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.
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.
The Era of Written Constitutions
If a constitution is intended to be a document enjoying a wide degree of popular acceptance which in turn helps to convey legitimacy on the public authority and guides the exercise of power along the lines which the constitution lays down, then none of the Ethiopian Constitutions to date come remotely close to meeting this specification.
The above statement written by a close observer of the constitutional development in Ethiopia in 1993 remains as a main challenge in terms of the processes for making and amending constitutions.
The 1931 Constitution
The coming to power of emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 and the subsequent grant of the 1931 Constitution marks a new epoch. On the one hand this epoch reinforced the traditional position of the emperor as ‘Siyume Egziabiher, Niguse Negast Za-Ethiopia’ which literally means: Elect of God, King of Kings of Ethiopia’ but on the other marked the end of the role of the nobility or at least the gradual reduction of their role in local leadership, the traditional check against the power of the king of kings, to insignificance. Yet, it is important to note that Haile Selassie was crowned with full support of the pre-war modern elite with a mission of ‘Japanizing Ethiopia.’
This also marked the beginning of the culmination of the struggle for centralization, which began with the attempt at unification by emperors during the 19th century and reached its consolidation under the absolutist rule of Emperor Haile Selassie to be further reinforced by the military. The consequence was the alienation of the bulk of the regional actors leading to the center periphery polemics.
The first measure the Emperor took along the process of centralization was the grant of the Constitution. It was a fairly brief Constitution containing fifty-five articles. The first chapter with five articles dealt, as one might expect, with the emperor and the succession to the throne. The famous article three states ‘...the imperial dignity shall remain perpetually attached to the line of his majesty Haile Selassie I, descendant of king Sahle Selassie whose line descends without interruption from the dynasty of Menlik I, son of King Solomon of Jerusalem and of the Queen of Sheba.’ Article four stipulated about the succession to the throne and the subsequent provision explained ‘the person of the emperor as sacred, His dignity inviolable and His power indisputable’. His authority was unlimited and unquestionable and his function multi-faceted: the emperor was the head of the executive, the fountain of justice, the agent of change and the law-giver, albeit moderated by parliament that lacked the competence to enact law. To a careful observer such clauses represent a significant departure from the Ethiopian tradition of the right to rule which was open for any one (presumably from the regional nobility) who combines competence, might and Solomonic legend. With the coming to power of Haile Selassie and his constitution, it was planned to take a different course.
The bulk of the other provisions provided about the power and prerogatives of the emperor. The Constitution vested supreme power in the hands of the emperor and heralded the establishment of the institutions of the chamber of Deputies and the Senate. These two houses were important instruments for curbing the power of the nobility. Close scrutiny over the provisions and the practice revealed that both houses were merely meant to play a strictly advisory role. According to Article 31 members of the Senate were appointed by the emperor from among the nobility and the local chiefs. As for the chamber of Deputies, they were chosen by the nobility and the local chiefs. The presence of the nobility while providing some semblance of legitimacy at the center, on the other hand became part of a toothless legislative body and in a way remained the instrument of the centralizing and modernizing process launched by the regime. ‘They simply found a place for honorable retirement, as they were kept in the capital under close surveillance.’
Consequently, the Constitution’s major outcome was its ability to establish the legal framework within which governmental power was to be channeled and distributed. It was aimed against the personal, arbitrary and ill-defined powers traditionally held by the nobility. It reflected the traditional principle of absolute imperial power without any practical limitations. The Emperor was granted full executive power over both central and provincial government and the nobility and provincial governors were granted no independent authority.
The 1955 Revised Constitution
The Revised Constitution continued to reinforce the process of centralization. The sketchy provisions regarding the powers and prerogatives of the Emperor were extensively elaborated in the new Constitution. The Constitution spent one chapter settling the issue of succession on the rule of male primogeniture. Detailed provisions vested in the Emperor wide powers over the military, foreign affairs, local administration and so forth. Interestingly enough it also contained an elaborate regime of civil and political rights for the subjects. In theory, the Constitution was the supreme law of the land governing even the Emperor. It contemplated even an independent ministerial government responsible to the monarch and parliament, an elected chamber and independent judiciary but these liberal provisions were overshadowed by executive prerogatives reserved to the Emperor who exercised them expansively. Despite the apparent inclusion of the notion of separation of powers, little change was introduced regarding the position of the Emperor. He was both the head of state and of the government and he continued to oversee the judiciary through his Chilot (Crown Court).
A basic development in the revised Constitution compared to its predecessor was the introduction of the representative principle for the chamber of Deputies whose members were elected on the basis of universal adult suffrage. But parliament was granted no control over the ministers indirectly or collectively, who remained responsible to the Emperor. A measure of population representation with divine right of kings was resolved decisively in favor of the latter, with the Emperor retaining direct control over the executive, with the power to appoint ministers and regulate the whole of the executive branch. While one of the two chambers of parliament was popularly elected, it was balanced by the senate, which was appointed by the Emperor. There was a parliament but those who were eligible to be candidates were the nobility and wealthy landlords who were opposed even to modest land reform and by so doing they were the ones that made the Revolution inevitable. A law approved by both houses could not override the position of the Emperor.
Indeed critics state that, even more than its predecessor, the Revised Constitution was a legal charter for the consolidation of absolutism. The absolute powers of the emperor were spelt out in unmistakable terms. ‘By virtue of his imperial blood as well as by the anointing which he has received, the person of the emperor is sacred, his dignity is inviolable and his power indisputable.’ One author noted, ‘in essence the constitutional provisions amount to little more than a formal statement of the facts of political life in Ethiopia. It reinforced the ultimate power of authoritarian regime and the human rights regime were certainly luxury, which the government has not taken seriously, nor had anyone expected that it would. Most of the provisions were dead letters. It served to the regime’s penchant for what amounts to rather crude formalism.’
In 1966 the recommendation to make the Prime Minister become the effective head of the executive with the power to appoint his cabinet, leaving the Emperor in a largely ceremonial role was partly implemented when the Prime Minister became formally responsible for selecting other ministers, but later developments indicated that it was a far too premature gesture to be taken seriously. The same dilemma was to be repeated in 1974 when the Revolution was about to erupt.
Beyond these constitutional provisions, there are other factors that explain the complexity of the process of centralization and its impact on the regional nobilities. We have already noted the fact that the power of the chamber of deputies was not that significant. The hereditary aristocracy was marginalized and if they had any voice it was through the Crown Council, which served as an advisory body to the emperor. Such leading figures of the nobility as Ras Kassa Hailu, Ras Seyoum Mengesha, Ras Mesfin Sileshi and Ras Emiru Haile Selassie as well as the Abun were members of the Council at various times. Furthermore other factors contributed to the gradual decline of the nobility. Although historically they were in charge of military and administrative functions, their position declined due to the state’s creation of modern civilian and military bureaucracy. The creation of a modern army was of particular significance as they lost all their power with it. Lastly, regional nobility were weakened with the result that the nobility drawn from Showa replaced the regional nobility. This led to what Andargachew calls ‘the Showanization of the state,’ that weakened not only the nobility but also the bond between the government and the people.
Thus, towards the 1960s the regime was caught between series of contradictions: between the need for further modernization that needs efficient and decentralized administration on the one hand and the reliance a on personally appointed and centralizing regime, on the other; the growing contradiction between the traditional elite and the rising modern elite that felt isolated and was able to decipher the stagnation; and the narrowly defined identity versus the large heterogeneous population.
The Ethio-Eritrean Federation (1952-1962)
The Ethio-Ertirean federation, as already pointed out, was a significant political factor that influenced the revision of the 1955 Constitution. The crisis related to the dissolution of the federation remained to be the central challenge to three consecutive Ethiopian governments, including the present one. Much has been written about it, but as it goes some way to explaining the operation of a federal system in the continent, we must devote some words to it as well.
The territory now called Eritrea was historically an integral part of Ethiopia since the Axumite Era in the first century AD. Eritrea did not exist as an entity of its own prior to 1890 when it was created by Italy. The historical and cultural background of the Christian Eritreans is identical to those in Tigray. The language Tigrigna is the same as the one spoken in Tigray and belongs to the family of Semitic languages. The Tigrayans, therefore, form a solid bridge connecting Eritrea with the rest of Ethiopia. The death of Emperor Yohannes in 1889 and the shift of center of power from Tigray to Showa created a favorable condition for Italian colonial expansion.
