Today: June 23, 2024


January 4, 2018

By: Yared Terfassa

In a recent posting on ZeHabesha website, Prof. Alemayehu G.  Mariam presented what he dubbed as his “provocative and thoughtful argument and analysis” of ethnic federalism. In his writing (titled “Win-Et: Understanding the Mind of the Mastermind of Ethnic Federalism,” December 25, 2017), the Professor expressed his interest to find collaborative solutions to the country’s ills, and extended a challenge to others to offer competing perspectives, ideas and views on the theory and practice of federalism. In response to such an invitation as well as out of a desire to counter the perennial veiled attack on the Oromo struggle for freedom and recognition, I will attempt to make a modest contribution here.

Federalism is an arrangement of state structure based on the belief that the entire country functions better when the federal (national) government acknowledges the states (nations, sub-groups, etc.) as separate governments, and abstains from interfering in the states’ running of their respective governments. As such, it refers to the complete set of structures at the national, state, and local level and web of complex interrelationships between them. The choice of federalism generally implies a recognition of the fact that the entire country is made of a union of separate constituent parts, i.e., states, or national groups.

Federalism has been the primary choice of state arrangement for countries with large geography and/or diverse demography. Ethiopia, being large and diverse, is thus a suitable candidate for a federal arrangement. Considering the current worrisome political crisis, ethnic conflict, and the possibility of disintegration of the country, a federal arrangement is not only deemed suitable, but it has become indispensable for co-existence.

There have been various attempts at federalizing the Ethiopian state. These attempts have, however, been frustrated to a greater degree by the existence of divergent and competing views about the whole and the parts: the Ethiopian State and the nations within it.

To appreciate these divergent views and the resultant political quagmire, it is important to distinguish between the country of Ethiopia and the Ethiopian State. Country is generally considered of comprising a land, a terrain, a people, a culture, a history, a collective self-understanding, and a network of social institutions and framed and bound together by a distinctive juridical structure of a governing body. The State is an abstraction that basically refers to the administrative core of the country.

State formation is a phenomenon of the 19th century. Prior to that, countries have existed, in one form or another, without a need for a modern state. For example, the Oromo, like all African peoples of the time, had never had a state in the modern sense, they have always had a country of their own, Biyya Oromo (Oromia). When the idea of the modern state was coming to Africa, the Oromo were for the most part governing their country under the Gadaa system of direct democracy. The formation of the Ethiopian state may have preempted the transition of the Oromo from direct democracy to republicanism.

Since the state is not itself a country, there is nothing sacrosanct about the state. Thus, one may oppose a particular state formation in the name of a country. One may also defend the formation of the state without committing to the importance of the country. And, both phenomena have been unfolding in the Ethiopian political scene for over a century now.

One manifestation of the competing views on the formation of the Ethiopian State involves narratives about the age of the state itself: millennia versus a century. Some political forces claim that the Ethiopian State has existed for three millennia. Such longevity is supposed to make the state beyond reproach or reform. Long existence is thought here as a justification for continued existence, at any cost, and accuse others of sedition. The fallacy in this argument is that one need not see the Ethiopian State to have existed for millennia to see it as worthy.

Others view the Ethiopian state as having existed for only a century. They adopt such perspective with the knowledge about the malleability of the concept of the state, and with a view to challenge the moral dangers associated with the claim of there thousand years of history – chauvinism, supremacy, jingoism, and repression. They have come to believe that Ethiopian nationalism has become a refuge for scoundrels.

Based on these competing views, the goal of state formation has been presented as a binary choice between “UNITY” and “UNION.” Unity denotes the total absorption by or assimilation of the diverse groups into one ethno-linguistic group, regardless of whether these groups desire to maintain their heritage. Union, on the other hand, signifies the formation of a federal structure/model in which diversity is recognized and interaction among the groups is promoted.

The Unity versus the Union goals of state formation are in turn associated with two competing ideologies of state formation: Nationalist and Revolutionary Democracy. The Nationalist conception of the creation of political entities presumes that the state has prior existence, and hence the various cultural or linguistic groups must give way to the state/national culture and language, whereas the central idea of Revolutionary Democracy is that a state is consisted of sovereign, citizen-people.

