Commentary: Ethiopia’s conflict: Politics of nationalism and federalism without a federation

Caption: The 13th Ethiopian Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Day celebrations held in Addis Abeba on 08 December 2018. Credit: Anadolu Agency/Screengrab

By Milkessa Gemechu @milkessam

Addis Abeba – In a statement made on Sunday September 11, 2022, the African Union Commission welcomed the announcement by the Regional Government of Tigray of its commitment for a peaceful resolution of the civil war as well as its willingness to participate in a robust African Union-led peace process. This news came amidst the resumption and intensification of militarized hostilities that started on 24 August 2022, and in the backdrop of the intensification of the conflict in Oromia since 09 April this year. In addition to conflict affected areas of Tigray, Amhara, Afar and Oromia, severe droughts in the lowlands of Ethiopia including Somali Region, eastern and southern Oromia Region, and several parts of Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) Region have worsened the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia. According to the UN, more than 23 million people in Ethiopia are now in need of food aid across the country due to the combined effects of war, droughts and costs of living.     

This piece intends to take its readers back to the beginning in order to make two interconnected points for the future. The first point sheds light on the conceptual battle between “politics of nationalism” and “ethnic politics” in the context of Ethiopia, which also eventually found itself in practical conflicts on battlefields both in Oromia and Tigray regional states. The second point argues that the desire for, and the driving forces of, federalism in Ethiopia is deeply rooted in the territorial communities of distinct groups. However, the capacity to form a legitimate federation that enjoys stable loyalty from the constituting communities remains weak, although it has to evolve. Clearing the confusion surrounding these social conditions may particularly help many international observers and commentators who would like to know more about the key political forces at play in Ethiopia’s conflicts.

In Ethiopia, the most significant sociopolitical forces that have expressly fought for self-rule have been those historical self-governing national-regional entities

Let us ask the first question that differentiates “the politics of nationalism” from “ethnic politics”: Which approach may better explain the situation in Ethiopia? In the discourses of identity politics and nationalism, the terms ethnicity and nationalism are interrelated but not identical. Sociologically, both share that a group should possess a common language, identity, history, customs and values, and psychological make-up to be regarded as an ethnic group or national group. But nationalism goes beyond these common defining features as it includes the desire for “national self-determination,” or home rule in the national territory. If we regard their basic differences as mere stages in the development of social grouping, then a nation is a politically developed and articulated people than an ethnic group. But in general, national groups are historically instituted as self-governing territorial groups, and the central government came to them (and incorporated), not the other way around, as illustrated by Will Kymlicka who defines ethnic groups as voluntary immigrant minorities that demand multicultural inclusion and proper integration into the dominant nation-state, and national groups as those forcibly annexed indigenous peoples that focus on their self-government rights and special political representations within the broader multi-nation state (p.75). The latter version of nationalism often led to a multinational federation as was the case in Canada, Belgium, and Spain. In Ethiopia, the most significant sociopolitical forces that have expressly fought for self-rule have been those historical self-governing national-regional entities, which were later conquered and incorporated. Immigrant communities who migrate from one region to the other for different reasons have either developed their own distinctness within, or integrated into, national groups.  

Historically, the modern Ethiopian state was formed through conquests and subjugation of national groups in northeast Africa by the Abyssinian rulers during the scramble for Africa in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The Abyssinian rulers, through both collusion and collision with their European colonial counterparts, incorporated into their imperial rule, multitudes of self-governing territorial national groups such as the Oromo, which constitute well over a third of the Ethiopian population, Somali, Tigray, Afar, Sidama, Wolaita, and many more. In an attempt to recreate a new homogeneous society that speaks the Amharic language, professes Coptic Orthodox Christianity, and practices Amhara cultural ethos, the conquerors prevented those vanquished groups from using their languages in public, professing their religion, learning their histories, and developing their cultures and identities. Subsequently, the newly established empire-state, through the 1931 constitution, imposed a dynastic rule upon its subjugated national groups: “The law determines that 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 Menelik I, son of King Solomon of Jerusalem and the Queen of Ethiopia, known as the Queen of Sheba. The throne and the crown of the empire shall be transmitted to the descendants of the Emperor pursuant to the law of the imperial house” (Articles 3 & 4). Hence, Ethiopia was a multinational empire state, and that was beyond controversy.

By the 1960s, when European colonial powers were departing from the continent of Africa, Ethiopia also began to see liberation movements, which had roots in the famous Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM). In 1969, a key leader of the ESM, Walleligne Mekonnen published an article titled “On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia”. It is worth quoting at length his observation of the Ethiopian polity: “What are the Ethiopian people composed of? I stress the word peoples because sociologically speaking at this stage Ethiopia is not really one nation. It is made up of a dozen nationalities with their own languages, ways of dressing, history, social organization and territorial entity. And what else is a nation? …. Then may I conclude that in Ethiopia there is the Oromo Nation, the Tigrai Nation, the Amhara Nation, the Gurage Nation, the Sidama Nation, the Wolaota Nation, the Adere [Harari] Nation, and however much you may not like it the Somali Nation. This is the true picture of Ethiopia.” As a result, the nationality question– that includes the land question– and the right to national self-determination were at the heart of intellectual discourses and movements since the 1960s. This movement gradually turned into a revolution in 1974 to overthrow the feudal monarch only to replace it with a military dictatorship.

