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Delayed Constitutional Reform Only Exacerbates Ethiopia’s Predicaments!

Ethiopia Constitutional Reform _
Photo credit : AA

Metta-Alem Sinishaw
Washington, D.C.

Designed based on the Marxian contrary ideology, Ethiopia’s ethnolinguistic constitution was conceived to punish some and reward others. As primordial identity became the modus operandi, ethnic rivalry intensified, conflicts proliferated, peace and security compromised, social capital eroded, and national survival threatened. As an exploitation tool of the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), the constitution remained a double-edged sword that deterred both genuine federalism and democratization. If left unchecked, the existential threat will only guarantee protracted fragmentation.

The new administration has been confronted with internal and external challenges and postponed the promised reform. International pressure and regional disagreement over the renaissance dam project together with the war in Tigray, humanitarian crisis, rising price of living, and youth unemployment remain formidable challenges. Although mobilizing the public and inclusion of opposition figures in the new administration strengthens the Prosperity Party (PP), any serious reform attempt must start with the ethnocentric institutional structures that PP inherited. Whether and when PP would engage in constitutional reform remains an outstanding litmus test. This paper attempts to review the motivation behind the current constitutional design, its impact on development, democratization, social cohesion, minority rights, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and offer modest input for national conversation.

How did we get here?

Throughout the era of trade during the Axumite kingdom or monasticism during the Zagwe dynasty, Ethiopia has always been a multiethnic society.  With the restoration of the Solomonic dynasty in the 12th century, the country adopted a quasi-federal edifice where regions ruled by provincial kings are subordinated to the central authority, the King of Kings (Emperor). Regional kingship served as a true bargaining chip between the emperor and the public in the respective regions.

The emergence of centralizing or unitary government in the 1920s is associated with modernization that was disrupted by Italy’s failed ambition. Italy implanted the divisive ethnic fissure and disunited Ethiopia into five tribal cleavages: Eritrea/Tigray, Amhara, Harar, Oromo /Sidama, and Somalia. By reconfiguring the Ethiopian state using ethnolinguistic criterion, colonial Italy labored to destroy the nascent supra-ethnic national identity. Oblivious of its history, the 1960 radical student movement transformed ethnic groups into “nations” overnight, without deliberation and comprehensive review of Ethiopia’s predicaments.

Despite Walelign’s unfounded claim of “national oppression” by the Amhara and its junior partner, Tigray, TPLF exonerated itself from the accusation and blamed the Amhara for all previous maladministration to promote its separatist agenda. It reduced the antiquity Ethiopian state into nonexistent and found no sacred legacy to carry forward from historic Ethiopia. It portrayed itself as a savior of “Nations” that it unwarrantedly claimed were subjected to “Amhara domination.” Finally, it institutionalized the ethnolinguistic segregation with which Italy sought to disintegrate the Ethiopian state. Following are some reasons for which Ethiopia ought to explore alternate political dispensation.

1.   Tribalism undermines both Democratization and Federalism

Partitioning Ethiopia along ethnolinguistic divide is inherently contradictory to the notion of equality. It undermines State secularity, citizens equality, and individual autonomy. Democratic ideals are founded on the premise of some level of homogeneity within which citizens foster solidarity. Regional states exclusively controlled by dominant ethnic groups not only severely undermines democracy but also marginalizes “ethnic others.”

The current illiberal arrangement asserts that individuals are primarily identified as members of an ethnic group, an approach which led to the exclusion of many from political, social, and economic life. Leaders are  elected based on descent, sentiment, and affinity without objective and normative criteria. Elected officials are accountable only for ethnically affiliated constituents but not to “ethnic others” under the same political jurisdiction.

By excluding minorities from political discourse, dominant groups violate the primary rule of democracy (the right of citizens to participate in matters that affect them) and subvert the secondary rule of democracy (the will of the majority will prevail). Democratization can only be enhanced when citizens trust the system, participate, and comply with its request. Regional governments should allow resident minorities to be elected and ensure that no single segment wins all the time while others lose.  

