Ethnic Federalism — Ethnic Conflict In Ethiopia, Episode Nine

Monday, 22 October 2018 Written by
From the top left to right, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the late Prime Minster Meles Zenawi, and Emperor Haile Selassie. From the bottom left to right, Emperor Yohannes IV, General Ras Alula Engida, and Emperor Menelik II. From the top left to right, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the late Prime Minster Meles Zenawi, and Emperor Haile Selassie. From the bottom left to right, Emperor Yohannes IV, General Ras Alula Engida, and Emperor Menelik II.

Click here for the audio and show notes. 



Dr. Tsega Gebreyesus: [00:00:00] We need to reshape the conversation so we're thinking about how to create lasting peace in the Horn of Africa as a whole. There's a history of European colonialism. There's a history of intra-African colonialism.


Rutha Bahlibi: [00:00:19] Thanks for tuning in. You're listening to the HARAMBEE TODAY podcast. This is episode nine. Ethiopia's federal system is organized along ethnic lines, and whether that has been a good or bad thing for the country is the subject of much debate. In this episode, we'll discuss the history of how Ethiopia became a state and the pros and cons of ethnic federalism. The link to the full transcript with the names of the people featured in this episode is in the show notes. All right, let's get into it.


Dr. Ezekiel Gebissa: [00:00:48] It depends on what we mean by Ethiopia because Ethiopia is an ancient name. It's a name that the Greek historian, Herodotus, when he visited Egypt he saw black people coming to Egypt. And he asked who these people are and they told him that they come from the south, and he called them Ethiopians, which means the land of burnt faces. Some historians say Ethiopia started 3,000 years ago as a country, as a nation. But to be sure the modern Ethiopian state, put it that way, the modern Ethiopian state actually was the result of the scramble for Africa in the late 19th century. The difference is that when Europeans conquered and colonized and carved up territories, the emperor, Emperor Menelik, who was the king of the Kingdom of Shewa participated in the struggle. He conquered the southern part of Ethiopia and created the Ethiopian Empire. From that pointof his, Ethiopia is basically a hundred twenty or thirty years old, the modern Ethiopian state.

How was it governed. Well, under Menelik it was really basically the beginning of the end of the conquest and the beginning of pacification. There was really no coherent governance style. The government is still expanding. The peripheries are not being integrated. The territories have not been delimited and demarcated. It was really an experiment in governance. Governance actually started, as I would characterize it, under Emperor Haile Selassie, who began his career as a regent in 1916 after the ouster of one of the young princes as king of Ethiopia. And established a centralised, unitary, autocratic state. Really to characterize it, that's what I would say. The modern state came into being under Emperor Menelik. He established the first cabinet. He started sending emissaries to Europe, but it's not really an integrated state; it was still expanding. But under Haile Selassie, especially after 1930, after he became the emperor of Ethiopia, that's where personalist, autocratic, and centralized system of governance, monarchical system of government was put in place.

That was disrupted by the Italian invasion in 1935. But once he got back from Europe and re-established himself. That is really when he put in place the modern Ethiopian state that is governed in the modern way. He opened schools, sent many to modern schools to really begin a modern bureaucracy, and that system remained in place with some constitution. A second constitution was proclaimed in 1955. Some kind of a semblance of legal constitutional, but extremely centralized and autocratic monarchy was in place until 1974.

In 1974, unrest or upheaval broke out. A military government came in place. Proclaimed the country a socialist republic, and several experiments led to the establishment of, at the end, the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Now, it was not people's because it was still a military leader that was president or leader of the country. It was not democratic because there was really no democracy. In fact, under the socialist doctrine, what they called as democratic centralism, but it was basically a one-man rule. It was not republic, of course there was no king, but there was really no republican system of government at the time. It was really simply a military rule in civilian clothing. That ended in 1991 with the coming of the Tigray People's Liberation Front-led current government.


Dr. Weldu Weldeyesus: [00:04:58] Emperor Yohannes IV, his entire reign was fighting. And his general at that time was Ras Alula Engida. He's the one who established Asmara as a city; that was during his administration. They were fighting not only for the rest parts of Ethiopia but also for Eritrea, saying that Eritrea was part of Ethiopia historically.


