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HomeOpinionGrowing Undercurrent Against Tribal Extremism Dawns Hope for Change 

Growing Undercurrent Against Tribal Extremism Dawns Hope for Change 

Ethiopia _ undercurrent
Yonas Biru (file)

Yonas Biru, PhD

Federalist forces are slowly and begrudgingly coming to the realization that Ethiopia’s tribal constitution is the root cause of the nation’s political ills. Unfortunately, this does not readily translate itself into a mood for a celebratory dance between fellow federalists and unionists. The dance must wait until the federalist forces find a way to break the news to a generation of hostile young militants and traffickers of violence and terror that they have hatched and unleashed. Albeit in the early stage and fraught with challenges and pitfalls, the new development emits a glimmer of hope for change,. 

In September 2023, I published an article under the title “The Amhara-Oromo-Tigray Conflict Nexus in Ethiopia: Challenges, Opportunities and a Way Forward.” The 21-page document was prepared at the request of the US Department of State and used by the American Ethiopian Public Affairs Committee (AEPAC) as a briefing material for its international campaign.

The document focused on the voices of discontent that were emerging from a growing undercurrent movement in the back alleys of the Amhara-Oromo-Tigray political nexus.  The purpose of the article was threefold. First, connect the scattered dots in the political undercurrent and forge a coherent story. Second, show that if supported and managed properly, the undercurrent can alter the political environment from polarizing and diverging tribal conflicts to a consensus building and converging national interests. Third, share some thoughts and chart a preliminary roadmap to initiate discussion.

In September 2023, the undercurrent was not much more than a murmur of disillusionment and dissent across the country, most importantly in the Oromo and Tigray tribal homelands. Today, it is showing signs of coalescing and solidifying into a pulse for an organized protest. Adding oomph to the undercurrent, the Fano movement in the Amhara tribal orbit is bearing the seeds of hope for a national uprising. 

The purpose of this article is to provide background and foreground to foster broad discussion across all tribal homelands with particular emphasis on the Oromo and Amhara nexus. 

Background

Over the last 40 years, the political debate in Ethiopia has been centered on “Federalist vs. Unitarist” constitutional governance. Federalist forces lack moral principles and intellectual rational to defend the virtues of the tribal Constitution. No constitutional expert worthy of his/her salt will defend the botched constitution because it is inherently fallacious and poorly constructed. Therefore, federalist forces’ support for it is manifested through a false narrative that unitary forces are interested in imposing one language, one religion and one culture over 84 tribal homelands. 

Unitarists see themselves as unifying democratic forces who aspire to bring all tribal groups in Ethiopia under a unified citizen-centered national umbrella. Their problem resides in their tendency to ignore or deny Ethiopia’s history of systemic tribe-based socio-economic and cultural discriminations. As such, they undermine the interests and concerns of federalist forces. 

In the past, there was no interest in intellectual dialogue between federalist and unitarist forces because neither was prepared to compromise, insisting its position is the light, the truth and the way for peace, security, and prosperity. As time passed, they became more entrenched in their positions and increasingly resorted to using stones, matchets and guns as their conflict resolution lingua franca. 

Ironically, the cost of tribalism is felt the most in the two tribal homelands who initiated, polarized, and institutionalized tribal politics: Tigray and Oromo. Tigray has become all but a waste land.  On March 11, 2024, the French flagship newspaper, Le Monde, headlined the “state of famine” in Tigray, heralding: “Ethiopia’s hidden famine needs national and global attention.” It highlighted “90% of Tigray’s 6 million inhabitants [suffer from] malnutrition.”

The TPLF Established and imposed the current Constitution believing it could rule for 100 years. By systematically weakening but not totally disenfranchising the Amhara, the TPLF believed it would use the Oromo v. Amhara rivalry in perpetuity. It never imagined an Oromo-Amhara coalition could overthrow it. 

If the current constitution remains as the supreme law of the land, Tigray like the other small tribal homelands will be marginalized in the national political affairs. TPLF ለትንንሽ ቤርቤረሰቦች (አጋር ብሄሮች) የሰፋውን ጥብቆ ለመልበስ በመገደዱ ከconstitutioኑ ጋር መፋታቱ የግድ ይላል. Post 2018, the souring of the Tigryan intellectuals’ attitude against the tenets of the Tribal Constitution has structural political basis. 

The reality in the Oromo tribal land may have a different dimension but the impending existential threat is no less alarming. The region’s security has all but collapsed. The only growing enterprise is kidnapping for ransom. An organized Oromo mafia has increasingly reached the status of a shadow government. The term “Oromo economic mafia” was coined by Taye Dendea, former State Minister of Peace and Spokesperson of the Oromo tribal land’s Justice Bureau.

