Ethiopia must move away from its Soviet-inspired ethnic federation to achieve peace, prosperity, and democracy.Ethnic divisions have proved a major challenge to build national unity and achieve political stability in many African countries. To mitigate—and, at times, exploit—such divisions, political leaders in the continent have experimented with various political institutions, ranging from banning ethnic-based political parties to arranging regional states that cut across ethnicity.
But none is as radical as the approach taken by the leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a party that ruled Ethiopia for nearly three decades: adopting a Soviet-style, ethnically based federation which they incorporated, along with other supporters of ethnic federalism, into the country’s current constitution introduced in 1994.
Although the Soviet model—where each major ethnic group, regardless of size, is coalesced into a single state and given the unconditional right to secede from the federation—was emulated, to some extent, by some Eastern European countries such as Yugoslavia, Ethiopia’s was the first experiment of such an arrangement in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In addition to their Marxist-Leninist roots, the reason the leaders of the TPLF looked to the Soviet model is that, with regards to issues of nationality, their assessment of what was wrong with Ethiopia was similar to the Bolshevik’s diagnosis of Russia’s ills prior to the 1917 revolution.
The Bolsheviks believed that the Orthodox Christian Tsarist autocracy oppressed non-Russians; similarly, TPLF believed that Orthodox Christian, Amhara feudal rulers subjugated Ethiopia’s non-Amhara ethnic groups, including Tigrayans. And, similar to the Bolsheviks, they believed national contradictions in a given society have to be resolved first before class antagonisms are eliminated through a communist revolution.
The original manifesto of the TPLF shows that their proposed solution for the perceived national oppression of Tigrayans by Amhara rulers was secession from Ethiopia and the creation of an independent Tigray. But they abandoned this goal in the early 1980s, possibly because of the lack of support for the cause in Tigray.
Even though the communist government that toppled Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime nationalized all land and redistributed agricultural plots owned by the nobility to peasants, TPLF’s leaders were convinced that these measures only addressed class antagonisms in the country and not the “national question”.
Thus, they resorted to an armed struggle. After achieving military victory in 1991, they embarked on a project to remake Ethiopia, modeled after the Soviet Union, which, ironically, had already started disintegrating two years prior to their ascension to power. and this was a contributing factor for the defeat of Ethiopia’s military government for which the USSR provided critical financial and military support that sustained the regime during the Cold War.
After a two-year transitional period following the removal of the Mengistu regime, the country got a modified national flag and a new national anthem. And, in the constitution introduced in 1994, the TPLF-dominated Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) unveiled what it believed will address the national question: a federal system with nine regional states, constructed mostly along ethnic lines, and two-self-governing cities— Addis Abeba, the capital city, and, later, Dire Dawa—that are accountable to the federal government.
This was not simply an attempt to keep the Ethiopian state united by making it more democratic. For TPLF, the old Ethiopian state had ended, and now the more than 80 “sovereign” ethnic groups of Ethiopia, which the constitution refers to as “nations, nationalities, and peoples,” (NNPs) are coming together to form a new federation.
The constitution does not identify which ethnic groups have achieved the status of “nationhood,” but defines nations, nationalities, and peoples as a: “group of people who have or share a large measure of a common culture or similar customs, mutual intelligibility of language, belief in a common or related identity, a common psychological make-up, and who inhabit an identifiable, predominantly contiguous territory.” This definition was largely borrowed from Marxism and the National Question by Stalin, who was the Bolshevik commissar for nationalities during 1917-23.
Most of these regional states are named after the dominant ethnic group in the state and have a significant variation in size. Over 60 percent of the Ethiopian population, estimated to be around 110 million, live in two states— about 34 percent in Oromia and 27 percent in Amhara regional states. Both region host significant populations from other ethnic groups, which account for about 15 percent of the total population in Oromia and 10 percent in Amhara. Over 45 ethnic groups are combined to form the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNP) region, which the federation’s newest member, Sidama, left in 2020 to become the tenth regional state.