Regions dominated by a single ethnic group neither encourage minorities for political participation nor recognize their civic rights but interpret their forced abstinence as agreement without deliberation. Dominant groups utilized regional education policy to achieve linguistic hegemony on a culturally diverse population. Cultural hegemony deters horizontal communication, creates public confusion, and undermines the cohesiveness of political union. Cultural inequality unfavorably affects not only political equality but also undermines democratization and reduces legitimacy of the state.

Democratization could promote coexistence if culture is interpreted in the broad sense of how to organize and modernize Ethiopian society. Shared commitment to equality, peace, prosperity, and social justice could likely create convergence. However, defining culture narrowly with excessive focus on common descent and homogeneity has already triggered endless squabble.

Although federalism is a sound principle, the ethnolinguistic arrangement meets neither the self nor the shared pillar rules of federalism. Marginalization of minorities undermines inclusion and representation at the local level.  Attaching sovereignty to ethnic groups, in lieu of individual citizens, deprives resident minorities of the right to have elected representatives. Constitutional interpretation is entrusted to the House of Federation where representation is based on ethnic grouping without recourse to judicial review.  Minorities residing in “ethnic other” regions will not have local and federal representation and are governed by laws and policies in which they did not participate.

2.   Ethiopia became Divisible Nation with no Protection for Minorities

Article 39 grants the right of ethnic groups for self-determination up to and including secession remains one of the most controversial constitutional provisions that makes Ethiopia unique in the world. Demands for self-determination reached their peak when the Oromo liberation movement (OLF) and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) turned their demands for independence in the 1990s into armed campaigns. After dominating the regional assembly, ONLF opted for secession in 1994 by exercising its right to self-determination. However, this conflicted with TPLF’s strategy of using the constitution as a controlling instrument and prompted federal intervention to abort the secession attempt.

The UN Resolutions (A/49/752) grants self-determination rights to groups of people that have been colonized and other people that were subjected to “foreign domination.” Elites exploit such concepts to oppress and prosecute minorities of “ethnic other” while clamoring for self-determination.  Despite professing self-determination, ethno nationalists fail to recognize the same rights for resident minorities whose languages and cultures are marginalized by dominant ethnic groups. This is in direct contradiction to the founding principle of nationalism, which seeks to incorporate marginalized populations into the national fold.

Like the “national question,” the idea of self-determination is more of an imported ideology than a pragmatic ideal. TPLF confused the concept of “self” as Tigray itself, relatively more homogenous than other regions, is composed of Tigrawai, Agaw, Saho (Erob), and Kunama each of which could aspire nationhood at least theoretically. However, political elites manipulate the meaning of “self” and the scope of the term “determination” to suit their narrow interests as a tool of political repression. If implemented as written, the ethnolinguistic constitution paves ways for groups aspiring independence in lieu of discouraging secession. It offers institutional, financial, legal, and political support with which a sub-nationalist political elite with secessional sentiment could establish an independent nation,

The current dispensation doesn’t offer equal rights to citizens in every region. For example, Benishangul region is exclusively owned by “indigenous groups” and thus excludes residents of “ethnic others” not only from a national level but also at local municipalities where minorities do not threaten homogeneity. Ethnic segregation during the era of globalization when others converge continues to be an enigma.

Despite incorporating universal human rights and group rights, the constitution awards regions to dominant groups in which minorities are excluded and their political, economic, and civic rights are denied. Once the region became sovereign, Ethiopians of different backgrounds that have lived together for generations in other regions were targeted by host regional governments. Dominant groups that sought to establish homogeneity started persecuting and evicting Ethiopian citizens of other ethnicities and caused excruciating human suffering that called for federal military interventions.

