The Perils of Ethnic Federalism Part II: Defenders of the Killils By Worku Aberra (PhD)

February 5th, 2016 Print Print Email Email

In the previous installment, I discussed the inherent dangers of ethnic politics. In this section, I will outline the arguments that the defenders of the killils make, and hint at reforming ethnic federalism.

The TPLF and the other ethnic nationalists hail the creation of ethnic federalism as the greatest achievement of the struggle against the Derg. I respectfully disagree. It was actually the worst blunder the TPLF-EPRDF regime made in 1994. Ethnic federalism, its architects argue, designed to address the ethnic injustices of the past, would bring about ethnic equality, unity, and harmony; as well as social peace, but it has not delivered the Promised Land. On the contrary, it has worsened inter-ethnic group relationships. The on-going armed conflict between the Annuaks and the Nuers in Gambella and between the Konso and the Burji in the south, the uprising in Oromia, and the turmoil throughout Ethiopia indicate that it has been an abject failure.

But, what is ethnic federalism? The definition of the term “federalism” has evolved over time, and currently there is no universally accepted definition. A scholar who has studied federalism defines it as “a system of government based on the sharing of powers by two levels of governments with equal status”. (p.19). Theoretically then, under ethnic federalism, the federal government and the local ethnic governments share powers. For example, the federal government is responsible for defense, internal peace and security, and foreign affairs, and the local ethnic governments are responsible for the provision of essential services such as education and healthcare. There are other details, but this in brief is the broad outline of ethnic federalism.

As I have argued in the previous section, ethnic politics created ethnic federalism; ethnic federalism was launched to serve the political interests of the OLF, the EPLF, and the TPLF. The demands of ethnic nationalists for ethnic homelands, the EPLF’s strategic objective for a destabilized Ethiopia, and the TPLF’s aspiration to stay in power through divide and conquer produced ethnic federalism.

Ethiopia’s federal state is federalism in appearance only, draped in ethnic costumes but buttressed by brutal force. The ethnic states, other than language rights, have limited powers. As a result, Ethiopia has become a United Nation of ethnic states, which manifest varying degrees of commitment to national unity, overseen by a dictator. When the dictator goes, they too may go their separate ways, as happened in the former Yugoslavia, unless Ethiopia establishes a geographically-based federal state that fully expresses the democratic wishes of all ethnic groups.

The difference between a geographically-based federalism and an ethnic-based federalism is functionality. The first acts as a means of sharing powers, the latter serves as the agency for dividing Ethiopians, readying the ethnic states for possible separation, and keeping the regime in power indefinitely.

Defending the Killils

Proponents of the killils have not persuasively argued why ethnic-based federalism is better than geographically-based federalism. Instead, many use fallacious arguments to defend it. Some argue that those who oppose ethnic federalism, especially the Amhara elite, favour a unitary state, hopelessly wishing for the return of Amhara rule. This is a red herring. It is not just Amharas who oppose ethnic federalism. Many Ethiopians, including prominent Oromo intellectuals, oppose it. By invoking the real or imagined “Amhara injustices” of the past, killil supporters strive to stifle the discussion on the issue. But the defence of the killils should be based on facts and logic, not on intimidation, emotional blackmail, or ad hominem attacks that generate much heat but produce little insight.

The argument that says that the choice facing Ethiopia is between ethnic federalism and a unitary state is a false dichotomy; it assumes that a unitary state is the only alternative to ethnic federalism, yet there are other forms of federalism that confer real powers to ethnic groups.

Unless we accept ethnic federalism, some killil defenders suggest that the dissatisfied ethnic groups will separate, as Eritrea did. There are a few problems with this argument. First, separation is not the only alternative to ethnic federalism, as stated earlier. Second, we must remember that for a dedicated separatist, ethnic federalism is not the end game; it is only the first crucial step towards nationhood. We can never please separatists.

The threat to secede assumes that secession will benefit the ethnic group that secedes and hurts the ethnic groups that remain united. This is an erroneous assumption. Separation does not necessarily bring about freedom, democracy, and prosperity to the new ethnic country, as the distressing experience of Eritrea shows. Separation harms all Ethiopians. Unity benefits all Ethiopians, economically and politically.
Economically, a larger country provides economic diversity, promotes economic efficiency, and enables the realization of economies of scale. Politically, it encompasses a larger political space and hence a potentially higher level of tolerance for different political views to flourish. It also creates a potentially wider coalition in the struggle for justice, equality, and democracy. It is much easier for a dictator to prevail in a small country. National unity, therefore, should not be the nervous preoccupation of only one ethnic group, but rather the conscientious concern of all ethnic groups.

Looking Forward

I accept the basic tenets of a federal state, but I reject ethnic-based federalism because of its negative social, economic, and political consequences. As in all federal states throughout the world, Ethiopia should adopt a geographically-based federalism. But after 25 years of ethnic federalism, after so much emotional investment in the killils, it may be politically impossible to dismantle ethnic federalism, without much bloodshed, but it can be reformed, along regional lines with geographic designations.
For example, the existing awarajas or zones can be consolidated into regions to form larger states that recognize the rights of both the dominant and minority ethnic groups. The division of powers between the federal and local governments should be clearly delineated and legally sanctioned. Federal institutions must serve the national interests of all Ethiopians. The constitution must be thoroughly revised to reflect the democratic wishes of the Ethiopian people. Article 39 should be struck out. And so on.

Solidarity with the Oromo People

I have argued that ethnic federalism is inimical to national unity, but opposing ethnic federalism is not opposing the struggle of the Oromo people or other ethnic groups to pursue their democratic aspirations. I support the struggle of the Oromo people against injustice, inequality, and repression, within a united Ethiopia. I condemn the killings of the demonstrators by security forces in Oromia.

Further, since the Oromos are a plurality in Ethiopia, I believe that Ethiopia should seriously consider making Afar Oromo an official language, along with Amharic. Ethiopia can become, like Canada, an officially bilingual country, with Amharic and Afan Oromo as the official languages of the federal government so that the Oromo people can have equal access to employment opportunities in the federal bureaucracy and so that the Oromo people will be served in Afan Oromo when receiving services from the federal government. Oromos must feel at home in their own country. I am not suggesting that all Ethiopians be forced to learn Afan Oromo, only that federal government officials and employees be fluent in one of the official languages and be functionally literate in the other language, as is the case in Canada.

Ethiopia, a multi-ethnic and geographically diverse country, must adopt a geographically-based federalism where the dominant ethnic group in each state exercises autonomy, while respecting the rights of minority groups, within a democratic and united Ethiopia.
Worku Aberra (PhD) is a professor of economics at Dawson College, Montreal, Canada.

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