Other than the ethnic-based arrangement, there are some peculiar features of the Ethiopian federation that distinguish it from other federations. First, sovereignty lies with NNPs. Second, the states have veto power in amending parts of the constitution, including the articles on land policy—which, currently, precludes private ownership of land—and the article on constitutional amendment.
Third, the constitution gives NNPs the unconditional right to secede from the federation or from the region they are currently in and form their own regional state within the federation—just like Sidama.
This arrangement is consistent with the Bolshevik Nationalities policy which gives every nation the full right of political secession, incorporated in the 1924 USSR constitution.
The current Russian Federation has abandoned this arrangement, giving its regions autonomy but not the right to secede, which, according to President Vladimir Putin, was a major flaw in the design of the USSR that caused its disintegration.
In the Ethiopian context, granting the states that are organized on an ethnic basis the right to secede from the federation is more problematic. Unlike the colonies that formed the U.S. or cantons that established Switzerland, the ethnic groups were part of an existing, albeit undemocratic, Ethiopian state, at least since Emperor Menelik II. Many did not have an independent existence as nation-states with mutually or internationally recognized borders. In fact, almost 25 years after the formation of the federation, all bordering states have territorial claims on each other, either based on current or historical settlement patterns.
Thus, if regional states exercise their constitutional right to secede from the federation, a peaceful dissolution of the Ethiopian federation where these newly independent states fully coexist as neighbors will not materialize. The conflict that preceded the formation of Sidama and the bloody border conflict between Ethiopian and Eritrea—a country that had an independent existence from the Ethiopian state as an Italian colony—highlight what could happen if NNPs exercise the right to secede. Accordingly, secession is a promise that the constitution can’t deliver.
Competition, conflict, and minority right
The main problem, however, is not simply that the constitution is making a promise that it cannot deliver. It is the fact that, due to this provision, grievances that can be resolved administratively become questions that involve identity.
A case in point is the dispute between the Amhara and Tigray regions regarding Wolkait and Raya areas, which is related to the current war in Tigray. Political leaders in the Amhara regional state claim that Wolkait and Raya areas were incorporated into Tigray before the constitution was ratified against the wishes of the people in the areas and that TPLF has since then engaged in displacing and ethnic cleansing Amharas. TPLF disputes this claim and accuses Amhara armed forces, which now control the areas, of committing ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans, a charge both the federal and Amhara regional governments reject.
What is incontrovertible, nonetheless, is that there are considerable ethnic Amharas and Tigrayans living in these areas. If this was only an administrative problem, it would have been easily solved by making Amharic and Tigrigna the working languages of Wolkait and Raya areas and giving people in these areas the full measure of self-government.
However, Tigray and Amhara regional states are organized based on ethnic identity with the right to secede, and border disputes cannot easily be permanently solved through decentralization in a given state, as they involve issues of identity and historical territorial claims by the ethnic groups.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the federal constitution does not fully protect the group rights of minorities in the regional states, as it leaves it to the discretion of the states to determine at what level they want to establish local self-government within their boundaries—unless the ethnic group has already been granted local self-government when the regional state was formed.
While, in principle, the constitution grants ethnic groups the right to form a state, this right is only exercisable when the demand of statehood is approved by a two-thirds majority of the ethnic group’s legislature—which can only happen if it already has one—and after the state’s council organizes a referendum.
The implication is that while some regional states, like Amhara, give the right of self-administration to some minority ethnic groups at the local level, others do not, regardless of whether an ethnic minority in the region forms a majority at a local level.
Moreover, regions have the authority to set their working language and can exclude minorities who do not have special zones from holding office even in areas they form a majority. For instance, the Harari constitution states that the region’s working languages are Afaan Oromo and Harari, and that no person can hold political office or work in the civil service unless they speak these two languages. At the time of the region’s formation, native Amharic speakers were 37 percent of the population, far outnumbering the 8 percent indigenous Harari speakers.
