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Elections in Ethiopia: Beyond Winning (and Losing), Part III

In an attempt to make sense of beyond winning (and losing) elections in Ethiopia, in the last two pieces, Tsegaye R. Ararssa of the University of Melbourne Law School embarked on the exploration of the growing pulse of societal disenchantment with the imperial system, especially in the 1960s. This disenchantment reached its climax and eventually found its expression through the 1974 popular uprising. In the third part of this thought provoking article, Tsegaye takes it up from there to wrap up his reflection on the past and point out some of the outstanding current issues that are itching contemporary Ethiopia as its citizens go to the ballot this coming weekend.


…and a Revolution without a New Beginning?


*Tsegaye R. Ararssa

When a cataclysmic turn of events finally led to the 1974 popular uprising [1], the question of nationalities was one of the dynamic questions that were coming to implode the state. The State Socialism proclaimed in the wake of the uprising catalysed by the students—for all its enthusiasm to resolve class conflicts, especially through the land redistribution proclamation[2] -stopped short of transforming the State by addressing the ‘national question’. The sting of the inaugural violence and of the curse of the ‘original sin’, the unacknowledged problems of many a wounded nationalism – wounded because of the imperial-colonial conquest of the late 19th century – was left buried as the subtext of the revolution. The primacy of class conflict over ethno-national conflict was asserted and privileged as such.


The Derg quickly proclaimed ‘Ethiopia First’ as a foundational organizing principle of the ‘new’ State [3]. The ‘Ethiopia First’ (Ethiopia Tikdem in Amharic) motto subordinated and deliberately invisibilized the multiple national identities trapped in an imperial state that not only perpetrated atrocities on them at the time of incorporation but also left their subjectivity unintelligible ever since [4]. The socialist military regime – for all its conscientious effort to draft a National Democratic Revolution Program (NDRP) in 1976, which was hoped to address what it referred to as the ‘question of nationalities’—emphasized the ‘unity and territorial integrity’ of the ‘revolutionary motherland’ and denied the full expression of national aspirations. To its credit, in a gesture that takes account of the plight of the peoples of ‘the two frontiers’ (a la Markakis), the Derg’s land proclamation has had its salutary effect of restoring land to the formerly dispossessed peasants of the South who languished under the feudal landlords and local balabat almost as serfs [5]. In addition, it allowed the use of a few select languages for conducting basic literacy campaigns. It also started to air an-hour long radio program in Tigrigna and Afaan Oromo. The NDRP did however acknowledge the equality deficit in the country and the existence of discrimination on the basis of language and creed. In a gesture to accommodate national diversity (and also to defuse the tension created by the wars of self-determination in Eritrea, Tigray, Ogaden, parts of Oromia, and other areas in the periphery), the 1987 constitution (of People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia [PDRE]) explicitly recognized the equality of all languages and proclaimed Amharic as a mere working language [6]. It also explicitly recognized the right of “nationalities” to self-determination without however violating the principle of ‘sanctity’ of the “unity and territorial integrity” of Ethiopia [7]. Notably, the ‘nationalities’ did not exist as a category of the people that made the constitution, as the makers are “We, the working people of Ethiopia” founded upon the alliance of workers and peasants, and the participation of intelligentsia, revolutionary army, artisans, and other democratic sections of the society. [8]


Through the constitutional silence, the subjectivity of the ‘nationalities’ was thus elided and, ultimately, practically denied. Even in this gesture of acknowledging their presence (which is more the result of the pressure of war than a moral recognition of the historic injustice perpetrated on these nations), the problem is framed as a question, ‘the question of nationalities’, a question Ethiopia is answering [9]. The nations who are a victim of the Ethiopian State are denied subjectivity and their perspective is denied a space, their voice is muted, and the demand is ignored. It was Ethiopia’s question to solve, thus Ethiopia’s quest for better integration and national coherence by dealing with discords. The exercise was not addressing the ‘nationalities’’ quest for recognition of subjectivity by the exercise of which they will deal with their problems.


Despite the rhetorical flourishes around the notion of equality and non-discrimination; political participation; regional autonomy; development of culture; history, and language; and even self-determination (collectively as Ethiopians), the state was unabashedly a centralized unitarist one that perfected the dreams of many an Ethiopian Emperor since Tewodros II [10]. Centralism was perfected in this era.The authoritarianism and the violent repression of dissent and diversity by the military regime, which was not without a historical parallel in the state form Ethiopia has had, and its increased capacity to penetrate the hitherto remote rural areas (owing to state nationalization of rural land and other means of production – and the resultant enhancement of governmental competence of the state, also through the instrumentality of mass organizations – have contributed to the reification of the Ethiopian State. This is further bolstered by the support of the Soviets, Cubans, and other eastern bloc countries who were engaged in their own tug of (cold) war with their western rivals. For all the talk about the projected transformation of the state into a socialist one after completion of the National Democratic Revolution, the State was anything but transformed. From the very outset, the state that was presided over by the Derg may be arguably socialist in form but as far as the diverse nations are concerned, it remained imperial in substance.


