The Challenges of Ethnic Federalism in Ethiopia

The federal system in Ethiopia, based on ethnicity, has been a failure. In this article the author highlights nine arguments supporting that fact. The author argues that federalism has kept the poor in poverty, denied Ethiopians liberty, rights and good governance and has planted mistrust between ethnic groups. And these circumstances stop the different ethnic groups from organizing themselves and pose any challenge to the ruling party.

Federalism can be adopted under very different circumstances where each federation is the unique result of political leaders and greater historical forces. Federalism has been chosen either to bring together formerly separate units to a new country, or to rearrange a previously unitary country and even as a product of both processes together.

Every federation is unique and federalism is not always the best way forward. Furthermore, there is no best version of federalism and no formula for it to succeed. Since the downfall of Derg in 1991, Ethiopia has gone further than any other country in using ethnicity as the fundamental organizing principle of a federal system of government.

Ethiopia is a federal state and it is often debated that the EPRDF took its ideas of ethnic federalism from Stalin’s theory of nationalities and sought to implement them in Ethiopia. But at the down of Ethiopia’s federalism, it was being renounced in Eastern Europe. In Ethiopia, the current deferral experiment has two objectives according to Dr. Merera Gudina.

1. To create a country of equal nations, nationalities and people.

2. To put an end to authoritarian rule by democratizing the Ethiopian state and society as a whole, this being a precondition for durable peace and development.

As a matter of fact, it is these two points that have remained to be as challenging as ever in the quest to build a federal Ethiopia. Having said this much about federalism in general, the challenges of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia will be presented as follows.

Generally, Ethiopians are of the view that federalism faces challenges of historic proportions and thus argue that for the past 23 years federalism in Ethiopia has proved nothing but to be a failure. The following nine points are put forward in support of this argument.

1. The dire effect of Ethiopia’s federalism is its consequence of replacing the sense of Ethiopianism with that of ethnicity. In today’s Ethiopia, people show more allegiance to their ethnic background than their citizenship unlike any other time in Ethiopia’s history. Hence ethnicity has squeezed out Ethiopianism since the dawn of federalism in Ethiopia.

2. Federalism in Ethiopia focuses too much on group rights and neglects individual liberty. Rights such as respect for ethnic groups, culture, language and gender equality are given due consideration while individuals are harassed, intimidated, detained, imprisoned, exiled and killed.

3. Federalism in Ethiopia deliberately ignores democratic rights and good governance. In the constitution it is clearly stipulated that people have the right to assemble, the right to speak their minds (freedom of speech), as well as freely express their views in writings. Unfortunately, these are nothing more than symbolic in nature for no one has truly enjoyed them. Ethiopians who are brave enough to exercise their freedom of speech and writing are either locked up, exiled or have totally vanished from the face of the earth. In addition, rampant corruption and the abuse of power are constant reminders of the lack of good governance.

4. Ethiopia’s federal structure hampers the movement of labour and capital between regions. This is mainly due to the language barrier and sense of insecurity. Over eighty languages are spoken in Ethiopia where regions use their own languages for education and administration. In addition business transactions are conducted accordingly, hence for instance an investor from Amhara region is reluctant to go and invest in Oromiya or Tigray for he/she does not feel secure to engage in any sort of business venture. Besides local residents resent outside investors who does not speak their language mainly due to the many years of politicization by the government.

5. It is a federal system that impoverishes the majority and enriches the very few political and entrepreneurial elites. Most Ethiopians are still trapped by poverty and languishing in it. For them each day is a battle for survival and the ruling party wants this to carry on for it will keep Ethiopians preoccupied with survival issues. Hence the issue of survival is what tops the agenda for most Ethiopians. At the same time, those who are in tune with the ruling party’s rhetoric are getting richer and richer each day.

6. Ethiopia’s federalism has brought growth without development. The term double-digit economic growth is music to most ears in Ethiopia. Regardless of how controversial this claim may be, there is little or no change in the lives of most Ethiopians. This can be attested by visiting different parts of the capital Addis Ababa and other regions.

7. Ethnic federation was impost on Ethiopia and they are required to embrace it. Different parties (transitional government as it was known back then) and their elites gathered and chose the path of ethnic federalism. The significance of geographical proximity, people’s economic and psychological ties and relations were overlooked in the process.

8. Ethiopia’s federal structure is organized around the interest of the EPRDF whose main political actors are the Tigrayan elites. The most important concerns of the EPRDF are the issues of power and wealth. So the principle is staying on power for as long as possible and accumulating as much wealth as possible. These have been possible because Ethiopia’s federalism is Machvelian in nature with the aim to divide and rule by planting mistrust between the different ethnic groups. Thanks to its ingenuity of discovering ethnic federalism it has remained on the throne unchallenged for 23 years except for the blip of 2005 election. Ethnic federalism has brought mistrust and a wide social, economic and political cleavage between Ethiopians.

9. Perhaps the most devastating consequence of Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism is its divisive effect. The EPRDF’s policy of ethnic federalism has the appearance of autonomy to Ethiopia’s ethnic groups, while at the same time eroding the political power and future viability of the EPRDF’s ethnic based political rivals. As an example, the Oromo language, once banned in public life, is now the required language in Oromia schools. While this has promoted the use of Oromo language, it has also limited Oromo student’s ability to obtain higher education in Ethiopia’s universities, where fluency in Amharic or English is required. Therefore by appearing to promoting Oromo language, culture… the EPRDF has found the most effective way of prohibiting Omoro’s future generation in youth. Its divisive effects have planted mistrust and hostility within the Oromo ethnic group. For example there are two main camps within the Oromo ethnic group itself. One camp, which is the majority of Oromo support OLF while others belong to the OPDO camp, a puppet and an extended arm of the EPRDF. So by embracing OPDO’s supporters and giving them access to services and by excluding, ostracizing and in often cases persecuting the supporters of OLF, the EPRDF has ensured that the Oromo people remain divided. This is the same policy used by the European colonizers particularly Great Britain during the colonial era. If the EPRDF has succeeded in dividing the Oromo people, a group that speaks one language one can only imagine how divided the 80 or more ethnic groups in Ethiopia.

Under such circumstances it would be merely impossible for the different ethnic groups to organize themselves and pose any challenge to the ruling party. The current political landscape is a marvellous example. Consciously or unconsciously political parties in the country are ethnic based and it seems that they are directly falling prey to the very nature of the system they are fighting. The irony is that almost all opposition parties in the country dislike ethnic federalism mainly for they believe it has the tendency to impose the psychology of ethnicity up on Ethiopians. Unfortunately, the internal structure of these same opposition parties is along an ethnic line. So they are fighting and at the same time perpetuating the same system simultaneously.

Finally, considering the above elaborations, federalism has in fact failed in Ethiopia, but most importantly and sadly it failed Ethiopians.

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