Ethiopia today is a “prison of nations and nationalities with the Oromo being one of the prisoners”, proclaimed the recently issued Declaration of the Congress of the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF). This open-air prison is administered through a system of “bogus federalism” in which “communities exercise neither self-rule nor shared-rule but have been enduring the TPLF/EPRDF’s tyrannical rule for more than two decades.” The jail keepers or the “ruling party directly and centrally micro-manage all communities by pre-selecting its surrogates that the people are then coerced to ‘elect’ at elections that are neither free nor fair”. Ethiopians can escape from “prison nation” and get on the “path to democracy, stability, peace, justice, and sustainable development” when they are able to establish a democratic process in which “all communities elect their representatives in fair and free elections.”
The ODF is a “new movement” launched by “pioneers of the Oromo nationalist struggle” who “have mapped out a new path that embraces the struggle of all oppressed Ethiopians for social justice and democracy.” Central to the collective struggle to bust the walls and crash the gates of “prison nation” Ethiopia is a commitment to constitutional democracy based on principles of “shared and separate political institutions as the more promising and enduring uniting factor” and robust protections for civil liberties and civil rights. Shared governance and the rule of law provide the glue “that will bind the diverse nations into a united political community” and return to the people their government which has been privatized and corporatized by the ruling regime “to advance and serve their partisan and sectarian interests.”
The Declaration foresees genuine federalism as the basis for freedom, justice and equality in Ethiopia. It argues that the ruling Tigriyan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) hijacked the federalism, which was originally birthed by the “mounting pressures of the struggles for self-determination by the Oromo and other oppressed nations”, and subsequently corrupted it into a political scheme that serves the “present ruling elite’s aspiration of emerging and permanently remaining as a new dominant group by simply stepping into the shoes of those that it replaced.” The ODF “aspire[s] to build on the positive aspects of Ethiopia’s current federal set-up” by “remov[ing] the procedural and substantive shortcomings that stand in the way of democracy and federalism.”
The Declaration finds traditional notions of unity inadequate. “Invoking a common history, culture or language has not guaranteed unity. We similarly reject the present ruling party’s presumption that it serves as the sole embodiment and defender of the so-called ‘revolutionary democratic unity.’” It also rejects “the ruling party’s illusory expectation that the promotion of economic development would serve as an alternative source of unity in the absence of democratic participation.” The Declaration incorporates principles of constitutional accountability, separation of powers and check balances and enumerates “bundles” of participatory, social and cultural rights secured in international human rights conventions. It proposes “overhauling” the civil service system and restructuring of the military and intelligence institutions to serve the society instead of functioning as the private protective services of the ruling party and elites. The Declaration broadly commits to economic and social justice and condemns the mistreatment and “eviction from ancestral lands of indigenous populations, and environmental degradation.”
Significance of the Declaration
The world is constantly changing and we must change with it. Henry David Thoreau correctly observed, “Things do not change; we change.” We change by discarding old and tired ideas and by embracing new and energetic ones. The old ideas which demonize other ethnic groups as mortal enemies are no longer tenable and are simply counterproductive. In a poor country like Ethiopia, the vast majority of the people of all ethnic groups get the shaft while the political and economic elites create ethnic tensions and conflict to cling to power and line their pockets. We change by casting away self-deception and facing the truth. The truth is that “united we stand, divided we fall”. When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, Benjamin Franklin said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” For the past 21 years, we have been falling like a pack of dominoes. They have been hanging us separately on the hooks of “ethnic federalism”.
We must be prepared to change our minds as objective conditions change. As George Bernard Shaw said, “Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” We must change our ideas, beliefs, attitudes and perspectives to keep up with the times. The alternative is becoming irrelevant. No organization can achieve unanimity in making change because change makes some in the organization uncomfortable, uneasy and uncertain. However, change is necessary and unavoidable. In line with George Ayittey’s metaphor, we can change and remain viable and relevant like the Cheetahs or suffer the fate of the hopeless Hippos.
