Ethnic Politics & Leadership

“In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity”.
~ Sandra Day O’Connor~

The Association of Women in Boldness (AWiB) is a membership driven association that seeks to unleash potential through supporting the personal and professional development of career women and women in business. AWiB has been actively engaged for the past 12 years in enabling such development by convening meetings whereby prominent speakers and eminent personalities exchange information and insights towards cultivating a culture of innovation, creativity and sharing.

The 9th annual May Forum will be hosting more than 400 participants at the UNCC with the aim of cultivating a culture of dialogue, reflection and skills development. Previous themes for the May Forum included: ‘Expand your Mind – Change your World: Celebrate Women’s Agency!’ in 2012; ‘Unlocking Potential, Driving Effectiveness!’ in 2013, ‘Re-engineering Our Thinking – Re-engineering Our World!’ in 2014, ‘Leadership in Action: From Personal to Positional’ in 2015 and ‘Transformation: Personal, Organizational, Cultural’ in 2016; “Strategic Leadership: Getting Where You Want To Be” in 2017; Institutional Foundation & Functional Sustainable Systems in 2018; “Adoptive Leadership: Welcoming the New Frontier” in 2019. May Forum 2020 and 2021 were not held because of C19.

AWiB begins the year with a new vigor and enthusiasm choosing a yearly theme to guide the year’s effect.  In 2022, AWiB chose a theme “The Utilitarian Way: Reaching Kintsugi”.  In the spirit of “do no harm” and “embracing our imperfections”, given our nation’s state of affairs, AWiB finds it appropriate to raise the current issues advocating conscious leadership. It is this very spirit that we will be injecting in all of our endeavors to accomplish our planned activities for the year and the same spirit we hope to instill into all of those who participate in such events.

In addition to the yearly theme, AWiB chooses the annual May Forum theme to discuss critical gaps that can be addressed at personal, societal and governmental levels and can challenge mindsets and design ways to incorporate new ways of thinking to accomplish better results. Recognizing the power of effective leadership, the theme of this year’s forum is “Ethnic Politics & Leadership.”

AWiB May Forum 2022 aims to achieve the following:

  • Address the issues that affect current politics and the type of leadership that could bring the needed change
  • Explore strategies for effective leadership that lead a nation of ethnically diverse and emotionally distraught people
  • Leaders and vision: leading to influence—selling the vision
  • Critical thinking—the building block of sagacious people: developing and practicing independent thinking
  • Get enlightened and inspired by the experiences of the Ethiopian Women who are at the top of their games and their experiences on the path to success


  • Panel discussion on Ethnic Politics and Leadership Crisis
  • Developing and practicing Critical Thinking
  • Communicating your vision


  • Women in lead: “Women of Vision “

I. Ethnic Politics and Leadership Crisis

Ethnicity is a crucial feature of human identity that manifests differently in numerous societies. It reflects the diversity within a society.  Ethnicity does not have a universal definition.  This concept note adopted its definition to be “a consciousness among people with shared cultural and linguistic roots that get utilized for political affiliation and mobilization to compete with other groups for scarce resources”[1] and a social structure in which society existed from time immemorial and thus is unavoidable in certain circumstances. Ethnicity as a social state can be understood as having passive and active elements. The passive component creates a sense of belongingness through a shared language, tradition, belief system, history, etc. Whereas the active component makes an ethnic group to put itself in contrast with other ethnic groups on accessing economic resources and power-sharing.[2]

In contexts where ethnicity plays a great role in determining individual and group identities, internal harmony and stability rely upon how ethnic diversity is accommodated in the framework of the state and society. In this regard, ethnic democracy might be proposed to establish a political system whereby a structured ethnic dominance on one hand and democratic, political, and civil rights for all on the other hand is exercised. Ideally, in such contexts, both the dominant ethnic group and the so-called minority ethnic groups can equally participate in a political process and economic engagements.

In post-apartheid South Africa and in post-military regime Nigeria, the constitutions recognized ethnic diversity without making ethnic diversity a basis of political mantra. On the other hand, Ethiopia opted for ethnic diversity to be the marker of its federal arrangement. The recognitions in both cases were made to bring equality. Nevertheless, ethnic tensions and upheavals from these countries still hit the headlines of news from the continent compared to countries that identify themselves as homogenous although they have diverse groups.

