An overly simplistic narrative of the past three decades is that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) taught Ethiopian nations and nationalities to express their political consciousness.
However, calls for ethnic justice were at the heart of the 1960’s Ethiopian Student Movement, years before TPLF’s founding. In particular, it was Wallelign Mekonenn’s article ‘On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia,’ published in the student movement’s journal Struggle in November 1969, that brought ethnic politics to the centre.
But, even before that, ethnicity has been a common way of identifying Ethiopians. For example, in 1956, the Ethiopian representative at a student debate on prejudice was introduced by the interviewer as “Amhara by race.”
The Oromo Liberation Front, formed out of a self-aware Oromo nationalist movement, was established in the early 1970s. It wasn’t until 1975 that the Tigrayan nationalist party, later known as the TPLF, was formed.
Hence, blaming the rise of self-determination movements rooted in ethnonationalism solely on TPLF is at best a sign of ill-informed analysis, and at worst a sign of underlying prejudice.
At the same time, the way TPLF tried to resolve the age-old questions of nations and nationalities in Ethiopia can be criticised severely. Over 27 years, so many of the social aspects which are essential for nation-building were neglected or attacked for the sake of consolidating power over contenders. Now, we have come to the point where division along ethnic lines is causing the country to unravel at its seams.
There is an immense effort needed to strengthen social relations across all groups in Ethiopia. This can only be achieved through processes that nurture trust – especially in institutions that are supposed to maintain law and order.
While ethnic federalism has been one way to address issues of ethnic justice and rights, we have also experienced its destabilising effects. Therefore, alternative ways for imagining Ethiopia’s political organisation are necessary.
Indeed, there should be gradual steps away from the current federal system. But this requires serious and concerted attention to resolve the conflicts that have been created by an imagined juxtaposition between two visions of Ethiopianism – roughly, ‘unified, one Ethiopia’ and ‘multinational Ethiopia.’
There are two core political questions in Ethiopia today: one is the quest for real self-determination by nations and nationalities, and the other is the quest for strengthening national identity. Although these may appear conflicting, they shouldn’t be seen as such.
Currently, the ‘One Ethiopia’ camp is pulling apart threads at the opposite end of the political spectrum. This group consists mostly of Amhara elites and other Amharic-speaking urban Ethiopians who are from mixed backgrounds. People clustered around this pole have been listening to a specific narration of Ethiopian identity that they keep dearly to their hearts.
This ‘One Ethiopia’ group poses an existential threat to the country as long as it continues to force a one-sided Ethiopian identity narration. In a country so diverse, one cannot expect any unanimous adoption of historical narratives. It is only natural to have a multifaceted understanding of historical events.
For example, with regards to the legacy of Emperor Menelik II, the victory of Adwa, and atrocities committed during the military campaign to the south, public discussions, debate, and further study are essential. There is no reason why opening up the historical conversation and widening the narrative should be an obstacle to nation-building.
Dealing with conflicting narratives and nation-building requires wise leadership: leadership that is willing and competent to conduct an all-inclusive national dialogue to try and reconcile competing versions of nationalism.
Tragically, the current leadership in Addis is chaotic and is increasingly becoming a liability. Abiy seems inclined to respond to the question of national identity with his philosophy of ‘Medemer’ (the philosophy that everything makes sense when seen in its holistic nature), which critics rightly note lacks depth and clarity.
Abiy also responded to the dilemma through his actions during the reformation processes of the ruling party. What was initially presented as a process of democratisation ended up as a repressive process where dissenting voices on the side of self-determination were squashed.
The activists, politicians, and political parties who have vocally defended and fought for the rights of nations and nationalities have been effectively dismantled and jailed. This represents a miscarriage of the process for consensus-based reform that began in 2018.
The current leadership and its Ethiopianist supporters hope the upcoming election will be a source of legitimacy for implementing the vision they have for the country. However, the signals we see within the regional and federal governments are distressing indicators of what is to come.
