Will ethnic federalism lead to Ethiopia’s disintegration?

(OPride)—Five years ago, shortly after Mele Zenawi died, Laalo Guduru wrote a brief commentary titled “The Next Prime Minister should be an Oromo.”  He concluded his piece with the following words:

… for the country to continue existing as one entity, it’s a high time that the center of political gravity shift from north to south … The choosing of an Oromo prime minister and the making of Oromia the center of political power will create not only an opportunity to keep the country intact but most importantly will play a crucial role in establishing an inclusive, democratic and stable multicultural federal country.

In the words of French author and Nobel Laureate, André Gide, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”  

Five years have come and gone since Zenawi’s demise, and a lot of water has gone under the bridge; indeed the last five years was an eventful period that brought major changes. Notwithstanding these changes, however, power still did not shift and the need to overhaul the political arrangement in Ethiopia has remained intact. The recommendation in that article that seemed farfetched at that time to some, today has presented itself in such a clear fashion. Restructuring Ethiopia again, to save her from herself, is an issue that cannot be ignored any longer.

EPRDF that looked very strong, or even invincible to others five years ago, proving once again that a monolith strength cannot last forever, is today on a life support.  The fragility of EPRDF is no more questionable; in fact, the question is not if EPRDF will collapse, but when. But the most important question is not even that.  The question of our time is, “what would or should follow EPRDF’s inevitable implosion?”

Why Multinational Federation?

With the possibility of the demise of the TPLF regime writ large, the question of what should follow has become a burning question of our time. And the question is dividing the elites of the country all around.  The division, like most things in Ethiopia, again is mostly based on an ethnic line.

For the group that prefers to be called Ethiopian nationalists or pan Ethiopianists, that constitute mainly Amhara elites, ethnic federalism or federalism should be discarded altogether and a unitary form of government should be instituted. A section of this group is though less dramatic, and propose retaining federalism somehow, but suggest discarding its ethnic base. They offer that if at all federalism is needed in Ethiopia, rather than being based on ethnic territory, it should be based on regional territory (multi-regional federalism), or on the previous provincial territories.

The ostensive justification given by this groups as a reason to get rid of ethnic federalism (I will use ethnic and multinational federalism interchangeably in this article) is that it has so far been the source of all instability in Ethiopia, and would eventually lead to the disintegration of the country. For most of the people in this group, any change that comes after TPLF, if it’s worth to be called a change, should discard ethnic federalism. Because of their strong stance on this, they are wary of the Oromo protest, by and large, unsympathetic to the ongoing Oromo struggle and unappreciative of the challenge the OPDO is posing to the TPLF. One point that should be emphasized is that this group is mainly diaspora based and people who have been away from the country for many years.

On the other side of this debate, we find a group that mainly constitute elites from Oromo and other non-Amhara ethnic groups. Though this group is very critical of the ethnic federalism as it is implemented by the TPLF regime, nevertheless it is adamant that federalism based on an ethnic territory is the only solution to keep the country intact.  In fact, many in this group argue that the option in front of the country is not a choice between ethnic federalism and unitary state (including regional federalism), but between ethnic federalism and independence.  Members of this group can envision their continuous presence in Ethiopia only through the structure of multinational federation.

Why multinational federation?
Why such a stark contrast between the two groups? What does multinational federalism mean to Oromos and other ethnic groups? And why are they unyielding on this issue?

We can’t get the answer to these questions unless we do historical analysis and see how the country was formed, and the effect this had on the people in the occupied territories. Obviously, we can’t get into the detail of history in this short essay. But suffice to mention how the Oromo and all the other southern nationalities became part of the modern state of Ethiopia after King Menelik around the end of the 19th century conquered and put their territories under the Ethiopian empire.

From that time onwards they were forced to live under occupation. Their land was taken away and given to the northerners, dubbed neftenyas.  Their traditional leaders and administrators were mostly replaced by Amharas or those who were drafted and served them.  A new bureaucracy mostly manned by northerners was instituted over them. All government services including court services were conducted in Amharic only. Until Haile Selassie was deposed, Amharic was the only official medium of communication both in print, radio, and television.

Students were forced to learn the Amharic language at school, and at times even penalized when seen speaking their native language.  No other language was allowed to be taught at school. Even at some Protestant churches, missionaries were discouraged from using native languages for church services. In order to be a successful bureaucrat, one has to be fluent in Amharic and adopt the Abyssinian way of life.  Amharanization or assimilation was the preeminent state policy used to homogenize the country for keeping the country intact. Orthodox Christianity was the official religion of the country, and Ethiopia was considered a Christian island.

The assimilation project continued systematically in earnest during the Haile Selassie era. Western-educated Ethiopian elites looked at France as a model and wanted to replicate in Ethiopia what happened during the Frenchization era in France. The goal was to create political unity through linguistic unification.  They wanted to create the Ethiopian man, which was a euphemism for Amharanization.

