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Forging Strategic Democratic Federalist Alliances in Ethiopia - The Challenge and Task of Our Era

By Makonnen Tesfaye
Tigrai Online, April 14, 2019

Forging Strategic Democratic Federalist Alliances in Ethiopia
The key message for all democratic nationalists and federalists in Ethiopia is that united they succeed, divided they fall .

1. Introduction and Context

The forging of strategic alliances amongst all democratic federalist forces is the single most urgent task of our-time, and is tantamount to preserving the gains of self-determination and preventing state-failure in Ethiopia. It is by now abundantly clear that the rise of the current “EPRDF” leadership led by Abiy Ahmed (PhD) is principally the result of the Front’s internal decay, which enabled and facilitated an internal usurpation of power by the ultra-nationalists in OPDO/ODP and ANDM/ADP, the so-called “Team Lemma”, or alternatively the “ORO-MARA” right-wing, populist alliance. The take-over of power was fuelled (and orchestrated through) by wide-spread and legitimate discontent and political and economic grievances of the population, principally the youth of Oromia Region, but also fundamentally present and latently manifested in all Regions. The demise of the EPRDF is the result of its alienation from its popular base, bad governance, economic corruption and injustice, the prevalence and gradual dominance of ultra-nationalism (of big nation chauvinist and narrow-nationalist types), permeation and ascendancy of neo-liberalist influence, and foreign dependency and interference.

The defeat of the Derg Military Dictatorship by the combined forces of the EPRDF, OLF and EPLF in 1991 ushered in a Democratic Federal Republic, which provided a fundamentally sustainable but conditionally democratic solution to the pertinent and age-old question of oppressed nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia for self-determination. Moreover, it unleashed unprecedented peace and stability, economic development, advance in education, health, infrastructure and social capital over three decades. Contrary to Abiy’s revisionist rhetoric, this is palpably true and is evidenced empirically and witnessed and testified by the Ethiopian people at large, global institutions (e.g. the World Bank, the IMF, and the EU) and foreign governments alike. Yet, over the last three years the existence of the EPRDF and the Ethiopian State has been at a cross-road, cynics would say “game-over”, given the widespread civil unrest and massive internal dislocation, lawlessness,  numerous violations of the Democratic Federal Constitution, ethnic  targeting and cleansing, weak leadership and lack of strategic direction of the current Abiy Government.  The paper sketches the evolution and balance of power between the antagonist and protagonist forces vis-à-vis the preservation of the democratic federal constitutional order, and assesses the role of and prospect for forging strategic democratic federalist alliances.

2. The “Demise” of Amhara Democratic Nationalists and the Rise of Ultra-Nationalists

Although the leading role of the TPLF within the EPRDF was critical, the role of democratic and progressive Amhara nationalists (and others from oppressed nationalities) within the EPRDF was vital for the establishment of the democratic federal settlement in 1991, since the federal order could only be feasible and viable when all or most of the democratic nationalists of all nationalities in the country have ownership of the Constitution. The EPRDF and progressive and democratic Amhara nationalists in the EPRDF made a scientific, class-based and documented analysis of the history and political economy of Ethiopia to make a clear and delineated distinction between Amhara ruling class rule and the interests of the oppressed broad masses of the Amhara nation. The politico-military defeat of the Amhara ruling class and elites and their junior partners from other nationalities by the EPRDF and the vanguard TPLF dealt a historic blow to the notion and reality of the country as a prison of oppressed nationalities. However, although militarily and legally (through the Constitution) defeated, the Amhara ruling class and elites have never been fully beaten politically, ideologically, or in their hegemony in the cultural realms, and also given their preponderance in the  bureaucracy and the economy. They peddled a false political and ideological narrative of “Tigrayan Dominance” for nearly three decades – when national domination is constitutionally designed-out; when it has no empirical or theoretical basis in the political economy of the country; or when it is contrary to the realities of the prevailing political, economic, cultural, linguistic and administrative autonomy of the Regions in Ethiopia. It is only to be expected for the defeated champions of the old order to target the TPLF and the Tigray Region by extension because they were the vanguard and motive force that dealt a mortal blow to the Amhara ruling class and elite hegemony. 