Between the years 1869-1889 Italy insisted on expanding southwards, despite suffering defeats brought upon them by Ras Alula at Dogali. As early as 1887, Menlik the King of Showa had expressed readiness to negotiate with the Italians about supplies of arms in exchange for cession of territory, if this would ensure his speedy accession to power. Menlik seized the opportunity provided by the political vacuum created and sealed an Italo-Ethiopian pact, the treaty of Wuchale, in May 1889. As a result, part of the territory was ceded and in January 1890, Eritrea was born as an entity. In spite of the treaty of Wuchale, Italy continued expanding southwards and occupied some territories leading to the famous Battle of Adwa in 1896. Even after the battle of Adwa, the treaty of Addis Ababa (October 1896) which abrogated the treaty of Wuchale, recognized the independence of Ethiopia, but confirmed the Italian possession of Eritrea until 1941.
Menlik was in no position, according to some writers, to expel the Italians from Eritrea and he left Eritrea in Italy’s possession. Controversies exist as to why Menlik did not insist on expelling Italy from the whole of Eritrea as a victor of this famous war in history. One version of the controversy states that he was compelled to halt further Italian expansion into his territory owing to geopolitical and logistic reasons. If Menlik pursued pushing the Italians out as Ras Alula had wished, then Italy could send more reinforcement and the hard won victory could be lost. Whereas the other version states that the territorial cession is seen from the angle of the then existing rivalry between Tigray and Showa. One should note the fact that Menlik was consolidating his power both in terms of weapons and territory when Emperor Yohannes was busy fighting foreign forces. Because of this, they believe Menlik gave the territory to Italy in a bid to weaken his northern rivals. For instance James Paul recently wrote: ‘Menlik’s 1896 post Adwa treaty with Italy guaranteed Ethiopia’s independence within settled borders in exchange for its recognition of Rome’s sovereignty over the territory still occupied (even after Adwa) by reinforcing Italian armies based in Asmara. Thus was created in a legal sense a new typical artificial colonial territory, which Rome named Eritrea. Menlik was praised for his realpolitik but in appeasing Italy’s colonial appetite he had sanctioned the partitioning of the Tigrayan peoples: those north of the Mereb River became subjects of an Italian colonial rule and those to the south remained independent Ethiopians but were governed by a new monarchy from distant Showa.’
As a result, from 1890 until its liberation in 1941, Eritrea was administered as a colony by the Italian colonial Ministry, under a governor nominated by the Italian king. After liberation Eritrea remained under British rule till 1952. After World War II Italy renounced all right and title to its colonies and the Treaty of Peace signed in Paris in 1947 provided for the final disposal of the former Italian colonies to be determined by agreement among the four allied powers, the USA, USSR, UK and France. Failing agreement, the matter would be submitted to the UN General Assembly for disposition. The four victorious allies established an investigating committee to come up with a proposal on the future of Eritrea. The United States based on its interest in the region and good relations with the Emperor was keen to see Eritrea joined to Ethiopia in unity. The USSR and some Afro-Arab countries were on the other hand opposed to this move. They took the position that only separate existence could guarantee the sovereignty and progress of Eritrea. At the same time, however, they were sympathetic to Ethiopia’s need for access to the sea. Because of disagreements the matter was referred to the United Nations. In November 1949 the General Assembly set up the United Nations Commission for Eritrea, constituting members from Burma, Guatemala, Norway, Pakistan and South Africa whose task was to visit Eritrea and after taking into account the interests of the inhabitants and the interests of all the countries involved to report its findings to the UN. The findings were however divided. Burma and South Africa proposed federation with Ethiopia, Norway proposed union with Ethiopia while Pakistan and Guatemala proposed UN trusteeship for ten years and independence to follow thereafter.
In the period preceding the federation, the demand of political parties in Eritrea was diverse concerning the destiny of Eritrea. Many Eritreans demanded unity with Ethiopia, others requested for immediate independence and still others urged for a partition or at least a different status for the western side of the province. In short, the internal situation was divided.
On the Ethiopian side, Haile Selassie demanded the full incorporation of Eritrea and nothing less. Ethiopia’s claim was based on her need for access to the sea and by the claim of historical title and cultural affinity of the two populations. Furthermore, Ethiopian diplomats successfully invoked the OAU principle of non-territorial intervention in the internal affairs of the state and the need to respect the territorial integrity of African States whose territories were defined by colonial borders. Ethiopia argued that if Eritrea’s plea received a hearing, it would upset the entire post-colonial African state system as legitimized by the Cairo Resolution of the OAU in 1964.
The proposal by South Africa, Norway and Burma, constituting a majority, was finally approved by 46 to 10 with four abstentions. The Eritrean domestic situation, the international context and Ethiopia’s case finally brought what is commonly described as the ‘compromise formula,’ which became UN General Assembly Resolution 390 A (v).
The UN General Assembly passed this resolution on December 2, 1950 and the Resolution stated that Eritrea should form ‘an autonomous unit federated with Ethiopia under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian crown.’ The first seven Articles of the Resolution passed by the UN General Assembly on December 2, 1950 formed the Federal Act. A draft constitution prepared by UN experts was submitted to an Eritrean Assembly and the latter adopted it on 10 July 1952. By proclamation Number 124 of 11 September 1952 the Eritrean Constitution with the Federal Act was put into force in Negarit Gazetta. At this point in time, the federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia came into effect. The Federal Act as well as the Eritrean Constitution provided for a ‘federal arrangement’ between the two governments. According to the Constitution ‘Eritrea is an autonomous unit federated with Ethiopia under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian Crown’. The government of Eritrea was authorized, as a manifestation of its autonomy, to exercise legislative, executive and judicial powers. The actual division of power under the federal act vested a number of basic functions in the federal government: notably defense, foreign affairs, currency and external trade while reserving residual powers to the Eritrean government. These included civil and criminal law, police, health, education, natural resources, agriculture, industry and internal communication.
Many controversies arose over the ambiguity of some of the concepts included in the documents as well as over the whole federal compromise. There seemed a consensus though that the term autonomous unit signified not a sovereign state but rather a politically organized unit linked federally with Ethiopia and that the phrase under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian crown implied that the federation, not the autonomous unit, enjoyed sovereignty.
More controversial were the status of the federation and its subsequent dissolution in 1962. Closer observation of the 1955 Constitution and the Eritrean Constitution seems to suggest that Eritrea was only an autonomous region rather than a full-fledged unit in a federation, as we understand it today. The Resolution characterized Eritrea as ‘an autonomous unit federated with Ethiopia under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian Crown’. It did not accord Eritrea the status of a state in a federal union with Ethiopia. In a federation resulting from two units, one would expect there to be three institutions. The two constituent units and one other overarching federal government for both of them. Furthermore, a supreme constitution which both units submit to, is a requirement. None of them existed in the UN sponsored federal compromise. The Resolution had provided for a Federal Council, an institution that was a faint approximation of a federal body. This body was to comprise Ethiopian and Eritrean representatives in equal numbers and advise the Emperor on matters of the federation. The Council was simply ignored and practically done away with before it could even start functioning. As a result, the federal powers belonged to the Ethiopian government. The Ethiopian Emperor was the sovereign, the Ethiopian courts were the federal courts and the Ethiopian Ministers were the ministers of the federal government. Tekeste states, ‘For all intents and purposes the resulting relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea was not in the least federal. Even according to the intentions of the union, Eritrea was not granted a federal status but only a status of autonomy.’
However, this constitutional ambiguity could not serve as a justification for not implementing even the regional autonomy. Even Eritrea’s mere status of autonomous region was not tolerated by Haile Selassie’s regime. The reasons as stipulated by many writers seem to relate to the nature of the two incompatible Constitutions. Ethiopia by then had a feudo-monarchichal system of government, ideologically sustained by some notion of the divine right of kings. It was imperial. The emperor ruled as an absolute monarch and as head of an empire every part of which he sought to subordinate to himself. The government had a notion of territorial integrity that was incongruent with federal or other structures of decentralization and hence the dissolution was no surprise. By contrast, the Eritrean Constitution was one modeled on those of Western democracy. It provided for three branches of government based on rule of law, it stipulated for fundamental freedoms and a multi-party system.
Haile Selassie demonstrated a considerable diplomatic success when he orchestrated a federation between Ethiopia and Eritrea with the approval of the UN. However, the regime lacked the political wisdom and political will to maintain the regional autonomy. As early as 1955 the Emperor’s representative in Eritrea already hinted at the fact that ‘there are no internal or external affairs as far as Ethiopia is concerned...’ and pointed out that ‘the affairs of Eritrea concern Ethiopia as a whole and the Emperor.’ In 1958 the Eritrean Assembly voted unanimously to abolish the Eritrean flag and use only the Ethiopian flag. In 1959 the Ethiopian penal code replaced the existing legislation in Eritrea. In 1960 the Eritrean assembly voted unanimously to change the name Eritrean government to Eritrean administration and other adjustments connoting its lower position than a federation. On 14 November 1962 again the Assembly voted unanimously for the abolition of the federation. Whether this important series of events was undertaken with full backing from the Ethiopian side or not is a troublesome question. But few seem to doubt the fact that these events were taking place with full knowledge and influence from both sides of the ‘federation.’ In as much as the Imperial regime had wanted to terminate the federation, the Eritrean Union party, the then governing party in Eritrea, cooperated equally to the demolition of the autonomous status.
