Viewpoint

Prosperity Party’s get-rich-quick scheme

To defuse identity politics, a process of gradual progress is more important than achieving a rapid but unsustainable outcome

It has been 50 years since Wallelign Mekonnen published “On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia” articulating his lasting solution for uprisings and liberation movements. Half a century later, the question of nationalities is still the central theme of Ethiopian political discourse. It has persisted because we failed to properly address the nationalities’ just demands for dignity and self-governance.

The current constitution, albeit not practically implemented, guarantees self-rule for all Ethiopia’s ethnic communities. There are some that consider the current constitution and the multinational federal structure a failure, blaming it for the rise of identity politics. As a result, there seems to be a desire to change it fundamentally, or undermine its full implementation.

On the other hand, there are those who that say the current constitution and its federal structure, particularly provisions that guarantee collective rights of nations, nationalities and peoples, must be protected at any cost except for minor amendments as necessary.

I believe the constitution, even though in place for more than a quarter century, has not been fully tested yet. Free, fair and competitive elections are the ultimate test for a democratic system and the right to self-rule. There has never been such an election in the country. The closest was the one in 2005, but that ended badly.

The fact that views are polarized makes it difficult to have constructive debates. But that is what needs to happen and we should not shy away from them unless we want identity politics to be the defining topic for a full century. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s formation of Prosperity Party (PP) appears to be an attempt to defuse identity politics by forming a national party. But dissolving the regional ruling parties of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and its affiliates was untimely and a short-sighted action that will only intensify identity politics instead of defusing it.

It was a rush to achieve a superficially positive outcome without following the necessary process to actually sustain that desirable result.

Proper diagnosis

Before we prescribe and implement an alternative to identity politics, we need to diagnose why it has existed for so many decades. Why have most of our political parties organized on the principle of liberating a nation or representing their interests? Identifying the root cause of a problem is the main part of finding its solution. When a group sees its identity (language, culture, faith, lifestyle, etc.) under attack, or feels its values threatened, a natural response is to organize and struggle collectively.

Nationalism has recently become the driving agenda of elections even in Western countries. It certainly cannot and should not be undermined in Ethiopia and other African countries where the issue is even more sensitive and could be destructive if not properly managed. In Ethiopia’s case, many nations and nationalities have been suppressed and even dehumanized at times for far too long, particularly those in the south of the country. Their struggle to preserve what identifies them collectively is not different from a struggle for basic human right. If we do not acknowledge that, we are nowhere close to addressing it.

Under EPRDF rule for the past quarter of a century, many of these just demands were addressed. However, the critical component of self-governance was never part of it. Had it been, we would not still be discussing it now. In short, multinational federalism is not what is fueling identity politics; rather, it is the lack of it. Instead of correcting that mistake of EPRDF, PP could deprive many of the southern nations from developing their own political and democratic institutions, which requires time and effort. One of the main reasons cited for forming PP is to be inclusive of the EPRDF affiliates. This could have been accomplished by bringing them on board as full members of the front instead of dissolving them and merging their structures and members into PP.

Multi-stop journey

Let us assume for a moment that after several years we want to be at a point where the democratic system is institutionalized and nations’ self-governance is guaranteed and is no longer under any kind of threat. Anyone that believes in group rights and values equality should agree with this as an end goal. At that stage, we would still need competing political agendas in each federal regional state. The competition will no longer be about what it is today. As such, the political parties will adopt other types of social and economic ideologies. This can be achieved as a by-product of addressing today’s critical issues. It requires careful and meticulous navigation across turbulent waves. Abiy’s attempt to defuse identity-based political parties by forming a national party is a leap to destination that seeks to avoid the necessary long, and probably painful, journey.

Why is it necessary to take that journey? Because it would be a major setback if, after rushing to the destination, the system then failed after several years. However, if we take small steps, there will be opportunities to adjust without losing sight of the destination. If we acknowledge the historical injustices, we must allow time for them to develop their language, culture, education and institutions within their respective regions. At the current stage of development, political parties based on representing and protecting groups interests are the right mechanism to accomplish that.

