Ethiopia’s Ethnic Parties, Hate for Oppressors but not ‘the Oppression’

By Melaku G Woldeselassie CPA

I heard Professor Mesfin Woldemariam once say, “We hate oppressors but not oppression”. It was not a questionable generalization like that of our athlete, Haile Gebreselassie who surprised the whole world with his 2/11/16 comment on BBC, “As an African citizen Democracy is a Luxury thing…for us the most important thing is a good governor”. While I am unware of any confluence between athletics and politics or how Haile envisioned good governance without democracy/accountability, Professor Mesfin’s expression, though, was a satire on hypocrisy of our politicians who promise anything when they are ‘the oppressed’, but turn their back on the people once they have political power.

Although we may be hopeful that today’s opposition would not turn in to tomorrow’s oppressor, we need to reckon that no matter what, our hope will be wishful thinking if we don’t realize that ethnic political parties are an exception. The reckoning is, we don’t need time to speak with confidence that no opposition, that is an ethnic party, is capable of delivering democracy and equal opportunity to all Ethiopians. Ethnic political parties stand for the interest of one ethnic group at the expense of other ethnicities. Ethnic parties are reincarnations of those who hate other oppressors but love oppression of their own making. This is to argue that, if our dream is for a stable democratic political climate that is free from oppression and ethnic polarization of Ethiopians, it is high time that there is a consensus to do away with ethnic parties, phasing out their existence in favor of non ethnic parties that recognize our unity in diversity.

Ethnic parties are those which stand for one or more ethnic group at the exclusion of other(s), based on differences that emanate from the act of God. There are no universal criteria in defining what makes an ethnic group. In India for example, ethnic identity and ethnic politics is primarily about Sub cast, Cast and Religion in the order of their importance in Indian politics. The Casts from top to bottom are Priests, Warriors, Farmers & Traders, and laborers. India has 29 states and 7 union territories. A sub cast, Cast or Religion one finds in a state is also found in all other states in India. There is a sense of brotherhood among the three ethnic elements that exist all over India. Hence ethnic politics is not as divisive or as polarizing on State boundary lines as it is in Ethiopia, where ethnicity is only dependent on languages that have a demarcated administrative boundaries called Regional States.

In India Cast and Sub cast may indirectly reflect the economic or social status of an ethnic group, and as a result, Indian ethnic parties may be seen to some degree as class based. When one says my father is a Goldsmith, it is sufficient clue for a fellow Indian to determine the respective cast of that individual, and so is, if one says he/she is a Blacksmith, a Goldsmith, a Carpenter, a Trader, a Farmer, a Landowner, a Laborer, and a Priest etc. The other facet we see in India, countering polarization on state boundary lines, is the existence of interstate multi ethnic parties which I believe are, in a relative sense, better than the most divisive single ethnic parties. It is a no brainer to imagine what it would be like if we had Oromo-Amhara Party, Tigray-Amhara Party, and Somali-Afar Party etc. Above all, the 42nd amendment of Indian Constitution equates cessation with anti-national activity, making it illegal.

According to the web listing of National Election Board of Ethiopia, there are 77 political parties that are actively participating in election. Per my own analysis, there are 23 National parties, 3 Regional parties (multi ethnic but all in SNNPR) and 51 single ethnic parties. Political theory dictates that some of the 23 National parties could in fact be ethnic parties. Because, although a party has a name that has no reference to any ethnic group, it may still in essence be an ethnic party if, either its message is directed towards favoring a particular ethnicity or its political platform targets a particular ethnic group as its support base.  Also, considering the level of determination of the 51 ethnic parties in defending ethno politics in Ethiopia, it may be logical to classify them in to four categories. Category A are the Pioneers of the present ethnic system and Category B are the Followers, which followed only after the politico ethnic course was set by the Pioneers. This is remindful of the Ethiopian saying on a Dog’s behavior to copycat a Hyena. In category C are Opportunists, which are least concerned about ethnic issues, but pretend with the hope of scavenging whatever comes their way. Category D are the Pragmatic ethnic parties of quick or realist Ethiopians like Professor Asrat Woldeyes (who opposed the Charter), Professor Merara Gudina (ex AESM) and Ato Asegede Gebreselassie (ex TPLF). I know that we can debate about the three personalities until the cows come home, but it is my opinion.

