12 November 2013 Written by  Dr. Assefa Fisha

The Challenges of Building a Multicultural State

Putting the Conflict in Perspective

Multi-ethnic societies can survive only if all respective groups within the polity feel themselves as winners.

One of the most contested issues in the public discourse of Ethiopian politics remains the difficulty one gets in interpreting state failure in the twentieth century. While there is a general consensus about the fact that both the Imperial (1930-1974) and the military regimes (1974-1991) failed to address among other things central political and economic issues, there is less consensus on the causes of state failure and in interpreting the conflict. While some illustrate the cause of the conflict as resulting from ‘Biherawi chikona’ or ‘national oppression’ others contend that the conflict is merely political, not ethnic, as the bone of contention is state power. The author contends that there is no merit in reducing each factor in diagnosing the conflict, for each explains to a certain degree the character of the Ethiopian state in the 20th century and hence urges for a broader comprehension of the issues. In a nutshell, however, it could be stated that the state failure could be analyzed in terms of failing to build a multicultural state (touches all spheres of the state, political power, resources, identity and language issues) from all the diversities that the modern state has brought together during the second half of the 19th century and the relevance of federalism as an idea for forging unity out of diversity springs from this.

The Instrumentalists

A majority of the authors seem to point that the over centralization of power and economic resources by the ‘dominant’ group, principally from Showa which despite genealogical mixtures defined itself and the state along this narrow perspective, and the subsequent marginalisation of others should be considered as the underlying factor in exacerbating the prolonged war in Ethiopia. The title of Markakis’s book about the politics in the Horn just speaks for itself. A closer observation of these writers seems to suggest that the outbreak of ethnicity in public discourse is the result of this marginaliza­tion and hence can not be considered as a factor on its own to analyze the conflict: to be specific, ethnicity is the consequence, not the cause.

Markakis argues, ‘As the assertion of ethnic identity and aspirations do not always attain political expression, we need to inquire into the circumstances that encourage the politicization of ethnicity and lead to ethnic conflict.’ The gist of his thesis is that the conflict is political because the bone of contention is state power.

Monopolization of political power meant that members of excluded ethnic groups lacked access to state power. This has serious implications. Where the state controls both the production and distribution of material and social resources, exclusion from state power is tantamount to material and social deprivation. Because it controls the production and distribution of material and social resources, the state has become the focus of conflict. Access to state power is essential for the welfare of its subjects, but such access has never been equally available at all. Since those who control the state have used its power to defend their own privileged position, the state has become both the object of the conflict and the principal means by which it is waged. Dissident groups seek to restructure the state in order to gain access to its power or, failing that, to gain autonomy or independ­ence. The ultimate goal of most parties to the conflict, of course, is to enlarge their share of the resources commanded by the state. This is the real bone of contention and the root cause of the conflict in the Horn.

Markakis casts doubt on the characterization of the conflict as ethnic. He writes ‘ethnicity certainly is a factor in the conflict, since in nearly all cases the opposing parties belong to groups with different ethnic identities. Whether such differences in themselves are suf­ficient cause for conflict is debatable and to define the conflict a priori as ethnic is ques­tionable’. Clapham’s position appears to be even stronger in this regard. He wrote that it is essential to point out that many of the current and recent conflicts have not in any meaningful sense been ethnic or have only included ethnicity as one element among others.

Jon Abbink equally argues ‘in line with recent anthropological and political science insights into the discourse of ethnicity that has emerged is usually an ideological ploy for other interests advanced by elite groups and that ethnicity in itself does not have ontological status as an independent social fact.... ethnic identity is often being used to construct social differences that were not there before’. By stating this Abbink joins the instrumentalists and the Modernists.

Clapham, Abbink and Markakis then agree that many of the recent conflicts cannot be categorized as ethnic at all and if the conflict manifested itself as ethnic, ethnicity is simply an instrument for gaining access to political power and resources. It is important to emphasize once again that according to these authorities the crisis is explained primarily in terms of political power: the centralization of power by what may be defined as a dominant elite and subsequently the state is defined as ‘ethnocratic’ one, that is, the monopolization of power by a few or one ethnic group and consequent exclusion of others.

Among such contributory factors are: the forced incorporation of the several ethno-linguistic groups and the coming to an end of the autonomous kings; the cultural, linguistic and religious implications of the narrowly defined Ethiopian identity, factors mainly related to the process of state formation in the 19th century; the relatively uneven economic development of the several provinces and the failure of the 1974 Revolution.

The process of centralization, some would prefer to call it “nation building” was not without consequences. Firstly, the incorporation of the South, the Southwest and the Eastern sides from their previously autonomous position to complete absorption meant that the notion of the state, its values, institutions and culture were imposed on the incorporated kingdoms. Secondly, it brought about all sorts of diversities in terms of religion, language, tradition and culture. However, as the state failed to accommodate this diversity, the religious, lingual, cultural as well as political and economic dominance gave birth to the “question of nationalities.” Thirdly, the state became extremely centralized at the expense of regional rulers. The political marginalization of the bulk of the community led to civil wars whose cause fundamentally differed from earlier ones. This time resistance not only called for state reform but even at times challenged the state itself. Several studies hinted that conflict in traditional Ethiopia was mainly an instrument for asserting some level of regional autonomy and not for upsetting the whole system, nor was it for separation. “God can not be blamed, the King can not be accused” was the main tenet. The opposition, whatever form it took, mainly looked for adjustment and restoration of violated rights like better administration, lower taxes, respect for local autonomy and reduction of corruption. By and large the legitimacy of the Monarch and its ideological roots were not attacked. In the 1960s, however, things started to change. The new forms of resistance that took shape in the form of “national liberation fronts” changed significantly in terms of leadership, social composition, motivation and ideological orientations.

