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Groups, NNPs, Political Tribes and Ethiopia: Foiled ‘Coup’, what can we learn from it? (Daniel Behailu)

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Source : Gambella Media Network

Daniel Behailu (PhD)
July 3, 2019

‘When a group feel threatened, they retreat into Tribalism. They close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, and more us-versus-them.’ Amy Chua


In Ethiopia today, every group or tribe, nations, nationalities & people (NNPs) and even urbanites feel threatened, and they are by definition tribilized. Political tribe is a threatened group on defense and attack mode.  Many political tribes are created in Ethiopia knowingly or otherwise. The question is how did we get here? What went wrong in a nation of melting-pots?  Who would believe that a nation who stood its group in unison in the face of colonial invasion, and a nation who stood its ground in the face of brutal dictators that it is fragmenting in a time where everywhere else in the world is moving towards more tolerant- democratic systems. Why did we tribalise?

 The answer could only be sought in the way we handled and are handling political issues. The mishandling of our political rhetoric have resulted in the threatening of groups of one and the other sort. The blame game, the bashing, the unscrupulous comments, cursing, blaming, calling names,  miss-reading of history etc. radicalized different groups and even urbanites; thereby, making them more tribal. Besides, with the recent opening up of the political space; the lid-cap of the venomous hate speeches have been removed and the venoms started gushing out with social media circulating it almost instantly to all. The blame game was focused on TPLF for the last few years during the massive protest against TPLF/EPRDF led government. Now, TPLF is almost out of the picture; the finger pointing is to everyone; none is spared. The nation is functioning like warmongers club; where everyone is rushing to all-out war. Can we spare ourselves? 

Democracy in Ethiopia: Impractical Game 

I am totally convinced and agree with authors like Fareed Zekarai (in his book the future of freedom) and others that democracy does not operate in the political and economic conditions of a poor country, i.e. a country like Ethiopia. Democracy has preconditions; a tolerant elite (which Ethiopia is totally devoid of) and at least a middle income economy. As a matter of culture, Ethiopia is used to a big man, authoritarian, and killing is celebrated (and heroes made) in almost all NNPs. We have a culture of political intolerance and dogmatic faiths. Compromise is not our virtue. Democracy functions in compromised solution to political issues. 

Democracy is a culture that has to be cultivated. It does not come around because we wished it. Democracies comes after freedom and liberties are granted and practiced for a while. Democracy is after strong institutions operating in complete professionalism and led by technocrats. Democracy is also expensive, a certain level of national wealth is required as a system of compromise needs to take care of different interests. Democracy is a process, and that it can be reached where state building is finished and nation building commences. State building is about establishing efficient bureaucracy and nation building is about connecting people over national images and symbols. Ethiopia is yet to build state let alone nation building.

Democracy in Ethiopia must begin with institutionalizing the rule of law, freedoms and liberties. These can be done in any form of government with basic social contract in place. Where a nation has greed on its basic norms and dogmatically follow those norms; these norms in turn can create a tolerant political society which is ready for democracy. Democracy is the ability to resist the temptation of destroying opponents. 

Social Contract: Road mapping the nation

Groups and factions in Ethiopia need to sit down and agree on the basic principles and liberties that the nation cannot compromise.  Just a few grundnorms (super norms) as the Germans would prefer to call it. They need to discuss issues of human dignity and its inviolability. They need to discuss and hammer out basic liberties that the nation need to honestly adhere to.  They need to have a stand on multiculturalism, citizenship and how this is to be handled in line with the interests of NNPs. They need to have firm stand on ensuring law and order and the nature of these laws ought to be amenable to law of nature i.e. just laws. They need to agree on the principles of justice and equity in all political, social and economic matters. Etc.

Ones the grundnorm are negotiated. These principles need to be the foundations of our social contract, and they can dictate the amendment of the existing constitution and other laws of the nation. The principles must also guide the establishment, and re- establishment of institutions. They need also to guide the staffing and competence of the staff of these institutions. The principles must also guide how positions and opportunities in the nation are to be held and distributed.

The principles must be able to guide also the inter- political party dialogues and competition. The principles must also guide the inter-cultural and group interaction and address issues and concerns inherent in there. The principles must also address state building and nation building. These principles need to be caricatured in one page or so, and must be stamped in every body mind and soul. The principals need to be expounded by a norm guiding court (perhaps in the name of constitutional court). The principles need to be the basis of our civic psychics. 

