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The Crisis in Amhara and the change Ethiopia needs most

Fano forces in Amhara region (Photo : SM)

By Addissu Admas

At no time in our recent history has Ethiopia come so close to disintegration. Consider these facts: the status of the end of the war in Tigray has not been clearly delineated; the power that essentially tried to destroy the existing order, i.e. the TPLF, is very much back on the saddle and determined to re-annex the territories it previously annexed by force. The Eritrean military, which came to settle the score with the TPLF and at the same time help the ENDF, is still in Northern Tigray. The deranged and murderous OLA Shene is roaming in Oromia conducting its own version of ethnic cleansing of Amhara and other peoples of Ethiopia within its territory. A confused and confusing Prime Minister and government, who seem to have their priorities backward and are beholden to Oromummaa ideology, are running the country. We have now, more than ever, a House and a Judiciary ever ready to rubberstamp any outlandish decisions by the executive. Above all, an unnecessary and most destabilizing provocation and war is being waged against Amhara, a region known as a stalwart, reliable and stable member of the Ethiopian federation. What we see in short is the undoing of an ancient country, with no apparent single force to prevent it from irreversible balkanization. 

The proximate causes for the current upheaval in Amhara are widely known: Fano’s refusal to disarm and integrate in the ENDF; the refusal of Fano and other Amhara militia groups to vacate the contested northern zones previously annexed by the TPLF; the virtual disempowerment of Amhara Prosperity Party cadre in charge of Amhara region; the insidious attempt to limit Amhara presence in Addis Ababa, etc…  The remote but foundational causes for Ethiopia’s current predicament are to be found in the very Constitution (or Proclamation no1/1995). I would say without hesitation that this document is achieving marvelously the goals for which it was intended, i.e. the disunity and disintegration of Ethiopia. 

What the Constitution of Ethiopia was intended to establish was a type of ethno-federalism that is currently in place in only three other countries in the world: Nepal, Pakistan and South Sudan. None of which, I must point out, are known for their stability and prosperity. On the contrary, they are plagued by unrest, mismanagement and poverty. There is no doubt that their ethno-federalist arrangement is a major contributor to their current state of affairs. The burden of proof is on anyone who thinks otherwise!

Many are the reasons why ethno-federalism is a losing proposition. We have already witnessed how the two notable countries that virtually adopted it have ended: the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. My goal here is not to analyze all the historical reasons that led to the dissolution of these two countries, but to pinpoint the intrinsic limitations and weaknesses of ethno-federalist states that inevitably leads to their undoing. 

First, ethnic federalism is primarily intended to resolve real or presumed grievances. In other words, to vindicate rights and privileges denied or presumed to have been denied by certain ethnicities, or to rectify real or presumed injustices suffered. Sometimes it can be proposed to preempt the possibility that these may take place somewhere along the line. The solution then appears to be self-determination that would eventuate self-governance that will provide liberties and powers presumably un-allowed previously, such as, for example, freedom to speak one’s native language, enjoying one’s culture without remonstrance, etc… 

Secondly, ethno-federalism is intended to establish equality among all the constituent ethnicities of the federated state. Even the ethnic group with the smallest population and/or the smallest territory will supposedly gain a place at the round table of the big decisions at every level of the ethno-federal state, i.e. both Houses and the Supreme Court. 

Thirdly, ethno-federalism is expected to make it possible for every constituent ethnicity, regardless of its size or resources, to become fully participant in the life of the country. Conversely, each constituent ethnicity is expected to meet its obligations as prescribed. However, what we have witnessed and lived in reality since the adoption of the current Constitution is miles away from these idealized and rationalized intentions. 

I have well-founded doubts that the adoption of an ethno-federalist constitution in Ethiopia was not entirely occasioned by pure, impartial and generous spirit.  There was a very good dose of resentment involved in it. As much as there was a declared intention to elevate and engage in the nation’s life of neglected and marginalized minorities, there was also an undeniable desire to delimit and even diminish the presumed power and dominance of majoritarian ethnicities, namely the Amhara and Oromo. In fact, under the guise of balancing their powers, the party at the helm, i.e. the TPLF, played the Amhara and Oromo consistently and unscrupulously against each other. The result is what we see today. 

To come to the intrinsic weakness and deleterious effects of ethno-federalism, I would say first that it is a system designed not only to eliminate inequality, but to promote it openly and unabashedly! What benefit is there for, say, for example,  the Komo people of Ethiopia, numbering no more than two thousand people, to be self-determined? They are bound to be tied to other nationalities for all their needs. So why separate them not only from their immediate neighbors, but from much larger groups? 

A closely tied reason is the uneven distribution of resources. If one follows strictly the logic of Ethiopia’s ethno-federalism, then every nation, nationality or people has not only the right to form its own Killil – a constitutional right that is presently been manipulated, nay trampled by the current administration – but has also the right to secede as a separate country! Though the large regions of Ethiopia, such as Oromia, Somalia, Amhara, Tigray and Benishangul-Gumuz, could in theory carve out individual separate countries of their own, the remaining overwhelming majority of ethnic enclaves have no such option. Thus, it is a cruel fiction inserted in the Constitution, more to delude, mislead and appease rather than to provide a real alternative. 

