EthioPoint: Ethiopians Analysis | Research Articles

Ethiopia: The Perils of Ethnic Federalism

11 mins read

Part I: The Dangers of Ethnic Politics
By Worku Aberra*
The recent student uprising in Oromia has brought into sharp focus the unsustainability of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia. The student unrest was sparked by the government’s decision to expand the city of Addis Ababa into the surrounding areas, but the real cause of the unrest lies in ethnic politics that has created ethnic federalism. Over the last 25 years, the regime has practised ethnic politics, stifling democratic rights, infringing upon civil liberties, and virtually eliminating the political space for the opposition. The results are ominous. Ethnic politics, if the experience of other countries is any lesson, engenders instability, turmoil, civil wars, and genocide.

Defining Ethnic Politics

Ethnic Federalism
Before I discuss the adverse consequences of ethnic politics, I need to define the term politics, as I use it in this commentary. Scholars use different definitions of politics, depending on what they want to emphasize: governing, power relationship, or resource management. For the purposes of this article, I have chosen the definition of politics that focuses on resource allocation. Some scholars have defined politics as the art of managing conflicts and cooperation in the struggle for scarce resources to achieve a common goal. Ethnic politics can therefore be defined as the art of devising, promoting, and exploiting ethnic discord to appropriate scarce resources for a narrow end. Under the category of resources, I include political power, land, capital, and employment, specifically employment in government bureaucracies and state-owned enterprises. This definition of ethnic politics, I believe, offers useful insights into understanding the current situation in Ethiopia.
The universal problems facing all Ethiopians, irrespective of their ethnicity, religion, or region, are abject poverty, wide spread illiteracy, and rampant diseases. Eradicating these scourges of underdevelopment is the common objective of all Ethiopians, but individuals, groups, and regions have competing demands on the use of Ethiopia’s limited resources. Economists point out that different polities have used varying combinations of government intervention in the economy and market forces as the mechanism for allocating resources to achieve a common objective.
Officially, the TPLF-EPRDF regime claims to have opted for a mixture of state ownership and the market as the mechanism that best fits Ethiopia’s situation. It even fancies itself as a developmental state, but in reality has relied heavily on ethnic politics as its major means of resource allocation, resulting in inequitable educational, healthcare, economic, and political outcomes among the different ethnic groups of Ethiopia.
Ethnicism as an Ideology
The ideology of ethnic politics is ethnicism, an ideology that some commentators call tribalism. Ethnicism, a distant cousin of racism, is a group-based ideology that divides people into two groups: the ethnic in-group and the ethnic out-group (s). Ethnicism is a political looking glass through which the world is seen, interpreted, and acted upon. Ethnicism, just like racism, assigns positive attributes to members of the ethnic in-group and negative attributes to members of the ethnic out-group(s). Since it fosters ethnic stereotype, prejudice, and hostility, it is incapable of uniting people across ethnicities for a common objective. Ethnicism perceives members of other ethnic groups as less deserving, less worthy, and even less human; as a result, it harbours a perverted view of morality, justice, and ethics. In its extreme form, it turns into ethnic fundamentalism, as I have argued elsewhere.
Because ethnicism denies, at least partially if not completely, the humanity of members of the ethnic other, it is an inherently violent ideology. It vindicates violent and discriminatory practices directed against members of the ethnic other, collectively or individually. It endorses the use of force by an ethnic political party to come to power and stay in power. It rationalizes collective punishment for past ethnic grievances, instead of seeking forgiveness, reconciliation, and harmony. While all dictators use force to stay in power, ethnicist dictators brutalize mostly members of the outside ethnic groups. It is for these reasons that scholars who have studied ethnic politics in Africa conclude that
In sum, the politicization of ethnicity in Africa is associated with ethnic conflict; ethnic violence in the form of human rights violations, repression, civil war, and even genocide; political instability; democratic erosion; and the establishment of non-democratic regimes p. 7
All ethnic-based political organizations in Ethiopia today, both within the EPRDF and the opposition parties, contrary to what they may claim, have adopted ethnicism as their ideology. To argue that one ethnic political party is better than another is to engage in a beauty contest among monkeys, as the Ethiopian saying goes.
The consequences of ethnic politics are so grievous that African countries discourage ethnic politics, and many ban ethnic parties. In Kenya, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, and other countries, it is illegal to form ethnic or religious parties. In these countries, the emphasis is on national unity, not on ethnic loyalty; and the motto, country first, not ethnicity first. Nations are built not just by constructing schools, clinics, and roads, but also by nurturing shared values, symbols, and histories. To destroy national identity—the foundation for national unity—is to kill the soul of a nation, and a nation without a soul seizes to exist.
The Contradictions of Ethnic Politics
In the 1980s, the TPLF claimed that the “main contradiction in Ethiopia is ethnic contradiction”. To resolve this alleged contradiction, it adopted ethnicism as the ideology for organizing the Ethiopian people, ethnic federalism as the platform where ethnicism can be practised, and ethnic politics as the means for allocating resources. Since coming to power, the TPLF-EPRDF regime has thoroughly politicized ethnicity and ethnicized politics. Consequently, in Ethiopia today, to be born into an ethnic group by chance is to take a political stand by choice. Belonging to an ethnic group is becoming a card-carrying member of an ethnic political party. It is no wonder that many Ethiopians regrettably believe that one’s ethnicity determines one’s political views. (I am sure, as you read this article, some of you may wonder as to which ethnic group I belong). The ethnicization of politics and the politicization of ethnicity, however, will eventually undo the TPLF-EPRDF coalition.
In practising ethnic politics, the government has simultaneously provided the opposition parties with an ethnic microscope by which they can scrutinize its policies, programs, and decisions. If the TPLF uses ethnic politics as a means of appropriating resources, including staying in power, the opposition parties can use the same tactic to dislodge it from power. Therein lies the TPLF’s own seeds of destruction. As the biblical saying goes, “live by the sword, die by the sword.”
The political loyalty to one’s ethnicity that the TPLF-EPRDF coalition has been preaching vociferously over the last quarter of a century will ultimately corrode the coalition. In the past, Meles Zenawi, because of his personality and his claim to legitimacy as a former guerilla fighter, was able to keep the fractious ethnic political groups united, but in the absence of such a personality and given the gross inequity in political power between the subservient majority ethnic political parties and the dominant minority ethnic party, it is doubtful if the EPRDF will remain united for long, especially if the unrest continues.

The Threat to National Unity

At the same time, ethnic nationalism, propagated both by the government and the opposition ethnic parties, has badgered, battered, and wounded national unity in Ethiopia so much so that the EPLF, the pioneer of ethnic politics, appears poised to reap the seeds of instability it had sown fifty years ago. After 25 years of being attacked relentlessly, national unity in Ethiopia has been effectively undermined, if not completely destroyed. The EPLF is lurking behind its surrogate ethnic political parties, principally the TPDM, to take advantage of the current situation to destabilize, fragment, and annihilate Ethiopia. We should never loose sight of that danger.
Further, the major opposition parties are mostly ethnic parties that espouse their own versions of ethnic politics, but to paraphrase a former US president, ethnic politics is not the answer; it is the problem. The solution to Ethiopia’s political problems must reject interference from the EPLF, must repudiate ethnic politics, and must use non-violent means. Or else, Ethiopia shall be no more.
* Worku Aberra (PhD) is a professor of economics at Dawson College, Montreal, Canada.