The Unity/Nationalist group is driven by an instinctual urge to simplify issues and dictate orders. Thus, it just wants to resolve differences of ideas or cultures, or language into sameness. The proponents of this model want “ethnic identities” to give way to “national identities.” They view the desire for ethnic recognition and self-determination as sources of prejudice and war. They want to achieve harmony and peace by moving from ethnic to national, from particular attachments to universal reason.

Indeed, there are moral universals – the sanctity of life, the dignity of the human person, the right to be free, to be no man’s slave or the object of someone’s violence. In this regard, we are all members of the universal human family. Yet, we are also members of a particular human family with its particular history and memory, which confers upon us loyalties and obligations to the members of our community.

The Unity/Nationalis approach suffers from both moral impurity and methodological crudity/cruelty. There is no culture that is morally superior to another one. Thus, the idea of a national culture entails the arbitrary choice of one at the expense of others. The question then becomes, whose ethno-linguistic traits are to be promoted to the national status? Why undermine or kill a living language? Why destroy vibrant, long-standing identity of the Oromo, the Sidama, the Wolayita, the Konso, etc.? The nationalist common response to such concerns has been that “the state comes first; the end justifies the means.”

The other fundamental question regarding the creation of a uniform culture is whether it can be achieved without inflicting shame and pain on others? In countries where the nationalist approach has taken root, dehumanization and brutalization of peoples have been employed. These countries have used totalitarianism, fascism, Nazism, socialism, capitalism, conservatism, etc. to destroy civilizations and peoples with a view to create a new, same, national identity. The fact that native peoples in the Americas and elsewhere have been decimated does not justify the continuation of the inhumane practices of state formation. It is the contention of this writer that there must be a better, peaceful, humane way to enable various peoples to live together without resorting to barbaric means.

Any attempt to impose on different groups an artificial uniformity in the name of a single “national identity” represents a tragic misunderstanding of what it takes to form a new moral order in which the peoples flourish. Because the peoples in Ethiopia are different, each people have something unique to contribute, and every contribution counts. The Ethiopian nationalists’ primordial instinct to see differences as a threat is massively dysfunctional. It is not wise to impose an artificial unity on a divinely created diversity.

The Unity/Nationalist ideology, which has been in full swing for a century, got interrupted when the TPLF came to power in 1991, and declared its adoption of Revolutionary Democracy. Revolutionary Democracy was supposed to be an alternative to the nationalist perspective on state formation.  Under a Revolutionary Democracy state, it was envisioned that the sovereignty of the various groups of people in the country would be recognized. It was propagated that recognition and self-governance would lead to a symbiotic relationship among the peoples under one political entity, Ethiopia.

TPLF’s choice of revolutionary democracy was not purely a technical exercise. Rather, TPLF and Meles had their own assumptions and interests that lead them to describe the Ethiopian problem as a “national question” and prescribe Revolutionary Democracy as a panacea. Such description and prescription has enabled TPLF to stay in power for twenty-five years; although there really are clear signs of its impending demise.

As far as Oromos are concerned, Revolutionary Democracy has slightly mitigated historical dehumanization, but doubled the physical brutalization of the people. It has resulted in the establishment of the supremacy of a minority ethnic group and the dictatorship of one party. The TPLF rule has also produced a political class who publicly pronounce their “love” of Ethiopia and unabashedly despise the peoples in Ethiopia. Consequently, revolutionary democracy has now been rejected by all.

At this juncture, it is worthwhile to say a few words about relationship between the doctrine of ethnic federalism and the principle of self-determination. Self-determination is an empirical expression of human dignity by a group in making a choice of political association and/or structure. Ethnic federalism is one of the many ways of exercising self-determination. Although there is an organic link between ethnic federalism and self-determination, the nexus is not Stalin as Prof. Alemayehu alludes. Long, long before Stalin, the principle of self-determination has been exercised as a matter of course by and in all parts of the world. Self-determination, as a politico-social concept, has existed since the formation of human societies.

