Ethiopia’s nationalities battled long and hard for recognition. A centrally driven effort to reconfigure the federation that does not consider their struggle is a recipe for disaster.

“When philosophy paints its gray on gray, then has a form of life grown old, and with gray on gray it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known; the Owl of Minerva first takes flight with twilight closing in” — Hegel, Philosophy of Right

History and theory conspired to bring about the demise of the Ethiopian unitarist state in 1991 and the emergence of a pluralist polity known as a multinational federation. This claim might suggest ideological bias, but it also reflects an important reality.The current political system is not an intellectual ideal; it was an arrangement prompted by unfavorable political conditions. No attempt is made here to venerate this theoretical construct. Eminent thinkers from across the globe had gathered to discuss Ethiopia’s predicament in the 1990s, but mapping a county’s future is not the work of theorists and purists.

Instead it is up to the political forces of the day to compromise and shape the proposed order to their interests and needs. It is almost inevitable that the result will be a fudge, and that is what our imperfect federation is.

What the 1995 constitution addressed were the demands of diverse nationalities for recognition, which was the rallying cry of the Marxist student movements of the 1960s and 70s, and of the ethnonational insurgencies that were rooted in those campaigns.

And now, a quarter of a century later, we have almost come full circle, as the naive, the delusional, and the cynical ignore these origins, and thus imperil the state.

Students of the theory of the politics of recognition trace its roots to GWF Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, whose interpreter Alexandre Kojeve put at the center of Hegel’s thought the desire for recognition as the most overriding human need:

“All human, anthropogenetic Desire — the Desire that generates Self-Consciousness, the human reality — is, finally, a function of the desire for “recognition.” And the risk of life by which the human reality “comes to light” is a risk for the sake of such a Desire. Therefore, to speak of the “origin” of Self-Consciousness is necessarily to speak of a fight to the death for “recognition.”

It is this desire for recognition as equal in worth and dignity that shaped the history of modern Ethiopia. Therefore, the best way to make sense of our contemporary politics is to look at its not-so-distant past through the lens of the center-periphery cleavage.

This split has affected the political landscape with varying intensity since the ascension to the throne of Emperor Menelik II in 1889. Tracing its history helps to identify the factors that prompted the emergence of multinational federalism.

During the Imperial era, the primary source of conflict was endless rivalry between the monarchy and the regional nobility. With the overthrow of royal absolutism in 1974, the ethno-national liberation movements replaced the nobility as regional powers.

Following the demise of the Derg in 1991, ethno-nationalists conquered the center. What accounted for their rise was the failure of the centralization project, which was bent on bloody cultural homogenization. The failure to incorporate the periphery into the center had exacerbated a sense of alienation from society.

The rise of ethno-national movements in the last years of Emperor Haile Selassie I signaled the end only of the beginning, but the Derg’s fall changed the constitutional landscape for good.

A transitory triumph?

In July 1991, the National Conference on Peace and Reconciliation was held in Addis Ababa. Commenting on that year’s revolution, Christopher Clapham said it overturned the centralization commenced by Menelik II:

This project, which provided the theme for Haile Selassie’s long reign, was tested to self-destruction by a revolutionary regime which provoked a level of resistance that eventually culminated in the appearance of Tigrayan guerrillas on the streets of Addis Ababa—a dramatic reversal of the process which, over the previous century, had seen central armies moving out to incorporate and subdue the periphery.”

This conference, as was apparent from its composition, made it crystal clear that state restructuring henceforth would scrupulously follow ethnic concerns. This became reality when the right to self-determination, up to and including secession, made its way to the National Charter.

Furthermore, Proclamation No. 1/1992 delimited the boundaries of the self-governing ethnically based regions. The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, which came into being in 1995, formalized the division of the country into nine regional states “delimited on the basis of settlement patterns, identity, language and the consent of the people concerned”.

The Constitution provides for the unconditional right to self-determination for every nation, nationality, and people in Ethiopia who “have or share large measure of a common culture or similar customs, mutual intelligibility of language, belief in a common or related identities, a common psychological make-up, and who inhabit an identifiable, predominantly contiguous territory”.

In this manner, identity made its way to the forefront of Ethiopian politics. The rise of regional self-rule was largely due to a desire to establish democratic institutions which would guarantee the right of national self-determination. Since then democratization has been inextricably linked to the protection of the sovereignty of Ethiopia’s cultural communities.

As Andreas Eshete noted: “The history and identity of the protagonists that emerged in the wake of the victory over tyranny thus explains why ethnic federalism proved to be a decisive political instrument in Ethiopia’s transition to democracy.”