Explaining the Crisis

    With the emergence of centralized administration, Ethiopia faced serious state crisis.

Attempts at explaining the cause of the state crisis have not only been less satisfactory but are also found to be diverse ranging from those who even today consider it was all a normal process of “nation building” and hence consider the liberation struggle as a form of tribalism to the instrumentalists that focus on the concentration of political and economic resources at the center as a core source of tension and that emphasize the proliferation of ethnicity as an erroneous comprehension of political and economic deprivation and the ruling party- Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a product of the 1960s Ethiopian Student Movement that focused on the “operation of nationalities,” that is, a ruling elite dominantly from one nationality controlling power, resources and narrowly defining the values and institutions of the state as a main cause. A few political elites even went further to state that it must be seen as a form of “internal colonialism.” Needless to say all approaches seem to have their own serious limitations.

Certainly the advocates of the “nation building” process and the instrumentalists fail to grasp one of the central issues of the debate in diverse societies like Ethiopia. The Ethiopian state that emerged as a result of the centralizing trend was qualitatively different from historic Ethiopia not only in terms of its territorial size but also in terms of ethno-linguistic composition and religious diversity. The majority of the ethno-linguistic groups incorporated were told in no ambiguous terms to assimilate into this state. Rather than attempting to forge a state from the newly introduced diversity, the regimes imposed a narrowly defined state, whose cultural, social, political and religious foundation and its institutions failed to reflect the existing diversity on the ground. It is not surprising then that the legitimacy of the government, its institutions and the values upon which it is established remain one of the sources of tension and at times the cause of its terminal crisis. In other words, the challenging issue is how to constitute a legitimate government from all the ethno-linguistic groups that do not squarely fit the usual notion of national majorities versus national minorities.  The traditional “nation-state” project certainly assumes the existence of a dominant national group and in country’s like Ethiopia where there is no such clear dominant majority, it becomes a mask for the “majority’s” culture, language, religion to become the national culture, language or religion. None other than Paul and Clapham have understood the importance and role of tradition in societies like Ethiopia.

To study tradition is not simply to study what happened long ago: it is to study an interlocking system of ideas and attitudes which have been held by a people over a long period, and which continues to affect their ideas and behavior in a large number of ways. Tradition is always with us; it may be changed, partly destroyed, or adapted by education or by social and economic development, but it can never be abolished...it is a force that binds a people together and gives them a national coherence and identity...

Perhaps the absence of  a numerical majority that dominates the political process at the center has a lot to explain for the persisting regime instability, the interethnic tension and rivalry among the groups for exclusive control of power. One need to note how other multicultural societies like India and Switzerland faced this reality.

Thus depending on the strength of the claims, identity and history of minorities, however, decentralized or federal system of government appears to be the genuine solution if the state is to survive by accommodating diverse groups while maintaining unity and avoiding fragmentation.

There is additional crucial point that the “nation builders” and the instrumentalists fail to realize. Post Cold War developments as well as empirical evidence from multicultural societies hints that identity does not necessarily vanish from the face of the political discourse even if political and economic situations are favorably accommodative, let alone when it is a state target of destruction under the guise of “nation- building.” Thus, while the nation builders have a point as they emphasize on the shared values and the difficulties of integration and the instrumentalists by focusing on the economic and political factors, two of the core causes of political instability, they often fail to consider the identity factor as a cause of tension in multicultural societies.

“Nation-building”  in Plural Societies and the Issue of Identity and Values of the State

   Part of the reason why the “nation building” project in multiethnic/multicultural/multinational societies becomes problematic is that the process is based on a wrong transplantation of Western ideas that assume the existence of a dominant national group that commands clear democratic majority. In many parts of Africa including the Sudan and Ethiopia, the nation building project aimed at politically and culturally integrating the various groups into a narrowly defined state values: in the case of the former Arabic language and Islam and in the latter Amharic language and Christian religion. This raises conflicting perspectives on the identity of the state. In the Sudan for example, the dominant elite mostly from the North desires the country to be Arab and Muslim while the Southern elite needs it to be African and De- Arabized or at least heterogeneous. Interestingly both dominant elite groups (from both countries) that defined such state values by equating themselves with the state and by marginalizing others do not constitute a majority. Thus it is not only based on a wrong transplantation of Western ideas but it is also undemocratic nation building project that was bound to fall, only waiting for the opportune moment to happen. The attempt to homogenize also contradicts the multicultural nature of these countries and negates the idea of mutual recognition. This has implications in the establishment of public institutions, in the design of national symbols such as the flag, national anthem, currency and values of the state. As one of the prominent experts on federalism aptly wrote, in a diverse society, the most essential element for stability and order is the acceptance of the value of diversity and of the possibility of multiple loyalties expressed through the establishment of constituent units of government with genuine autonomy for self rule over those matters most important to their distinct diversity. Thus for the nation building to be effective, the first measure that the countries (particularly the Sudan) need to do is to abandon the concept of basing such a process on one culture and religion and embrace multiculturalism as this will open a space for mutual recognition and multiple identity which is an important infrastructure for federalism.

