A minority domination and ethnic federalism in Ethiopia

By Berhanu G. Balcha (Ph.D.)

Comments can be sent to: berhanugbnes@yahoo.com

1. Introduction

Ethnicity and federalism have become the major factors in organizing the political and territorial space in Ethiopia since 1991. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had started its movement for the liberation of its ethnic territory from the central Ethiopian administration, has advocated ethnic- federalism by vowing to reduce conflicts and equalize the diverse ethnic communities. As a result, the overall centralized structure of the previous regime has been replaced by a ‘federal’ system consists of nine ethnically and regionally delimited regional states.

The ‘ethnic- federal’ experiment of devolving public sector powers to ethnic groups goes against the centralized nation-building project of the previous regimes. The previous regimes used a different model; they gave much emphasis to ‘Ethiopian nationalism’ as a unifying concept and promoted centralization rather than regional or ethnic autonomy. The rule of the emperor was based on absolutism and concentration of power on the king himself through a patrimonial network of power, resource and privilege accumulation and distribution system that benefits the rulers and their few collaborators at local, regional and central levels. The major orientation of the imperial state was to use the state power for voracious appropriation of resources mainly from the peasantry in order to reward the few ruling nobilities, viceroy and their clienteles that maintain the survival of the highly centralised state. Although the brutality of appropriation and mode of domination differ from place to place due to the historical process and mode of incorporation into the centralized state structure, the expansion toward the south accompanied with the assertion of the cultural superiority of the core and the serfdom and exploitation of the people of the south (Clapham 2002: 10, Teshale 1995: 176, Bahiru 1994, Messay 1999). In the process, many of the southern Ethiopian peasantry were turned in to serfs in their own land when the ‘ownership’ of their land was transferred to the emperor, nobilities and loyal followers of the imperial authority. Though the predatory state had showed some favouritism based on provincial ethnicity for functional purpose, it promoted ‘state nationalism’ and ‘national integration’ with the perception of national identity as the mirror-image of the ruling elite’s ethnic and cultural manifestations in terms of language, religion and, self-proclaimed moral superiority and military triumph over others. It is indisputable that language proficiency plays a significant role to determine better access to education and employment by putting in a relatively disadvantageous situation those groups whose language is not used in employment and education.

The military regime, after 1974, repeatedly stressed that it preferred ‘socialist’ solution to the nationalities question but promoted militaristic nationalism by means of authoritarian and highly centralized political system. It initiated, however, few measures like broadcasting radio programmes in Afar, Somali, Oromiffa and Tigrgna languages, establishing national research institution for studying nationalities and finally drawing a new internal boundary based on linguistic and territorial bases. Most importantly, it made a radical shift in the landownership in 1975, particularly in the southern part of Ethiopia by destroying the exploitative and unjust land appropriation of the nobility and others. Although the radical change had abolished serfdom by distributing the land to the peasants, land remained the property of the state and thus made the peasantry highly intervened and controlled by the state. Nevertheless, it did not make any attempt to link ethnic rights with politics or governance issues. Rather without any regional or ethnic prejudices, it imposed its greater centralization and brutal governance system, controlled at the core by junior military officers regardless of their ethnic affiliation or orientations. Militaristic state nationalism blended with socialism was promoted by hoping to obliterate regional and ethnic movements. However, excessive centralization backed by ruthless coercion did not abate regional and ethnic movements. Rather, it exacerbated internal turmoil and massive resentment of the population, which provided a good opportunity for the expansion of ethnonational movements that finally overrun the state’s centre in 1991 by defeating the military regime, and introducing a rhetoric of ethnic autonomy and ethnic entitlement.

2. Ethnicity: a theoretical challenge and empirical nuisance

Structuring of society and politics on the basis of ethnicity has been viewed by many scholars as a risky approach for the reason that politicisation of ethnicity could excessively awaken ethnic consciousness and unleash ethnic groupings at the expense of shared identities and interspersed settlements (Horowitz 1985, Messay 1999, Clapham 2002). It is held that ethnic entitlements could give much more leverage to blood relationships and ascriptive loyalties in place of rights and duties (Kedourie 1993). It could also promote the rule of kin, instead of the rule of law, because ascribed ethnic solidarity is more important than merit and other achieving qualities in the ideology of ethnic entitlement, therefore sharing the same genealogy will be a reassurance for assuming political leadership. Ethnic entitlement can also be used by ethnic leaders to gather justification or legitimisation for autocratic rule in the name of their ethnic community. Most importantly, the adulation and preponderance of affinitive or kinship ties within societies would pose formidable barriers to build tolerant multiethnic societies (Ali. A. Mazrui 1967).