Besides, they must also serve as a basis of individual, family, group and national interactions and cooperation. The principles must work for; unity for diversity, not the other way around. We must celebrate our diversity but we need to understand that diversity is a beauty if bonded by national unity. Hence, unity for diversity, unity for national strength and prosperity, unity for mosaic culture etc. The nation needs to work on its consensus, on its images and symbols. People need to feel valued and cultivate a sense of belonging than alienation.

Divisive Politics and the price being paid

It all began with the commencement of modern political discourse i.e. ideology based politics in Ethiopia. Largely, it started in the 1960s. The discourse by then focused on hating and demonizing the imperial regime associating it to a certain section of the society. This created inadvertently a grouping of one sort or the other. All major political factions by then call themselves multinational parties. However, they were not completely multinational and there are wild accusation of grouping based on even ethnicity and largely birth places. Later on, the ethno-nationalist groups sorted themselves out well and engaged in a distractive civil war.

The political factions, then and now, were also dominated by ethno nationalists who are still bent into denying the multicultural unity of the nation aloof of politics. They viewed the nation as compartmentalized ethnic zones. This in turn posed a huge threat to the establishment of the nation, the very foundation the nation was supposed to have stood on. Backlashes began here.

Now, after primordial zoning started in 1991 in Ethiopia; all nations, nationalities and people, to use the language of the constitution, has its own territory and was preached to feel that others are a threat to its very existence. The Amhara people given its historic center piece in the politics of modern Ethiopia resisted the ethnic-zoning yet have recently accepted it and become a new ethno-nationalists via recently created youth movement. 

The zoning is basis for Ethiopia’s Federalism grounded on ethnicity, as a result of which, the NNPs of Ethiopia are its core foundations. This federal bargain has created an inextricable link between these NNPs and territory whereby an ethnic group or a combination of ethnic groups own territory to the exclusion of others. This has broadly resulted in the formation of two categories of Ethiopians. On the one hand are those that belong to ethnic groups who are assumed to be the owner of a certain territory with all the privileges including political supremacy. While on the other are, those that have long lived or recently migrated citizens but are supposedly found outside of their mother states as a result of which, not only are they without any form of entitlement in the territory they reside, but are additionally subjected to political and economic marginalization. Besides, even among one ethnic group where many clans are there; clans without political favor are marginalized and subjugated. 

Constitutionally speaking, the formation of the nine regions is largely accomplished by giving territorial autonomy to an ethnic group or a combination of select ethnic groups – language serving as the (sole) standard criterion. Following this design by the FDRE constitution, the regions, by using their newly available subnational constitutional autonomy have further apportioned their regional territory to those considered the legal and political owners of sub-regional territories – though in differing formats to one another.

The regional constitutions, which were enacted following their federal counterparts, both explicitly and implicitly pursued for this rigid conception of territory, which simply pursues autonomy for a particular group only, to the exclusion of others. While Benshangul Gumuz and Gambella clearly identified the respective five indigenous nationalities as the owners of the respective regions, the remaining regions vested sovereign power of the regional state and reserved the right to self-determination only to those who are considered native to the corresponding regions and sub-regional administrations.

Such a constitutional design was further strengthened by the political practice, which strictly propagated nativist sentiments, thereby leaving non-natives at the peril of the empowered native identities. This resulted in the unhinged forced expulsion of those considered non-native, mainly from their farming plots. This was disturbingly witnessed particularly in the Guraferda district of the SNNP region, Kamashi, Assosa, somali, western Guji and Metekel zones etc. and in various parts of Oromia region. Troubling was, these forced evictions were largely orchestrated and masterminded by regional authorities and elites. 

Since regional governments are forged out of the NNPs, NNPs as legal entities are empowered to administer land. They also have a final say on the allocation and distribution of land. Land administration rights being group rights; it is argued, membership is a must as a result of which excluding non-members or ethnically charged evictions of non-natives from their land becomes (absurdly) legally defensible. Not only this, but the practice has also shown that regional authorities have increasingly tied access to land with “nativity requirement”.

