Ron McMullen| Guest opinion
On Friday, people in the Ethiopian city of Axum will gather to celebrate Christmas, as will some 280 million other Orthodox Christians around the world.
But wait, isnt Christmas on Dec. 25?Most Iowans would answer yes, because the 13 colonies skipped ahead 12 days in 1752 (when George Washington was just 20) as we ditched the older Julian calendar in favor of the more accurate Gregorian one.
Orthodox churches, however, still use the oldcalendar.Thus, if you have a friend who is an Orthodox Christian, surprise them with a cheery Merry Christmas on Friday.When I was ambassador to Eritrea (next door to Ethiopia), our family celebrated both days, enjoying a double helping of Christmas cheer those years.
However, few Christians celebrating Christmas this year in Axum, Ethiopia, will find anything remotely merry about the holiday season.Axum, about the size of Ames, hosts the Ark of the Covenant and the stone tablets on which Moses inscribed the Ten Commandments, according to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
Its 45 million members believe the Ark rests in a church in Axum, having been smuggled to Ethiopia ages ago by King Solomon and the Queen of Shebas son. It has supposedly been safeguarded by Christians in Axum ever since (despite what you saw at the end of "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark").
Axumites, along with 7 million other Ethiopians living in the northern state of Tigray, have been engulfed in a civil war since November 2020.Tigray is currently besieged by Ethiopian federal forces aided by troops from Eritrea the United Nationsreports 400,000 people have crossed the threshold into famine and 1.7 million have been displaced from their homes.
Amnesty International claims Eritrean troops, who occupied Axum earlier in the war, systematically killed hundreds of civilians in cold blood.The U.S. State Department has voiced grave concern about atrocities and egregious human rights abuses committed by both sides in this ongoing war in the Horn of Africa.
Why should we care?With omicron surging, inflation spiking, supply chains clogged, politics polarized, and socio-economic gaps persisting, dont we have enough to worry about?Isnt the Tigray War just another African conflict generating vague humanitarian concerns?
The lesson we should learn from the Tigray War is that ethnic federalism doesnt work.Ethiopia, like the U.S., is a federal system.
Our states are based on geography, but Ethiopias are based largely on ethnic identity, with each major ethnic group having its own regional state.Under Ethiopias constitution, states even have the right to secede.
Politicians from Tigray dominated Ethiopia for 30 years until the election of Abiy Ahmed in 2018.Prime Minister Abiy is neither Orthodox nor Tigrayan (hes a Pentecostal Oromo) and, somewhat ironically from todays perspective, won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were also federal systems based on ethnic group identity, at least according to their constitutions.When the Soviet Union collapsed, it did so along ethno-national lines.Yugoslavia also collapsed along ethnic lines, leading to genocide, war, secessionand ongoing animosity.
Abiy may yet win the Tigray War, albeit at great cost.Ethiopias recent agony, however, shows ethnic federalisms record is 0-3.
Expanding and protecting individual rights, as opposed to group rights nominally based on ethnicity, would have led to strikingly different outcomes in the evolution of the Soviet Union, Yugoslaviaand Ethiopia.Is there anything in these three examples that Americans should ponder as we contemplate the state of our country in 2022?
On Friday(and beyond), let us wish peace on earth to all.
Ron McMullen is a former U.S. ambassadorcurrently teaching political science at the University of Iowa.
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