Some states’ constitutions explicitly indicate that their state belongs to the “native” ethnic groups. For example, Article 2 of the Benishangul-Gumuz constitution reads: “while other ethnic groups living in the state are recognized, the state belongs to the nations and nationalities of Berta, Gumuz, Shinasha, Mao, and Komo.” At the time of its formation in 1994, Amharas were 22 percent of the population, roughly the size as that of Gumuz (23 percent) whereas ethnic Oromos were 13 percent of the population in the state. In the last census, Amharas outnumbered Gumuz.
The ethnic federation also creates intense ethnic rivalry for resources, which is usually resolved in favor of who controls the federal government, where authorities use the power to benefit their own ethnic group.
For instance, notwithstanding the prevalence of extreme poverty in rural Tigray, the World Bank study that looked at the spatial variation in the provision of public goods among the regional states of Ethiopia from 2006-2016, during which TPLF was in power, shows that the region that experienced the highest increase in road construction is Tigray, whereas the Amhara regional state had the highest number of weredas that saw no growth in investment in roads during the period.
This not only distorts the optimal allocation of capital, which should be guided by expected country-wide economic benefits resulting from the investment, but also creates animosity among the ethnic groups, increasing the likelihood of inter-communal conflict.
Furthermore, the system of ethnic federalism has been a major barrier to create national unity and common public institutions. The stark manifestation of this problem was revealed during the current conflict in Tigray. Many Tigrayan military leaders in the Ethiopian army, including the former chief of the army, Tsadkan Gebretensae, sided with Tigray’s regional leaders and fought against their fellow colleagues with whom they served the country for decades.
The ethnic-based arrangement of the regions also ensured that almost all major political parties are organized along ethnic lines.
This is at least for two reasons: (1) by default, running for national office to promote the interest of the people in a regional state, which is a homeland of an ethnic group, means running to increase the ethnic group’s share in the allocation of political power and economic resources relative to other ethnic groups; (2) local politicians quickly learned that “playing the ethnic-card” is a potent tool in mobilizing support.
Indeed, a coalition between parties from different groups, especially between the largest ethnic groups—Oromo and Amhara—does not exist except for Abiy’s Prosperity Party, signaling ethnic polarization. This is ominous, as there are credible studies that show civil war is likely when there is such ethnic polarization where an ethnic majority is met with a significant minority.
The Oromia region in which Amharas form a significant minority fits the description. Hundreds of innocent ethnic Amharas living in Oromia lost their lives in targeted killings and the clashes involving the largest two ethnic groups in the city of Ataye, Northern Shewa, cost the lives of 200 civilians and led to the displacement of 250,000 people.
The relative political stability observed in Ethiopia under the current federal system when the TPLF dominated EPRDF was in power was a result of the country being under a de facto one-party, authoritarian system. Indeed, in the 2015 general elections, no opposition won a seat in parliament.
The moment TPLF decided not to join Abiy’s Prosperity Party, it effectively became the first opposition party governing a regional state in the history of the federation, and the resulting tension between the federal and regional government led to a military conflict.
And even before this conflict, the federal government had to intervene to remove a belligerent president of the Somali regional state who was responsible for the displacement of millions of ethnic Oromos. Furthermore, violence ensued when Sidama demanded secession from the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNP), which will likely be followed by others in the region. The federal government is also now battling militants in another regional state, Benshangul Gumuz, where there has been widespread ethnic conflict.
Thus, under the current system, even a federal government committed to democracy may be forced to intervene in regional states constantly—to protect ethnic minorities and keep the country together—beyond the legitimate authorities granted to it by the constitution, rendering the federal arrangement meaningless.
