On November 28, 2020, the Ethiopian military took control of Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region, after a month-long battle with the Tigray People & # 39; s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Before the conflict, the Tigray region was on its way to real independence under TPLF rule. After the TPLF lost its hegemonic position in Addis Ababa in 2015 – where it had dominated the ruling coalition of Ethiopia for decades – it moved political and bureaucratic personnel to Mekele. When the national elections were postponed due to COVID-19, the TPLF rejected the constitutionality of the decision and held its own regional elections, which it handily won.
Then it declared that it no longer recognized the federal government as legitimate and successfully thwarted the appointment of a new head of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian Army by effectively dividing the most heavily armed section of the National Defense Forces among itself. In the early hours of November 4, a coordinated pre-emptive attack on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian Army followed, allowing the TPLF to take control of the army's headquarters in Mekele and several other bases. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed quickly appeared on TV to launch a military operation to evict the TPLF from Tigray.
The conflict in Tigray is not just a political dispute between the TPLF and Abiy & # 39; s Prosperity Party, but a struggle for sovereignty between the federal government and a regional state. Nor is this the first time the federal government has gone to war to regain control of an unyielding regional state. In August 2018, the federal government undertook an armed operation to evict Abdi Mohamoud Omar (also known as Abdi Ilay), the then president of the Somali regional state. This resulted in many deaths and the displacement of civilians, especially ethnic minorities.
The Constitution of Ethiopia, ratified in 1994 under the auspices of the Revolutionary Popular Democratic Front of Ethiopia, dominated by the TPLF, is unique in conferring sovereignty on the nations and nationalities of the country. Your position is also radical because it grants the more than 80 ethnic groups of Ethiopia an unrestricted right of self-determination until secession. This has increased the level of engagement in federal-regional disagreements and possibly increased the risk of conflict by viewing secession as a negotiating basis for political disputes.
For its supporters, the ethnic federal system is a triumph for the centuries-old striving of the disenfranchised ethnic groups of Ethiopia for autonomy and self-government. The federal system is seen as an answer to the "question of nations and nationalities" – a school of political thought that criticized and rejected the socio-political rule of the northern Christian elites of Ethiopia, mainly ethnic Amharas and to a lesser extent Tigrayans. Ethnic federalism should create a new regime that ensures that the political, cultural and economic rights of all ethnic and religious groups are equally respected.
However, the turbulence of the past few years has also exposed the limits of Ethiopia's experimentation in ethnic federalism. Even its ardent supporters cannot deny that ethnic federalism has raised as many questions as it has answered, and that it has made Ethiopia a more fragmented, polarized, and conflict-ridden country.
The confirmation of the Marxist-Leninist concept of self-determination in the Ethiopian constitution was all the more puzzling in view of the historical developments at the time of its introduction. In the early 1990s, when the Ethiopia constitution was being drafted, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia – two associations that had enshrined ethnic self-determination in their respective constitutions – witnessed episodes of violent disintegration.
The TPLF and other architects of the Ethiopian constitution could not have overlooked the ominous signs that were openly on display. They most likely viewed the possible collapse of their own country as an acceptable, perhaps even a desirable outcome. The bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia, in which bitter inter-ethnic wars took part, was also a red flag for what self-determination could mean in a multiethnic mosaic like Ethiopia. The 1984 census already showed that only 30 of the 580 Ethiopian woredas (districts) were actually monolingual ethnic islands at the time.
The constitution's approval of the right to self-determination is based on the controversial assumption that ethnic groups can be neatly divided into mutually exclusive categories, each with a claim to a specific territorial homeland. In reality, ethnic identities are fluid and layered, and ethnic territorial competences often overlap and become disputed.
Even in Tigray, the only regional state that nominally existed before the current constitution, the regional boundaries were completely redrawn when new administrative units were created in 1994. Much of the current West Tigray and Northwest Tigray Zones (Welkait, Humera, Tsegede and Tselemte) and some parts of South Tigray (Raya Azebo) have been split up from the former Gondar and Wollo provinces, which were mainly inhabited by Amharas.