Democracy determines who gets access to power, resources and rights. Democracy is “neither universal nor uniform in places where it existed. It is about inclusion and exclusion, access to power, privileges with inclusion and penalties with exclusion”. [3] The group excluded from power will be more conscious of differences with the included group. The consciousness could be either on political inequality or economic inequality or social and cultural inequality. The manipulation (politicization) of such perceptions results in questioning the legitimacy of state authority and the constitutional order in place.

One of the challenges of ethnic politics is the consciousness it creates towards one’s ethnic community as opposed to the one politico-economic community constitutions aspire to establish. In addition, ethnic differences can be made politically significant to justify special treatment or defection from the bigger community. The stimulus for the consciousness can be socio-economic disparity when compared with other ethnic groups or politico-historical injustices towards the ethnic community. The injustices could be government acts which takes away the means of livelihood of the ethnic group to the benefit of members of the dominant ethnic group.[4]

Mark R. Beissinger argues that ethnicity is not the major and immediate cause of unstable democracy referring to countries that are heterogeneous and yet have stable democracy.[5]But still in many other heterogeneous countries particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where the major ethnically diversified countries of the world are found, ethnicity affects politics and economic growth.[6] In contexts where one group dominates factors of economic and political power, the proliferation of ethnic rivalries is inevitable. It is undeniable that ethnic consciousness has the potential to grow into hatred and violence.[7]And this can be attributed to the fact that ethnicity can easily be manipulated by the ruling elite. The incidents in Europe preceding World War II that aimed at purifying one ethnic line declaring the superiority of the other can be evidence for this.

In developing countries where ethnic identity plays a great role in political and government structure creates further political, economic, and social complications. In Kenya during the presidency of Jomo Kenyatta, his ethnic group the Kikuyu was seen to be in advantage of land ownership.[8] This was reverted to the Kalenjin and the Masai group during the tenure of President Moi.[9] With the current president Uhuru Kenyatta the son of former president Jomo Kenyatta there is agitation that the vicious circle continues. In Ethiopia, opposition sources allege that during the term of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi from Tigray, urban land grabbing was systematically made by Tigre officials.[10]Allocation of resources including land may have also have another form; for instance, when revenue from tax on natural resources is at the hand of a strong central government.

When ethnic politics is at play ethnic consciousness can easily be manipulated by political parties in campaigning for election making promise for better provision of resources to the ethnic group. As a result, voters in giving their votes expect the ethnically organized party to do as such once is in power. Nevertheless, scholars like Yonatan Tesfaye argues that this would not be the case so long as ethnicity is not “politicized” in designing the state structure. Ethiopia is a country where ethnicity is not only recognized but also politicized under its 1995 constitution.  However, it is noteworthy to mention that even in countries where ethnicity is not politicized, the risk of dominance of one group on economic means due to historical and other factors in play.

Ethnic politics is defaulted to negatively influence the just political and legal system it sought to create because its operation requires loyalty and preference for affiliation to the ethnic group that is in power. Leaders are servants of their ethnic group interest as opposed to individuals of integrity. Also, because ethnic politics is prone for constant rival from other ethnic groups that have grievance on the dominant group, it is subject to authoritarian ruling and constant threat of overthrow. The sum of all these creates a leadership crisis. And if the dominant ethnic group in power is overthrown, the structures it adopted based on ethnic allegiance will crumble as members of the losing ethnic groups deflects and the winning group assumes strategic positions. During the transition, leadership vacuum can be created.

Leadership crisis occurs when leaders lack the necessary vision and direction to uplift the status of their people. It is the incapability of leaders to rise to tough situations, adapt new challenges and tackle problems. Ethnic politics snatches the notion of “the people” from referring to all citizens to “my ethnic group, my people”. Hence, leaders in ethnic politics are susceptible to only look after the interest of their base group, leaving the rest of the people in limbo. And if the rest becomes a threat, they will be sentenced for systemic oppression.

Moreover, in ethnic politics contexts, its ills will not remain in the public domain. It migrates to the private sector and social structures. Entering the private sector and securing business contracts becomes easier for those with ethnic affiliation to the dominant group. That will further be translated on who holds strategic leadership positions within corporations. The likelihood for access to quality education and better opportunities too will be higher for those from the dominant ethnic group because the norm in ethnic politics is affiliation than merit.