The controversial debate among Ethiopian and Eritrean intellectuals as well as foreign writers begins with the status of the ‘federation’ that was in force from 1952-1962. The controversy gets reinforced with the impact of its dissolution in 1962. Many believe that by virtue of this compromise formula, the Resolution formalized the decolonization of Eritrea at this moment in time. Others believe that Eritrea was formally decolonized in 1993.
The bulk of Ethiopian intellectuals believe that the Eritrean case is a case of secession rather than decolonization. The argument is that neither the terms of the Resolution nor international opinion following the dissolution allow the General Assembly to reserve residual power to itself upon any violation. The arrangement under the Resolution merely conceived of Eritrea as an autonomous decentralized unit, which is conceptually different from confederation and federation. Legally speaking, such an autonomous status can be modified by the central government and the Ethiopian Crown being sovereign, had every right to do what ever it wanted, though politically it was not advisable. Consequently, Eritrea did not have a legal personality under international law until 1993. Regarding the charge that the re-incorporation of Eritrea in 1962 was illegal, it is important to note that it was the elected Eritrean Assembly that unanimously decided to terminate the federation in the first place. A minority of Eritreans also shares this view. Tekeste for instance wrote, ‘the war in Eritrea had neither [a] colonial character nor that of [a] war fought against [a] foreign dominator. It was an internal war for power sharing or control of state power.’
Another point of equal importance is the fact that parallel to the series of measures indicated earlier on, the Muslim League was more or less consistently opposing the measures taken by the Eritrean assembly. It is no surprise therefore that the first armed opposition came from this group. It was to constitute the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). As a protest to the dissolution of the federation, a clandestine movement started around the same period first by the ELF and later by the (Eritrean People Liberation Front) EPLF and continued until 1991. Many consider the dissolution of the federation a cause of the protracted war that stayed for thirty years.
The armed struggle in Eritrea began in 1961 with the formation of the ELF by Eritrean exiles in the Middle East under the leadership of the veteran shifta Idris Awate. Syria and Iraq regarded Eritrea as an integral part of the Arab world and indeed the ELF portrays even today Eritrea as a Muslim nation with a Christian minority. Egypt particularly allowed opponents of the Ethiopian regime to enjoy a safe haven. Its policy is based on dividing and weakening Ethiopia in the hope that the latter remains incapable of harnessing the huge water resources of Ethiopia that flow through the Nile to the Sudan and Egypt. It must be noted here that Ethiopia supplies 86 per cent of the water that flows from Abay (the Nile). When ELF succumbed to its own internal squabbles and failed to absorb the then fast growing Christian opposition joining the struggle, the EPLF evolved as a powerful party to lead the struggle. The struggle both in its own right and in radicalizing the influence it exerted on the Ethiopian opposition in general played a significant role in the regime’s collapse in 1974 and the military in 1991. After 30 years of struggle, EPLF de facto controlled Eritrea in 1991 and a referendum held in 1993 resulted in Eritrean independence.
Considering Haile Selassie’s ambition of centralizing power, the failure of the Ethio-Eritrean short-lived autonomous experience was no surprise. What is more remarkable is that the regime was not willing to tolerate it even though there were clear indicators of the probable long-term consequences of the collapse. The failure of the decade of federal experience also fits the hypothesis that a federal system should be based on a covenant, should have internal support and should not result from outside. Most post-colonial federal experiments in Africa failed for similar reasons. There is another bitter lesson for those who still claim to follow the Eritrean example of secession. Secession or the emergence of an independent state does not necessarily result in the establishment of a stable and democratic state. This is evident not only from the experience of post-independence Eritrea but also from many other of the post-independence African states. Secession or independence simply replicates the nation state without resolving the controversial and normative question of how to politically integrate, share power and resources among several contending forces.
The Revolution and the Coming to Power of the Military
Towards the end of the imperial regime, the centralization and the tension between the traditional forces backing the regime and the modern elite was gaining momentum. Opposition to the regime took many forms. Perhaps the 1960 attempted coup d’etat was a watershed. Infuriated with Ethiopia’s backwardness compared to the newly emerging states in Africa, the designers wanted to restore Ethiopia to its proper place. They promised new factories and schools and also had a plan of introducing a constitutional monarch although the land issue was not raised. Despite its failure the coup succeeded to attract the attention of the university students who became the heirs of the rebels. It was fundamental in the sense that for the first time many realized that the regime whose legitimacy came from the divine right to rule could be overthrown.
The aristocracy that had lost its military and administrative functions to the new elite was no longer the pillar of the monarchy. The young returnees from school abroad on the other hand thought they were working for a regime in which personal loyalty was of prime importance. It was clear to them to see how ignorant, corrupt and inefficient their superiors were. In the course of the 1960s and 1970s the new elite armed with western ideology became the main antithesis of the ancient regime. Alienated from the center and backed by Ethiopia’s traditional opponents of the Middle East, Somalia, Eritrea, Oromos of Bale and the Ogaden were challenging the center. Finally, in the early 1970s, the regime lost two of its Western allies, the United States and Israel at a time when the Middle East was in ascendance because of the power and prestige it derived from its ability to control oil prices. With a view to end hostilities in Eritrea and Somalia and following Arab-Israeli war in 1973 Ethio-Israeli relations were severed. This was followed by cold diplomatic reactions from the United States apparently taken to accommodate the Arabs.
Finally the urban uprising of 1974, the events of January to June of the same year showed a total collapse of the regime and the absence of any obvious successor to it. It should be noted though that when the revolution was about to erupt, the nations teachers, taxi drivers, students, unemployed and the labor union had shown a stake in it thus making it very popular at inception. Towards the end of February the cabinet of Aklilu Habtewold was forced to resign and Endalkachew Mekonene was instructed to form a new cabinet but despite the good profile of the team, it never succeeded to stop the course of the Revolution. ‘The plea for patience (fata) fell on deaf ears and indeed the radicals insisted bulcha bikeyer wot ayatafitim (changing the stove does not make the stew any better).’ Endalkachew was removed in July and replaced by Mikael Imiru, the latter to be replaced soon by the Derg.
Another crucial aspect of the Revolution, however, came from the military. It started with a modest request for economic and social reform like food and uniforms for their members but as many have described it became a ‘creeping coup’ implying the slow but systematic erosion of imperial power culminating in the deposition of the Emperor. Towards June of 1974 the Derg (which means committee in Amharic) which started as a movement within the capital was subsequently broadened with the inclusion of representatives of various units from all over the country and slowly it grew into a military parliament, constituting some 120 members under the chairmanship of General Aman Mikael Andom and Mengistu as the first vice chairman,mainly constituting lower ranking officers. Taking the lessons of the 1960s, the Derg expressly declared loyalty to the emperor and did not show any ambition to seize power.
As far as the affairs of the government were concerned dual power prevailed for something like a month between that of the Endalkachew cabinet and the Derg but power continued to shift out of the hands of the former to the latter. However, the Derg had already the armed forces, the media and police behind it and also secured the blessing of the Emperor. The cabinet was already divided between those working with the Derg and those who opposed it. The Derg continued to replace or isolate those who were not amenable to its whims. As a result Micheal Imiru replaced Endalkachew Mekonen as a Prime Minister on July 22. The Derg arrested the then Minister of defense Abiye Abebe and replaced him by Aman Andom. This time Derg’s control of the cabinet was almost complete.
The Derg continued to weaken and abolish all institutions associated with the Emperor and finally confiscated businesses owned by the Emperor and the royal family. On 11 September, the ultimate attack against the Emperor was perpetrated as the famous film on the 1973 famine (that was kept secret) produced by Jonathan Dimbleby was made public. On September 12, 1974 the Derg suspended the Constitution, deposed the Emperor, and dissolved parliament, thus ending the regime. Although the Derg took over power from June 1974 with the set-up of a military committee, 12 September 1974 marks the official taking over of power.
A convergence of domestic as well as international factors fueled by the urban uprising reflecting regional, ethnic as well as class contradictions as championed by the student movement, was accelerated by the military thus ending the regime with its Solomonic legend. Not only did it end the Monarchy but this time the Derg filled the political vacuum by introducing socialism, a complete change of direction.