Inclusive party was needed to maintain cohesion

Far from allegations that this arrangement was crafted by college dropout cave-dwelling insurgents, it was an intellectually stimulating process. Eminent scholars delivered papers at a Symposium on the Making of the New Ethiopian Constitution in 1993. Andreas, drawing on his networks, invited world-renowned lawyers, historians, political scientists, Ethiopianists, Africanists, and philosophers, including, Joshua Cohen, C. Edwin Baker, and Elaine Scarry.

But the contribution by the revered political scientist Samuel Huntington was particularly interesting, insofar as it dealt with constitutional design. In his 1993 paper entitled, Political Development in Ethiopia: A Peasant-Based Dominant Party Democracy?, Huntington argued: “Ethnicity is likely to be central to Ethiopian political parties, elections, and politics generally. Attempts to suppress ethnic identifications or to prevent ethnic political appeals are not likely to be successful.”

Despite this recognition, Huntington shies away from asserting that it should be a first organizing principle: “Drawing regional boundaries along ethnic lines…supplements what is unavoidable with what is undesirable…The combination of ethnic territorial units and ethnic parties…cumulates cleavages and can have a disastrous effect on national unity and political stability.”

He noted a dilemma, saying that while it was undesirable to have ethnic groups represented in government, it was also undesirable to ban their formation. His suggestion was that an inclusive party was needed to maintain cohesion: “If a broad-based, ideological party exists which appeals across ethnic lines, then ethnic territorial lines can be tolerated.”

That was how it started, and for the next two and a half decades, barring the odd bump in the road, that was how it continued, as the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) applied centripetal force to an ethnically demarcated federation.

Borderline reckless

The ascendancy of Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister has effectively killed EPRDF as a grouping of four ethnonational parties. Doctrines have been discarded, the front’s rule demonized, an impressive economic record rubbished, and decision-making is no longer collective. Abiy’s next target seems to be the multinational federation itself, and he is starting where one should: by attempting to reconfigure the territorial boundaries of its constituent units without their consent by an unconstitutional means.

His method is the establishment of the Administrative Boundaries and Identity Issues Commission. Its creation seems to have been prompted by the Prime Minister’s apparent belief that demands for ethnic recognition and readjustment of regional borders are the source of communal strife. He acts as if he views multinational federalism as the cause of communal friction, not a key part of the remedy.

While some will point to his Commission’s merely advisory role, and others to the necessity for the federal government to act to ease inter-regional disputes causing carnage, its establishment is of dubious constitutionality, and it is a political monstrosity.

Trying to implement future recommendations of the Commission to modify borders would be not just the end of the Ethiopian federation as we know it, but a casus belli for an asymmetric war, and grounds for a unilateral declaration of secession. This is primarily because Tigray has made it clear that it will not cede an inch of the land to which Amhara has laid claim—and those territorial designs are widely presumed to be a key factor in the Commission’s establishment.

The intention of the new statute is as radical as the one that remapped the regional units in 1992. Tigray’s rejection is explicit. But given Amhara and Oromo interest in territory currently under Southern Nations, Somali, and Benishangul-Gumuz administration, Tigray will hardly be the only dissenter. The ruling parties of Ethiopia’s two most-populous regions are currently the nation’s most powerful political entities, after all.

But the trouble with the current process is not just its inflammatory political effect, it is also its dubious constitutionality. I do not normally see eye-to-eye with Tsegaye Ararsa on politics, but I do when he describes prime ministerial justifications for the Commission as an “argument from ignorance”.

Legislation usurps state councils’ powers

Internal boundaries separating the constituent parts of the federation are not just administrative. They are sovereign. Consistent with federalist theory, there is dual citizenship, sovereignty, and constitutionalism.

It is clear that the intention of the Commission is to provide a justification for the alteration of state borders. But regional boundary changes require a constitutional amendment. The Council of Ministers did not have the power to initiate legislation on matters that fall outside of its jurisdiction, nor did the House of People’s Representatives have the power to pass the bill. Only the House of Federation can propose to establish ad hoc or standing committees on matters falling within its remit.

This legislation usurps the powers of the State Councils, the Council of Constitutional Inquiry, and the House of Federation. There is nothing in the constitution prohibiting the upper house from commissioning studies if it needs an expert opinion. What parliament and cabinet did is cut corners. The legislation unconstitutionally confers power on the Commission to initiate constitutional amendments regarding internal boundaries and identities.

The power to hear and decide on disputes over ethnic identity vests, in the first instance, with the State Council concerned. However, the new proclamation divests those institutions of that power and hands it to the House of Federation via the Commission. In other words, the proclamation has in effect stripped State Councils of their constitutional jurisdiction over matters relating to identity.

