Ethiopia: "Federalism' in the Ethiopian Context

Many people in Ethiopia seem to believe that federalism is synonymous with democracy and unitary system is an expression of authoritarianism. It is clear that the experience we have observed throughout the world across the years does not reflect or prove such blanket statement or belief to be entirely true. It has never been that simple or susceptible of such conclusion.

Democracy is not necessarily attributable or inherent to the system of federalism nor the contrary to a unitary system because it can be realized in either of the two systems depending only on how it is implemented on the ground.

This dichotomy and characterization was peddled by the TPLF-EPRDF dominated government that has been reigning in Ethiopia for the last three decades on the premise that was boldly advocated by the student movement which theorized that the reality in Ethiopian politics can only be rectified through a federalist system of government that would accommodate for the differences in the cultures of the peoples of the country.

It may be true that the federal system seems to be a better way of trying to administer a country such as Ethiopia, with a plethora of peoples and cultures, with various languages and faiths being the main expressions of their diversity. It has been put in practice in countries such as Nigeria in Africa and India in Asia as well as the USA and Canada.

All four have their own methods of implementing federalism and they do not necessarily use the same criteria to classify their territory under such system.

But the diversity of Ethiopia, it must be stressed, has never prevented the various peoples and cultures from intermingling or intermarrying and mixing across cultures or language groups and living together in multiethnic communities without disrupting their harmony.

It is not that Ethiopians have been waging wars against one another because of the presence of another culture or language group next to them. There has always been the realization that people do belong to various ethnic groups and have different languages but they lived together in any case in a natural manner.

In other words, Ethiopians may have multiple languages and cultures as well as values and mores etc. but this has not forced them to live distant from one another in compartmentalized reality excluding one from the others. On the contrary, there have been systematic intermingling of ethnic groups and so much so that millions of Ethiopians now trace their origin to multiple heritages. The idea of a 'puritan origin' to one ethnic group has never constituted such a core issue as some may try to argue about.

But some Ethiopian students of the sixties who believed that the monarchy and the aristocracy then in vogue were oppressive not allowing for any public participation in government began to promote that it was a case of ethnic dominion of one over others.

They built up their case on the assumption that the basic issue in Ethiopian political structure must be led to the issue of ethnic origins and divisions. Then came the argument that Ethiopians can be 'freed' from such system only through a 'federal system' that acknowledged 'equality between the various ethnic groups' and allowed for each entity the right to self-administer itself or 'the right to self-determination' as the catch phrase was used.

It was a period during which there was this student movement inspired by leftist ideologies and theories while socialism was in vogue. The students then began to relate the Ethiopian reality to the international scenery (in fact, mainly Russian) and what they believed as a panacea was the introduction of a federal system arranged across ethnic lines.

They seemed to miss the point that the kind of oppression or violations of human rights was motivated not necessarily by one ethnic group or one interest group but a cross section of an autocracy that was composed of the top hierarchy of the system consisting of the emperor, his close company and others who were allied to the system who were in the top leadership of the military and security apparatus.

History has shown us that this did not necessarily come from only one ethnic group as the widely spread narrative of the students leaders wanted us to believe, later on 'spinned' by the top leadership in the TPLF circle as 'the only solution' to Ethiopia's problems.

Historians have told us that it was clear that those groups did not spare any specific people of any origin from their oppressive machinery because they did not care if you belonged to this ethnic group or that one. Everyone had their share of oppression irrespective of their faith, ethnic origin or language they spoke.

It was probably more of a class issue that reigned to determine the fate of the country. Ethnic animosity was never an issue as understood by the TPLF and their allies.

It is true that self-administration is better implemented by a federal system chosen among the constituencies of the various localities with diverse realities on the ground. What applies to one part of the country may not strictly apply to another one, given the tangible reality on the ground, the kind of life style, the subsistence system and the geographical reality or landscape where people live.

The real issue must be 'what should be the criteria of federalism and how should the country be classified in to multiple administratively sound and convenient parts that can lead to address better the immediate issues of the population?

In Ethiopia as stated earlier TPLF-EPRDF leaders, a residual of the student movements of the sixties, purposefully introduced and promoted the ethnic based classification which suited their political ambitions.

They could not fail to sense the frailties of their system if it was to be really democratic. Their type of federalism was based on language and ethnic grouping while underplaying on purpose the dangers that such system could lead to, dismissing the important and fundamental bonds of the peoples of Ethiopia which linked them for years despite their differences in various cultural groups.