What is unfortunate about the Revolution was that despite its popular background, there was no organized civil force that could articulate ‘a road map’ for the masses. It was only the military that was organized and that filled the political vacuum. The two leftist political groups that were in existence allegedly, MEISON (All Ethiopian Socialist Movement) as of 1968 and EPRP (Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party) as of 1972 had remained clandestine and their activities were limited to their student constituency. The military as the only organized force, therefore, exploited the existing power vacuum and easily took over leadership of the revolution. Because of this, what came to power was the military, not the revolutionaries, defeating the cause of the revolution. Through the mentors, mainly MEISON, the Derg was able to catch up with the leftist dialogue and declared the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) Program in 1976 and its ultimate objective was the setting up of the Peoples Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) which came out in 1987. From 1974 up to 1987 the Derg ruled by decree.
After consolidating power the first measure the Derg took was to herald, the same date of its crowning, by decree all demonstrations and assemblies illegal. The proclamation that deposed the Emperor transformed the Derg into the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC), which assumed full state power. Simultaneously it suspended the Constitution, dissolved parliament, banned all strikes and demonstrations and declared Ethiopia Tikdem (Ethiopia First) with its socialist doctrine.
As it started to catch up with the Marxist thoughts it nationalized financial institutions and private commercial and industrial enterprises in January 1975. This was followed by the nationalization of urban land and extra houses. According to Bahru the nationalization measures transferred resources from private to government hands and thereby constituted the economic foundations of totalitarianism.
The Derg also proclaimed the land reform in March 1975. Since 1965 University students had already popularized the slogan ‘land to the tiller’ calling for an end to the Neftegna and Gebar system in the South. The land reform, in as much as it eradicated centuries of social inequalities, appears to have had enduring positive impact. Indeed, by doing this the Derg was able to rob one of the causes of the revolution and at this point in time the Derg was at the height of its popularity. The proclamation abolished all forms of private land ownership and prohibited the sale, lease or mortgage of rural land. In short, it put an end to landownership. Thus, a large section of the people of the south as such was emancipated from servitude, at least in the short run. The large section of the peasantry saw a stock in the emerging regime and was to constitute the bulk of the army. However, even this popular measure had its own drawbacks. Not only did the proclamation fall short of making the peasant the absolute master of the plot but it was also accompanied by a series of unpopular measures. These measures ranged from state control of agricultural marketing that required the peasant to supply produce at fixed government prices to forced resettlement, collectivization and the relocation of peasant neighborhoods to new sites selected by government cadres (villagization). At later stages dissatisfaction with these measures was to be one of the factors for the rallying of the northern peasantry behind the EPRDF in its campaign to bring the Derg rule to an end.
The Derg continued to consolidate power by crushing all sorts of opposition and on November 24, 1975 it announced the shocking news of the death of its chairman General Aman and the execution of some sixty top government officers of the imperial regime. This initiated the cult of political violence that attained its climax in the so-called Red Terror. It was first aimed at the urban guerilla resistance by EPRP members in which thousands of young intellectuals were killed but at later stages, MEISON too was a victim of this terror. It was the official launching of state killing any one suspected of dissenting from the regime including the EPLF and TPLF.
The 1987 Constitution
Final stage to complete the institutionalization and monopolization of power was the promulgation of a new constitution and the proclamation of the Republic. The process of establishing a vanguard and single party culminated with the set-up of the (Workers Party of Ethiopia) WPE in September 1984 with its chairman Mengistu. Interestingly, its formation was against the background of the worst famine in the country, a regime that got to power by publicizing another famine in 1973 was celebrating its new party when lives were lost for the same reason. The draft constitution was completed in 1986 and was formally submitted to public debate and ratified by a referendum in February 1987. In an election in which a single party, WPE members, participated members of the National Shengo (parliament) were elected. While formally the Shengo constituted the highest legislative body, in practice, the Shengo was not to be sitting continuously but only once a year for a set period. The role of the Shengo was undertaken by the State Council. It was the visible administrative organ of state power with the highest responsibility for undertaking the day-to-day state functions. It was also the permanent executive, legislative and administrative organ of the National Shengo. Thereby the National Shengo’s role was reduced in a rubber-stamping body of the WPE.
The Constitution stated that Ethiopia is a unitary state constituting administrative and autonomous regions. It stated that the nationalities are equal and ensured the equality of nationalities ‘through ... combating chauvinism and narrow minded nationalism, [and by enhancing] the equality, respectability of the languages of nationalities as well as through equal participation in political, economic, social and cultural fields and through realization of regional autonomy’.
An important political development of the 1980s Derg epoch was the recognition of the fact that despite all the forces the regime employed to destroy all opposition, the struggle to overthrow the regime persisted in some quarters of the country, mainly in Eritrea and Tigray. With a view to calm this resistance and to rob the rebels’ cause, the PDRE Constitution expressly stated the possibility of organizing regional autonomies. This Constitution was also the first to recognize the presence in Ethiopia of different nationalities. It sought to combine the recognition of the cultural identity of ethnic or national groups and a measure of autonomy for them, with overall subordination to the center in the name of the ultimate supremacy of class solidarity over national identity. What is mysterious is why it came to this point late in time as the regime hinted its acknowledgement of the nationalities’ right to self-determination as early as it took power.
As the Ethiopian Student Movement had already popularized it, belatedly the Derg also tried to address the ‘question of nationalities.’ Given Ethiopia’s existing situation, the problem of nationalities it was stated, could be resolved if each nationality was accorded full right to self-government. This means that each nationality would have regional autonomy to decide on matters concerning its affairs. As stated above the Constitution of FDRE was a unitary one but the unitary state comprised administrative and autonomous regions. The National Shengo was empowered to determine by subsequent legislation the autonomous regions, their powers and boundaries. Accordingly, the Shengo proposed five autonomous regions and twenty-four administrative regions. The five autonomous regions were Eritrea but without its Afar inhabited areas, Tigray, Assab for the Afars, Dire Dawa for the Issas, and Ogaden. Subsequent proclamations defined more the powers and duties of the autonomous regions. The fact that special status was granted to some administrative regions reflects the long-standing recognition on the part of the government that there was a serious problem that deserved attention. The new regional structure announced sought to reorganize the entire basis of regional government according to nationalities as determined by the Nationalities Institute, while dividing several of the larger nationalities, including notably the Oromos, Amhars and Somalis, over a number of regions. Its most noticeable legacy may well be in the formal recognition of nationalities and in the groundwork for the division of Ethiopia along ethno-linguistic lines, carried out by the Nationalities Institute.
Again formally speaking an attempt was made to decentralize power and the decision-making process after thirteen brutal years of centralized military administration. A fresh start was made to set up autonomous regions in the areas, which had been a focus of civil strife, ethnic violence and war.
Yet, it soon became clear that the PDRE project with its approach to the regional autonomy of some districts were all a means never taken seriously. Critics are unanimous in pointing out that it was a sham attempt. Opposition to the regime stated ‘It remained the Derg’s Republic not a people’s republic. Real power continued to be exercised by those who seized power on 12 September 1974, that is, the same military officers who have ruled the country under the PMAC continued to rule under the People’s Democratic Republic, everything else being window-dressing. Those familiar face who were in power before the establishment of the Republic were indeed serving the new Republic and by the new Constitution they acquired a democratic legitimacy.’ If anything, the process only resulted in transfer of power from the military and PMAC to the PDRE but in the end the same people who were responsible for all the turmoil emerged as leaders in a civilian dress. As expected, Mengistu became the President of the Republic and remained an accomplished dictator. The question of the return of the military to the barracks and the formation of democratic institutions remained unresolved. Thus, it was an ‘attempt to wrap the military clique in civilian clothes bearing a new name Peoples Republic but remained the same old dictator.’
With the coming to power of Mengistu Hailemariam as uncontested dictator after all the mass killings and unpopular measures including the persistent use of force to settle political differences with all sorts of oppositions, some have even doubted if any revolution occurred at all. It is a contradiction in terms. Regardless of their sweep to power, the soldiers did not bring about anything revolutionary to the existing power relations. True that the Emperor and the basis of his legitimacy (Solomonic line with divine right to rule) was overthrown but the centralized state with its narrowly defined Ethiopian identity remained unchanged. The ideological vacuum for legitimizing the state shifted to Marxism-Leninism as they perceived a relationship between oppressed nationalities and an oppressor nation, which they traced in the image of the state. It also advocated secularism and declared the equality of religion and to this effect the Derg removed some symbols associated with the old regime including the loss of the Orthodox Church as a state religion. As already noted even the land reform failed to maintain its popularity. The nationality issue, the legacy of the old regime and as championed by the students remained unresolved and when the military tried to address it towards the end of its regime, it was not only half-hearted but was also too late. To this extent then one clearly sees the continuity, to an even aggravated degree of the political and social ills of the old regime.
