Addis Abeba, June 16, 2021 – It is an established historical fact that contemporary Ethiopia is the result of a forceful annexation of nations and nationalities in the late 19th century. Ever since the conquest of Oromia and the greater South by the Abyssinian forces, the country has been undergoing an unfinished project of state building. The overriding expression of this project is the recurrent endeavor to build a unitary nation-state against the demands of nations and nationalities for self-determination. With a varying level of atrocities, Ethiopia has long been under authoritarian rules and a perpetual political culture of denial. The political culture of denial is characterized by denial of histories of atrocities, state violence and demands and rights of nations and nationalities, while reversely subscribing to a unitarist and selective history of the state. The consistent resistance of the nations and nationalities challenged the central Ethiopian regime. The recent popular Oromo youth uprising that had culminated in the dictatorial regime of EPRDF in 2018 has been a continuation of a century old resistance.
The hoped-for transition to democracy and the prospect for peace and development that glimmered in 2018, following the social movement ignited by the Oromo youth dubbed the #OromoProtests, is stalled and an authoritarian rule has taken hold. Since the advent of the current leadership, contradictory political and economic aspirations have increasingly become evident. Rooted in contradictory historical representations and future aspirations, contestation is underway on the possibilities and implications of constitutional reform pertaining to the existing federal dispensation. Nations and nationalities of the country, who fought for their collective rights for over half a century to gain a semblance of structural recognition, are following the ongoing situation with a sense of imminent danger and existential threat.
Currently, Ethiopia is facing multidimensional and intersectional crises of geo-political, security, and socio-economic characteristics. Gross violations of human rights are perpetrated by government forces and persistent demands for accountability have fallen on deaf ears. Impunity is so rampant that it has become the rule of the Ethiopian state. These crises are rooted in the political history of the country and are reflections of contradictory visions for the future of the country. The country is facing a heightened contradiction on state structure. The prospect of the country’s continuity hinges on whether and how this contradiction gets settled. The question is whether they will be settled in a way that rectifies historical injustices and usher in the prospect of peaceful co-existence, or will they culminate in disintegration of the country? The alliance of forces and the continued struggle for justice, freedom, and democracy is informed by the critical situation of the country. The situation calls for unprecedented determination to end these crises devastating the country and greatly endangering the stability of the Horn of Africa. In this paper, we attempt to address the current situation in Ethiopia, with a focus on the prevailing contradictions on state structure and associated crises. We will take a brief retrospective look into the past and reimagine the prospect of the Oromo struggle in the context that is unfolding.
Contradictions on Ethiopia’s state formation and its governance structure
Ethiopia is a country of many contradictions and contestations. From the birth of the modern empire in the late 19th century, continuation of historically asymmetric relations and ruptures that sustained the empire have cemented deep-rooted antagonism between diverse nations and nationalities. The empire that was forged through brutal war of conquest during the European colonial aggression in other parts of Africa perpetuated a form of internal colonialism manifested in terms of economic exploitation, political oppression, cultural marginalization, and imposition of the language, religion and culture of one ethnic group over others.
Since the 1960s, resistance against the assimilationist, exploitative, and oppressive imperial system has given birth to national liberation movements notably with nationalities’ question as a defining feature of the movements. Questions of “land to the tillers”, political representation, cultural rights and, broadly speaking, the right to self-determination became the mobilizing factors for national liberation movements and other political parties and brought the demise of the feudal system in 1974. Nevertheless, despite its radical measures on land policy that responded to popular demands, the military regime (1974-1991) continued the homogenizing narrative of state-building project that suppressed the autonomy and identity of nations and nationalities and their rights to self-administration.
The fall of the military junta in 1991 through a coordinated force of TPLF (EPRDF), EPLF, OLF and ONLF opened the way for institutionalization of a multinational federal system that ushered in a new rupture in Ethiopia’s political order. Precisely, the adoption of the 1995 FDRE Constitution marked a breakaway from Ethiopia’s imperialist past and signaled the birth of a state structure that recognizes the autonomy, and socio-economic, civil, and political rights of groups as well as individuals. However, TPLF (EPRDF) controlled the government and pushed away all other organizations that helped to establish the federal system. Rather than harnessing the multinational federal order for economic empowerment and political representation of nations and nationalities, the TPLF dominated EPRDF regime consolidated its power through “democratic centralism” and continued land appropriation under the vague “developmental state” political economy. Despite the TPLF/EPRDF government’s misappropriation of the system in establishing economic oligarchies and authoritarian political systems, the multinational federal system has at least laid an architecture for a system of shared rule and self-rule through which a democratic system could be strengthened.
