Commentary: Botched federalism, rumbling political volcano and the future of Ethiopia

Two failed political experiments in forty-three years – what will be the next experiment?

Alem Mamo, for Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, Oct. 10/2017 – The existence of various ethnic groups within a sovereign state territory presents a positive potential for constructive social, economic, political, and cultural collaboration and partnership that could be a force for building an enduring national political structure benefiting all citizens. On the other hand, however, ethnic identity, and most importantly its interpretation, could be vulnerable to political manipulation by those holding political power to serve as a rationale and justification for exclusion and dehumanization of the “other” and eventually for the unleashing of organized violence. In almost all cases of such violence, the development of a well-constructed narrative that amplifies and exploits the perceived or real differences to the point of dehumanization is a premeditative launching pad for violence and war against a particular group or groups.

In the past, this kind of “large group identity” interpretation and its political manipulation has led to abhorrent degree of violence which often has manifested itself through civil war, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. It is in our recent memory, such an extreme and exclusive interpretation of identity has led, for example, to the genocide in Rwanda, which resulted in the deaths of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus by the Hutu extremists. In the former Yugoslavia, the suffering and death of thousands was attributed to the same manipulation and exploitation of large group identity by Serb forces led by self-proclaimed nationalist and extremist leaders, such as Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. We are also watching with horror the unfolding catastrophe facing Rohingyas in Myanmar, which the UN has called “a text book example of ethnic cleansing.” These were countries that at some point enjoyed peace and a good degree of coexistence and unity. With irresponsible political manipulation and in the absence of responsible central government social cohesion and coexistence could unravel rapidly, paving the way for intractable conflict and deadly violence.

“Large group identity” and its interpretation and, most importantly its manipulation by the political elite for advancing political goals, continues to be a major political asset and dangerous trend in parts of the world where “active ethnicity” remains a strong construct and is a readily available force for those with political power to mobilize. It is at times the unquestioning loyalty that those among the elite often count on to advance their political ambitions that makes large group identity a social identity that could serve certain political goals or objectives. Often, simply being a member of a specific ethnic group is sufficient enough to win trust and to be trusted, regardless of the undeclared or declared political and economic intentions of the upper echelon of the political elite, or those often-considered ethnic leaders.

It is this blanket trust from “my” ethnic group or groups that most often offers the political elite significant capital to maneuver without any discernible challenge to their political narratives and ideological views or ambitions to power. While the problem stemming from the interpretation of large group identity remains a major challenge in many parts of the world, post-colonial Africa has its lion’s share of this complex socio-political dilemma. The seeds of large group identity as political and governance capital were blended into the African political landscape during the early days of colonial adventure by the Western powers.

The purpose of this rather divisive strategy was to weaken and possibly eliminate any united and nationalist opposition to the colonial rule by pitting one ethnic group against the other. This was often executed by offering political and economic tokens and favors to those who declared their allegiances to the colonial rulers. Thus, the colonial strategy of “divide and conquer” was an effective approach in subduing and in some cases at least temporarily neutralizing any resistance. While, such a strategy benefited the colonizers in providing them a stable and subdued environment to govern, it created a long-term polarized landscape that continued to affect post-colonial Africa to this day.

Although Ethiopia has remained the only country on the continent to withstand the European campaign of the “Scramble for Africa” by successfully defending itself from attempted Italian colonization, it too has faced complex challenges of ethnicity and ethnic identity. In Ethiopia, the aspect of ethnic nationalism as a political force came to the forefront of the political discourse when Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), an ethnic-based guerilla movement, overthrew the military junta in 1991 which was experimenting with its own version of Leninist-Stalinist political and economic policies.

The argument and political narrative offered by TPLF for its political re-engineering of the country was that historically there had been political, economic, and cultural domination by the Amhara ethnic group. Thus, TPLF designed and organized the entire political, geographic, economic, and cultural landscape with ethnic compartments. Moreover, to achieve its desired goals, the TPLF introduced two key elements into the country’s political field. First, political parties were organized exclusively on ethnic bases with the political, moral and logistical support from the TPLF-led central government. Secondly, the country was divided into ten perceived linguistic and ethnic regions. As a result, ethnic parties mushroomed across the country. This in return facilitated the exclusion, marginalization and even criminalization of centripetal political forces. Hence, what is called “Ethnic federal system” came to be in Ethiopia. The problem is the system is neither ethnic nor federal. It is a system designed to hand all political and economic power to the TPLF, and it worked. Until now.