The positive outcomes are two-fold. First, it addresses a just cause and corrects historic injustice. Second, it will defuse identity politics over time through the process. If the issues that necessitated identity politics cease to be relevant, so will the need to organize political party based on identity. In the end, this will reconcile the current poles, as both would have achieved a common goal. Ignoring this necessary process will only exacerbate the polarization.

Large nations like the Oromo can withstand the effect of losing an identity-based party due to their size. However, those with smaller populations, mostly in the south, can easily be suppressed or swallowed within a national party like PP. They need more time, support, and independence to recover from historic injustice before they can compete fairly on the same playing field.

What is happening currently is an attack on political organization based on nationalities, which in turn creates defensiveness among such organizations, leading them to double-down on their views. This is the tension needs to be defused if we want to break out of a stalemate and make progress. The proper way to do it is to take the lid off and stop suppressing. Until democratic systems and institutions for self-governance mature and solidify for all nations, we will have a perpetual cycle of identity politics at the center of Ethiopia’s discourse.

If we really do want to defuse identity politics and make progress, we must go through the necessary steps—because on this matter, process is more important than outcome.

Query or correction? Email us

This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: Three EPRDF sister parties and affiliate parties signing an agreement Prosperity Party formation; Dec. 1; Office of the Prime Minister

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished. 

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About the author

Challa Demissie

Challa is a Civil Engineering professional and graduate from Addis Ababa University. He has no political aspirations, but cares about Ethiopia and likes to stay engaged and share his views. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook @chaldems

14 Comments

  • Why don’t we look to India to understand how their ethnic based federalism works?

    In either case, the whole federal ethnic kilil is a farce. Amharas and Oromo have regional differences and are better off further broken down to provinces. Do you think eastern wollo wants to be dominated by Gojam? No. Neither Harar by Shoa. Amharas don’t like the federal system because they are still under the delusion that they can dominate a unitary central government. These Amharas are Addis Ababa based, the one in Amhara kilil know better.

    I wish Ethiopian thinkers will be more honest and start taking about real stuff, such as divisions within the so called nations and nationalists.

    • Tesfa,

      You can slice the issue in many ways. The ultimate question and its solution is self-rule at every level. People should be able to elect their own administrators that they can hold accountable at the smallest level of government structure instead of party loyalists being appointed for them from top. The more decentralization of power, the less chance of government being too powerful over its own people. It sounds ironic, but that is going to be the best way to make a diverse Ethiopia more united.

      • It sounds less ironic when one sees group right as the right of individuals to form a group in defense of a threat from a larger group exercising the same right.
        The less of a burden the smaller group to the larger, the less of a threat the larger group to the smaller, the fewer will be levels of group-hierarchy, the decentralization less granular. And vice versa.

        In the end, as families and neighborhoods think and work harder, so shall those in power. And things will certainly get better.

  • Very professional writing this. I believe media has a big role in uniting a country and defusing violence. Lack of professionalism in that regard is one of the main concerns in Ethiopia.

    • Moges,

      I agree on the role of media which can also do the complete opposite, even more effectively, to divide the country and fuel violence. Both the media and political fields need to mature where constructive debates can be conducted with civility.

  • As for invidual rights versus group rights, it not something like the proverbial chicken and egg argument as some unionist would make us believe to muddy waters further. The question(s) of which comes or should take a precedence or whether it be could mended/solved simultaneously and holistically. Historically , group rights came first even in the western participatory democracy cases. Individual rights came long after group rights; when fair democratic institutions put in place at federal and
    and state levels and when cycles of regular transparent elections and peaceful transfers of power exist, then it is easy to solve individual right as well, if not simultaneously, but the reverse isn’t true.

