I got an opportunity along with other Nepali friends to go to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia to participate in the 5th International Conference on “Federation, Equality and Unity in Diversity for Development” late last year. The conference had participation from more than 60 countries.
Before going to Ethiopia, I knew that Ethiopia had adopted ethnic federalism. Ethiopia had suffered a long period of bloody wars, extreme poverty and even famine. I still remember looking at those newspaper pictures of an emaciated child dying of starvation in the early seventies.
But during a short stay at Addis Ababa, it dawned on us that the situation of Ethiopia is not that bad as we were made to believe before our visit. Ethiopia is no longer suffering from armed conflict. There is peace and stability in the country. The economy is also growing at a rapid rate. People in Ethiopia do not abuse or vilify their leaders at the drop of a hat. They seem to be confident of their future development. Corruption, as we came to know, is under total control. The leaders, as told by the people working in the donor agencies in Ethiopia, knew exactly what their priorities and needs were. The country seems to be at peace progressing toward prosperity.
Ethiopia is a country of more than 77 million people with an area of 1.1 million square kilometers. It is a very diverse country with more than 80 ethno-linguistic groups. Like Nepal, it is landlocked and never experienced colonial rule.
Ethiopia was a monarchy until 1974. The Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by the military. The military dictatorship continued until the federation and democracy emerged in the beginning of 1990s.
There is a dominant ruling class of Amahara people. In the name of unification and nation-building, Amahara elites imposed one language, one religion and one culture policy for a long time. This sort of dominant group nation-building entailed minority nation-destroying, as concerted efforts were made to suppress the other languages in the country. Supporter of the nation-building thesis do not come from single ethnic group – the Amahara elite, who were the main beneficiaries of this empire-building, were dominant amongst them.
The empire builder regarded the recognition of the right of nations and nationalities to self-determination as a betrayal-treason against the cause of holy united Ethiopia. But forces of change held that there is one oppressor nation and a host of oppressed nations and nationalities. Among the forces of change, some advocated regional autonomy, some recognized in principle the right of nations and nationalities to self-determination, including and up to succession. Eriteria separated from Ethiopia in 1991 after a long bloody war.
Ethiopia’s experiment in ethnic federalism since 1995 has ensured internal peace and security for the majority of the country‘s population. But Ethiopia still has challenges to meet, particularly clear separation of state and the party, and the replacement of “hegemonic control” of the centre by genuine pluralism.
The history of organized politics in Ethiopia goes back to early 1960s. From the very beginning there were two forces in existence, one ethnic/regional and other multi-ethnic. The first major movement was multi-ethnic with slogans like “land to the tiller”, “national equality” and “social justice”. All were aimed at addressing past injustice, regardless of ethnic or religious partisanship. Amahara student activists seem to have outnumbered those from the oppressed nationalities. The defeat of these multi-ethnic parties by the military forced them to move to numerous national and ethnic based movements and parties. The defeat of the military dictatorship in 1991 by the ethnic based movements further marginalized the multi-ethnic parties and ensured the dominance of ethnic based political parties. The country today is ruled by that very coalition of ethnic based parties.
Today, Ethiopia has adopted ethnic federalism (starting from 14 ethno-lingual states) with presently nine states and two centrally ruled units. Since 1995, after the adoption of the federal constitution, Ethiopia seems to have done well in accommodating diversity and containing conflict. David Turton writing on the introduction of the book “Ethnic Federalism-The Ethiopian Experience in Comparative Perspective”, comments that if one measures the success of federalism in Ethiopia, not against the record of the previous regimes, but against the essential requirement of a generally federal system, one can only conclude that the main challenge lies ahead of it.
He also concludes that Ethiopia had no alternative to some form of federation as a means of maintaining intact multi-ethnic Ethiopia. He also points out the difference between Ethiopia model of ethnic federalism and western and non-western models in three different ways. First, in Ethiopia, autonomous states was not so much achieved by ethnically defined regional sub units as “thrust upon them” by local elites.
Second, it was decided that each major sub-national group should be dominant in one, and only one, regional state. And third, it was decided that each of these states should be named after its dominant national group. Turton points out that the first issue raised the issue of to what extent democratic mobilization is a necessary precondition for the successful operation of ethnic or multi-ethnic federalism. And the second and third raised equally important issues of territorial definition of federal units, an issue which Ethiopia is likely to face in the future.
Ethiopia’s experiment in ethnic federalism since 1995 has ensured internal peace and security for the majority of the country‘s population. But Ethiopia still has challenges to meet, particularly clear separation of state and the party, and the replacement of “hegemonic control” of the centre by genuine pluralism. Turton further concludes that the “Ethiopia’s experiment in ethnic federalism is at greatest risk of failure not because it is too ethnic but because it is not sufficiently federal”.