The first and major challenge to the democratic federal state by the former Amhara ruling classes and elites was the “Kinigit” movement in 2005, which was paradoxically an “unholy alliance” of former Amhara feudal-aristocratic classes, Dergists and their sympathisers and former defeated remnants of “EPRP” and Meison leaders - elites who were overwhelmingly from the Amhara nationality.  The sole and driving mission of Kinigit was to undermine and dismantle the democratic federalist state and restore the ancient unitarian state under Amhara elite hegemony, which was also in essence against the interest of the broad masses of the Amhara people.

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Since the failed Kinigit movement, Amhara elites’ quest for dominant power and Amhara nationalism has evolved to the present time.  Until recently the dominant form of Amhara nationalism has been camouflaged by and expounded by the “unitarian Ethiopia” political slogan (alternatively dressed up as citizen politics). Principally based in Addis Ababa and major urban centres in Dire-Dawa, Harrar and Adama, its key protagonists include Arbegnot Ginbot 7 and parties with names that include the prefix “Ethiopian”.  The current standard bearer of the Ethiopian branded Amhara elite nationalism is Eskinder Nega, given the current political rupture within Arbegnot Ginbot 7, which has an overwhelmingly Amhara elite social base but a political leadership that includes a minority of non-Amahra unitarian nationalists, such as Berhanu Nega (PhD). This strand of Amhara nationalist movement is currently engaged at inciting and mobilising Amhara populist sentiment (through its mouth pieces, e.g. ESAT) by igniting discontent over the political status and identity of Addis Ababa and by orchestrating political campaigns and by demonising the OLF, and also the TPLF, by default the usual suspect. The TPLF and OLF are the current twin antitheses (WEYAONEG!) of chauvinistic Amhara elite nationalists.

A new phenomenon of Amhara nationalism is the emergence of the Amhara National Movement (ANM), which is openly and unashamedly ultra-nationalist, expansionist, irredentist, chauvinist, and latently Islamophobic.  Mainly based in Gondar and parts of Gojam but fast spreading to all zones in the Amhara Region and beyond, the ANM brand of Amhara elite nationalism (slowly but steadily trickling down to the Amhara populace) is successfully competing with and outflanking ANDM/ADP and  occasionally clashing for  a political space with the “Ethiopian” branded Amhara nationalists (e.g. G7).

The impact of the rise of ANM on the ANDM is proving devastating, resulting in the defeat and ousting of the democratic federalist Amhara nationalists by the ultra-nationalist wing within the ANDM. The rise of ANM has in effect made the distinction between ANDM and ANM paper-thin on the crucial issues of constitutional order and the territorial legality and integrity of the current nationality boundaries in Ethiopia. Perhaps the second most politically and ideologically decayed party within the EPRDF (after OPDO/ODP), ANDM is vulnerable to the legitimate economic and political grievances of the broad masses of the Amhara people. Moreover, it has become under extreme pressure from ANM on the question of the standard-bearer of Amhara Nationalism.  This has resulted in the expulsion of the democratic federalist wing of the party; the adoption of ultra-nationalist positions by projecting the failure of its Regional policies at external forces, principally the TPLF; and the tactical alliance with OPDO/ODP (which had the same, mirror-image challenges within Oromia) to undermine “sister” parties within the EPRDF, mainly the TPLF, but equally and essentially devastating to the Southern Ethiopia People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM).

