Ethiopia: Is ethnic federalism a viable alliance to democracy and pluralism?–the context in Ethiopia – By Dereje Tesfaye

September 5th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

EPRDF led government has embarked federalism in the last twenty years. So far some applaud it that it gives chance for the expression of multiculturalism. Other condemns it as an ultimate destiny for the disintegration of the nation. The federal system has not been tested in plural political setting. So far the system in the last twenty years is led by centralized and dominant party system, which is the salient feature of the Ethiopian federal system.

This article tries to discuss whether ethnic federalism as it is in the context in Ethiopia could viably match with pluralism and democracy. To discuss the above issue the feature of ethnic federalism would be touched. Federalism as a political system organizes state in to a center and a region. In ethnic federalism the litmus test to organize in this line is ethnicity. In Ethiopia ethnicity has been defined in terms of language collectively. Federalism as a political system has a centrifugal tendency. From which angel it is possible to see the nature of the alliance between ethnic federalism and pluralism in Ethiopian context.

Federalism is a system in which state and government are organized. Democracy is a system of rule where public rule is institutionalized and diversity of opinion is surfaced and respected. Federalism as a means of organization; and democracy as a system of rule are intimately related.

Twenty years has been elapsed since ethnic federalism is a form of government organization and state in Ethiopia. Federalism is different in type. Ethnic federal system also differs. The “X” Soviet Union and “X“ Yugoslavia are ethnic federal state as well India and Nigeria are a big federal state. Switzerland is also ethnic federal state. Ethiopia Federal state shares many features of “X” soviet and “X” Yugoslavia ethnic federal state. The salient feature which it shares being this, the sole criteria to define ethnicity in these “X” federal state was language. One large language group sharing territory will have a state; the state related with the language group inhabited could be large or small. In Ethiopia for instance there is large state Oromiya and small state Harari. The regional state in Ethiopia are only nine where as in the “X” Yugoslavia there were six in X Soviet Union there were 13.

The case in India and Nigeria is different. The criteria to define ethnicity are fluid and based on multiple criteria like regionalism, localism, religion as well as language. So that ethnicity is fragmented and defused. This nature does not result in the formation of big mini state within a state. The regional state are many and diversified, in such case there is no single sided political mobilization and orchestration of interest.

The “X” Soviet Union and the “X” Yugoslavia Federal state had not been tested with multiparty system. The federal states were led by communist party. After long years of centralized rule starting attempts to institutionalize political pluralism and democracy coincides with the start of strife and divisive political conflict which led to disintegration. In these “X” states different ethnic language group has a communist party coinciding with their language and territory where they inhabit. These parties were considered the representatives of their respective ethnic group; in turn these parties are organized in one patterned system of rule through central democratic principle. This principle erects a distinct type of rule where one or a few individuals left to be a decision maker. This is exactly true so far in Ethiopia real politics.

The start of breakdown of the two “X” federal states squarely coincides in their attempt to a transition to pluralism and multiparty democracy. If one learns from history what will be the lesson Ethiopian to take from the breakdown and the consequent atrocities in Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

Democracy as a system of rule is a tool of political mobilization and regulation. It is an instrument to rule internally by mobilizing different interest with different issue which needs to be diffused. This is the practical requirement and the case in developed democracies.

In ethnic Federalism like Ethiopia, the transition to political pluralism would be complicated. The federal organization is exclusively based on language distinction. Ethnicity is defined only in terms of language like that of the “X” states. This nature of Ethiopian ethnic federalism would give space to sole ethnic political mobilization and orchestration of political interests. The political mobilization would be merely based on ethnicity being propelled by ethnic parties. During the transition to democracy where democracy needs diffusion of interests and grounds of political mobilization; the grounds would be taken by ethnic factor as a mobilization with the ready-made mini state institutions. These mini state institutions would substitute the fading centralized party system. This is a mechanical control of the political dynamics in ethnic federal system. It is mechanical because, the federal institutions are structured without taking into consideration how could political factors run smoothly with changing political dynamics. The federal systems are designed in a way taking the centralized party system as a lasting factor determining the ethnic federal system continuation and stability. This is a feature of unbargained federal system.

