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Irreconcilable aspirations: A regressive Ethiopian vision spells the end of the republic

As centralizing elites double down on war efforts to subjugate Tigray and reconfigure the federation, an all-inclusive dialogue appears to be the only way out.

At the root of the Tigray war is a contest over the very nature of the state.

This centuries-old struggle has most recently been played out through Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s consolidation and centralization of power and the Tigray elite’s—and allies, such as pro multinational federalism forces—consequent rejection of this.

One of the most salient facts about Ethiopia’s current predicament is that behind the veil of promoting nationalism, from the likes of Prime Minister Abiy, parties like Ezema, and media outlets like ESAT, lies a regressive vision and a nostalgic glorification of a violently unceremonious past.

This group of elites fulminate about and use the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) as a scapegoat. That outrage is used to mask the fact that they are undertaking another brutal war of subjugation on Tigray that would not have looked out of place during the imperial marches of the late 19th Century.

The government and people of Tigray have, however, refused to “bend to Shewa”—as unitarist commentators like Tamerat Negerea Feyissa so dearly wish them to do—but are instead resisting the threat on the multinational order and are pushed to pursue full independence.

National myth

The overthrow of the imperial regime in 1974 and then the defeat of the Derg’s dictatorship in 1991, which heralded the birth of a federal, democratic constitutional political order in 1995, should have closed the door forever to the assimilationist nation-building project.

While it is true that the protection and promotion of human and democratic rights were not as progressive as the transformative economic development registered under the EPRDF coalition, the defining feature of post-1991 Ethiopia has in fact been the recognition of diversity of culture, language, religion, and other values.

This was a major progressive departure from the ‘one culture, one language, and one religion’ monochromatic nation-building project of the past. But, the appointment of Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister in 2018 opened up the space for unitarist elites to once again resume the nation-building project.

Former empires like Ethiopia, obsessed with national pride, revel in past glory but cannot envisage what lies ahead. This attachment to the imperial heyday and the violent nation-building project sowed the seeds of the ongoing war in the service of trying to maintain the national mythos.

By doing so, rather than building a diverse future, Ethiopianist elites are reinforcing the state’s formative defects, and will ultimately scupper the almost three-decade-old effort to transition from an empire into a republic.

Preventing pluralism

Following four years of street protests, the former ruling coalition elected Abiy as its chair, and lawmakers subsequently nominated him as Prime Minister on 2 April 2018.

After admitting the EPRDF’s shortcomings, Abiy pledged reform, preached unity, and pursued rapprochement with Eritrea.

This was portrayed by some as a sign of a new beginning for the multinational country. On the contrary, the last three years have resulted in a proliferation of violence. The economy has languished and the already constrained institutions have been further weakened to pave the way for de facto one-man rule, ushering the beginning of the end of the federation.

The EPRDF coalition that brought Abiy to power was the first victim of his power ambitions. Fittingly, the fundamental act of convening elections as per the constitution became the bone of contention in the Tigray-federal government dispute.

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Using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext, the electoral board postponed polls scheduled for 29 August 2020. As the constitution contained no provisions for such an eventuality, the House of Federation and its Council of Constitutional Inquiry—largely filled with pro-federal government experts—offered a veneer of legal authorization.

A swath of the political opposition, including veteran centrist Lidetu Ayalew, the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and the Government of Tigray, argued that the way forward should have been forged through debate between political parties because all political actors had a stake in a fragile transition.

They believed that Abiy’s unitarist vehicle, the Prosperity Party (PP), pushed to delay the polls, as it feared electoral loss.

Prosperity’s purge

Emboldened yet fearful, the Prosperity Party attempted to purge its opponents, first in Oromia and then in Tigray.

It subsequently held sham elections this year, with the participation of Ezema and other political entities that hold a similarly regressive take on Ethiopia’s journey away from a multinational federation to an empire, such as the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA). Some of their leaders now occupy cabinet positions, as Abiy embraces a narrow pluralism at the center while attempting to destroy the pluralistic multinational order.

In response to last year’s PP machinations, TPLF-led Tigray regional state exercised its interpretation of its constitutional rights to hold elections as per the federal and Tigray constitutions. Abiy’s government declared the 9 September election to be null and void.

After a series of escalatory measures, including delegitimization and redirecting the federal budget from Tigray, Abiy mobilized forces internally. He also plotted to subjugate Tigray with Eritrea’s unitarist autocrat, who hates both the TPLF leaders and power-sharing federalism.

More than one year into the war in Tigray—a war conducted by the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies, Amhara militias and special forces, and other regional partners—the people of Tigray are once more under a siege, and therefore still fighting for their right to survive.

Despite the narrative created around the establishment of an elected government, it does little to bolster Abiy’s legitimacy internally, while jittery external actors like the United States and European Union are focused more on the country’s overall stability and the brutal conduct of the war.

Race to the bottom

Now, living out its regressive vision, the same regime under the guise of a new government looks set to alter the constitution with the participation of like-minded elites.

They will do this after violating the existing constitution as the Amhara region violently occupied western Tigray, leading to atrocities and the mass expulsion of Tigrayans. Bahir Dar now claims to have altered the administrative boundaries of the Amhara region.

Yet, the constitution could not be clearer.

Under Article 48, it states that: “all state border disputes shall be settled by agreement of the concerned States. Where the concerned States fail to reach an agreement, the House of Federation shall decide such disputes on the basis of settlement patterns and the wishes of the peoples concerned.”

Amhara irredentists lay claim to an area that has been occupied predominantly by Tigrayans, so the real problem for them was that any fair and constitutionally mandated self-determination procedure would have inevitably reached a decision that would not be in their favor.

Constitutionally mandated rights concerning ethnic rights and self-determination such as Article 39 cannot be amended without the agreement of all regional states. But, disenfranchised and blockaded Tigray is not in a position to influence decisions made at the center pertaining to changes that would effectively dissolve the federation as we know it.

Foreign actors are largely paralyzed by geopolitical interests, but they are right to insist on an all-inclusive dialogue as the only mechanism to regulate the future of Ethiopia within the existing constitutional framework.

Cognizant that the political elites have consistently viewed a democratic order as an existential threat, there now appears to be a vanishingly slim prospect of Ethiopia transforming into a democratic republic that aptly entertains internal diversity, which is the minimum threshold for its survival.

Yet, a belated convening of that all-inclusive dialogue could at least mitigate the disorder and perhaps smooth the process of fragmentation.

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