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Ethnic Federalism: A Misnomer for Ethnic Tyranny

Ethnic Federalism _ tyranny
Graphic source : Almariam blog

Alex Bekele
November 25, 2020

After  27 years of popular resistance to the EPDRF’s tyranny, Ethiopians swept out of power the TPLF, the hegemonic power under the cover of the EPDRF, and accepted Abiy Ahmed as their Prime Minister. His acceptance was based on his promise to do away with tyranny and usher in democratic governance in its place. To point to the direction he will govern, he freed political prisoners, pardoned all political asylees, and made peace with Eritrea. He, however, dithered from holding any one accountable for the 27 years of human right abuses, maladministration, and mind-boggling corruption. Eventually, he pretended the change the Ethiopian people fought for was against the individuals in the TPLF, not against their ideology and the constitution they imposed on us. Gradually, but certainly, he embraced TPLF’S so-called constitution and the so-called Ethnic Federation. Subsequently, TPLF 2.0 continued with Abiy at the helm, the OLF hegemony replacing that of the TPLF. As the so-called Ethnic Federalism was a gossamer veil for ethnic hegemony under TPLF, it continued to be just that under the so-called Prosperity Party. OLF decides; others follow. The chaos, the destabilization, and the excessive corruption resumed highly invigorated.  If all we get out of our twenty-nine and a half years of experience with our so-called Ethnic Federalism are permanent chaos, mass dislocation, grotesque human right abuses, and excessive corruption, it is incumbent upon us to re-examine what is wrong with it. In this article I will argue that the way and the purpose it was introduced and practiced, the lack of consensus on the primacy of the Nation state, the imbalance in power distribution between Federal and Kilil, the democratic deficit in the system, and the endless call for autonomous regions are the problems with the so-called Ethnic Federalism we languished in for almost three decades.

Who introduced this concept of Ethnic Federalism to Ethiopia, how, and for what purpose is determinative of its outcome for its subjects. It was introduced by the confessed Albanian type communist—the TPLF. Its goal was liberating Tigrai from the State of Ethiopia, and establishing an independent state of Tigray. TPLF, because of the power vacuum then created, became an opportunistic ruler of Ethiopia, with intent to develop Tigrai with the vast resources of the country. Hence, the Ethnic Federalism was the result of two complementary motives: one is TPLF’s incapability to unlearn its Stalinist dogma of the “the right of nations and nationalities to self determination up to and including secession.” Fresh out of the jungle, with no other experience in governance, or substantial reading in Western states craft and jurisprudence, TPLF believed this Stalinist dogma was the ostensible solution to all the ills our country has. As they say, “when the only tool you have is a hammer you start to think the solution to every problem is a nail.” Hence that jaded and obsolete Stalinist dogma became a constitutional mandate, making Ethiopia the only foolish country that constitutionalized secession. The second motive was creating a façade for TPLF’s hegemony. Under the cover of Ethnic Federalism, it created lame organizations in the name of few of the bigger ethnic groups, TPLF acting as the putative guardian of all of them. In actuality neither these organizations nor their respective leaders were courageous advocates of their groups, rather they were implementers in chief of what TPLF wanted to implement in their respective regions. In a word they were stooges.

While these were the motives, the way it was introduced was from above, by deceit and imposition; the people of Ethiopia never got the chance and the freedom to deliberate on it directly, through a popular referendum, or indirectly, through their freely and fairly elected representative. The imposition came from a group that least believed Ethiopia as a country and in the paramount need of a strong federal center that all ethnic regions pledge allegiance to. In fact, TPLF, with its plan to ascertain its hegemony, deliberately worked on all groups to have their primary loyalty to their ethnicities, and only then, to the nation, and even that as long as TPLF was at the helm. While weakening the notion of Ethiopia as a centripetal force of national unity that will hold the federation together, TPLF, using its stooges, imposed its hegemony and rule by brute force and deceit. What this essentially means is that, the 27 years experience we have with Ethnic Federalism under the TPLF is Ethnic tyranny of the TPLF elite group that terrorized, brutalized, vandalized, and plundered Ethiopia.

The other aspect of it is the fusion of the state and the governing party. As it is, and as I hinted above, there is already a big imbalance in the distribution of power between the Federal state and states in the Kilils. In order to attrition the influence of Ethiopia as a legitimate center of unity, TPLF has propagated for all the 27 years of its reign only our differences, and hence our loyalty to our ethnic identity. Add to this the strange fusion of party and state, TPLF had become the core of the Federal government, exercising absolute power. To maintain this hegemonic power, it built a huge military force in its region, which once out of power used it to threaten the Federal government and neighboring regional states, and finally used to declare war on the Federal government now. After accepting the TPLF ideology, constitution and Kilil, the Oromo prosperity Party took no time to train rounds and rounds of its own forces with the zeal to dominate the so-called Ethnic Federalism and impose its will on the other Kilils. Thus the lack of a strong and legitimate center that all Kilils look up to had created Kilils powerful enough to intimidate the Federal Government and other Kilils with impunity. The result is, in its twenty-nine and half years, Ethnic Federalism in Ethiopia has never become one. It has only become a misnomer to the ethnic tyranny of the dominant group.