Dr. Paulos Milkias: [00:05:24] Menelik signed Eritrea over to the Italians because the Italians promised to provide him with guns. Menelik had an ambition to be the emperor of Ethiopia. At that time the emperor of Ethiopia was Yohannes from Tigray. He signed the Treaty of Wuchale, in which he actually recognized Italian control over Eritrea. The Italians were trying to use the Machiavellian theory to divide the Ethiopian strong groups--Tigreans, Eritrean Tigreans, and Ethiopian Abyssinian, and Amharas. Menelik represented the Amhara power. Yohannes represented the Tigray power. In order to divide them, they would provide guns to Menelik, to actually make him stronger against Emperor Yohannes. They provided him with over 100,000 guns at that time; it's a huge amount. It's like someone giving you 1,000 jets today, in today's terms. But Menelik was more interested in getting all those guns to subdue the South. You see Wolayta, Oromia, Kaffa and all those areas in the South because that is where the riches are. And so he used those guns to actually expand into the South.


Dr. Edmond Keller: [00:06:48] Haile Selassie sort of tried to create this fiction of Ethiopian, (as) one big happy family, and it wasn't that at all.


Dr. Ezekiel Gebissa: [00:07:02] There were several ethnic groups or nations and nationalities, that's the proper term, that were conquered or incorporated into the Ethiopian empire, but that the empire never really succeeded in integrating them into the economic and political fabric. That the rulers at the center always kept power in their own hands and marginalized, especially, the ethnic groups that they had conquered and incorporated. In particular, the majority, the nation that actually constitute the largest population and occupied the largest landmass within the empire were kept at bay. They never really participated in the government. That the government was really a government dominated by one culture. And this is not like an accusation against the government, it was the policy of assimilation that the imperial government of Emperor Haile Selassie followed. That is through education, through mass culture, through the media, through the church, that they will create one nation under one king, belonging to one culture and, if possible, speak one language. That every other ethnic group was through the mechanisms that I just outlined, would become assimilated and take on the Amhara culture and then they become Ethiopia. That Ethiopia or being an Ethiopian is not a matter of citizenship, it becomes a matter of identity. So whether you are a Somali or an Oromo or a Kambaata, you belong to any ethnic group, in order to find employment in order to be acceptable culturally, you assimilate into the dominant culture, which is the Amhara culture.

Now this experiment did not succeed. People were not easily assimilable. So by the 1960s, as the student movement was taking shape against the autocratic imperial rule, this in question was raised, the question of the right of nationalities and nations. They were made subjects to the emperor and they remained subjects. They never became citizens who would enjoy equality before the law--equal access to education, to employment, equal access to cultural venues and practices. This accumulated grievances raised this question known as the nationalities question: should a person who finds himself or herself within the Ethiopian territory enjoy equal rights--culturally, politically, economically, socially--accepted as citizens, not as subjects and enjoy the same rights as the dominant group. It became the nationality question, one of the most important political questions of the last half century in Ethiopia. When the issue was raised as a political question within the Ethiopian student movement in 1968, as a nationalities question or the question of nations and nationalities, there were two solutions that were proposed. One group of students believed that there is no nationalities question in Ethiopia, there is a question of regionalism. That is, instead of being Oromo or Somali, the question that exists is the regions--the administrative regions like Wollega, Gojjam, Gondar. The people have feelings of belonging not to a nation but to a region. The solution to that is, they said, is to give regional autonomy. That the regions--there were 14 regions in the country at the time--that the regions would be granted the right to self-governance. The other solution that was proposed in the student movement was 'no, these are separate ethnic groups. They have their own language, culture, and psychological makeup. They have always been treated as second class citizens. They were never integrated into the empire. So the solution should be not regional. That's not a question that exists, not regional autonomy, but the right of self-determination, up to and including secession.'


Dr. Weldu Weldeyesus: [00:11:38] What the previous government did was divide the country mainly using physical geography instead of along linguistic lines. For example, to separate present-day Eritrea and the rest of Ethiopia, they used the Mareb River as a boundary. Otherwise, if you see the Eritrean highlanders and the Tigray highlanders, you don't see any difference linguistically, you don't see any difference culturally. You don't even see any difference physically, but geography was used as a means of dividing them, so the Mareb River was used as a boundary between present-day Eritrea and Tigray along the southern border (of Eritrea). And then they also used the Tekezé River. Some parts of Tigray were beyond the Tekezé River, but Emperor Haile Selassie used Tekezé River to divide present-day Tigray and present-day Gondar.


Dr. Ezekiel Gebissa: [00:12:40] They won, the TPLF which is the Tigray People's Liberation Front. Eritrea was part of Ethiopia at the time, so they had this nationalities question, but there was this colonial experience under Italians for Eritrea. There was the Somali question as well. And there was the Oromo, the largest and the large landmass. All of these were having their demand about the nationalities question, is to have the right to secede, the right to self-determination, up to and including secession from Ethiopia. They won the battle against the military government in 1991 and they implemented this solution, that the ethnic groups should have the right to self-determination up to and including secession. That Ethiopia henceforth would become a country, maybe a republic, where ethnic groups actually willingly, of their own volition, create a country. That no one is going to force anybody into that country. So it becomes a federation of the willing.


