Ethnocracy in the name of ethnic federalism: By Yohannes Berhe the first part of my commentaries, The future of democracy in Ethiopia, I presented some of the potential threat to the stability of our country as a result of a sudden turn of events. Further, I tried to highlight some of the pitfalls of going into an election in a context of enormous uncertainty, as new actors emerge, old elites remake themselves, and most of all in the absence of basic democratic institution that will provide checks and balances to the newly elected government as well as an instrument for rational discussion of contentious problems and settlement of different and potentially conflicting social and political interests. In my subsequent commentary I will explore further some of the hurdles potentially impeding us to move forward and some of the options that might be considered to lay the foundation for a democratic future for Ethiopia and lasting peace based on the rule of law.

Before I embark upon my topic, however, I will offer a cursory observation of the current stalemate. Dictators do not always appoint a successor. The fear of losing power to a successor is all too real for any dictator to contemplate grooming a successor, unless of course that person is a trusted kin, usually someone in the family. In fact, dictators do not allow any single person to be powerful enough to be a contender. Instead they encourage infighting among the various potential contenders. I believe the events currently unfolding in Ethiopia mirror this scenario. Despite his supporters’ accolade which sometimes verges on a pathetic cult-like drama, the late dictator Melese, whom we are lead to

believe could walk on water, did not bother to clarify the succession process -so much for his love for the country. After more than six month of his death, the unelected leadership of the country is in turmoil. The biggest obstacle is the ethnic policies. A mess of TPLF’s owns making and a legacy of its “beloved” leader.

Experience shows that almost any regime can produce short-lived results, but only governments with a sound basis of legitimacy can produce sustainable ones. In the case of Ethiopia, the fallacious and malignant ethnic policies have been enforced through brute force and wide spread bribery, therefore, it makes the current political crises virtually inevitable. The power struggles within the TPLF and the satellite organizations that form the EPRDF continue unabated.

Meanwhile, sensing a power-vacuum, the ‘dragon lady’ is at it again. Someone forgot to tell the widow of the late dictator that the prime ministership is not hereditary and the palace belongs to the nation. She is becoming too much to handle and an embarrassment to the TPLF that is desperately trying to project, at least to the donor nations, an image of normalcy. On the other hand, even though the prime minster office has now been reduced to figurehead, the appointment of Hailemariam Desalegn as the PM has been anything but a smooth one. It will be incredibly naïve to think his appointment will somehow bring about changes in the way the country is governed. In the first place, the like of Hailemarim would have never been appointed by a narcissist Melese without being carefully vetted and screened to be properly sycophantic.

In fact, the narcissist and the sycophant need each other. The narcissist is dependent on the sycophant to feed his ego. Most often, a narcissist surrounds himself with “yes men” who the narcissist sees as no threat to him. On the other hand, the sycophant derives a lot of self worth from the narcissist as the relationship with the narcissist gives the sycophant a social standing he otherwise would not have. In short, the relationship between the narcissist and sycophant is symbiotic; each feeding and dependent on the other. In the case of Hailemariam, he has so internalized a servile attitude he seems to have difficultly to shake it off even after more than six months after the death of his master, whose manner and demeanor he is trying to imitate. No wonder, even the mercurial leader of Eritrea (Issayas Afeworki) refuses to meet him. Quite shrewdly, Afeworki wants to deal with puppeteers not the puppet. For now everyone is keeping up the pretense. In fact, the latest shenanigan gives a whole new meaning to the expression “The Emperor has no clothes”.

It is a sad commentary indeed that a country that claims more than three thousand years of proud legacy has become a playground for the likes of Azeb Mesfin, a functional illiterate, to Sebhat Nega and Bereket Simon. These individuals are totally devoid of basic decency and are best known for their racist and divisive remark and their deep seated prejudice and low regard for the aspiration of the Ethiopian people. Obviously, they are not alone; in fact, an incredibly crass attitude seems to permeate the top echelon of the TPLF.

Casting off the shackles of history

Nothing has been reviewed so relentlessly over the years with so little in the way of direction or useful purpose as the issue of Ethiopian nationhood. Much has been said about the disenfranchisement of ethnic groups, their grievances; hence, the genesis of the Ethiopian problem. Various groups have adapted historical claims in the service of their political goals. The variety of these engagements with the past and the extent this process informs current public discussion and debate might conceivably warrant our attention.

However, the superfluous attention paid to these issues has become a distraction from corrosive and dehumanizing effect of poverty and luck of basic freedom. To some extent, it betrays our reluctance to accept the reality of who we are- lately, a nation of dismal distinction – and most of all our ignorance about the value of history. Which is moral; therefore, its main purpose should be to prepare us to understand the past in order to build a better future. The political conundrum we find ourselves in today is due in part to the simplistic misreading of our history. It’s this narrowly framed univocal narrative of the ‘Nation-State’ that enabled ethno-nationalists such as TPLF to dominate the political discourse.

The issue has been cited and discussed in numerous writings; therefore, I am not going to dwell too much on it here, but instead I highly recommend reading Tesfaye Demmellash’s, Toward Ethiopia’s Democratic Renewal: Dismantling Authoritarian Ethnicism, succinct and well reasoned article. His salient point (at least as far as the point I would like to emphasize) is to debunk the many versions of Ethiopian “exceptionalism” that focus on separate identity formation and heavily rely on tired and discredited Marxists argument. It is common to read history backward and assume that a particular group is destined to become dominant, but conflict is part of the historical narrative and as such unavoidable part of human experience marked by complex relations and a never ending alternation between the oppressed and oppressors.

A significant component of the walls of suspicion among us is the baggage that we carry in the form of historical narrative and particularly a deterministic notion of identity. I am not in any way suggesting we should not be unmoved by the past history of suffering and humiliation. After all, our experience and memories help to shape our identity. Only by acknowledging our historical legacy, even when it might be painful, can we come to terms with our past as a way to better understand ourselves, identify our weaknesses and strengths and build a better future.

Ethnocracy under the guise of ethnic federalism

Ethnocracy, like a racist power structure, exists to the extent it is able to rely on a naked power grab and contempt for the democratic process. The unfolding succession of events is proof that the misguided ethnic policy promoted by TPLF for the last 20 years or so did not work to unify the various nationalities, nor have they helped usher the country in new era of economic prosperity. This, despite the fact the country has received unprecedented foreign aid and the much-purported double-digit growth (Ethiopia is still ranked among the poorest even by African standard). What it did instead is create a political structure with ethnocractic features. An ethnic Tigrean elite completely controls – and occupies virtually all positions in – the judiciary, public administrative organs, the police, the armed forces and increasingly education. While Oromo and Amhara constitute a majority of the population, The Tigrean presence in all these spheres of power far exceeds their ratio within the general population.

This minority role is not only unsustainable over the long run, but also dangerous, for it creates a distinct sense of ethnic entitlement at the expense of merit and need based public administration. Marginalized political groups develop an ethno-nationalist discourse as opposed to democratic governance, arguing that their exclusion violates the principle of ethnic representation as outlined by TPLF’s own ethnic policy. The biggest challenge facing the future of democracy in Ethiopia is indeed this notion of ethnic entitlement. One can only hope this troubling form of identity politics has not yet become deeply entrenched to the point where a new order based on democratic norms will not be able to fill the crack created by ethnic schism and the related deficit of trust among us.

Conceptual and empirical flows of ethnic federalism

In a democracy we choose the representatives who will make the laws and policies that govern how we live together. The current ethnic policy is not only an act of tyranny of the highest order, but is a nullity due to the illegitimacy of the TPLF/EPRDF regime. That being said, here are some of the conceptual and empirical flows demonstrating how the policy has been fraudulent from the very outset:

First, the notion of singular identity is flimsy at best (see my commentary The fallacy of identity politics). Take for example someone who was born in Addis Ababa (a cosmopolitan city by all account) whose parents came from two distinct ethnic heritages – say Tigre and Oromo- and yet the only language s/he has spoken is Amharic. Which ethnic group this person ought to be “assigned”? What if by virtue of his/her upbringing and the multicultural environment of his/her surroundings s/he does not feel allegiance to any of his/her parent’s ethnic heritage?

The issue could be complicated even more if we add to the mix the unavoidable dynamics of intermarriage with other group that constitute the Ethiopian cultural mosaic. I can go on with other complex scenarios, but there is no need to press the point further, for only in the context of democracy that the questions of choice arises. A person’s identity cannot be given to them instead a person must achieve a sense of identity through personal experience and self search-as a result of his/her cultural heritage and current surroundings. Above all one can bear allegiance to multiple identities at any one time.