In order to clearly delineate the aforementioned points, let us begin by asking who NNPs in Ethiopia are, and what their roles are in the formation of the regional governments. Article 39 boldly confirms that “Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession.” The right to self-administration is a group rights, and hence the group is the owner of this right. The NNPs, according to the FDRE constitution Article 39, are:

A “Nation, Nationality or People” for the purpose of this Constitution , is a group of people who have or share large measure of a common culture or similar customs, mutual intelligibility of language, belief in a common or related identities, a common psychological make-up, and who inhabit an identifiable, predominantly contiguous territory. 

One can therefore note that NNPs are groups formed out of similar traits like, culture, language, and importantly territory. They have to have land on which they had settled historically. For them to be considered an ethnic group, with all the requirements in place, they should be groups living, more or less, in one territorially contiguous defined area. 

This argument might at first seem awkward when we consider regions like the SNNPR, which have been established for multiple ethnic groups. Yet, the extreme form of ethnic territorialism is found in the SNNP region in which the zones and special districts (sub-regions) are exclusively owned by selected ethnic groups. For instance, Wolayita zone is only administered by ethnic Wolayita, so is Gedeo, or kefa, or Sidama etc. 

Making the matter worse, in Federal Ethiopia, the regions (or sub-regions) are formed out-rightly by the name of ethnic groups suggesting that the owner of the region is the ethnic group after which the region (or sub-regions) are named. For instance, Oromia belongs to the Oromo alone, Amhara to the Amhara alone, Afar region to the Afars alone, etc.

 The foiled ‘Coup’ and its imports 

The killings of higher officials, including army chief and Amhara regional president, in Addis Ababa and Bahir Dar, respectively need to be viewed in line with the above discussion. The different ethno-lingustic groups’ have been well- prepared for the triblisation (threatened group). It was a matter of time before they strike back as the sense of being victimized are being fueled using one or the other instances by elites and elites driven youths. Elite-curse is the major problem in Ethiopia. Elites fan the already burning fire of hate and being victim. Especially, in Amhara region, ethnic based politics failed to take root until very recently yet again after repeated attacks, bashing  and cornering, the group triblised (felt threatened and started to attack back). Besides, given the culture of the people in the region and that they take things way too serious compared to the center- south Ethiopia; ethnic based politics in Amhara could simply be a recipe for disaster. The calling of names and demonizing of the youth movement will only harden the belief of victimhood. Thus, the following need to be taken very seriously.

First, it is important to soften ethnicization of politics and give concrete assurance to the Amhara people that they will not be attacked nor dehumanized by their mere identity. Second, there has to be concrete measures that should be taken in redressing the damage already done. Amhara (or more importantly Amharic speaking community everywhere in the nation-urbanites) should really be taken out of tribalism. They tend to believe in the citizen based politics and accordingly there has to be a political space carved out for them.

Third, the nation must move fast and now on the rouge elites who fan division and hate; and galvanize sense of victimization and ultimate distraction in four corners of the nation.  A special focus need to be given to foreign based elites using social media and are confusing people and preaching calamities. The federal government using its embassies and other routes need to make them accountable in the nation they reside in. In the majority of cases, what they do violates the law of the nation they live in. They just cannot do that. Local elites as well need to be made accountable for fanning division and hate. 

However, fact based and scientific criticism is quite different from fueling conflicts and group division. Mainstream media need to be professionalized and they need to check profiles and track-records of people they present on media and also check their own reports in line with its impact on societal co-existence. Not everyone could be an activist nor political analysts. Professionals of all sorts cannot be expected to give political analyses, there are people who are specially trained for that.

Finally, the nation needs to have a road map that everyone should be aware of and points direction to where we are heading to. I accept, the PM’s suggestion on, there ought to be a middle road, a compromising road between ethno nationalism and national- nationalism. There should be a political space for everyone that is a citizen of the nation. It is important that we have a negotiated road-map and that we can capitalize on it. It is imperative that the government moves fast and determined in ensuring law and order. Ensuring law and order is the bare minimum of a government constitute purpose. People need to feel secure and rest assured that other forces are no operating against the security system. It is also equally important to remove officials and cadres who have committed crimes of one sort or the other on the people. Those faces still in office bring bad memories and taint the reform.

Daniel Behailu

Daniel Behailu  (PhD) is Associate Profesor at Hawassa University, School of Law

Editor’s note: Views reflected in the article reflect views of the writer, not borkena’s view. To publish article on borkena, please send submissions to info@borkena.com

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