‘It’s the State form, Stupid…!’


Going back to the history of the state formation in modern Ethiopia, one can quickly conclude that—despite the regimes’ explicitly imperial or emphatically socialist postures–the state formed was a highly centralized and centralist one, which takes it as its major duty to jealously guard and preserve its unity and territorial integrity. The Ethiopian state’s identity was defined negatively in terms of what it is not (e.g. uncolononized), often against an external enemy and internal insurrection especially in the areas that are frontier to the Abyssinian core. The mode of governance was suppression of national and cultural diversity and centralization of all power under the Omni-benevolent Emperor in pre-revolutionary times or under an all-powerful military clique or one giant Workers’ Party of Ethiopia (WPE) in the times of the Derg. Throughout Ethiopia’s history, nation-building was mistaken for imposition and projection of the hegemonic Amhara-Tigryan identity as a pan-Ethiopian national identity. National unity was mistaken for cultural uniformity. The project of national unification was confused with coercive cultural homogenization. Even in its contemporary iteration, the logic of domination, marginalization, exploitation, cultural imperialism, and social violence inherent in the imperial-colonial state continues to get expression in its hierarchical posture, centralizing and hegemonic tendencies, extractive urges, and its intensely violent streaks.


And now, … Fear, … Insecurity: fear of Losing Monopoly over Violence: Fear of EPRDF

The fear of dissent (needed for democracy) and of diversity (needed for federalism) that drives EPRDF can be summarized in one word: insecurity. But why does EPRDF feel insecure? Why does it securitize dissent (as terrorism) and national diversity (as ‘narrow nationalism’)? As they always say, this they do in order to secure the state. Why does the state need to be secured? Could it be that it is more insecure than it looks? If so, whence come this insecurity? There are two main sources: one is internal-constitutional; and the second is external-geopolitical. The Ethiopian state formed in the 19th century is the product of colonial-international relations and law on the one hand and imperial-cum-colonial domestic constitutional law on the other.
Speaking from the perspective of formal legal positivism, the state was constituted by a cumulative process of international treaties and domestic constitutional firming up. Thus the territory that we now call Ethiopia got its contemporary shape through a series of treaties Ethiopia made with European colonial empires that were ruling the neighbourhood in late 19th c and early 20thc [11]. The northern boundary was thus delimited by the treaties with Italy [12]. The Southern and Eastern boundaries were delimited through treaties with the British (in Kenya and British Somaliland), the Italians (in Italian Somalia), and the French (in French Somaliland, alias Djibouti). The western boundary was delimited with treaties with the British (in Sudan). No doubt, these treaties were made in the spirit of courtesy outlined by the Berlin Conference (1884/5) on the scramble for Africa. Ethiopia was thus first constituted from outside before it was constituted from inside. Competing imperial-colonial desires carved out the territory. The desires were informed and guided by colonial ambitions (although the Ethiopian ambitions were asserted in counter-colonial terms, i.e. in the language of resisting European colonial desires). The international was primary to the national in the process of Ethiopia’s ‘nation-building’ project.

Having successfully asserted a degree of subjectivity in negotiating the international treaties that shaped the outer limits of the Ethiopian territorial sovereignty [13], Ethiopia sought to enter the community of ‘civilized’ nations that ‘created’ the 20th century international community that came together under the covenant of the League of Nations. It is in the process of demonstrating its being ‘civilized’ that Ethiopia needed a set of written/codified laws that ‘proves’ it is ‘civilized’ enough [14]. It is in this process that Ethiopia also started to “shop” for modern laws to ‘borrow’ and transplant. No doubt there was also the itching for such laws and institutions among Ethiopia’s educated elite of the time [15]. A series of laws then started to be decreed in the 1920s. The 1931 Constitution, modelled on the 1989 Meiji constitution of Japan, was the penultimate moment of constituting Ethiopia as a modern, ‘civilized’ (lawful) empire with a ‘constitutional monarchy.’ In practice, the constitution reconstituted the state but not peoplehood. It assumed peoplehood. In the preamble [introduction] the people are described as Shoa, Tigre, Gojam and Begemidir that constitute the Christian highland Abyssinian core. The rest are its territory inhabited by its ‘others’, the enemies of their religion (i.e., Muslims, Jews [Falasha], and pagans). The inaugural violence has thus made its way into the constitutional text early on.

