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Jawar has reformed himself—now let’s reform our divisive constitution


Abolishing ethnic homelands is the way forward for Ethiopia

In his recent longform Addis Standard interview, Jawar Mohammad raised some crucial issues pertaining to Ethiopia’s contemporary politics and its history. As usual, Jawar, commendably, did not shy away from forthright and nuanced discussion of important, controversial, thorny subjects such as multinational federation, nation- and/or state-building, and the need to tame both ethno-nationalism and Ethio-nationalism.

While it was a constructive contribution, some of the issues raised and arguments he made call for a deeper treatment and some for a critical response.

Jawar has made strategic shifts as a person and politician, becoming more accommodating of his opponents and a less strident advocate of Oromo nationalism. Earlier in his career, he did not reflect critically on the philosophical underpinnings of Ethiopia’s ethnic federation, even though he advocated for democratization of the multinational federation all along.

These shifts may be due to, inter alia, his period of introspection in prison, a painful realization of the danger emanating from the untethered horse of ethnic nationalism, the rise of a formidable Amhara nationalism which posed a security dilemma, and the ‘cognitive punch’ caused by a series of civil wars.

I believe these events have had a profound impact on his understanding of the complexities of Ethiopian politics and the need for a more accommodating approach.

Still, though Jawar is clearly grappling these days with Ethiopia’s most fundamental political dilemmas, he perpetuates confusion surrounding the concepts of multinational and multicultural federalism, is plain wrong about prioritising democratization of a deformed mode of federalism, and his notion of “progressive patriotism” needs debate and definition.

Three Decades of Ethnic Politics

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the institutionalization of ethnic federalism or, as many proponents call it, multinational federalism. With the dawn of the new constitutional order, the ethnonationalists declared victory, not so much over the ancien régime but over traditional Ethiopian nationalism, and hoped to foreclose any debate henceforth.

Ever since, we have witnessed a further entrenchment of ethnic politics in areas where it existed before and the birth of Amhara nationalism. Thus, after three decades, the discourse and practice of ethnic politics has become—quite unfortunately, but unsurprisingly—the main organizing political principle.

After all, a radical departure from the past through a new constitutional order meant the creation of a new generation that takes pride in such an order. Through institutional and ideological engineering, a new generation of ethnic federalists was created, and ethnicity became an increasingly prominent feature in all aspects of society.

But that is only part of the story.

The reality is that equality, justice, and fraternity among ethno-linguistic groups has not prevailed. The promised strong political community has not emerged. We are instead mired in endless political crises, ethnic conflicts, displacement, and an estranged society.

It is almost as if national integration was never intended.

This quick glance of our political experiment indicates that, on the one hand, ethnic politics will stay with us for the foreseeable future and, on the other, that there is a need to revisit our perilous journey and intervene in the mid-life crisis of our ethnic constitutional order.

Misguided Conflation

In this regard, I agree with Jawar that “we must also be careful not to take ethnicity as the alpha and omega of politics.” I take issue, however, with his conflation of federalism with multinational federalism and of multicultural federalism with a unitary nation-state.

Jawar´s conceptualization of federalism is misguided. He writes: “To analyze the ruling party’s alleged shift of state-building strategy from ‘multinational federalism’ to a ‘multicultural nation-state’, we need to go back and examine what has been attempted in the past and how it fared.”

This suggest that he thinks an attempt to create a multicultural federal state is an attempt to create a multicultural nation-state. However, that is not the case. A nation-state is formed by a cultural community that shares the same language, traditions, and history.

Federalism is a type of government primarily defined by the tenet of co-existing self-rule and shared rule. Multinational federalism is just one form; multicultural federalism another.

The essence of multicultural federalism is official recognition of cultural and linguistic communities within the state and empowering them to nurture their culture, language, religion, and interests.

Multicultural federalism is perhaps the most common institutional design in the world. India is as diverse (if not more so) as Ethiopia, and has adopted a multicultural federalism without becoming a nation-state. Closer to home, Nigeria also instituted multicultural federalism without existing as a nation-state.

The key aspect that India and Nigeria have in common is the sovereignty of “we the people”, the lack of a secession clause, and the absence of de jure ethnic homelands, the essential—and most divisive—element of multinational federalism.

It is misleading and unhelpful of Jawar to blur the lines between a multicultural federation and a nation-state—especially when we need one but not the other.

Divisive Framing

Similarly, I found Jawar’s discussion of multinational and multicultural federalism empirically unconvincing. Jawar asserts: “…they [Prosperity Party] aimed to carve out alternative support bases from unitarist constituencies and urban cultural, economic, and media elites.”

However, my empirical finding is that almost every organized political actor in Ethiopia is federalist not unitarist, including Prosperity Party, Ezema, Balderas, National Movement of Amhara, Enat Party, Equality and Justice Party, Hibir Ethiopia, Ethiopian Democratic Party and the new incarnation of Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party.

In the case of the ruling party, the party’s manifesto supports “ህብረ-ብሄራዊ ፌዴራሊዝም”—“multinational federalism”. Surveys of public opinion have also found strong support for federalism, including Afrobarometer findings this year.

