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Irreconcilable aspirations: A regressive Ethiopian vision spells the end of the republic

As centralizing elites double down on war efforts to subjugate Tigray and reconfigure the federation, an all-inclusive dialogue appears to be the only way out.

At the root of the Tigray war is a contest over the very nature of the state.

This centuries-old struggle has most recently been played out through Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s consolidation and centralization of power and the Tigray elite’s—and allies, such as pro multinational federalism forces—consequent rejection of this.

One of the most salient facts about Ethiopia’s current predicament is that behind the veil of promoting nationalism, from the likes of Prime Minister Abiy, parties like Ezema, and media outlets like ESAT, lies a regressive vision and a nostalgic glorification of a violently unceremonious past.

This group of elites fulminate about and use the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) as a scapegoat. That outrage is used to mask the fact that they are undertaking another brutal war of subjugation on Tigray that would not have looked out of place during the imperial marches of the late 19th Century.

The government and people of Tigray have, however, refused to “bend to Shewa”—as unitarist commentators like Tamerat Negerea Feyissa so dearly wish them to do—but are instead resisting the threat on the multinational order and are pushed to pursue full independence.

National myth

The overthrow of the imperial regime in 1974 and then the defeat of the Derg’s dictatorship in 1991, which heralded the birth of a federal, democratic constitutional political order in 1995, should have closed the door forever to the assimilationist nation-building project.

While it is true that the protection and promotion of human and democratic rights were not as progressive as the transformative economic development registered under the EPRDF coalition, the defining feature of post-1991 Ethiopia has in fact been the recognition of diversity of culture, language, religion, and other values.

This was a major progressive departure from the ‘one culture, one language, and one religion’ monochromatic nation-building project of the past. But, the appointment of Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister in 2018 opened up the space for unitarist elites to once again resume the nation-building project.

Former empires like Ethiopia, obsessed with national pride, revel in past glory but cannot envisage what lies ahead. This attachment to the imperial heyday and the violent nation-building project sowed the seeds of the ongoing war in the service of trying to maintain the national mythos.

By doing so, rather than building a diverse future, Ethiopianist elites are reinforcing the state’s formative defects, and will ultimately scupper the almost three-decade-old effort to transition from an empire into a republic.

Preventing pluralism

Following four years of street protests, the former ruling coalition elected Abiy as its chair, and lawmakers subsequently nominated him as Prime Minister on 2 April 2018.

After admitting the EPRDF’s shortcomings, Abiy pledged reform, preached unity, and pursued rapprochement with Eritrea.

This was portrayed by some as a sign of a new beginning for the multinational country. On the contrary, the last three years have resulted in a proliferation of violence. The economy has languished and the already constrained institutions have been further weakened to pave the way for de facto one-man rule, ushering the beginning of the end of the federation.

The EPRDF coalition that brought Abiy to power was the first victim of his power ambitions. Fittingly, the fundamental act of convening elections as per the constitution became the bone of contention in the Tigray-federal government dispute.

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Using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext, the electoral board postponed polls scheduled for 29 August 2020. As the constitution contained no provisions for such an eventuality, the House of Federation and its Council of Constitutional Inquiry—largely filled with pro-federal government experts—offered a veneer of legal authorization.

A swath of the political opposition, including veteran centrist Lidetu Ayalew, the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and the Government of Tigray, argued that the way forward should have been forged through debate between political parties because all political actors had a stake in a fragile transition.

They believed that Abiy’s unitarist vehicle, the Prosperity Party (PP), pushed to delay the polls, as it feared electoral loss.

Prosperity’s purge

Emboldened yet fearful, the Prosperity Party attempted to purge its opponents, first in Oromia and then in Tigray.

It subsequently held sham elections this year, with the participation of Ezema and other political entities that hold a similarly regressive take on Ethiopia’s journey away from a multinational federation to an empire, such as the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA). Some of their leaders now occupy cabinet positions, as Abiy embraces a narrow pluralism at the center while attempting to destroy the pluralistic multinational order.

