Is ethnic federalism really the biggest problem in Ethiopia?

Written by Mohammed Ademo,

Tension between ethnic federalism and a centralised Ethiopian identity threaten the unity of Ethiopia. Can it be resolved?

In a recent op-ed for TRT World, a former Ethiopian opposition leader Teshome M. Borago asks: Is Ethiopia a Rwandan genocide in the making?

The Rwandan comparison is not surprising. The deteriorating humanitarian and security situation in Ethiopia should in fact alarm everyone. What is surprising, however, is Teshome’s reasons for sounding the alarm: ethnic federalism.

Ethiopia has 99 problems but ethnic federalism is the least of them. Teshome’s partisan commentary is irresponsible, riddled with factual inaccuracies and removed from the reality as lived by the majority of Ethiopians in 2017.

He uses two recent events to illustrate the supposed dangers posed by ethnic federalism. First, Teshome cites the alleged killing and eviction of ethnic Sidamas from Bale, in southeastern Oromia by what he calls “Oromo extremists.” Second, he blames ethnic federalism for the ongoing crisis along the border between Oromia and Somali regional states. He also admonishes the federal experiment as “an apartheid-style separation of land that divides people based on tribe.”

Teshome is known for his avowed opposition to ethnic federalism. In fact, his now defunct party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy was formed in 2004, vowing to abolish the federal system. Opposition to federalism has been the rallying cry for Ethiopia’s former ruling class that is finding it difficult to navigate their way back to political power under the new dispensation put in place in 1991.

Teshome is certainly entitled to his opinions but not his own facts. For one, his use of the terms tribe and tribal to characterise Ethiopia’s ethnic groupings speaks to Teshome’s penchant to play to a Conrad-style western stereotyping about Africa’s endless and irrational tribal trouble—not to mention his nostalgia for the feudal order—which divided the people of Ethiopia into citizens and imperial subjects.

Second, any administrative demarcation can separate and unite people. And no one formula is inherently superior to another. If Teshome’s favourite feudal demarcation, which was replaced by a multi-ethnic federation, was any better, it would not have stoked three decades of civil war.

Third, officials from Oromia state and the Sidama zone have acknowledged minor disputes over resources in the Bale region. But no deaths were reported as he alleges. And the dispute was quickly settled by local elders through established conflict resolution mechanisms.

Besides, in Ethiopia, like elsewhere in Africa, sporadic clashes over scarce resources predate the advent of ethnic federalism. Teshome’s golden imperial era was also not all glitter, as it too saw some of the most horrific abuses.

Fourth, hundreds of Oromos have been killed and close to 225,000 displaced in the last few months alone in the conflict between the Oromia and the Somali states. The clashes were instigated by predatory central authorities facing popular dissent through its proxy, a Somali paramilitary force that is seeking to illegally expand that state’s jurisdiction into Oromia—obviously worried about its absolute hold on power should its benefactors succumb to popular pressure.

Teshome conveniently sidesteps these facts and deliberately misrepresents the issue. Locals on both sides say the Oromo-Somali conflict is a scheme orchestrated by predatory central leaders to divert attention from the regime’s growing maladies and its refusal to demarcate the two state’s border per the outcome of a 2004 referendum that awarded the disputed areas to Oromia.

To understand the sweeping and unprecedented political shocks taking shape in Ethiopia, one needs to go back to the early 1990s.

Following the overthrow of Mengistu Hailemariam’s communist regime in 1991, for the first time in its long history, Ethiopia formally recognized the right to self-determination, a contentious demand for over three decades, including the right to secede for every nation, nationality, and people in Ethiopia. Accordingly, the country was reconfigured as a multi-national federation. Its governing institutions were divided into 12 linguistic motherland states and two self-governing cities.

The model was forged as a compromise between two competing forces: Those seeking total independence or secession from Ethiopia, and those who wanted to maintain Ethiopia’s territorial integrity. More importantly, it was an effort to redress century-old structural imbalances and historical injustices in the country.

Ethiopia is home to more than 80 ethnic and linguistic groups. However, in its recorded history, state power has been controlled solely by ethnic Amharas and Tigrayans. By devolving power to regional states, at least theoretically, the new model sought to finally address longstanding quest for self-rule by the majority Oromos and other ethnic groups in the south of the country.

Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s authoritarian leaders reneged on the promises of federalism. Hence, power remained centralized in the hands of ethnic Tigrayans, who make up about six percent of the population. Meanwhile, to stem growing discontent over reluctance to implement the federal arrangement, Ethiopia embraced a developmental state model, which is characterized by strong state intervention in the economy and severe restrictions on civil and democratic rights.

Despite the lack of its full implementation, however, ethnic federalism allowed a generation of young Ethiopians to learn in their native tongues. Unlike their parent’s generation, Ethiopia’s millennials studied in their mother tongues. (Until 1991, Amharic was the only language of instruction and commerce. Non-Amhara Ethiopians were forced to assimilate and learn Amharic to fit in.) That in turn led to growing cultural self-awareness and resistance to the hegemonic and exclusive “Ethiopian” identity championed by urban and Amhara elites in which they don’t self identify with.

In 2014, 71 percent of the population was under the age of 30. In other words, those born in the early 1980s onward or Ethiopia’s “millennials,” have distinct experiences. Experiences that Teshome and urban Amhara elites, who to this day long for the return of a unity imperial state, find hard to accept or relate to.

Today’s youth are keenly aware of their state’s territorial boundaries, thanks in part to the opportunity to be educated about their distinct cultures, in their own languages. They grew up singing their respective state’s anthems. In Oromia, the Oromo homeland, informed by long-standing national grievances toward the central state, the millennial generation exhibits pure allegiance to the Oromo question, a demand for the end of Oromo people’s economic and political marginalization in the Ethiopian state.

It’s this disenfranchised generation that’s now revolting against the central government. The sustained protests in 2014, 2015, and 2016, in which security forces killed more than 1,000 people in Oromia and Amhara states, have radically altered Ethiopia’s political landscape.

Popular mobilization has reached a point of no return. There is growing consensus across the political spectrum on ending the hegemony of ethnic Tigrayans. Ethnic Tigrayans currently hold all key government positions, including the national intelligence, the defence, foreign ministry and until 2012 the office of the prime minister since 1991.

The bottom line: contrary to Teshome’s assertions, the overarching demands of ethno-nationalists in Ethiopia are not about land per se. Rather, to build a more perfect union – a kind of mosaic, where all of Ethiopia’s eight dozen ethnic groups can coexist while retaining their cultural and religious diversity.

Ethnic federalism is and remains the only glue that is holding Ethiopia together. Unfortunately, Teshome and his right-wing protagonists want to take us back to the era of a unitary, feudal, and Christian state. That ship has sailed and the port no longer in view.

The fight now is for justice, freedom and equality of all people in Ethiopia and for the genuine application of the country’s constitution that established the federal system. Ethiopia’s right-wing politicians can help avert a Rwanda-like scenario by joining hands with ethno-nationalists to hasten the end of a rule by an entrenched Tigrayan business and political elite.