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Navigating Ethiopia’s multinational federalism: the tense discourse

Navigating Ethiopia’s multinational federalism: the tense discourse

The ethnonationalist movements of the 1960s emerged winners out of a multitude of political orientations and framings of the Ethiopian state that have significantly affected the struggles to democratization to date. Whether the political questions of the nation are of class, religion, nationality or gender has been center of attraction to many of the political heavyweights since the student movements of the era.

The socialist Derg regime that took power after deposing Emperor Haileselassie I is said to have focused on one string of the questions raised during the student movement – land to the tiller. Many scholars like DessalegnRahmeto are highly appreciative of the initiative by the Derg regime to reform land holding and allow farmers own the land they till.

But contemporary observers, including Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) who in his book ‘Medemer’dealt with the Ethiopian question, state that the Derg regime was able to answer the land question but failed to answer the question of nationalities. With all the other factors aside, because of this failure, ethnonationalist groups that went to the jungle fought and deposed the Derg regime, many concur. The credit for answering the question of nationalities in the country goes to the now defunct Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which recognized the rights of nations to self-administration and self-determination in the 1995 constitution.

The multinational federal system, which many prefer to call ethnic federalism, implemented in the country since EPRDF took power in 1991 devolved power to the nine (now 10) regional states formed along linguistic parameters.

But the institutionalization of the question of nationalities did not put others that spite it at bay. There are groups that blame the system for the ethnically charged attacks and violence in the country. Advocates of this view claim that the emphasis on ethnic identity is eroding the wider national unity of the country. They criticize the system for attaching ethnic identity to the land and claim that the situation resulted in conflict between majority and minority ethnic groups living together in the same regional state.

Hence, although ethnicities were officially recognized in the constitution and they started using their languages as working languages following the adoption of the constitution, the form of ethnic federalism the country followed is criticized to have eroded the national unity and caused ethnic tensions and strife.

As a result, Ethiopian politics is characterized by a strugglebetween ethnonationalists and Ethiopian nationalists.In a September 2020monograph at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), Semir Yusuf succinctly narrated that the Ethiopian political discourse has for long been a tug of war between these forces.

“The policy aspects of these debates focus heavily on managing diversity. On theone hand, the nation-building/Ethiopianist camp advocates a more convergentset of policies aimed at maintaining Ethiopian unity. The ethnonationalist campprioritizes the realization of ethnic self-determination. Both camps mostly starttheir policy recommendations from an assessment of the country’s existing federalstructure and its ideological foundations,” he deliberates.

While the ethnonationalist camp has itself evolved to have sub-forms, the growing polarization between these political elites is a jeopardizing force for the country’s current efforts of political transition. This polarization extends beyond current power struggle and embraces debates about the “past, present and future of Ethiopia.” Much of the debate, however, hovers over the multinational federal systemimplemented for more than a quarter of a century in the country.

Although the debate among the two camps has been around since the question of nationalities was raised half a century ago, the military defeat of the guardian of ethnonationalists (TPLF) seems to have raised the bar of expectation among Ethiopian nationalists. Ethnonationalists seem to have also sensed the danger and have pulled their claws. The war in Tigray has, thus, triggered another round of heated debates.

For instance, an advisor at the Ministry of Health, Abebe Haregewoin (MD, PhD) tweeted on December 18, 2020 that with TPLF already gone, he wondered what the wait was all about to dismantle ethnic federalism.

“Now [that] TPLF is gone,what next? Why is there a delay in rooting out the basis of the ongoing ethnic cleansing, namely ethnic federalism [?] Why are we still treating the 29 years old symptom and not the cause? How many thousands must die before action is taken?” reads his tweet.

Similar campaigns on Facebook and Twitter featuring the hashtag #dismantleethnicfederalism gained traction especially since the war in Tigray. According to the free twitter hashtag and handle analytics, between December 16 and 24, 2020, 68 tweets carried the hashtag and impacted 153,495 people online.

Other commentators observed that the war in Tigray has triggered debate on the feasibility of the ethnic (multinational) federalism in the country.“The conflict in Ethiopia exposes the fragility of the country’s experiment with ethnic federalism,” opines SafiaFarole, an assistant professor in the departments of Political Science and International and Global Studies at Portland State University who wrote to the Washington Post regarding the matter.

BatteUrgessa, the executive committee member of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), believes that the war in Tigray is one directed towards eliminating the strongest and matured nationalism in the country.

While standing firm that “ethnic” federalism, not multinational federalism, did nothing good to the country and it even resulted in the worsening ethnic conflicts and violence, former Arbegnoch Ginbot 7 member, Ephrem Madebo says the war in Tigray does not have anything to do with “ethnic federalism” or ethnicism/nationalism that is the dominant force of political mobilization in the country.Ephrem goes further to call for the dismantling of the three “highly nationalistic regions.”

But Batte says this is the result of historically significant struggles by the nations and nationalities of the country.Arguing that Ethiopian federalism is multinational federalism, not ethnic, Batte stresses that this form of federalismis the result of the long struggle for self-determination and self-administration of nationalities in the country.

“The TPLF did not bring it out of the blue. It was the question of the people,” Batte states, also claiming that Ethiopia was one of the failed assimilation projects of the 19th century along with Germany, Canada, Australia, Russia, Scandinavia and Czech Republic.

According to him, the imperial efforts to assimilate Ethiopia under one identity failed with the overthrow of the last monarch, Emperor Haileselassie I, immediately triggering various national questions including the question of nationalities.

