As its rivers flow,so does the future of Ethiopia! (Prof. Teshome Abebe)

Teshome Abebe
December 10, 2018

Teshome Abebe

A visionary leader must offer a story “that builds on the most credible of past syntheses, revisits them in the light of present concerns, leaves open a space for future events, and allows individual contributions…” –H. Gardner

Those who study artificial consciousness have determined that there are three essential conditions that must prevail to make machines simulate humans: experiencing emotions; awareness of the environment; and recognizing change. But how do we know when change has successfully occurred? What markers do we look for that signify change?


In 2016, Roy Suddaby and William Foster outlined four standards of change in an entity:

a) Change as fact: Here, the focus is on structures and operations, and the “brute facts” of reality. In this instance, the impetus for change is generally “exogenous” and takes the form of “environmental jolt”. It is said that change occurs when an entity passes from one state to another state adopting new structures and operations.

b) Change as power: In this second case, the focus is on power, i.e. the differences in power of the various coalitions within the entity, and its allocation. Change occurs when the balance of power between opposing forces is altered.

c) Change as sense making: This third aspect of change is its acknowledgement of the past and the critical role of selective memory in reconstructing the past to create a credible history. It is about ‘invention’ rather than ‘discovery’. The marker here is a significant change/shift in meaning or cognition within a social group.

d) Change as rhetoric: Finally, the fourth aspect of change employs the strategic use of the past to deliberately manipulate it for strategic purposes. Here, we recognize change when the entity’s narrative and associated practices have taken a new form. Change in this sense is, therefore, highly subjective.

Having attempted to provide the reader a framework for evaluating change, I now turn to the main aim of this piece: the presentation of an alternative paradigm for the administrative regions of Ethiopia. The reader is challenged and encouraged to review the entirety of the proposed changes in line with the standards of change presented above, and to make an informed judgment as to their appropriateness given the extant conditions in Ethiopia today.

New Proposed Administrative Regions:

In a study titled “Proposed New Ethiopian Government Administrative Boundary System for Unified Nation Building”, Engidashet Bunare and Shiferaw Lulu present a compelling piece of work. * Engidashet is a water engineer, and Shiferaw a hydro geologist. In the interest of full disclosure, I have had brief communications with both, and can state that they both have a desire to continue a national dialogue on their proposal cognizant that there may be gaps in their analysis of the issue. They are, however, convinced, as I am, that their proposal deserves a thorough and complete review, and eventual consideration for adoption by the powers to be.

Hydrological Physical Regions:

Engidashet and Shiferaw (2018) (ES hereafter), conclude that the modern history of Ethiopia (before the Ethno-language federation) indicates that the administrative regions combined: a) historical events, and b) employed physical and geographical boundaries. Furthermore, they state that Ethno-language has never been a criterion, and that each administrative region had included a number of ethno-language societies.

ES argue that while administrative regions can be organized based on some uniform criteria; on functional criteria (this is a scientific point of view); and on an administrative efficiency criteria (this can coincide with the other two), most useful for economic development purposes are functional areas and administrative regions which combine places characterized by strong degrees of interdependence and strong complementarities.

As a consequence, after a thorough review and ingenious and deft analysis, they propose hydrological physical regions as an alternative to the current ethno-language federation. They argue, persuasively, that the changing paradigm has the potential to enhance development and integration of the Ethiopian people. Having reviewed numerous historical records, adding new information, and even amassing new granueral level of details in some of that information, they propose eight river basin states as the new administrative regions of Ethiopia.

The recommended eight river basin states would comprise:

1) Abay Basin State
2) Awash, Ayisha and Denakil Basins State
3) Baro-Akobo Basin State
4) Genale-Dawa Basin State
5) Tekeze and Mereb Basins State
6) Wabi-Shebele and Ogaden Basins state
7) Omo-Ghibe Basin State, and
8) Rift Valley Lakes Basin State

ES have put together neatly, skillfully, expertly and incontestably a worthwhile study that has the potential to move Ethiopia away from arguably, the heap of failure that ethnic federalism has become for Ethiopian unity. The destructive, injurious and, at the very least, troublesome federalism may not have been completely ruinous or fatal. But it has been devastating to the nation’s unity.

