Sunday, April 14, 2024
CommentaryA bilingual federal government for national cohesion

A bilingual federal government for national cohesion

Bilingualism helps the federal government achieve many of the objectives that the Constitution sets. It facilitates the realization of the constitutional objective of creating an economic union since a language is a critical factor in facilitating interstate commerce, writes Zemelak Ayitenew Ayele.

Our federal system, as per the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Constitution, is meant to fulfil the desire of the peoples of Ethiopia to establish one political and economic community. By creating a single economic community, the federal system aims to realise ‘a sustainable and mutually supportive conditions for ensuring respect for rights and freedoms [of the peoples] and for the collective promotion of [their] interests’. To this effect the Constitution provides the federal government with broad (some say too broad) policymaking powers on economic matters. It even allows the federal government to assume some of the states’ legislative powers; in particular, those relating to civil matters, if the former could show doing so, serves the constitutional objective of building a single economic community. The EPRDF’s economic policies of the past two decades have also been directly or indirectly geared towards realizing the ideal of an economic union. For instance the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, arguing in favor of the first Growth and Transformation Program (GTP-I), stated that through infrastructural development, the northernmost of the country would be linked to the country’s southernmost. This, he maintained, would help build a single economic community. In short the Constitution and the ruling party consider the economy as the most critical factor that will help maintain our national unity.

The significance of common economic interest in terms of creating a sense of unity and strengthening the federal system cannot be underrated. However a union based exclusively on economic interests is likely to be shaken, even broken, when an economic crisis occurs. The political union may also be endangered if the federal government or one or more of the state governments fall under the control of a political party that pushes a centrifugal agenda. The political upheavals in the European Union—a principally economic union—that followed the 2008 financial crisis and the recent immigration disaster are a testament to the above contention. The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) claims to have focused on creating economic incentives to every ethnic group in the country to remain together. The thinking seems that economic growth, accompanied by equitable distribution of wealth, would bring about a national cohesion. The current political turbulence in our country, however, clearly demonstrates that the economic growth and infrastructural developments of the past two decades have not achieved the anticipated sense of unity and national cohesion. Hence, we hear many people these days nonchalantly suggesting that our country is on the verge of being dismembered owing to the on-going crisis. It is therefore high time that we begin a sober political dialogue on how to deal with the political turmoil that our country is presently facing. As part of the political dialogue, I strongly propose that we should seriously consider adopting Afaan-Oromoas a federal language along and in par with Amharic.

Certainly, I am not the first to make such a suggestion. Different Oromo scholars, such as, Birhanemeskel Abebe Segni and Milkessa Midega, have already argued to the same effect. Birhanemeskel, for instance, lists ten compelling justifications for the adoption of Afaan-Oromo as a federal language, including demographic, geographic, representational, and other reasons. Milkessa’s list is even longer: It contains 23 reasons to the same effect. The arguments of the two scholars are directed towards ensuring that Afaan-Oromo gains the political and cultural prestige that it deserves. And I agree with almost every point that they raise.

In this piece, I intend to provide a perspective of a non-Oromo on the matter. My intention is to demonstrate to other non-Oromo fellow Ethiopians that a bilingual federal government that uses Afaan-Oromo as a federal language, in par with Amharic, is essential for creating a sense of unity that does not rise and ebb with the country’s political and economic situation. Let me begin by clarifying the notion of ‘a bilingual federal government’ that I have in mind.

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My idea of a bilingual federal government

The federal government may become ‘a bilingual’ in the sense that it may allow Amharic and Afaan-Oromo to exist side-by-side as federal languages. The government simply makes an arrangement to provide services to ethnic Oromos (or those who prefer to be so served) exclusively in Afaan-Oromo and to others exclusively in Amharic. This might mean that there will be two ‘lingual windows’ in every federal institution, each providing government services in one of the two federal languages. The problem with such an arrangement is that it does not create the need for an Oromo to learn Amharic and for those speaking Amharic to learn AfaanOromo. This kind of bilingualism (if we can at all call it that) does not serve the purpose of building national cohesion. It will rather lock us into two separate lingual boxes thereby perpetuating, even widening, the existing cleavages. I therefore suggest that the federal government should be truly bilingual in the sense that its institutions should concurrently function in both Afaan-Oromo and Amharic languages. Those working in the federal institutions should therefore be required to be conversant in both languages. To this effect both Amharic and Afaan-Oromo should be taught in every primary school in the country as languages of ‘countrywide communication’. Moreover, every federal policy, proclamation, regulation and directive should be prepared in both languages. Federal employees, especially the frontline professionals, should be given the necessary training that makes them conversant in both languages.  

Cases for bilingual federal government

The main reason for adopting Amharic as the sole working language of the country was that at the time of the drafting of the constitution more people spoke Amharic than the other Ethiopian languages. Amharic was also viewed as more developed than the other Ethiopian languages. It was on account of these two reasons that Amharic was chosen to be the sole working language of the federal government. Such reasoning was in my opinion flawed and shortsighted that focused only on the situation existing in the early 1990s. It did not attempt to look into the future. It also ignored the fact that even at the time Afaan-Oromo was the language of the largest ethnic group of the country, not to mention many non-Oromos who also spoke the language. Moreover the decision to adopt Amharic as the only working language of the federal government perpetuated the old language policy that discouraged the use of other Ethiopian languages, including Afaan-Oromo, for official purposes, which was the precise reason that hindered their development in the first place.  Furthermore, it assumed that the others Ethiopia languages were static and would not catch up with Amharic in terms of development. The federal government should not, therefore, continue to function with a single working language which was adopted on the basis of reasoning that is largely flawed. 