The Oromo mafia has become a political power to recon with. The Prime Minister was forced to quietly disband his Anti-Corruption Commission because of it. Dogged by the menace of the mafia, the Prime Minister complained about an armed group sabotaging his Anti-Corruption Commission. Nonetheless, he announced on national TV that his government will not go after them. He sheepishly asked them to put their loot to a good use – opening a bakery, for example. 

Furthermore, disturbing conflicts are brewing and fermenting along geographic areas (Wellega v. Shew/Jimma Oromos) and political ideologies (Oromo-PP v. OLF/OLA). Making the matter worse, the ideological conflicts are aligned with regional conflicts. Oromo-PP is primarily rooted in Shewa/Jima and OLF/OLA is based in Wellega. Some fear there are also signs of growing religion-based conflicts.

For 50 years, extremist Oromo intellectuals polarized the Oromo youth, hardening it with rage and hate against the Amhara, and turning it into an institution of violence and terror. The indoctrination of rage and hate and the priming of the youth for vengeance is not something that one can turn on and off like a faucet. It creates a moral void in human psychology and makes violence and cruelty part of the youth’s social psychology and culture. 

Bate Urgessa’s recent murder showed that the rage, hate, and anger that were inculcated in Oromo militants to crash the Amhara have come home to roost like a boomerang. Bate was a member of the high echelon of the OLF. The cruelty of murder was unprecedented as far as political assassination goes.

The revenge for his murder against General Yilma Merdasa’s (Commander of the Ethiopian Air Force) family that was perpetuated by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) was just as cruel. The General has vowed to respond with a swift and severe retribution. The battle bell for a civil war between Oromo extremist forces has been rung and the prospect is existential to the Oromo community. 

Jawar, I believe, was among the first to notice the dangers of runaway tribal nationalism. “I will be no longer a part of it,” he declared post his release from prison. In geek talk, the question of interest is whether Jawar’s new position is demand-driven or supply-created. In layman’s talk was he exiled by the people of Oromo (demand-driven) or was his impetus a delayed enlightenment that tribalism is primitive and degenerative (supply-created).

My observation is that it is demand-driven based on the following screenshots. Four years ago, OMN video clips used to get on average 400,000 views in the first three or four days. Today, they average 4000 to 5000. Figures above 20,000 are rear occurences.

A screenshot of a video
Description automatically generated

Jawar is not alone running away from tribal nationalism. In a recent interview, Bethlehem Tafesse of the Betty Show revealed that in private meetings Oromo intellectuals admit that the current system is not sustainable, but they will not admit it in public fearing retribution and ostracization.

Understanding the Root Causes of the Crisis is a Critical First Step for Change

Some attribute the worsening political crisis to the Constitutional architecture and call for its abolition. In the past, this group was primarily (if not exclusively) from the ranks of unitarist forces. Today, some members of the federalist forces are begrudgingly joining them, in small but growing numbers.  

Others attribute the national crisis to the implementation of the Constitution rather than to its tribe-based doctrine, tenets, and principles. They believe if there are problems with the Constitution, they can be addressed with reforms without breaking down its tribal scaffolding architecture. 

Even those who express strong opposition to the current political order (e.g., Somali, and Afar tribal homelands) are unlikely to support dismantling the constitutional architecture that has given them autonomy to run their own affairs. There are also economic and business interest groups that have flourished over the last 30 years who have large enough a stake in the current system to protect.

Still others believe the current system is just fine as is. These are mostly radical Oromo extremists.

As a popular adage says, behind every dark cloud exists a silver lining. The silver lining for Ethiopia is that there is a growing realization that the current political environment is pregnant with an existential threat to all, and a negotiated settlement is a matter of pressing urgency. Self-preservation demands it.

It is the Constitution, Stupid

Ethiopia’s political crisis is rooted in five fundamental flaws in the Constitution: (1) small tribes do not have constitutional rights or protection; (2) the concept of sovereignty is corrupted; (3) seeds of disunity are planted in it; (4) embodies the Holy Trinity syndrome; and (5) inherently hinders economic development. 

Small Tribes Do Not Have Constitutional Rights

In principle, the Constitution purports to honor the rights of all tribes in Ethiopia. In practice, not all tribes are granted equal constitutional rights and protections. The Constitution neither recognizes nor honors the fundamental rights of small tribal homelands. As a matter of fact, their constitutional rights are deliberately circumscribed. 

The Constitution differentiates three tribal classes with different levels of constitutional rights and protections. The first class consists of Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Oromo, Somali, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, Sidama, and Harari Peoples. At least on paper, the Constitution recognizes and grants them constitutional rights to govern themselves. 

