Nations/Nationalities or Democratization? | By Daniel Teferra (PhD)*

8 mins read

In Ethiopia, the TPLF/EPRDF policy of kililawi masta-dadr has recently run into trouble. The Sidama/Oromo groups are fighting the government over land issues. This is a dangerous development. The Sidama/Oromo regions constitute the rich, agricultural belt of Ethiopia and the on-going war in Somalia could easily spread into these areas.
Democracy Ethiopia
In 1991, The TPLF/EPRDF rulers, upon taking state power, divided Ethiopia into separate ethnic-territories, known as kililawi masta-dadr. They introduced a new constitution for what they called the “nations, nationalities and people of Ethiopia.”
However, the whole idea of viewing Ethiopia as a collection of “nations, nationalities and people” negates Ethiopian nationhood. Ethiopia, unlike Kenya or Nigeria, was not created by the European colonial powers.
Ethiopia is one of the oldest, independent nations in the world. Ethiopia may not be democratic, but it is a nation, indeed.
Dividing Ethiopia into “nations, nationalities,” takes Ethiopia back to tribalism of the ancient past, and makes people fight for territories rather than rights. It creates isolated peoples and fragmented markets that exacerbate poverty, ignorance, disease and the curse of famine.
Ethiopia’s fundamental problem is a lack of democracy. Democratizing Ethiopia will help the country move forward. It will also provide a lasting solution to the ethnic disparities that have existed in Ethiopia for so long.
Historically, Ethiopia’s rulers have always been against democratization. For instance, Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime nipped democracy in the bud by annexing Eritrea. The Stalinist Regime of Mengistu Hailemariam chose militarization over democratization. The TPLF/EPRDF regime is now fighting the Sidama/Oromo groups instead of privatizing land and democratizing the country.
On the other hand, the various opposition groups are competing with one another for state power. Consequently, they are unable to come together and push in the direction of democracy and reconciliation. They are united only by their dislike for the current regime. This is easy to do, but it cannot bring about democratization.
Ethiopia’s current rulers as well as most opposition politicians have not yet fully embraced the ideals and values of liberal democracy. They tend to view things within a Marxist-Leninist framework. However, the interests of the various social groups of Ethiopia are much wider than Marxism-Leninism allows.
On the other hand, democracy is about equal treatment of all members of society. For instance, in a democracy, no member of a society, even if one is the bitterest enemy can be discriminated against or destroyed because that would imperil everyone else. In a democracy, everyone can get something; and no one can get everything.
Ethiopia’s rulers and opposition politicians can learn a lot, for instance, from the political thoughts of exceptional leaders such as Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela was uniquely different. He was a statesman in the true sense of the term. Putting the interests of all South Africans ahead of his party and himself, he charted a new, democratic course for his people; and thereby saved South Africa.
Nelson Mandela was an all-inclusive fair thinker. For instance, unlike his colleagues, Mandela was not afraid to negotiate with the White minority rulers because his overriding goal was to build a democratic South Africa for all South Africans through a peaceful negotiation.
He was admired by his supporters and opponents alike for his broad views and courage. For example, F. W. de Klerk, upon hearing Mandela’s death, said, “Nelson Mandela was a great unifier and a very, very special man in this regard beyond everything else.”
Nelson Mandela was profound in his thinking and strategy. For instance, he understood that the Apartheid Constitution did not represent the interests of all South Africans (as Ethiopia’s Constitution today does not represent the interests of all Ethiopians). He knew that the Apartheid Constitution had to go first in order to build a democracy for all South Africans.
Thus, he brought all groups together by keeping the door open for all that would like to participate in building a democratic future for South Africa. This helped him reach a consensus to push for the drafting of a new constitution, representing all individuals, groups and interests of the South African society.
Nelson Mandela’s selflessness finally gave South Africa one of the most outstanding constitutions in the world. For instance, the Preamble of the Constitution of The Republic of South Africa, 1996, reads:
We the people of South Africa,
Recognize the injustices of our past;
Honor those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.
We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to:
Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.
May God Protect our people.
South Africa’s leaders democratized their country because they were able to put the interests of their people ahead of their own. In fact, democratization should have been much more difficult in South Africa than elsewhere because South Africa had been divided both by ethnic groups as well as race. However, South Africans, thanks to Nelson Mandel’s astute leadership, were able to come together and democratize their country.
In Ethiopia, ethnic disparities are as old as the country. But Ethiopians are not a mutually hostile people as such. The people of Ethiopia possess a culture of cohesiveness even though this has been, unfortunately, eroded since the early 1970s by divisive politics.
Ethiopia’s rulers and opposition politicians have to know first where they want to take their country. Neither the politics of “nations and nationalities” nor competition for state power can bring improvement for Ethiopia. Only democratization, through a joint effort, can, in the words of the South African Constitution, improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person.
* Emeritus Professor of Economics at FSU; UW-Whitewater,