In case of Nigeria and India attempts has been done to diffuse the base of political mobilization and regulation by diversifying the bases of ethnic definition. It has resulted in organic political control because it has taken different political dynamics such as the nature and type of party system; the defining factor for ethnicity; the base of political mobilization and regulation in multiparty context, and pluralism and how they configure in the way the political dynamics dictates playing role to the stability and continuity of the federal system.

The disintegrative tendency of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia as the case in the X Yugoslavia and Soviet Union has been tamed by imposition of centralized party system which mechanically regulates the separatist force as per their goals and aims. In case where the party system fails and when federal institutions, among others independent ethnic parties, political elites, become a prime political force in plural political setting language based ethnicity with ready-made mini state institution become base of political mobilization. Pluralism would create political arena for the expression of different political views. With pluralism and democracy the intensity of political dynamics and political mobilization would increase. Ethnic based mobilization would be a grand form of mobilization. It is all encompassing and surpassing other bases of mobilization. It has less tendency to diffuse with other interests, which could be a basis of mobilization. Ethnicity as basis of political mobilization requires deliberate manipulations and proper political institutions and structures. Less it becomes antithesis to pluralism and democracy. There are different types of political mobilizations such as economic interest, gender, current political view, the first being the grand form of mobilization, the subsequent are lesser and diffusing bases of political mobilization.

For the disintegration of Yugoslavia and Soviet Union the then existing type of ethnic federalism which defines ethnicity in terms of language only and the mechanical control imposed by the centralized party has been considered to be a major factor. In addition to this, within this political context attempts of institutionalizing pluralism has resulted intense ethnic based political mobilization by independent ethnic parties with their elites using the mini institution of state for their purpose has accounted for the disintegration of these states. In fact this would be a political dynamics that would exactly occur in Ethiopia, when attempt is made to move to pluralism, multipart system and democracy in the context of the existing only language based ethnic federal system as well as the centralized and dominant party system.

In political terms for the past twenty years Ethiopia is living with ethnic federalism. There are around nine ethnic based states where the basis of the definition of ethnicity is only language. These regional states have been led by their respective ethnic parties. These parties have a one way decision making channel through the principle of central democratic principle which is typical nature of a socialist party system. The federal system has not been tested with multiparty system. Opposition political parties have not seized political power. Strong election observers have testified repeatedly election has been conducted in the ground which is not leveled. The ethnic federal system so far is held stably through mechanical control using the centralized dominant party as an instrument.

With a genuine attempts to institutionalize pluralism or with the fading of the centralized party system, as any political party system could fail, ethnicity which is solely defined by language terms and institutionalized vis-à-vis a readymade ethnic state would be a basis for political mobilization which is not diffused and fragmented. In such political scenarios the then existing political institutions would not be able to accommodate the smooth running of federalism and multiparty system.

Many scholars and citizens are sensing the disintegration of Ethiopia polity internally thinking on this line, among other factors. Astute EPRDF political architect which are in fact the designer of the ethnic federal state tells us in their ideological writing the end of EPRDF party system is the end of Ethiopia polity. The medicine they subscribe is a hegemonic rule of EPRDF. Is that possible? For how long? Is subscribing this a political remedy is a sanity? Why not they let the Ethiopian people to come up with a bargained political system which could accommodate multiparty system and democracy? EPRDF must let the people have a nation which is not dependent on one party system.

  1. Gadisa Birru
    | #1

    A very good article. Am a professor at Addis Ababa University and was ashamed by many of the scholars fighting through the indoctrination of TPLF.

    I am afraid that TPLF will be a key for the disintegration of the unity of the Ethiopian people.

    Just a shame to SEE TPLF for 30 years on top of the state.

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