Abiy Ahmed must learn from the failed Ethio-Eritrean federation

By Bizuneh Getachew Yimenu

Posted on Tuesday, 14 July 2020 12:30
Ethiopian Army Generals carry the flag-draped coffin of Ethiopian Army Chief of Staff, Seare Mekonnen who was killed by his bodyguard, during his funeral ceremony in Mekele
Ethiopian Army Generals carry the flag-draped coffin of Ethiopian Army Chief of Staff, Seare Mekonnen who was killed by his bodyguard, during his funeral ceremony in Mekele, Tigray Region, Ethiopia June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

It appears that our political elites have forgotten that once upon a time there was the Ethio-Eritrean federation. A decade-long arrangement that culminated in Emperor Haile Selassie’s November 1962 annexation of Eritrea.

History teaches us that the federation failed because the emperor extended Addis Ababa’s power beyond what the federation charter prescribed. Eritreans did not sit and watch the development. Instead, they fought hard and long against two regimes to achieve self-determination, which finally produced the independent state of Eritrea in 1993.

The Eritrean case offers a vital lesson and one that must be heeded now more than ever by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government.

The escalating confrontation between Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the governing party in Tigray, and the federal government is worrisome. The confrontation has gone beyond being entertaining political discourse. Nowadays, the TPLF leadership is routinely disregarding federal decisions.

The resignation of Keria Ibrahim, a member of TPLF’s politburo, as speaker of the House of Federation is just the latest indication of the widening gap. The speaker resigned mentioning that ‘‘the constitutional interpretation option pursued to salvaging constitutional crisis was not constitutional’’.

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The TPLF has been doing almost everything in its domain, including using regional state-controlled media and sponsored political parties known as the “federalist forces”, to accuse the federal government of all the problems in the country; problems partly created by TPLF itself. The party accuses the federal government of purging them from shared rule by dissolving the former ruling coalition against its wishes. The central government, in turn, uses government-controlled media for propaganda purposes against TPLF.

The central government is disregarding TPLF’s complaints that its officials were unfairly removed from federal government posts and that Tigrayan businesses and individuals are being targeted. Above all, TPLF officials complain that Abiy’s administration is threatening the constitution. And the electoral board’s statement [on 24 June] that Tigray has no legal right to run a regional election will only have strengthened that belief.

In these times, TPLF is acting as a guardian of multinational federalism, although critics argue that TPLF highly centralized power—thus restricting regional government’s actual room to maneuver—in pursuit of ‘revolutionary democracy’ while it was the pre-eminent political power from 1991 to 2018.

Despite those critics, TPLF’s complaints, whether justified or not, deserve to be heard. Recent developments contradict the spirit of federalism in general and the Ethiopian constitution in particular. The contradiction is that federalism involves the coordination and cooperation of two-tier governments in the formulation and execution of policy.

Similarly, the creation of one economic community envisioned in the preamble of the constitution requires a compromise between the competing demands of self-rule and shared rule. Confrontation and lack of cooperation will generate policy deadlock, resulting in further conflicts and problems.

Full plate

And right now, Abiy’s administration already has enough political problems in other regions. Parts of Oromia are almost a war zone. Amhara has been unstable since the demonstrations that erupted in the region following Oromo protest and particularly after the alleged ‘‘attempted regional coup’’.

The demands of dozens of ethnic zones for regional statehood in the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR) are yet to be addressed, and are likely to become louder now that power has finally been handed over to the new Sidama region. The Somali region, as ever, is volatile. Dormant Sheger’s problem waits to erupt.

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The general election has been suspended  and the consequence of the federal government’s attempt to legitimize it through constitutional interpretation is yet to be seen.  The outcome of the House of Federation’s decision has not been accepted by opposition parties such as Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). Although, the actual impact of the house’s decision and the final stand of the opposition is yet to be seen.