“This system recognizes nationalities and the constitution sterilized the imperial attempts to assimilate, replacing it with the better concept of multinationalism. And this is a result of the peoples’ struggle,” he argues.

The Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF) or (People’s Front for Democracy and Justice), the TPLF, the OLF, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Sidama Liberation Movement (SLM) were proponents of such movements, he recalls.

While he says that they stand on the same page with the TPLF regarding the multinational federalism as it exists now, he remembers that the difference that got the two to part ways 20 years ago was the interest from the TPLF to engage in the internal matters of the other “national” regional states.

“This is the result of the peoples’ struggles and it could not be abandoned. Without it, the people could not live together. Additional nationalities are also requesting to form their own regional states. It is not right to think that nationalities that exercised their rights to this extent would go back to unitary systems,” he asserts. “They want to get the best of the small through self-administration and the best of the big through the federation.”

But despite coming to power through the exploitation of Oromo nationalism, Batteclaims, PM Abiy Ahmed is betraying the base that carried him to the highest power of the executive and waging war on multinationalism. Accordingly, the war in Tigray is, he stresses, a war waged on ethnonationalism by someone who borrowed dreams from the monarchs.

“The multifaceted influence on the OLF is the extension of this war as they expect it to be the next force that would stand on their way because of its big support base in Oromia,” argues Batte. Hefurther noted that the main reason behind the move is that “eliminating the OLF is believed to be destroying Oromo nationalism.”

Ephrem on the other hand says that Ethiopian “ethnic” federalism is something uncommon in other federations despite ethnic diversity and showcases Nigeria, Germany, India and others as examples of diverse federations with a different form of political mobilization. But the sole measure of forming regions in Ethiopia is “ethnicity” and the constitution grants ethnic groups unlimited rights to self-determination up to secession.

“Minority ethnic groups in regions do not have representation in local administration while smaller ethnic groups with their own regional states, like the Harari, govern other groups that are the majority,” he criticizes.

This approach has linked ethnicity to the land, causing discrimination by people who say this is my land and that is yours, he observes.

Politics, after all, is you and us and federalism is a platform for negotiation, Batte contends. Hence, he deduces, this cannot be avoided in any form of political power struggle.

But unlike Batte, Ephrem argues the military operation in Tigray since November 4, 2020 is not an attack on multiethnic federalism but an action the government chose as a result of an attack on its military bases in the region. But because of immense roles played by the TPLF in institutionalizing and constitutionalizing the ethnic question, many have linked the war with the form of federalism the country follows, he shares.

PM Abiy declared military action in Tigray region claiming that the TPLF and its forces had attacked the military bases of the Norther Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) in the region and attempted to loot artilleries.

“Many political groups in the country do not see a form of administration other than decentralized federal system. We have seen where ethnic federalism has brought us. The question is whether we could remain unsettled like we are,” Ephrem wonders.

Hence, he asserts, a system that could guarantee safety and security for all of the people in the country with their rights respected is citizenship-based federalism.

“Ethnic politics has to totally liquify,” he proclaims; “the solution to all the quagmires the country finds itself in is detaching the country from ethnicity and bring citizenship to the fore.”

Consequently, he argues, the Tigray, Amhara and Oromia regions where high ethnicization of politics is observed should be dismantled as they have become threats to the very existence of the country.This is because of the temporariness of the name Ethiopia for any ethnic group as they are sovereign and could leave it anytime; this sovereignty should be given to citizens, he argues.

“There is also a problem in the constitution that only grants rights to nations without stating any duties. They can do whatever they intend to,” Ephrem criticizes. He goes on to remark that there should be strong provisions prohibiting anything that affects the territorial integrity of the country as Germany did.

However, he sees a problem in the assertion that ethnic politics has to be immediately dismantled since the TPLF is no more. He is of the opinion that rather than rushing, discussions and serious deliberations should be prioritized.

He also observes that ethnic politics and its institutionalization are not suitable for building democratic systems as there will be dominance. Hence, he recommends new arrangements based on various factors including geography, settlement, culture, psychological makeup, adjacency, potential for development, size of population as well as suitability for administration.

Batte on the other hand contends that any other form of federalism in the country would not be a winning force as it cannot muster the strong mobilizing force of nationalism.

“Nationalism is a strong ideology that deals with a certain self and it is about determining that self. Oromo nationalism existed before the formation of Oromia State; then came Oromia. This could be either as a separate state or a self-determined part of a bigger federation,” he argues.

As the organizing principle in Ethiopia is not geography, therefore, this force could not prevail over nationalism, he argues.

The next election, hence, is like a referendum to the people to choose between multinationalism and unitary systems, Batte argues. For him, citizenship-based nationalism is the same as unitary systems as it considers Ethiopia as a single national identity. Citizenship and nationalism do not overlap in multinational entities but they will be different layers of identity.

Asked by a parliamentarian weeks ago whether his military campaign in Tigray region since November 4, 2020 was directed towardsethnic politics, Abiy said that his administration does not see any alternative to respect to multinationalism and federation. But he had said time and again that people should not be carried away by false narratives that unitary states are undemocratic and federal states are democratic. The reverse can happen, he reminded.

This debate over the form of federalism the country should follow is far from over and the discourse is yet to mature. Conversely though, ethnic extremism has been identified by the government as the primary national security threat, making one wonder whether the pushes for constitutional amendment to follow the upcoming national elections would include debates on the shape and organizing principles of the federation.