Ethiopia: The Terms of our Unity

By Admassu Feleke


That Ethiopia, at this point in her history, is a union of very diverse ethnic and linguistic groups is a reality that we can neither ignore nor wish away. And that she should remain a union and not splinter away into dozens of states is a condition that most of her citizens recognize as a necessity. The question is, therefore, not whether Ethiopia should end up a conglomerate of tiny states, but what should the terms of the co-existence of her multitude of her ethnic groups be.

Up to and including the Derg regime, the thrust of the central government’s efforts was to make Ethiopia a unitary state. I speculate that the models for the imperial regime may have been either France or Japan, since both are considered prime models for such kind of state. While the Derg did not stray far from the imperial design, it was the various liberation groups, and the pan-national political groups, such as the EPRP and the MEISON, which for the first time addressed the question of nationalities as an ideological and political issue. And for the most part they dealt with it openly and fearlessly. Its problematics were presented, solutions were discussed and offered. But the overall benefit of it all was to make all Ethiopians aware that the terms of their co-existence had to be re-negotiated and that the old thrust towards a unitary state was neither achievable, nor frankly realistic.

As far as the present regime is concerned, one need not look beyond the acronyms of the parties representing it: The original intent of the TPLF and its cohorts was to form their own separate states, not a federal state. The TPLF became the champion of federalism not out of ideological conviction but out of pure strategic expediency. And if it has achieved its goal, it has only to thank Mengistu Hailemariam and his regime’s ineptitude. The kind of federalism it designed and promulgated was intended more for dividing and ruling the country, and not to bolster the equality, freedom and self-worth of all the peoples of Ethiopia. In fact it was planned in such a way that the first major crisis, like the one we have been experiencing in the past two years, has led the country to a brink of a civil war.

I have never quite understood the rational behind the decision to divide Ethiopia into 9 (nine) K’llels. A K’llel is not as such based on a clear conceptual scheme: it can at the same time signify an ethnic enclave (Oromia, Amhara, etc…) or an enclave comprising of a multitude of ethnic groups (Southern Peoples, Nations and Nationalities), or even large urban conglomerates (Addis Ababa and Dire-Dawa), where virtually every ethnic group is represented. I believe that it is a concept that was created more out of convenience and not conviction.

Ethiopia is an assemblage of approximately 80 (eighty) ethnic and linguistic groups, each of which has further subdivisions of its own. If one were to be consistent, each one of these should be considered a K’llel with all the rights, privileges and obligations of a confederal state. And each one of these K’llels should be represented in the federal government, bureaucracy and military, all be it proportionally. And yet this is not what has taken place in Ethiopia. And much of the blame should be ascribed precisely to the very notion of K’llel as conceived and used by this regime. Also, the present division of Ethiopia into K’llels has only led to confusion, mismanagement, unequal treatment, discord and resentment among the various ethnic constituents of the country. Rather than being an expression of a genuine federalism, what we have today is an unclear demarcation between federal and regional (K’llel) powers and obligations. There is an obvious imbalance between the two. And such imbalance is one among many reasons that has led to the current crisis, and will further push the country to the brink of war.

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The current regime’s conception of federalism suffers also from a related inconsistency and confusion concerning ethnic representation and political/ideological representation. If the so called House of Federation is to be a genuine representation of all the ethnicities of the country, it must not be populated by political affiliates, but by individuals elected directly by the ethnicity they represent and as individuals, not as appointees of particular political parties. For all practical purposes they should perform the duties and obligations of the traditional role of Shimageles or Azawnt. On the other hand, the House of Peoples Representatives would be constituted and shared by members of political parties. What the EPRDF has done instead is to fill both houses with its own political operatives, rendering virtually ineffective the entire role of the House of Federation. This is precisely the sleight of hand by which this regime has usurped the rights, freedoms and possessions of all the ethnicities of Ethiopia.  And this is precisely why this regime has been able to appropriate the voices and rights of most minority groups with impunity. It, in effect, replicated itself in every known ethnicity to rob it of its true representatives. It has been brazen and arrogant enough as to put members of its own ethnic parties as representatives of many minority ethnicities. Moreover, the House of Federation, rather than being the ultimate arbiter of the laws enacted in the lower chamber (House of Peoples Representative), it has been given very limited powers, or better it has only been granted powers that are traditionally ascribed to a constitutional or Supreme Court. Instead of being a legislative branch it has been turned into a judiciary body.

If a genuine and truthful ethnic federalism is the goal, the so-called House of Federation of Ethiopia should be exactly what it claims to be: a gathering of the leaders of the ethnics groups and not of political parties. Political parties must be remanded to their ethnic base, where the winning political party can elect its own operatives to the House of Representatives of the Peoples.

We must not forget that federalism as such is neither a bad idea, nor the reason that has led Ethiopia to the present crisis. It is its misconception and misapplication that has lead and continues further to lead Ethiopia to the brink of civil war. For Ethiopians, federalism remains a logical and expedient alternative. The question then is not whether it should be re-adopted or not, but what form it should have. The question then is what should be its first guiding principles?

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The kind of federalism that must eventually be adopted in Ethiopia must be founded on very carefully and precisely defined key terms such as what constitutes an ethnicity, a state, province, district, etc…It must first of all and at any cost avoid any ambiguities and confusions of terms that are always at the source of many legal and political problems further down the road. Since the bicameralism is the inevitable choice given the diversity of the country, the method of the formation of the two chambers, their legal powers, and their prerogatives should be clearly defined and stated from the outset. There should not be constant improvisation and modification at the will and whim of the executive branch as has happened so often during the tenure of the previous prime minister.

The 80 or so ethnic groups identified by the census of 2007 range in size from a few hundred members to several millions. And they occupy geographical spaces ranging in area from a few square kilometers to hundreds of thousands of square kilometers. To complicate matters even further some ethnicities live alongside others or surrounded by others within the same geographical space. Some are even bilingual, or traded their own language for another. Is it even possible then to create states based on ethnicity alone? Obviously it is an impossible task for many reasons. First of all, as a matter of practical consideration, smaller ethnic enclaves will never have the resources that larger ethnic groups possess to function as an autonomous state. Their minority size and status will be more accentuated than before leading to being overran, overpowered and exploited by majority ethnic states. Eventually this will lead to pernicious inequality and resentment. I believe therefore, that the future federal state of Ethiopia should not be based on the concept of ethnicity or ethnic enclave alone. It must stem from a conceptual scheme that will preserve the equality, freedom and access to all the resources of the country for every ethnicity regardless its population or geographic size. Ethnic groups should not be enclosed and locked in their geographical space in the name of self-determination. This is not to deny that they are entitled to their historical geographical spaces, but they should not be entrapped by it. They should have the freedom and rights of federal citizens, and be able to live, work and travel wherever they choose within Ethiopia.

I am not sure whether the imperial era division of Ethiopia into 14 (fourteen) provinces is advisable or even feasible, even though it may have had its own merits. But if a federalism is to be had, it must aim first and foremost at a fair distribution of the national resources, and secondly proportional participation of all and every ethnicity in the good governance of Ethiopia. The principles by which this will be achieved should constitute the heart of our initial discussion in adopting the kind of federalism that will bring peace, equality and prosperity to the country.


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