3.   Ethnic Federation Compromises National Security and Territorial Integrity

Horn Countries are intimately interrelated by shared history, language, religion, and culture. The region generally has deeply ingrained rivalries and boundary claims that have led to deep entanglements. Ethiopia’s boundaries are not yet demarcated, and the country lacks access to the sea which increases vulnerability. Sovereignty and territorial integrity have always been Ethiopia’s major national security concern. Attaching sovereignty to dominant ethnolinguistic groups poses serious national security as groups that have similar linguistic, cultural, and religious ties could collaborate with neighbors.

During the war between Ethiopia and the Islamic groups of Somalia (ICU) in 2006, international media had predicted that ethnic Somalis of Ethiopians would collaborate with neighboring Somali Islamists. Anecdotal evidence revealed that Nuer periodically collaborated with similar groups in South Sudan against Anuaks. If a sovereign region perceives repression, proximity to ethnolinguistic ties to neighboring countries complicates national capability to respond to external threats. Despite divergent political agendas, ethnolinguistic ties, in addition to common enemy and regional proximity, contributed to the Eritrea and Tigrayan liberation fronts to join their respective forces against the Derg regime.  It was the same attachment of sovereignty to ethnic groups, in lieu of citizens, at this historical junction, that severely undermines national security and territorial integrity.

4. Ethnonationalism is Detrimental to Development

Increasing population, youth unemployment, acute food shortage, environmental degradation and perennial insecurity are major obstacles to satisfy the basic needs of a growing population. Despite initiatives for job creation and targeted investments, insidious economic pressure could easily drive into political instability and exacerbate the impending humanitarian crisis, especially in regions where ethnic agitation is high.

In the absence of independent institutions and civic engagement, politicians could easily  subvert public interests and aggravate the political predicament by exploiting discontented youth.  As heir to TPLF, Prosperity Party (PP) lacks ideological coherence and organizational discipline at the highest echelon and corruption and colossal bureaucratic incompetence remain its hallmarks. Unless reformed, competition for state resources compromises PP’s capability to implement coherent policies and comprehensive development plans.  Economic growth requires priority determination, resource mobilization, central planning, and coordination, especially on issues that affect some constituents more adversely than others. 

5. Arbitrary Demarcation Destroys Social Harmony

Illegitimate and arbitrary demarcation of ethnic boundary brought endless territorial and identity claims and counterclaims and transformed interregional relations into political quagmire. As ethnic identity became a political tool, cultural ties faded and led to ethnic rifts of immense proportions. The fact that some groups are  dominant in one region and minorities in others, which makes dominant groups both oppressor and oppressed and complicate governance at national level. Decades of exclusion eroded social thrust, increased resentment, and encouraged violent conflicts.

Ethnicization of territories led to confrontation for dominance among the Amhara, Oromo and Tigray groups and frustrated smaller size ethnic groups. Elites from Amhara and other centrists’ groups assert that ethnocentric nationalism impedes from development, weakens social cohesion, and undermines national security. On the other hand, elites from Tigray and some Oromo groups show proclivity for ethnonationalism.  However, a larger segment of the Oromo elite aligned with more moderate positions presumably due to the historically centrist roles Oromos played in national politics. The rivalry among the three dominant groups led to growing distrust, suspicion, and unhealthy competition. Contention between central and peripheral forces led to the buildup of ethnic based special forces and aggravated intercommunal violence. ethnic rivalry disunited Ethiopian society much more than it could have united and the ongoing civil war and humanitarian crisis is a culmination of the politicization of ethnicity.

.  The Constitution was a Victor’s Prescription, not a truly a Political Resolution

TPLF’s ill-feeling against Amhara, real or perceived, was the bedrock for the constitutional design. Following its military victory, TPLF institutionalized its manifesto without genuine deliberation by coercing some federating units and excluding others. The new federation neither “brought new units” nor “hold preexisting territories.” While Eritrea seceded, the remaining provinces were brought under TPLF hegemony. The inclusion of TPLF handpicked groups and intentional exclusion of others, especially pro-union groups, raised serious doubts about the legitimacy of the arrangement.