What is common and constant amongst the three brands of Amhara elite nationalists is their overriding mission of destroying the democratic federalist constitutional order and replacing it with a hegemonic unitarian state. To achieve their strategic goal they have employed two-pronged tactics. Initially they sought to use the so-called “Team-Lemma / ORO-MARA” tactical alliance to institute unconstitutional changes to undermine the Federal Government and as a transition to set up a unitarian state.  Targeting and weakening the TPLF and the Tigray Regional State has been the focus of the first stage of the strategy. However, it appears that the ORO-MARA tactical alliance has backfired despite continuing attempts to revive it. The OPDO-ODP/ANDM-ADP fatally underestimated the latent support for the federal order by the vast majority of nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia. Moreover, they have been dumfounded by the rear-guard actions and strategic defence of the Federal Constitution by the TPLF. Furthermore, the three strands of elite Amahra nationalism do not appear to have a unified and strategic approach to implementing the ORO-MARA political agenda.   In essence, the alliance is tactical and opportunist, and is not based on concrete analysis of the interest of the peoples of Oromia or Amhara, or Ethiopia for that matter.  With the apparent setback of the ORO-MARA tactical alliance, the ANDM/ADP is in a state of political limbo, whereas the ANM and the Ethiopian branded Amhara elites appear to embark on a new aggressive tactics of undermining the Abiy Government (by encouraging misadventures and exploiting his lack of strategic direction) by instigating civil unrest, lawlessness, ethnic targeting and cleansing, inter-reginal clashes and expansionist territorial claims. Their prime goal is to provoke regime-failure in Ethiopia (alternatively, as a minimum, the proclamation of a state of emergency and the cancellation of the upcoming General Election) so as to call for a “Transitional Government” (i.e. delegitimising the EPRDF/Abiy Government) and the suspension, or abrogation of the Federal Constitution. This is with a view to advocating for the setting up of a new unitarian/presidential hegemonic political order. A clear example of such political machinations is the current political pronouncement by Dawit Wolde-Giorgis, a former high-level Dergist fascist who perpetrated genocidal wars in Tigray and Eritrea and the “Red Terror” in Ethiopia resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians and Eritreans, and who has not yet been brought to face justice. The political irony is the manifest opportunism of Abiy (and Hailemariam for that matter) in their cosying-up with former Dergists, including Mengistu Hailemariam, Kassa Kebede, Geshu Wolde and Dawit Wolde-Giorgis – all implicated with genocides, but escaping justice as yet.

3. The Strategic Directions of Oromo Nationalist Forces

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The “Oromo Question” has been at the heart of the class and national struggle in Ethiopia over the last half century, perhaps more important than the “Eritrean Question” used to be, given the Oromo geography, demography, history and political economy. Unlike the national questions of some other nationalities in Ethiopia, the Oromo question in particular has been both a struggle for self-determination and economic emancipation from the ruling class Amhara Neftegna political economy order (i.e. characterised by Serfdom-Slavery Hybrid, or a Mode of Production and Relations based on Feudal-Military Settler Occupation). The OLF has been the standard bearer of the legitimate Oromo nationalism. Despite the dominant ideology within the OLF (until recently) that erroneously characterised the Oromo Question as a “Colonial Question”,  with implied solution of an automatic independence from Ethiopia, the OLF played an important role in the framing and initial implementation of the Democratic Federal Constitution.  Yet, the OLF made a monumental strategic error by abandoning its alliance with the EPRDF Government, which led to long-term political inactivity until recently, not yet fully resolved internal ideological and organisational divisions and fragmentations.