    As read above comment as de’ja vu and sine qua none

    • Awale,

      That is the point! The ultimate goal is to have a society where everyone’s right is protected regardless of what identifies them as a group or individuals. Group right is a means to fight collectively and it is not the end goal. Those with government power will always want to limit people’s right and people don’t have power unless they have a collective way of resisting such infringements. Besides, if we look at what those collective rights are, it is basically individual rights that they desire to claim or restore collectively.

      • Mohammed,

        I don’t see distinction between the two. To me, people group rights, women rights, religious rights, etc. are all human rights.

  • I’m not sure yet whether it is get-rich quick or something else at this point, but I completely concur with the author on three things: (1) that nationalism and identify politics which bedeviled Ethiopian state and it’s politics over 60 years are here to stay . No matter how one wishes to avoid, interpret, mask or minipulate. it
    won’t go away easily; (2) genuine and equitable federal system is sacrosanct for Ethiopia. It guarantees equitable power and resources sharing on top of religip-linguistic and cultural issues protection. It is sin none quo for Ethiopia State future survival as a united country; (3) another thing that is related to the second point is scrubbing , subverting or extensively tampering in any way of the federal constitution unilaterally for power manipulation reasons by the current regime and others will be dangerous move . This would cause turmoil and reignite past identity conflict in the nation. It would be deja vue scenes all over again. Of course , few fixes here and there and minor changes of constitution are required as unforseen circumstances and issue would demand overtime and it will evolve along with , but entertaining to do away with it or changing fundamentally to suit new regime’s poliyical interest without popular consent is out of question, if not asking for serious trouble.

  • I’m not sure yet whether it is get-rich quick or something else at this point, but I completely concur with the author on three things: (1) that nationalism and identify politics which bedeviled Ethiopian state and it’s politics 60 years are here to stay . No matter how one wishes to avoid, interpret, mask or minipulate it won’t go away easily; (2) genuine and equitable federal system is sacrosanct for Ethiopia. It guarantees equitable power and resources sharing on top of religip-linguistic and cultural issues protection. It is sin none quo for Ethiopia State future survival as a united country; (3) another thing is related to the second point is scrubbing , subverting or extensively tampering in any way of the federal constitution unilaterally for power manipulation reasons by the current regime and others is dangerous move . This would cause turmoil and reignite past identity conflict. It would be deja view scenes all over again. Of course , few fixes here and there and minor changes of constitution are required as unforseen circumstances and issue would demand and it will evolve along, but entertsing to do away with or changing fundamentally to suit new regime’s interest without popular consent is out of question, if not asking for serious trouble.

  • Apart from the fact that there is already a federal system in Ethiopia (on constitutional paper at least), this idea of resolving cultural issues by law, or power abuses by further laws, is hopeless, and the whole idea of “group rights” is entirely sick: a right is a matter of law, and the law has to be the same for everyone, alternatively you create a caste system (which means different rights for different groups, and since you have 80+ ethnic groups in Ethiopia it would mean total chaos). I agree that nationalism is the result of foreign oppression everywhere, but that is not actually a cultural affair: oppression is a matter of abuse of power, and it is pointless to hope to solve power abuses by any sort of ethnic rule (since you can get equally abused by your local ethnic tribe). In conclusion, like there is no Santa Claus, there is not a power good for its subordinates, either local or federal, ethnic or not. Try to keep the intrusion of the State at a minimum to guarantee safety, public order, private property, respect of contracts, low taxes and low inflation and stop politicizing ethnicity if you want a “Get rich fast” trick that works.

    • Tom,

      You are exactly right on the fact that the law has to be the same for everyone. Struggle for group right is born out of abuse of individual right. At the end of the day, once group right is addressed, the issue will ultimately come down to individual right and that is exactly what people will demand. But Ethiopia is stuck on this issue because the ruling class has so far abused their power, which was never delegated to them in the first place, to oppress the governed both individually and as a group. Further, historical wounds cannot be healed overnight, especially if not acknowledged at the very least. Self-rule for each group is the quickest way to get out of the stalemate or else the issue, both real and perceived, will continue its cycle.

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