The second class is the Southern Peoples Region. Southern Peoples is the only region in the Constitution that is not of a tribal construct. Its establishment was driven by the need to form an economically viable region. The larger tribes within the region such as Sidama, Wolaita, Hadiya and Gurage each has more population than Afar, Benishangul, Gambella and Harari People. Yet, they were not given Autonomy to administer themselves. 

Their rights to form their own autonomous tribal land was stripped to form a region, consisting of a hotchpotch of several dozens of tribes with small population size. Since smaller tribes are not economically viable to exist on their own, larger tribes were forced to serve as their constitutionally sanctioned adoptive partners. After years of protest, Sidama relinquished its responsibility and made itself a free tribal land and upgraded itself to be a member of the first-class tribal colony. 

The third class consists of tribes that the Constitution does not even recognize by name. The only place they are included in the Constitution (without being mentioned) is in Articles 61 and 62, as members of the House of Federation (HoF). Though the HoF is a part of the Constitution’s legislative organ (often compared to the US Senate), it has no legislative power. 

Among duties mandated to the HoF includes “perform[ing] functions assigned to it” by the House of Peoples’ Representatives. As an additional layer of control, the HOF’s budget is subject to the approval of the House of Peoples’ Representatives. Its only constitutional mandate is to play a Pseudo–Supreme Court role. When constitutional conflicts arise (either between the Federal government and a tribal homeland or between tribal homelands) the HoF serves as an arbitral. However, it ruling has the weight of a recommendation not of a binding authority. It is up to the House of Representatives to accept or reject HoF’s recommendations.

In sum, the HOF is a pseudo constitutional organ created as an afterthought to give small tribes (አጋር ብሄሮች) an orphan-like status, rather than empowering them with a constitutional authority or ignoring them altogether. The Council is not empowered to pass or block laws. The framers of the tribe-based federalist Constitution made sure that small tribes were not empowered with such an authority, fearing they would align themselves with unitarist forces. 

A Misguided Concept of Sovereignty

The concept of sovereignty in which the constitutional legitimacy of the governors and the inalienable rights of the governed are imbedded is fundamentally flawed. 

In federalist nations such as the US, India, Nigeria, Switzerland, and Mexico, sovereignty resides in the people from whom their respective governments derive their powers and authority. For example, the Preamble of the Federal Republic of Nigeria states: 

“Having firmly and solemnly resolved to live in unity and harmony as one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign nation … and to provide for a Constitution for the purpose of promoting the good government and welfare of all persons in our country, on the principles of freedom, equality and justice, and for the purpose of consolidating the unity of our people do hereby make, enact and give to ourselves the following Constitution.”

With sovereignty residing in the people and all government authority drawn from them, national citizenship rights supersede any law in the constitutions of the various states. 

The Ethiopian Constitution violates this bedrock principle of a constitutional order. Article 8, Section 1 promulgates “sovereignty resides in the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia.” Section 2 adds “This Constitution is an expression of their sovereignty.” The concept of Ethiopian citizenship right does not exist. An Oromo or Benishangul tribal rights trample over national citizenship rights every day and twice on Sundays.

For example, Article 2 of the Benishangul-Gumuz Constitution promulgates the region’s rightful owners are ethnic Berta, Gumuz, Shenasha, Mao and Komo. Non-native residents accounting for 40% of the population are treated as unwelcomed settlers. They are regarded as invaders and subjected to forced displacement and atrocious mass murders. The following international headlines tell the tale. “Benishangul-Gumuz Massacre: Attackers Kill More Than 100” and “80+ People killed in Massacre in Benishangul-Gumuz.” 

Benishangul’s experience is not unique. According to the Human Rights Watch in Oromia ethnic region, ethnic Guji targeted hundreds of thousands of ethnic Gedeo people as invaders and forced them to flee their homes. Amnesty International has documented: “At least 1.5 million people have been internally displaced due to ethnic conflicts.” Most of them are Amharas. Over 100,000 Ethiopians of Tigrayan origin were forced to flee their homes, mostly from Oromo and Amhara regions. The recent forced displacement of over 500,000 people out of Sheger City in the Oromo tribal land is another example. 

Representatives of Harar and Amaro vividly describe the problem as follows. 

Minority tribes live in terror between tribal human hunters and temporary shelters.

The Seeds of Disunity are Imbedded in the Womb of the Constitution

In the US, the Union is “indivisible.” In Nigeria, the federal unity is “indissoluble.” In India, the nation is “indestructible and sovereign.” The Indian federal government can break a given state into two or three or combine two or three states into one. 