The new statute also raises questions of standing. Normally, only regional states have standing to petition regarding its boundaries. But the statute strangely provides the Prime Minister, House of Federation, or House of People’s Representatives with standing to refer matters relating to identity and boundary disputes, on its motion or upon petition, to the Commission for investigation and recommendations. Last, but not least, it is troubling to discover that the Commission is accountable to the Prime Minister, rather than to the House of Federation.

The trouble with Mamdani’s federalism

The policy of undermining states’ rights did not begin with this bill. It started with the military intervention in Somali region, and was then pursued with shake-ups in Southern Nations, Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz, and Afar. But when it comes to the more onerous task of subduing Tigray, the campaign began with prosecution of Tigrayan securocrats accused of human rights abuses. While they may well be guilty as sin, so presumably are their former colleagues that still occupy high office.

In a statement, Abiy suggested Tigray’s boundaries are no bar to federal intervention to arrest suspects. Coming a day after the controversial torture documentary, this marked a new low in Addis-Mekele relations. Combined with the bellicose posturing of Amhara over Wolkait and Raya, the situation is grave.

By seemingly siding with Amhara elites, Abiy is unnecessarily precipitating a crisis. Even if states concede the central government the duty to enforce federal laws within their territories, and even if the unconstitutional Commission has parliamentary approval, being willfully negligent of the current political context is still the height of irresponsibility.

That also goes for commentators, such as Mahmood Mamdani in the New York Times with his oped entitled The Trouble with Ethiopia’s Ethnic Federalism. He argues rightly that the reforms underway are clashing with the Constitution and could push the country towards interethnic conflict. But Mamdani is wrong to draw parallels with British colonial policy of indirect rule and the creation of Soviet-style ethnic homelands.

He mistakenly thinks the constitution has created permanent majorities and permanent minorities. Instead, the constitution vests all sovereignty in nations, nationalities and peoples, rather than in regions. What once was a majority in its homeland could become a minority, as the constitution allows for change. The reason why we are witnessing the mushrooming demands for statehood and recognition of identity is because of the layered character of the right to self-determination.

What Mamdani declines to acknowledge is that ethnicity is now a fact of public life and it cannot be legislated out of existence by reconfiguring the federation based on residency, as he suggests. Whether or not ethnicity was just a lie to start out with, it has turned out to be, after its nearly 30-year career shaping Ethiopian politics, the tie that binds; and therefore at least a noble lie.

Undoing what has been done peacefully would require the consent of the ethnic groups concerned. Why would they dispense with an advantage to embrace a disadvantage for the sake of administrative convenience? It is one thing to get the approval of the NYT editorial board for such a wheeze, it is quite another to bring on board Sidama nationalists on the verge of finally achieving statehood.

Federal government took over vast portions of land

Mamdani’s claim that by replicating the British colonial system, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) ‘Sovietized and Africanized’ Ethiopia looks like an extrapolation from his book on the Rwandan genocide. Mamdani, who touted that the Hutu and Tutsi are political and not cultural identities, transposes this onto Ethiopia’s ethnicities, viewing them as only colonial constructs; a convenient delusion shared by nostalgic elites at home and oversees.

Mamdani also overlooks the fact that some member states of the federation were de facto independent states long before the overthrow of the Derg. A clear case in point is Tigray. The NYT opinion section is not the first place he expressed his misgivings about Ethiopia’s federalism. He is expanding on a view pronounced in April 2012 at the Tana Forum in Bahir Dar on a panel themed Managing Diversity in response to Andreas Eshete’s introductory remarks. He was countered by none other than the late Meles Zenawi.

The trouble with Ethiopia’s federalism does not lie in its ethnic character, but in its praxis. It has functioned more unitarist than pluralist by virtue of EPRDF authoritarian hegemony. The challenge now is to democratize the federation, which means destabilizing the EPRDF while also ensuring the edifice the front held together does not implode.

Ethiopia’s federal experiment can be thought of in three phases. After factional warfare, Meles Zenawi admitted TPLF hegemony over the country in 2001 and removed its shadowy advisors from regions. As an alternative, he called upon the regional governments to improve their constitutions, so that, for example, chief administrators no longer chaired state legislatures.

The second phase ran to the 2005 elections, which saw an opening of the political space, allowing anti-federalist powers to challenge the fundamental tenets of the constitutional order. After the elections were disputed, Meles cracked down and gave up on the opposition. He then embarked on his own centralization project, as the EPRDF system was repurposed for national development.

The federal government took over vast portions of land in developing regions with little consideration for local concerns. But that wasn’t the EPRDF’s downfall. Instead the obsession with development, and sidelining of democracy, ran into Oromo sensitivities, as Addis’ de facto expansion into the surrounding region was clumsily mapped out by technocrats.

The status of Addis Ababa is of course a thorny issue. However, the constitutional position is clear. Despite the fact that Addis is located within Oromia, and that the region has a “special interest” in it, the city’s residents are entitled to self-rule. What is left to decide is what Oromia’s “special interest” amounts to in practical terms such as fiscal, cultural, and language rights.