These areas, which make up roughly a third of today's Tigray, are fiercely contested by Amhara nationalists as their own – a dispute that contributed to the involvement of the region's special forces in the recent war in Tigray. Had Tigray continued secession under the TPLF, it would only have been a matter of time before it got into a persistent border war with the rest of Ethiopia, as Eritrea did after it had gained its own de facto independence in 1991, which was formalized by held a referendum in 1993.
The 1998-2000 Eritrean-Ethiopian border war, which resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 people on both sides, helped consolidate the rule of the TPLF in Ethiopia, but also significantly weakened Eritrea and sowed the seeds of deep-seated hostility between the US TPLF and Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea's authoritarian president. At the height of the Tigray conflict in November 2020, the TPLF fired a series of rockets at the capital, Eritrea, accusing them of sending their army to Tigray, a claim that Eritrea denies but is supported by recent independent reports.
One of the most devastating effects of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia is the utter failure to protect minorities. For example, the 1994 constitution created a new region called Benishangul-Gumuz as one of the nine (now 10) regional administrative states of Ethiopia as the home of the Benishangul and Gumuz ethnic groups. The constitution of the region confirms that the region “belongs” to five indigenous ethnic groups: Berta, Gumuz, Shinasha, Mao and Komo. Other important minorities such as the Amharas, Oromos and Agaws, who make up at least 40 percent of the region's population, are treated as second-class citizens without the right to form their own (ethnic) parties for legitimate political representation.
The failure to protect minorities extends to all regional states and leaves minorities in a precarious situation in which they live with constant fear of displacement. A narrative of “natives” versus “outsiders” and a political discourse based on ethnic grievances inevitably lead to cycles of violence. In times of political change and instability, such as since 2015, ethnic tensions have intensified and minorities have fallen victim to brutal killings, displacement and displacement.
The number of these incidents is desperately too large to count, but includes the recent episodes of Amharas displaced by the thousands in Oromia, Oromos displaced from the Somali region, Tigrayans forcibly displaced from the Amhara region, and ongoing violence in Benishangul-Gumuz region, which brought death and destruction to hundreds of people of all ethnicities. These tragic events not only traumatized millions, but also frayed the delicate threads of trust and social capital that have held communities together for centuries.
Furthermore, the current constitution, in its fixation on ethnic autonomy, has severely compromised, possibly deliberately, the political power of urban centers – which are ethnic melting pots and therefore do not fit into the ideological straitjacket of ethnic purity. Since the constitution defines land as the property of ethnic groups, cities without a specific ethnic identity were left without land and thus without the right to statehood.
The capital Addis Ababa is – although it is the economic and political center of the country with a population far larger than four of the original nine regional states – an enclave administered by the federal government which, according to the constitution, is “within the state of Oromia. "In a country where ethnic identity has become the most basic variable in political and economic organization, multiethnic urban centers like Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa are becoming arenas of political influence between competing ethnic parties rather than self-governing.
The experiment in ethnic federalism has led to the formation of powerful, militarized ethnic regional states that harbor old grievances against one another, as well as unresolved border disputes that could spark conflict at any time. If the power of these regional administrations is not proactively scrutinized, there is a tangible risk that they will become embroiled in devastating conflicts that wreak havoc not only in Ethiopia but also in neighboring countries, each of which shares at least one ethnic group with Ethiopia.
Border disputes between ethnic regions are difficult to resolve because almost all ethnic borders are man-made inventions that lack historical precedents. Before the creation of these borders in 1994, many dozen ethnic groups in Ethiopia rarely had administrative borders based solely on ethnicity. Administrative boundaries were usually porous as people moved freely across regions, especially in the lowlands, where people followed a mobile, nomadic lifestyle. None of the Federation's regional states existed in its current form, and many, such as the Amhara and Oromia regions, historically ever existed as separate, independent entities inside or outside Ethiopia. The creation of top-down ethnic nations with sovereign territorial borders has sparked simmering border disputes that threaten to plunge the country into civil war.
Even from an ethnic rights perspective, the current system has not enabled the majority of the country's ethnic groups to exercise the right to self-government. An arbitrary nomenclature of ethnic classes was used to allow certain ethnic groups to be organized as autonomous regional states, while other groups of similar population size were denied the same right.
