Ethiopia: On Transitional Government and Ethnic Federalism

18 mins read

Dr. Abiye’s visit to the Ethiopian diaspora in the US has offered the occasion to raise two crucial issues that have been the object of intense discussions among many students of Ethiopian politics and political activists since his rise to Premiership and his initiation of numerous liberalizing steps. Both issues have to do with the way forward: the one is the need for an inclusive transitional government to effectively and conclusively bring about a democratic order; the other concerns the fate of ethnic federalism, which, according to many views, stands in the way of national unity and democratic principles based on individual rights. Confronted with these questions, the Prime Minister shared his positions which, though nuanced and sympathetic to the expressed concerns, were nonetheless firmly non-accommodating. My intention is to review the issues in light of Dr. Abiye’s responses with the view of proposing ideas furthering the continuation of the dialogue.

The need for a transitional government to prepare the road to a truly democratic system both by instituting the necessary political attendants and neutralizing all the drawbacks created by two decades of divisive and discriminatory policy by the TPLF dominated coalition of ethnic parties is an idea that has been circulating among opposition groups and parties for quite some time. It requires the formation of a government that includes all political parties so as to arrive to a consensus on the changes that are deemed necessary to create a democratic order via fair and representative national elections. In view of the highly complex and difficult problems facing the country, neither one party nor one person, however committed to democratic principles he/she may be, can successfully bring about the required changes, especially when the party in question has been the instrument of an oppressive system and has profited from it. As no one sincerely believes that the party would go against its own interests, the likelihood is that the support for change would be cosmetic at best and would bring us back, sooner rather than later, to the previous undemocratic system. Hence the necessity of a bridge to remove all the impediments put in place by the regime so as to open the road to democracy.
A bridge is all the more necessary as the creation of a genuine democratic order is unthinkable without a period of healing from the wounds inflected on national unity by the EPRDF policy of ethnic confinements and partisanship as well as its abuses of human rights. The means to repair the damages done to national unity is national reconciliation whose best expression and implementation is precisely the formation of an inclusive transitional government. To be effective, reconciliation must be accompanied by truth telling on the part of abusers of human rights and forgiveness on the part of victims.
Dr. Abiye’s responses was that he does not, to quote him, “give credence” to the idea of a transitional government. He added that, rather than a transitional government, what is needed are ideas upholding the transition. In an apparently evasive manner, he went on to say that, according to him, any government is or should be transitional and that the request for such a government makes sense only if one is facing a government that considers itself to be indefinite. The proper question should not be the formation of a government of transition, but of a government with limited terms. To crown it all, he said that his ultimate goal is the establishment of a democratic order in Ethiopia. In other words, Abiye is reminding all those who seem to forget it that he is the transition and that it makes little sense to call for transition when it is already underway. The best that can be done is to support the change that is already taking place by proposing helpful ideas and providing concrete political support.
In light of the ongoing change, Abiye took the opportunity to dispense some advice to the opposition. His first advice is that opposition parties should prepare themselves for the next elections, which are two years away, instead of focusing on the demand for a transitional government. If the purpose of the latter is to ensure the holding of fair and free elections, the present government is exactly doing that so that the demand is superfluous. His second recommendation is for opposition parties to unite as there is no way they can become serious contenders for power under their present state of despicable fragmentation, all the more so as they will be facing the formidable challenge of a refurbished EPRDF led by the most popular political figure, namely, Abiye Ahmed himself.
Now what does all this mean? To begin with, the guarantee provided by Abiye’s government to create the conditions of free and fair national elections has the noteworthy value of restoring the constitutional order that has been trampled on by no other than its own originator. This would be a landmark novelty for Ethiopians who believe since the 60s that there is no change unless it is preceded by a complete eradication of existing institutions, methods of work, and norms. This obsession to start with a clean slate has made us formidable demolishers, less so successful builders. Accordingly, no more talk about revolution, which has failed us repeatedly. Instead, let us proceed with significant and constructive reforms by amending rather than destroying the existing order.
One of the reasons for the request of a transitional government is that it offers the best guarantee against reversal since change no longer relies on those who perpetuated the undemocratic order. Yet, it is obvious that the more we step out from the existing constitutional norms, the greater is the likelihood of galvanizing adverse forces threatening the ongoing change. Moreover, in avoiding the constitutional path, what else are we creating but a situation of uncertainty, which is a fertile ground for groups harboring disruptive goals? We have to consider that we may be endangering what we want to achieve by replacing the existing order with what looks to be more appropriate. The idea of a transitional government could well be a mirage, so aptly conveyed by the Amharic saying: “የቆጡን አወርዳለሁ ብላ የብብቷን ጣለች.” Again, we must think in terms of reforming the system, which requires patience, farsightedness, and the art of compromise, as opposed to the revolutionary method of exclusion and retaliation.