From 2014-2018, massive youth protests, first ignited by the Oromo youth and later joined by other groups have prompted the regime to undertake some reforms leading to the coming to power of Abiy Ahmed. Abiy’s ascendance to power was followed by the restructuring of the incumbent party towards a unitary-like party, named Prosperity Party, in which every structure (branch) of the party is accountable to the Prime Minister. As the establishing documents and public statements of officials suggest, the newly reorganized party aspires towards building a unitary state through a constitutional amendment. In doing so, the party seeks to achieve at least three things: a state in which individual rights are given primacy over group rights, led by presidential government system, and reversal of the ethno-lingual multinational federal structure to geography-based state structure. These aspirations were among the major factors that resulted in the exit of the TPLF party from the coalition and growing suspicion of pro multinational forces against Abiy’s government. This marks a moment in Ethiopia’s history where the contradiction in Ethiopia’s state formation and structure became crystal clear. Furthermore, the contradiction continues translating into and getting manifestations in the form of unfolding contemporary socio-economic, political, and security crises in Ethiopia and the region. We present a highlight of these crises as follows.
The deep-seated contradiction on Ethiopia’s state formation and state structure inform and underlay the current political divide between political parties. The incumbent Prosperity Party and some other unitarist political parties that are in control of the economy, bureaucracy, and military power are exploiting their leverage that went to an extent of pushing out widely accepted federalist political parties such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC). This is evident from the data on electoral candidates recently published by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) in which – 2432 are from the Prosperity Party, 1385 candidates from Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (also known as EZEMA) and 491 candidates from NAMA and the less known Enat Party prepares 573 candidates while Oromia – the populous and largest region – appears to be represented by one barely known opposition political party Oromo Liberation Movement, which is represented only by 4 candidates. Moreover, the upcoming election will be undertaken with the exclusion of one of the constituting members of the federation – Tigray regional state. This squarely points to the problem of election without representation, which has a considerable potential of resulting in pre-and post-election crises. Furthermore, as its multiple procedural and substantive practices suggest, the institutional integrity and independence of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) itself is questionable.
Contradiction over state structure, which is directly tied to the right to self-determination and shared rule, underlies the power struggle that culminated with devastating war between the federal government and the Tigray regional state. With varying magnitude, limited media reporting, and involvement of external powers, a prolonged conflict between government forces and rebel groups in different parts of Oromia has been ongoing since 2018. This too is directly linked with the question of the Oromo people’s right to self-determination over their own resources and region. Security crisis is taking hold in different parts of the country. There is credible evidence that the Amhara regional government has been deploying its special forces to bolster conflicts in different areas, such as the Benishangul-Gumuz region and western Oromia. The increasing security crisis exhibits features of scramble for resource and political power, and it is mostly perpetrated by the centralizing tendency of the state and reactionary forces.
The political and security crises that emanate from deep contradictions on state structure have implications on socio-economic conditions and prospects. Economically, Ethiopia is experiencing one of the highest inflation rates in its recent history; irregular sectors and black market are increasingly in use; foreign currency shortage is crippling the already declining economy of the country; the rising gap in living standard is a testament for expansive irregular sectors, lack of good governance, and corruption. The economic crisis in turn translates into social crises such as a climbing unemployment rate that exposes most youth to irregular migration and human trafficking that risks their lives. Moreover, internal displacements, raising rural-urban mobility, and increasing risks of organized robbery and theft are manifestations of socio-economic crises.
Augmented by the deep-seated contradiction on state structure and mismanaged transition, Ethiopia is currently facing both internal and external threats of unprecedented scale. Among the most pressing internal and external threats are the following.
Given the growing tension in many regions of the country, notably in Oromia, Tigray, Benishangul-Gumuz, Afar, Somali, and Amhara regions, the likelihood of pre-election and post-election violence is very high. This is compounded by systematic and violent exclusion of contending political parties promoting pluralistic vision of state structure and policy alternatives. Among others, the exclusion of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), the Oromo people are left without representation in this election. This seems to be related to Abiy’s government intention and effort to consolidate power by winning the election without meaningful competition.
The political parties currently campaigning for the election, including the ruling Prosperity Party (PP), largely represent similar political views that could be classified as anti-multinational federal arrangement, while those excluded are largely in favor of democratizing and perfecting the multinational federation. Thus, the election will likely result in reversal of existing federal system, and to the promulgation of policies that enhance the return to imperial Ethiopia and its unitarist visions.
The necessary conditions for free, fair, and competitive election are not in place. If the election takes place as scheduled, there will be an illegitimate government that must deal with its own illegitimacy and face the consequences of conducting a sham election, the outcome of which was known well before the election. The government to be formed will be in no position or shape to solve prevailing crises; it will rather exacerbate the already fragile condition. Instead of solving longstanding problems and contradictions that left the country wanting for democracy, peace, and development, the election will complicate and heighten existing contradictions.
