July 7, 2012 (The Himalayan) – Detractors of ethnic federalism in this country claim that it will take the country down a slippery path towards strife and possibly even disintegration. Supporters claim that it is necessary to bring previously marginalized communities into the mainstream. No one can predict the future, but it is wise to have a look at the international context to see how the experience has been so far. Ethiopia, an Eastern African country, offers plenty of opportunity in this regard. This former unitary state has now whole heartedly gone down the path of ethnic federalism. What have been the results?
The relevant modern history of Ethiopia starts in 1974 when Emperor Haile Selaisse was ousted and a communist government took its place. After much upheaval, this period ended in 1991 with the overthrow of Mengitsu Haile Mariam. Eritria, a restive province, declared its independence and separated in 1991. A new constitution was written in 1994 and following this, Meles Zenawi came to power in 1995 and has remained the head of his country ever since. In the last legislative elections, the coalition he heads, The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), of which his own party, The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is by far the largest component, obtained over 99 per cent of the vote. With a history that goes back almost 4000 years, Ethiopia is culturally rich. The country is also culturally diverse. Although three main groups make up more than 70 per cent of the population, Ethiopia is home to almost 90 different ethno-linguistic groups. The Oromo, the largest ethnic group, contains, between 30 to 40 per cent of the country’s population. The heterogeneous nature of Ethiopian society, and its past unitary state status makes comparisons with Nepal logical. The International Crisis Group issued a report in 2009 entitled Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism and its Discontents that was quite critical of the country’s current political structure. It argued that despite the nomenclature used, Ethiopia was far from being a true federation and rather that much power was centralized. Another study by Edmund J. Keller of the University of California, Los Angeles, concluded that Ethiopia is characterized by ‘limited autonomous decision making below the regional state level’ and a ‘great deal’ of central control making the country a ‘pseudo-democracy’ in reality.
Thus, all the progress and equality that ethnic federalism was supposed to have brought about appears not to have happened in reality. Breaking down the old unitary state was supposed to have led to a greater appreciation for inter ethnic differences, but, according to the ICG paper, in many cases just the opposite has happened. Very large ethnic groups like the Oromo have felt inadequately represented in the new system and continue to wage small scale violent attacks against the state. In fact, the ICG report suggests that this discontent among the Oromo could prove to be fatal to the Ethiopian state. Oromos may think that if they are not given more freedoms that the present government is no less oppressive than the ones in the past and may even decide to secede as the Eritrians did. Because Oromos are such a large fraction of the population, their secession would have enormous consequences. The irony is that Oromos have gained many more opportunities and rights under the present regime than they did in the past. Yet, many ethnic Oromo do not seem to be particularly grateful to the present government, and they argue that the few rights they are enjoying now are a result of the sacrifices made by their own indigenous movements such as the Oromo Liberation Front, which was started in 1974 (and which is now outlawed).
The EPRDF is dismissive of such claims, arguing that it alone brought ethnic consciousness among the people. Yet, it wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to take the moral high ground by declaring that it alone has given Ethiopia’s marginalized ethnic groups freedom and rights, and yet it does not want to give away real power to the federal units. Is this viable? Democratic countries, working ostensibly towards democratic ideals cannot hope to align themselves with autocrats for too long and still be thought of as being morally upright. Sooner or later, Meles will either be asked to reform himself or be discarded. In that case, Ethiopia will face many more difficulties trying to control secessionist movements.
Thus, Ethiopia’s case demonstrates that ethnic federalism, if not coupled with real autonomy and reforms can be seen by ethnic groups as only a token acceptance of their sovereignty. In that case, they may decide that only full independence can guarantee their rights. The Maoists’ understanding of ethnic independence seems to echo, in many ways that of the EPRDF (which itself is said to have a Stalinist understanding of ‘nationalities’ as they are ‘former’ communists). That is, the Maoists seem to want to give the various ethnic groups a few rights of self determination, while keeping most of the power at the center. But as ethnic groups in Nepal appear to have internalized their original identities even more strongly than in Ethiopia, it seems that the Maoists can no more control these movements as they could in the past.