In an environment where there is no democratic space for voicing concerns including rights of ethnic in nature, it may be natural for members of a particular ethnic group to join hands and fight for their common cause, to ensure that their question is addressed properly. Hence, we should not ridicule ethnic political organizations, asserting why they come in to existence in the first place. In a political climate where people cannot express their desire by show of hands or through a secret ballot, forming ethnic parties and resorting even to an armed struggle, is a reality no one can avoid. The question is, should ethnic parties have permanent existence? And here comes the need for categorical analysis of the parties which helps to determine the root cause of their genesis as well as the specific ethnic parties that would present the most challenge or resistance to the de-ethinization of Ethiopian political frame. The category will help in engaging ethnic parties commensurate with their classification.

What is the ethnic question in Ethiopia? The present constitution places greater significance to ethnic questions. The preamble of the constitution reads “respect of individual and people’s of fundamental freedoms and rights, to live together on the basis of equality and without any sexual, religious or cultural discrimination”. What are then people’s rights?  The best thing I have come about, as answers to the question are the various references to certain terms in the constitution that indirectly hint how the ethnic question is understood by the ethnic parties that played a pioneering role, in the design, as a solution to the ethnic question. The articles are: Art 5 Languages; Art 25 Discrimination on basis of Nation, nationality; Art 31 Freedom of Association ;Art 32 Sec 1-5 Freedom of Movement ;Art 39 Right of Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples; Art 41 Sec 9 Economic ,Social and Cultural Rights; Art  46 State of the Federation ;Art 47 Member States of the Federal Democratic Republic; Art 48 State Boarder Changes ;Art 49 Capital City ;Art 50 Structure of the Organs of State; Art 51 Powers and Functions of the Federal Government ;Art 52 Powers and Functions of States ;Art 61 Members of the House of the Federation; Art 62 Powers and Functions of the House of the Federation ;Art 87 Principles of National Defense ;Art 88 Political Objectives, and Art 91 Cultural Objectives.

Per my understanding of the constitution, it could have placed Ethiopians in a much better position had Section 1 of Article 39 not included the phrase, ‘including the right to secession’. See, semantics aside, if the section was, Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-administration, it would be reconciliatory to most political groups. The problem comes with the ‘including the right to secession’ phrase that is seen at the end of the sentence, and which is unfathomable to most Ethiopians. It is this critical phrase which polarized the whole political climate of Ethiopia throwing us back for at least two thousand years into the past. This is the phrase in the constitution that has caused lots of mistrust, division and polarization amongst Ethiopians, and a further strategic problem in the design and practice of democracy in Ethiopia. Most Ethiopians even consider referring to ‘the Ethiopian constitution’ as a taboo, let alone demanding its full implementation since it could also mean the disintegration of the country in to Ethnic Nations.

The phrase “…including the right to secession” is the nexus between the constitution and the ethnic political parties in Ethiopia. Secession demands prevalence of a vanguard ethnic party(s) that take(s) ownership and leadership of the constitutional process, when the ethnic party(s) decide(s) to secede the region from Ethiopia. Hence it would be senseless to talk about abolition of ethnic political parties without the simultaneous amendment of the constitution removing the phrase, ‘including the right to secession’. Sec I Art 39 and Ethnic Political parties are two sides of the same coin. We cannot deal with one without dealing with the other. Without the secession clause in the Article, ethnic political parties become superfluous and of little relevance or significance.

Art 25 of Ethiopian constitution prohibits Discrimination on basis of Nation and nationality. However paradoxically, there are ethnic political parties which by definition favor one ethnic group from another(s). Speaking of discrimination, there can be no group or organization that could institutionalize or implement discrimination of the highest magnitude, with perfection, than ethnic political parties. This reminds me of an Iranian proverb “a camel does not drink with a spoon”. In terms of scale and magnitude, the only thing that comes close to discrimination by ethnic parties would be if there were religious political parties. For an ethnic party to be free from discrimination on the basis of ethnic identity, is like a camel walking through an eye of a needle.