The classification that was forced on the people in an artificial manner dismissed their tradition of living together side by side, irrespective of differences in languages. Such classification had the tendency to alienate those who did not speak the language of that specific region and gave emphasis on the differences as if they were not natural. It encouraged a certain kind of divisive mentality rather than capitalize on a sense of unity and harmony.

Those who spoke a different language in a certain language group classified in one region were somehow forced to feel threatened or at least uncomfortable in their existence in terms of aiming to realize their aspirations in life because of this potential discrimination or sense of alienation the ethnic based federalism seems to underline.

This idea suited the political purpose of TPLF leadership because the party never admitted basic democratic principles in government. Rather it aimed to cater for the interests of a few who are extracted from a certain specific geographical area or clan or even family!

When the TPLF-EPRDF made ethnic based federalism the cornerstone of their new ideology they did not bother to abide by the principles of democratic rules of federalism. In fact, the system was above all intended to serve the objectives of the dominion of TPLF elitist interests rather than the local people in each region as a whole.

TPLF hierarchs were the true power house of the various regional states made up to implement ethnic federalism. What was decreed in the constitution and the laws were quite different with what was actually implemented on the ground.

That was why many called it 'federalism only in name' because all of the major decisions were taken at the center by the authoritarian leaders. The constitution was only an instrument of legitimacy particularly to the international community or audience.

The crux of the matter was that the local population never actually had decisive say in their own choices. On the other hand, they tried to depict that the unitary system is necessarily authoritarian although most of the world's unitary states in the world happen to be also democratic. There is no formula which equates unitary system with authoritarianism nor link federalism with only democracy.

What matters is actually how the system is put in practice. If democratic principles are denied or violated in federal systems, there is no point of sustaining it. But if the unitary system abides by principles of democracy, fair representation of all interest groups, it is not necessarily irreconcilable with democracy, equality and justice.

We have seen that many European countries do have unitary systems that do not have any issues of oppression or violation of human rights due to such choice.

It could be argued favorably that a country such as Ethiopia may benefit more from well-structured and well organized federal system rather than a unitary one. But this does not necessarily mean that such federal system should be pegged with language or ethnic origin only.

It must consider other factors both historical as well as current on the ground as well; and above all it should not put the unity and integrity of the country in doubt or question it by introducing a clause such as Article 39 of the Federal Constitution decreed in 1994 which seems to encourage initiation of secession processes making reference to 'the principle of self-determination' pushed to the extreme.

The federal constitution drafted and imposed on the country in fact seems to encourage it by introducing an unprecedented clause clearly motivated by the political long term objective of the TPLF clique.

That clause has tried to undermine the unity of the people of the country in the name of federalism. In fact, this specific clause was openly condemned by all those who had the interests of the country's integrity and unity as opposed to those who undermined it to play their political games.

The very name of the party that suggested and implemented this principle peddled the idea of a future separate state dominated by one party alone. This was clearly opposed to any kind of democratic principles and what we have experienced in the past three years is clear testimony to this fundamental flaw.

Tigray People's Liberation Front or TPLF has always been planning from the very inception of the party such situation when it could not rule the country single handedly, they would try and create 'their own separate state' even independently of the wills of the people they claim to represent or stand for.

In the end, what was clearly observable was that the kind of federalism that was staged only in name was unfortunately intended to only prepare the ground for the disintegration of the country into multiple weak entities that would then all be prey to outside forces and the state of Ethiopia would vanish from the ground and be confined to history books!

What is on the ground is however the contrary of what those people prepared because Ethiopians do have more motives of unity and harmony than differences and animosities that have been peddled by forces that have been spreading certain venomous, invented and inflated narratives contrary to the reality on the ground.

Ethiopia will hopefully introduce a better and more reasonable federal system that would take into account every factor that matters on the premises of democratic principles and democratic institutions and not be relegated by artificial or imposed divisions that are prey on the political manipulation of certain interest groups only.

The introduction of political clichés do not serve the people of the country but how they are put on the ground and how they are used to address the issues of the people and meet their aspirations. It is not political theories that are the priorities of the people of Ethiopia. It is rather how honestly the leaders deliver on their promises fighting injustice, corruption and inequality.

What the country has experienced during the past three decades has shown the people how a few individuals could capture as hostage the entire population as long as they dominated the armed forces and security apparatus subservient to a few elements. The downfall of TPLF has taught the Ethiopian people that there is a real difference between mere propaganda and the tangible reality on the ground.

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