In its authentic sense, federalism is a form of political arrangement for governance in which (1) two levels of government rule the same land and people, (2) each level of government has at least one area of action in which it is autonomous, and (3) there is some constitutional guarantee of each government in its own sphere. While the institutional furnishing of federalism is based on the above arrangements, the technical and historical format of federalism evolves through two forms, which are “coming together” and “holding together” federations. “Coming together” federations are mainly voluntary forms of federalism that are designed for fostering and enhancing efficiency and security. “Holding together” federations, on the other hand, are designed with a purpose of preserving unity of the country. Despite formational and historical differences, however, the core principal and value of federal political arrangements are self-rule and shared-rule which are anchored on democratic principles.

Most of the older and more mature federal arrangements, often called “classical” federalism, made the constitutional guarantee of individual freedom, such us freedom of expression, assembly, and rights, feature as the important part of the federal political system. As is the case in Canada, the United States, Belgium, and Switzerland, individual rights are the pillars of the political landscape, assuring citizens of their role and participation in the social, economic, political, and cultural life of their country.

In terms of ideological orientation, throughout the armed struggle, the TPLF remained loyal to the Leninist-Stalinist ideology. Thus, it believed the solution to the “national question” could be found in the ideology it endorsed and implemented. What is more, the current ethnic-federal arrangement in Ethiopia and the system in the former USSR have some common features. The TPLF strict one-party control is like the Communist Party control of the former Soviet state. Both have manipulated ethnicity through strict party discipline. Moreover, the insertion of the principle of secession in the Ethiopian constitution is reminiscent of the TPLF Leninist-Stalinist thinking. In 1994, however, it was difficult to maintain such principles in the international arena. It became apparent for the leadership quick adjustment is required.

With Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost bringing an end to the USSR, political freedom and economic liberalization were sweeping through Eastern Europe, the group had a choice to make: whether to continue practicing the Leninist-Stalinist ideology or make some adjustments to accommodate the new international political order. Bowing to international pressure, particularly from the United States, the TPLF abandoned most of its Soviet-style policies and proposed minor economic liberalization. However, in the political front, the group kept some of the old ideology, such as the “national question” and the “nationalization of land.”

The nature of an ethnic political party system is exclusionary and it works contrary to the very principles of a party system. Ethnic political parties are both “inscriptive” and “exclusionary.” Even if the democratic process “works” ethnic parties have a tendency of creating the notion that “majorities took power and minorities took shelter,” which indicates a “permanent exclusion of minorities” from the government. These present a challenge to the conventionally accepted meaning of a party. This feature of an ethnic political party identifies it with pressure groups rather than political parties. Ethnic political parties thrive by playing to group interest, by arousing anxieties and fears among their followers. On the other hand, multi-ethnic political parties must play down group interest by conciliating conflict, by compromising issues, by seeking formula for the combination of many groups into a block strong enough to win.

One of the most dangerous features of ethnic party systems is their tendency to aggravate ethnic conflict and ethnic political parties have the tendency to widen or deepen inter-group cleavages and the growth of stronger and stronger groups dedicated to the promotion of narrow group claims places greater strain on the social mechanisms for the settlement of group conflict. In a situation, whereby ethnic groups are encouraged to organize themselves on ethnic lines, there exists the potential for confronting the “other” in a violent way. The broadening of the political base not only facilitates an environment of peace and tolerance, it also nurtures the culture of working together.

After two decades of such restrictive and undemocratic and unremarkable federal arrangement, the political architecture in Ethiopia has began to unravel. Any stubborn attempt to save it is to gamble on the continuation of the country as a unified sovereign state. The status quo is irreparable and it is in contradiction to the wishes of the majority. Thus, it must be thrown out.

As a matter of fact, a federal political arrangement could still be a viable political system in Ethiopia. However, for the system to be embraced by the population it must be authentic and most importantly truly democratic. Furthermore, any future federal arrangement must ensure a balance between central and regional distribution of power and control. One must not be a threat to the other. In fact, if properly exercised and implemented these two power structures could be complementary and reinforce each other with out diminishing the other. At the same time, it is undemocratic, arrogant and dangerous to conclude that federalism is the only political formula that is well suited to address the country’s historical, political, economic and social woes. The door always must be open to explore and interrogate other options. Ultimately, whatever the future political order it must obtain the consent and mandate of the Ethiopian people through promulgation of the new constitution and full participation in the democratic exercise. Anything short of this is not only doomed to fail, but also a threat to the country’s survival.

The question for the country and for its people, who have endured so much, is: what is the next experiment?

The growing political crisis in Ethiopia is very serious. To avert a major catastrophe, which could have unprecedented consequences on the Horn of Africa/Eastern Africa region, several changes must happen and happen quickly. The status quo is on life support and it can’t be resuscitated. Any attempt to do so is going to be futile. Here are some practical and crucial first steps the regime must take. First, all political prisoners must be released. Secondly, initiate communication channel with all opposition political parties inside and outside the country. Third, lay the ground work for all inclusive transitional government under the auspices of a third party. These are important initial key steps that will usher in a new political arrangement and discourse in the country. AS

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