The National Oppression Thesis and the Question of Nationalities

Distinct from the instrumentalist, colonial and Greater Ethiopia version of the story came the view that holds that Ethiopia should be viewed as a multicultural state and the nationalities need to be treated equally and have to be ‘liberated from’ the degrading situation they were put in, be it in the south or the north. But despite this general foun­dation and common understanding, the authors of this view could not agree on further details. As a result, it gave rise to various divisions and sub-divisions. The ‘national oppression’ thesis came into the Ethiopian political discourse with the ascen­dancy of the Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM) in the 1960s.

The events of the 1960s and 1970s were particularly crucial and still have repercussions on the present state structure and the ideology behind it. For instance, the major political parties including those in power as well as in exile claim their origin to this particular moment in history. Frustrated by stagnation of the economy and the imperial regime’s inability to bring any change, young, radical and leftist university students organized them­selves both at home and abroad to overthrow the regime and the ESM was a tool. The ESM was mainly a multinational force whose members were drawn from all the varied groups of Ethiopia. Their slogans ‘land to the tiller,’ ‘national equality,’ and ‘social justice’ were very popular in their challenge to the imperial regime. MEISON since 1968 and EPRP since 1972, which dominated the country’s politics in the early days of the Ethiopian Revolution, were direct offspring of the ESM. With the exception of EDU, almost all of the Ethiopian opposition forces derived their origins and inspira­tion from the student movement, and the central premises of that movement was that Ethiopia constituted a ‘prison of nationalities.’ Ethiopia was portrayed for the first time as a multicultural country and the movement clearly acknowledged that the nationalities should be treated equally.

The gist of the view is that ESM believed there was ‘one oppressor nation’ whose political system, culture and language dominated the others and on the other, many ‘oppressed nationalities’ who were politically and economically marginalized, culturally and linguistically dominated. The (Showan) Amhara was identified as ‘oppressor nation’ and the rest the ‘oppressed nationalities.’ Wallelign Mekonnen’s prominent article, a student leader killed in 1973 was a breakthrough in this regard. He wrote,

Is it not simply Amhara and to a certain extent Amhara-Tigre supremacy? Ask anybody  what Ethiopian culture is? Ask anybody what the Ethiopian language is? Ask anybody  what Ethiopian religion is? Ask anybody what the Ethiopian dress is? It is either Amhara  or Amhara Tigray. To be a genuine Ethiopian one has to speak Amharic, to listen to  Amharic music, to accept Orthodox Christianity.

This was a fundamental challenge to the nation-building project and to the then discourse of multicultural Ethiopia. A challenge to the ‘one Ethiopia, one nation’ thesis. This paved the way to the nation, nationality right to self-determination.

However, despite the fact that all were inspired by leftist orientations and even if they shared the manner in which the nationality question was to be resolved, particularly the EPRP and MEISON, they ended up in becoming one another’s worst enemy. The dispute clearly remained a struggle for power between rivals. Despite their adherence to the same political goals, the two oldest political organizations in Ethiopia became bitter enemies. They fought each other more than they fought the military regime. By 1973, following the Berlin conference, the split was getting clearer and the amorphous student movement evolved into two separate political parties: EPRP and MEISON. From then on the issue of nationalities remained unresolved and an Achilles heel to all political parties.

As a solution to the ‘national oppression’ described by the ESM there emerged contend­ing views. Those who advocated for the regional autonomy formula as in the Waz League, those like MEISON and EPRP that in principle acknowledged the existence of ‘national oppression’ but whose dominant orientation was towards unity and they saw the struggle of the oppressed people as indivisible, a solution to be sought within class rather than along national lines and the third set constituted all the ethno-nationalist movements who preferred to define their struggle on the basis of ‘nationality’ than class. The last group held that a new and democratic Ethiopia could only be con­structed through the voluntary and consensual association of its parts. It is important to mention that apart from sharing the view that the nationality question needs to be addressed, the exact meaning and scope of this vague clause was never clear. It is hardly possible that all groups meant the same thing. Even within the TPLF, the hard core of the ruling party, at the first phase of its evolution, it meant the self-determination of Tigray, within a democratic and multicultural context of Ethiopia and that implied self-autonomy, fair distribution of power and resources and equal recognition of culture, religion and language. Yet as included in the TPLF manifesto of 1976, secession was not ruled out. This position was abandoned for a long time and again came back with the establishment of MLLT (Marxist Leninist League Tigray) in 1986 and with it national self-determination up to and including secession, hence Article 39 of the federal Consti­tution.