The Ethiopian polity that is today the context in which election 2015 takes place is the polity wielded together by Menelik and held together by the governments of Haileselassie, Mengistu and Meles invariably by violence. The governance of this polity was either imperial-feudal, or autocratic, or aristocratic, or totalitarian. The elites that assert rule over the populace often hail from the northern Abyssinian core that forms a numerical minority in the demography of the country. The fear that grips the state on the eve of election is thus the fear of loss of control over the violence that keeps the state together, the fear of loss of power by the minority. In a sense, it is the fear of democracy, the fear of majority rule. Democracy means the end of Ethiopia as we knew it so far. It is the end of authority to use force as a way of governing. In other words, it will be the beginning of separating politics from brute force.

‘The State… is EPRDF, or EPRDF …is the State’: L’etat, C’estMoi

The fear betrays the irreducible fragility of the state. As it is well known, the state is fragile, reported several times to be on the brink of collapse [16]. EPRDF is fearful. The economy of fear and insecurity drives its motif of subverting democracy and federalism. EPRDF has steadily transformed itself into a proponent of ‘developmental democracy.’ Its evolution is interesting. When it came to power in 1991, it was a timid and quiet liberal democrat. (It was the moment of Fukuyama’s supposed “end of history,” after all. Supposedly, liberalism’s triumphant conclusion to the cold war signalled “the end of ideology”; liberalism was held as the only game in town. Little did we know that this celebration of the triumph of liberalism was premature.) In 2001, EPRDF became a party of the Revolutionary Democrats (as distinguished from the faction called ‘The Splinter Group’ within TPLF, which was later expelled as ‘Bonapartist’). In 2010, EPRDF became ‘Democratic Federalist’. The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi emphasized it in a series of sporadic speeches he made in 2010 (e.g. the one on the 5th International Conference on Federalism, 9 December, 2010 [17] , and it became the core thought around which EPRDF rallied in its campaign for Election 2010. In 2015, they became ‘Developmentalist Democracy’. From Abay Tsehaye’s presentation in the first election debate this year, it looks like EPRDF has become a more technocratic, more pragmatic, and less ideologically-oriented force that has placed its accent on managing the economy and the growth ‘recorded’ thereof. As such, it seems to have shed all its passion for liberty rights (which were high on the agenda between 1991 and 1997, at least rhetorically), moving progressively into a self-proclaimed defender of socio-economic rights (2001-2005), and of collective rights of “nations and nationalities” (2005-2010).

Even as EPRDF asserts itself as a Developmentalist Democrat now, what it means and has actually been practising for some time now is the pursuit of state-led capitalism similar in form to, but lacking in substance, of the economic nationalism of East Asian countries. In its explicit emphasis on economic growth as a justification for suppressing democratic urges and discounting democratization as a less important national political agenda is also fuelled by the same fear, the fear of not so much as loss of power per se as of being submerged by a tide of long contained yearning for co-equal citizenship, the desire for equality-in-dignity, the longing for visibility as subjects in a diverse polity, the aspiration for a collective freedom to actualize the elemental democratic creed of self-determination [18]. This implies that, given this fear, EPRDF sees little in the shape of incentive to aspire for democracy. It is not surprising then that EPRDF’s use of the language of democracy, federalism, human rights, self-determination, rule of law, and election is more about strategic deployment of internationally acceptable mode of governance for the purpose of political hegemony and economic extraction.

It is this economy of fear and insecurity that prompts EPRDF to securitize identities (Oromos, Ogadenis, some Amhara groups, Muslims, etc). This is evident in proscription of political groupings from these constituencies as terrorist not so much as to fight these groups as terrorising their constituency into submission. It is also this same fear that forced the TPLF/EPRDF to invade Somalia in 2006 through a formal parliamentary authorization of the ‘intervention’ [19]. The ostensibly legal measures used (e.g. the anti-terrorism law) are merely among the body of techne that come handy to a fearful government that seeks to secure the state, its power, and its interests thereof. It is owing to this double ‘nature’ of EPRDF—as a party and as the State—that it becomes one of the constituent components of the political ecology in which the election is conducted. What has not been explicitly said so far, but sometimes slips their discourse is what can be summarized as “I, EPRDF, am the state,” L’etat, c’estmoi.