I support this new idea because ES have put forward an attractive, agreeable and obliging proposal. Nothing about their work is trifling, frivolous, piddling or superficial. Progressive and national parties should place it in their platform or principles and policies—their party’s planks.

It is worth supporting because on one hand, no one can stop indefinitely the drive to “human unification”, and on the other hand, because the economic role of government is not just the allocation of economic power but also one of focusing on stability. This proposal would lend to the stability of the Ethiopian state, and help address the clamor for unity.

Furthermore, where as the current ethno-language federalism has focused on inequality, disparity, dissimilarity and unequal development as the goal of policy, the new proposal would, I believe, provide a reliable means of restoration of the nation; a return, a renewal, the rehabilitation and reconstruction, the refurbishing, if you will, of the state under a new federal arrangement.

It would help make the land the sanctuary of the Ethiopian people—a sort of sacred place, because it would be claimed collectively and not just by a select group. It would help get rid of the sorrow, dejection and melancholy and even oppression people have felt with the current ethno-language arrangement.

It would help eliminate the current apartheid system by making one’s residence adjustable, adoptable, not fixed, free and unattached. It would unfasten the person from a specific piece of land—the height of individual freedom!

Trade and enterprise would blossom as specialization matures. Commerce between regions would bring people together. It would help overcome one of the inherent difficulties created by ethno-linguistic policies: isolation. The ensuing competition between regions would be to excel in what they produce, consume and/or trade, rather than as rivals and antagonists as is the case today.

If Ethiopia were to achieve some of its dreams for its people, it must choose an Ethiopian path as opposed to the ethno-language path, a foreign concept borrowed by seemingly half-educated elite, unconstrained and unconcerned of the limits of geography or of their wisdom. Today, we observe that the results of that endeavor have come home to roost.

If the collective goal were good government that serves the people instead of the ethnic politicians, this new proposal would be a good start. The Ethiopian people have witnessed the legerdemain, the deceit, and the trickery of their ethnic politicians over many decades. They have observed the ethics, conduct, morality, decency, integrity, goodness or overall dreadfulness of their politicians. The people have seen that ethno-language federalism had meant the usurping of their independence, sovereignty, and autonomy and converting it to a license to steal and abuse. The proposed federal arrangement my not change that completely, but it would not serve as an excuse for dreadful and hideous acts by ethnic politicians.

I concede that this piece might inflame or even arouse emotions; it could incense, and irritate some, and disturb others because it violates the narrative they may have been married to. Others might rejoice, exult or even revel it because it highlights one of the first real alternatives to the current federal arrangement.

I concede further, that the framers of the current federalism would have difficulty with the ES proposal because they had committed themselves to a very specific idea—ethno-language federalism—and would find it even more difficult to back down. If that were to be the case, they have, by their own actions, made things worse for they would have lost the freedom of movement of ideas.

Finally, the ethno-linguistic federalism is by its nature susceptible to continuing problems of instability as ethnic politics pits one group of Ethiopians against another. There would be no end to it. This has the real danger of sniffing out whatever little market economy there is. From an economic development point of view then, resources, good governance and institutions are indeed very critical. But so is geography!

Teshome Abebe, Professor of Economics and Professor Laureate, is a former Provost and Vice President, and may be reached at:

For Further Reading and Map Exhibits:

*Proposed New Ethiopian Government Administrative Boundary System for Unified Nation Building”, Engidashet Bunare and Shiferaw Lulu, August 2018.

Proposed New Ethiopian Government Administrative Boundary System…

Roy Suddaby and William M. Foster, “History and Organizational Change”, Journal of Management, Oct. 20. 2016.

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