On the other hand, scholars concerned about ethnically fragmented societies suggest that in order to reduce ethnic tensions and conflicts, it is imperative for multiethnic states to engineer accommodative structure in order to achieve peaceful coexistence (O’Leary 2002, Lijphart 1994; 2002). A prominent scholar in the field of ethnicity, politics and power-sharing in multiethnic societies, Arend Lijphart (1994) advises for designing ethnic power sharing arrangements or consociational model in segmented or divided societies. According to Arend Lijphart that successful political accommodation of diverse ethnic groups could be achieved through recognition and devising appropriate institutions for accommodation and power sharing. In his discussion of consociational politics, Lijphart enumerated four necessary institutional arrangements in accommodating diversities. These are power sharing government (grand coalition), mutual veto, proportionality and segmental autonomy (Lijphart 1977). In his discussion Lijphart outlined the necessity to have proportional representation from all significant groups, a protection for minority groups and a territorial autonomy or non-territorial division of power or functional autonomy. Although Lijphart’s consociational democracy is criticized for its high reliance on the good will of elites, it can be used as a model for engineering appropriate institutional structures in places where diverse ethnic groups are competing and fighting for controlling the state power.

In line with Lijphart’s argument other scholars suggest also that stability in culturally fragmented countries increases if these countries adopt a political system characterised by proportionality, grand coalition, federalism and strong veto points (Steiner et al 2003: 82). Ethnic federalism is suggested as a relatively preferable institutional arrangement in case of geographically concentrated ethnic groups. Federalism can provide an autonomous space for power exercise and a space for expression for territorially concentrated homogeneous ethnic groups. In such case it could reduce demands for separation and other tensions associated with secession.

However, scholars like Donald Horowitz (1985 & 2002) and Basta Fleiner (2000) argue that ethnic arrangement as a means to ensure ethnic self-government could further radicalise ethnic problem by turning ethnic demands into political principles rather than providing a remedy or cure. In this connection, federal framework based on ethnic coalition could be very unstable form of government, because ethnic elites could be possessed by their own sectional self-interest to pull apart the framework or the coalition. They could also be constrained by their ethnic community if they concede much for the sake of cooperation. Horowitz (2002) therefore argues that federalism should aim to create an integrative dynamics by encouraging ethnically heterogeneous groups or political units to work together within a shared structure that can provide incentives for inter-ethnic co-operation. For Horowitz, non-ethnic federal units could help to forge common interests, other than ethnic identities, among people living within the same federal units in order to compete against the other federal units beyond ethnic interests. Horowitz believes that the remedy for ethnic problem is institutionalisation of ‘ethnically blind’ structures and policies that could reduce or undermine ethnic divide. However, he recognises that in a climate of elite competition ‘a fear of ethnic domination and suppression is a motivating force for the acquisition of power as an end and it is also sought for confirmation of ethnic status’ (Horowitz 1985: 187). ‘An ethnic contrast that has produced an extraordinary amount of conflict in many African, Asian, and Caribbean states is the juxtaposition of ‘backward’ and ‘advanced’ groups’ (Horowitz 1985: 148). Thus, Horowitz advises that ‘if indeed ethnicity and ethnic organisations provide security to groups in an uncertain environment, then attempts to replace or outlaw them may have the effect of increasing insecurity’ (Horowitz 1985: 567-8). It could be essential, therefore, to recognise the importance of power-sharing and territorial devolution. Territorial compartmentalization with devolution of generous power can have tranquillising effects in countries with territorially separate groups, significant sub-ethnic divisions and serious conflict at the centre (Horowitz 1985: 614). It is very vital to consider the importance of timing in engineering a political process and structure, because ‘accommodation long delayed may be accommodation ultimately denied’ (Horowitz 1985: 617).

As Walker Connor (1999) articulates that ethnonational movements’ are found worldwide, they

‘are to be found in Africa (for example, Ethiopia), Asia (Sri Lanka), Eastern Europe (Romania), Western Europe (France), North America (Guatemala), South America (Guyana), and Oceania (New Zealand). The list includes countries that are old (United Kingdom), as well as new (Bangladesh), large (Indonesia), as well as small (Fiji), rich (Canada), as well as poor (Pakistan), authoritarian (Sudan) as well as democratic (Belgium), Marxist-Leninist (China) as well as militantly anti-Marxist (Turkey). The list also includes countries which are Buddhist (Burma), Christian (Spain), Moslem (Iran), Hindu (India) and Judaic (Israel). (Connor 1999: 163-4).