On top of this, COVID-19 is negatively affecting an already troubled country. The state of emergency declared to mitigate the pandemic has restricted political activities. Prime Minister Abiy should not use it to consolidate power at the centre. He should instead use the opportunity to capitalize on it to conduct a genuine dialog with stakeholders.

Political dialog is particularly important with federalist groups that have a legitimate concern about regional autonomy and the future of multinational federalism. These entities’ claims are legitimate when we consider the rhetoric and action of Abiy’s administration.

For instance, the premier has been under fire for his repeated statements were a blessing for the ‘‘Pan-Ethiopianist’’ that are known for demonizing the current federal structure, and for building imperial monuments in the national palace.

The dissolution of EPRDF and other regional parties to create Prosperity Party (PP), which effectively means appointments of key regional posts are made by Abiy, weakens the autonomy of state governments. This has created a legitimate concern of relapse into a de facto unitary state by undermining federalism.

Forming a unified party may not disturb the system in pluralistic federations, but in Ethiopia, party and the state have never been separated. The party structure overshadows the constitution to direct the day-to-day functions of the government.

On the other hand, the formation of PP coincided with deep-rooted ethnic cleavages, and key demands of ethnonational groups for genuine federalism are unresolved. This was the main reason Lemma Megerssa mentioned when he announced that he doesn’t support the dissolution of regional parties. Indeed, it was a popular demand for democratic federalism that brought Abiy to power, not for a shift to centralised federalism.

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Dismissing these groups displays an ignorance of the history of Ethiopian state-building that has been largely shaped by the struggle between centralist and federalist forces that believe in the multinational federal arrangement, including TPLF. The ongoing confrontation between Tigray and the federal government should be seen in the context of the constitution.

It is not “only the federal government that is sovereign” as Abiy said on 10 April, addressing members of the parliament during the endorsement of the five-month state of emergency declared to curb COVID-19. Regional states also have sovereign power over residual matters as stipulated under Article 52(1) of the constitution. According to Article 50, both tiers of government should respect each other’s power and avoid interference in the jurisdiction of the other.

The two pillars of federalism, self-rule and shared-rule, should guide the day-to-day functions of the two-tier governing system. On the other hand, secession is not as easy as Debretsion Gebremichael, acting president of the Tigray, vowed in the speech he made to the TPLF supporters gathered to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the party’s establishment.

Both the federal government and TPLF are engaged in destructive politics. It is important to remember that the Derg regime similarly dismissed the claims of Eritrea while the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front refused to recognize Derg’s authority.

A huge price was paid due to the resulting protracted civil war. There is no guarantee that we are not heading in the same direction as a result of the confrontation between Tigray and federal authorities.

PP, through its Tigray branch, is trying to mobilise the Tigray youth to mount sustained protests, so-called ‘‘Fenqil’’, in Tigray.  The protest have been given generous coverage by the federal government-controlled media and encouraged by the Tigray branch of PP that vowed TPLF will not have power in the region after October 2020.

This could be a precursor to using the protest as an excuse to bring the region under the federal control by use of the federal intervention proclamation.

However, considering the history of the TPLF, a party formed to realise an independent state of Tigray with a great passion for self-rule, and the relatively strong bond between the TPLF and the Tigray people, not to mention the region’s relative strength in the security sphere, this tactic may not work, at least for the time being, as Tigray would be likely to forcefully resist federal intervention.

As an alternative, it seems Abiy’s administration is possibly waiting for the right time to carry out an operation similar to the one in Somali region to remove Abdi Mohamoud Omar (aka ‘Abdi Iley’). But it will be much harder to execute such an operation in Tigray. Even if it is possible, that would not be the end of the story because a change imposed externally has a little chance of success. If change has to come in Tigray, Tigray’s population must be the main agent, not the federal government.