In relation to this, Nigeria’s renowned novelist and critic Chinua Achebe once said “the trouble with Africa is simply and squarely the failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the African land or climate and collective psyche or anything else. Instead, African problem is the heartless, unwillingness and unacceptable inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibilities and challenges of personal example, which are the hallmarks of true leadership. A normal sensible person will wait for his turn if he is sure that the shares will go around; if not, he might start a scramble”[11]

More than ever, contemporary Ethiopia is suffering from its politicized ethnic state. In the past five years only thousands of lives have been lost and properties are destroyed. Internal displacement became the new normal. The divide, hatred, and tension among ethnic groups has intensified. Ethnic consciousness become the rule to establish and sustain friendships, romance relations, and other forms of social ties. One ethnic group claims victimization by the other and vice versa. Exasperated and enraged scholars, politicians and citizens disseminate information that are not verified with concrete evidence. Children are exposed to such discourse told in the media, family gatherings, and neighborhoods; in the end their innocence getting spoiled with hatred. With this trend it does not seem that stability and prosperity are in the horizon.

It is the responsibility of every individual to learn where the problem is and to contribute for the solution. It is now the time to sit and have a dialogue on where we have failed ourselves and the next generation. It is upon us history unrolled the opportunity to quest for a better future.

Talking Points:

  • What are the pros and cons of ethnic politics for a developing and ancient country like Ethiopia?
  • What are the ills and goods of the ethnic politics Ethiopia followed in the past 30 years in terms of creating peace and stability, economic prosperity, and social cohesion?
  • Do you believe that leadership crisis is created in Ethiopia because of ethnic politics? Why or why not?
  • What kind of system and structural change do you think will lead us to a better future?
  • What do you think is the role of individuals and interest groups to achieve a better future?

II. Developing and Practicing Critical Thinking

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”—Aristotle

Have you ever been in the presence of someone who is both inquisitive and well-informed, confident in their decisions but also open to other people’s perspectives, open-minded and fair? If you have or are such a person, you are among the few critical thinkers in our country.

The lack of critical thinking and the prevalence of herd mentality are two factors, if not the most important, contributing to our country’s economic and social instability. Our educational system’s history clearly demonstrates how generations have been taught not to think. With a strong culture that rewards obedience without question and an education system that promotes the same, we as a nation are bound to struggle to find strong critical leaders capable of leading the nation in transformation.

Therefore, once we’ve identified one of our major issues, we should focus on how to solve it. What exactly is critical thinking? Can it be developed, and if so, how can we put it into practice?

What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is a complex notion that has evolved over the last 2,500 years. It is the intellectually disciplined process of deliberately and skillfully conceiving, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating knowledge obtained through, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication. It is founded on universal intellectual qualities that transcend subject matter divisions, such as clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good arguments, and fairness.

Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined reasoning that strives for the highest level of quality while remaining objective. People who think critically strive to live rationally, reasonably, and empathically. They are aware of the inherent flaws in human reasoning when left unchecked. They work hard to lessen the influence of their egocentric and sociocentric tendencies by employing the intellectual tools provided by critical thinking – concepts and principles that allow them to analyze, evaluate, and improve their thinking. They work hard to cultivate intellectual virtues such as intellectual integrity, intellectual humility, intellectual civility, intellectual empathy, intellectual sense of justice, and trust in reason.

Critical thinkers recognize that no matter how skilled they are as thinkers, they can always improve their reasoning abilities, and they will occasionally fall victim to reasoning errors, human irrationality, prejudices, biases, distortions, uncritically accepted social rules, and taboos, self-interest, and vested interest. They strive to make the world a better place in any way they can and to contribute to a more rational, civilized society. At the same time, they recognize the complexities that are frequently involved in doing so. They strive to avoid thinking simplistically about complex issues and to appropriately consider the rights and needs of others. They recognize the complexities of developing as thinkers and commit to life-long self-improvement practice.

Critical thinking skills

While there is no universal standard for what skills should be included in the critical thinking process, we review some of them below.