With all its problems, the 1995 federal constitution of Ethiopia attempted to federalize the polity of Ethiopia by way of responding to nationality questions by institutionalizing the social conditions of federalism in the society

An opportunity was lost in 1974 because the military government was unwilling to federalize the institutions of the state in order to match with what students of federalism refer to as “the federal character of the society,” William Livingston’s sociological notion of federal society as territorially concentrated distinct national-linguistic diversities being their reference. The Ethiopian empire state, founded on zero-sum game authoritarian politics, has largely been regarded as “unfederalizable” when it comes to the importance of inter-group negotiations and bargaining theory of federalism as conveniently put forward by William Riker. As a result, a bloody civil war was fought for over seventeen years, which ultimately came to an end with the victory of major rebel forces– Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF)– by toppling the Marxist military dictatorship in 1991. While the EPLF opted for an independent statehood of its own, the remaining fighters, particularly the TPLF and OLF, were able to come to a consensus on the nature of the would-be Ethiopian polity by drafting a transitional charter, which restructured the empire-state by affirming the right to self-determination of national groups (Article 2). This measure was seen as a revolution for it fundamentally altered a unitary mono-national state organization and politics and replaced it with politics of multinationalism. The political process was further constitutionalized and institutionalized when the constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was ratified in 1995. However, the second golden opportunity of democratizing Ethiopian polity parallel to the federalization project was largely lost as the TPLF emerged as a “hegemonic entity” by systematically sidelining the OLF and other forces of change and masterminding the creation of what some call Peoples Democratic Organizations (PDOs)–other member and affiliate parties of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

With all its problems, the 1995 federal constitution of Ethiopia attempted to federalize the polity of Ethiopia by way of responding to nationality questions by institutionalizing the social conditions of federalism in the society. It gave a structural meaning to the already existing driving forces of federalism. The Preamble of the constitution opens with “We, the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia; strongly committed, in full and free exercise of our right to self-determination, to building a political community founded on the rule of law and capable of ensuring a lasting peace, guaranteeing a democratic order, and advancing our economic and social development.” Similarly, Article 39 of the constitution provides that “Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession…. Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has the right to a full measure of self-government which includes the right to establish institutions of government in the territory that it inhabits and to equitable representation in state and Federal governments…. A ‘Nation, Nationality or People’ for the purpose of this Constitution, is a group of people who have or share a 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.”

Therefore, national groups and hence politics of nationalism became the building blocks of the Ethiopian federation–a real attempt to match the state with the society in the constitution. The term “ethnic group” was not mentioned in the constitution anywhere. So, “ethnic politics” has no constitutional roots in Ethiopia. I would rather argue that it was deliberately framed into post-1991 politics in Ethiopia as a way to de-legitimize and offer negative connotations to the right to national self-determination fought for by national groups and entrenched in the constitution. Put differently, those who want to see a homogenized indivisible Ethiopian nation of one language, one cultural value, and even one religion continue to systematically mischaracterize the federal society of Ethiopia and oppose the move to constitutionalize it. The “ethnic politics” approach also has an international mission, which aims to define the post-1991 Ethiopian politics only from the east European failed federations model than the western European and North American multinational federations model. The latter model requires them to focus on democratization, and they might have known that democratic Ethiopia would have been a strong multinational federation. Authoritarian federations tend to fail. Once again, this controversy over the re-institution of Ethiopian polity as a multinational federation began to resurface following the selection of Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister of Ethiopia in 2018 when the last major opportunity to democratize and strengthen Ethiopia’s multinational federation was lost as the TPLF was no more hegemonic within the EPRDF.

Advocacy for self-rule and shared-rule, which is a normative notion of federalism as a social precondition, has already been in play in Ethiopia since the 1960s

Therefore, it would be helpful to closely observe how members of national groups in Ethiopia identify themselves and articulate their fundamental political interests and desires. Advocacy for self-rule and shared-rule, which is a normative notion of federalism as a social precondition, has already been in play in Ethiopia since the 1960s. What has been desired and fought for is a federation that practically matches and institutionalizes this social condition in a bottom-up approach. Preston King noted that “there may be federalism without federation” (quoted in Michael Burgess, p. 47). This, I would say, largely explains the situation in Ethiopia.

The pre-1991 dominant state politics, which ideologizes a centralized unitarist state in the name of unity by undermining the right to national self-government, has re-surged in full force; and a once hegemonic TPLF itself rejoined national movements for self-determination, often known as federalist forces, which it sidelined and oppressed for over a quarter century. Thus, the mismatch between Ethiopian federal society and Ethiopian polity could be seen as the underlying social/structural roots of the ongoing conflicts in Ethiopia, be it in Oromia, Tigray, Gambela, or Benishangul-Gumuz. Ethiopian state should alter its age-old top-down approach of an indivisible nation-state building project which continues to undermine the federal character of the society, and it should restart a bottom-up process of multinational federalization matching the society with the state. The Ethiopian state needs to be reformed afresh on an inclusive social contract. War creates a state and maintains it is an obsolete polity. It is to be seen whether Ethiopia would choose a multinational bargaining and federalizing path or stick to its uncompromising stance which would further weaken it as a viable polity in the strategic Horn of Africa region. AS  

Editor’s Note: Milkessa Gemechu is Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science/Albion College, and IIE-Scholar Rescue Fund Fellow.  

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