Democratizing the Ethiopian State

by Zelalem

Democratizing the Ethiopian State

By Daniel Teferra

It is common to hear the term democracy being easily thrown about by everyone. But democracy is a difficult and endless task. The British took six hundred years to learn it. The French tried to do it all at once in the French Revolution and lost everything, ending with a dictator. America’s democratic institutions were shaped by messy compromises, such as, central versus local power, for example. The big fights in America are over, but one can still see the lingering federal-local debate between the Republican and Democratic parties. On the other hand, in Ethiopia, political compromise is unknown. But, compromise is necessary if the political elites want to democratize the Ethiopian State and achieve economic development.

One can see Ethiopia’s politicians divided into two broad camps. One group, centered on the Tigray/Amhara elite, stresses national unity, based on Ethiopia’s past. The other, centered on the non-Tigray/Amhara elite, stresses self-determination and a more centrifugal tendency. Both camps are needed equally for democratization of the Ethiopian State. There are several issues that require compromises for this to happen.

First is the issue of ethnic-based administrative system (kilil). This is of major concern to the national unity camp because it fears rightly that kilil will breakup Ethiopia into isolated peoples who will eventually fight among themselves. On the other hand, the self-determination group realizes that the Tigray/Amhara elite do not want to embrace democracy because they are accustomed to benefiting monopolistically from the institutions constituted by the Ethiopian State. Consequently, this camp finds its only hope for justice in national self-determination. However, the principle of self-determination cannot be an answer to this problem. It is a simplistic argument. For instance, the early Russian Communists, Lenin included, agitated for the right of nationalities to self-determination and secession in Czarist Russia. But immediately after the October Revolution, the urgent need to reconsolidate the Russian Empire outweighed all other considerations. Consequently, ethnic nationalism in Communist Russia was suppressed including genuine nationalisms in the Muslim borderlands.

The self-determination camp views kilil as a step in the direction of self-determination and secession. Therefore, it supports the system. But kilil has a problem of its own. In the first place, kilil does not have past history in Ethiopia. For example, there is no an Amhara state-nation. There are only Amhara states (regions), such as, Gondar, Gojjam, or Shoa. Likewise, there is no an Oromo state-nation. There are only Oromo states (regions), such as, Wellega, Illubabor or Bale. There is no Sidama state-nation or Muslim state-nation, but only Sidama states and Muslim Sultanates.

Historically, ethnic and religious disparities as well as regional rivalries have existed in Ethiopia. These problems can be avoided, in the first place, if the rights of the individual are guaranteed and strengthened. Secondly, a federal structure of government, with a check and balance system at all levels, can address the urgent need for regional autonomy. Furthermore, a federal structure of government can make government accountable to the people.

The second issue is a collective identity for a united Ethiopian nation. This is a legitimate concern raised by the self-determination group. Ethiopia is a state-nation, in which national consciousness developed, primarily, within the Christian, Tigray/Amhara culture. There is a general feeling of unity and national pride in Ethiopia, unknown to the rest of Africa. However, Ethiopian national unity can be broadened and popularized. For instance, Amharinya is spoken throughout Ethiopia. It is as such a unifying force. So is Orominya (Afan-Oromo). Afan-Oromo is widely spoken in the south and other parts, as far north as Wello. The issue here is not just diversity, but equal treatment of languages, cultures and religions; in other words, the goal has to be development of all individuals, groups and interests of the society rather than one person, group or religion.

The third important issue is land and economy. Unless the land question is resolved, it will be difficult to transform the semi-famine, subsistence agriculture. The land question in Ethiopia is not just an economic issue; it is also a political issue. It is a sensitive issue for the self-determination camp because of land alienation that took place in the south following Shoan expansion in the late nineteenth century. As a result, this group argues that land privatization will bring back landlessness to the region because people from the north will buy all the land. It asserts that kilil will prevent such problem from happening again. But kilil cannot stop local governments from withdrawing use-rights from the peasantry and leasing the land to domestic and foreign entrepreneurs. Only land privatization can provide the peasantry security of tenure and political power.

Most of Ethiopia’s fertile, agricultural lands are located in the south, but they are not developed. The north has surplus labor, but land is limited. Hence, land privatization and free movement of labor and capital will be mutually beneficial for both regions. In addition, a land reform program can be designed with safeguards to ward off landlessness—a waiting period of three to five years can be imposed on new owners before they sell their land, for example.

Presently, Ethiopian politics is divided between two groups. Such division will not benefit the country. Ethiopia’s politicians have a choice. They can capitalize on division, which could ultimately lead to the destruction of the

Daniel Teferra is Emeritus Professor of Economics at FSU;; UW-Whitewater.

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