From Unitary to Federalism, from Irredentism to Genocide: Ethiopia’s Perpetual Mistakes and Self-Inflicting Wounds

By Zemelak Tesfaye

For those who follow the Amhara version of Ethiopian history, Ethiopia is a solid political state united by the ideologies of “greater Ethiopia” anchored around a dynasty that traces its origin to the legend of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The Amhara owned this dynasty and defended all its attributes including the Amharic language and Orthodox Christianity. The history of each monarch became the history of the country. The last notable monarch of this dynasty, Emperor Menilek II, conquered and extended his authority over the neighboring nations and nationalities that make the map of modern Ethiopia. Menilek and his successor, Haile Selassie I, imposed a unitary political system that advanced Amhara culture, language, religion and identity, and undermined those of all the conquered nations and nationalities. Their resistance, first against the conquest and then against the unitary rule, eventually led to the overthrow of Haile Selassie in 1974, the man who symbolized the last monarch of the Solomonic dynasty.

Initially, the military government signaled to redress the excesses of the past unitary regimes. For instance, it nationalized the rural land that had been taken from its owners by Emperor Menilek II and distributed among his Amhara followers. The military government also allowed literacy campaigns in a number of native languages and radio broadcasts in Oromo and Tigrinya languages. Immediately, however, the military council was hijacked by supporters of the unitary system resulting in higher centralization than under the previous regimes. This provoked fierce resistance that developed into armed uprising particularly among the Tigre and the Oromo nations. After seventeen years of brutal fighting, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF, the strongest of the armed groups at the time) ousted the military government and ascended to the helm of the Ethiopian government.

Soon after it came to power the TPLF proposed federalism as a solution to Ethiopia’s age-old political problems resulting from strict centralization and domination by one single ethnic group, the Amhara. TPLF’s idea of federalism was welcomed by majority Ethiopians who saw a hope for a fair sense of equality and belongingness to a nation that oppressed them far too long. However, this sacred solution to Ethiopia’s political problems had two serious shortcomings from the start. First, to maintain its control the TPLF deliberately sabotaged the implementation of federalism in the newly created federal states. It only allowed limited autonomy such as the right of using one’s own language in education, administration and courts. In the area of economy and politics, the TPLF defied the principles of the very federalism it advanced and imposed a strict control on the subordinate parties that ruled the federal states. In fact, the parties themselves were TPLF’s own creations to serve its interests. Second, the drawing of the boundaries between federal states sawed the seeds of unending conflicts that the country is facing today. In a typical European colonial strategy, the TPLF divided one ethnic group into several federal states. (For instance the Somali people were partitioned between Ethiopia, Great Britain, Italy and France. Today the same people who were united before the colonial era are found in four different nation states.) The TPLF grabbed a part of the Amhara state and added to it Tigray. On the other hand, it added parts of Oromia to BeniShangul (Wambara), to Amhara (northern Shoa and Wallo) and to Somalia (contiguous border districts in Hararge and Bale, and half the town of Moyale). All these Oromo regions are not enclaves in BeniShangul, Amhara or Somali states but contiguous to Oromia. The TPLF detached them from Oromia and awarded to those states to entangle them into unending border conflicts so that it could consolidate its power at the center while they fight each other. In doing so, it sawed the seeds of unending conflicts all over the nation, particularly among the major states as we witness it at the present.

This strategy worked for the TPLF but it became major a source of border conflicts and irredentism with devastating consequences. When the Oromo youth, the Qero, uprising (1915-1918) threatened to topple its government, the TPLF instigated Somali attack on the Oromo causing the displacement of over a million Oromos. Amhara irredentism on Tigray led to a genocidal massacre of Tigre residents of Maikadra, an act that they continued to carry on as they moved deeper and deeper into Tigray following Mr. Abiy’s offensive in November 2020. The recent Amhara attack on the Oromo northern Shoa cost the lives of hundreds of Oromos. The casualty in Wallo is still to be assessed. Border conflict between the Afar and Somali states led to the death of hundreds from both sides.

Amhara-led centuries of oppressive unitary politics was replaced by TPLF-led federalism, an alternative welcomed by most Ethiopians as an acceptable choice for Ethiopia’s political problems. However, as indicated above federalism came with its own misgivings due to TPLF’s selfish and greedy behavior. Instead of correcting TPLF’s mistakes and implementing federalism as stipulated in the Ethiopian constitution, TPLF’s successor regime of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is turning the wheel of history backwards and getting Ethiopia into a quagmire. In alliance with the Amhara elite and politicians, Abiy is striving to restore the problematic unitary system.

To ensure Ethiopia’s survival, federalism is the best choice and the only way out. In order to make federalism work, the government or all stakeholders have to consider taking the following measures.

First, they have to adhere to the current constitution and implement its clauses with regards to the autonomous and self-governing rights of the federal states. If amendment is warranted it should be with the consent of the people not the political elites.

Second, as indicated above the TPLF drew the map of federal states arbitrarily and in a very calculated way to take advantage of the resultant border conflicts between the states. This is a crime against those states who lost part of their territories and their constituent population. In order to correct this arbitrary and unjust drawing of boundaries, a redrawing of boundaries between neighboring states is absolutely essential. Only in this way would Amhara claim over Walqayit and Tsegede and the detachment of Wambara, northern Shoa and Wallo (all with majority Oromo population) from Oromia be permanently solved through restoration of these regions to their respective core states. Finally, of all territorial claims, Amhara (as well as Somali) irredentism is becoming detrimental to the very unity of Ethiopia they so much cherish. In the ongoing military conflict in Tigray, the Amhara mobilized their special forces and militia which unleashed a genocide of historic proportion in Ethiopia in the 21st century. In addition to this, the Amhara state attacked the Oromo of northern Shoa and Wallo whom the TPLF unlawfully put under the Amhara state. These areas are where the Amhara forces are engaged in another wave of genocide. Because of endless intransigence, attack and mass killings, the government of Ethiopia has to stop Amhara irredentism and militia attacks immediately. Tigre and Oromo retaliation to stop Amhara irredentism and defend themselves from the attack of their special forces and militias would lead to the dismantling of Ethiopia. While the TPLF used its arbitrary drawing of borders to consolidate its power, the Amhara are using to restore unitary politics and Amhara domination over the rest of the Ethiopian peoples.

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