For example, the constitution grouped around 20 million people from no fewer than 50 ethnic groups into a region called the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples' Region (SNNP), while allowing the creation of a regional Harari state in Harar City a population of less than 300,000. Hararis was given statehood despite making up only 9 percent of the population, ostensibly in recognition of the unique historical and religious significance of the city of Harar, which is completely surrounded by Oromia, a vast region of nearly 40 million people. These differences in size create asymmetrical power relations between competing administrative authorities and the related political entities that administer them, leading to political, administrative and economic imbalances.
Strongly exclusive ethnonationalism will create persistent risks of volatility and violence that could undermine democracy by making authoritarian positions more palatable for reasons of peace and security. There is also a risk that large ethnic groups – Amhara and Oromo – will form alliances that co-opt smaller ethnic groups, resulting in a political settlement that is neither inclusive nor progressive.
It is clear that Ethiopia's ethnic federalism needs a major overhaul in order to maintain peaceful electoral democracy. Without reform, the system remains a risk to itself and the country, as ethnic rivalries can easily lead to cycles of violence that repeat endlessly the traumatic experience of the past five years.
To repair Ethiopia's broken federal system, constitutional reform is required that introduces new controls and balances to reduce the risk of ethnic politics exploding into outright violence. One possible approach would be a referendum on political decentralization, in which the administrative zones are raised to the level of the administrative states, thereby replacing the regions. Zones that are currently the second-level administrative units by region are usually inhabited by an ethnic majority group.
The elevation of zones to members of the federal state at the state level can ensure ethnic self-government, which is in line with the constitutional emphasis on autonomy and self-government. At the same time, this would significantly reduce the likelihood of major military or political clashes between neighboring regions and between regions and the federal government. This would also lead to relatively unified zone states, which would allow a fairer and more equitable division of political and other forms of power between them.
More importantly, zone states, as main administrative units, would be an important step in ensuring self-government among dozens of nations and nationalities. This solution would, for example, automatically resolve the dispute in SNNP, where the Wolayta zone and 10 other ethnic zones demand the right to statehood. It will also resolve many territorial disputes, including those over Welkait, Humera, Tsegede, Tselemte and Raya, where the regional states of Amhara and Tigray compete against each other.
Ethiopia has more than 60 zones and so many first-level administrative units can present many administrative challenges. However, this is a technique that can be solved by procedural mechanisms. For example, Kenya has taken over 47 districts as main administrative units following a constitutional amendment that came into force following the violence following the 2007 elections. The transfer of administrative power to the district governments has improved the quality of governance and given citizens more voice and power. A board of governors, made up of the heads of administration for the 47 counties, coordinates collective action on matters across the counties.
This political decentralization need not lead to the dissolution of the current regional states. The regions, which can be viewed as collective associations of large ethnic groups, can be reformed to serve as traditional cultural entities charged with cultural responsibility and the pursuit of interethnic harmony.
Many African nations have similar traditional structures in parallel with formal political structures. For example, Nigeria and Ghana each have dozens of traditional chiefs and kingdoms who have no official political power but who exercise significant influence as administrators of traditional ethnic cultures. When supported by appropriate governance mechanisms, the existence of parallel administrative structures could enrich and promote cultural interaction and reduce the risk of interethnic political conflict. It can also help redefine the meaning of the ethnic “territorial home” for its cultural rather than political connotation, thereby reducing the risk of border problems between ethnic groups and the disenfranchisement of minorities.
The violent end of the TPLF-dominated era has exposed the dangers of organizing political power on an ethnic basis. The episode also offers the opportunity to rethink the Ethiopian political system and to reshape it to take competition policy into account. Without reform, Ethiopia's ethnic federalism harbors the seeds of endless conflict that will undermine the country's very existence.
Transferring political power to zone states could provide a way out of the current mystery and reduce the risk of catastrophic conflict between militarized ethnic regional states. If such a change to the ballot box is approved and effectively implemented, it can help usher in a democratic system in which the rights of individuals and races are balanced. It could also lead to a more sober, secular, and constructive political discourse that focuses on building communities rather than tearing them apart.