The attempt to discredit and denounce peoples struggle by deliberately linking the principle of self-determination and ethnic federalism to Stalinism is intellectually disingenuous and historically wrong. What animates nations, such as the Oromo, to desire and struggle for self-determination is not the writings of Lenin, Trotsky or Stalin on the rights of nations to self-determination. The Oromos do not need the intellectual guidance of Stalin, or anyone else for that matter, when they have the brain caliber of Haile Fida, Lencho Letta, Dima Negewo, Mekuria Bulcha, or Gadaa Maleba, and many others.

Oromos are guided by a belief that the received traditions of Gadaa and Irrecha as well as the Oromo language are worth reclaiming and reproduction, a conviction that they have the inalienable right to exist as a people like everybody else, an inextinguishable desire to defend ourselves against those who wish them ill, the knowledge that diversity is a natural phenomenon, and a hope of living in peace and prosperity as a member of the human family of nations, in union with those around us who share our destiny. The struggle for recognition and democracy are part and parcel of the struggle for self-determination. Such a struggle is not aimed against another group; it is rather waged to create a new moral order.

Finally, Professor Alemayehu declares that he knows “without a doubt, ethnic federalism is the intellectual product of the evil of hate.” It is not clear to this writer whether the Professor is adopting the “evil” description to the victims and the perpetrators of the Ethiopian tragedy at the same time. Is there a moral equivalence between those struggling for dignity and those who perpetrate violence to suppress them? Is ethnic federalism really the product of the evil of hate only? Could ethnic federalism be a product of a civilized mind that rejects violence, subordination and that aspires union, and peaceful co-existence?

Who is evil? Feyisa Lelisa? Hachalu Hundesa? Ali Birra? Lense Lemesa? Seenna Solomon? Elfinesh Quenno? Jambo Jotte? Dawite Mekonnen? Abbas Gnamo? Ezekiel Gabissa?

Who is evil:

Merera Gudina? –  a political science professor who has spent his entire life for peace and equality for all peoples in Ethiopia; a fearless leader who has been in the fore front to challenge TPLF intellectually and politically inside Ethiopia?

Bekele Gerba? – a man of strong moral stance in the tradition of such Oromo leaders as Obbo Magarsa (Abuna Petros) who speak truth to power; who inspired a generation of Oromos to stand up for their dignity; a professor of literature; a staunch advocate of justice and equality?

Tadesse Biru? –  the father of Oromo nationalism who had served the Ethiopian state until it proved unwilling and unable to address the grievances of his people?

Ibsa Gutema? –  that man of iron in his soul who took the brunt of the Ethiopian state’s violence upon himself for the dignity of his nation?

Mohammed Hassen? – most gentle, history professor who has spent a life time correcting the deliberate distortions and falsification of Oromo history in Ethiopia?

Sisay Ibsa? – a selfless man who has spent his life empowering his people at home and abroad; a man who spearheaded the effort to articulate the Oromo question; a man of tremendous intellectual vigor; a proven community organizer, and political leader?

Dawud Ibsa? – the soft-spoken political leader who is the symbol of Oromo defiance in the face of the most brutal Ethiopian regime; a man would let his enemy keep him down even if they had put him in prison, tortured him, or poisoned him because he is Oromo and struggles for the Oromo?

As civilized men, these individuals realize the relative validity of their convictions, yet they stand for them unflinchingly. These individuals and million other Oromos want self-determination for the Oromo people. Millions of Oromos want ethnic federalism in which the ethno-linguistic identities of all peoples are recognized and developed.

Oromo is sacred. Oromoness began thousands of years ago in the hunger for immortality. It is sacred as over 40,000,000 Oromos live it, identify with it, find meaning and purpose in it. It is sacred because generation of Oromos are willing to fight for the revival, survival, and flourishment of their civilization.

The Ethiopian state is based on history, not some political or moral ideal. A century has now passed with debate about the content and age of this history dominating the political conflict in the country. The country has many other urgent challenges with respect to poverty, economic growth, wealth distribution, access to and quality of education, access to and quality of health care, technological development, infrastructure development, competition and security issues, and many more. It is high time that political actors move away from the debate about history and focus on the establishment of a humane, just, and democratic union.


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