Ethnicity could be everything in Ethiopian Politics

By Mulugeta B. Teferi

The Origin
For an Ethiopian-Nationalist Ethnic Politics or the politics of nationalities is a curse sowed by the mass-produced first generation of ‘Educated Ethiopians’, who were the product of both Menelek’s and Haile-Silassie’s effort of ‘Modernizing Ethiopia’ through western education. As something introduced by a generation which is now fading away not only from Politico-economic life of the nation, but in the face of the earth because of natural factors some may expect the ‘curse’ to dwindle with the passing of a generation which introduced and gave root to it.

That seems sensible expectation only seeing the change of inhabitation, but there are things which have got transgenerational existence. Therefore it’s important to see if the architect has created any mechanism that dictates the persistence of ethnic politics. That can be achieved by institutionalizing the ideology or through influencing the public’s framework of thinking. What if it has managed to influence part of the public which is relatively young and passionate to carry out its ideology? That is possible, and the youth could be more refined and forceful in terms of creating effect. Some historical accounts affirms such a thing, a young generation which carries out an ideology of the old is likely to be more effective and organized to change the course of history.

The first generation mentioned above turned rocks and pushed mountains in their effort to solve a deep rooted problem of a society which they call ‘SAYMAR YASTEMARE’ (An Amharic expression which describes a society with no revelation to modern education, but paid high cost to educate its descendants). They sought for socio-economic and political remedies to change the life an agrarian society, which were trapped both in tradition and authoritative rules. As a generation which got its only reliable power (education) from outside world, it also looked for solution from outside. The first few (educated in Europe) were more engaged in advising the then Kingdom and its Kings for evolution than revolution. When Universities and High Schools in Ethiopia started to produce in mass, the same approach of looking a medicine outside for inside problem continued, but this time evolution was abandoned and revolution was espoused.

As a result, a kingdom which claims a continuity of centuries had collapsed, to be replaced by new systems and new ideology. In the rest of the world, the first half of the 20th century was encouraging for most of the African and Latin American states to look for alternative idea rather than taking the default capitalist & liberal ideology which failed them for long. Ethiopians were not different; they looked outside as usual and found a thing called Communism. This communism thing was effective in creating an amazing mob and vibration around the second and third world. But, it was never easy to introduce it to Ethiopia in establishing the New System; no industrial economy, no similar landownership right across the country. That means there was no class in the form of the original text of communism, there was nothing like ideal ‘Proletariat’ and ‘Bourgeoisie’ class. The generation faced a problem in a society which is not segmented as Communist Textbook description of Classes. They looked for solution and started to study and debate on different versions of communism; Russia under Stalin, China under Ma’o, and Albania under Enver Hoxha were among the favoured.

Then Ethiopia was an agrarian economy with very few Manufacturing Plants owned by foreign investors. The land ownership and use right was not implemented in the way it creates two classes across the country; there was difference in South and North. If there are things which effectively create a kind of ‘grouping’ in Ethiopia are Ethnicity and Religion. The people of Ethiopia are more ‘defined’ and ‘interrelated’ by their ethnicity and religion than their class. Communism, as an ideology which always fought against religion, were not able to use it as a base in redefining class in Ethiopia and a mobilizing factor for the anticipated revolution. The only way communism could take shape in Ethiopia was to redefine class by considering the three different bases. The economic factor to define classes were not effective, both in land factory ownership. During that time ethnicity define/link an Ethiopian more than being a labourer in a manufacturing plant defines/links a Russian in the beginning of the 20th century.

Through their discussion they were able to define and redefine Ethiopian class in different forms and identify chronic problems in society. Even though there could be many undocumented discussions about using ethnicity as a base of identifying classes in Ethiopia, there is only one documented article, which incited the formal discussion of the topic. Through the Marxist perspective that generation identified ‘Ethiopian’ culture and economy being dominated by Amhara-Tigray partnership.

“To anybody who has got a nodding acquaintance with Marxism, culture is nothing more than the super-structure of an economic basis. So cultural domination always presupposes economic subjugation. A clear example of economic subjugation would be the Amhara and to a certain extent Tigrai Neftegna system in the South and the Amhara-Tigre Coalition in the urban areas.” (Wallelign 1969)

Still the debate didn’t totally ignored the issue of Land Right which created a visible class difference in part of Ethiopia, but it was answered by a Military Regime which snatched away the ideology of the Student Movement to maintain power and get the attention of the mob. After the one basic class difference is eliminated through Land to Tiller Proclamation and few manufacturing nationalised, the only powerful mobilizing force left was ethnicity. By then some had already established ethnic based party and started the struggle, while the dominant party in Ethiopian Students Movement, Ethiopian People Revolutionary Party (EPRP) claims to solve the question of nationalities through Ethiopian National Struggle.