Jawar is not alone in this dangerous false framing. Recall that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and its supporters accused the Prosperity Party regime of being unitarist as they prepared for war. Not only does the false federalist vs unitarist dichotomy breed division, it deflects from engagement with critical issues and undermines those sincerely concerned about the trajectory of our political order and call for revisiting a flawed constitutional design.

We must engage with real and consequential issues instead of shrouding them in mist.

Flawed by Design

Federalism is not inherently divisive, but ethnic federalism is. The common adage goes that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In the Ethiopian case, even this is not befitting because the journey started with bad faith.

That bad faith lies in the flawed design that, for all legal and practical purposes, aimed at the eventual unmaking of the Ethiopian polity and making of independent nations, should the marriage of convenience turn out to be inconvenient.

To use Prof. Adeno Addis´s words from a previous Ethiopia Insight commentary, Ethiopia’s 1994 constitution created “strangers and served as a suicidal pact.” Well, where are we today? Indeed, a time bomb has, from time to time, exploded, and we have already attempted suicide, the latest example being the war in and around Tigray.


Jawar repeatedly talks about democratizing the multinational federation as a midcourse correction. It is true that the practice of federalism and authoritarianism are strange bedfellows. But the democratization process can only make a difference if the design is not flawed from its inception. Structural problems need structural policy interventions head-on.

The structural problem is the design of the constitutional order itself. Whether the form of government is democratic or not, though important, is not the main culprit in the Ethiopian context. Jawar argues, “In the long run, EPRDF ideologues hoped that multinationalism would positively contribute to the state-building project by promoting social cohesion and solidifying its legitimacy.”

That is not the case, precisely because the constitutional design is flawed for it fails to craft a sense of “We, the people.” When the constituent elements are wilfully and shortsightedly disenfranchised, you cannot mend it through second-order fixes.

What is flawed by design cannot and should not be addressed by democratic practice. From the outset, democracy is dead in the kingdom of ethnic homelands. As Donald Horowitz succinctly remarked, “Democracy is about inclusion and exclusion, access to power, the privileges that go with inclusion, and the penalties that accompany exclusion. In severely divided societies, ethnic identity provides clear lines to determine who will be included and who will be excluded.”

This is the story of present-day Ethiopia: separate ethnic homelands, social fragmentation, political polarization, permanent exclusion of minorities, and other societal scars. Across the federation, individuals do not feels included in the political community unless they submit to the will of the homeland owners.

There is no democracy among strangers. Ethnic federation cannot be democratic; it is a fallacy of the highest order to expect otherwise. Without a sense of belongingness within a given political community, there is no democracy but instead the seeds of ethnic cleansing covered in a discourse of self-determination, multinational federation, and, theoretically, democracy.

The current structure is unsustainable, and all that has kept the lid on the ethnic homelands diverging more from each other was the centralized party system and the strong leader, the Marshall Tito of Ethiopia, late Meles Zenawi. As we have witnessed, with both gone, the center has barely held.

“Progressive Patriotism”?

As part of his call to meet in the middle, Jawar proposed a notion of “progressive patriotism”. But what and how much of each element, i.e., a progressive approach and patriot allegiance to the state, should feature? As usual, the devil lies in the details, but suffice to say finding the golden mean hinges on defining a national identity based on shared cultures and civic values.

It is a pity that we pride ourselves on having one of the oldest states in the world, on the one hand, and still in search of our national identity, on the other. Since what remained of disoriented revolutions and devastating civil wars was then severely battered by the unbridled practice of competing ethnic nationalism, the very conception of citizenship has become thin in contemporary Ethiopia.

So, within this context, what is the core minimum that hangs progressiveness and patriotism together? Part of the answer lies in defining and redefining the constituent element of the political order: “We, the people of Ethiopia.” In this regard, Jawar should have reflected more on how the order fared in building a national identity rather than primarily focusing on the state-building efforts of the EPRDF. The process and policies of forging a strong sense of belonging among Ethiopians are critically important in the current Ethiopian context.

As a starting point, the people can be defined in terms of thin cultural community and thick political community.

A thin cultural community refers to the parallel co-existence of diverse cultural groups and state identity built on civic nationalism.

A thick political community encapsulates integrating mechanisms such as inclusive biographical narratives, the de-ethnicization of political participation, minority protection schemes, the introduction of more official languages and a second language in each regional state, trimming the size of regions such that they will not threat the very existence of the state, the re-introduction of national volunteer service, all underpinned by economic integration.

It is hoped that an ever-thicker cultural community will eventually emerge, if things go well.

National Soul-Searching

It is encouraging that prominent people like Jawar are keeping the political discourse in motion. We cannot solve our perennial problems by downplaying them or, even worse, shying away from engaging with them. Pointing out the virtues and vices of the current constitutional order with objectivity has no substitution. The constitutional order is flawed by design and sustained by practice.

As we look ahead, the starting point in our soul-searching endeavor should be determining who we are and what we envision for the future. To this end, overhauling the constitution is non-negotiable.

But before that process even begins, we must change the practices that sustain the current political order. For that to occur, we “need to find room for compromise to begin a serious deliberation that will not leave any group feeling disenfranchised,” as Jawar himself suggested.


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Main Image: Jawar Mohammed; 21 May 2017; Dotohelp

This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.

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