The continuity in the state structure with the old regime was clear. The centralization of power by far exceeded the old regime. Clapham speaks of encadrement, ‘incorporation into structures of control’, implying the complete control of the political space by the Derg in all aspects of life, for instance, through the peasant associations, youth associations, women associations, the kebele and all forms of associations one can imagine giving no space for individual autonomy. The tradition of concentration of power in the emperor transferred wholesale to the new head of state, the President, backed by the only party allowed to operate, the WPE, itself controlling the dozen associations. In this respect Clapham’s remark on the similarity of patterns between the 1955 and 1987 Constitution is worth quoting. ‘In a sense the two documents could scarcely be more different. The first was issued in the name of Haile Selassie I elect of God emperor of Ethiopia, conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the second in the name of ‘we the working people of Ethiopia’, the role which in one is played by God and the emperor was in the other taken over by the alliance of the workers and peasants, the vanguard party. But in a sense the two can be seen as very similar documents. Both of them were intended to consolidate the power of an existing regime by giving it a formal basis, which on the one hand sought to convey an impression of legality and participation to the domestic population and on the other sought external support and recognition by adopting an acceptable external model.’ Now one can comprehend vividly the message of Clapham’s statement in the quotation at the beginning of this section.
Under these circumstances, the Derg’s commitment to regional autonomy was viewed with suspicion. The extent of the administrative and autonomous regions to exercise power decentralized to them was severed by the WPE’s centralized decision-making structure and regional autonomy remained a dream that was never fulfilled. It was a grant from the centralized government that could easily be revoked but besides that it was too little too late. While it was originally argued that this move is right on the mark in line with the program of the NDR and deserves wide support, however, as expected, none of the liberation fronts participated in nor welcomed the move. It was never considered a genuine attempt to solve the problem of the nationalities in Ethiopia. Indeed, the Derg through its war policy gave further vigor to ethnic nationalism. The nationalities question was pressed right after the revolution by the Oromo, Tigrayan and Eritrean radicals. Certainly, the belated measure did not attract the Eritrean groups for which an early federal accommodation would have been more appealing.
As one writer noted it was modeled after the former USSR’s approach to the question of nationalities. The nationalities would enjoy cultural rights and a limited amount of administrative autonomy within their own home areas subject to the overarching control of the communist party. In the Ethiopian situation the WPE played this role and in the end not even the minimal versions of self-autonomy were put into practice. All discontents had to be resolved along class lines under the vanguard WPE and the regime simply paid lip service to regional autonomy.
The Constitution in dealing with regional autonomy did not offer any hope in terms of reconciliation for peace with the opposition. A political solution to the crisis was never whole-heartedly pursued. Political will on the part of the actors was manifestly absent. Indeed, the Derg’s single-minded reliance on coercion on the northern periphery was an essential ingredient in the sequence of events that followed. By totally alienating peasants in Tigray and Eritrea and by creating the conditions for a series of diasporas that began to interact with local politics the Derg set favorable conditions for the rise of the (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) TPLF and EPLF.
Continuity or Reversal?
The Transitional Period (1991-1994)
Four years after the Derg’s Constitution came into force, the regime was almost destroyed by EPLF and TPLF forces and the balance of power completely shifted leading to a new political discourse. In February 1989 the Derg suffered a major debacle in Shire, Tigray which forced it to withdraw completely from Tigray and this indirectly forced the TPLF, an organization which had its genesis in a desire to liberate a province, to think of an agenda that encompassed the whole country. It was in this context that the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF-the ruling party at present) was born in 1989. Economic stagnation and global changes also contributed to its immediate downfall. The Derg, whose support very much depended on the former USSR, was completely debilitated when the latter went into its own crisis.
With a view to bringing together the Derg and the opposition, mainly EPLF and TPLF, the London conference was scheduled in May 1991 that was mediated by Herman Cohen, United States assistant secretary of State for African Affairs. By then the Derg’s position was, however, completely weakened. The movements had controlled or encircled Derg’s last hold, Asmara and Addis Ababa, and its delegates lost vigor in pursuing the peace process. On May 21, 1991, Mengistu Haile Mariam, President of PDRE, left Addis Ababa by airplane allegedly to visit a military camp in the south west of the country. On its way, the plane was diverted to Nairobi, from where the president went into exile in Zimbabwe.
Talks between the then government with EPRDF, EPLF and OLF were scheduled to start on 27 May 1991. No conference took place. Instead the government delegation left the talks and on the following day the EPRDF forces entered Addis Ababa to re-establish law and order. A joint statement of the three movements confirmed their agreement to hold a follow-up conference and to discuss the details of the transition period in general and the formation of a broad based provisional government.
Consequently, a national conference for this purpose was convened in Addis Ababa from July 1-5, 1991. The Conference resulted in the signing of the Charter by the representatives of some 31 political parties, the creation of an 87 seat Council of Representatives and the establishment of Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE). The Conference also agreed on the modalities of the transition process to last two years. In the mean time, elections for local regional government were to be held, a new constitution was to be drafted, general elections for electing members of the constitutional assembly that ratifies the constitution were to be held and finally the election of the new national assembly was scheduled, thereby ending the Transition. The most remarkable feature of the conference was that its members were designated almost entirely, save the representatives of professional organizations and the members from the university, on the basis of nationality, either from existing movements, or in some cases, notably in the South and Southwest, from organizations rapidly formed in order to take advantage of the new political atmosphere. In some cases the representation was divided like in the Oromos between the OPDO, OLF and other similar movements organized on the basis of religion.
As noted already, the national conference adopted an interim constitution, otherwise known as the Charter for the TGE. Composed primarily of leaders of nationality-based parties spawned by the civil war, the conference reflected a dramatic shift of political power from the center to new politicians from hitherto marginalized regions. The Charter established the framework for the provisional government and guaranteed nationalities to preserve their identity, administer their own affairs within their own defined territory, the right to participate in the central government based on fair and proper representation, and the right to self-determination. It expressly empowered all legal and political responsibility for the governance of Ethiopia until it hands over power to a government popularly elected on the basis of a new constitution. Furthermore, the Charter empowered the TGE to establish by law local and regional councils defined on the basis of nationality. While this has clearly been conferred on the TGE some contest if it had this mandate at all.
The establishment of national regional self-governments was provided for in another proclamation. The Charter and the proclamation explicitly provided that the boundaries of the territorial regions be defined on the basis of nationality in order to guarantee the nationalities the right to self-administration. The proclamation distinguished between regional self-governments based on an agreement of two or more adjacent nationalities, and national self-governments, established by any nation, nationality or people.Accordingly, the proclamation enumerated sixty-four identified nations, nationalities and peoples and set up fourteen regions. The law provided for forty-eight of the identified nationalities to be able to start their own national/regional self-government at the wereda level or above. Moreover, it was provided that self-government of adjacent nations, nationalities and peoples may by agreement establish a larger regional self-government within any of the 14 regions specified.
The remaining other nationalities and peoples with small populations were defined as minorities. Meaning a ‘nationality or people which can not establish its own wereda self-government because of the small number of its population.’ These nationalities and peoples with small populations and known as minority nationalities nevertheless were provided with appropriate representation in the district council.
The striking point is that nowhere do the charter and the proclamation employ the term federation in either their preamble or specific legal provisions, although both documents ensure each nationality with the right to self-determination including secession. The proclamation specifically enumerated both the powers of the central government and those of the self-governments.
If one looks at the legal framework from the angle of a federal system, there is no doubt that the balance swayed in favor of the center. A somewhat ambiguous and less precise language was introduced in the proclamation implying that except for specifically enumerated powers of the central government, all other powers including residual powers belonged to the regional self-governments. But the enumeration of the powers of the central government was not exhaustive and contained broad terms.
In the language of the Charter, the Transitional Government shall exercise all legal and political power for the governance of Ethiopia. In no unequivocal manner, the proclamation also stated that national regional transitional self-governments are in every respect, entities subordinate to the central Transitional Government. Moreover, the national /regional council (local parliament) that was the repository of overall political power regarding the internal affairs of the regions, was made accountable to the people which elected it and to the Council of Representatives of the TGE. Besides, the ultimate power arbiter too was the Council of Representatives. More importantly, in the exercise of the powers of the states, the relevant general policy and laws of the central government were to be respected. This was specifically mentioned in six of the ten provisions and was either indirectly referred to or assumed in the remaining ones.
