative landscape altered interethnic relations, and although justified as an answer to an age-old national question about belonging, and a guarantor for interethnic peace and justice, problems have abounded. In this article, Alexander Meckelburg and Jon Abbink analyze Ethiopian citizenship in the wider context of global debates on “cultural citizenship.” They examine the bifurcated Ethiopian approach to national and regional citizenship and the language of cultural rights in a historical perspective both as continued subject-making as well as a form of claims-making. Focusing on citizenship and the powers that manifest social boundaries through cultural ascription, they circumvent both the instrumentalist and primordialist gaze on ethnicity and multiculturalism. Ethnicity appears as a reservoir and idiom of political appropriation within an evolving system of state-subject relations that has left the status of citizenship unresolved.

This article appeared in Northeast African StudiesVol. 20, No. 1-2, From Subjecthood to Citizenship in the Horn of Africa (2020), pp. 137-158 (22 pages), Published by: Michigan State University Press.

Author(s) / editor(s)

Alexander Meckelburg and Jon Abbink

About the author(s) / editor(s)

Alexander Meckelburg is research fellow at the Department of History, University College London, with the ERC-funded project “African Abolitionism: The Rise and Transformations of Anti-Slavery in Africa (AFRAB)”.

Jon Abbink is Professor of Politics and Governance in Africa at Leiden University. He carries out research on the history and cultures of the Horn of Africa (Northeast Africa), particularly Ethiopia.

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