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Ethnic-federalism incites dangerous nativism in Ethiopia

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Teshome M. Borago | News analysis

New York City (PT) – While the international media has put spotlight on the negative impact of populism in President Trump’s middle America, what is happening in Ethiopia gives a whole new meaning to nativism. With 2.8 million dislocated citizens, Ethiopia ranked number one in the world for internal displacements in 2018. And according to IRIN, the carnage in Ethiopia shows no sign of slowing down in 2019.

The ongoing tribal conflicts nationwide have recently been exasperated by the ethnic violence in the border town of Moyale. Since the final weeks of 2018, Moyale has lived up to its nickname as “the city of death.” Located between Kenya and Ethiopia, the town is contested between the dominant Oromo Borana ethnic group and the Garre Somalis. Ethiopia’s ESAT media reported that around 600,000 people have been recently displaced from this region alone. Due to the lack of access to independent media, it is unknown exactly how many have died and how the conflict restarted. However, both the Oromo and Somali continue to point finger at each other and vow revenge, as hundreds have reportedly died during weekly massacres.

The growing ethnic violence in Ethiopia has thus dampened the enthusiasm for the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and trigged an op-Ed report from the New York Times on Thursday, faulting the country’s backward constitution for promoting an ethnic-segregation system. “The fiction of an ethnic homeland” has created “endless minorities” and “an additional layer of privilege,” said the New York Times article. The result is more tribal conflict and “mobilization of ethic militias” nationwide, warned the newspaper.

Better known as “Ethnicfederalism,” Ethiopia’s administrative system has been compared to apartheid in South Africa. Originally established by the country’s late Marxist Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, analysts believe ethnic-federalism is the main obstacle to liberal democracy in Ethiopia as it has institutionalized nativism and segregation. As the Moyale example indicates, ethnic nationalism has replaced Ethiopian nationalism nationwide; leading to vicious tribal competition for land.

To understand the impact of tribalism in Ethiopia, one has to compare it to the southern portion of Moyale in Kenya, where civic nationalism is prioritized over ethnicity. Known as the “Moyale constituency,” elected Kenyan officials discourage tribal attachment to land ownership and promote democracy and individual rights of all citizens. This has been the formula in the rest of Kenya and other successful liberal Democracies in Africa like Ghana. While minor election related tribal clashes have occurred sporadically in Kenya before, nothing compares to the endless tribal bloodshed in Ethiopia. Kenya has not officially outlawed ethnic political organizations (like Ghana did successfully), however what made Kenya stable compared to Ethiopia was its rejection of ethnic-federalism. Despite having 69 languages, Kenya has refused to structure its federalism based on language or tribe. However, the Ethiopian government continues to govern via ethnic segregation, recklessly distributing and assigning historically contested territories based on tribe. This policy has backfired. Since Ethiopia is mostly made of up multiethnic communities, this apartheid policy has created time bombs everywhere. Consequently, nativist tribal elites have instigated various ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods nationwide. For example, in southern Ethiopia, the ethnic conflict between the Guji Oromo and Gedeo led to hundreds of death and over a million more people displaced, according to IRIN.

The crisis in Ethiopia should not be ignored by the international community. Located by the vital Red Sea trade route, Ethiopia is the second largest nation in Africa and the headquarters of many global organizations. It also hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees from other countries as well as being a major contributor for the UN peacekeeping force. By 2050, Ethiopia is predicted to be in the top 10 of the biggest countries of the world. A collapse of such a massive state with political, diplomatic and historical significance globally will have a disastrous domino effect continentally.

The deadly tribal conflicts may soon overwhelm the center at any moment and trigger mass scale civil war. It is important that the international community use its leverage and put pressure on Ethiopia’s tribal elites toward moderation and cross ethnic tolerance; particularly since many of them have assets or live in the Diaspora. As the New York Times article recommended, Ethiopia must scrap ethnic-federalism and replace it with geographic federalism based on citizenship. It is clear that the policy of assigning tribal ownership of multiethnic towns like Addis Ababa, Moyale, Dire Dawa, Hawassa, Adama and many others has failed. Therefore, Ethiopia must establish deeper federalism that is tailored toward local realities. Not a return to centralization, as critics claim, but more federalism or decentralization is the better alternative. The end goal should be to bring government closer and closer to the individual. Otherwise, the Ethiopian state will continue to disregard human life and sacrifice it for the “greater good” of some tribal nativist interest groups. Independent and democratic institutions must gradually replace the local tribal administrative structures. Non-ethnic civil society groups in Ethiopia also need financial support from global organizations who share their common values of promoting individual liberty and democracy thru independent media and advocacy. In addition, Census reform must recognize mixed-ethnicity and promote the “identity development” of mixed or multiethnic Ethiopians; who in turn may become the bridge that connect rival ethnicities nationwide. Education reform must similarly teach the values of independent institutions, democratic culture, open society and ethnic tolerance. There are many cynics and critics who believe it is too late to reverse Ethiopia’s downward spiral. Yet, It took many dark years for nativist tribalism to proliferate nationwide, therefore it will take many more years to abolish it, perhaps a generation. The task is daunting and it is an uphill battle, but the struggle is worth fighting for to mold an African society that puts humanity before ethnicity.

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