With the coming to power of the OPDO/ODP led by Abiy and Lemma leadership following the civil unrest, principally in the Oromia Region, the missions and strategic directions of the different Oromo nationalist forces are rather unclear and many would argue are strategically misaligned with the fundamental interest of the Oromo people for democracy and self-determination, and not adequately articulated, or allied with democratic federalist aspirations of other oppressed nationalities (e.g. Ethiopian Region of Somalia). When it assumed power a year ago, the Abiy Government received widespread support from all Regions in the country and began to create an atmosphere of relative stability in the country when compared to the last years of the Hailemariam Government. Moreover, it instituted important reforms, such as the beginning of the peace process with the Eritrean government and expanding the political space to encourage democratic discourse, which are consistent with the aspiration of the population. Yet, no sooner had it assumed power, when it began to waste and gamble away its “good will political capital” by undermining the democratic federal constitution in order to satisfy and appease the Team Lemma/ORO-MARA political agenda of unitarian Amhara nationalist elites and the Abiy-Lemma wing of chauvinistic Oromo nationalists, who are strategically ambivalent (political vacillation) on self-determination of the Regions and the federal democratic political order, which is premised on equal, sovereign and voluntary union of nations, nationalities and peoples, big or small. The ORO-MARA chauvinists do not seem to get the logic of Ethiopia’s Federal Constitution, which is a bottom-up union, not a top-down gift by, or devolution of autonomy by mystical central Ethiopian authority. It is a voluntary union of, by and for nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s sovereignty is, but the sum total, historically rooted and concentrated expression of the sovereignty of its union parts, big or small. Hence, by the same logic, any form of “nationality alliance” to dominate, whether Oro-Mara, Tigray-Mara, Oro-Tigray, Afar-Somali, Oro-Debub, or Sidama-Wolita, etc.  is not only anti-federalist and undemocratic in essence, but  undermines the sovereignty of the excluded parts. Moreover, it is a sure of undermining the political integrity and viability of the Ethiopian State.

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The single biggest strategic error of the Abiy-Lemma Government is its alliance with the anti-federalist Amhara nationalists against the democratic federalist forces, which have built-in, natural majorities in the country and among all the 84 nationalities in Ethiopia. This has led to massive erosion of support for the Abiy Government from all federalist forces, including severe criticisms from sections of the progressive Oromo intelligentsia. As a result the OPDO/ODP has been literally forced to reiterate its support for the federal constitution. The question is whether it can be trusted and whether it has abandoned its Team Lemma political agenda of Oromo/Amhara hegemony (big nations chauvinism), which is fundamentally undemocratic and anti-federalist in essence. The single biggest dilemma of the non-Oromo democratic federalist forces at the current political juncture is knowing the extent of OPDP/ODP commitment to the federal constitution. The OPDO/ODP ambivalence on federalism has also created a loss of trust and political dilemma amongst the Amhara nationalist elites, as demonstrated by the controversy on the administrative and constitutional status of Addis Ababa and the engineering of its demography.

A major exponent of Oromo big nation chauvinism and the establishment of a tactical ORO-MARA (Senior-Minor) hegemony is Jawar Mohammed, who propagates toxic politico-cultural hostility (through his huge social-media presence and followings) towards the Amharas and Tigrayans whilst at the same time unashamedly seeking to manipulate and appease chauvinistic Amhara nationalists by scapegoating the TPLF for every civil unrest and clash in Ethiopia (e.g. blaming the TPLF for the current clashes in Wollo and Northern Shoa). As the heat from the relentless assault on Jawar Mohammed by Amahra nationalists intensifies (e.g. on Addis Ababa and demographic engineering, the campaign against Querros and now the conflicts in Wollo and Northern Shoa) the more Jawar retorts to the cowardice blaming of the TPLF. It is interesting that when Jawar is at the receiving end of the assault by virulent Amhara nationalists he cannot take the heat, but neither does he leave the kitchen, hence his retort to naked opportunism by seeking to appease and manipulate Amhara nationalism. For Jawar tactics is (whether it is principled or opportunist) the be-and-all, not that it must serve and be subordinated to strategy, which is the goal of achieving democratic federalism in Ethiopia by uniting all democratic and progressive nationalists from all the Regions. More importantly, the political, ideological and historical fallacies of Jawar Mohammed’s analysis is his notion and contention that the national question (hence its solution) in Ethiopia hinges on horsetrading by elites from Oromia, Amhara and Tigray. This is not only a flagrant chauvinistic insult to the other 80+ nationalities of Ethiopia, but is also devoid of objective historical and political economy analysis of the problem and its solution. The Jawar brand of Oromo chauvinism is further evidenced by his jingoism and mob-politics; his crude (nowadays more subtle) but dangerous peddling of Cushite verse Semitic, Christian verse Islam politics (tailor-made to his audiences in different Regions); naked interventions and political manipulations in the autonomous Regions of Somalia, Afar and the Southern Nation, Nationalities and People’s, to mention but a few. Jawar needs to reflect that if his brand of Oromo nationalism is fast becoming part of the problems rather than the solutions of current nationality politics in Ethiopia.