Ethnic associations and ethnic parties have been discouraged and banned in many countries and in majority cases due to fear of the presumed radical and destructive backlashes of ethnic demands and ethnic rights. Vindictive horrors of ethnic conflicts, genocide and ethnic cleansing in cases like in Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, Nigeria and also unrelenting and destructive ethnic strives in places such as in Sudan, India, Malaysian, Sri Lanka and others are signalling the recalcitrance nature of ethnic demands and also indicating the difficult challenges connected to ethnic entitlement and ethnic rights.

However, in his cross-national study of communal based conflicts, Ted Gurr (1994) shows that ‘ethnic identity and interest per se do not risk unforeseen ethnic wars; rather, the danger is hegemonic elites who use the state to promote their own people’s interest at the expense of others (Gurr 2000: 64). Thus, he warns that ‘the push of state corruption and minority repression probably will be a more important source of future ethnic wars than the ‘pull’ of opportunity’ (Ibid). Horowitz also asserts that even if ethnic problems are intractable, they are not altogether without hope; ‘even in the most severely divided societies, ties of blood do not lead to ineluctably to rivers of blood’ (Ibid. p. 682). Power-sharing and coalition political frameworks that could encourage inter-ethnic cooperation by ensuring recognition of some prominent group’s rights could be one option to minimise group’s resentments and mitigate destructive conflicts.

3. A paradox in Ethiopia: a tiny minority and relatively poorer region demands and monopolises federalism

In the Ethiopian context, the TPLF was inherently and structurally deficient in establishing a genuine accommodative federal political framework in the country. The TPLF officially and proudly claims to represent the Tigray province and the Tigray people. The Tigray people constitute only 6 percent of the total population of Ethiopia, a very tiny minority in Ethiopia’s ethnic configuration when compared to the Oromo and Amhara people that represent about 35 and 30 per cent of the Ethiopian people respectively. The Tigray province has been relatively the most impoverished, environmentally degraded and highly vulnerable to frequent draught and famine. Without siphoning or supplementing resource from the other part of Ethiopia, it is unlikely that the province could sustain the current, though still precarious, life standard. Conceivably, therefore the TPLF’s ethnic empowerment discourse could damages more the interest and benefit of the Tigray elite and the TPLF, if it is to be implemented genuinely. The TPLF and the Tigrayan elite would have lost their privileged position with a genuine ethnic federal arrangement in Ethiopia.

As a result, the TPLF was not interested to create a genuine ethnic coalition government and a genuine ethnic federal arrangement in Ethiopia that would certainly put it in a gravely disadvantageous position. More importantly, the Tigray province, a home of the TPLF, would be the least to be benefited from a genuine federal arrangement in Ethiopia, therefore the TPLF has not worked for a genuine federal arrangement. From the beginning, the intention of the TPLF has been a sham federal arrangement through a superficial ethnic coalition arrangement. Hence, it has been embarking on sustaining a political travesty via EPRDF (Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Force) that would assure its hegemonic project by using ethnic rights as a discourse to attract and subdue the disoriented ethnic elites.

Ethnic rights and ethnic entitlement have become an attractive inducement for many of elites from various ethnic groups to fell so easily in the trap of the TPLF’s manipulation and machination. Many of surrogate ethnic parties, which have not have any legitimacy from their respective ethnic communities, have become an instrument of the TPLF’s hegemonic desire, as they have been easily susceptible to TPLF’s rewarding or/and coercing power. In this case, the TPLF has been consistent in its core policy in promoting first and foremost the interests of the Tigray elite.

From the beginning, the hegemonic ambition of the Tigrayan elite or the TPLF has been the major factor in blocking an effective power-sharing federal government in Ethiopia. The TPLF single-handedly dominated the constitutional drafting process and the procedures for establishing an elected government that replaced the transition government. The TPLF was more interested to promote its project in reasserting the hegemony of the Tigrayan elite in Ethiopia. The Tigrayan elites have been very nostalgic about the past glory and standing of Tigray in the history of the Ethiopian state (Aregawe 2004: 576). Marcus states that ‘Tigrayan felt marginalized, even though the Tigray had participated in Emperor Menelik’s empire building and in Emperor Haile Selassie’s effort to establish a nation’ (Marcus 2002: 221). Kinfe Abreha argues also that ‘the Tigrians also resent the unfair historical process through which the Tigrians overloardship of Emperor Yohannes IV was lost to Menelik II, leading to the gradual decline of the region from the citadel of the Empire’ to a quasi autonomous one’ (Kinfe 1994: 159). He writes that: ‘The Tigray resistance is naturally the outcome of the gradual decline of the region whose human and material potentials was spent in the preservation of the territorial integrity of Ethiopia. It was the case of a candle that consumed itself while giving light to its surroundings’ (Ibid.). Adhana also claims that Tigray, defined by its predominant Christian character, formed not only a durable component of the Ethiopian nation but was also part of the backbone of the Ethiopian state and thus ‘everything that defined the Ethiopian state was a result of Aksumite invention and innovation.’ (Adhana 1998: 43). These assertions may reflect the disquiet of the Tigrayan elite on lost pride due to ‘a humiliating sense of exclusion from the important centre of power’.