As was noted already, in the end, when the multinational parties fall into crisis partly due to internal problems and partly because the Derg annihilated them in turns, the national liberation movements emerged as the only viable forces to challenge the Derg and as a dominant political force particularly in the post 1991 Derg period.

EPRDF, the ruling party, as a champion of the nationalities right to self-determination in a bid to liberate the nationalities from ‘national oppression’ interprets the crisis as something resulting from national oppression. It considers the political, economic and cultural factors as something resulting from national oppression, a deliberate design of Showan Amhara elite. It considers both regimes that have defined the much broader notion of Ethiopian nationalism narrowly, structured the state accordingly and left the others at their mercy. The centralization of power and economic resources at the center is, therefore, viewed as a secondary rather than primary cause of the state crisis. Based on this premise, the ruling party defined its struggle not on the basis of class or multina­tional principles but as a nationalist one. It believed that emphasizing the nationality question was the right strategy to rally the oppressed people by rejecting the class-based approach of the ESM that EPRP and MEISON chose to follow. It is from this that the argument for national self-determination of nationalities and structuring the state based on a federal system that grants at least the major nationalities their own constituent states springs from.

The National Oppression thesis is shared by several parties and leaders of nationalist movements and we now turn to some of them. One of the pioneer movements that long advocated the ‘national oppression’ thesis after the collapse of the ESM was the TPLF.

The Tigrayan Cause

Historical, economic and cultural factors contributed to the prominence of the ‘nation­ality question’ in Tigray. Tigray was always a provincial contestant to the throne and by and large was ruled by its own nobility. Although the Tigrayans shared a long common history, church and culture with the Amhara, after the death of Yohannes in 1889, Menlik seized the Solomonic title and turned the course of the empire to the South. His agreement with Italy to partition Tigray (since 1890 Eritrea, that constituted part of historic Ethiopia was alienated and ceded to the Italians) created a bitter legacy and thereafter the region was marginalized in political and economic terms.

Although it was not organized on a nationalist basis against the imperial regime, the Rebellion in Tigray in 1943 shows how the Showan elite was meddling even at local level to further weaken its political rival. Slowly but surely Showa was making sure that its rival remains on its low ebb. With the banning of the army of notables and the centralization of the taxation system, Tigrayan notables’ economic and political power was eroded and they lost what Gebru calls ‘their corporate identity.’ After that they only survived as individuals and with the ‘grace’ they obtained from Showa. Though the rivalry between Yohannes’s heirs Gugsa and Ras Seyoum was a catalyst in weakening Tigray, each linked to the Showan dynasty through marriage and administering different parts of Tigray, their crisis also paved the way for manipulation and meddling. After Gugsa’s death his son Haile Selassie, who saw his rival Seyoum favored by the Emperor defected and joined the invading Italian army. After 1941, Ras Seyoum insisted on the restoration of Tigrayan autonomy that was never materialized. For one Tigray was now ruled by an appointee from Showa (Alemayehu Tenna) and for another local notables known for being rivals to Seyoum were appointed in Adwa and Enderta. Seyoum was then a loser in between. The tax system, the introduction of Amharic in all state institutions and the unpopular governor were more than enough to create popular resentment that finally led to the unsuccessful resistance in 1943 (portrayed as kedemay Weyane [the first rebellion] by the TPLF). Its failure sealed at least temporarily the struggle for centralization and autonomy in favor of the former.

It is a pity that in some academic circles this unfortunate circumstance is very much undermined. Teshale, otherwise a great historian, in his attempt to address the ‘nation­ality question’ makes a distinction between ‘national’ and ‘regional’ level. He contends that only in the south can one speak of ‘Amhara domination’ because of the triple merger of nationality, religion and language in the person of the neftegna. At the national level, however, no special economic as well as political benefit accrued to Amharas distinct from other nationalities and therefore national oppression is merely reduced to linguistic oppression. There is even an argument that the government was not Amhara as such. However, the political, social and cultural foundation of the state remained to defend the nation-building project based on cultural integration. Besides, as already noted, the Amharas other than from Showa, although they were disappointed at the initial phase (the Gojjam rebellion of 1968) did not face the harsh realities that the Tigrayans went through. By associating themselves with the ruling elite from Showa they were able to secure jobs and derive some benefits. Economically, while in general little investment and economic progress was common throughout the country, the position in Tigray was even worse and the elite in Tigray relates this to Tigray’s ‘political emasculation’ and deliberate Amhara action. There was no single industrial development in the entire province even by Ethiopian standards. Culturally- Tigray although in­habited by Tigrayans of the same Semitic group with the Amharas, Tigrayans have their own distinct language and they are self-conscious. Yet they were forced to abandon the Tigrigna language in order to attend school and to secure a job. The ban was considered a symbol of Amhara domination. Taken in light of the assimilation agenda of the ruling elite, the measure was perceived as a symbol of Amhara domination and the eventual extinction of the Tigrayan identity. Language then became relevant not only in its own right but also as a surrogate for other issues like cultural preservation, equal access to state power and redefinition of the identity of the state. The center of the debate, one should note, is between the Amhara elite, which equates Amhara identity to Ethiopian identity, and the Tigrayan elite, which claims equality of all nationalities and perceives Ethiopia as home of all the diverse groups. Political and economic marginalization and the historic divide and rule were to further fuel resentment. These were the reasons for the radicali­zation of the Tigrayan elite.