It is refreshing and inspiring to see a transformative and forward-looking declaration forged by some of the important founding members and leaders of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) emphatically affirming the common destiny of all Ethiopians and underscoring the urgency for consolidating a common cause in waging a struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. These leaders show great courage and conviction of conscience in changing their minds with the changing political realities. The reality today is that the “economic and security interests of the Oromo people are intertwined with that of other peoples in Ethiopia. In addition, their geographic location, demography, democratic heritage and bond forged with all peoples over the years make it incumbent upon the Oromo to play a uniting and democratizing role.” It must have taken a staggering amount of effort to overcome internal discord and issue such a bold and positively affirmative Declaration signaling a fundamental change in position. These leaders deserve commendation for an extraordinary achievement.
I believe the Declaration is immensely important not only for the principles it upholds and articulates but most importantly for the fact that it represents a genuine paradigmatic shift in political strategy and tactics by the founders of the OLF. The Declaration signals a tectonic shift in long held views, ideology and political strategy. It represents a profound change in the perception and understanding of politics, change and society not only in Ethiopia but also in the continent and globally. By emphasizing inclusiveness and common struggle, the Declaration rejects the destructive politics of ethnicity and identity (the bane of Africa) for politics based on issues of social, political and economic justice. By embracing a common struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights, the Declaration rejects ethnocentrism (the arrogant philosophy of narrow-minded African dictators) and fully accepts federalism as a basis for political power and shared governance.
What are we to make of the Declaration? Is it merely an aspirational statement, an invitation to dialogue, a call to action or all of the above? It appears the Declaration is not merely a statement of principles but also an invitation to dialogue and a call to action. It affirms the universal truth that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and acknowledges that “struggling for justice for oneself alone without advocating justice for all could ultimately prove futile”. It urges Oromo groups to stop “trivial political wrangling” and “join hands with us in strengthening our camp to intensify our legitimate struggle and put an end to sufferings of our people.” It counsels the “ruling regime to reconsider its ultimately counterproductive policy of aspiring to indefinitely stay in power by fanning inter communal and interreligious suspicion and tension.” It proposes a “country-wide movement sharing” a common “vision, principles and policies” to “propel Ethiopia forward and ending the current political paralysis.” It pleads with the “international community to stand with us in implementing our vision and proposal of transforming the Ethiopian state to bring peace and sustainable stability in Ethiopia and Horn of Africa.”
Dialoguing over “Federalism” or the futility of putting lipstick on “bogus federalism”
It is the privilege of the human rights advocate and defender to speak his/her mind on all matters of human rights. I should like to exercise that privilege by raising an important issue in the Declaration and respectfully taking exception to it. The Declaration states:
We aspire to build on the positive aspects of Ethiopia’s current federal set-up. However, to make the simultaneous exercise of self-rule and shared-rule possible it is necessary to remove the procedural and substantive shortcomings that stand in the way of democracy and federalism… [which] can be accomplished by [allowing] subject nations, in due course, freely elect delegates to their respective state and central constitutional assemblies. When this process is completed, the present “holding together” type of bogus federalism will be transformed into a genuine ‘coming together’ variety.
I consider myself a hardcore federalist who believes in a clear division of power between a national and sub-national (local, state) governments. In fact, I consider the “Federalist Papers” written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay promoting the ratification of the United States Constitution as unsurpassed works of political genius on the theory and practice of federalism. Having said that, I do not believe there is an alchemy that can transmute “bogus federalism” into “genuine federalism”. Just as there is no such thing as being a “little bit pregnant”, there is also no such thing as building upon “bogus federalism”. Either it is genuine federalism or it is bogus federalism.
As I argued in my May 2010 commentary “Putting Lipstick on a Pig, Ethiopian Style”, discussing the elections, “You can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig. You can jazz up a bogus election in a one-man, one-party dictatorship with a ‘Code of Conduct’, but to all the world it is still a bogus election under a one-man, one-party dictatorship… They want us to believe that a pig with lipstick is actually a swan floating on a placid lake, or a butterfly fluttering in the rose garden or even a lamb frolicking in the meadows. They think lipstick will make everything look pretty.” You can put lipstick on “ethnic federalism” and call it “federalism”, but it is still bogus federalism.
As I have often argued, the late Meles Zenawi, the chief architect of “ethnic federalism” in Ethiopia was driven by a “vision of ethnic division. His warped idea of ‘ethnic federalism’ is merely a kinder and gentler reincarnation of Apartheid in Ethiopia. For nearly two decades, Meles toiled ceaselessly to shred the very fabric of Ethiopian society, and sculpt a landscape balkanized into tribal, ethnic, linguistic and regional enclaves.” He crafted a constitution based entirely on ethnicity and tribal affiliation as the basis for political organization. He wrote in Article 46 (2) of the Constitution: “States shall be structured on the basis of settlement patterns, language, identity and consent of the people.” In other words, “states”, (and the people who live in them) shall be corralled like cattle in tribal homelands in much the same way as the 10 Bantustans (black homelands) of Apartheid South Africa. Ethiopia’s tribal homelands are officially called “kilils” (enclaves or distinct enclosed and effectively isolated geographic areas within a seemingly integrated national territory). Like the Bantustans, Ethiopia’s 9 killilistans ultimately aim to create homogeneous and autonomous ethnic states in Ethiopia, effectively scrubbing out any meaningful notion of Ethiopian national citizenship. You can put lipstick on bantustans and call them “ethnic federalism” but at the end of the day a Killilistan with lipstick is a Bantustan without lipstick.
Before committing to “build up on the positive aspects of Ethiopia’s current federal set-up”, I urge the ODF and all others interested in institutionalizing genuine federalism in Ethiopia to carefully study and consider the long line of Apartheid laws creating and maintaining bantustans in South Africa. I commend a couple of illustrative examples of such laws to those interested. The Bantu Authorities Act, 1951(“Black Authorities Act, 1951”) created the legal basis for the deportation of blacks into designated homeland reserve areas and established tribal, regional and territorial authorities. This Act was subsequently augmented by the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act, 1970 (“Black States Citizenship Act & National States Citizenship Act, 1970) which sought to change the legal status of the inhabitants of the bantustans by effectively denaturalizing them from enjoying citizenship rights as South Africans. These laws imposed draconian restrictions on the freedom of movement of black South Africans. These laws further sought to ensure that white South Africans would represent the majority of the de jure population of South Africa with the right to vote and monopolize control of the state machinery. The Group Areas Act of 1950 (as re-enacted in the Group Areas Act of 1966), divided South Africa into separate areas for whites and blacks and gave the government the power to forcibly remove people from areas not designated for their particular tribal and racial group. Under this Act, anyone living in the “wrong” area was deported to his/her tribal group homeland. The law also denied Africans the right to own land anywhere in South Africa and stripped them of all political rights. The lives of over 3.5 million people were destroyed by this law as they were forcibly deported and corralled like cattle in their tribal group bantustans.
Recently, Prof. Yacob Hailemariam, a prominent Ethiopian opposition leader and a former senior Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda commented that the forceful eviction of members of the Amhara ethnic group from Benishangul-Gumuz (one of the nine kililistans) was a de facto ethnic cleansing. “The forceful deportation of people because they speak a certain language could destabilize a region, and if reported with tangible evidence, the UN Security Council could order the International Criminal Court to begin to examine the crimes.” A year ago to the month Meles Zenawi justified the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of Amharas from Southern Ethiopia stating, “… By coincidence of history, over the past ten years numerous people — some 30,000 sefaris (squatters) from North Gojam – have settled in Benji Maji (BM) zone [in Southern Ethiopia]. In Gura Ferda, there are some 24,000 sefaris.” Meles approved the de facto ethnic cleansing of Amharas from the “wrong” areas and repatriation back to their kililistan Amhara homelands. Through “villagization” programs, indigenous populations have been forced of their ancestral lands in Gambella, Benishangul and the Oromo River Valley and their land auctioned off to voracious multinational agribusinesses. The undeniable fact of the matter is that over the past two decades the Meles regime has implemented a kinder and gentler version of Bantustanism in Ethiopia.
The perils and untenability of Meles’ “bogus federalism” have been documented in the International Crises Group’s report “Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism and Its Discontents”. That report points out the glaring deficiencies and problems engendered by “ethnic federalism” in “redefine[ing] citizenship, politics and identity on ethnic grounds.” The study argues that “ethnic federalism” has resulted in “an asymmetrical federation that combines populous regional states like Oromiya and Amhara in the central highlands with sparsely populated and underdeveloped ones like Gambella and Somali.” Moreover, “ethnic federalism” has created “weak regional states”, “empowered some groups” and failed to resolve the “national question”. Aggravating the underlying situation has been the Meles dictatorship’s failure to promote “dialogue and reconciliation” among groups in Ethiopian society, further fueling “growing discontent with the EPRDF’s ethnically defined state and rigid grip on power and fears of continued inter-ethnic conflict.”
“Ethnic federalism” is indefensible in theory or practice. While intrinsically nonsensical as public policy, “ethnic federalism” in the hands of the Meles regime has become a dangerous weapon of divide and rule, divide and control and divide and destroy. Those in power entertain themselves watching the pitiful drama of kililistans compete and fight with each other for crumbs and preoccupying themselves with historical grievances. The ICG report makes it clear that in the long term “ethnic federalism” could trigger an implosion and disintegration of the Ethiopian nation.
Meles used to boast that his “ethnic federalism” policy had saved the “country [which] was on the brink of total disintegration.” He argued that “Every analyst worth his salt was suggesting that Ethiopia will go the way of Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union. What we have now is a going-concern.”
The truth of the matter is that ethnic balkanization, fragmentation, segregation and polarization are the tools of trade used by the Meles regime to cling to power while lining their pockets. In a genuine federalism, the national government is the creature of the subnational governments. In Ethiopia, the “kilil” (regional) “governments” are creatures and handmaidens of the national “government”. In a genuine federalism, the national government is entrusted with limited and enumerated powers for the purpose effectuating the common purposes of the subnational “governments”. In Ethiopia, the powers of the national “government” are vast and unlimited; and there are no barriers to its usurpatory powers which it exercises at will. There are no safeguards against encroachment on the rights and liberties of the people by the national or subnational “governments”. Simply stated, “ethnic federalism” as practiced in Ethiopia today is not only a recipe for tyranny by the national “government” but also the creed for secessionists in the name of self-determination. “Ethnic federalism” is an idea whose time has passed and should be consigned to the dustbin of history along with its author. “Well, back to the old drawing board!”
The Curse of Meles
According to those in the know, the late Meles Zenawi used to say “Diaspora Ethiopians can start things but never manage to finish them.” Regardless of the veracity of the attribution, there is a ring of truth to the proposition. Since 2005, we have read lofty declarations and heard announcements on the establishment of political and advocacy groups and organizations. We have welcomed them with fanfare but they have come and gone like the seasons.
I do not believe those who drafted the Declaration of the Congress of the Oromo Democratic Front will be visited by the Curse of Meles. The Declaration seems to be the product of an enormous amount of organizational soul-searching, discussion, debate, introspection and contemplation. The ODF has come up with an honest, practical, bold and hopeful declaration. I have some questions as do others; but the fact that questions are being raised is proof that the Declaration has considerable appeal, credibility and traction. I ask questions to engage in dialogue and discussion, not to undermine or cause doubt about the worth or value of the Declaration. To be sure, I raise questions about the Declaration in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King’s counsel: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” My questions originate from the question: “What does the Declaration do for all of our people? With sustained effort and the good will and cooperation of all stakeholders, there is no reason why new alliances cannot be created and old ones reinvigorated to move forward the struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. I am inspired by the Declaration’s commitment to wage a united struggle: “We will exert all efforts in order to pull together as many advocates and promoters of the interests of diverse social sectors as possible in order to popularize and refine the principles and processes that would transform Ethiopia into a genuinely democratic multinational federation.”
I understand “to pull together” means to stop pushing, shoving, ripping, picking and tearing each other apart. That is why I have an unshakeable faith in the proposition that “Ethiopians united — pulling together — can never be defeated by the bloody hands of tyrants!”
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: