Ezana Sehay 10 - 03 – 2014

Could anything be better for Ethiopia, anything more enjoyable for those devoted to the unity of the country, than the slow disintegration of the groups with secession and extremist agendas?

The caption has the virtue of being true – as I will explain later. Despite the separatist’s assertion of otherwise, the reality is they have become inconsequential.

In the last few weeks the world’s attention has been drown to the Scottish independence referendum drama which shook the political ground of the 307 year old, seemingly strong union [United Kingdom]. Though separation was averted thanks to the flurry of last minute offering of more power to Scotland and recoil to the status quo – even with a” no vote”, it is certain to lead a makeover of the centuries-old constitutional arrangement in favor of regional empowerment.

In other words the vote has opened the door to demands for greater autonomy from the other constituents as well. Jonathan Hopkins, associate professor of Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science stated – “the fact that this happened and the fact that it was close has put the whole organization of the U.K state back on the table.”

Some traditionalists [unionists] have interpreted Prime Minister David Cameron’s offer to negotiate, an excessive gesture that could possibly lead to “devo max” – maximum devolution – of the United Kingdom, and so are registering reservation about the idea.

Sound familiar? - It was the same accusation thrown at the EPRDF, by the flat-earthers in Ethiopia, for its commitment to federalism. They warned decentralization would plunge the country in to a “trou noire” – a black hole.

Nevertheless, The Scotland referendum process has produced a lesson about the realities of nation-hood.


If citizens of one of the most successful unions in history, who could not and have not come up with even a hint of an advantage, economic or political, that they could possibly derive from breaking up the union, but could and have recognized several ways in which secession from Great Britain would be to their detriment; if such citizens are sufficiently prepared to act against their own interest, pecuniary and political, to have almost voted for devolution, the reason must be that ethnic or tribal nationalism is a stronger force than we imagine it to be.

For centuries, Questions of national identity influenced by ethnicity, religion or language have kindled a growing sense of demand for separation, autonomy, or faire political representation. In fact, much of the 200+ UN member states came in to being as a result of a breakup of bigger countries or empires.

The reasons for igniting nationalism are plenty: For some it is an existential choice. Most feel usually rightly – that they were/are subject to discrimination and persecution. Some have suffered political violence or economic negligence. Others just want to assert their symbolic values of: ethnic, religious, or language.

In some parts of the world esp. Africa and the Middle East, borders are drown on lines on maps by European powers, that bore no relation to ethnic, culture, or economic facts on the ground. Naturally, separation in those countries is not hard to sell to aggrieved people. Nor is it necessarily complicated to sell detachment to components of states or federations recently and rather arbitrarily assembled, such as the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia… Even in older national agglomerations [like Ethiopia], where the processes were not democratic and the union was neither voluntary nor equitably nurtured, separation can be sold as a concept to dissentient regions.

However, where there is a democratic rule, and adherence, and conscientious effort to address regional grievances, as in the UK or today’s Ethiopia, secession becomes hard to sell as we’ll explore at a later stage.

Consequently, achieving independence or separation usually involves bloody civil war. But in the west, at least, holding a majority vote to separate under accepted terms is the trend. Unique to the above scenarios is the “velvet divorce” – a peaceful and democratic dissolution of Czechoslovakia.

As we speak, a strong nationalist streak does exist in every corner of the world. Some, in Europe, emboldened by the pluck of Scottish experience have started to draw strength and are readying to be part of the inexorable march toward the fragmentation of a union. Others; such as in China, Middle East, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Philippines, and many parts of Africa are fighting it-out.

Evidently, the outcome of separation is by no means same for all. Some have fared well in deed but most separated states end up struggling. And so: a newborn breakaway state becomes less effective, esp. economically than it had been as a favored region in a bigger union.

Case in point, the Eritrean independence; after initial shock it proved to be no big deal for the Ethiopians - who have since prospered – but devastating for the Eritrean people who have become isolated, troubled economically and plagued by worse political repression. Incidentally, Ethiopians now consider the current Eritrean situation - a canary in the coal mine.

I would like to point out Eritrea’s quandary is not entirely as a consequence of separation from Ethiopia per-se – and is more luck of leadership.

The problem is; in the campaign for secession; separatists generally do everything to cast the debate [to secede or not to], in the gauzy, aspirational languages of romantic nationalism - promising utopia - and devote less effort in to nation-building.