For example, in the last parliamentary session, Oromia Prosperity Party representatives openly accused Amhara security forces of conducting ethnic cleansing on Oromo people in North Shewa. Meanwhile, the narrative of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Tigray has taken hold in international media, damaging Ethiopia on the world stage, and possibly even threatening our ability to receive necessary aid in a time of serious and widespread economic hardship.
Considering the raging war in Tigray, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) insurgency in Oromia, growing land disputes and communal conflicts elsewhere, and the increasing division within the ruling party, this next election could collapse the state as we know it.
Yet, rather than working towards viable solutions, people in positions of power such as Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonen call for arming civilians. This prepares a fertile ground for a civil war.
Given all these factors, the installation of a transitional technocratic government with a clear mandate can avert imminent disintegration.
The Prime Minister, his party, and the federal government have a central role in this process. They must recognise the multifaceted problems that could lead to total state collapse and initiate the path towards the formation of a transitional government.
Indeed, by abdicating some power for the sake of necessary national stability, Abiy and his government would demonstrate wise and humble leadership that would show Ethiopians that they are worthy of managing the exceptional needs of our country at this time.
The technocratic government can be established with ministerial cabinets formed by independent and non-partisan experts from different fields and backgrounds. The experts must not belong to any political party and should be citizens widely respected by society.
The transitional authority should be established both regionally as well as nationally. Moreover, for the solution to properly work, military power must be consolidated.
While the transitional technocratic government focuses on ensuring stability in the country, the Prosperity Party, as well as other political parties, can prepare to compete in a fair and democratic election. The vote would take place once some basic degree of national stability has been achieved. Now, however, is not that time.
Below is a bold, nine-point action plan that outlines national priorities and suggests solutions to address the crisis we face. The legalities and practicalities of the action points below – including establishing a transitional technocratic government – should be assessed and elaborated on by experts before the situation worsens.
- Postpone the upcoming election and establish a transitional technocratic government that can prepare the ground for a free and fair election. This is absolutely crucial in order to avoid unimaginable conflict. The lifespan of the technocratic transitional government shall be a maximum of three years.
- Assimilate all regional forces under the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) as soon as possible after passing a decree through the House of Federation. Conduct reform and capacity-building processes to strengthen unity within ENDF and allegiance to the constitution.
- Remove Eritrean and regional forces from Tigray. Given the state of the conflict and the role that various forces, including ENDF, have played in perpetuating targeted violence against civilians, it would be best to allow an international peacekeeping army to establish order in the region. Nonpartisan international peacekeepers would need to disarm or integrate Tigray Defence Forces into regional or national security forces.
- Establish a technocratic transitional government in Tigray. As with the representatives in other regions, this temporary government should consist of well-respected and widely accepted members of society who can build consensus and work towards reconciliation.
- Release Oromo political prisoners, including Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba, and their allies. Then, initiate a peace and reconciliation process in Oromia, providing a path for the OLA to reintegrate with regional or national security forces. The Oromia region shall also install a transitional technocratic government.
- Complete similar peace and reconciliation process in Amhara and other regions with all opposition parties involved. Similarly, install regional transitional technocratic governments.
- Start the process of national reconciliation and dialogue, which should include every region and representatives from all sectors of society. This process is necessary to establish a clear vision for Ethiopian nationalism and national identity. The process should be rooted in the principles laid out in the constitution, which should be respected by all until it is amended. Importantly, attempts to amend or change the constitution should not begin before a free and fair election is conducted.
- Take appropriate measures to institutionalise and formalise the peace deal with Eritrea and nurture appropriate economic and political relationships. Integration with our neighbours, including Eritrea, should be based on the principles of mutual economic interests and development as well as a commitment to human rights and democratisation. The Eritrean government should stay away from the internal matters of Ethiopia, and a healthy distance between the politics of Asmara and Addis Ababa should be maintained.
- Negotiate a realistic and honest deal with Egypt and Sudan regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Hire neutral expert consultants whose assessments are accepted by all three countries. This third-party monitoring organisation can conduct appropriate follow-up throughout the filling process of the dam and specify data exchange requirements.
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