Distinct from the ESM whose predominant view was to shape the struggle of the oppressed people along class lines, some of the University students from Tigray formed an association, which quickly evolved into a party, the TPLF on February 1975. Its purported aim was to defend the identity, dignity and interests of their nationality. Yet in its early stages, the Tigrayan student movement was not homogenous. Evidence seems to indicate that it harbored three different political tendencies. The first was an option to construct what they coined as ‘Greater Tigray’ that includes the Tigrigna speakers both in Tigray and Eritrea. Perhaps this was the agenda of the little known TLF. The second group was more in line with the ESM in suggesting that the liberation of Tigray should be seen in the context of liberation of Ethiopia, hence joined the EPRP. The third that was to be the basis of the TPLF focused on the liberation of Tigray both in terms of national and class, leaving the issue of post independence Tigray unsettled.

In the face of gloomy and unfavorable domestic and global circumstances those young university students determined to bring to an end the misery. Before it appeared as the only vanguard force in Tigray, it had to face the TLF, EDU and EPRP in its infant stage. First it faced the TLF, an organization, whose story is little known but is believed to have designed the Tigrayan cause as a struggle against colonialism, following the EPLF. For the TPLF, as far as records show, the Tigrayan cause was not defined as a colonial one, although it defined its struggle as one of self-determination of oppressed nationalities, secession/independence was an option but not its maximum objective. As one has rightly noted the post liberation political status of Tigray, separation and independence or a nation within a multicultural Ethiopian polity was not pre-deter­mined, it was to be determined in due course.

Since its struggle was defined as a national one, the presence of multinational forces was viewed as impediment to its objective and it had to face the challenges from EDU (and of the EDU’s shadowy splinter group teranafit centralist) and EPRP. It was able to eliminate them certainly by force between 1976 and 1978. Since then Tigray remained the exclusive area of the TPLF’s military and political operation, a situation, which still remains unchanged.

As events unfolded, the Tigrayan cause seems to have been settled under a federal system in a multicultural Ethiopia. It is important to emphasize this point because in some corners, it is stated, the present federal structure is nothing but the resurgence of Tigrayan dynasty or the coming to power of the heirs of Yohannes. Merera’s major thesis in his PhD is to make a widely held view in the private press that everything is heaven in Tigray and the Tigrayans dominate the whole federal system. Indeed he argues that the present federal system is a guise for Tigrayan resurgence. However, his position suffers from two major setbacks. We earlier noted the problem of presenting mainstream national elites in the face of existing convergence of ideas. Certainly opin­ions are more complex than they appear in his presentation. As will be sufficiently described in this section, there is more convergence than divergence among the elites of the several nationality groups and the attempt to show so much divergence does not seem to be convincing. Another limitation is his articulation of the Tigrayan struggle as resurgence. Maybe this is a confusion resulting from a mix between his dissatisfaction with the TPLF/EPRDF led government and the much broader Tigrayan cause. One of the major contributions of the latter, among other things, is transformation of the Ethiopian ‘nation-state’ to a multicultural federal state. Given the above context, the national oppression seems to make some sense. The political and economic deprivation seems to be deliberate consequences of Showan attempts to hold its rival at bay.

It is interesting to note that the Tigrayan resistance, particularly after the 1974 Revolu­tion seems to rather disprove the well-settled idea that the centers of conflict in many parts of the world including Ethiopia are the ones that are politically and economically deprived, in short the instrumental paradigm. The most effective and devastating resistance against the center came from Tigray, the birthplace of Ethiopian civilization and the mother of the authors of the Kibra Negast that provided the legitimizing basis for the Ethiopian state. It did not come from Afar or Gambela, although all raised their arms against the center. This is not an attempt to deny the political and economic drives behind it. It is simply to reiterate the point that not all political and economic depriva­tions lead to stiff resistance and there must be some additional reason to it. The fact that they can recite a lot from their proud history coupled with what some call "political entrepreneurs", that is, political elites who are able to translate the politico-economic and identity grievances into a political action are some of the additional factors.

So many things have been said about the success of the TPLF. Its organizational disci­pline, its determination and endurance, its capacity to mobilize the people on its side, an organization from within, not from exile, as the people say, the inability of the 1974 Revolution to bring any noticeable change, while it was able to take the ‘the steam of the revolution’ in the south by enacting the proclamation that granted land to the tiller are some of them. These factors among other things were able to withstand the old political elite and feudal culture in Tigray, the military with its huge war machine and the trouble of awarajawinet (internal diversity within Tigray) were subdued effectively. By creating coalitions with other ‘partners,’ the TPLF was able to forge EPRDF in its bid to control the political space in Ethiopia after it controlled the whole of Tigray. EPRDF became the most dominant force after the change of government in 1991 and responsible for state restructuring along federalism that grants nationalities with self-rule.

