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Building a democratic culture in exercising the federal framework

Building a democratic culture in exercising the federal framework

Mesle A.  10-03-16

Following World War II and the start of decolonization, newly independent countries in Africa struggled to create viable nation-states combining different ethnic groupings within the territorial boundaries inherited from colonialism. For these countries, modernity entailed the transformation of disparate ethnic groups into a unitary nation-state with a common language and citizenship. France was the model nation-state par excellence. Such a nation-state came to be regarded as a badge of modernity, while “ethnic-ism” was associated with backwardness and repudiated by modernizing elites.

Many African countries followed the nation-state model and attempted to create a unified nation out of disparate peoples. Since most African countries are multiethnic, the Ethiopian experiment with ethnic federalism is of special interest to students of African politics. Ever since decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s, the belief that ethnic identity should be denied public expression in political institutions has been conventional wisdom in the continent. The 1960s witnessed the rise of state nationalism in Africa. State nationalists attempted to undermine ethnic nationalism, which they saw as an obstacle to modern state formation.

Despite their arbitrariness, the territorial entities inherited from colonialism formed the basis for nation-state-building. The chief challenge was to replace ethnic identity with national identity, rather than simply superimpose the latter. Suspicion of ethnic nationalism is discernible to this day. In Uganda, to take an extreme example, the state altogether disallows ethnic parties; it champions a de-ethnicized unitary state.  Yet, it is undeniable that the effects, largely deleterious, of ethnic identity on public life persist unabated.

Despite its official banishment from political life, ethnic nationalism has proved a potent political force throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Recognition of the importance people attach to ethnic identities and interests informs the Ethiopian experiment that accommodates the institutional expression of ethnicity in public life. Ethiopian ethnic federalism encourages political parties to organize along ethnic lines, and champions a language based federal state. As an exception to the general pattern in Africa, it is worthy of a close examination.

Corporate pluralist western countries such as Switzerland, Belgium, and Canada formally recognize ethnic units, and allocate political (e.g., legislative and executive positions) and economic power on the basis of an ethnic formula. Ethnic groups are integrated only in their mutual allegiance to a larger national government and the need to participate in a national economic system.

Ethiopia has great ethnic diversity with 84 ethnic groups. Twelve of these ethnic groups have a population of half a million or more, out of a population of 53 million in 1994. The two major ethnic groups (the Oromo and the Amhara) constitute over 62 percent of the population. The third and fourth largest ethnic groups, the Somali and Tigray comprises 6 percent of the population each. These constitute more than two-thirds of the population.

In 1994, four other ethnic groups, namely, Somali, Gurage, Sidama, and Welaita, had a population of over one million. The seven largest ethnic groups comprise 84.5 percent of the country's population. Five ethnic groups (Afar, Hadiya, Gamo, Gedeo, and Keffa) had populations between 599,000 and 1,000,000. The twelve largest ethnic groups constitute almost 92 percent of the population. Fourteen ethnic groups had populations between 100,000 and 500,000, while twenty-eight ethnic groups had a population of between 10,000 and 100,000. Twenty-three ethnic groups had a population of less than 10,000 each in 1994. For the most part, each ethnic group has its own language.

The history of state formation in Ethiopia is a source of profound, even bitter contention. At one extreme, pan-Ethiopian nationalists contend that the state is some 3,000 years old. According to this perspective, well represented by Gashaw, the Ethiopian state has existed for millennia, forging a distinct national identity. Ethiopian nationalism is a historically verifiable reality, not a myth. It has successfully countered ethnic and regional challenges. The assimilation of periphery cultures into Amhara or Amhara/Tigray core culture made the creation of the Ethiopian nation possible. From this perspective, Ethiopia is the melting pot par excellence. Its image is one of Ethiopia as a nation-state.

At the other extreme, ethno nationalist groups such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) claim that Abyssinia (central and northern Ethiopia, the historic core of Ethiopian polity) colonized roughly half the territories and peoples to form a colonial empire-state in the last quarter of the 19th century. From the ethno nationalist vantage point, Ethiopia is a colonial empire that needs to undergo decolonization where "ethno national" colonies become independent states. Its image is one of Ethiopia as a colonial-state.