  • Identification: – The first step in critical thinking is to identify the situation or problem, as well as the factors that may influence it. You can begin to delve deeper into an issue and its potential solutions once you have a clear picture of the situation and the people, groups, or factors that may be influenced.
  • Research: – Independent research ability is essential when comparing arguments about an issue. Arguments are intended to persuade, which means that the facts and figures presented in their favor may be out of context or come from questionable sources. The best way to combat this is through independent verification; locating and evaluating the source of the information.
  • Detecting Biases: – Even the brightest can fail to recognize biases, making this skill extremely difficult. Strong critical thinkers strive for objectivity when evaluating information. Consider yourself a judge in that you want to evaluate the claims of both sides of an argument, but you must also consider the biases that each side may have.It is equally important – and perhaps more difficult – to learn how to set aside personal biases that may cloud your judgment.
  • Inference: – Another important skill for mastering critical thinking is the ability to infer and draw conclusions based on the information presented to you. Information isn’t always accompanied by a summary that explains what it means. You will frequently be required to evaluate the information provided and draw conclusions based on raw data.When analyzing a scenario, the ability to infer allows to extrapolate and discover potential outcomes. It’s also worth noting that not all inferences will be correct.
  • Determining significance: – One of the most difficult aspects of thinking critically in a difficult situation is determining which information is most important for consideration. In many cases, you will be presented with information that appears to be significant, but it may turn out to be a minor data point to consider.
  • Curiosity: – It’s all too easy to take everything presented to you at face value, but doing so can be a recipe for disaster when confronted with a situation that necessitates critical thinking. We are all naturally curious, as any parent who has faced an onslaught of “Why?” questions from their child will attest. As we get older, it can be easier to get into the habit of resisting the urge to ask questions. However, this is not a winning strategy for critical thinking.

Talking points:

  • What is critical thinking?
  • Who are critical thinkers?
  • What are the skills required for critical thinking? Are they inborn skills or can they be developed?
  • How can we develop and practice critical thinking in our daily lives?
  • How does critical thinking help us become a better leader?

III. Communicating your Vision

“There is nothing more demoralizing than a leader who can’t articulate why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

James Kouzes & Barry Posner

What do we mean by Vision? Why is it important? The Marriam-Webster dictionary defines vision as “the act or power of imagination”. When you use vision to look into the future, you can generate a mental image that you can use to guide your actions. Vision acts as a guide and may be utilized to provide meaning to one’s life. Some of the reasons why vision can be important are; to overcome roadblocks and hurdles, substantiate your goals, set expectations, add focus, and deliver meaning and purpose. (https://www.uopeople.edu/blog/what-is-vision-and-its-importance/)

One person’s attitude and response to the question “What is a vision?” may differ from another’s. It will, however, always include a mental representation of what is to come in the future. Clearly outlining your vision and referring to it while making decisions can assist you in achieving your objectives.

A leader only needs a clear perspective of the future to be a visionary. The challenging task is to communicate that vision clearly and passionately in order to encourage and inspire people to act. People are inspired to act with passion and purpose by a visionary leader who communicates his or her vision clearly and passionately, ensuring that everyone is working toward the same goal. As a result, everyone helps to propel the needs ahead. Some exercises to develop and hone your visionary communication skills; think of one problem that you are facing, imagine the bigger picture; visualize the fantastic future success you will experience as a result of your new and improved circumstances.

Talking Points:

  • Why is communicating one’s vision so important for a leader?
  • How does a leader communicate their vision? What is required of them?
  • How does a leader sell her/his vision?
  • What is the impact of a leader’s vision on a country?
  • What kind of leader does Ethiopia need to change the current situations of our country, that are willing to go beyond ethnic politics, and that can critically think?

IV. Women of Vision

For our world to move forward and progress we need people who can foresee, challenge the existing system, create solutions and aspire to create a better future. We need people with vision. These extraordinary people push society to think bigger, move forward and create. Through their ceaseless curiosity, boundless courage and world-changing ingenuity, visionaries make discoveries that change our life forever. They change the way we think, our perceptions, change the status quo and many more leaving a lasting imprint on society.

Looking at our history most visionaries were men. Most of the important discoveries we know of are made by men as history is told. There are few women out there who were able to leave their mark by taking their careers into their own hands while disrupting industries and shattering gender norms. Thanks to these women’s’ bravery and courage, women and girls all over the world are able to live with fewer restraints and bigger dreams. They changed our world for the better. These are artists, women right activists, doctors, scientists, writers and many more but what they all had in common is that they imagined a different world, led a life that is out of the norm and broke existing rules to make space for new and better ones.

These women had to struggle and work twice as hard as men to prove themselves and get on top to turn their mere vision into reality. For women to realize their vision, they need someone who trusts and believes in their ideas. They must build credibility, Allie’s and a support system who can uplift them if and when they fall back. Yet many of these aspects are missing in our society. Therefore a visionary woman would have to operate on her own to bring her idea to light.