For decades, Ethiopian nations and nationalities have rightfully felt corralled, and have struggled to voice their legitimate grievances. Thus secession in one form or another has occupied center stage in the Ethiopian political decorum. The issue of national question gain momentum at the time of the king’s rule and reached crescendo during the Derg reign.

Forth with the fall of Derg, the future of the country’s unity was in doubt. There was a palpable feeling that the union was on the verge of breakup. Propitiously, the government of EPRDF understood the crux of the matter and made it [the national question], it’s central priority and managed to calm the maelstrom situation with a promise to undertake a radical reform of the political administration of the country and set about fashioning a new Ethiopia; an Ethiopia with ample room for everyone.

Fortunately, for most of the national groups who wanted no more than national renewal and the right to control their local administrative matters; the EPRDF gesture was good enough. But hard-line separatist groups’ [esp. OLF and ONLF], citing past injustices perpetuated by former regimes - demonstrated a potent emotional passion for nationalism and separation.

EPRDF’s weapon for countering the hard-liners’ passion, was not warning or threats, rather an equally passionate appeal to the public: emphasizing the bonds between the nations, nationalities, and the people to each other as well as the country. That was as an effective strategy that changed the playing field.

The message was simple: you can have your nation and keep your country too.

Subsequently, it [EPRDF], entered in to interminable negotiations with all the stake holders in search of an accord [constitution] that will be acceptable to both. And so ultimately, was born an inclusive - sui generis - constitution with an amendment clause - pro re nata. And the tectonic plates have been shifting against separation ever since.

Next agenda for the EPRDF was to come up with a political system that recognizes the value Ethiopians justly put on fairness, which is symmetric federalism. A federalism which makes the various constituents making up the federation feel they are treated fairly and equally.

However, the constitution as well as the federal system has detractors on both sides of the national political domain [separatists and reactionaries]. Needless to say; the separatist’s objection is obvious.

Concurrently though, remnants of the old regimes who want to take back the country to the dark days of paternal centralism, to this day excoriate the EPRDF of kowtowing to the separatists; for promising to let the nations leave the union on the most minimal conditions [a reference to article 39 of the constitution], and called federalism “a secession without a demand” which would lead to eventual breakup.

Well they were wrong on both counts. Federalism – having national governments Oromia, Amhara, Gambela etc… with reasonable powers in some areas and greater control on others didn’t weaken Ethiopia. To the contrary today’s Ethiopia has a strong central government, strong regional [Kelel] administrations and a content citizen.

Today, there is a sharp sense of Ethiopian national identity. Ethiopianess is far more diffuse, and is far more connected to the overriding sense of belongingness. Before 1991, the sense of Ethiopianism that did exist was steeped, and always connected to past triumphs, was Semitic and usually Christian. Now days, there exist a meaningful Ethiopian identity that embraces the reality of modern multinational and multicultural Ethiopia - ideals of Ethiopian unity that is inspiring a whole new generation.

In present-day Ethiopia, every member of each nations and nationality is unapologetically federalist [Ethiopianist]. The new leaders of the nations and nationalities are brainies who despise the whingeing victimhood preached by the separatists and abhor the navel-gazing language wars and ethnic-bashing that the, extremists on both sides, are going for. Their only focus is providing competent governess at their Kelel level.

After all; a confident people with strong identity doesn’t need those cheap theatrics. And so, the option or desire to separate has become irrelevant.


For too long, the Ethiopian separatist camp has been dominated by the once mighty Oromo Liberation Front [OLF] and Ogden National Liberation Front [ONLF]. Currently these groups have been reduced to leaderless rumps. The groups are in such a sorry state that nobody is coming to their rescue. The reasons for their implosion are plenty, but I will leave that for another day.

What happens now is just a guess. But no doubt they will be preoccupied for some time with internal issues, the biggest of which is this: how to survive in a society that has made it clear it has no more time for talking/hearing about separation.

Die-hard separatists argue the” dream of OLF and ONLF will never die”, perhaps not, but it will never win either. Thence one of the country’s monkey on the back [secession], all but has faded away – perhaps not forever, but seemingly for a great long while.

Buoyed by such development; some optimists now declare the eco-system that accommodated the separatist – reactionary axis is smashed, and predict Ethiopian politics hence forth operate on a right – left paradigm.

Let’s hope so.



P.S: that said, we Ethiopians still have important lesson to draw from the Scottish experience. The point is that a country – whether it is Ethiopia or the U.K – has a right to demand that a referendum on something as important as sovereignty be conducted under mutually agreed-upon circumstances, including the articulation of a simple and fair ballot question.









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