As I have stated many times, even if the five Killils mentioned above have the desire to secede and form their own separate nations, none of them possess currently sufficient resources, i.e. infrastructure, know-how, capital, etc… to become a viable state. I need no further evidence for this assertion than pointing to our neighbor to the North, Eritrea. A country that fought for more than thirty years to gain independence from Ethiopia to become poorer and unfree!

Rather than unity, ethno-federalism encourages parochialism of the lowliest kind where ethnicities become more intent at extracting the maximum benefit from the federal government rather than finding ways to contribute to it. What else is driving today the desire to become a separate Killil or Cluster Zones to form a new Killil with questionable appellations! Not historical, cultural or religious reasons for sure !!

Finally, yet importantly, ethnic-federalism violates, either by design or as a consequence, the implicit covenant between larger and smaller ethnic groups. The essence of which is that, however an ethnic group’s membership may be small, however its resources may be miniscule, however its contributions to the national economy, culture, society maybe insignificant, it would regardless be guaranteed a secure, peaceful and free space within the constellation of vastly larger ethnicities, so that it can live, speak its own language and enjoy its own culture without being persecuted. Today, as stated, for reasons of political expediency, smaller minorities are forced into clusters they did neither request nor consented to. Anyone can be certain that they would rather revert to pre-ethnic federalist arrangement than agree to the ruling party’s imposition. 

While praying that it is not too late for Ethiopia from becoming another Yugoslavia, the hope is that fellow Ethiopians will consider adopting another kind of federalism adopted by the Swiss Confederation. Like Ethiopia, Switzerland has been a nation of multiple ethnicities and religions for centuries. Unlike Ethiopia, it was never an empire, but an agglomeration of republics. However, what remains distinctive about Switzerland is its subdivision into Cantons. These, numbering 26, are neither ethnic nor linguistic enclaves like Killils, even though German-speaking people populate most of them. They are, as art.3 of the Swiss Constitution states, sovereign to the extent they are only delimited by federal laws. Each canton is free to adopt its working language, although the right of minorities to use their particular language, practice their religion and culture within each one of them is respected. At the federal level, Switzerland recognizes four languages: German, French, Italian and Romansch. 

The question is how can Ethiopia adopt a Swiss type federalism and become herself an Ethiopian Confederation, a “Confederatio Aethiopica”, to style it after Confederatio Helvetica?

The first order of the day should obviously be to dismantle the Killil system and replace it with a subdivision based on the current zones, or something resembling these, like the Awrajas of pre-TPLF era. Secondly, we should provide each zone/Awraja with the same level of sovereignty enjoyed by Killils (or the  cantons of Switzerland), including the right to maintain a militia and zonal law enforcement. Each one of them should be given the liberty to choose its working language while (possibly) preserving Amharic, as per art. 5.2 of the current Ethiopian constitution for the confederal government. Or else, adopt the declaration of 2020 and recognize additionally Oromiffa, Somali and Tigrinya as federal languages. Naturally, for cost effectiveness, I believe the former choice should be adopted. 

What could be the benefits of an Ethiopia divided into zones or Awrajas? 

First, it would automatically eliminate the centrifugal forces hurling us towards division, irredentism, parochialism, etc…as the recent wars in Tigray, Oromia and Amhara have clearly shown. By its very structure, the zonal system will promote centripetal forces, such as a national identity, stability, cooperation, etc… .If not by choice, at least by necessity. 

Secondly, whereas the Killil system ultimately encourages the formation of separate nations, the zonal (i.e. cantonal) system encourages only cooperation both at the zonal and federal levels, mindful that no zone is self-sufficient enough to go it alone. 

Thirdly, the tendency to homogenize Killils currently implemented with all the instruments of cruelty, will be countered with the freedom of Domicile as per art. 24 of the Swiss Constitution [Citizens have the right to establish their domicile anywhere within the country]. Rather than behaving like separate nations as Killils do, zones are bound to behave like parts in an inseparable whole. Therefore, they are bound by necessity to adopt freedom of domicile.

Fourthly, a zonal or cantonal system will encourage profound cooperation, and for this reason alone will foster greater economic growth. 

Finally, a cantonal or zonal system will ensure the kind of long-term stability that Ethiopians have only experienced only for brief spells during their entire history. 

Naturally, the codification and methods of implementation of a new confederal constitution is something that all Ethiopians must participate in. However, we must first see clearly that the current system will only lead us to an Ethiopian repeat of the former Yugoslavia. 

Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of  


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  1. The current leadership is none other than EPRDF disguised as something else. It was birthed from EPRDF, the only difference is that there has been a power struggle. The only thing the leadership wants is to stay in power at any cost, even if they have to kill innocent people or kill each other. In conclusion they are not fit to govern, that is the tragedy.


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