In response to last year’s PP machinations, TPLF-led Tigray regional state exercised its interpretation of its constitutional rights to hold elections as per the federal and Tigray constitutions. Abiy’s government declared the 9 September election to be null and void.

After a series of escalatory measures, including delegitimization and redirecting the federal budget from Tigray, Abiy mobilized forces internally. He also plotted to subjugate Tigray with Eritrea’s unitarist autocrat, who hates both the TPLF leaders and power-sharing federalism.

More than one year into the war in Tigray—a war conducted by the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies, Amhara militias and special forces, and other regional partners—the people of Tigray are once more under a siege, and therefore still fighting for their right to survive.

Despite the narrative created around the establishment of an elected government, it does little to bolster Abiy’s legitimacy internally, while jittery external actors like the United States and European Union are focused more on the country’s overall stability and the brutal conduct of the war.

Race to the bottom

Now, living out its regressive vision, the same regime under the guise of a new government looks set to alter the constitution with the participation of like-minded elites.

They will do this after violating the existing constitution as the Amhara region violently occupied western Tigray, leading to atrocities and the mass expulsion of Tigrayans. Bahir Dar now claims to have altered the administrative boundaries of the Amhara region.

Yet, the constitution could not be clearer.

Under Article 48, it states that: “all state border disputes shall be settled by agreement of the concerned States. Where the concerned States fail to reach an agreement, the House of Federation shall decide such disputes on the basis of settlement patterns and the wishes of the peoples concerned.”

Amhara irredentists lay claim to an area that has been occupied predominantly by Tigrayans, so the real problem for them was that any fair and constitutionally mandated self-determination procedure would have inevitably reached a decision that would not be in their favor.

Constitutionally mandated rights concerning ethnic rights and self-determination such as Article 39 cannot be amended without the agreement of all regional states. But, disenfranchised and blockaded Tigray is not in a position to influence decisions made at the center pertaining to changes that would effectively dissolve the federation as we know it.

Foreign actors are largely paralyzed by geopolitical interests, but they are right to insist on an all-inclusive dialogue as the only mechanism to regulate the future of Ethiopia within the existing constitutional framework.

Cognizant that the political elites have consistently viewed a democratic order as an existential threat, there now appears to be a vanishingly slim prospect of Ethiopia transforming into a democratic republic that aptly entertains internal diversity, which is the minimum threshold for its survival.

Yet, a belated convening of that all-inclusive dialogue could at least mitigate the disorder and perhaps smooth the process of fragmentation.

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About the author

Adisalem Desta

Adisalem has a law degree from Addis Ababa University. He has served in the permanent mission of Ethiopia to the African Union and in the permanent mission of Ethiopia to the United Nations as an International law and diplomacy expert.

7 Comments

  • This so called Federalism was centrally controlled by Tigrayans, who make up 6% of the population. Admittedly , the system did recognize cultural pluralism, but politically, the system was as unitary as it can get. Abiy was right in dissolving EPRDF, it was a party used by Tigreans to control the government.

  • Given the long tortured history of centralism cum rigid unitary plus aspiration of the various nations, there must be federalism order Ethiopia in one way or another. At this stage and past experience , Ethiopia cannot move forward without federalism system. As a matter of fact, it is the only viable option to be united and functioning entity as a modern and forward looking nation. That doesn’t mean following blindly to the hypocritical path of the TPLF/EPRDF policy over twenty that put one ethnic group above else while paying only lip services to the federalism cause and kicking everyone else to curbs. TPLF hand a plenty opportunity, resources time and will of the masses to change the course but it failed and failed miserably. As for any unilateral change of constitution without referendum or consent of the people as some unitarist entertaining lately, it is very dangerous game or gamble that would pun more fuel to the fire and other combustible of politico and socio-economic issues. It would also prove what Tigrians and other opposition ethnic groups were saying and worried about for sometime. It should be prioritized reconciliation, stability and trust among feuding parties and groups not wasting precious time and opportunity on few written phrases on a white paper in drawer that had little effect on citizens’ lives and other immediate concerns