Mamdani implies that land rights and jobs are handed out based on ethnicity. But it is fallacious to believe that because land belongs to the state, and the governing system has an ethnic component, that land is distributed according to ethnicity. The constitution guarantees freedom of movement, choice of residence, and work anywhere within the federation, irrespective of ethnic affiliation. That goes for land rights too.


Of course, improvements are needed. Afaan Oromo should become the second working language of the federal government, and there is also a need for ethnic federalists to confront the problems caused by the absence of a lingua franca. In summary, the aim now must be to make multinational federalism a more potent instrument for the accommodation of ethnic and religious diversity. The promised democratization is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition, unless the ethnic bargaining on display in Kenya or Nigeria is considered a model to follow. What is needed is not less, but more federalism.

One mechanism under consideration appears to be a constitutional court, which would include all the presidents of the sub-federal supreme courts. This could ease political tensions by removing the responsibility for ruling on identity issues away from community representatives in the House of Federation. Yet this court should not be vested with jurisdiction over inter-regional territorial disputes. That should be left to the upper house.

But instead of carefully considering such delicate reforms, Ethiopia is now at another moment of constitutional crisis. The challenge of keeping the union intact seems even more acute now than in 1991. Political opposition decriminalized by Abiy openly disparage the federal system, while in the north Amhara and Tigray face off.

Across the land a breakdown of the party-state apparatus seems to have led to multiple instances of political aggression, which tear at the nation’s fabric. To muddy the waters further, the Southern Nations seem intent on taking the constitution at its word, as multiple constituent units push for statehood, to the detriment of EPRDF cohesion.

An anarchic predicament partly stems from an ideological as well as security vacuum, as Abiy panders to both Oromo and pan-Ethiopian nationalism, in the process browbeating the ruling front he chairs. More than ever, the federation needs a leader to steer it through this dark hour. But instead a centralizing liberal demagogue has risen on a leftist ethnofederalist platform.

Reform doesn’t call for a Messiah

However, despite the democratic facade, the Prime Minister’s appearances in military uniform are indicative of an enchantment with autocracy, as is the creation of his own commando unit. (Showing off their martial moves in t-shirts with his image, no less. I hope Vladimir is taking notes.) Meanwhile, Abiy’s occasional musings on the Ethiopian limits to freedom of expression suggest a paperthin commitment to liberal democracy.

What is complicating Ethiopia’s predicament is not just a burgeoning personality cult amid myriad structural challenges, but also Abiy’s lack of ideological commitment. Like Perfume’s Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, he displays an extraordinary passion and obsession with something that people love, but he essentially lacks. Grenouille loves scents, which led him to become a parfumier extraordinaire. But he discovered, to his own shock, that he himself doesn’t have a personal scent. Abiy, the politician, despite his penchant for obliterating everything the old EPRDF stood for, does not smell like a liberal.

Needed now is not hero-worship of a supposedly perfect leader, but perfecting the federation, which can only be achieved by grinding civic discourse aimed at reaching a compromise among all stakeholders, as occurred two decades ago. The constitution isn’t the Quran. The amendment clause is there. Reform doesn’t call for a Messiah or a prophet to reckon with. Nor even the philosopher-king. All it takes is a leader keen to listen and learn, not impose his vaguely conceived view of the good life on a divided polity.

But instead, in Abiy’s wake, to the dismay of those who sweated blood and tears for the constitution, a cohort of openly anti-federalist personalities, such as Major Dawit Woldegiorgis, parade their conceited ignorance in Addis Ababa. Apparently oblivious of how fundamentally the political landscape has changed, they demand that Abiy dissolve parliament, suspend the constitution, and disarm the regions, forgetting that the federation was forged by such forces.

Despite the opportunity for this noise-making in the cosmopolitan capital arising only because of the resurgence of Oromo and the emergence of Amhara nationalism, the anti-federalists—along with well-meaning but remote African thinkers—somehow do not realize that history and theory have together taken a different course since 1991, and that there is no hope whatsoever of peacefully reversing that direction.


Günter Grass

The Epilogue

Already righteous indignation has found its tailor.

Sunday irons out the everyday annoyance.

Oh, with the soup, impotent rage went up in steam.

     Exhausted and tamed we gently sit around the table.

     Little gains delight Father; worries keep us short,

     for in our household point after point is put to the vote.

So falling sickness makes us fall into impotence.

Still protests are taken into consideration

and —on demand—are mentioned in the minutes.

     There is a motion for a restraining clause:

       Never again shall we protest without power.

Voiceless, because unable to constitute a quorum,

we adjourn until tomorrow.


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