AfricaSocial Affairs

The predicament of Ethnic-federalism

Taye Negussie (PhD)

In its two different past publications, this magazine came up with some research findings and critical views of scholars who had for long observed and investigated the various aspects of Ethiopia’s ethnic-based Federalism.

In the December 2011 issue, we published a story that argued by keeping a “tight-grip” on the three main forms of decentralization – fiscal, political and legislative–and by openly directing most activities of the regional states the federal government itself has largely obstructed the realization of the supposed “unlimited” exercise of the rights of self-determination by “Nations, Nationalities and Peoples” of Ethiopia. Once again, in January 2013, we reported about the surge of ethnic-related conflicts in the aftermath of ethnic-based federal system in the country.

Apart from this, the daily ordeals of the common public – which now seems to distress even the government – due to rampant corruption, human rights violations, displacement of civilians, ethno-centric attitudes, inter-ethnic mistrust, a sense of insecurity especially by non-ethnic residents of given places look to be directly or  indirectly linked with the workings of ethnic-federalism in Ethiopia.

Despite the government’s insistence on supposedly insufficient experiences and poor expertise of regional states as the primary cause, in my view, the ultimate source of the problem rather seems to be rooted in the ambiguous and self-contradictory system of ethnic-based federalism as briefly highlighted upon below.

The hazy phrase of “Nation, Nationalities and Peoples”

Article 39(5) of the constitution provides a single definition to otherwise semantically distinct concepts of “Nation” “Nationalities” and “Peoples” by lumping them together in a composite phrase of “Nation, Nationalities and Peoples”. Yet, their distinctiveness appears vivid when one sees the differently tagged classification of regional states.

From this, then, follows the questions: why has the constitution opted for a composite phrase of three semantically different terms to signify one and the same thing?  Why some ethnic groups apparently identified as ‘nations’ or ‘people(s)’ were bestowed from the outset the status of ‘state’ while some similar others (admittedly, the constitution offers that right on conditional basis) were denied the same?  Does the assertion of equal rights and powers (including session) among ethnic groups make sense whilst they are placed along varying hierarchical administrative echelons of ‘state’, ‘zone’ and ‘wereda’?

All these clearly would throw into doubt the seriousness of the much-boasted equality of “nation, nationalities and people” and the fairness of the classification of discrete administrative echelons along ethnic lines.

 A  reductionist approach

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) ideological discourse has it that the reason for instituting an ethnic-based federal state in Ethiopia was mainly because of the need to redress ‘past historical injustices’ committed by the ‘Amhara ruling-class’ against all other ethnic groups.

This is essentially a reductionist ideological construct apparently coined to serve political purposes. Truth be told, the forms of prejudices and repressions in the course of many centuries long interactions and contentions among a number of social entities in Ethiopia were of remarkably complex and quite varied in nature.

I would group them here into two broad categories: Ethnic and/or regional domination in which at a certain point in time some politically, economically, demographically or culturally more powerful regional, an ethnic or alliance of ethnic  groups absorb and repress the less powerful ones; and inter and/or intra-ethnic repression whereby certain members of an ethnic or other ethnic groups are subjugated by the same or other ethnic groups due to their trade, faith, minor physical differences or disability or some myths and legends often forming social caste groups in almost all ethnic entities.

The fallacy of ‘democratic-ethnocentrism’

Ethiopia’s ethnic-federalism, as per EPRDF’s discourse, is basically guided by the principle of ‘democratic-ethnocentrism’. Yet, a sober assessment of the concept reveals a measure of theoretical, experimental and moral fallacies.

Theoretically, whereas democracy denotes inclusion, tolerance and compassion, among others, ethnocentrism with its emphasis on privileging one’s ethnic members implies exclusion, discrimination or ‘partial justice’.  Thus, the notion of ‘democratic- ethnocentrism’ is inherently fallacious born out of a forced-marriage of entirely contradictory views of ‘democracy’ and ‘ethnocentrism’.

The experimental fallacy appears evident with the granting of an exclusive-right to rule to a single ethnic group in a rather ethnically mixed and demographically ever changing country. Crowning one ethnic group over others would give way to ridiculous form of ‘reverse injustice’–righting ‘old injustice’ with ‘new injustices’. Whereas the moral fallacy is quite evident when one is faced with choosing one worthy identity from among many equally competing identities.

Such form of governance is bound to be caught up in what I call the ‘dilemma of ethnic democracy’:  “All ethnic entities in a given administrative unit are equal, but one is more equal than others!” Definitely, this can be nothing but a form of political ploy.

In general, Ethiopia’s ethnic-federalism sets forth ‘ethnic enclosures’ guarded by ‘ethnic-extremism’ where ethnic-differences frame the basic organizing principle of social and political life. It thrives on political opportunism, ethnic entrepreneurship, loyalty and favoritism; so, no wonder that it becomes the source of many administrative malfeasances.

At this time of ever integrating world what Ethiopia needs is not divisive and potentially explosive governance but an integrative and democratic one that both acknowledges and respects cultural differences–cultural pluralism–and also promotes a spirit of brotherhood, solidarity and unity among its diverse social entities.

Prof. Steve Fenton, author of a famous book “Ethnicity” said, “The narcotic of self-pity and the whine of victimhood become the elevator music of ethnocentrism and the mainstay of ethnic-entrepreneurs.” Inarguable.

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