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The Establishment of the Federalist Democratic Forum: Beyond the Unitary Geographic Federation and the Defeatist Secessionist Strategy

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                         January 2, 2020


The Dynamic but chaotic Ethiopian politics, at long last, culminated in the formation of the Prosperity Party (PP) at Addis Ababa and the Federalist Democratic Forum at Mekelle, Tigray Regional State. In the midst of all these social and political disorder, the Ethiopian people have paid huge sacrifices in relatively short period of time of two years, i.e. since the advent of the new regime headed by Abiy Ahmed; in somewhat bizarre and bitter irony, the Ethiopian people have encountered internal displacement accompanied by physical anguish, hunger, and death. Close to three million Ethiopians were forcibly relocated from their comfort domiciles to the wilderness with virtually no goods and services. Unfortunately to all the human suffering, pain-induced grief, and shock waves that Ethiopians were not prepared for, the regime was unapologetic and exhibited rather callous silence.

There is no doubt that the Abiy Ahmed-led Ethiopian government brought about impressive reform initiatives, including the restructuring of the cabinet deliberately designed to comprise ten female ministers out of total twenty ministers, but the Prime Minister also took negative actions that gradually but effectively emasculated his own party, the EPRDF; furthermore, he managed his day-to-day government decisions and practices outside the purview of the constitution; in effect, he became a stranger to the EPRDF and pruned it systematically as if he was an external contending foe.

While the Government of Abiy Ahmed took constructive initiatives but contradicted itself by conducting bizarre actions, as noted above, it is its latter overall operations that made the Ethiopian people suspicious of the behavior of the Government, and this unique phenomenon inadvertently compelled the federalist forces to come together and hold two successful conferences at Mekelle that consequently resulted in the formation of the Forum. Now, it looks a centrifugal group rallied around the PP and a centripetal force organized under the umbrella of the Forum will decide the fate of Ethiopia in terms of either leading toward a unitary state or maintaining and preserving the already established federal structure and the existing constitution.

The fate of Ethiopia will further be decided by the outcome of the forthcoming election, if at all it is held and operated throughout Ethiopia; given the current Ethiopian instability and the virtual absence of rule of law, however, the election could stumble into a wholly unpredictable situation. But, let’s assume that fair and free election will be held on May 2020, then, our follow up question would be, which group will gather momentum, win the day, and capture state power? I personally could not make prediction with certainty, although I could make a modicum of political forecast based on the political reality on the ground in Ethiopia. The political forecast is based on some reflections that I have made in my previous writings as shown below.

If the the forthcoming election encounters bumps and hurdles and is manipulated by the PP and its affiliates, opposing reactions could come from the Forum and the grassroots federalist forces, but the PM Abiy government could still continue to control the reins of power. In September 2019, I argued, “If the overall political trend is left unchecked, and it seems it would not be counterchecked in the face of a muzzled parliament and a faltering and disappearing EPRDF, Ethiopia will be heading toward a Hobbesian Leviathan type of absolute dictatorship, leveraging on the ‘state of nature’, the chaos that has afflicted much of the Ethiopian political landscape; the chaos itself could turn into a deluge and even drown the political regime. However, in the event that the regime somewhat survives on top of the flood under the bridge, it could consolidate by employing coercion and violent measures against any opposing force.”1            

On the other hand, if the federalist forces consolidate and the election is conducted without any confrontations, illegal interference, vote rigging, and electoral fraud, it is highly likely that the current Ethiopian institutions, including the constitution with its attendant group identity (nations and nationalities) as opposed to individual/citizen identity, will be preserved. In a similar vein to this scenario, back in January 2019, I addressed the significance of institutional preservation while at the same time I extended my two-penny advice to PM Abiy Ahmed: “What is to be done now? …First and foremost, Ethiopia’s forward march should be considered seriously and with conscious intention to preserve its institutions and its development achievements. As a matter of policy, the twin agenda of preserving prior projects and new vistas in reform and transformation requires the realization of a historically posterior moment (looking back and looking forward!). In other words, Ethiopia must break away from the present without losing touch with the past; a good, solid, and effective policy is one that constantly reassesses the past and that kind of policy must be adopted by PM Abiy’s Government. That is what Dr. Abiy should do before he ventures into eliminating durable projects and institutions (e.g. the constitution, parliament, federalism, the developmental state, Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) etc. …PM Abiy should not be extremely careful not to err in policy and instruct his government not to engage in a disempowering function and consequently diluting existing projects and institutions (a good example is the slowly vanishing EPRDF).2       