Thus we see that the ruling party has for long advocated that it is the oppression of nationalities that is at the heart of the crisis and the political and economic marginalization is a consequence rather than a cause. Although in the early 1970s there has been an intense competition between ethno-nationalist parties and class based parties, the former dominated the scene. The present ruling party, EPRDF as a coalition of ethno nationalist parties and as a main architect of the transition (1991-1994) and the 1995 Constitution long advocated for nationalities right to self-determination up to and including secession as a decisive remedy for the resolution of Ethiopia’s long standing problem of the “nationality question.” Yet, this in itself fails to underscore the point that in the end political and economic factors are crucial factors behind every conflict. Besides, this perspective fails to address adequately the problem of minorities within the different units and cities that often are inhabited by ethnically intermixed individuals. Thus an approach that combines the accommodation of diversity with genuine sharing of power and resources among the diverse groups and the commitment to human rights will better explain the success or failure of the state in multicultural societies in general and in Ethiopia in particular.

The Other Relevant Perspectives

The Views from the South

A very close but newly emerging view to the national ‘oppression’ thesis is the Southern perspective. In the competing nationalist perspective, a new regional force is emerging in Southern Ethiopia, an area that has long been marginalized. It is the homeland of more than fifty six ethnic groups with a combined population of more than 13 million. This is the region in which many of the authors at least agree on the point that until the 1974 Revolution and Derg’s proclamation of land to the tiller, thereby emanci­pating the bulk of the tenants and the landless from servitude, the Amhara from Showa, although not exclusively, with their neftegna, represented the worst form of class and national oppression for the bulk of the nationalities living in the south. Nationality, class and religion all combined in the person of the neftegna. The general political vision and perspective of the elite from this area, unity in diversity within greater Ethiopia, has become a serious challenge to the Oromo elite who seeks secession, and to the main­stream ruling elite who might seek asymmetrical relations with the South.

There are certainly several views emerging but at least two are dominant. There is the EPRDF-member SEPDF which shares more or less the same political program with the opposition SEPDC except on the issue of land and secession. The latter, supports the federal option but short of secession and also wants to privatize land. SEPDF has recently undertaken a lot of reforms, particularly after the TPLF crisis in 2001 and in 2002 merged some dozen ethnic fronts to form one movement. The attempt is to forge one party representing all nationalities. Despite troubling history, the region seems to be content with the federal option of unity in diversity.

Over all assessment of the federal experiment in the South exhibits both fear and hope. The fear is that there is continuous rivalry among some of the political elite for controlling regional power at the expense of others and that seems to be fueling those that felt marginalized at regional level to raise issues of further redrawing of new zones, Weredas and even new states. Thus carrying with it the threat of opening "Pandora's Box"- where to end once one begins restructuring the region with more than 56 ethno-linguistic groups. A newly emerging multicultural federation may need to remain flexible in order to adjust territorial boundaries to meet new ethno-linguistic demands which is an expected thing in holding together federation but too much flexibility may lead to the Nigerian federation's logic of fragmentation.

The hope and rather promising point about the South given its size and incorporation into main stream Ethiopian politics is the potential role that it can play in stabilizing the federal game. The South being composed of relatively smaller nationalities that benefit more from interdependence and some form of self-rule than from a unitary system and independence, have a major potential role to play in bringing equilibrium to the two potential threats of the Ethiopian federation: centralism (as reflected in the 20th century) and secession (as some political elites seem to be aspiring for it). 

The Afar Region

The Afar constitute a pastoral people who occupy a vast territory in the north-eastern part of Ethiopia but they also live in Eritrea and Djibouti, because of the sad legacy of the colonial scramble for Africa. The northern portion of the Danakils was included under Eritrea by Italians. The hinterland of the southern portion and the Awash River valley was incorporated by Ethiopia while the gulf of Tajura became the French colony of Djibouti. In Ethiopia they are found inhabiting in the north-eastern lowlands, now delineated as the Afar region, one of the constituent regions, in the federal system. Before the change of government in 1991, the Ethiopian Afars lived divided in the administrative provinces of Showa, Harareghe, Wello, Tigray and Eritrea. Like the Somali, the Afars suffered from imperialist intrusion. As a region dominantly inhabited by Muslims the Afars also belong to the group of marginalized people by a state that defined itself along Christian religion.

It is stated that cordial relations existed between the center and the sultanate in Afar until the coming to power of Haile Selassie. Often, central governments’ interest in the Afar was mainly economic as it was an outlet to the outside world as well as a source of salt. At later stages the region became one of the centers of discoveries about the human origin including Dinknesh (Lucy). Thus the strategic location of the Afar along the coast, the existence of trade routes with the center and its potential as an entry point for external aggressors, forced the central government from antagonizing the Afars. Thus the sultanates enjoyed some level of autonomy.

This was to be changed with the introduction of commercial farming in the 1960s. This was indeed a turning point in the sense that after its introduction, the Afars lost a large area of land. There were attempts to handle the matter with care as the emperor was also interested in incorporating Djibouti, but it did not prevent from flourishing various types of parties, particularly after the 1974 Revolution. The Derg fueled the situation because the nationalization of all rural land not only led to the expropriation of the holding of the Ali Mirah, an influential sultanate, who had a large private holding but also deprived the Afars of land that could be used for dry season grazing. Sultan Ali Mirah fled to Saudi Arabia and that marked the end of friendly relations between the center and the Afars.