Dr. Weldu Weldeyesus: [00:13:46] The Oromo now make up a very huge portion of the Ethiopian state because they are found almost throughout the country. And if you are to go from one region to another, with the exception of adjacent Tigray, Afar, and Amhara, you would have to pass through Oromia. So Oromia is a very huge state. So why did Oromia happen to be. Because the primary criterion for the creation of the present-day states in Ethiopia is language. Various parts of Oromia were under various provinces in the former governments, including (under) Emperor Haile Selassie and the Derg, the military government. But the EPRDF (Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front) overthrew the military government and then took political power. Oromia was created as a big state.

But in the Gambella, in Benishangul/Gumaz, and in Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ state, you see a lot of ethnic groups. In particular, if you take the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ state, it has 56 out of the 84 ethnic groups in the country. So 56 of them are under the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ state.


Dr. Yohannes Gedamu: [00:15:24] This created a huge problem because it somehow created this Oromia regional state, or Amhara regional state, or Tigrayan regional state and somehow it gives complete ownership of that particular state to that particular ethnic group, which the regional state is named after its name. So that kind of created a second-class citizen to those non-Tigrayans who are living in Tigray, or non-Oromos who are living in Oromia. Federalism, however, is not a bad thing. Because what federalism does is it brings the government closer to the people. It's all about devolution of political power. That's a beautiful thing. But when that institutional setting is designed in a way that becomes very much divisive, that becomes very much a problem, that creates self-entitlement to some people in their states and for the others to be considered basically settlers. That creates a huge problem.

Of course in Oromia there were other questions because the city of Addis Ababa was about to be expanded because the city is very much congested, the government says. But the Oromo activists and the Oromo youth saying 'well, we will not see anything good coming out of this, because we know that they are going to evict Oromo farmers from their land and they will not even be compensated. We don't want them to be security men or guards or workers in factory in the land that they had owned.' That created a huge problem in the central Ethiopia with Addis Ababa and Oromo protest.


Dr. Ezekiel Gebissa: [00:17:10] Oromia, the largest Oromo region, that's where Addis Ababa is, the capital is within Finfinne. The main economic activities are around Finfinne or Addis Ababa. Main resources of the country, agricultural resources, are located in Oromia. There's no way economically speaking that Oromia would become self-governing with power of ownership and regulation of their resources. So the federal system had to be subverted.


Dr. Yohannes Gedamu: [00:17:43] But one thing that the people really fail to understand at times is that in Ethiopia land is nationalized. The federal government can come anytime and take your land. We have to be able to understand that despite our concerns about our land, our history, despite the fact that we are very much concerned about our possession as an ethnic group, we have to make sure that we also think about our individual rights. So in Ethiopia, group rights are somehow celebrated by the regime and by most narrow nationalists, but individual rights are not much celebrated. So, right now at this point, I really do not care much about whether the Oromos keeps their lands. What I really care most about is whether an Oromo individual can keep his own land. I want that individuals to have a title to that land.


Dr. Asebe Regassa Debelo: [00:18:52] There have been different levels of border disputes and conflicts. The degree of the conflict and the nature of the questions have been different, but there have been such border conflict between different zones in Oromia and Southern region, for example. Even in some cases it led to some high casualties, in 1995, 1998, for example, between the Gedeo and the Guji. Then also between the Guji Oromo and the Burji in Southern Ethiopia. So there have been a number of border disputes and still at some levels there are such border claims, but such border claims are not also to that level of the degree like the conflict between Oromia and Somali and between Tigray and Amhara regions.


Dr. Paulos Milkias: [00:19:49] That is one of the things that lots of Ethiopians who oppose the whole idea of ethnic federation, is in the long run it would actually lead to this kind of ethnic conflict. This idea did not exist before. But now all of a sudden it arose, the Oromos and the Somali they use to live in peace with each other are now fighting on territory among them.


Dr. Asebe Regassa Debelo: [00:20:14] While the border conflict was going on, then the state of emergency of 2016 was declared and then the issue of the border contestation and claims (were) suspended. They have been trying to make some negotiations between the two regional states, but no conclusive agreement has been reached so far. And whenever such issues--border conflict and so on--arise, what the government usually does is, politicians come together from the disputing regions or zones or whatsoever, and then they make a kind of political agreement--mainly for media consumption--but with very low level of involvement of the local actors. And that makes such conflict resolution approach not to be sustainable in most of the case because conflicting parties, particularly at the local level, know the reasons for the conflict and even the metrics of resolving such conflicts. But if they are neglected and not involved in the process, then only politicians cannot make a solution.