A more sensible image of Ethiopia would be as a historically evolved (non-colonial) empire-state. The ancient Ethiopian state, short-term contractions in size notwithstanding, expanded, over a long historical period, through the conquest and incorporation of adjoining kingdoms, principalities, sultanates, etc., as indeed most states in the world were formed. The objective of the framers of ethnic federalism was to transform the empire-state into a democratic state of ethnic pluralism in order to ensure that no ethnic community would find it necessary or desirable to secede.

Adopting the French model, modern Ethiopian governments attempted to forge cultural homogenization through state centralization and one-language policy during most of the 20th century. In the span of a century, three forms of ethnic social engineering have been attempted in Ethiopia. The first social engineering was designed by Emperor Menelik (1889-1913) but significantly elaborated by Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-36, 1941-74). It attempted to create a unitary state on the basis of cultural assimilation, using Amharic as the sole language of instruction and public discourse and Abyssinian Orthodox Christian culture as the core culture of Ethiopian national identity. This effort was in keeping with the pan-Ethiopian nationalist perspective. Cultural and structural inequalities typified imperial rule, with ethnic and regional discontent rising until the revolution of 1974 overthrew the monarchy. The policy of assimilation into mainstream Amhara culture provoked some subordinated ethnic groups into initiating ethnic movements in various regions of the empire-state.

The second ethnic social engineering (1974-91) was the military government’s attempt to retain a unitary state and address the "national question" within the framework of Marxism- Leninism. To address the latter, it set up the Institute for the Study of Nationalities in 1983. Based on the Institute's recommendations, the military regime created twenty-four administrative regions and five autonomous regions within the unitary form of state, but no devolution of authority was discernible. In 1979, the regime initiated a mass National Literacy Campaign in 15 Ethiopian languages. At the same time as it was making these and related efforts (e.g., in legitimating ethnic folk music and dance) in the direction of cultural pluralism, the regime waged a military campaign against ethno-nationalist armed groups. In the last decade of its rule, ethnic based opposition organizations had intensified their assault on the military government and ethnic nationalism became a major factor in the demise of the centralizing military regime. The previous two social engineering attempts had failed by 1974 and 1991, respectively. The third ethnic social engineering (1991-present), under investigation here, is the EPRDF government’s attempt to maintain the Ethiopian state on the basis of ethnic federalism as well as cultural, language and political autonomy at regional and sub-regional levels.

Ethno nationalist movements grew immensely during military rule. Apart from the Eritrean nationalist movements, the major ethnic organizations included the TPLF, Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and Afar Liberation Front (ALF); minor organizations included Islamic Oromo Liberation Front (IOLF), Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). Ethno nationalist organizations posed the gravest threat to military rule and to the unity and territorial integrity of the country. Indeed, it is the EPRDF, and to a lesser extent, OLF, Afar and Somali movements that, in collaboration with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), brought down the military regime. TPLF, OLF, and WSLF had sought secession prior to the collapse of the military junta. They were willing to come together to forge a new constitutional arrangement they could all live with probably because they had come to realize that secession was not a viable option. At the same time, however, a secession provision had to be made a part of the compact, if only to justify the sacrifices they had called upon their mobilized constituents to make during long years of struggle. It is likely that at least one or perhaps more ethno nationalist movement(s) would not have joined a federal arrangement if secession were not constitutionally recognized.

The Government has made a political choice to further deepen the democratization and devolution process by transferring a number of responsibilities from regional governments to Woredas and Kebles. This will be accompanied by fiscal empowerment. This is a fundamental shift in the history of Ethiopia, which mandates communities through their elected councils to plan, allocate budget and implement to address their socio-economic problems. This is a key process that will unlock the energies of communities to face the challenge of poverty at its root. They will be provided with budget grants to make their empowerment effective and complement their local resources, which for sure they will mobilize to address their own problems, by themselves.


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