Like the situation in the south as well as the Oromos, there are several parties operating in present-day Afar regional state that evolved from the crisis of the 1970s, with differing perspectives about the past as well as their visions about the future. One of the first parties to be set up in opposition to the Derg’s harsh measure was the ALF led by the Sultanate’s son Hanfreh Ali Mirah. As the military was cornered by opposition from all corners, it tried to concede to some of the claims of the Afars for regional autonomy, which also had strategic advantages for the military in weakening the Eritrean cause. It was able to persuade some members of the ALF and caused its split in 1976 when a group of defectors left to form the Afar National Liberation Movement which found common ground with the regime in Addis Ababa and was granted a measure of control in the Danakil. The Derg mobilized the ANLM to its side and carved out an Assab autonomous region around the late 1980s. Yet this was not able to convince the opposition from the region and several parties remained suspicious of the new develop­ment.

Thus after 1991 the ALF whose main support came from the Awsa region, predomi­nantly nomadic, dominated the transitional process as well as regional politics. However, internal family squabbles between the two brothers, the chairman of ALF and the then President Hanfreh Ali Mirah and Habib Ali Mirah, who was more hostile to the ruling party, led to confrontations with EPRDF. Close to the ALF is the ANLF that draws support from the Tigray speaking Afar in the Berahle area bordering the Tigray region and is said to be a faction that broke away from the ALF. It was influential in regional politics and stood second to APDO in the 1995-2000 elections for regional parliament. After March 1996 the regional presidency was transferred to APDO chairman Ismail Ali Siro. APDO evolved from TADO (Tigray Afar Democratic Organization), the Afars who border Tigray, and was restructured to represent the whole of Afar since 1992. Its main support came from the two zones that used to belong to Tigray and were predom­inantly cattle breeding. APDO was then able to break ALF’s power monopoly at the region as well as at the center.

In short, except the ARDUF, present circumstances in the Afar region seem to suggest that their claims can be satisfied with a genuine federal set-up that grants the Afars an autonomy of their own: an aspect of the nationality question and in this sense it con­verges with the southern, the bulk of the Oromo parties, except the OLF and all others that settle their case within unity in diversity. However, the fact that it is linked with the regional politics of the Horn because of its geographic ties with Eritrea and Djibouti and through the latter with Somalia, complicates the Afar issue.

The Somali Situation

Ethiopian Somali (Region five as it was known during the transition) includes not only the people living in the Ogaden but also the area in the north bordering Djibouti as well as Southern Bale and part of Southern Sidamo. The Ethiopian Somalis as Muslims claim that they have been subjected to triple oppression: national, religious and class, except perhaps a brief period during the time of Iyassu (1913-1916). Going back in history, although there are some historical records that show that historic Ethiopia had access to the port of Zeila, an ancient port on the Somali coast, there is no reliable evidence that indicates beyond a shadow of doubt of the inclusion of Ogaden into historic Ethiopia before the coming to power of Menlik. Accordingly, some of the parties who claim to represent the interest of the region have articulated their arguments along the ‘colo­nial’ thesis, following the Eritrean elite.

What is striking about the Ethiopian Somali case is that its cause, however genuine it may have been, is complicated by political developments in the Horn and particularly by the intervention of neighboring Somalia state. Right after the Somalia Republic was established as an independent state in the Horn in 1960 it embarked on an irredentist policy of bringing all the Somalis living in the three neighboring countries: namely Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti, hence the five star flag. To this effect it created and nurtured the WSLF (Western Somali Liberation Front) to represent the Somalis of the Ogaden and SALF (Somali Abo Liberation Front) to represent the Somalis in Bale and parts of southern Sidamo and some portions of the Oromos (which the Somali Republic thought were Somalis but mistakenly considered themselves as Oromos) in the early 1960s and 1970 respectively. Such an attempt was viewed by Ethiopia as a serious attack on its sovereignty and the confrontation led to moderate conflicts in Ogaden and Bale some time in the 1960s and to a full-scale war between the two countries in 1977. At all stages the United States and former USSR as well as Cuba were present on both sides supplying arms and even military support. Ethiopian military superiority effectively destroyed the Somali forces and the WSLF went into exile affiliating itself, as suspected, with the Siad Barr’s regime of Somalia. In 1980 the Derg was able to make a deal with the regime in Somalia about the Ogaden, which finally led to the death of the WSLF leading to the birth of another ONLF in 1984. The ONLF seemed to have rejected the vision of Greater Somalia by focusing to forge a distinct Ogaden, separate from Ethiopia as well as Somalia.

Contrary to common expectations of the Somalis as a nation, the Somalis exhibit a variety of intra-ethnic diversity, mainly based on clan. Even when central government’s interference in the region was very little during the early phase of the transition (1991-1994), they were divided into more than a dozen clan and lineage based groups, apart from the dominant Ogadenia clan. Some of them include the Issa and Gurgura, the Horiyal, Ishaq, Hawiye, Shekah and a few others who resisted such division but called on Somali unity/solidarity based on Islam.