2. 3. Other Circumstances

The state of affairs in the Constituent units of the federation
At the societal level, the mood is as fractured as it has ever been. The North-South divide continues to grow. The demand in the North and the urban centers continues to be merely for just political and economic governance in which power and resources are fairly shared [20]. To them, therefore, fighting economic despair is the primary goal, albeit through the ballot. Standing their ground in the face of price hike, inflation, growing inequality, corruption, maladministration, and the sense of neglect that attend to these, informs the consciousness as they think about and think thorough this election. There is a sense of apprehension about what will happen to them if they resist EPRDF rule. (The past was a brutal tutor in this.) To this often misunderstood oppressed classes of the Abyssinian core, especially to the Amhara, the election can be an act of resistance. Of course, they do not have much irresolution about their place in the world. They do not experience a truncated identity as Abyssinians and as Ethiopians, for the two are made to overlap for them. They do not suffer from cognitive dissonance about their place in Ethiopia or about its state (even with its imperium). But as victims of an anti-democratic, authoritarian state that has also neglected them in the squalor of poverty, lack of social services, lack of access to economic facilities and continual political disempowerment, they have every reason to want a change of the status quo. They have a reason to desire an alternative utopia. Their rallying point could be the chronic lack of socio-economic justice and much less the state transformation project.

For them, election 2015, once more, offers a moment of resistance to the dominant/hegemonic EPRDF narrative of closure, i.e., arrival at the Ethiopian utopia, of ‘paradise regained.’ They might seek to engage in it with a view to disrupting the EPRDF narrative of “development, peace, and prosperity” by bringing in their own story of suffering, the economic misery beneath the surface of historic political hegemony, and beneath the surface of EPRDF’s repeated proclamation of double-digit economic growth. Nevertheless, the ideological hold on the people of their past glory that romanticizes Ethiopia’s history of violent oppression of the south as a proud history of ‘nation-building’ not only alienates them from their equivalents in the South but also creates a tenuous relationship that even degenerates into horizontal violence. The radically different interpretation of the past and the fear of the future danger as coming not from the hierarchically organized political centre but from the sides (from the peoples of the south) who, in reaction to the atrocities of the past, may seek a radically different future apart from Ethiopia, precludes a sense of solidarity. This fear is immensely distractive to the task of democratic transformation of the old Ethiopian state. It breeds mistrust among the electorate of the north and the south, and it plunges us back into the original question of the problematic state form. This constituency, by seeking a mere tinkering with the imperial state form, falls short of transformation and genuine democratization that offers a new beginning to everyone in the Ethiopian territory.

However, it is also a constituency that lives under an increased state of securitization owing to its being the constituency of the Ethiopian political class that poses historic opposition to EPRDF. Almost all of the opposition political parties basking in the support of this constituency (the late AAPO, AEUP, EDP, CUD, UDJ, Semayawi, Ginbot 7, Ethiopian Patriots’ Front, etc) faced incredible difficulties under EPRDF. As a result, a mass of supporters have suffered under the oppressive measures of the regime. At least, one of the parties is proscribed as a terrorist organization. Arbitrary arrests, detentions, trials, and intimidations by police, or security forces is routinely reported from the region.

The mood in this constituency is also informed by more recent developments such as the beheading of Ethiopian migrants by ISIS (and the perceived defencelessness under the circumstances); the assault, the burning alive, killing, looting, vandalizing of Ethiopian migrants in South Africa; abuse and victimization of migrants in the Middle Eastern countries notably in Yemen and Saudi Arabia; the general urban restiveness (fed by the rising youth unemployment); the sense of disempowerment and complete loss of hope are all part of the mix of irritants that make the ‘mood’ sub-optimal.

In short, the felt lack of social justice, of proper political governance (never mind the official ‘good governance’ rhetoric), and the rise of unnecessary human suffering (irrespective of the inequitable ‘economic growth’) has disaffected the mass. This breeds disenchantment that might lead to ‘protest’ vote against the incumbent (while it also equally multiplies opportunist and dependent votes). The general disenchantment and anger, the fear of EPRDF’s ensconcing itself in spite of how people vote the fear of state-led mass terrorization in the event of loss or near-loss of power (informed by the memory of Election 2005) tends to signal more fear than hope, more despair than anticipation. Most of the experience of the poor in the Abyssinain core, i.e., the Amharic speaking constituency, is also shared by the poor class of the Tigrinya-speaking population, especially the rural peasants and the victims of extreme poverty in urban centres (another grossly misunderstood and often maligned constituency which is trapped in the TPLF only choice in Tigray, mostly in fear rather than trust and hope). The discordant voices one hear from the Kunama, the Erob (alias Saho), and sometimes, the Raya (in relation to their rights as minorities) in Tigray are often neglected and invisibilized by the greater resistance to TPLF hegemony both in Tigray and—through EPRDF—in the wider Ethiopia.