4. Is the TPLF empowering ethnic groups?

Many critics have accused the TPLF for excessively empowering ethnic groups, however the real practice has been that the TPLF has co-opted elites from the various ethnic groups who have not make an effective resistance against the dominance of the Tigrayan elite in the Ethiopian state. Here, the most important point to understand is that the TPLF has not been an honest force in implementing a genuine ethnic federalism. Actually, the TPLF is not giving a real power to the ethnic communities, but it is promoting surrogate elites and ethnic entrepreneurs from various ethnic communities who have facilitated the expansion of its influence and rule in their respective areas. The implication is that the ethnic federal arrangement has been used by the TPLF in order to extend its authority beyond its own territory in order to make the Tigrayan elite a dominant political and economic force in the Ethiopian state.

Although the TPLF claims that it has been struggling, first and foremost, for the rights of the Tigrayan people for self-determination, its legitimacy in Tigray has not been confirmed democratically. Nevertheless, it is evident that the TPLF has been able to secure immense moral and political support from some section of the elite of Tigray because of its ‘commitment’ for the reassertion and promotion of the Tigrayan nationalism. It is becoming clear that the ethnic federal arrangement in Ethiopia has been used by the TPLF to establish the hegemony of the Tigray nationalism over other nationalisms, including the ‘Ethiopian nationalism’. Though it is difficult to know whether the Tigrean people as a whole support or benefit from the strategy of the TPLF, there is ample evidence that some of the Tigrayan elites have been benefiting significantly in getting a dominant political and economic position in disproportionate to the share they should have been given in accordance with the ethnic entitlement principles of the motto of ethnic federalism as it has been proclaimed by the TPLF itself.

According to the principles of its own ideology of fair and equal representation of ethic

groups, the TPLF, which represents the Tigray province with its 6 percent of the Ethiopian population, should have assumed a minority role, if its intention has not been a minority ethnic hegemony via ethnic federalism. Because it has operated contrary to the rule of its own game, the TPLF is operating as an instrument of coercion and domination rather than equality and freedom. As a result, the ethnic federal arrangement in Ethiopia has been characterised by economic monopoly, militaristic domination, and brutal suppression of the rights of the majority of the Ethiopian people, by the TPLF. In a nutshell, the ethnic federal project in Ethiopia has become a device for the implementation and protection of the hegemonic position of the tiny minority Tigrayan elites who have been aiming to have a dominant control of resources that the Ethiopian state controls and generates.

5. Conclusion

There will be no a magic democratic formula or military adventure that can make the TPLF or the Tigrayan elite a majority group in the present day Ethiopia. A continuation of brutal and forceful rule of a minority rule in long run could lead to a chaotic scenario in which the majority may rise to take a desperate violent action to free themselves from the despotism of a minority group. It is totally unfeasible and unsustainable for an elite from a minority ethnic group to assume a hegemonic position in a context where the consciousness of the people as well as of the ethnic communities is sufficiently mature to distinguish between what is appropriate and what is not. Military force and other deceptive strategies such as co-option of elites, and divide and rule tactics may work for some time, but such strategies can not create a genuine framework that can nurture a workable political system in a sustainable way. The TPLF has got a considerable support from the US because of its tactical alliance in the ‘coalition of the willing’ and the ‘war on terror’, however, it is unwise to rely on external patron in a sustainable manner. Neither the imperial rule, nor the military regime was saved by its external patron. It is evident that the willingness of the people to accept the rule of the TPLF has been weakening.

The May 2005 Ethiopia’s election, in which the TPLF forcefully and brutally changed the outcome of the election’s result (as reported by the European Union’s Election observers mission and by all civil society groups in Ethiopia), was a clear message from the Ethiopian people to the TPLF that the Ethiopians are badly in need of a democratic change and they are also ready to make it to happen.


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