  • “ውሻ በበላበት ይጮኻል” ይላል ያገሬ ሰው።አለኝ ያልከው ልምድ ሲታይ የትህነግ የሳሎን ውሻ እንደነበርክ ያረጋግጣል። I would have thought someone with a law degree from AAU would be reasonable. I cannot be more wromg. Looks like the author was hatched by the “Dingay Mamrecha” TPLF Cadre training school. Anyone who believes that the EPRDF rule was good should have their head examined. And anyone who supports the TPLF in anyway deserves to be locked up for life plus a 100 years.

    • You your neftengya had in fact benefitted the tplf/eprdf, a.n.d.m were most chief junior, the amhara region got more than it deserved from tpllf in terms development, politically well represented, unlike most largest ethnic group oromo, southern nations region,
      Who were gotten the leftover respectively,
      The most harmed group politically and security wise was the third largest ethnic in 🇪🇹 somali regional state (ogaden Somalis) more over the only ethnic group who challenged tplf including armed struggles while eprdf was enjoying the help of West and East
      Even north and south, we were you at that time don’t try it didn’t happen,
      It was well documented even birhanu nega testified, I don’t care feuds between abyssinian feudal archival
      But what I care is unity in diversity,
      Effective and efficient federalism and democratic pluralism probably amharas
      Will benefits much more than any other
      Ethnic groups if they became pioneers of democratic governance in effective and efficient federalism in future 🇪🇹
      I wish all the Ethiopia’s nations and peoples

  • Just another pure garbage and fabrications full of lies and fables are told here. The EPRDF was not democratic. Ethnic enclosures or division of the former provinces along ethnic lines is not federalism. The problem with TPLFites, their cronies and enablers first and foremost is intellectual dishonesty. Lack of shame and vulgarity for denigrating truth is what is blocking their minds from calling a spade a spade. EPRDF was a fake coalition of TPLF controlled so called Tigriyan, Amhara, Oromo and Southern people’s party. I challenge the writer on the spot why the Somali region which is somewhere around 6x larger than tiny Tigray region and with a population more than double that of Tigray region never got the same representation proportional to its weight as Tigray? It is an insult to Somalis, Afars, Sidamas and many more sons and daughters of Ethiopia, that never had a say in the TPLF dominated EPRDF.

    Let’s tell it as it exactly unfolded. A group of Marxist Leninist ideologues, who saw the Communist Manifesto, became atheists in their formative years, made the Communist Manifesto their new bible, idolized Meles (Legesse) Zenawi as their intellectual leader and started emulating their political icon Enver Halil Hoxha. By an accident of history, this murderous group, and through the help of the west sat at the helm power in Ethiopia. Under the pretext of privatization, they unashamedly stole Ethiopian public property and capital, and amassed what they did not earn. They did not govern Tigray well either. After 27 years, and with hegemony of every sector of the economy, military, finance and etc, they magically managed to still keep nearly 2 million people in Tigray in abject poverty. In 27 years, they destroyed what little Ethiopia built. The TPLF through nepotism, kleptocracy, bribery, corruption, mayhem, human right abuse and crimes against humanity, destroyed the fabrics of society, poisoned the spirit of unity, defiled the Church, defiled the Mosque, turned one ethnic group against another, embezzles, murdered, imprisoned, exiled and tortured many. It was uncharacteristically unEthiopian, could never shake off the small minded village mentality even after sitting in power for 27 years. Miles never referred to Ethiopia as my country, always referring to Ethiopia as “this country”. Which PM or president ever refers to his country’s flag as “a pieces of rag”. How despicable and how petty of him? It is this defunct system of 27 years of rot and degradation, of annihilation of meritocracy, and total collapse of morality, ethics and humanity, that the author refers as the “federal republic”. Look at what you fools did to the metropolitan city of Dire Dawa, look at what you have made Harar, the fruit basket of Ethiopia!!!! The industrial city of Dire Dawa, dilapidated, ruined, frozen in time to 30 years back, all these, to make Tigray look good, to make Mekele the new Dire Dawa, the new engine tower.

