Theoretical discourse on nationalism and ethnicity has crystallized around three schools of thought: primordialism, instrumentalism and constructivism. I take an instrumentalist approach to examine the processes that shaped the drafting of the new constitutions of Ethiopia and Eritrea, with particular focus on the role of élites in group identity definition, formation and mobilization. I argue that despite their similar ethnic and religious segmentation, levels of economic development, and cultural heritage, the qualitatively different approaches to group accommodation which Ethiopia and Eritrea have pursued are explained by and are functions of (i) each country's constitutive myths — that is, the trajectory of ethnicity traversed over time in altering existing myths and constructing alternative myths; (ii) the leaders’ behaviour of avoiding risk at all cost; and (iii) the political uncertainties that prevailed in both countries at the time the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam was overthrown. Together, these variables point to a strong probability, if not inevitability, that such sharply different constitutions would be adopted.
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