Before the introduction of mandatory mass education, France was a multilingual country. However, after this project, France became, by and large, a monolingual country. The Ethiopia elites also dreamt of turning Ethiopia to a monolingual country speaking only Amharic through time.  They realized early on that linguistic diversity is the natural obstacle to assimilation or Ethiopinization they dreamt of.

The Ethiopian Empire’s territory tripled under Menelik and Haile Selassie, and its population size more than doubled. It’s very normal, in fact, natural, for such kind of an expansionist empire to be extremely worried of how to keep its newly acquired territory and worry how to fit in its newly incorporated population.  It’s no wonder that it will be concerned about the huge ethnic and religious diversity in the country, lest it be a source of political turmoil. To that end, it’s unquestionable that it will devise different mechanisms to eliminate or minimize the possible danger that can come out of a diverse population. It is the existence of such objective condition, i.e., the fear of the potential uprising of the conquered peoples has driven all the major political actions of the successive Ethiopian governments from Menelik to present day TPLF rulers.

On the other end, it’s natural and universal for national communities that are conquered, to try to resist through different means the occupation imposed on them. Such communities’ resistance sometimes succeeds and leads to total independence, or sometimes they fail and are assimilated and lose their distinct existence.  In the worst case scenarios, some communities are physically eliminated through genocide.  And so continues always the struggle between the force of homogenization or uniformization and the resistance force for liberation to keep its distinct existence and flourish on its own term. This is a struggle between conquest or domination and liberation.

And so the struggle of the Oromo against Haile Selassie, the Dergue and now against the TPLF is a struggle for liberation for self-rule. It is a struggle for self-actualization and self-realization. And no national community, let alone a community like Oromo that has been conquered and lived under direct occupation, can attain self-realization without self-rule, i.e., without having a state institution of its own. A political self-rule is an essential and indispensable instrument against assimilation and domination.

After undergoing such historical experience as the Oromos underwent, self-rule or having one’s own state is the only instrument that could lead to full self-realization and even self-respect.

A state machinery is not an item of luxury that a nation can relinquish and expect to be a nation for long.  Any nation or ethnic group that does not want to be dependent needs this machinery for its liberty. Without having a state, the very existence of Oromo will be under question in the long run.  It is only this institution that can cure and mend the deep entrenched structural inequality and inequity built in the formation of the country.  The Oromo needs a state to continue to exist as a nation. Taking away this inherent right to self-government from Oromo means, taking away its insulation from assimilation. And in the final analysis, it also means taking away its being as a nation. We want our own state singularly to manage our own affairs, and there is no other machinery other than having our own state that can assure us this. “Free people are self-governing people.”  If you are not self-governing, it means you are not free. It is for this reason that the elimination of ethnic federation will not be an item for negotiation under any circumstances.

Once we have established that having a state is crucial for the Oromo, then there are only two options available to carry out this. Either set up an independent Oromia state or have Oromia state within federated Ethiopia. The first leads to the dissolution of Ethiopia as we know it, while the second will maintain the country’s unity and preserve its diversity. Thus, it’s advantageous to all that Ethiopia be structured as an ethnic or multi-state federation. When Oromos accept multinational or ethnic federalism within Ethiopia, it means they have already come halfway from the first position of independent Oromia. Asking Oromos to go further and concede and drop ethnic federation as a solution, means nothing but asking them to surrender their inherent right to self-governance. This concession that the Oromos are giving from the get-go should be clear to the Ethiopian nationalist groups.

Moreover, unless they believed in a fictitious image that Ethiopia is a totally homogeneous society, the Ethiopian nationalists do not have a reasonable ground on which to prove the total elimination of ethnic federalism from the Ethiopian political landscape.

Above, I tried to present the principle and theoretical basis of why ethnic federalism is crucial to the Oromo.  In addition to that, there is also a practical aspect of why ethnic federalism should be retained. Ethnic federalism had been in practice in Ethiopia for the last 25 years. During these years many institution and structures are built around it.  The bulk of the current generation, about two third of it, was born since ethnic federalism is instituted. Getting rid of such a mammoth institution with a huge support will not be an easy matter.

Most of the Ethiopia people, including the Oromos, have started to consider ethnic federalism for granted as part of their political life. Any effort to take away this from them will be taken as an affront on their right to self-government.  Ethnic federalism has produced a huge institution around itself to sustain it, and millions of supporters to defend it. Thus, it will not be an exaggeration to say eliminating ethnic federalism will be a sure invitation to a civil war. Compared to when it was just an idea and not instituted, the Oromos are now more ready to defend ethnic federalism, even in its corrupted form, because they have it.  This could be explained by the endowment effect theory. People give more value to things they have just because they have them. People fight harder to keep what they already have rather than fighting for something new.  Therefore, pragmatism demands that the Ethiopian nationalist reconsider their stand and accept ethnic federalism as irreversible and a foregone conclusion. Undoing it will be more costly than its existence with some changes.

Why Was TPLF Not Able To Resolve The National Question?

Ethnic federalism in Ethiopia, even though associated with the EPRDF’s rule, was a historical imperative, that came as a negation to the previously existing system of domination. EPRDF is just an opportunistic force that happened to be a strong force at the time and came riding the prevailing wave of discontent against the much hated and maligned military rule.