Since the break up of the Somalia Republic, the Ethiopian Somalis then seem to face a dilemma between genuine autonomy within federal Ethiopia, creation of independent Ogadenia or joining one of the newly emerging ‘states.’ Like the situation in Afar and Oromia there are several contending parties in the region. We have the Western Somali Democratic Party (WSDP) mainly supported by the people in Ogaden and active in the regional politics during the 1995-2000 period and articulating a middle ground between the ESDL and the ONLF’s secession agenda. The latter seems to be divided between working with the government, playing a constructive opposition or insisting on the secession agenda. There is also the emerging Ethiopian Somali Democratic League set up in 1994 by merging some dozen Somali political and clan groups. This vision came from the late Dr. Abdul Mejid Hussein, a prominent Somali/Pan Ethiopian figure who believed the Somalis should stand together and solve their problems. In June 1998 ESDL merged with some remaining elements of the ONLF to form the Somali Peoples Democratic Party (SPDP). The SPDP and the ESDL seem to have made up their mind to work for a genuine autonomy within a federal Ethiopia and they are emerging as dominant political forces at regional as well as at federal level.

After considering the national oppression at length, it is perhaps appropriate to conclude with the following note of precaution. To argue that the conflict has to be able to be seen in a broader fashion that takes into account the cultural and identity element, apart from political and economic factors in the Ethiopian context is far from endorsing the idea that the whole conflict should be solely interpreted along this line. This approach like the instrumental model will lead to another narrow perspective and indeed that is the problem with the national oppression thesis. While explaining another dimension of the conflict, it fails to transcend it. Hence, when Abbink argues, ‘Ethnicity and its socio-political use are embroiled in political, social and economic issues and has to be ad­dressed through the latter,’ the proponents of national oppression have no satisfactory answer. One other writer has equally and rightly so pointed that the nationality question might be one cause but certainly is not the exclusive one. ‘Oppression, exploitation, poverty, injustice are trans-ethnic and could be more adequately dealt with if they were given answers that are also trans-ethnic.’


To conclude this part, the challenge for the Ethiopian state and indeed for many other multicul­tural states as well, has been, remains today and will remain to be its ability to craft a state that is united but that at the same time recognizes diversity. It is a question of building unity from diversity from a multicultural state. It is for this reason that federalism as an ideology and federation as a political institution incorporating both unity and diversity while at the same time imposing a limit on both makes it attractive for Ethiopia. If the assertions made so far are true then the evidence also seems to hint that national self-determination as a solution to the nationality question, while it might deal with the question of diversity, needs to be considered along with the political and economic factors that the instrumentalists have rightly emphasized. This for sure will have implica­tions, for instance, in structuring the units of the federation.

Given Ethiopia’s long existence as a de facto federal system, albeit under a monarchy, its diverse ethno-linguistic and religious groups and taking into account the fact that the Ethiopian state was in crisis for most of the 20th century mainly because of the concen­tration of power and resources at the center as well as because it failed to accommodate the diverse groups into the political process, then multicultural federalism remains the only defensible option to hold Ethiopia together. Federalism permits not only the existence of multiple identities under a single political union but also transcends the fixation with the nation-state and its limits in dealing with diversity. Federalism also breaks the politics of exclusion, as power sharing is inherent to it thereby creating opportunities for absorbing the contenders for power into the political process. More is said on this on a separate course on federalism.

Overall Conclusions on the Ethiopian Constitutional Development

     If seen along Ogendo’s analysis of post independence African countries constitutions, there are important remarks that remain relevant even for understanding Ethiopia’s situation. One can state safely that both the 1931 and 1955 constitutions were imposed rather than outcomes resulting from due considerations of historical, economic, cultural and social realities of the Ethiopia. If Constitutions are meant to be laws in which the various aspirations and values of the public in general are expressed, that is, as covenants between the governor and the governed, a democratic expression of the will of the public, then, both constitutions fail to meet these requirements. It should be noted that constitutionalism as a culture, though a much broader notion, is very much linked with this aspect of constitution making. Both constitutions provided for supremacy of the Emperor than the law and not involve the participation of the Ethiopian people. Nor did the constitutions intend for limiting the powers of the Emperor as he remained supreme for more than four decades. The making of the 1987 constitution marked a new phase as there was an effort to engage the public at grass root level but because of the regime (a military junta) and what ever was promised in the constitution never realized in practice and thus remained merely on paper. The short span (only four years) and the civil war as well overshadowed its importance.

   Another essential point related to the Ethiopian context is that there is a widely held view that considers constitutions merely as instruments for promoting the political will of the victorious ones/ruling elites of the time and not of the people per se and hence are viewed as instruments of submission, hence the saying “Negus Aykeses Semay Aytares”. Many of the constitutions have not been results of negotiated outcomes or of a publicly held consensus. We should note that all past constitutions were done away with unconstitutionally and no section of society ever tried to restore them. Thus constitutionalism is yet to take roots in Ethiopia.

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 November 2013 14:59