At the beginning of its reign, TPLF claimed to address the “national question” based on imported experience from Soviet ethno-territorial federalism which reduced the Ethiopian state into a mere amalgam of ethnolinguistic groups. The arrangement deliberately ignored the impacts of demographic movement, the complexity of cultural and linguistic boundaries, social bondage, and the lingua franca that originates from long-standing interrelations.

As political loyalty shifted from the state to cultural groups, national integration and elite bargaining became even more difficult which enabled TPLF to dominate the Ethiopian state singlehandedly by pitting especially the Amhara and the Oromo, the two largest ethnic groups. It calculatedly designed symmetrical federation that empowered smaller regions at par with larger regions with tens of millions of populations. It obstinately misused “linguistic homogeneity” for “cultural homogeneity” and accused the Ethiopian state of cultural exploitation that resulted in today’s “us vs them” contradictory narratives. However, claimants have not yet offered substantive evidence of state sponsored policies.

The developments it registered were compromised when TPLF engaged in pillage from within and siphoned off billions of aid in anticipation of the establishment of the “Republic of the Greater Tigray.”  Excessive reliance on ethnicity led to massive corruption and repression to the detriment of political pluralism that ultimately prompted TPLF’s demise.

 The Way forward:

Neither centralization nor ethnic fragmentation per se prospers Ethiopia . A genuine federation requires a combination of civic nationalism based on commitment to equality and social justice and some type of cultural nationalism where local communities will cherish their respective traditions. Democratization and respect for both individuals and groups is key to maintaining social fabric. The ideal solution should focus on modernizing the state through the broader definition of culture and constitutional guarantee of local autonomy in which all resident citizens would participate in public life.

The obstacles to genuine federalism stem from the misapplication of the fundamental principles of self and shared rules and the propensity of ethnocentric elites to dominate state power. The attitude of both leadership and citizens critically determines the degree of tolerance to mitigate the ethnolinguistic divide and promote coexistence without imposing ethnic hegemonies. However, weak institutions, a fledgling civic society, and social media polarization undermine democratization and pose serious threats to national survival.

Learning from the Nigeria’s Biafra crisis, Ethiopia could assemble smaller groups and/or separate  larger cultural communities  into different constituent units. While integrating diverse groups into an administrative zone, they should maintain some form of autonomy to balance self and shared rules. Dividing larger groups into multiple constituents would require thorough and  careful deliberation as ethnocentric forces may consider it as mere divide and rule strategy

Provincialism could mitigate the boundary problem, promote intra-ethnic competition, enhance development, and minimize inter-ethnic conflict. However, this requires intimate understanding, candid deliberation, and alternative imagination beyond primordial affinity.

Multicultural democracy could promote tolerance among contending ethnic groups and facilitate compromise among elites through negotiations. It mitigates the tension stemming from linguistic, social, and cultural variations and promotes diversity, inclusion, and citizenship. It enables minorities to participate in political discourse without ethnic discrimination and deciding on issues that affect them.

A presidential system with universal suffrage and bicameral legislative branch could help transcend the primordial divide: while members of the House of Representatives can be elected by residents from all political jurisdictions and tasked mainly on political, economic, security and foreign affairs, the senate (House of Federation) could deal with social policies by focusing on linguistic and/or cultural communities or zones. The supreme court would deal with inter-regional state conflicts and other issues of citizens that require judicial review.  

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  1. Dr. Abiy Ahemd’s brain is a small organ that is not equipped with critical intellegence and knowledge. It is impossible for One Man to handle all Ethiopia’s affair. Right now the PM position gives hike huge power that he simply is not ready and not capable of handling. He is promising with foreign powers, TPLF supporters and making the critically wrong decisions without anyone’s knowledge and without any attempt to consult the people that his decision affects and his cabinet.

    People must demand to change the constitution and change the power of PM’s power. One person should not be allowed to carry 110 millions faith.


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