Same act, different actors

In the 1950s, Emperor Haile Selassie and his supporters worked hard to eliminate any traces of demands for self-rule in Eritrea and, to that end, they harassed the leaders of the independence movement, a similar act to what Ethiopia’s federal government is currently doing. Furthermore, the Emperor forged a collaboration with unionist allies in Eritrea and suppressed attempts to form autonomous Eritrean organizations, which is analogous with the current encouragement Tigray opposition parties are getting.

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Haile Selassie’s administration put pressure on the Eritreans to renounce autonomy. Besides, when the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) started the armed struggle, the central authorities described the movement as an Arab tool. The Eritrean nationalist forces and the Ethiopian government believed strongly in the justness of their causes. Tigray and federal government officials hold the same views. Finally, on 14 November 1962, Ethiopian troops forced the Eritrean parliament to dissolve.

On 13 June the head of the Prime Minister’s Office Press Secretariat, Nigusu Tilahun, stated that the federal government would enforce the decision made by the National Electoral Board  to postpone elections. The spokesman implies that the federal government would take military measure to stop the Tigray elections. Time will reveal if the Abiy administration tries to dissolve the Tigray State Council and so repeats the same mistake as Haile Selassie.

Still, it is by no means all one-way traffic. TPLF is currently antagonizing the central power by making decisions, such as vowing to conduct elections at the regional level that disregard Abiy administration’s decision to postpone polls due to the pandemic.  There is no clearcut justification to conduct elections in Tigray if they are not going to be conducted in other Ethiopian regions.

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Though election at the regional level can be defensible in light of the rights to self-rule, such a move is problematic as it can worsen the existing hostility. The Tigrayan people have a constitutional right to exercise self-rule by electing its government, but elections should not be used for political confrontation. Furthermore, it can also put people’s health at risk due to the increased chances of COVID-19 transmission.

It would neither resolve the inherent problem between TPLF and Abiy’s administration nor will it make TPLF a legitimate government in Tigray—especially in the eyes of the central government and other actors in the federation. The Tigray people, particularly the youth, at some point will get tired of TPLF’s egotistical actions. Abiy may also reach the limit of seeing his authority disregarded by TPLF. Both ways only lead to violent conflict, which the Ethiopian people cannot afford.

Dialog, compromise, cooperation

A civilised way of resolving power struggles should emerge sooner rather than later in order to avoid the escalation of rhetorical hostilities into armed confrontation. Similar, but smaller magnitude rhetoric hostility existed preceding the era of conflict between Eritrea’s administration and Ethiopia.

TPLF needs to reconsider its stand of shielding suspects and cooperate with the center to hand over its top officials, such as Getachew Assefa. However, prosecutions should not be used to try and defeat opponents. If Abiy is serious about ensuring accountability, his eyes should look beyond Tigray.

There are some demands, such as assigning the TPLF officials to top federal posts, that the Abiy administration is not willing to concede to. However, this does not mean that the two parties cannot negotiate and compromise. TPLF can rule the region it still dominates and at the same time cooperate with the centre as per the spirit of the federal system.

The Ethiopian federation can cater for such a situation. Disputes between regional and federal ruling parties are common in other federations, but do not commonly result in violence. Unlike democracies like the U.S. or Germany, the Ethiopian federal experiment has never been democratic and constitutionalism is not a norm.

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Ethiopia also lacks a neutral federal umpire to resolve conflicts between states and the federal government, and there is no impartial and empowered judiciary to hold officials accountable.

The current trajectory offers fertile ground for conflict between the federal government and Tigray. Ethiopia should learn critical lessons from other federations, or at least from the failed Ethio-Eritrea federation. One important lesson the federal government should learn is that a forced union through unilateral action of the centre cannot be sustained.

Overall, basic interventions in the administration of Eritrea destroyed the constitutional division of powers and the federal spirit. The upshot is that federalism requires negotiation and cooperation of the federal and constituent units rather than destructive unilateral actions. Above all, respect for the constitutional division of powers is the glue that holds a federation together.

This article was first published on Ethiopia Insight.

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