For the Oromo, 2015 can be a year of expressing a long contained anger. The Addis Ababa Master Plan Fiasco and the government’s murder of numerous young people (among them students, women, and children) is fresh in the minds of the voters. The continued displacement of farmers by rich developers and investors—in spite of continued resistance, even by the OPDO-led regional government—is a cause of many a suffering. Abay Tsehaye’s reckless words threatening Oromia’s regional and local government officials lest they resist the implementation of the Master Plan; his more recent ‘gaffe’ about the people being OLF-backed ‘narrow nationalists’ only inflamed the matter further. The continued classification of the region’s population as extremist, “narrow nationalist’, and even terrorist—a ploy to terrorize the mass into submission—has also further alienated the population from the regime. The long-held grievances about the deficit of equality in citizenship; the lack of linguistic justice (as part of the larger dispensation of ethno-cultural justice);the continued lack of justice for Oromo political prisoners, victims of summary execution, arbitrary arrest, and detention marked most notably by the fact that a disproportionately large mass of Oromos that populate the prisons, detention centers, and centers of torture; the disappearances, the dispossessions, and the retreat of many into exile; the follow up, the hounding, and the arrest, and return of Oromo refugees even from beyond the Ethiopian borders such as Kenya, Djibouti, Yemen, etc, (Tesfahun Chemeda’s case is only an example);the continued occupation of about 30-40 % of the land by the Federal Government, or the party-affiliated companies, 24 years after what used to be state farms were supported to the peoples and government of Oromia; the chronic lack of autonomy in the governance of the region and the rising lamentation of this lack of state autonomy even by the OPDO officials; the perceived nominal presence of the Oromo in the federal institutions of shared rule; the unmet demand for articulation of the special interest of Oromia over Addis Ababa; the sense of agitation over the future of Addis Ababa and the integrity of Oromia as one constituent unit of the federation; are some of the issues that are in the back of the mind of Oromo voters as we head into this election.

The SNPPRS, the federation within a federation, has always been the embodiment of all of Ethiopia’s problems. I sometimes say that Ethiopia deceived itself into believing that it has resolved the ‘national question’ by devolving it, and consigning it down to Hawassa. Although the people of the South—as the quintessential ‘other’ peoples of Ethiopia—had a shared experience of oppression under the Abyssinian empire, the impact of that oppression was experienced differently and the reaction to that oppression also took different modes. As a result, the reactive nationalism born in the communities of these peoples are fairly divergent both in their content and form. Proper account has not been taken of these differences in lived experience and divergence among the ‘competing nationalisms’ in the SNNPRS. This arbitrary assemblage of over 62 groups in one Regional State has made the elites from this region repeatedly express their resentment saying: “South is a direction, not a people!”

This has led to the demand by the Sidama for separate statehood, a demand that has repeatedly been met with violence, political appeasement, and a range of other silencing manoeuvres. The move to remove the Sidama Zone Government from Hawassa and the bloody ‘altercation’ over the status of the city as a Sidama’s capital city has likewise been met with a range of measures including force until finally the federal government agreed that the city remains the capital of the Sidama Zone as well as of the SNNPRS. While the fiasco over the WOGAGODA project has led to the breakup of what used to be North Omo Zone into separate Zones (e.g. Wolayta, Dawro, and Gamo), there still remains the unanswered demand of the Gofa to have its own Zone (separate from the Gamo). To date, the Gamo’s quest for separate State—which some consider was more a cynical reaction to the Gofa demand for separate status as a Zone–is also unresponded to by the House of Federation. The failure to handle conflicts in the micro-federation of Derashe has led to bloodshed the wounds of which are still itching. The Menja (Yem) peoples’ demand for recognition and protection as a minority people, the Donga’s demand for the same in Kamabata-Tambaro, the Denta Budem kinchichila request, the Omo Valley (Omo Sheleqo) Woreda request for recognition as such, the Dale Woreda people’s quest to be reunited with their Sidamakins in the Sidama zone, the silent competition between the Gurage and the Mareqo over Walqite, the near total neglect of the entire peoples of South Omo (the Mursi, the Bodi, the Male, etc)—all these tensions remain unresolved. The demand for ethno-cultural justice (reacting to the legacy of imperial past), quest for autonomy and the right to difference (as in the case of the Silte from the Gurage, the Alaba from the Kamabata-Tambaro Zone, the Mareqo in Gurage, the Gofa from Gamo, the small groups in the Derashe Micro-Federation, the Shakka from Kafa, the Donga from the Kamabata, etc);the tensions in the Bench-Maji Zone (especially in relation to the rancorous relations between the ‘settlers’ and the ‘natives’)—all these issues reflect upon how the EPRDF—or its southern wing, SPDM—has governed the region and all the resentments people have with regard to these issues will inform the mentality of the voters. The extent to which these tensions are likely to explode will weigh on the balance between fear and anticipation in the region.