    To all the blind followers of the defunct TPLF, first learn what federalism is before you open your mouth. If only at that fateful moment in the creation of TPLF, Meles read Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, if only the Communist Manifesto was the Federalist Papers, with their zeal, fanaticism and fervor, mother Ethiopia would have become a Hamiltonian federation in the image of the greatest Federal country in the world- the USA. Yes, in the US, a melting pot of over 200 countries, various ethnicities, dialects and languages, the common working language, the national language is one-English. In fact, second and third generations become quite assimilated to the degree of not knowing their first generation immigrants’ parents native tongues at all.

    The fraudulent claim by TPLFites of nostalgia for this or that is debunked by the sheer fact that to this day there are over 80 dialects and languages still spoken. In the 1960s, the asymmetrical growth and discrepancies between rural Ethiopia and urban Ethiopia, was misdiagnosed by political opportunists only in political vernacular of the era, as a problem of imperialists vs communists, landowners vs tenants, aristocrats vs peasants, progressives vs conservatives, and revolutionaries vs reactionaries. The wrong surgeries were done, the disease was never found and cured. Then the charlatans aka TPLFites came and told the populace, we know what is wrong, a new vernacular was born, it is the Amhara, the Oromo, the Orthodox, the Somali, the Eritrean, the Orthodox, the Protestant, the Moslem, the rent seeker, the Guarage, for 27 years, and 3 more years now Ethiopia has been disemboweled, cut to pieces, punched, beaten, abused, spat at, dishonored, disrespected, sold, looted, robbed, yet despite all her ungrateful sons and daughters, Ethiopia still stands tall, young and beautiful. Those who tried to shame her will be shamed for eternity.

    The unholy arranged marriage Ethiopia entered into in 1991 is being annulled. The ex in laws who arranged the marriage are now mad and calling her names. The problem with this marriage was, the husband was no good. He was abusive to Ethiopia, he stole her wealth, never respected her womanhood, never understood her beauty, never liked her to wear her beautiful green, yellow and red dress. Also this horrible man was abusive to her children as well. He tortured them, beat them, murdered them and caused mayhem. She recently was seen going out with a new guy. The ex husband is very jealous, the ex in laws are mad as hell. Her children are looking forward to living in peace. Ethiopia might need a restraint order against the ex. Pray her new marriage will be romantic and stable.

  • Dear Adisalem,
    You seem to think that you are logical and following recognized international norms and civilities. But we are talking of a deadly political force that invades a people it considers its ‘enemy’, rapes religious entities, kills and maims, terrorizes people by killing milk cows, destroying seedlings, demolishing schools, clinics (pouring syrup)…doing unimaginable cruelty unheard of in this world. What type of reasoning can be expected from such devils? University students who destroy the very classrooms where they studied – what type of politics do you talk with such trash? I wanted to read sense in your writing – but there is nothing. Let us be clear that Amhara nationalism was rekindled by tplf’s stupid thinking and it is here to stay – whatever fancy name you give it – Amhara irredentists, empire, unitarist elites,…Correct your damned mistakes too – there is no such thing as western tigray, only Wolkait-Tegede (Read history – you read law at AAU). What we are after now is to make sure that ethno-fascism will never come back but a pluralistic multinational order is possible – without the wicked tplf and shene. Don’t fret – gone are the days of hegemons (both tigrean and shoan) and the country can continue without them. Don’t be too theoretical – people are losing lives as we write.

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