TPLF arrived promising decentralization, federalism, and democracy. However, it has failed on all accounts and discredited. But to ascribe its failure to its introduction of ethnic federalism is a colossal mistake. Contrary to what some assume, EPRDF/TPLF should also not be faulted for introducing the ethnic problem to Ethiopia.  There was an acute ethnic problem in Ethiopia that needed to be resolved long before TPLF came into existence.

The failure of TPLF lies somewhere else. It is failing because it was not up to par to transform the system that it came to replace in the first place. TPLF failed because its nature and stature did not allow it to fulfill what it promised it would do. To put it differently, TPLF was not the right change agent to effectuate the radical transformation the country needed to survive as a country.

It came to replace those at the helm but not to transform the system. What TPLF/EPRDF was able to do was at most bring about a cosmetic change. To bring about an authentic and transformational change of a magnitude needed to transform the country, it would have required a much more centered agent of democracy that have everything to gain from such a change.

As an organization that comes from a minority population group comprising only 6 percent of the population, TPLF cannot be an agent that can institutionalize genuine multinational federal democracy in the country.

This is so simply because if authentic ethnic federalism is implemented it will eject the TPLF from occupying the dominant position in the power play dynamics. The result of the TPLF’s ethnic federalism project, if genuinely implemented, by necessity leads to the allocation of power equitably based on ethnic population size. Thus, short of passing the baton to others, TPLF was not in a position to bring about a multinational democratic federation. The TPLF that “wanted” to resolve an ethnic problem through ethnic federalism, always wanted to have its cake and eat it too, but that cannot happen.

WHITHER MULTINATIONAL FEDERATION?

There are many academic writings related to the issue of whether federation is a suitable form of government to unite different states or nations or to save a state from dissolution or whether it is just a prelude for the dissolution of a state.  I am not going to go into the academic discussion, but suffice to say here that this idea that “ethnic federation is just a prelude to dissolution” got currency after the crumbling of the former federal states like the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.

However, if you look at these failed ethnic federations, you see that all of them are former communist countries.  This common trait says a lot about the reason for their failure. Communist federalism as conceived and applied in all countries tried to implement federalism under the leadership of a centralized and non-federated unitary party. Federalism that presupposes division of sovereignty between the federal unit and the national government, cannot be implemented under such centralized command condition. Therefore, in all these former communist countries there was no federation in the real sense. Thus, citing these countries as examples of failed multinational federal is misplaced.  On the contrary, one can cite cases like Canada and Belgium, as examples of where the unity of the state has been saved by federalization.

In Ethiopia, if a genuine multinational federation is implemented, because of its population size, the Oromo will be playing a major role not only in its self-administration but also in the shared national government. If the Oromo is given its due position, which means playing a leading role, this will create a huge incentive for it to stay within Ethiopia.  I can’t cite any example in the history of the world where an ethnic group that plays a major role in the political life of a country opts to go its own way to establish its own state. Secessions and movements for independence occur when a nation or ethnic group could not self-realize itself in the union. Therefore, it goes against all logical reasoning and conclusion to say that ethnic federalism leads to the disintegration of Ethiopia.

It’s true that ethnic federation has its share of problems. It’s true that at times it could even exacerbate ethnic conflicts. But research has shown that even when it has exacerbated ethnic strife, ethnic federalism has reduced ethnic rebellion to secede from a federal arrangement.  And in a truly democratic condition, even those ethnic frictions could be resolved through different mechanisms.

CONCLUSION

The asymmetric power distribution that existed in Ethiopia is unnatural, and thus, it was just a matter of time before it is unraveled. The Dergue regime that deposed the Haile Selassie regime, tried to modify the power relationship by reforming the land tenure system and ending the landlordism of the Neftegna over the Oromo and other southern tenants. That brought some change, however still did not transfer power, and did not level the playing field. As a result, it had to give way to another force that should try something else.

The TPLF/EPRDF came to power and brought ethnic federalism and cultural rights, etc., to the Oromo and other Southern people. However, this northern force again retained the real power in its own hands and did not resolve the asymmetric power distribution problem.  And hence the people are revolting against it, to snatch power from its grips. This struggle will continue, and Ethiopia will not have peace until the dynamic system of power, privilege, and oppression is finally resolved and the center of power is shifted and it is evenly and equitably distributed.

It’s high time that we resolve this power dynamics once and for all in Ethiopia.  That could be done only if ethnic groups have a genuine self-rule and the central power is equitably disturbed between ethnic groups based on their numerical strength. Admittedly, putting this into practice is easier said done. It needs a lot of national dialogue, and give and take. However, eliminating of the multinational or ethnic federation is an impracticable, nonstarter scheme. Ethiopia can be saved and be made stable not by eliminating multinational federation, but by perfecting it and making it truly democratic.

*The writer, Olaana Abbaaxiiqii, can be reached at olaanaabbaaxiiqi@yahoo.com.

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