By Koki Abesolome
If there is one specific area that the Abiy Administration needs to focus on with a fierce urgency of now, it is setting up an agile communication facility and establishing an effective communication strategy.
The absence of an effective communication strategy has allowed menacing activists to frame, control and drive the policy debate. Their narratives have become the dominant narratives of the media. They have proven to be tireless and vicious in effectively using the social media. And the government finds itself constantly reacting from a defensive position.
The purpose of this article is to shift the political debate from “Federalist vs. Unitary (አሃዳዊ)” that is framed by tribalist forces to “Federalist System Empowering Small Tribes vs. Federalist System Denying Rights to Small Tribes.” This will deny Oromo and Tegaru tribalists them from capitalizing on their false narrative and expose that their agenda is to empower themselves at the expense of other tribes.
Two caveats are in order before I turn to the issue at hand.
Let me start with an explanation of why I use the term tribe instead of ethnic, and tribal homelands rather than regions.
First, when ethnic politics degenerates, it becomes tribal in the most primitive sense of the term. We have long exited the realm of ethnic politics. We are deep into the abyss of a tribal nation. This was evident when our universities turn themselves into enclaves of primitive tribes where members of one tribe engage in blood sport fueled by a thirst for the blood of another tribe.
Second, in the recent past, Ethiopian tribal politics has been the domain of Oromo, Amhara, Somali and Tigray tribal forces. I am focusing on Oromo and Tegaru tribalists. There is no need to focus on Amhara tribalists because they have fallen into oblivion, following NAMA and a random walker and noisemaker in the person of Eskinder. Currently, their political clout is as irrelevant as anyone of the politically irrelevant small tribes. I am also not discussing the Somali tribal land because it is increasingly elevating itself above the tribal fray.
At the heart of our primitive tribal impulse resides an inherently flawed constitution that was designed to establish Tigrayan hegemony but ended up making Ethiopia hostage to OLF and OLF inspired Oromo tribalists, leaving Ethiopia without sovereign existence. Articles that Tigrayan tribalists inserted in the constitution ended up giving Oromo tribalists power to take Ethiopia hostage under the authority of the constitution.
What is the problem with Ethiopia’s tribal federation? Let us compare it with the US and India – two federalist nations. The US as a nation is “indivisible”. In India, the union is “indestructible” but the states therein are “destructible.” The Indian government is empowered to divide an existing state into two or combine two or three states into one.
The opposite is true in Ethiopia. Article 39 renders the Ethiopian nation destructible. OLF’s long-held obsession to destroy Ethiopia and build Oromia from its ashes was institutionalized by a constitutional dictum.
Section 1 of article 8 of the Constitution promulgates “sovereignty resides in the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia.” Section two adds “This Constitution is an expression of their sovereignty.” There is no national sovereignty of the motherland to speak of.
Pay attention to the term “peoples.” The Ethiopian constitution is the only constitution on this side of planet Mars that uses the term “peoples” in reference to the people of a nation. The word “peoples” is repeated 90 times. This is to stress Ethiopia as a home to different peoples of different nations and nationalities.
In the rest of the world, states, provinces, regions or ethnic enclaves exist within a country. Sovereignty is bestowed upon the people as citizens of the nation-state. Every power derives from the people as citizens of the nation and is instituted for their benefits.
In Ethiopia, the country is reduced into a nebulous existence that is predetermined by the sovereignty of nine tribal homelands. As a country, Ethiopia neither possesses an inalienable sovereign right nor a constitutional means to reign in tribal political forces that want to break it apart.
For example, the Oromo tribe can end the existence of Ethiopia. The Constitution is an expression of this sovereign right. How so?
Assume the Oromo homeland decides to declare independence from the rest of Ethiopia, exercising its sovereign right enshrined in Article 39. This will geographically separate Gambela and the Southern Peoples tribal homelands from the rest of Ethiopia.
This accords Oromo politicians a unique power to hold the country hostage in political negotiations because of their ability not only to break away from Ethiopia with its capital city, but also to geographically break two other tribal homelands from their motherland – Ethiopia.
If Oromo tribalists decide to break away from Ethiopia, they can hold Gambela and the Southern Peoples tribal homelands as circumstantial hostages. Neither is economically viable to live on its own and its geographic separation from its motherland (Ethiopia) leaves it with no option but to seek a federation or confederation arrangement with the Oromo tribal land.
The Tigrayan tribalists constitutionalized secession as a pacifier (ደረቅ ጡጦ) to appease OLF without any intention of honoring it. The removal of TPLF from the helm of Ethiopia’s political structure, the democratization of the political space and the current administration’s respect to the constitution of the land accorded OLF and company a hostage-taking power.
Oromo tribalists are quick to remind their critics that the constitution gives them a veto power to block any constitutional reform that will resurrect Ethiopia as a country with constitutional sovereignty. For tribalists, the only way they will accept the notion of Ethiopia as a nation is if it is stripped of its sovereignty and the status of constitutional sovereignty is exclusively reserved for tribal homelands.