Yet, despite the powers granted to the center the political dynamics as it was practiced and as designed by regional forces indicate that what was envisaged was no less short of a federation. The national/regional governments had law-making, executive and judicial powers and have used them extensively until they were replaced by new elections with the adoption of the 1995 Constitution.
The political implications that followed the introduction of the Charter and the proclamation issued to establish national/regional self-governments certainly represent departure from the past. As one writer noted two political developments were clearly observable: these are the choice of ethnicity as a basic principle of political organization of the state, and society and the reconstruction of the Ethiopian centrist and unitary state by introducing a federal system of government. These two interlinked processes were again anchored on the basic formula of the right to self-determination for ethno-national groups. The political rationale for such a radical change in the fundamental thinking of state organization among other things has been the view that this formula was a decisive remedy for the resolution of Ethiopia’s long-standing problem of the nationality question.
In an attempt to address the nationality question, as already noted, the Charter proclaimed the right of all nationalities to self-determination, the preservation of national identities of each group and the right of each nationality to govern its own affairs. The political action set in motion for sure was clear in bringing to an end the notion of unitary state and was committed to devolve political power. This is in sharp contrast to the two earlier regimes. Leenco Lata concurs with this view. ‘It [the process of transition] was more than a regime change. Recasting it [the Ethiopian state] on a totally new basis became the only alternative for its survival as an entity’.
It was certainly an official acknowledgment of Ethiopia as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state. The emphasis on nationality and the listing of the hitherto forgotten nationalities in a legal document could only be considered as a reflection of that commitment. By so doing Leenco stated the charter elevated to an equal partnership, the bulk of nationalities of the South and the Oromos.
However, the promising beginning did not end as intended. Following the reorganization of the state structure and the national/regional governments, a regional election was scheduled for June 1992. The regional election to regional council was a cause of serious disagreement. While OLF and AAPO asked for postponement, as they were unprepared to compete in the regions, EPRDF insisted to continue as scheduled. Following this and other disagreements OLF, one of the major actors during the making of the Charter, withdrew from the government and attempted to re-launch guerilla insurgency. Other oppositions also withdrew following its suit. Under these political dynamics one writer’s observation that the ‘conference of July 1991 may not have resulted in a one party government, its convention reflects to a large degree a one party dynamic’ seemed to reflect the political reality after the 1992 regional election. Critics state that EPRDF resulted in a process of replication of one existing organization, the TPLF, than a union of existing actors from the spectrum of Ethiopian opposition forces. No doubt the TPLF was dominant and remains to be so at least until 2002 because of its considerable seniority, as it had been established in February 1975. The establishment and development of each of the other organizations had been at least facilitated by the TPLF.
However, at least until the opposition withdrew, unlike present tendencies one can state firmly in retrospect that the TGE was the most legitimate and democratic government that the country had had in its entire history. Although it was not elected, it was able to represent the major contenders of power and the then existing contending views. Certainly, it manifested a clear case of power sharing among major contenders. EPRDF leaders and those who took part in the conference all acknowledged that they and their organizations held detailed discussions on the draft text of the charter during the period preceding the conference. Certainly, representatives from the University were not as active as the leaders of the liberation fronts yet they have aired their views in the conference as representatives.
One of the major tasks of the transitional Council of Representatives was to direct the process of constitution making and pave the way for a new national election based on the ratified constitution. A constituent assembly was elected in 1993, the TGE established a constitutional commission to prepare a draft instrument for submission to a specifically elected constitutional assembly vested with plenary power to promulgate an organic law. Again opposition parties withdrew. Instead of debating the content of the constitution, they denounced the legitimacy of the whole project. As a result, the whole process was under the influence of EPRDF and only few individual candidates representing the opposition participated. The draft constitution was ratified by the Constitutional Assembly on December 8, 1994, which came into effect on August 21, 1995. Ethiopia officially adopted a federal form of government as of this date. National elections were held in May 1995 for regional and federal parliament and the FDRE new parliament was inaugurated on 21 August bringing the TGE and the Charter to an end.
Again under these circumstances one can hardly disagree with Marina Ottaway’s apt observation of the last few years of the transition. ‘It is a formal process devoid of content. The spirit of the democratic transition was missing completely as democratization became purely formal exercise, the major contenders of power from the opposition missing throughout’. Hence the argument that the post 1991 political development did not reverse the historical pattern of domination. However, it is also good to reflect on the nature of the Ethiopian opposition so far. It would be useless to put all the blame on the ruling party. Firstly, the opposition so far has formed a united front only in one respect: in its consistent but at times uncritical opposition to the ruling party. Until the May 2005 election none has come up with a comprehensive policy alternative that convinces the public and hence secures it to their side, the necessary vote to win seats in parliament. Such a serious attempt was made in 2003 but it evolved along a confusing pattern. In the summer of 2003 some fifteen opposition parties agreed to form the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) in the United States. While this is the first real attempt to forge such a huge coalition of the opposition it seems that the UEDF has thereafter not progressed as much as expected. First and fore most, the process resulted in splits. Predictably, (as of September 2004), two members of the UEDF, AEUP and EDUP (both claim to be multinational but are predominantly influenced by the Amhara political elite except some nominal presence), withdrew from the coalition announcing the formation of another party Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) towards the end of the year. UEDF then remained as an amalgam of an apparently multinational (EPRP and MEISON) as well as ethnic based parties. Following the May 2005 election and the issue of joining or not joining parliament UEDF again split into the ethnic based domestic forces that preferred to join parliament versus those Diaspora based ones who insisted in boycotting it. The CUD in its turn as well although initially appeared as vibrant opposition later went into crisis following the election and its outcome. Among other things, the issue of joining or not joining parliament, internal power struggle among the member parties of the CUD, lack of clarity on crucial issues such as accommodation of diversity and federalism contributed to the post election crisis within the CUD in particular and to the political tension in the country in general. Secondly, having gone through two most despotic regimes, it is simply naive to expect that Ethiopia will overnight turn into democracy. The politics of exclusion and the culture of authoritarianism that took deep roots from 1930-1991 are not going to vanish into thin air suddenly. It will linger for sometime on both sides of the political spectrum the ruling party as well as the opposition.
As the following section will demonstrate, however, one general pattern discernable throughout the emergence of the modern state and which still seems to prevail is the problem of fixation in the Ethiopian discourse with the politics of ‘zero sum game.’ It is for this reason that I earlier noted the TGE was more legitimate and inclusive than any other regime in the country’s history. In a divided society like Ethiopia we cannot afford to have ‘winners and losers.’ The hard lesson one gets, for instance, from present-day Switzerland as well as from the rest of the world with divided societies, is simply that unless the major contenders of power are in some manner absorbed into the political process and made to consume it, there is no end to the polarization. Apart from the linguistic, self-rule and cultural pluralism set since 1991, genuine power sharing remains the only alternative available to end the political deadlock.
Ethiopian history dates back to the tenth century BC or at least official records take it to the Axumite civilization (first century AD to 1150). There is no iota of doubt that Ethiopia is the birthplace of mankind. With the discovery ofDinknesh(wonderful), otherwise known by herferenginame as ‘Lucy’ in 1974, in Hadar, the Afar land, of 3.5 million years old and so many other discoveries, the history of Ethiopia is as old as the human species itself. Yet, like many other issues in Ethiopia, its historiography is full of controversy. In terms of timing, some take it to millions, others to thousands and a few others to only hundreds of years, mainly to the emergence of the modern Empire state in the last quarter of the 19thcentury. In terms of the origin of its civilization, there is a contention between what Teshale calls ‘the Axumite paradigm’, which strongly contends for a civilization ‘from within’, and the Orientalists who claim civilization came ‘from without.’ The Sabeans crossing from Yemen to Ethiopia ‘carrying the burden of civilization.’ Teshale Tibebu, a historian himself, subscribing to the Axumite paradigm, argues, ‘to state that Ethiopian history starts with the Sabeans and not with the indigenous people is tantamount to starting with the invaders. As theKibre Negast(Glory of kings) narrates no Sabeans crossed to Ethiopia carrying the burden of civilization on their backs. It only talks of Queen Sheba’s adventure in Jerusalem.’
In terms of its coverage, the dominant approach has been to portray Ethiopian history as ‘a story of succession of rulers and dynasties’ and as a result, because of the dominant position of the Amharas and the Tigrayans, it was equated with what theferengiscall ‘the Abyssinian culture.’ The bulk of the people were then left out. The range of other ethno-linguistic groups in Ethiopia has scarcely been visible and until recently little interest has been shown towards understanding their cultures and tradition. It is an obvious fact that Ethiopia was portrayed in both official presentations and books as the land of the Abyssinians.
