Nations, Nationalities and People’s Day: A chance to do away with the late PM Meles’s dangerous vision of ethnic federalism

The theme for this year’s celebration paid tribute to the visions of the late PM Meles; but it should also be about how not to do ethnic federalism the dangerous way like he did

Emnet Assefa

Once again, the month of December 2012, as the last six Decembers, saw the all too familiar colorful get together of Ethiopian nations and nationalities who came from all parts of the country to celebrate the 7th Nations, Nationalities and People’s Day. This time, the host was Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara regional state, some 750 kms north of the country.  The overall spirit of the celebration shows  that the city has set out its best for the preparations of the event. The constructions of the Bahir Dar National Stadium and a large conference hall for the regional government have both gone to their final touches just for the event.

The heart of the whole event, which was attended by big party officials, invited businessmen and women, diplomats and other foreign nationals living in the country, as was by tens of thousands of Ethiopians, was bringing together representatives of nations and nationalities from throughout the four corners of the country. As such, the event presented every participant with a fantastic opportunity for cultural exchanges between peoples of different ethnicity, languages and way of life.

The first such day in post Meles
The first after the passing away in August 2012 of Ethiopia’s late PM Meles Zenawi, who was the number one proponent of the event over the past six years, this year’s celebration was dedicated to none other than him: “Unified within Diversity and Guided by Meles’ Vision and the Constitution, Let Us Head for Our Renaissance.”

As too politicized as the whole event has been, it’s clear that the celebration served, just like its predecessors,  as a perfect tool to make a perfect point that the ethno-federal system, ‘‘an experiment” as the late PM once referred to it,  has been a success story. Clearly the government wanted, once again, the theme to speak to the nation about the core values of the celebration on Saturday December 8th, 2012.

Comically though only the first few words of the theme, i.e, “united within diversity,” bear a remote resemblance to the original purpose and meaning of the day’s celebration, which essentially is supposed to be about an ethnically federated Ethiopia, but one that is expected to be united against the odds of its uniquely crafted ethnic diversity.

None of the officials who delivered speeches at the event including Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Kassa Tekleberhan, Speaker of the House of Federation (HoF), and Ayalew Gobeze, Chief Administrator of the Amhara regional state, dared conveying a meaningful message about the very essence of the day’s celebration, least a critical look at its fault lines; needless to say, all were overly focused on calling the nation to seize the opportunity to renew its commitments in realizing the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), another brainchild of the late PM Meles, but one that has less relevance to the day.

A worthy look back at its fault line
The late PM Meles should be credited for creating a peacefully federated Ethiopia soon after his army took control of the nation in 1991. The federal government’s decision to name the theme of the event after his vision is therefore perfectly understandable. But no one denies the system that originally claimed to see a peacefully federated Ethiopia ended up having one too many imperfections as it aggressively continued on rooting itself based on ethnic lines.

Jon Abbinkv, an anthropologist and a senior researcher at the African Studies Centre at Leiden University, The Netherlands, in his article ‘Ethnic-based federalism and ethnicity in Ethiopia: reassessing the experiment after 20 years’, quoted the late PM Meles on Ethiopia’s unique doze of ethnic based federalism as saying, “if an experiment shows serious problems or unexpected results one can amend it and change some of the conditions of the experimenting.” Regrettably, the late PM passed away before he fixed some of the pressing imperfections, which were largely his own making, during this experiment.

This magazine in its December 2011 issue has reported that the concept of federalism wasn’t a complete stranger to the Ethiopian political dynamics. Many governments that ruled the nation before the incumbent had tried it but had failed. The country had lived with some serious and yet unresolved issues of nationalities and nations rights for many decades, which later on became one of the many driving forces of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s popular students’ movement that eventually toppled Africa’s longest serving monarchy.

But the new concept of federalism introduced soon after the current regime took power in 1991 showed a radical transformation for two reasons. First, it was anxious for decentralization, and second – and most importantly – it was purely an ethnic based federal arrangement, which received a mixed reaction of fear and appreciation at the same time.

The legislative decentralization that in principle recognizes self-determination and the rights of regional and ethnic centred administrations have been largely intolerant of regional independent legal frameworks that have challenged the federal rules and regulations.

Its advocates may point at the guaranteed rights of many nations and nationalities that were unknown before but now have plenty of opportunities from being recognized both at federal and regional levels, to learning in their native languages after 1991. Currently there are about 75 ethnic groups that are represented in the House of Federation, which is largely a constitutional control chamber made up of people from all regions. And in the past 20 years the House has mediated relatively successfully some of the ethnic flare ups seen in remote parts of the country. However, the house “still is not a very active institution because it has no legislative function,” according to Jon Abbinkv.  Add to that the vague definition of article eight of the constitution that gives ‘‘political sovereignty” for all nations, nationalities, and peoples of the country and the secession clause in article 39 rendering nations and nationalities who wished to secede the freedom to do so are some of the pressing issues the late PM never managed to fix.

According to Dr. Daniel Kndie of the Addis Ababa University, who extensively researched on the system of ethnic federalism, many of the ethnic based conflicts between Benishangul-Gumuz and Amharas, Oromos and Amhara, Somali and Oromos, Wogagoda (Wolaitta, Gamo, Gofa and Dawro) and among other ethnic groups in southern region are but to mention few seen in the country since 1991 as a result of its ethno-federal system.

Other scholars fret about the lost privacy of their ethnicity which is often violated at state institutions which request one’s ethic background for any service they intend to provide. “My ethnicity should be something left for me as an option whether to mention or not,” says Dr.Taye Negussie, assistance professor of sociology at Addis Ababa University and this magazine’s society and economy columnist. According to him, ethnicity shouldn’t be a mandatory request for one to get services at government institutions such as getting national ID cards. “My citizenship should be the priority rather than my ethnicity,” adds Dr. Taye.

Jon Addinkv suggests, rightly, if a country opts to adopt an ethno-federal system, it should, at minimum, be “legally and institutionally capable of recognizing and pragmatically handling these dynamic aspects, which result in opportunistic behaviour, group-based claim making, and shifts in (ethnic) self-identity.”

As meaningful as dedicating the day was to the late PM Meles, it is equally important for our politicians to take this opportunity to right the wrongs of the ethno-federal system that the late PM neither had the political will, nor the courage to do.

Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button