Tewodrose Tirfe: [00:21:26] Since the establishment of Tigray People's Liberation Front, in their 1976 manifesto, they labeled their struggle as anti-Amhara oppressors. And in order to achieve their struggle, they must destroy the old and the dominant Amhara culture, which represents over 30 percent of the Ethiopian population, and replace it by a new and revolutionary culture.


Dr. Asebe Regassa Debelo: [00:21:46] Beginning from 1991, coming to power of EPRDF, the Amharas have their own major difference. Many of the Amhara political parties claim that the federal arrangement, it reduces people's level of national identity. They also claim that ethnic federalism restricts people's freedom of movement from one region to another and so on and so on. So what we see today also is a reflection of a very long level of disagreement. Not only specific issues of land grabbing and massacre on the festival or those things, but they have a very major difference with EPRDF on the federal system. In Oromia, although there are few few political parties which doesn't accept the federal system, the major question of the Oromos is the constitutionally granted rights of self-administration, the right to political representation, the right to resource utilization, the right to self-government should be implemented as it is in the constitution. But on the contrary for the Amharas, from the very beginning they opposed. Many of them opposed the federal system.


Dr. Yohannes Gedamu: [00:23:26] The Oromos happened to be one of the largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia, and of course one of the largest in eastern Africa. If you have this Oromo ethnic group within only Oromia regional state, keep it within Oromia, I mean that is difficult, right. Because they should dominate Ethiopia. They should be all over. What does protecting your land mean. It's important, it's heritage. It is inheritance or so many things for so many reasons. But in this day and age, and forget globalization, in this day and age Oromos must be able to dominate East Africa let alone Ethiopia. You don't want to be just in that smaller box. Limiting Oromo potential is extremely dangerous. Very much they are now the most important political actors in Ethiopia. Most of them do not speak Amharic, but it is something that 80 or so percent of Ethiopians speak. The Oromos speaking Amharina will give them the opportunity to work pretty much in 80 percent of Ethiopia.


Dr. Paulos Milkias: [00:24:36] But I do accept the idea of centering the culture of each. For example, the Oromos actually speaking their own language, even using it in schools, which was not allowed under Haile Selassie and under the Derg. You had to speak Amharic. Now you can learn in the Oromo language. You can go to court and you can actually communicate in the Oromo language. But at that time, you were not able to do that. And if you did it, you had to use a translator, what they called samabalo. Those kinds of cultural rights are essential, and I support that.


Deacon Yoseph Tafari: [00:25:16] The root cause, the beginning and the end, of all our problem is ethnic federalism. Even the movements that start which identifies itself based on ethnicism, one needs to step back and look at what is the stated goal. What is it that you're going to achieve.


Mohamed Olad: [00:25:34] Actually, for those who say ethnic federalism is all bad, it is simple. They actually have their own personal political agendas. They actually trying to rub their agenda on everybody else's. Ethnic federalism has ensured so many gains in Ethiopia that actually people have never dreamt of. Because I'm a Somali. All my ancestry …  my father fled the Derg regime. My grandfather was also a victim. There is no single Somali family that has never suffered under different Ethiopian regimes. So the fact that the Somali people, for example, and all other ethnic groups for that matter are given the right to self-govern themselves is something that actually needs to be upheld, admired, and supported, and encouraged.


Dr. Paulos Milkias: [00:26:23] But when it comes to the right of secession it is very dangerous. The only place where the right of secession was allowed was in the Soviet Union. And in the end we know what happened. Many of them are even fighting today because of that.


Dr. Tsega Gebreyesus: [00:26:39] Article 39 was put into place to attempt to ensure that various nations, nationalities, religious groups within the Ethiopian nation state had some level of protection, and should they be abused as they had in the past, that they have the right to secede and self-administer, self-administer and determine their fate. And I'm not sure that I share the sentiment that that's a negative thing. That could lead to a more lasting peace if one can't get along as a group.


Dr. Paulos Milkias: [00:27:15] The danger of ethnic federalism is it becomes a recipe for creatingbantustans, small small nations. And if you are a small small nations, you can't control your own destiny. You become an easy prey for bigger powers. To tell you frankly, the only way that we will benefit, all of us--whether it is Eritreans, the rest of the Ethiopians, the Habashas, the Somalis, Oromos, Amharas, I mean all of them-- is if we are together. We are the same people. There is no point of dividing each other. It's like splitting hair.