I am of the view that the sensible thing to do at the time of the drafting of the constitution would have been, while making Amharic the working language of the federal government, to enjoin the federal government to take practical measures to gradually ensure that Afaan-Oromo also becomes a federal language in par with Amharic. Had that been the case, we could have achieved a great deal in the past 20 years in terms of creating a sense of national cohesion that is much deeper and stronger than what the whole economic growth and infrastructural developments are claimed to have accomplished.

In addition, bilingualism helps the federal government achieve many of the objectives that the Constitution sets. It facilitates the realization of the constitutional objective of creating an economic union since a language is a critical factor in facilitating interstate commerce. Moreover, the right of individuals to move from one part of the country to the other to work and establish businesses becomes easily realized if those individuals are bilingual. Bilingualism would also help achieve the constitutional aim of ‘rectifying historically unjust relationships [among different communities of the country] further promoting our shared interests’. Introducing Afaan-Oromo as a federal language would therefore help correct past injustices without diminishing the political and social status of Amharic.  (Berhanemeskel and Milkessa also raise these points)

In addition, those Oromo nationalist groups that have centrifugal tendencies often invoke the fact that Amharic is the sole working language of the federal government and argue the federal system brought barely any benefit to the Oromo people. Introducing Afaan-Oromo as a federal language takes away the most compelling case such groups present to gain support.

I also maintain that it is personally advantageous to each and all of us to be bilingual.  It helps us to easily connect with one another and gives us an edge in politics, school, and workplace and life. For instance, many Oromo activists, most of whom are multilingual, often use excellent Amharic, sometimes beautifully prosed poems, to communicate their ideas to a large audience. In contrast, those of us who only speak Amharic are constrained to even understand the desires and fears of our Oromo brothers and sisters, leave alone communicating our own thoughts to the latter in Afaan-Oromo. This prolongs the sense of suspicion existing between members of the Oromo community and those of others.

Besides, language is not merely about communications. It has also aesthetic properties: It has innate beauty. Being able to speak and listen to Afaan-Oromo therefore means being able to enjoy the beauty of the language making our lives ‘fuller and richer’. I know several non-Oromo individuals, including those from the Amhara and Tigre communities, who marvel at the beauty of Afaan-Oromo. The father of a close friend of mine, an Amhara who nonetheless speaks fluent Afaan-Oromo, often says that my friend and I are missing out a lot because we do not speak Afaan-Oromo.

Let me close this section with quote from an op-ed published on The Reporter (the English edition) a few months ago by one Selam Yibeltal. Envious of the fact that almost every South African she met was multilingual and lamenting the fact that she was unable to speak and listen to Afaan-Oromo, Selam wrote:

‘[M]y life would [be] richer and fuller if I were able to speak, listen, write and read Afaan-Oromo, the language of approximately half of my countrymen. It would have allowed me to enjoy Oromifa songs, watch Oromifa dramas and comedies and be entertained, and enjoy Oromifa literature, giving my life deeper meaning and more content. If I were able to speak Afaan-Oromo, it literally and figuratively would mean that I would find the key to the hearts and minds of my Oromo brothers and sisters. This is not to mention the economic benefit that might accrue to me – for instance in the form of job offer – as a result of my ability to speak the language.’

Responses for expected detractions

A detractor is likely to ask that ‘over 80 languages are spoken in the country, why only privilege Amharic and Afaan-Oromo?’ Well, Amharic has already been given this privilege. I am simply arguing that we should give one additional language a similar privilege. Moreover, none of the Ethiopian languages are as widely spoken (in the country) as these two languages, both in terms of the number and the geographical distribution of the people speaking them. Therefore, making the federal government a bilingual that uses Amharic and Afaan-Oromo just makes sense.

Some might, rather slothfully, dismiss the above suggestions as impractical or too costly. I also do not expect a perfectly bilingual federal government that smoothly functions in the two languages would be achieved overnight, effortlessly or cheaply. It will take at least a decade or two, if not longer, to create such a system. Moreover it is likely that there will be strong resistance against the idea of a bilingual federal government from some sections of our society. Such a resistance obviously results either from ignorance or unwarranted fear that Amharic will lose its current status. This thus requires continuous effort to persuade our people that ultimately they would stand to benefit from such an arrangement. In any case, resisting the adoption of Afaan-Oromo as a federal language is increasingly becoming indefensible. Therefore we better come to terms with the reality on the ground and redirect our effort towards creating a bilingual federal government that works for all of us. Concerning expenses, indeed the suggested arrangement would require the federal government to spend extra revenue. It will indeed have to spend a significant amount of money, among others, to preparing and publish official documents in the two languages, hire teachers, and conducted training for its employees. However the end result of the arrangement would be worth every penny that the government spends. Moreover, if all goes well, we expect our economy to grow in the years to come allowing the federal government to comfortably bear the cost.

Hence, let us just do away with the ‘can’t be done’ mentality and begin the work towards making the federal government a bilingual one.

Ed.’s Note: The author is an Assistant Professor at Centre for Federal Studies, Addis Ababa University. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].


Contributed by Zemelak Ayitenew Ayele


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Video from Enat Bank Youtube Channel.


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