Ethnic-Politics as the Rule of the Land
The end of a Communist Military Regime transferred power to ethnically organized guerrilla fighters with Marxism–Leninism orientation. The time was critical not only to Ethiopia but also to world political history; a Unipolar Wold order was in creation with the collapse of East-West divide, this complicated everything. The process of National System Creation in Ethiopia by itself was complicated; the dominant party which lead the formation of Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) put the Question of Nations and Nationalities above National Existence. The irony lays on the fact that the people which the Tigrian People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) claims to represent, were not among the ‘Oppressed’ ethnic group at least according to Wallelign’s above mentioned article, even though it had invited other ethnically organized groups to join the Peace Conference in 1991. In Wallelign’s article he identified ‘Tigrai’ as a junior partner of Amhara in the oppression against the rest of the Nationalities in Ethiopia.

“The economic and cultural subjugation by the Amharas and their junior partners the Tigres is a historical accident. Amharas are not dominant because of inherent imperialist tendencies. The Oromos could have done it, the Wolaytas could have done it and history proves they tried to do so.”(Ibid)

If it was based on the communist revolution and re-establishing a system, where the oppressed mass dominates the political life or at least create equitable system for all, the ‘oppressed’ nationalities must have been the one who led the war against any operation and installed the FDRE. In that way FDRE could have been the ‘National State’ Wallelign dream of “where every nationality is given equal opportunity to preserve and develop its language, its music and its history. It is a state where Amharas, Tigres, Oromos, Aderes [Harari], Somalis, Wolaytas, Gurages, etc. are treated equally. It is a state where no nation dominates another nation be it economically or culturally”.

In a way that seem to blew the above suspicion on the geniuses of the system, a constitutional federation which gave high emphasise to Nationalities was introduced as a rule of the land in 1995. The supreme of all powers in contemporary National and International legal regime, the Sovereign Power, was bestowed on Nations, Nationalities & Peoples of Ethiopia (FDRE 1995). As the main intention of the system creation is to produce a democratic system where nation & nationalities will have equal power do determine their destiny and exercise full right through democratic means, anyone who would like to operate in the FDRE must aspire to get hold of the sovereign power and the institution though which the sovereign exercise its power.

If the Nation & Nationalities are the supreme power holders in the current Ethiopian political system; through which institution does this sovereignty is exercised? Do they vote as a nation or as individuals in sending their representatives to these institutions? These are critical questions to consider while aspiring for any political power under FRDE. The constitutions states their sovereignty shall be expressed through their representatives elected in accordance with this Constitution and through their direct democratic participation (Art 8(3). The House of People’s Representative (HPR) is an institution to consider here, because it’s a representative and also a place where indirect democracy is exercised. Does the house exclusively represent any interest of nationalities? HPR is composed of individuals who are elected in electoral districts; an elected member of HPR is a representative of roughly 180 thousand people. The election for the house doesn’t consider ethnic representation. When we come to the upper house, House of Federation (HoF), it considers ethnic representation. A member is assigned to a ‘recognised’ ethnic group and another for every one million additional population in that specific nationality. The members of HoF are not chosen directly by the public; rather by the Regional Councils which itself is a representative of the people in that specific region.

The nature of regional administration, being ethnic based, seems to give legitimacy in representing a member to HoF to exercise the Supreme Power, but most regions has got more than one ethnic group and there may be conflict of interest. With all the vacuums, if we assume that the HoF is the institution which represents the Sovereignty of Nationalities, and if one voting citizen in FDRE tries to hold of the supreme power, it needs to get back to its region and consider not only ideology but its own ethnic group interest before it elects someone to the Regional Council. The appropriate and considerate Regional Council members can then re-elect representative for Nationalities in that specific region to be represented in HoF.

Apart from the above fact, regional administrations in the current federal structure are the Power House of all because of their inviolate existence. The constitution gives the Nationalities the right of self-determination up to secession. The federal structure cannot sanction any regional state to do something against its interest, if the region is composed of one ethnic group or at least the majority is from one ethnic group, given that the regional council is full of ‘legitimate’ representatives of the nationality in the region. The inviolate existence of regions over the federal structure is guaranteed by the constitution, as the federal arrangement is created by the voluntary association of regional states, it is also good to remind ourselves that the right of self-determination does exist even during State of Emergency.

The Fruits
The recent demands by the Ethiopian public for greater freedom, democracy, and participation in all aspects are natural. Coupled with the advancement of technology and easiness for information access people are likely to be more politically active and engaged to defend their interest. In the context of Ethiopia political participation and success in achieving political goals can only be realized through powerful structures and institutions. The powerful structures under FDRE necessitate someone to think and act contextualizing everything to ethnicity.

The nature of democracy exercised in the past twenty seven years and the orientation of the youth grew through the system is another point worth noting. As I tried to point out above, TPLF’s ideological attachment to Marxism–Leninism and the fact that it is ethnic based didn’t vanished with the emergence of unipolar world in 1991. Both its ideological background and ethnic orientation has rooted characters to FDRE and the leading party. TPLF established a front, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (EPRDF) with the composition of ethnic based constituency parties. EPRDF then announced an alien ideology called ‘Revolutionary Democracy’ as a maxim of everything. This concept is very confusing to know exactly what it is, but going back to the beginning of all throws light. Recall how the Students Movement borrowed Marxist-Leninist categorization of society and managed to analyse Ethiopia on the bases of its ethnic groups between ‘The Oppressor’ & ‘The Oppressed’. Therefore the kind of democracy introduced by a party which fought to liberate the ‘Oppressed’ nationalities must be ‘Revolutionary’ in the way it could create a domination of the ‘Oppressed’; as communism creates the dictatorship of the proletariat. That is the comprehension we get after reading some writings by former TPLF leaders. Revolutionary democracy is rather a deviant kind of democracy which guaranties full right for oppressed, while it bands the same rights for others considered oppressor (Gebru 2014).

It is repeatedly stated by EPRDF that the rest of Ethiopian ethnic groups belong to the Oppressed (Including the People of Tigray, diverts from Wallelign’s analysis), but the Amhara. Some EPRDF disciplinarians say it is to refer to ‘Amhara Rulers’ as a class. As an ideology which used ethnicity in the place of economic base for it analysis, there is nothing like ‘Amhara Rulers’, ethnicity was point of reference for their classification of class not economic base. If it were to refer to the ruling class who controlled the land it could have use ‘Feudal’, or if it was to refer to the factory owners it could have said ‘Capitalists’.

After twenty seven years rule under Revolutionary Democracy, now we have new Amhara Nationalism in Ethiopia. Most young people who identify themselves as Amhara will tell you that Amhara is being oppressed in this system. This doesn’t seem something unforeseen to the Revolutionary Democrats. The system is designed to work effectively in ‘disciplining’ the so-called oppressor. Repeated displacement, attack, harassment and being side-lined in the national politics named ‘Chauvinist’ led to the feeling of oppressed and subjugated. Among the goals of the rising Amhara Nationalists one is ‘A change in the federal narrative that blames the Amhara for everything that went wrong in the country’s historical trajectory seems to be a dominant theme. Most Amhara nationalists believe this narrative has justified and legitimized attacks and injustices perpetuated against the Amhara since 1991.” (Amanuel 2018).

Now the only group which is considered as the ‘Oppressor’ is felling opposed, and tries to change the status quo. It is also important to note that prior to this period most Amharas were Ethiopian-Nationalist, and they don’t want to organize based on their ethnicity. Amhara was the only ethnic group which was not represented by an ethnic party during the Peace Conference in 1991, and late in the Constitutional Assembly. There is also growing youth population which only knew the country in its current ethic based federal structure ready to measure everything in terms of ethic interest.

Currently, for most Ethiopians it is ok to be identified in their ethnic belonging than it was thirty years ago. ‘Ethnic comes First, and Ethiopia Second’ doesn’t only end up serving as the foundation of the current system, it produced a young generation who accepted it full-heartedly. Ethiopia is a federation of Nation & Nationalities, than it is composed of citizens/Ethiopians. Generally, in the past several years citizens found it hard to assert their individual right, than a nationality claim its right. For a citizen to claim its right under FDRE it easy to do so through an administration organized for its ethnic group (a Tigraway in Tigray, an Amhara in Amhara, and an Oromo in Oromia, a Gurage in Gurage Zone; than a Tigraway in Amhara… etc.). Others who belong to an ethnic group which doesn’t have a separate ethnic based Administration (Woreda, Zone, Region) feels unprivileged and demand for it more than anything. Anyone whose ethnicity doesn’t include him to a designated administration where he is living is likely to be to be displaced or side-lined in administrations (i.e Amhara & Oromo in Benishangul Gumuz).

The only way to claim right and maintain strong political power in the current Ethiopia is through ethnic based representations, and institutions. Political parties, entities, institutions, and gatherings which are not only represented by ethnic groups, but also which claims to represent ethnic groups are powerful more than anything in the current day of Ethiopia. After all politics is all about power. Today in Ethiopian politics, any form of ideology doesn’t bind and motivate the youth as ethnicity does.

Works Cited

  • Amanuel, Tesfaye. “The Birth of Amhara Nationalism: Causes, Aspirations, and Potential Impacts.” Addis Standard, 4 May 2018.
  • FDRE. “Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.” Addis Ababa: Birhanena Selam, 1995.
  • Gebru, Asrat. ሉዓላዊነት እና ዲሞክራሲ በኢትዮጵያ (Amharic); Sovereignty and Democracy in Ethiopia. Addis Ababa: Signature Book, 2014.
  • Wallelign, Mekonnen Kassa. “On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia.” HSIU Art VI (Nov 1969).