But, this cannot be sustained, and as the power of the central government eventually weakens, the federation—made up of states that have territorial claims against each other and with no internationally recognized borders—will ultimately implode, analogous to what unfolded in similarly-designed Yugoslavia, with devastating and far-reaching consequences in the Horn and potentially with loss of lives that may dwarf the tragedy the world witnessed in Rwanda.
The assessment that there exists a considerable risk of massive ethnic conflict and large-scale genocide in the country is not an exaggeration. While the international community is focused on the conflict in Tigray, there were over 1.4 million internally displaced persons in the country as of December 2019, albeit lower than the 2.9 million recorded in 2018.
Autonomy and devolution, not secession
Despite these flaws and the removal of TPLF from the federal government, this institutional design of the constitution is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. This is because the dominant view among the country’s political elite, including within Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party, is that the major failures of the TPLF—its inability to create a democratic order, achieve lasting peace, bring about even distribution of political power and resources—are the results of the group’s lack of political will to implement the constitution as it is written, not the inevitable consequences of the way the federation is structured.
Nevertheless, Ethiopia’s recent history as well as the experience of other ethnically-designed federations, such as Yugoslavia and the USSR, reveal that there are serious flaws in the design.
This design entrenches ethnic divisions, promotes conflict by fueling rivalry for economic resources and political power, incentivizes regional politicians to engage in divisive and dangerous identity politics, and fosters secession.
Consequently, as observed throughout the life of the Ethiopian federation, the desired goals of creating a genuine federal system—where people have the full measure of self-government at the local level and the democratic and civic rights of citizens are protected wherever they reside—appear unattainable.
In other words, Ethiopia cannot achieve peace, democracy, and prosperity unless it decides to move away from the Bolshevik-inspired federation by taking steps similar to the following.
First, while maintaining a federal form of government, regional states should have autonomy, but not the right to secede from the federation. As I pointed out, secession is not attainable and the federation cannot be dissolved peacefully in light of the fact that regional states have territorial claims against each other and have no internationally recognized borders.
Second, the regional states should be organized not only based on ethnicity but also on economic and administrative efficiency. This will most certainly involve breaking up the two largest states, Oromia and Amhara, into smaller autonomous regions.
Third, there should be devolution within every regional state giving all cities and zones autonomy and self-administration, including setting their own working languages, which will protect the rights of minorities.
Fourth, regional languages that have a significant number of speakers, such as Afaan Oromo, should become federal working language along with Amharic. The education policy should be employed to promote the federal languages in other regional states. The resulting convergence between federal and regional languages will promote the mobility of labor across states, enhancing not only economic integration but also promoting cultural exchange.
Fifth, the constitutional provision that gives veto power to regional states should be repealed. Theoretically, a party that wins the majority seats in the smallest region’s parliament has the power to block, regardless of what the overwhelming majority of Ethiopians want, changes such as the federal policy on land ownership and natural resources as well changes to the article of the constitution governing constitutional amendment. This is unworkable, if not undemocratic—the constitution should be a living document responding to the interest and will of the significant majority of Ethiopians.
Of course, ultimately, such changes should not be imposed on the people. Ethiopians should be given the opportunity to express their will through a referendum or via their democratically elected representatives. But, the main lesson of Ethiopia’s experiment with ethnic federalism in the past three decades and the experience of the USSR and Yugoslavia is clear: such federations are inherently unstable and undemocratic.
Therefore, it is incumbent upon the new generation of Ethiopian leaders and moderate forces from all ethnic groups to take such concrete measures to heal the existing ethnic division and move the country away from ethnic-based politics and federal structure. Failing that, the Ethiopian ethnic federation will eventually die a violent death and there will not be a better candidate for the epithet to be written on its tombstone than what Jefferson Davis suggested should be scribed on that of the Confederation during the American Civil War when Georgia threatened to secede: “Died of a Theory.”
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Main photo: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn holding the Ethiopian constitution at Abiy’s inauguration in parliament; 2 April 2018; Fana Broadcasting Corporation.
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