In a country like Ethiopia, discrimination is manifested through appointments in public offices, government positions, land resource allocation, access to banking and finance, tax and tariff, government contracts, general business opportunity, due process of law, hires, promotions, access to public officials etc. It occurs both at the Federal and Regional levels. The discrimination and favoritism in opportunities creates hostility, mistrust, and division among Ethiopians. In addition to the day to day reality of inequality in opportunity, the ethnic parties and the various institutions including schools continually and actively disseminate divisive propaganda/education/practice undermining Ethiopian Nationalism or at times, openly declaring one or more ethnic groups as enemy(s). The people of Ethiopia are divided amongst fifty one ethnic political parties not to mention the sixteen national parties, weakening the voice of the people, and thereby creating a fertile ground for manipulation and dictatorship. The mistrust, division and hostility that we see in our day to day lives amongst Ethiopians is not spontaneous and it is by design, the engines being the ethnic parties.

When it is an established fact that ethnic parties are discriminatory, what is the meaning of one ethnic party opposing another ethnic party just because the ‘another’ is a ruling ethnic party? Unless the opposition ethnic party accepts only to be a temporary vehicle in creating a democratic climate where open debate & secret ballot would be the norm, unless the opposition ethnic party is committed to phase itself away upon fulfillment of conditions leaving the day to day politics to non-ethnic parties, if the goal of the ethnic party is a mere change of one ethnic party by another, it is equivalent to crying ‘my discrimination and oppression would be better than yours’. The most logical end game of any struggle by ethnic parties should be to bring about a constitutional solution to the problem, permanently settling ethnic questions legally, so that ethnic issues do not become a day to day contention or play toy of ethnic parties that thrive by indefinitely lingering division, sectarianism, exclusion, discrimination, favoritism, animosity and instability.

There needs to be a considerable effort to create awareness and consensus among ethnic parties on the danger they pose on the peaceful coexistence of ethnicities in Ethiopia. The dire socio economic realities of Ethiopia and the need for political stability in fighting poverty, inequality and continuing ethnic conflicts demand a sacrifice by ethnic parties, paving way for non-ethnic parties that uphold democracy based on respect for individual rights. It is of paramount importance that ethnic parties come to their senses, and put a limit/deadline on their time table with a clear commitment to phase out their existence, on the fulfillment of a clearly defined and measurable criteria. Preference for one ethnic party over another will only mean substituting one oppressor by another, and that way we are doomed to division, hostility, disintegration, civil war, ethnic cleansing and everlasting poverty.

At this point, I am urged to share the following Statement of Objects and Reasons in the 42nd amendment of the Indian Constitution that sent a clear and resonating message about why outlaw cessation in India declaring it to be anti-national and hence illegal.

“A Constitution to be living must be growing. If the Impediments to the growth of the Constitution are not removed, the Constitution will suffer a virtual atrophy. The question of amending the Constitution for removing the difficulties which have arisen in achieving the objective of socio-economic revolution, which would end poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity, has been engaging the active attention of Government and Public for some Years Now…”

In conclusion, the common DNA of ethnic parties in Ethiopia is a strong belief for their constituency’s right to self-administration with local languages as medium of communication. Ethiopianism that is based on unity in diversity is able to accommodate that. Enforcement of the right to self administration, once instituted democratically, is not any different from enforcement of other bills of legislatures, and hence it does not require an ethnic political party as its baby sitter. The most delicate matter is striking a correct balance between Ethiopian Nationalism and ethnic identity.  Ethiopian Nationalism should be at the core of our institutions since our history, interethnic relationships developed over thousands of years, the geopolitics, economics and common sense demand just that. Past this point, the day to day political affair at Federal, Regional or Local level should be left to non-ethnic parties which at least, would be free from ethnic prejudice, bigotry, discrimination and oppression, based on differences that emanate from the act of God i.e. ethnicity.  Ethnic parties need to perform a kind of soul searching and reconcile with the fact that hate for oppressors is not good enough. By definition, ethnic parties are meant to exclude others, and switching between ethnic parties would only put us in a vicious cycle of Exclusions & Oppressions.  This leads us to the only conclusion that upon satisfaction of specific conditions, we need to dissolve ethnic parties. In a true democracy ethnicity will be impertinent since people gather around ideologies and public policies that maximize their needs for Democracy, Justice, Security, Education, Food, Clean drinking water, Irrigation, Health services, Jobs, Electricity, Transportation, etc. These are universal to all ethnicities in Ethiopia. This is what political parties in Ethiopia should be about, and then we will be in communion with the 21st century.

Melaku G Woldeselassie CPA

Atlanta, Georgia, email