The Ethiopian State: From Ascription to Subscription

In a few weeks, the federal agency, in charge of overseeing polls either for legislative councils or referendums will be back in action. It will carry out a referendum, allowing people in eight Kebeles in Gonder area to decide whether they want to identify themselves with the Qimant, a minority group in the Amhara Regional State.

Two years ago, the House of Federation (HoF), which has the mandate to look into such disputes of identity, accepted the plea of leaders from Qimant to have their designated zonal administrative status, embracing close to 40 Kebeles. But this did not go down well with the leaders, who believed that there were a lot more Kebeles in Gonder and surrounding Woredas that should be included in their newly established autonomous zones. Following a deadly unrest that claimed the lives of many, and intervention by members of the defence forces, the House relented, and the contending parties conceded, with a referendum for more Kebeles.

Disputes and conflicts such as this – whether they appear with the Qimant, Welkait or between Somali and Oromia regional states – are only manifestations of a rather deeper crisis of leadership in the ruling party that has held the country in its firm grip for over two decades. Understandably, it is often mistaken to be a result of the very federal system of the country based on linguistic and cultural identities.

Granted, the new political elite that has rushed to raise up arms from their university campus back in the 1970s, has institutionalised the politics of identity, but based on linguistic and cultural fault lines. Rewriting a constitution, shoved down the throats of their formidable opponents, they ensured a political map among ethnic lines and incorporated in it.

Since the promulgation of the Constitution in 1995, ascribing to multiculturalism, inter ethnic and regional conflicts have occurred, leaving behind regrettable scars among the victims. The assertions of identity and the political narrative of “us” versus “them” claimed prominence, almost proving the critics of Ethiopia’s experiment right. It is no less alarming to see incidents of such conflicts are increasing in intensity and frequency in its area of coverage. The episodes have not gone unnoticed.

Although there are few TV, radio or newspaper reports coming out directly from these areas, the events have become major talking points; at least behind closed doors and among people active in social media platforms. Not surprisingly, the effectiveness in harmonising communities under Ethiopia’s system of federalism, drawn along language fault lines, has been called into question.

For the Revolutionary Democrats and their allies, this is not the case. The key feature in the politics of the party is decentralisation of power to the point and extent that has never been seen in the country’s history before. The ruling party took up such an extension of delegation as its political conviction, to distribute power away from the central government, as a way of ensuring autonomous-being and self-rule.

An unusual liberal gesture from the EPRDFites – who rightly claim that a federation would only work only if their preference to stay in is concessional –  is a conviction that has sent Revolutionary Democrats on an intellectual collision course with those who believe the Ethiopia they want is an assimilated nation under a firmly centralized state. Largely paranoid, it is an ultra right attitude in garrison nationalism, with little tolerance towards those who would like to maintain their distinct identities within larger communities.

Although there is an increasing number who bought the idea of federalism, they remain to oppose the demarcations along ethnocultural lines. This group finds a major flaw in the current language based cultural identity – usually confused with the whole premise of Federalism itself – of an administrative region, zone or Woredas, as it hampers ‘unity’ or erases the ‘we belong’ feeling from the nation. They have a point in opposing tribalism, which is the politics of minimum common denominator; but, contradict themselves as they want to see an assimilated nation in the hopes of national unity. Their version erodes both the civic or multi-cultural vision of a nation.

Although they came into play late, the Revolutionary Democrats tried to counteract the outlook by devising symbolic occasions where unity can be displayed, as in Nations, Nationalities & Peoples and Flag Day. The motto proclaiming “Unity in Diversity” is one of these moulds. In their eyes, the foundation to peace and stability in a nation where there are dozens of nationalities – none of them constituting an absolute majority – is to give autonomy to the states in choosing their language, allocating budgets, and having their respective legislative, judicial and executive branches mirroring the federal government.

The 22-year old experiment in federalism has indeed succeeded in affirming that no one group is dominant in the country. It has also created an environment whereby ethnic groups, especially in the South, are represented both in the regional and federal political structures.

Ethiopia is not the only country with so many diverse groups to have a federated structure. There is India, Belgium and even Canada. Ethiopia is also not the only state with such a structure to be confronted with regions which either call for a greater level of autonomy or to succeed. There is the Basque in Spain and, to some extent, the Scots in the United Kingdom. Where they differ is in the manner they go about it all.

The way in which Ethiopia’s federal system is exercised needs to be rethought though. The recurrent conflicts in a number of these administrative regions show that all is not well. If there are countries that have found such a structure workable, favourable to the ultimate purpose of federalism, which is the fluid movement of goods and people across regional-lines, then the problem must be in the means by which it is being managed.

The issue is commiserate with the multicultural tendencies of the governing document, in the level of importance it attaches to a community or a group over the individual. It does relate to minority groups in multi-ethnic settings too, a point higher than ethnocultural nationalism. Multicultural nationalism identifies with ethnic ascription, where identity is given instead of taken. In this case, identity is not chosen but acquired by being born in a particular area.

Such version of a community though can be severely misused.

As David Brown notes in his book, “Contemporary Nationalism”, political elites could negatively impact civic nationalism using their social stature to promote the language of a community. More importantly, they could affect communities for the worst by their control over public institutions within which “the populace interact, perceive their interests and develop their sense of identity.”

A viable alternative would have been the liberal form of nationalism; that is civic nationalism. In this world view, identity is flexible and does not subscribe only to ethnicity, religion or gender. The only currency required is an ideology or conviction as held by an individual citizen, which can grow and change. It may even be described as “Revolutionary Individualism” for its aspiration to see a nation where the rule of law prevailed; rational attachment to the state is promoted; and unity through consent and democratic pluralism trump common ancestral roots and sentimental attachment to a country.

Under the current Ethiopian political structure, the EPRDF is the undisputed dominant party of the land. It occupies 501 seats in Parliament and dominates most of the seats at the local government level. Its regional allies control the remaining 46 seats in Parliament, leaving no room for legitimate expressions of differing convictions, worldviews and interests. Any new reconditioning of a community could easily fall victim to a party with hegemonic interests, which will inevitably try to impose its worldview on everyone.

But the dynamics on the ground is changing, and it is changing fast. Social media, for all its goodwill, has given way to ultra ethno-nationalist groups which abuse the idea of decentralisation itself. The youth, which makes up some 70pc of the population, according to the Washington based Population Reference Bureau (PRB), is feeding on this agenda for lack of a more inclusive politics and equity in the economy.

The problem is exasperated by the lack of a coherent leadership at the upper echelon of power in the ruling party. Power that has never been institutionalised, especially within the executive branch of the government, is now fragmented and has left the Revolutionary Democrats without a sense of purpose or direction. A federalist approach to governance, but steered under a firm grip of hyper centralised party culture, is nearing implosion following the erosion of cohesion by the very party that had sought for absolute hegemony for far too long. Its leaders’ ability to calm, redress or overawe groups with a confrontational agenda has, for better or worse, been loosened up. What remains are knee-jerk responses and quadrennial corruption cases.

In such an environment, the EPRDFites have to learn to give in. Political pluralism is the only way out. Power can be liberalised through competitive politics. Political discourses for negotiations and compromise should be encouraged before the issue transforms itself into horrifying contemplations of saving the very existence of the Ethiopian state from an abyss.

Published on Sep 16,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 907]



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