In Ethiopia, tribal homelands are sovereign and constitutionally empowered to break the Ethiopian nation. Imagine the Oromo tribal land seceding and forming a new nation called Oromia. Two things will happen. First, five tribal homelands (Gambella, Sidama, South-West Ethiopia, South Ethiopia, and Central Ethiopia) will be completely cut off geographically from the rest of Ethiopia. Ethiopians in these tribal lands will require visa from Oromia, South Sudan, or Kenya to travel to the rest of Ethiopia. Second, there is a possibility that Ethiopia will be without a capital city (if the new nation of Oromia takes Addis Ababa). It is also possible Ethiopia’s capital city can be in a neighboring Oromia (if Addis Ababa stays within Ethiopia). 

Unenlighted federalist advocates suggest “just because Oromo has a constitutional right to secede does not mean it will secede.” One cannot legalize beating a wife in the constitution and argue that “just because beating a wife is legalized does not mean drunk husbands will beat the crap out of their wives.”  Such an argument reflects supreme idiocy. 

The Holy Trinity Syndrome in Ethiopian Politics

The absence of an independent judiciary in the constitutional order has all but collapsed the political and economic governance. This has made the executive branch the single most authoritative organ and the Prime Minister a supreme leader. 

In all federalist nations, governments are composed of three separate and equal branches: legislative (parliament/congress), executive (president/prime minister), and judicial (courts). By design each of the three branches is made independent and equally empowered to create a system of checks and balances. 

When it functions as designed, this “checks and balances” system maintains a steady balance of power between the three branches and animates each branch to function properly. Ethiopia does not have a judicial branch. The people cannot take the executive branch to court to protect themselves from the excesses of government. The Sheger City mass demolition of properties and forced displacement of over 500,000 people are telling examples of the absence of a constitutional protection of property and citizenship rights.

What the Constitution has is a two-branch system of government: executive and legislative. In practice, the legislative branch bows to the executive branch, allowing the Prime Minister to assume the status of a sovereign King. This is what led an EPRP official to ask the Prime Minister if he is a King or a Prime Minister. 

The Constitution’s Implications on Economic Progress

Constitutional Economists often say, “show me a nation’s constitution and I will tell you about its prospect for development,” all other things held constant. A quick glance at the Ethiopian Constitution reveals that the Constitution’s impact on the nation’s development prospect was not carefully studied.

Before the US Constitution was enacted as the supreme law of the land, 85 Federalist Papers) were prepared to address the foundational basis of the key tenets of the Constitution. Some of them addressed the constitution’s implications on the nation’s economic progress. Their objectives were: (1) establishing the inviolability of private property rights as a cornerstone of freedom and prosperity; (2) establishing rules that enforce private contracts; (3) minimizing transactions costs in economic and business እሰጥ አገባ at individual, state, and national levels; (4) creating an environment in which a market economy could develop and flourish; and (5) thwarting the dangers of control by a narrow interest. 

In contrast, the Ethiopian Constitution created a weak federal government. Consequently, an Oromo economic oligarchy is created with a mafia moral code and pathos that is ravaging the nation’s economy with an appetite of a vulture.

Two Factors Explain the Poorly Constructed Constitution

First and foremost, the Constitution was drafted by people who lacked the requite knowledge in constitutional jurisprudence. Dawit Yohannes (RIP), the secretary of the Constitutional Drafting Commission, was a law school dropout and a Washington DC cab driver. The Constitution was drafted under the auspices of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, whose knowledge of connotational law was no better than his grasp of nuclear physics.  

Second, the Constitution’s drafting and ratification processes were anti-democratic. In a 2004 article published in the African Journal of Political Science, Professor Merera Gudina, Chair of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), highlighted the following key issues.

  • At the time of constitutional drafting and ratification, the priority of the TPLF-led governing coalition (EPRDF) “seemed to be consolidation of their hard-won victory” against the Mengistu regime.
  • To ensure the loyalty of the Constitutional Drafting Commission, members of the Commission were mostly selected from members of the EPRDF-dominated Council of Representatives… 
  • Controversial articles such as ‘the right to self-determination, including secession’, the ethnic-based federal structure of government, continued government owner ship of land, were all approved without a serious debate.
  • In the eyes of many observers the new national constitution of Ethiopia is a replica of the EPRDF (Read TPLF) political program in both letter and spirit.