As will be demonstrated in later sections of this chapter, the writing of history in the Ethiopian context has failed to transcend at least two constraints. On the one hand, Ethiopia had to define herself as the only country in Africa that defeated European colonizers, with the rest of the world being hostile to Africa. It had to prove to the rest of the world that it is a state that should join the international community and to do so, it had to train elites to write the history of this ‘nation-state.’ This is not without consequences. The history thus written in this global context had to focus on the state and its institutions, as it was an instrument of nation building. ‘It tended to extol the centralizing and unitary role of Ethiopian monarchs and concentrated on their innovative and modernizing role within the Ethiopian society, the church and state tradition in so far as it focused on the development and growth of an independent and literate Christian nation.’ The state itself wasnot inclusive and the history too was not inclusiveand hence the controversy.
On the other hand, the Ethiopian Student Movement of the 1960s brought a new generation of historians as well as a new approach to writing history. While trying to fill the gap, this group of intellectuals have fallen into another trap and at times served as ideologues for national liberation movements. By undermining or at least giving less emphasis to the shared history, they have focused more on scoring the point that pre-Menlik Ethiopia constituted an amalgam of semi-autonomous kings and after Menlik’s coming to power Ethiopia became ‘the prison house of nationalities.’ The history they write, although it contributes to the other dimension of the peoples’ life, lacks at times objectivity or even evidence serving then only as an instrument of nationalist movements.
As a result, one should not be surprised if the name Ethiopia itself has come to signify different things to different people. For some Ethiopia is the oldest Christian polity in Africa, a country that was ‘Christian when the rest of the world was prostrating in front of the pagan idols.’ A Christian island and after Adwa in 1896, the sole remaining pride of Africans and Negroes, symbol of ‘unflinching defiance’ in which any freedom lover will take immense pride. It is a country that has had its own constitution and codified laws since the thirteenth century. By the ideologues of nationalist movements, on the other hand, it is dubbed as ‘ruthlessly colonial’. For some, Ethiopia is a multicultural and multi-religious state that should accommodate its diversity to make peace with itself, while for others it is one nation, one country and one territory with its Christian and Amhara identity.
Except for the twentieth century, a cursory reading of history reveals that Ethiopia has for the most part been under a decentralized rather than a centralized system of governance. This observation essentially characterizes all periods that preceded the coming to power of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930, leaving certain exceptions of brief unitary attempts by Emperors Tewodros (1847-1868) and Menlik II (1889-1913).
One observes a co-existence of a duality of authorities, mainly that of the Imperial throne, representing the center and a number ofprovincial nobilitieseffectively exercising decentralized power. Among other things, the nobilities from Gondar, Wello, Gojjam, Showa and Tigray shared power with the crown and at times claimed the throne itself. Indeed, the rivalry among these regional forces and the corresponding weakening of the imperial authority was one of the factors that contributed to the absence of a fixed capital or rather to the presence of shifting capital for a long period. Several authors contend that regionalism or provincialism, one essential element of diversity that defined the Ethiopian state, characterized the relationship between the center and the provinces. Provincialism is slightly different from the notion of ethnic attachments. It refers to a special attachment or affection between a person or group indicating one’s origin. It represented a sense of parochial identities and diversity of sentiments and interests. It had distinct boundaries and historical traditions of its own nurturing a passionate attachment to self-rule under the framework of imperial administration. The territory defined as a province also represented economic and political interests, which it defended collectively against trends of centralization, under the leadership of the local nobility. It is comparable to the Swiss notion of Cantonalism, although the latter goes much further in protecting linguistic and religious rights.
Equally, autonomous kings existed on the South and Southwestern side of the country. Between the years of 1570-1860, Mohammed Hassen, for instance, contends with loose political as well as trade relations with the center, ‘the Oromo led an autonomous existence as masters of their destiny and makers of their own history.’ This reached its climax with the establishment of five kingdoms around the Gibe region, namely Limmu-Ennarya, Gomma, Guma, Gera and the Kingdom of Jimma. They were all absorbed into the Ethiopian state after the 1880s and only the last survived until 1932. On June 6, 1882 at Embabo, Menlik defeated king Teklahaymanot of Gojjam and was able to end not only the Gibe Monarchy but also the Oromo of Wallaga and Illubabor. One also finds, for instance, the kingdom of Kaffa, Wolayta (Nigus Tona succumbed to Menlik in 1894), Sidama, Kambata and Janjaro mainly situated near the vicinity of the Omo River and the Rift Valley area. These kingdoms claim their origins back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
On the Eastern side we find the Afar sultanate, the Somalis and the Emirate of Harar representing another important center of Islamic power and influence. For the major part of their history, the Afars lived under great autonomy of their own, with minimal intervention from the highland kingdoms in Afar affairs. The Awsa sultanate was a vassal of Menlik but after agreeing to pay tribute, the sultan won recognition of his authority over his subjects. The Afars were identified as a distinct group with their own mode of existence, predominantly nomadic pastoral and their own traditional hierarchy, culture and religion. Their relative autonomy came to an end with the coming to power of Haile Selassie in 1930. Harar, the center of Islam, a religion which must have begun spreading in the Ethiopian region by the middle of the 8thcentury AD, (Other versions provide that Islam came to Ethiopia and started spreading during the rule of king An-Najashi when the first migrants came to him from Arabian Peninsula.) Ethiopia is the first country to recognize Islam at state level in the world. played a role as the springboard for Ahmed Gragn’s attack against the center, when its leader Abdullahi was deposed, after the Battle of Chalanko on January 6, 1887 and in his place, Haile Selassie’s father,RasMekonenn was appointed governor. The people inhabiting present day Benishangul-Gumuz and Gambela regions were loosely integrated into the Ethiopian state. They were incorporated in the 19thcentury and remained since then peripheral to the Ethiopian state, both geographically, sociologically, politically and economically speaking. It is with the introduction of commercial farms in the 1940s that the lowland area’s social foundation was penetrated. In short, the majority of the Kingdoms of the South, South West and Eastern sides existed as autonomous units only indirectly associated with the center usually marked by the payment of tributes.
This cluster of kingdoms existed effectively for centuries until they were finally incorporated into the Ethiopian state in the second half of the 19thcentury. They predate the centralized Ethiopian state of the 20thcentury. However, it needs to be emphasized that despite their semi-autonomous existence there always existed a network of trade relationships as well as relationships based on religion. The imperial throne served as a symbol of unity and the political system combined a balance of forces between the monarchy and regional nobility, the former playing a centripetal role and the latter moderating the power of the center. No historical evidence has so far been adduced that disproves this very fact.
Although it may be difficult to ascertain beyond doubt the exact autonomy and power of the kings, there are clear evidences indicating the fact that except during the tenth century when Yodit/Gudit attacked the Christian empire, during the campaign of Imam Ahmed (1527-1543) and during the (Age of Princes)Zemene Mesafint1769-1855, three important periods in which the power at the center had to subject itself almost completely to regional forces, the balance often swayed, albeit slightly to theNiguse Negast(King of Kings).Yet, the regional notables held important powers. Defined in broad terms, the regional nobility submitted to the throne, contributed a fighting force in time of crisis or rebellion and collected and paid tributes to the monarchy: the collection of tribute and maintenance of national security being the function of the emperor. In return for this administrative and military function, the nobility were granted autonomy and the right to retain some amount from the tributes they collected for the center. They had their own army. This was indeed true until the coming to power of Haile Selassie when the army of regional forces had to be dissolved and replaced by national armed forces organized along modern lines. Among others, the regional nobilities not only had military and taxation powers but were also entitled to regulate trade and commerce, impose duties and demand men and material to maintain armies. They also controlled the extraction and distribution of valuable commodities, such as metals, salt and ivory. They were sometimes economically stronger than the emperor and often defied him. The general arrangement was, however, that such kings would submit at least symbolically by paying tribute to the king of kings at the center of political power. Of course, the scope of the nobility’s power varied with the strength of the emperor. The stronger the imperial power, the smaller the autonomy would be and vice versa, but it appears that regional power was far from being a mere instrument of central power although its economic and social foundation was entrenched in the imperial system. Rather, a mutual dependence between the two forces seems to have been the dominant feature of historic Ethiopia.
On the other extreme, it was Tewodros (1847-1868) who by bringing to an end the regional lords, set the scene for centralization, but at the same time caused his downfall. Menlik picked up the current of centralization, although not completely, but none other than Haile Selassie and theDergcarried this mission to its extreme. The former stripped the nobility and the regions of their traditional autonomy and powers and theDergintensified it. It is not surprising then that the major peasant revolts (Tigray, Gojjam, Bale) and the student uprising occurred during the former and all sorts of national and regional forces resisted the latter. We should note that unlike what is portrayed in some corners, these two regimes are the ‘main incubators’ of national and regional forces.