Second, with more than 80 ethnolinguistic groups it is an insurmountable task to come up with a self-governing political arrangement that will satisfy everyone. Furthermore, sine the ultimate goal of political empowerment is to shape a favorable resource allocation, in poor countries such as Ethiopia that cannot accommodate such demands through redistribution, it is inevitable that a spiral of escalations might be set in motion leading to various levels and forms of violence. Violent conflict has already occurred in many parts of the country. Also, since it is difficult to sustain the ideology of ethnic entitlement in the context of a multiethnic country, the introduction of ethnic based political arrangement has resulted in gross human rights violations by the TPLF/EPRDF acting as enforcer of the “ethnic rules”. In some cases, the tension among various nationalities is deliberately concocted by the cadres of the ruling party in order to counterbalance the threat from the major ethnic groups -Oromo and Amhara which constitute more 60 percent of the total population of the country.

Third, ethnic entitlement has always hinged on elite interest. The elite, which claim exclusive right to represent the ethnic group has a vested interest in exaggerating difference for self-seeking benefit. In addition, a culture of entitlement breeds incompetency by giving more weight to loyalty than to merit. There is also a more insidious reason why the ascendancy of ethnic elites has been actively encouraged by the regime. Most of these individuals are not only steeped in corruption, but also they are involved in gross human rights violations; hence, they are alienated from their own constituencies. As a result, they are easily susceptible to the TPLF’s manipulation and coercion. Mismanagement and human rights abuse by regional as well as local leaders have been used as a bargaining mechanism for the ruling TPLF/EPRDF to secure the allegiance of the regional and local elites. This is as true in Tigray as is in Wellega or any other part of Ethiopia – this writer refuses to acknowledge the ethnic nomenclature imposed on the nation.

Fourth, as we have seen above, the so called “ethnic federalism” has been nothing, but the biggest fraud in Ethiopian history. Although the TPLF has been the main proponent of ethnic policy, is not genuinely committed to devolving power from the center to the region or “kilil” as they are called. In terms of ethnic entitlement, the Tigrayan ethnic group accounts approximately for 5 percent of the total population of Ethiopia, therefore in accordance with its own ethnic entitlement formula, TPLF’s (which claims to represent the province of Tigray) share in the federal government should have been proportional to its population share.

As we all know, however, this is not case. In fact, if the ethnic policy was genuinely applied, TPLF would have been the main “looser” while the Amhara and Oromo would have been the relative beneficiaries. This apparent inconsistency laid bare the TPLF’s trickery and cynical ploy to divide the country along ethnic line for the sole purpose of maintaining its hegemony. That being said, while the initial focus of TPLF is mostly establishing an ethnic hegemony, now is increasingly about accumulating personal wealth through corruption and outright theft of the country’s resources– through plenty of phony transaction and criminal activity thrown in (Ethiopia Central Bank Buys Fake Gold).

Finally, minority ethnic rulers can only rely upon a narrow circle of kin or ethnic acquaintances, further reducing their legitimacy in the eyes of the majority and enhancing their need to rely on “their own” people. And so, ever smaller and more closely-knit groups assert themselves. By this I am not in any way suggesting that all Tigreans are the beneficiary of TPLF’s largesse. In fact one of the insidious tactics used by the regime is to use a combination of threat and bribe to subjugate individuals from all walks of life to do their dirty work for them. In the face of fear and insecurity, the prime motive for anyone to ally with the regime may be mere survival. This is especially apparent in dictatorships and authoritarian states when most of the population has been fed propaganda and triumphalism and has been kept in the dark about important turns of events.

These – sometimes unwitting accomplices might belong to any ethnic group, so much so that it’s becoming common to refer to them derogatively as wayane-amhara, wayane-oromo, etc. The main point I would like to emphasize here is that, barring any crime committed in the name of identity, any real or perceived benefit enjoyed by any group at the expense of any other is the symptoms not the cause of the national problem. The underlying problem is the lack of good governance and the absence of enabling factors: accountability, social justice, transparency and rule of law.

Focusing on transient issue of favoritism will only serve to provoke and divert attention from the real struggle that is being waged, and to emasculate our resolve to build a just society. Inequality and human rights violation cannot be understood properly without exploring the lack of accountability in governance and without first acknowledging our personhood. Indeed, minority groups are a natural ally for a political order that guarantees individual rights, of which group right is the inevitable corollary.

The writer, Yohannes Berhe, is based in Ottawa, Canada. He can be reached at


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