This is nowhere clearer than in Jawar Mohammed’s statement: “Multinational federalism engrained in the current constitution is here to stay. It’s in not up for discussion, let alone negotiation. Anyone caught in some FANTASY should wake up from their hallucination” (original emphasis). As far as Jawa is concerned, the Oromo tribal land’s sovereignty rights will remain inviolable even if its secession violates the constitutional rights of Gambela and Southern Peoples tribal lands to remain within their motherland – Ethiopia.
If the all too familiar adage that one person’s (group’s) constitutional right ends where the constitutional right of another person (group) begins is valid, then the occupants of Oromo tribal land should not have a constitutional right to infringe upon the rights of Ethiopians of Gambella and Southern Peoples heritage.
Unfortunately, this argument has no basis in our constitution because Ethiopia as a country does not have a sovereign existence. Nor do Ethiopians as its citizens.
We have three options to address the problem. One is to scrap the “self-determination up to secession” clause. But neither Oromo nor Tigrayan tribalists will accept any reform and the constitution accords them a veto power to stop any constitutional reform that they do not like.
The Oromo position is inexplicable. It is unprecedented in any country where the largest tribal group champions and imposes secession as a political strategy. They claim Article 39 is an ultimate guarantee for tribal homelands from the federal government’s desire to encroach on their rights, fearing the nuclear option of secession. But the truth is that they see it as a legally sanctioned hostage-taking power.
The second option is damage control. That is to redraw the tribal homelands in such a way that no matter which region(s) leave the union, the remaining regions will not be geographically separated from each other. We may have to hire experts in computational geometry to study if there is a solution. I do not claim to be an expert in computational geometry. But my intuition is that the problem represents a geometrical impossibility and a constitutional stupidity.
The third option is to empower smaller tribes within the constitutional order to protect them from majority tyranny and hostage-taking. This is the issue that we need to hammer and force Oromo and Tigray tribalists to answer.
In a country where tribal rights serve as proxy through which individual rights are conferred on citizens, some 70 of the 84 Ethiopian tribes are not even mentioned in the constitution. They are locked in a paradox between Ethiopia’s legally and politically ungovernable hinterlands. In some parts of the country, they live in terror between tribal human hunters and temporary shelters.
Short of a total overhaul of the constitution to anchor it on citizenship rights, the following steps need to be taken to enfranchise currently disenfranchised tribes.
• Acknowledge each tribe in the constitution.
• Reform the constitution to give proper representation to all 84 tribes in the two chambers of the Parliament.
• Representation in the Lower Chamber (Council of Peoples’ Representatives) should be based on the population size of the different tribes. As the current president of the Somali tribal land noted, his people are grossly underrepresented. Somali tribal land has more population than the Tigrayan tribal land. However, the Tigrayan tribal land has 35 seats while the Somali tribal land has only 24. Did I mention Tigrayan tribalists were apportioning seats in the Parliament?
• In the current arrangement, the Upper Chamber (Council of the Federation) has no power. It should be empowered to pass a law or reject a law from being enacted. The Chamber should have two representatives from each of the 84 tribes, following the US Senate model that gives two seats for each state regardless of the population or economic size of the states. In the US the state of California with 40 million population has the same voting power in the Senate as the State of Wyoming that has only 578 thousand people.
Under such an arrangement, the Upper Chamber will protect smaller states or tribes from bigger states or tribes because their votes carry the same weight. If the lower chamber passes a law that undermines the rights of smaller states or tribes, the upper chamber can reject it.
In our case, this will not only empower smaller tribes but will also weaken, if not end, tribal politics. How so?
Giving equal representation to all tribes will result in the realignment of the current coalition in favor of nationalist forces because smaller tribes find it in their best interest to have a united Ethiopia for various reasons.
First, they know that they cannot form a viable independent nation by themselves and their survival as a free and prosperous people depend on their ability to live with others.
Second, they know that the secession of larger tribal homelands (say Oromo) is not in their best economic interest. Their chance of e economically surviving and thriving in a nationalist Ethiopia is far better than in a weaker and smaller Ethiopia that is shrinking by secessionist tribes.
Third, in a united and democratic environment, they will not be circumstantial hostages or risk being forcefully swallowed by bigger tribes. More recently they have seen what happened to Gamo and Gedeo tribes.
Finally, and most importantly, Ethiopia’s politics will be dominated by negotiation and debates between the Lower and Upper Chambers of congress where they have legislative power rather than by tribal conflicts between powerful tribal forces.
Not surprisingly, the Oromo are not the only group that are opposed to constitutional reform. TPLF demigods who are hunkered in a bunker in the outskirts of Mekele are bent on maintaining the current constitution. But their motive is different.
The current constitution has allowed them to curve out fertile lands from current day Amhara tribal land. Their fear comes from relinquishing these lands.
If assured that they will be allowed to keep the looted lands, they will be amenable to live under any political system be it monarchy or anarchy or any system in between. They, too, are using their veto power to block any constitutional reform as insurance to keep the lands they looted from the Amhara tribal land.
In the final analysis, neither Oromo nor Tigrayan tribalists care about the rights of nations and nationalities. If that was the case, they will lead the effort to empower them.
The Abiy administration and the unionist forces should change the political talking point from “Federalist vs. Unitary (አሃዳዊ)” to “Federalist System Empowering Small Tribes vs, Federalist System Denying Rights to Small Tribes.”