The idea of a transitional government, at one time a viable political option, loses its relevance when conditions change. Indeed, the request completely overlooks that the political game has been significantly reset in Ethiopia since the rise of Abiye. True, we can still speak of opposition parties, but do we really know what these parties actually represent as a result of the ongoing reshuffling of the political landscape? Who can say for sure that they have still followers? If so, what becomes of the transitional government that is supposed to be representative? Who is representing who? Opposition forces must rethink their strategy and political programs in order to be relevant. Their interest is not to be part of a transitional government, but to compete for power against the renovated EPRDF by precisely proposing different and better solutions, in short, by being critical and recommending alternative policies. To do so, they must be outside the government and present their ideas independently to the people and work to gather and organize popular support.
When opposition parties, instead of getting ready for national electoral competitions on renewed political platforms, insist on being part of an existing government, one can hardly dismiss the disagreeable feeling that they want to get to power without actually working for it and deserving it. With the rise of Abiye, the demand for a transitional government looks pretty much like a shortcut to power. The argument that an inclusive transitional government is the best way to counter attempts to reverse course is, as we saw, unconvincing. The way to protect the changes is not by being part of the government, unless one has no confidence in Abiye’s determination to reform, in which case the implemented changes are anything but real so that there is no point in joining a deceitful government. The best protection is from outside the government, that is, by being on the side of the people and organizing them and fighting with them. Let no one forget that that the struggle and the sacrifices of the people are responsible for the changes. What protects the changes is not the government but the people. Those who are against the changes abstain from overt subversive acts because they know that they can no longer rule in the old way and that reversal would mean chaos.
As to the issue of ethnic federalism, it is a whole different matter because of its complexity and profound impact. Against those who ask him to just drop federalism based on ethnic demarcations, Abiye’s response was to underline the fact that, whether one likes it or not, ethnic identification has taken root in the hearts and minds of Ethiopian elites and ordinary peoples. The inescapable fact, then, is that we can no longer speak of Ethiopian or national unity without the inclusion of ethnic identity. The demand for inclusion has gone beyond mere cultural demarcation; it has grown fond of political representation. To ignore this fact is to pursue, not only an unrealistic policy, but also a dangerous one for the very goal we want to achieve, namely, the salvaging and renaissance of Ethiopian unity. All the more reason for admitting this new political reality is that the refusal to recognize the fact only radicalizes ethnic politics, with its attendant consequence of extreme polarization to the point of making any dialogue and rapprochement impossible.
Abiye did not hide that the federal system needs adjustments to overcome some of its glaring shortcomings. But these adjustments must be the products of careful studies both to weigh up the fors and againsts of the present system and propose alternative and relevant remedies. This will be the work of a commission of experts. He also suggested that getting rid of ethnic politics requires time. The statement simply means to get rid, not of ethnicity as a cultural reality and source of identification, but of ethnicity as norms of political programs and alignments as well as ideological standpoints. The great difference between ethnic politics and ethnicity as cultural identification is that the first generates the policy of ethnic confinements and navel-gazing identities, while the second allows cross-ethnic alliances based on economic interests, professions, social statuses, value commitments, etc., and so fosters trans-ethnic identities, in this case Ethiopian nationhood.
If one accepts the fact that ethnicity is now part of Ethiopian political landscape but also wants to merge it with a non-ethnic national identity, the way to bring about this conversion is to design a political system such that ethnic politics gives birth to a trans-ethnic federal system. In this regard, I refer my readers to some of my previous articles in which I argued in favor of the establishment of a strong presidential power by universal suffrage while retaining the ethnic political structure at the regional level. General elections will take place at two levels, national and regional: the former concerns the presidential power, the latter keeps the parliamentary system of ethnic representations. I wrote in one of my previous articles the following, the president “retains the control of the armed forces and the right to nominate the prime minister working with a parliament elected by the people …. In this way, the prime minister becomes accountable both to the president and the parliament.”
A major requirement of the system is that the president, to be elected, must not only have majority support in his/her own ethnic group, but also must have a significant support from other ethnic regions. This condition shapes the presidential power into a source of national, trans-ethnic authority and symbol and whose political program is inclusive enough to gain the support of other ethnic groups. So framed, presidential candidates can gather support only if, in place of ethnic groups, they see citizens belonging to different classes, professions, and social groups and possessing the universal rights of equality and freedom. In short, they have to address them as Ethiopian citizens. The prime minister will have the specific function of serving as a liaison and a bridge between the president and the parliament and can be nominated on the basis of a simple majority. He/ she will be to the parliament what the conductor is to a symphonic orchestra. Be it noted that this proposal comes close to the traditional system of Ethiopian polity of semi-autonomous regions united under a transcending authority expressly called “King of kings.” The major difference is, of course, that in the modern system the source of power and legitimacy is popular suffrage.
It goes without saying that the very success of the political representation of ethnicity, together with equitable economic growth, is bound, in the long run, to decrease its importance in favor of mere cultural commitment and trans-ethnic alliances, all the more so as ethnic politics loses its national ambition owing to the de-ethnicization of the presidential power. We will still have diversity, but one that is in the process of de-politicization and, as such, not inimical to national unity and individual rights.
Messay Kebede
University of Dayton