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Heeding the lessons of Yugoslavia’s breakup

Heeding the lessons of Yugoslavia’s breakup

Ethiopia is presently being buffeted by headwinds from different directions. The challenges confronting us keep getting more complex and thornier by the day. Even as Ethiopia is struggling to put behind the political and security crisis that beset it for much of 2020 as foreshadowed by the International Crisis Group (ICG) in a commentary it published at the beginning of that year, the country continues to be racked by deadly violence and other destructive acts. Some citizens harboring an evil agenda are exacerbating the country’s fragile situation by creating a new set of problems even though they have barely made a dent into the ton of homework that had accumulated over the years. They have put Ethiopia in a bind instead of steering it on the path to prosperity, eroding the values which Ethiopians cherish and have kept them together as a nation and threatening their continued existence as a cohesive polity. As such it’s incumbent on all Ethiopians to think long and hard about the consequences of persisting with their current course of action.

Since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) came to power in April 2018 following mass protests, Ethiopia has witnessed a dramatic transformation. His administration ended the no-war-no-peace stalemate with Eritrea by taking the initiative to sign a peace agreement after years of simmering tensions. It also granted pardons and amnesties to thousands of individuals and organizations once branded terrorists; all opposition groups based in Ethiopia or exiled overseas were invited to join in a peaceful transformation; media organizations have been able to report with relative freedom; laws that were instrumental in the suppression of civil and political rights through legal reform councils and working groups comprised of voluntary members. This unprecedented and rapid change was soon followed by disconcerting unrest though. Aside from intercommunal conflicts that have been occurring at a rate of once every week for over two-and-half years, the law enforcement operation undertaken in the northern Tigray region in response to an attack on the Northern Command of the defence forces have led to the death and injury of tens of thousands, the displacement of millions more and the destruction of both private and public property worth billions.    

Ethiopia’s political system today has eerie similarities with the 1990s of Yugoslavia. Similar to the Balkan country, Ethiopia is a federal state with ten regions organized along ethnic lines. Empowering ethnic groups through territorial autonomy has been a double-edged sword. While bestowing the right to self-government has eased tensions attributable to the hegemony of a particular group, it places ethnicism at the center of politics, links it to territory, and therefore increases the risk of a swelling of ethnic tensions. Yugoslavia was dominated by the multinational League of Communists, which had become a de facto confederation of republican parties by 1990. Likewise, Ethiopia was ruled for decades by the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of ethno-regional political parties, at the helm of which was the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Both combined nondemocratic traits with ethno-federalism.

Yugoslavia underwent political transformation in the late 1980s, just as Ethiopia is today. Now, as then, questions about the future political and economic system have come to the fore. After the death of Josip Broz Tito, its president for life, in 1980, the League of Communists introduced a raft of reforms in large parts of the country. Although this brought about great media freedom, public debates, and economic reforms, it also prompted rising nationalism. The path to the its violent collapse was set during the years preceding it when political elites embarked on gaining power by taking advantage of the ethno-federal structure of the country. The Yugoslav federation was divided into republics and two provinces, most of which had a dominant ethnonational group. Thus, nationalists could easily capture the republics, leading to secession, ethnic cleansing, and war.

Though the Yugoslavia scenario is not destined to unfold in Ethiopia, it offers a cautionary tale: during moments of political liberalization, ethnonational federal systems are particularly at risk of fragmentation. To avoid the pitfalls Yugoslavia experienced, Ethiopia’s leaders need to address and defuse ethnic tensions. Many such conflicts arose and spiraled out of control because of incitement. As in the case of Yugoslavia, such radicalization is driven by officials dissatisfied with the transformation and who seek to build public support through the politics of fear. Those who see the ethno-federal regions as potential building blocks for political careers based on ethnicity also have a hand in the strife that has been devastating parts of the nation for some time now.

Ending such divisive politics calls for a coordinated and unstinting effort by the federal government and all other stakeholders to mediate and manage conflicts. A positive and shared project promoting unity can also help stave off ethnic conflicts. Furthermore, ensuring fair treatment of everyone by federal and regional governments, equitable distribution of power and resources, and efficient administration of governmental bureaucracy at all levels is critical in terms of exorcising the sense of historical injustice and exploitation certain sections of the public harbor. The dissolution of Yugoslavia and the subsequent wars should serve as an object lesson that the transformation of ethno-federal states with diverse and divided group identities poses particular risks. So far, Ethiopia has been able to avert the confluence of events that resulted in the disintegration of Yugoslavia. If it is to remain a united nation that is the pride of its people it needs to avoid repeating the same mistakes.