The other problem with our so-called ethnic federalism is the perpetual instability it encourages. In a country like ours, where there are more than eighty linguistic groups, constitutionally guaranteeing the right to self determination up to and including secession is a national nightmare. Dr Abiy’s administration went along with the constitutional rights of the Sidama people; in a matter of weeks, when the people of Welayta demanded the same, they were gunned down to silence. We have more than seventy other minority groups either to gun down to silence, or give self rule randomly. All this, before we get to the demands of secession that can come up anytime soon.

Last but not least is the democratic deficit that the so-called Ethnic Federalism in Ethiopia suffers from. As it was imposed by a very undemocratic group, in a flagrantly undemocratic way, it is also practically devoid of any democratic content. The problem is a federal arrangement of governance can only function where democracy thrives. It is a higher form, a more civilized form of governance that presupposes the democratic participation of all people under it, with equal access to power and the nation’s resources. 

The reality is in none of the Kilils are individual rights respected. To begin with, there are many Ethiopians of mixed ethnicities who identify themselves only as Ethiopians. For example, some of them do not want to disappoint their Amhara mothers by taking the identity of their Oromo or Tigrian fathers, and vice versa. This whole group is de facto stateless or second class citizens in one of the Kilils. They live under a constant fear of physical harm and lack of the protection of the law. The others are minority groups who by the language they speak do not belong to the group in the Kilil but to neighboring ones, even though they have lived there for generations. In a democratic federalism—ethnic, or otherwise—all citizens of the federation are primarily citizensof the Federal State, and any infringement on their rights is a federal offence, seriously enforced by the federal government that is inherently stronger than all the Kilils. Besides, all the subunits of a democratic federalism are most likely to have theirown laws guaranteeing the protection of those basic rights. In our so-called Ethnic Federalism those who strongly demand their rights are the worst abusers of the rights of other minority groups within their Kilils. Unlike a democratic federalism, our Kilils  under our so-called ethnic federalism are run as fiefdoms of the respective Kilil’s leadership.

So what? So, it is time to re-examine our journey. From my argument above, I hope I have convinced quite a number of you that we never had Ethnic Federalism, but ethnic tyranny of this group or that. The high sounding phrase of ‘Ethnic Federalism’ is a political jargon intended to mislead. If any system you followed for almost thirty years didn’t take you to a better place, you should pause and think if there was anything wrong with the system or with you. It is with this spirit of self examination that I call upon the elites of Ethiopia to all inclusive national dialogue on the way forward. This dialogue should be initiated with interested groups from all regions and ethnic groups. If the regime in power can be a genuine facilitator of such a democratic process so much the better. The point is, we start anew, and bring everything to the table, including our current constitution, and governmental structure. Let us create a forum where sincerely inquisitive and dispassionate discussions are carried on. When we reach a general consensus, let us come up with two or three really democratic proposals, and make our people decide in a free and fair democratic process. Let us stop the bleeding of our people.

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  1. Well articulated that hits on the core of the issues.

    The EPRDF brand of hyphenated or qualified federalism is a unique imposition on Ethiopia and is nowhere to be found, for example in Max Frenkel’s rather definitive catalog of 460 federalisms. When conjoined with Woyane’s modus operandi of “democratic centralism,” ethnic organizations are mere satellites of the EPRDF(in turn of TPLF) which dominates each state’s operations and inhibits effective decentralization and democratization that are the hallmarks of true Federalism.

    It behooves us to refer to this poisonous concoction imposed on us Ethiopians explicitly as Zenawism, which has more to do with divide-and-rule tactics vs. a genuine attempt at decentralizing power to the regions. To speak of it in the same vein as Federalism is to give it a level of legitimacy that it does not deserve.

    Alex (the other Alex, not to be confused with the author of this article)

  2. Subject: “Ethnic Federalism: A Misnomer for Ethnic Tyranny” November 27, 2020

    Commentary, 28 Nov 2020
    I read, slowly and attentively, the Article and the commentary thereon with interest . Honestly, it is a learning process. But permit me to pose a question:

    Is there a single country in the history of our beloved Africa which had a form of government as discussed in the Article ?

    And based on our past and current history — as some form of a guide [forecast etc] — is there really a probable chance that WE AFRICANS can attain the form of government discussed in the Article ??? I don’t mean to say we are ‘doomed’. But I can not help asking , especially when, in the light of the fact , that AFRICAN INTELLECTUALS of the HIGHEST ORDER, with Top Most Accademic Degrees , from Renowned World Universities are mushrooming by the ‘DAY’ —— so to say.

    Permit me to add an inquistive line:
    Why is it that an African Leader, with Ph D Degree, turn out to be top most dictator and maneuvered to be a PERMANENT PRESIDENT for LIFE of his servant-country? THE END


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