Observing this fact Paul Henze recently wrote, ‘Ethiopia, the oldest continually existing polity in Africa, has almost always been relatively decentralized at many stages in its long history, so decentralized, in fact, that only a vague tradition of statehood, combined with a sense of religious and cultural community held it together at all.’ Clapham states, ‘historic Ethiopia approximated a federal system.’ The notion of autonomy and unity fully explain such a period. The history of Ethiopia is indeed full of strife between forces of centralization on the one hand, and local governors urging for decentralization and autonomy on the other. Perham wrote, ‘although the Ethiopian provincialrases were never able to establish for long their position as over-mighty subjects, the emperors on their side were unable to consolidate, century after century, the authority of the imperial government.’ A perennial tension existed between the king of kings and the provincialrases(heads) and the balance between the two over a period of time differed depending on the strength of arms. It is stated that ‘over the six hundred years or more of which we have reliable knowledge, neither side seems to have gained over the other until this [twentieth] century.’ By and large, the centralizing and decentralizing forces remained in balance.
The long-standing tradition of consciousness of unity and autonomy, that is to say duality in the exercise of power, is not only found on the records of history, it is also well symbolized in the notion ofNiguse Negast(King of Kings). At least since the 13thcentury, Bahru wrote, ‘when a dynasty that claimed to represent the restoration of the Solomonic line came to rule the country, its rulers have styled themselves king of kings of Ethiopia’. Nothing symbolizes the duality of authority better than the notion ofNiguse Negast. It implied the existence of deep-rooted and strong kings in several of the provinces exercising, as briefly indicated above, important powers in their own territory. The clearest manifestation of the Empiresde factofederation, if one may call this, can be discerned in the time of Emperor Yohannes IV (1872-1889). One author notes, ‘his choice of the titlerésa makwanenet(head of the nobility) as he bid for the throne set the tune of his policy. He continued to regard himself as first among equals, king of kings, in the strict sense of the word, not an undisputable autocrat. Yohannes was ready to share power with his subordinates so long as his throne was not challenged. He adopted a more cautious policy of accommodation to regionalism,’ though intolerant towards religious diversity.
In theory, it is often stated that the throne’s authority was absolute. But it was not so in practice. Primarily, until the twentieth century where provincial nobilities were effectively and systematically abolished, the Ethiopian state did not posses the structure and means required to impose the absolute claims the throne may have demanded. The vastness of the empire, geographical obstacles, absence of transport and communication facility, fiscal and manpower constraints, ethnic, linguistic and regional disparity, hindered direct central authority. To the extent that the central power was hindered, it meant also that regional forces enjoyed themselves as autonomous kingdoms merely acknowledging the existence of a distant emperor. Indeed, the administration of the state was carried out by the nobility (the kings), a group that normally resisted the attempts for centralization. Even though the status, power, and privileges of the nobility depended on the appointment and grants dispensed by the emperor, quite naturally the nobility strove to secure continuity of status and privileges by rendering both office and status sometimes hereditary and free of royal control. Appointments were often given to leading families in the area, since provincial sentiments usually precluded the appointment of outsiders. The more powerful provincial kings were sometimes contenders for the throne itself. As Levine stated it rightly: ‘The perennial tendency of certain regional families to become endowed with an aura of legitimacy in their own right’ often was a threat to the throne itself. When a conducive environment was found, provincial forces never hesitated to crown themselves emperors. This demonstrates the fact that they were not only administrators of decentralized power by right, but they were also potential contenders to the throne.
Secondly, tradition and religion also imposed limits on the power of the Emperor. Some authors argue that Ethiopia had experience with constitutional government that predated by many centuries the promulgation of the written constitution in the 20thcentury. If a constitution is defined, stated Clapham, ‘not as written document but as set of practices which guide the exercise of political power, then Ethiopia enjoyed constitutional government over a long period’. One aspect of the constitutional practice limiting the power of the Emperor, emanated from the famousKibre Negast, a document of great relevance in explaining the constitutional law of the Empire. This is probably one of the oldest constitutional documents in the entire world. Written in 1320 by a group of authors from Axum, interestingly after the downfall of the Zagwe Dynasty, (roughly from 1137 to 1270, that succeeded the Axumite state, and believed to have usurped power without belonging to the Solomonic line) and during the Reign of Yikuno Amlak, an Amhara from Wello, who overthrew the Zagwe Dynasty and inaugurated a dynasty which called itself ‘Solomonic’ to emphasize its legitimacy as opposed to its predecessor. Among other things, theKibre Negastdefined the core of the Ethiopian ethos and the source of legitimacy of the Emperor. It provided the rules for succession to the highest office. Accordingly, no one except the descendant of King of Solomon shall ever reign to the Ethiopian throne. It also provided about the complex organization of the imperial court and government and regulated the relation between the state and church. These rules combined together played a crucial limit to whoever failed to claim the legend. Even when one succeeded to the throne by might, its legitimacy was questioned immediately and would subsequently lead a downfall. The cases of Emperor Tewodros and Michael Sehul represent good examples. The former’s inability to expressly affiliate with the Solomonic line as well as his radical position against the church frustrated his project of building a centralized state. The latter who was known for making and unmaking seats to the throne in Gondar although he was capable of throning himself, never claimed it probably because he failed to affiliate himself with the same line.
Religion was another crucial factor. Indeed the connection between emperor and church was so strong that the imperial authority was committed to the church’s faith. The emperor was required not only to be a believer of ancient Orthodox Christianity but also required to defend it. Religious conversion is one charge, which was not tolerable. Rulers who violated this injunction forfeited the allegiance of their subjects and their right to the throne. To mention a few, Emperors Ze Dingil (1603-04) and Susneyus (1607-32) were removed from the throne because of their conversion to Catholicism. In 1916 the charge of alleged apostasy, however obscure the fact may be, was instrumental in the overthrow of Lij Iyassu. It is not surprising then that Christianity remained state religion until 1974.
For the most part, consciousness of unity and autonomy coexisted more or less in the balance the emperor slightly prevailed over regional forces. The plurality of kings, with theNiguse Negastabove them signifies some kind of federal or confederal government structure. The throne and the church represented the symbol of unity and regional forces exercised decentralized power. TheNiguse Negastde factodealt with national matters while the kings exercised powers over matters of local interest. There is no doubt that this presents in the words of Livingston, a typical ‘federal society.’ These are essential features of what we understand today as the federal principle. Suffice to emphasize here that before the emergence of the modern federal system in the United States in 1787, its features were never as clearly articulated as they are today. The more amorphous confederate form was predominant.
The beginning of the twentieth century marked the first serious attempt to curb the autonomy of the regional forces. It was reported in 1906 that Emperor Menlik II (1889-1913) could at any time take away the authority of the highestraseswithout giving any reasons for his action. But this is far from the measures taken by Haile Selassie. According to Levine, Menlik did not decisively undercut the authority of the great provincial lords and towards the end of his reign the provincialrasesbecame largely independent. It is true that the power of Jimma Aba Jifar II survived for instance until 1932.
The coming to power of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 and the subsequent issuance of the 1931 Constitution, the firstwrittenconstitution in the history of the country, marks a new epoch. It heralded the end of the role of the duality that existed for centuries. Provincialism and/or the autonomous kingdoms, the traditional check against the power of the king of kings, were completely absorbed into the centralized administration. Haile Selassie in conformity with his policy of centralization refused to confer the title of kings, thereby disappointing expectations at the time of his coronation. This is particularly clear from the nature of the two houses established under the 1931 Constitution. The emperor made sure that all potential contenders for power were members of these chambers that in effect had only an advisory role.
Apart from the introduction of the modern army after dissolving private armies of the regional notables, Haile Selassie’s measure of direct individual taxation without the involvement of the intermediary notables, which in a way centralized the taxation system, hit hard the economic base of those regional notables. Their right to collect tax was taken over by the center.
Nor did the 1974 Revolution, which gave a mortal blow to the old monarchy, bring any change in the move towards more centralization of power. As far as regional autonomy is concerned, except for the change of ideology from Solomonic genealogy to Socialism, the centralist character of the state remained intact and was even strengthened to a degree that far exceeded the imperial regime.
The process of centralization, modernization, nation building or by whatever name it was conducted and with good intentions, 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 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. Because the state failed to accommodate them, 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 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 changed significantly in terms of leadership, social composition, motivation and ideological orientations.