Some ask if the barriers set by society are the only reason why we have few women visionaries attributing to the growth and transformation of the world and if women themselves lack the inspiration and stamina to dream big and to push forward to realize their dreams. It is easy to assume and decide that women are not ambitious and aggressive enough as many girls and women still choose careers and positions that are assumed to be less conflicting and challenging. We still see less women in upper level leadership roles, in technological fields and positions that are considered to be for men. Women still shy away from promotions and settle for mid-level positions hindering themselves from realizing their vision and making influential decisions.

It would be easy to shift the blame to the women now as it seems the opportunities are equally available for men and women. Yet it needs to be understood that the biases are deep rooted in our society and culture they have become unconscious or second nature. Some biases for instance are reflected on how we raise our boys and girls. We raise our boys encouraging them to explore, take risks, argue, negotiate and fight for themselves while we incubate our girls teaching them to be nice and perfect with so much protection and with less room to explore. The women grow up to be risk averse, afraid of conflict and with difficulty to negotiate themselves a better space maintaining the perfect girl image while the boys grow to be aggressive in-terms of pushing for the things they aspire in life.

Visionaries believe that if there is a challenge, there is a solution even if the solution seems out of sight. A belief that when we work collaboratively, we create change. We are making a difference, even if the journey at first doesn’t seem possible. The biases girls and women face hindering them to aspire big are multifaceted and require a multitude of actions by individuals, organizations and the government. It is important we start to lead a conscious life as individuals building the courage to live the life of our choice. It is easier said than done but as Gandhi has said for change to come we must be the change ourselves. The one and the major character of a visionary is that they are bold and persistent to achieve the goals they set and don’t easily give up when things get tough.

In this session we brought three visionary women to listen to how they were able to break the norms and rise as champions in their community and bring change. We will hear their stories and experiences to learn, aspire and imagine greater things to better future.

[1] Muigai, Githu, Ethnicity and the renewal of competing politics in Kenya in Glickman H. (eds.) Ethnic conflicts and Democratization in Africa, (The African Studies Association Press, 1995)

[2] Paul Mbatia, Kennedy Bikuru & Peter Nderitu, The Challenges of Ethnicity, Multiparty Democracy and State Building in Multiethnic States in Africa, 1. https://thefutureofafrica.wordpress.com/2009/10/17/the-challengesof-ethnicity-multiparty-democracy-and-state-building-in-multiethnic-states-in-africa/ accessed on 12 February 2017

[3] Osita A. Agbu, Ethnicity and Democratization in Africa: Challenges for Politics and Development, Discussion Paper,( Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, Uppsala 2011), 2. https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/134803/FULLTEXT01- 11.pdf

[4] Yash Ghai, Constitutionalism, and the Challenge of Ethnic Diversity, in James J. Heckman et al. (eds.), Global Perspectives on the Rule of Law, (Routledge/ Taylor & Francis Group-Glass House Book, 2010), pp. 279-30; Louis Henkin, A New Birth of Constitutionalism: Genetic Influences and Genetic Defects, in N. Dorsen et. al., Comparative Constitutionalism Cases and Materials, American Case Book Series, West Academic Publishing, 3rd edition, 2016, pp. 33-35

[5] Mark R. Beissinger, A New Look at Ethnicity and Democratization, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 19, No. 3, National Endowment for Democracy and The Johns Hopkins University Press ,July 2008,pp.85-97

[6] William Easterly and Ross Levine, Africa’s Growth Tragedy, Quarterly Journal of Economics 112 (November 1997) pp. 1203-50

[7] The incidents that took place in Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda in the 1990’s and even still ongoing in DRC can be another example

[8] Abiodun Alao, Natural Resources and Conflict in Africa the Tragedy of Endowment, University of Rochester Press, 2007, pp.11-111

[9] Berita Musau, Ethnic Conflicts and Transition to Democracy in Africa: Recurrence of Ethnic Conflicts in Kenya (1991-2008), MA Thesis, University of Vienna & University of Leipzig, 2008, pp.8-85

[10] Ermias Legesse, Yemelese Terufatoch: Balebet Alba Ketema, Netsanet Publishing Agency,(Written in Amharic)

[11] Chris Ekene Mbah, [11] Leadership Question and Development Crises: The 21st Century Challenges in Africa and Quest for Change, Center for Peace Studies, University of Tromsø, Norway

Share on your socials!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *