By Teshome M. Borago | Zehabesha Columnist
Over 20 months after Dr. Abiy became Ethiopian Prime Minister, nobody would believe that the two key issues that inspired the popular #OromoProtests and #AmharaProtests would remain unanswered today. Namely, Amhara’s Welkait quest has been defeated by Tigray while Oromo claims on Addis Ababa (Finfinne) have been nullified by the city’s urban residents led by activist Eskinder Nega. Both cases were a test to the limits of Meles Zenawi’s brainchild “ethnic-federalism” (Zenawism) system, and it failed so far.
Those of us who understood the dangers of “ethnic-federalism” and its limits, already knew Zenawism is doomed to fail without urgent intervention. However, despite opposition from protest leader Jawar Mohammed, Dr. Abiy’s new project Prosperity Party (PP) may finally answer those questions and might actually save ethnic-federalism from itself: by reforming its application.
What happened since 2018
For two decades, ethnic-federalism (multinational-federalism) was on paper (constitution) but not all Ethiopian groups received its “benefits,” because the flawed system was doomed to result in overlapping benefits, a recipe for civil war. The vanguard ruling TPLF/EPRDF party brutally kept a lid on this potential volcano, until 2018. With loosening of the state security apparatus following the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam, ethnic militias in the tribal states (particularly Benshangul, Amhara and Oromia states) began ethnic cleansing to homogenize….leading to historical levels of mass displacements and massacres in every corner of Ethiopia. Meanwhile, several small stateless tribal groups in the southern SNNPR demanded their own “state” status to join the other states already carving a segregated ethnic homeland. Abiy’s new administration kept a blind eye to the spiraling bloodshed; hoping to avoid criminalizing opposition or avoid narrowing the political space before the 2020 elections. So the savage killings and displacements in 2018 continued into 2019. From Burayu massacre, to Gedeo, Hawassa, Wolega, Kamashi, Sitti and many isolated xenophobic killings nationwide, the goal was clear: to murder or displace as many minorities as possible.
No matter how gruesome their tactics were, ethnic elites still failed to homogenize the numerous towns nationwide, and this is a bottleneck dilemma facing ethnic-federalism and its defenders. Without creating a homogeneous urban center, having a homogenous rural is pointless for many regional states of Ethiopia. And ethnic federalism in its raw form can not succeed in any state without a homogeneous society inside its boundaries. And that is where questions like the case of Addis Ababa come to the picture. These big cases is where ethnic-federalism has no answers.
After Abiy’s boundary commission was rejected by TPLF, it was expected that the commission and his administration will find excuses to deny Amhara claims on Welkait and it did. Similarly, the Oromo claims on Addis Ababa ownership has virtually become a lost cause. The only step left now is to make this loss permanent by removing Abiy’s Oromo party (and Mayor Takele Uma) out of Addis Ababa completely via a free election.
This final nail on the coffin of the concept of Finfinne as Oromo property was a foregone conclusion, until ofcourse Abiy reformed his Oromo party into a pan-Ethiopian one. This crucial Abiy strategy might partially save the Finfinne cause and thus save Oromia from self-destruction or violence. To succeed, Abiy must do electoral reform and remove the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system if his party wants any chance of getting a seat inside Addis Ababa.
Essentially, thanks to Abiy, Oromo nationalists of PP might win a small percentage of seats inside Addis Ababa, and settle for that instead of reaching for the whole pie and get not a single slice.
But if we follow this formula, it means many towns through out Oromia region will be shared (co-administered) by Amhara and Ethiopianist opposition parties like EZEMA as well; just like some areas of Amhara region (I.e south Wollo) will be co-administered by Oromos. Such a major reform to ethnic-federalism might save it from total collapse. For supporters of ethnic-federalism, letting minorities self-govern might be the only way to save the whole project of ethnic federalism from self-destruction.
As the chart illustration above shows, as of now, ethnic federalism has failed to guarantee autonomy and self-determination for small ethnicities residing inside the big ones. If ethnic-federalists want to keep a raw version of the system, then they must guarantee that all ethnicities self-administer: either by rewarding multiple “zone status” to minority tribes located inside big ones; or by redrawing the maps. Gradually, they must adopt the platform of Abiy’s Prosperity Party, which essentially keeps the current ethnic boundaries “as is,” but electorally liberalizes each regional state internally away from one ethnic monopoly.
The big spoiler here is TPLF and Tigray, who are crying about saving the old ethnic federalism empire in its raw form. A few weeks ago, they organized an ethnic-federalism forum in Mekele. They are doing this to defame Abiy as anti-federalism and, bluntly, because Tigray can actually afford to keep the status quo. That is, outer states like Tigray can afford to maintain ethnic-federalism in its raw form because their states are already homogeneous; particularly the most important parts of Tigray state (the center) are not disputed. So TPLF is basically dumbing down the conversation on federalism, as Tigray is playing checkers while the rest of the middle country is playing chess. This is because the “problems” of heterogeneous society in Ethiopia exist at its geographical center; particularly in and around the former province of Shewa. Due to major historical events like 1800s Menelik’s conquests, 15-18th century Oromo western/northern expansion and 1500s Somali conquests during Gragn Ahmed, all Ethiopian ethnolinguistic (and religious) fault lines and complexities meet at or near the Shewan & Wollo provinces. These central regions is where ethnic-federalism faces an existential threat because identities overlap.
In contrast, Tigray state existed long before TPLF introduced ethnic-federalism so Ethiopians should never consider the case of Tigray as a legitimate example whenever evaluating or debating on types of federalism. Ethiopians must understand that a single federalism formula does not work the same in every part of the country.
In summary, what Abiy’s Prosperity Party is offering is a “Third way” out of this mess of ethnic federalism, by keeping the federal structure “as is” on the map but laying the electoral groundwork for all residents of the ethnic states to be equally represented internally. For example, an Oromo MP (or party) from Kemise town of Amhara state will have as much political authority as an Amhara MP from Lalibela town of Amhara state; both in the state’s local council in Bahir Dar and as representative of Amhara state in the federal government in Addis Ababa. Similarly, a town like Moyale can have both Somali and Oromo representatives; or for instance, in Bishoftu and Adama cities a multiethnic or Amhara mayor can be vote in, or any Ethiopian for that matter. In fact, such a reform can eventually lead to elections, in some parts of the country, where one’s ethnic identity is not even part of the equation. In essence, this creates mini-Ethiopias inside every state, despite the states being named after a single ethnic group.
This Abiy’s “Third way” might become the bridge between Ethiopian-nationalists and ethnic-nationalists.
This ideology is contrasted by the right-wing ideology of Ezema and other Ethiopianist parties that believe Ethiopia should not have any ethnic based regions (or tribal-labels) at all. On the other side of the spectrum is the left-wing ideology of TPLF and the Jawar Mohammeds from every state who want complete Tigrayan rule inside Tigray; complete Oromo rule inside Oromia, complete Sidama control in Sidama state etcetera. If the 2005 election results are any indication, the right-wing camp would easily win the 2020 election in a free & fair modern election where ideas matter over identity. But that is not where Ethiopia is currently.
By Abiy presenting his new political party as the middle-ground compromise between the two right-wing and left-wing polar opposite camps; he is hoping to gain the best of both worlds. However, if he is not careful, he might end up losing from both sides and come up empty handed. And that is the danger. Particularly in this age of tribal social media and group think, where communities have filtered bubbles of information and where they only listen to their own ethnic eco chambers, a democratic and fair competition based on the politics of idea may be overshadowed by emotional and tribal instincts. Let alone in Ethiopia, even developed western societies are suffering from this phenomenon. In Ethiopia, the more right-wing a group, the harder it gets to express and pass its ideological message due to high societal illiteracy levels and the power of identity politics over ideas. To balance the playing field, the Ethiopian government must protect opposition parties outside the cities, give equal coverage on state media and must allow free debates & campaigns nationwide well before the May elections. So far it has failed. If the 90% result in Hawassa town during the Sidama Referendum is any indication, if officials continue to abuse state resources, another 99% sham election is possible in the regional towns.
For the sake of peace, Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia need to help the country build institutional capacity and facilitate a democratic election. If all three camps do not gain fair representation in the post-election Ethiopian parliament, stability can not be guaranteed, let alone prosperity.