The peoples of Markakis’s second frontier, i.e., the peoples of the eastern (Afar and Somali) and Western (Gambella and Benishangul-Gumuz) peripheries, are traditionally not ruled directly by EPRDF. But they have been governed by parties that closely work with the EPRDF and are called ‘affiliates’ as a result. These regions are not without their problems. The issue of land-grab and the military and economic violence (displacement, lack of consultation, compensation, etc, and forced labour in the place of resettlement) and the pain thereof still reverberates in the two states of the Western periphery. The ‘commune-building’ exercise of the state (also funded by a consortium of UN agencies as the ‘Developing Regional States[DRS] project) was merely a means of facilitating land grab by foreign and domestic investors). The unnecessary suffering that emerged out of that exercise is documented by international human rights agencies [21]. The invisibility in Ethiopia (in part because of the implicitly racialized definition of who is an Ethiopian and who is not);lack of autonomy in their own regions (chiefly because of the extreme interference by the so-called ‘Advisors’ of EPRDF); deficit in ethno-cultural justice, deficits in social justice in general as these peripheral regions generally suffer from chronic shortage of basic infrastructure (roads, hospitals, schools, clinics, etc) and lack of skilled man power; the tensions among the regions’ dominant groups (such as the Anyua and the Nuer in Gambella, or the Berta, the Gumuz, and the Shinasha in Benishangul-Gumuz) owing to competition over resources, power, and opportunities; the tensions between the local peoples and the peoples who having resettled from other places live in their territories (often referred to as ‘Highlanders,’ alias degegnoch in Amharic), the mismanagement of border disputes between them and the highland regions, especially Oromia, and Amhara, but also the SNNPRS; the spill over effect of developments in the Sudan and/or Southern Sudan (the dynamics of refugeeism across the borders), these problems and the (mis)handling of them will inform the electorate’s votes. However, given the fact that there was historically no politics in these regions thus far—the fact that there was only governance—might not lend itself to be assessed for how much hope or despair it will furnish this election.

The Somali National Regional State, inhabiting the South Eastern periphery is one of the regions of the Frontier peoples, the Somali. Constituting the third most populous state in the country, and having been the locus of one of the oldest liberation movements in the region—ONLF; its peoples having suffered triple oppression under the Ethiopian empire; its sharing of borders with the dysfunctional state of Somalia, the unrecognized state of Somaliland, the weak and small state of Djibouti in the North, and the Somali-speaking peoples of the N Northern Frontier Province (NFP) of Kenya and therefore suffering the spill over effect of troubles that have their roots elsewhere; having never had a stable regional government with a turnout of 11 Presidents in the last 24 years; its people repeatedly expressing their aspiration for a separate statehood through the exercise of self-determination; it is a region that can be cited as a text book example of an underdeveloped and heavily beleaguered state. The fact that its leaders are co-opted into becoming a client under the patronage of federal authorities; the repression of the mass by the security forces [22],  especially since Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia in 2006 and the heavy military presence, especially in what are called ‘war zones’ (contrasted with the ‘peace zones’); and the massive under development of the region; aggravate the state of affairs in the region. Generally dry and ‘endowed’ with a hostile climate, it is also increasingly exposed to environmental degradation. It is also a region awash with small weapons and light arms. Lamentation of historic oppression in Ethiopia, poor economic infrastructure (roads, markets, water systems, schools , hospitals, transportation, internal network, institutions of government—never mind the rhetoric of excellent pro-pastoralist policies and the use of ‘mobile’ schools, etc), present securitization of identity and life in the region, the ever changing client-patron relationship between the federal and regional officials, the grievances over arbitrary arrest, detentions, disappearance, and gross injustice suffered under the army and the ‘Special Force’—these will definitely be on the mind of the electorate.

The Afar shares most of the plight of the Somali National Regional State except the instability of government. In contrast to the Somali region where there is a high turnout of presidents, in the Afar region, we had only one president for the last 20 years. Ruled by a party that is ‘affiliated’ to the EPRDF, its regional government has a special client-patron relationship with the federal authorities.

Common to these four peripheral regions and the Harari region (a city state carved as an enclave surrounded by Oromia) is their elite’s mistrust of the Ethiopian political class of the past, especially those who hail from the Amharic-speaking constituency. While they have a sufficient degree of disaffection with the way EPRDF ‘controls and disciplines’ them, they intuitively resist collaborating with centrist parties or leaders of the urban political class. EPRDF manipulates this fear of ‘the return of the past’ in order to keep these regions under its wings. While they continue to seek more (genuine) autonomy and more substantive power-sharing at the center under EPRDF, they are unwilling to collaborate with groups they perceive to take away the little semblance of (cultural and symbolic) autonomy they have under EPRDF. The centrist parties assumption of being one solid united polity collapses when it gets into these peripheral regions. The center-periphery cleavage, the north-south divide, becomes so clear when one observes the state-society relation in these regions and their imagination of the Ethiopian polity and their relationship with their ‘highlander’ compatriots. This indicates to us clearly that perhaps, we have yet to emerge into one electoral demos, or acknowledge the reality of plural demos, the demoi, in Ethiopia. In the meantime, considering the fact that these regions are regions of governance (i.e. spaces of crude rule) rather than politics, it is hardly possible to speak of the ‘mood’ as optimal or sub-optimal. But if politics is going to have its sway, like everywhere else, these, too could be spaces of resistance, spaces of voting to negate the regime in power, so that the populations can bring in their own story of suffering, to write a different story, to provide Ethiopia an alternative narrative that will form part of the exercise in constituting the Ethiopia yet to come. But for now, the snippets show that all is not well in the ‘polity’. There is more work to do than to win (or lose) election, be it this one or other.

Having thus far considered these snippets about the ‘mood’ (first, through the political-legal context, next through the historical context, now through the social-civilizational context)—and having underscored that there is a lot more work to do in Ethiopia than go through the motion of election–we now turn to consideration of what the election means for the political parties taking part in the election.

Ed’s note: Tsegaye R Ararssa is a PhD Candidate at The University of Melbourne Law School, and can be reached at:; or


[1]The use of the word ‘uprising’ is preferred because, irrespective of the conventional use of the word ‘revolution’ to refer to it, the lack of a ‘new beginning’ in the State-society relationship in the Arendtian sense—or the quick closure of the rupture immediately after the seizure of power by the Derg—may arguably disqualify it from being properly referred to as a ‘revolution’. See generally Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (Penguin, 1990) on new beginning, natality and, revolution.
[2]Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC),Public Ownership of Rural Lands Proclamation No. 31/1975, NegaritGazeta, Year 26 (1975).
[3]PMAC, PMAC Establishment Proclamation, Proc. No./1974;

[4]This was what prompted some of the student activists such as Wallelign to proclaim that Ethiopia was “a prison of nationalities.” See Wallelign Mekonnen, ‘On the Question of Nationalities,’ Struggle (Nov.1969).

[5]This had won the Derg a massive popular support in the South before the support started to wane in the following years owing to other unpopular policies it pursued.

[6]Art 2 explicitly recognizes the rights of nationalities to equality and non-discrimination, development of their language equally, and of regional autonomy in a unitary state of the “working people” of Ethiopia (art 3). This was preceded by the establishment of the Institute for the Study of Nationalities which was also in entrusted with the task of preparing a draft constitution. Over a long period of time, the Institute conducted extensive research on the history, languages, cultures, settlement patterns, and economic life of the national groups in the country. By ‘reducing’ Amharic to the status of working language (rather than of ‘official’ or ‘national’ status), it signalled the beginning of delinking the state from a particular language. This can be taken as the first step towards delinking the state and nation, thereby suggesting the need for a fundamental rethinking of the model of state-building in Ethiopia.

[7]Art 1 (2) emphasizes the indivisibility and inviolability of the territory of Ethiopia.
[8]This is gleaned from a conjoint reading of the starting line in the preamble and Art 1(1) of the PDRE constitution.
[9]‘Ethiopia’ itself is not problematized yet (as Wallelign or other progressive elements in the student movement had tried to do).

[10]Art 2 (1) reads: “The PDRE is a unitary state in which all nationalities live in equality.” The provinces remained the same (only having changed their names from the more imperial Teklay-gizat to the more functional Kifle-hager). For the first 13-14 years, the 14 provinces of Haileselassie’s era continued to exist in tact. Since 1987, they were divided further into 24 administrative entities with 5 autonomous self-governing regions, mainly intended to defuse the tension in Eritrea, Tigray, Ogaden, some parts of Oromia, and Afar.
[11]”By 1900, the western, eastern, and southern frontiers of Ethiopia were almost entirely established, and northern as well as southern Ethiopia was brought under the control of the political center, based in Addis Ababa…” observes MereraGudina, “The Elite and the Quest for Peace, democracy, and Development in Ethiopia: Lessons to be Learnt”, (2003) 10 (2) Northeast African Studies, 144. See also BahruZewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia (2nded) (James Currey, 2002). Harold Marcus,The Times and Life of Menelik II: Ethiopia, 1844-1913 (Oxford, 1975).

[12]Italy had taken control of Eritrea since the 1880s and the Ethiopian triumph over Italy at Adowa in 1896 ironically consolidated its hold on Eritrea because it led to Ethiopia’s recognition of Eritrea as Italian colony in return for Italy’s recognition of Ethiopia’s sovereignty in international relations.
[13]Rose Parfitt, “Empire des NegresBlancs: The Hybridity of International Personality and the Abyssinian Crisis of 1935-36” (2011) 24 Leiden Journal of International Law, 849. See also Rose Parffit, “The Unequal Equality of Sovereigns” (2013) Jean Monnet Working Paper Series.
[14]Italy’s resistance to Ethiopia’s admission to the League of Nations (and to the treaties of Versailles) was consistently that Ethiopia was uncivilized (i.e., it is economically/technologically backward, it engages in slave trade, it lacks clear written, predictable laws with which to settle disputes, etc). Italy was of course justifying its candidacy to ‘civilize’ this part of the world taking its own bit of the ‘Whiteman’s Burden’. So, modern law, for Ethiopia, was its salvation, its shield protecting it from the threat of white colonial occupation.

[15]Teklehawariat Teklemariam, Gebre-Hiwot Baykedagn, Afework Gebreyesuswere the most notable ones in this regard. These and several others of their contemporaries sought to modernize Ethiopia (the State, the society, and the economy) under a modernizing monarch that looks like Japan. Hence, the name ‘Japanizers,’ chosen for these members of the intellectual class of the time whom Bahru Zewde calls ‘Pioneers of change”. See Bahru Zewde, Pioneers of Change: Reformist Intellectuals of early Twentieth Century (James Currey, 2002).

[16]See for example, International Crisis Group (ICG),’Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism and Its Discontents’ (Africa Report No. 153 , 4 September 2009), available at :

[17]Prime minister MelesZenawi, Keynote address available at:; also in the proceedings here
[18]Some actually suggest that EPRDF (and its TPLF core) is beset by the competing nationalisms that are contradictory: TPLF’s aspiration for hegemony, the Amhara elites nostalgia for imperial times and “fixation on history”, and the “extravagant claims” of peoples of the wider South (such as the Somali, some sections of the Oromo people, and the Sidama, etc). See MereraGudina, ‘The Elite and the Quest for Peace, Democracy, and Development in Ethiopia: Lessons to be Learnt’ (2003) 10(2) North East African Studies, 160. The existence of these contradictory claims pursued with an all-or-none attitude by all makes it for TPLF/EPRDF to loosen its grip over power even for the sake of democracy. To embrace democracy means to relinquish TPLF’s hegemonic aspiration, which in turn implies willingness to abandon interests that only control of the state secures. In other words, TPLF is stuck in its own power grip. It has no incentive to democratize both internally(TPLF/EPRDF) and externally (Ethiopia). So TPLF/EPRDF needs saving from itself before launching the country on a democratic path. Having embodied the state in the name of combatting terrorism (supported by the West) and poverty (supported by China and sanitized by the language of economic nationalism also valorized by some remorseful western economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, etc), it is now busy securing itself in the name of securing the State. Echoing the famous Louis XIV aphorism “L’etat, c’estmoi”, TPLF/EPRDF seems to say “I am the State.” Everyone who opposes them is therefore the enemy of the state and should be eliminated.
[19]As explained by the then Prime Minister, the reason for the invasion/intervention was the fact that there are Ethiopian opposition forces who, assisted by Eritrean military forces, are using Somalia as a site to work their way into Ethiopia. The war was thus fought by EPRDF-as-a-State against its political adversaries. If the legislative debate over the ‘intervention/invasion’ was thus war by other means, war juridifeid; and if persecution of the opposition was ‘legalized’ (by anti-terrorism laws et al), then it is not difficult to conceive how TPLF/EPRDF is continuously engaged in war by other means.
[20]The claim to control power is informed by the historic predominance of the northern elite and the benefit that came along with that even among the northern state functionaries that lived in the garrison towns of the South. At times, the claim to rule is total. There is a refrain of lamenting the lost power (often in the guise of lamenting the lost glory of the old empire). The resistance to the constitutional valorization of the rights of ‘nations, nationalities, and peoples’ rife among majority Amhara constituencies both at home and in the diaspora is also a resistance to democracy and a desire to preserve an ethnocratic empire over which they presided at times having the Tigryan elite as junior partners.
[21]See for example, Human Rights Watch’s , ‘Waiting here for Death’: Forced Displacement and “Villagization” in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region’ (2012). Available at:

[22]Informants indicated that whoever is arrested in Jigjiga will be sent to the Zway prison where, owing to distance, no family member can reach out to him/her.

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