Professor Gudina’s views were shared by the late Dr. Negasso Gidada, Chairman of the Constitutional Constituent Assembly. In the March 11, 2016, issue of Addis Standard, he brought to light the following:

  • In 1994, as the Chair of the Constitutional Assembly, he gave remarks at the ratification of the Constitution, stating: “The constitutional process from the preparation of the draft to the election of the Constituent Assembly has been democratic, the Assembly is a democratic forum where representative of all nations, nationalities and peoples and where varied views in the country were represented.” In 2016, he admitted this was Not true and extended a sincere apology to the people of Ethiopia. 
  • The truth, he said, is: “The draft constitution was not presented to the people of Ethiopia in a form of referendum where the people could have had the chance to decide on whether what we formulated was according to their wish or not.” 

He admitted there were unresolved controversies that needed to be debated. They include:

  • The type of federalism the country should have. There are many organizations and sections of the society who are against the form of federalism that is based on language and ethnicity.
  • Whether individual citizens should have the right to sovereignty or not. 
  • The question of Article 39 – the right to self-determination up to secession.
  • The issue of division of power between the central government and federal states, among others. 

The Chair of the Constitutional Constituent Assembly concluded his remarks stating: “If something is not done, this constitution will not hold the country together; I fear the controversies will get out of hand and eventually put the country’s unity in danger.” 

His call for a revisit of the Constitution was echoed by a prominent Tigrayan professor of constitutional law, Alemayehu Fentaw, in December 2022. The good professor was an ardent advocate of the Constitution prior to 2018. In 2022, he is among the first to raise his hand to volunteer as a pallbearer to carry the casket of tribal federalism. 

He described the failure of the tribal constitution as follows: “The system’s reliance on ethnicity as its singular organizational principle, asymmetrical constituent units, absence of an independent constitutional court, and one-party hegemony resulted in the disastrous failure.”

He concluded: “Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism was meant to be a political experiment at accommodating ethnic diversity and managing ethnic conflicts. The experience so far shows that the system has failed. Ethiopia is at a moment of great constitutional crisis. Nothing short of a comprehensive constitutional reform can resolve the conflicts and halt the ongoing ethnic pogroms.”

Thoughts on the Way Forward

Ideally, the best-case scenario is a constitutional overhaul. In practice, ideal situations are seldom realized. Compromises are needed. The ideal best should not be allowed to stand in the way of a practical solution. 

It is not realistic to expect that decades of polarized animosity can be reversed easily. Emotional conflicts marred by scars from the past, inflamed with fresh wounds from the present, and cursed with an elite class that has taken refuge in tribal deity and vowed not to be governed by reason or law is no small challenge. A viable solution requires striking a delicate balance in the competing interests. 

The problem is that some are passionately wed with the Constitution and exist in the “till death do us part” emotional hinterland. Others are just as blindly passionate about the unitarist agenda that they peddle as the political equivalent of the Ten Commandments. 

Even worse, the zero-sum political culture that both extremist federalist and unitary forces manifest cannot be wished away with the snap of the fingers or with an abracadabra wand. Progress can only be made step by painful step.

Two groups who are likely to complicate matters are Oromo-Shene and Amhara-Shene. The two have substantial differences in their end goals. No doubt that the fundamental tenets of their political ethos and ideological creeds are also different. Nonetheless, they are alike in that they are the polar epicenters of the nation’s entropic conflicts that are spiraling into a deepening crisis. 

Their symbiotic existence allows them to cross-feed combustible fuel to each other and fire up the flames of tribal conflict. This is particularly true after TPLF self-destructed itself in a spectacular fashion. TPLF was the party that distracted Amhara and Oromo tribalists from going at each other’s throats. With TPLF out of the game, the danger for Ethiopia’s existence is heightened as the two largest tribal groups battle for supremacy. 

The swelling political undercurrent against extremist forces can potentially creating a new political environment that will crowd out the two Shenes. As I have written in “Quantum Physics and the Quest for the Elusive National Dialogue in Ethiopia,” the success of brining the anti-extremist political undercurrent depends on a sequential and model-based process with a robust feedback mechanism. 

The first step in this regard is a dialogue between political factions within each tribal land. Consensus building in each tribal land can filter out extremist elements. It is only after weeding out peddlers of irreconcilable discord in each tribal land (Shene Oromo and Shene Amhara) that the proposed sequential dialogue process that can progressively foster a national dialogue.

In Conclusion

The Ethiopian Constitutional order has all but collapsed under the weight of the fallacy embodied in the Tribal Constitution. Ethiopian Federalist forces are in the proverbial “come to Jesus moment.” What happens next depends on many factors, including but not limited to the actions and reactions of unitarist forces, the ability, or the lack thereof of Oromo intellectuals to rehabilitate the generation of hostile young militants and traffickers of violence that they have unleashed. The present bears a heavy burden of the past. In the meantime, it emits a glimmer of hope for change. Grace be to God Almighty. 

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

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