Dr. Tsega Gebreyesus: [00:27:55] There are others who would argue that a lot of times when these ethnic federations don't survive it's because the underline issue that is trying to be reconciled by the system of governance is so deep, that it might be better to administer at a more localized level.


Dr. Yohannes Gedamu: [00:28:15] Ethnic federalism, I don't like it. But you know what, we can even keep some form of arrangement that has some ethnic composition because at the end of the day you need some (kind of) language, right. You can't just divide one community that speaks the same language, put it in different regional states. Because if they could be together, it's really a good thing. So I think that should not be a problem, but some regional states, like example Amhara and Oromia especially, are very big. If you divide the Amhara regional state into two and kind of create western Amhara and eastern Amhara, and if you kind of divide the Oromia regional state into three, and create western Oromia, central Oromia, and southern Oromia--even by keeping that ethnic identity together—(that) would create more manageable regional states. The regional constitutions have a huge problem, like Oromia regional state constitution, when it comes to addressing the rights of non-Oromos in Oromia. Today you could move from Colorado to Georgia and purchase a house or a property the same day, or get a driver's license like an ID the same day, an apartment the same day. Because there is this good faith and credit aspect of the U.S. constitution. We might have it addressed in the country federal constitution, but Ethiopia's regional constitution really lack. I'm not a constitutional scholar. I'm not a lawyer right, but to my understanding there are so many huge problems that need to be addressed so that we don't have any second-class citizenship. Also, we have five or so regional states that are considered developing regional states. That just doesn't make any sense.


Dr. Asebe Regassa Debelo: [00:30:19] In principle ethnic federalism is not the cause for the conflict that we see today. It could have addressed many of the problems and the questions that different ethnicities, nations, nationalities have been raising under the imperial regime, under the military regime in the past. But the way ethnic federalism was implemented was not fully congruent to the constitutional provisions.


Mohamed Olad: [00:30:48] What they are actually conflating when they actually blame every ill in Ethiopian society in ethnic federalism is that at the core of all the issues that we're talking about lies justice, equality, personal freedom, the right for self-expression. All those democratic values and personal freedoms that actually most people take for granted, that's actually what missing in the piece.


Dr. Edmond Keller: [00:31:15] You have a federal form, but the way it operates is very much like a centralized administrative state. So it is not working the way it is supposed to. There's not much bottom-up consultation or influence over policy. If it was operating properly it would. The people would have more of a say as to what goes on in their neighborhood, in their state. But they don't. It's basically top down, central control.


Dr. Asebe Regassa Debelo: [00:31:46] In most of my papers I say this is the kind of an unintended consequence of ethnic federalism, that ‘ethnic federalism further dichotomized differences and polarized the interaction between groups than building on common values.’ And politicians for example, particularly at lower levels, continuously have been building on differences between groups. Not only differences, but also on memories of antagonism than on issues of nation-building.


Dr. Paulos Milkias: [00:32:27] It was colonialism that actually divided Ethiopia into two in the first place, so all the problems we have today comes from that.


Dr. Asebe Regassa Debelo: [00:32:34] I mean many of the challenges and the problems we face today have been referred back to the late 19th century as other African countries did. The period when a group--a king from the northern Ethiopia, mainly based in the Amhara--conquered the different states in the south in Oromia and others. The contemporary political narratives in Ethiopia are one way or another framed towards that historical phenomena. I think it would be better to see Ethiopian case as internally evolving.


Dr. Yohannes Gedamu: [00:33:16] You know what we have is this problem of inter-ethnic competition that somehow blinds the people's need for unity and togetherness, and remaining as one when it comes to achieving some political freedom, democratization, reforms in general. For pushing for all these good things, so that is a problem. So what is the end result of this ethnic federalism, that is what we see right now. People dying because of their ethnicity. When you ask a question that seems framed against the regime, you may be considered like somebody who may hate the Tigrayans. But no, Ethiopians don't do that. I have so much faith in all Ethiopians, in all Ethiopian ethnic groups. And I can proudly say that no ethnic group in Ethiopia hates another ethnic group, or we have some kind of grudge. Everything is just politics.


Dr. Weldu Weldeyesus: [00:34:27] There is no way that they can destroy the current constitution and the current regional states. It's reached a point of no return now.





Additional Info

  • link_credit_photo_1: n/a
Last modified on Monday, 22 October 2018 14:56
Rate this item
(0 votes)

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter the (*) required information where indicated. HTML code is not allowed.