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As in the Amhara Region, there are competing parties and organisations in Oromia that seek to assume political leadership. There is the OPDO/ODP which is nominally federalist with the advantage of holding power at higher level of state structures federally and regionally, but less at middle and lower echelons of power. Its commitment to democratic federalism is questionable given its ambivalence and flirtation with Amhara nationalist elites’ agenda of setting up a unitarian state with ORO-MARA alliance. There are the other Oromo nationalist parties, such as the Oromo National Congress, that are nominally federalist but have not yet demonstrated a clear political programme, organisation or strategic alliances with non-Oromo federalists.

As a standard bearer of Oromo nationalism and with its presumed commitment to democratic federalism, the OLF should command majority political support in Oromia. However, the OLF seems to be not fully prepared to assume the mantle of Oromo nationalism in terms of developing a unified and clear federalist political agenda, coherent organisation and strategic alliances. The OLF is the only Oromo nationalist party that has the maximum commitment for supporting the federal state, notwithstanding its current organisational challenges and lack of clarity on its “thinking” on the nature of the federalist state it seeks to uphold.  Moreover, the OLF has come under ferocious and sustained attack by Amhara nationalist elites, not least from machinations by the OPDO/ODP. It is time for the OLF to declare and debate its democratic federalist political vision and seek strategic alliances with non-Oromo democratic forces with federalist agenda. At the same time, democratic federalists are duty-bound to defend the OLF against the onslaught of chauvinistic attacks and demonization, and the same for the OLF.

It is crucially important to underscore that seeking the Abiy Government to fall in order to prove the most chauvinistic and reactionary adage that the “Oromos Cannot Rule” is not only a bankrupt and dangerous zero-sum game, but is risking state-failure in Ethiopia, which is exactly the stated gaol and ploy of the anti-federalist, unitarian forces in the country. The tactics and strategy of all democratic federalists should be to defend the Federal Order, and the Government so long as it upholds the Constitution and resolutely and constructively struggle and criticise it when it does not, whilst focusing on the principal struggle against the anti-federalists, and forging sustainable and strategic alliances of all democratic federalist forces for the post-EPRDF political landscape.

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4. The Way Forward - Options for Strategic Alliances amongst Democratic Federalists

It is no brainer that the principal and fundamental political and ideological divide in present-day Ethiopia is between democratic federalist and right-wing unitarian forces. This divide determines the principal contending political lines, organisations and strategic alliances. There appear to be two options for defending the federal democratic order. Strategic Option A is Post-EPRDF Democratic Federalist Alliances based on all-inclusive federalist and democratic forces from all the Regions. This is the most challenging, but sustainable strategic option for preserving the gains of self-determination and defending the federal state. It is crucially important to realise that there is a built-in natural majority for democratic federalism in Ethiopia. The challenge is making it happen. Strategic Option B is a re-constructed, enlarged and more inclusive and diverse EPRDF conditional on the total rejection and repudiation of the Team Lemma/ORO-MARA political agenda, which is undemocratic and anti-federalist in essence. What is crucially important is that federalist forces including the TPLF and OLF must not wait for the Abiy Government to dictate and unitarily determine the future of federalism and the nature of the state in Ethiopia, and must therefore take the initiative at forging strategic alliances of all democratic federalists as a matter of existential priority. Failing on this historic mission is bound to threaten the very survival of the Ethiopian state as a cohesive political entity, and leads to relinquishing the gains of self-determination, that is apart from triggering the final options of confederalist association, or secession. The key message for all democratic nationalists and federalists in Ethiopia is that united they succeed, divided they fall. In the long-run and protracted struggle, the odds are that democratic and progressive politics will win.

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