After the election, we anticipate that the government that will be formed will embark on reversing the gains of nations and nationalities that have been struggling for a democratic multinational federation. The composition of political parties participating in the election and the tone of their campaign in relation to the rights of nations and nationalities signifies this likely trend. It is highly likely that the excluded mass will launch strong resistance to the reversal of the multinational federal dispensation and other fledgling signs of cultural recognition and political representation by the forthcoming government. As the imperial ambitions meet formidable resistance, it will not take too long before Ethiopia is engulfed by protracted wars. The country is already on the verge of a full-scale civil war.
Geo-political manifestations of emerging threats will likely aggravate regional instability far beyond the borders of Ethiopia. The new development following the War on Tigray has already unraveled geopolitical tensions. There is a fast deterioration of relations and border dispute with Sudan, which may escalate to full-scale war. The Ethiopia-Egypt relation, which is tied to the longstanding Nile politics, is facing a deadlock with regards to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Even the Ethiopia-Kenya relations are not as smooth as before. The involvement of the Eritrean forces in the wars in Tigray and Oromia has severely complicated matters and worsened internal tensions.
While the immediate effect will be felt in the Horn of Africa and Eastern Africa more broadly, the implications of potential mass displacement and refugee crises will be far-reaching. The Western world, including Europe and North America, will certainly feel the heat.
The emerging threats further reinforce existing crises, including social, economic, and security crises. Humanitarian catastrophe and population displacement of unprecedented scale may be unfolding if the current path persists. We believe that the cumulative impact of all these is an impending state collapse that will unravel not only the Ethiopian state but also the entire Horn of Africa and beyond.
Existing pockets of peace will dissipate and there will likely be a nightmare where people will face difficulty in engaging in productive activities. In a country where over 80 percent of the population are farmers, farming will become impossible under current security crises, and so will livelihood activities. As supply shrinks to an unprecedented level, the existing inflation will worsen even further. It should be underlined that international organizations are warning of large-scale famine in Tigray, where over 90 percent of the population needs emergency aid. We fear that this will spill over to other regions, further complicating the situation.
We anticipate that law-enforcement institutions will collapse and give way to informal and armed groups, leading to further deterioration of security. Armed and unarmed groups may engage in informal economic activities which may fuel further violence. Existing investments are likely to be stalled and new investments will become unthinkable under growing conditions of security crises and precarity. This will lead to the worsening of the already unstable foreign currency flow and reinforce economic stagnation that is experiencing near-zero growth.
The way forward: All-inclusive dialogue
It is highly appreciated that the international community, particularly the UN, USA, EU, and NATO have given attention to the deteriorating humanitarian and political crises in Ethiopia. However, Abiy’s government and its unitarist allies are neither willing for peaceful resolution of ongoing conflicts nor are they ready for inclusive dialogue on the future of the country. Unilateral framing of problems and an exclusive approach to seeking solutions has long been the tradition of consecutive regimes of the Ethiopian state. The country must seek internal reconciliation over the past and consensus for the future. If genuinely implemented before it is too late, a solution of great potential is an all-inclusive dialogue. For successful dialogue, all stakeholders shall be included and welcomed to contribute with due commitment. The ruling party and the government’s share of responsibility are very high in making the dialogue a success.
All-inclusive dialogue is a dialogue that involves political organizations, civic organizations, religious leaders, indigenous institutions, and notable individuals and elders from all corners of the country. If there is political will for an all-inclusive dialogue, the procedural and technical matters can be handled by an independent commission constituted with the consensus of all stakeholders. Such a dialogue should be understood as a means of making sure all voices are heard and demands addressed to the satisfaction of the majority. Ultimately, it should be up to the Ethiopian people to decide the country’s future.
While a detailed and comprehensive way forward must be set based on the consensus of all stakeholders, issues for the dialogue should include the nature of the state structure going forward and a collective agreement on how to seek solutions for the crises engulfing the country. The international community should put pressure on all parties, especially the government, as a matter of urgency. There are many preconditions to be undertaken for a meaningful dialogue. These include:
- The release of all political prisoners
- The cessation of hostilities and war in various parts of the country
- Revoking the recent designation of political parties and groups as terrorist organizations
- Reopening of the political and media spaces
- Unconditional withdrawal of Eritrean army from Tigray and Oromia regions and
- Removal of military and intelligence surveillance from civilian life.
Editor’s Note: The above viewpoint was submitted to Addis Standard by Oromo Action Council (OAC). The Oromo Action Council (OAC) is a non-partisan, pan-Oromo organization established in 2020 to serve as a voice for the Oromo people and other marginalized groups in Ethiopia. OAC can be reached through email@example.com or Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/oromoactioncouncil