However, in due course of the year 2019, the bulk of Ethiopian politics have gone through tremor and turbulence, and subsequently the  dissolution of the EPRDF; of the four party members of the EPRDF, while the three parties of the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Party (SEPDM) willinlg dissolved their respective parties without consulting their constituents, the TPLF steadfastly remained adamant and decided not to dissolve the Front without the consent and approval of its general membership, the grassroots of the rank-and-file of the Party; and as promised, resilient TPLF called upon a general meeting of all its members and came out with a nine-point resolution, which can be summarized as follows:

·         The TPLF will not dissolve itself and join the PP 

·         The law of the land (the Ethiopian constitution) and the by-laws of the TPLF are rational and legal

·         We have decided to follow the decision of our organization, the TPLF, in its determination to fight the new ruling party that aims at destroying the constitution and federal democratic system that was structured based on diversity, and replacing it rather with geographic unitary system, akin of the old oppressive system.

·         Thus, we have decided to struggle along with multi-national democratic forces

·         We have decided to pay sacrifices to dismantle the network of conspiracy woven by traitors, anti-peace, and anti-people elements that are affiliated to the group in power.

·         We have decided to stand with our organization, the TPLF, in the event it takes action against the mercenaries Tigrean elements, who are by-products of the womb of Tigray, who have betrayed their own identity and are engaged rather in reactionary practices to disturb the peace in Tigray.

·         Because the newly formed party [the PP] does not have legal personality, we appeal to the federalist forces to stand on the side that wins the legal elections; and in order to facilitate the legal election, we ask the nations, nationalities, and peoples of Ethiopia, as well as the federalist forces to play their historic duty; and we have decided to guarantee you that the people of Tigray will stand on your side. (This is a summary of the original Tigrigna document and the translation and interpretation is mine alone)        

From the resolution of the TPLF members enumerated above and the political agenda of the Forum, it is now abundantly clear that neither the TPLF nor even the overwhelming majority of its members support separation from the body politic of Ethiopia; they are more coherent and rational in their thinking and instead of entertaining the idea of a defeatist secessionist strategy, they opted to enter into a cut-throat contest with the PP and other contending parties by mobilizing the Ethiopian federalist forces. The TPLF combatants are fearless fighters and they could sustain any war waged against them, but they also know firsthand that victory at the battle field squanders not only the economy but also costs great human lives, and in the event of secession, it looks they have understood that it is highly probable that they could be challenged from the northern and southern parts of the Tigray Regional State. On top of this, it seems they have craftily fathomed the benefits of a big nation and the negative consequences of secession.

I personally am in favor of Ethiopian unity and a collective pan-Ethiopian agenda surrounding a sane Ethiopian nation-state built by the nationalities in the context of a federal structure; while the Sidama, Wolita, and now the Gurage quest for self-determination is legitimate, the fact that these zones and the various regional states don’t embrace a defeatist secessionist strategy must be appreciated because this kind of political stance by itself is a solid guarantee to the continuation of historic and great Ethiopia.   

Going back to election 2020, we can pose the question: which group is going to have a distinct advantage or disadvantage? I like to address this intriguing question by way of concluding this brief article. In spite of the fact that there are plethora of legally registered political parties in Ethiopia, the majority of them including the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party, the EPRP, the Tigray Coalition Democratic Party, Medrek etc. are minuscule in terms of party membership and acceptance by the Ethiopian people; the Ethiopian Democratic Party, by its own admission is not ready for the election and seeking the postponement of the election. By contrast the PP could garner sizable membership in a short time and it already has the three parties’ (former EPRDF parties) membership; and the Forum, though newly constituted has a huge membership from the various regional states; in the Mekelle conference alone, there were forty strong organizations, and above all the Forum is supported by the majority of the Ethiopian people, who, in turn, are in favor of the continuation of the federal structure and the present constitution. Other parties like the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Oromo People’s Congress (OPC) are not affiliated to the Forum group, but they come very close to the latter in their support of the nationality-based federal structure; they too have a sizable membership but their supporters are going to be mostly Oromo; they may encounter an ethnic enclave dilemma and could not enjoy the multi-ethnic diversity endorsement that the Forum is going to easily grasp.

The minuscule parties mentioned above could be sand witched between the Forum and the OLF/OPC forces and their best bet is to either affiliate themselves to the PP or simply join the latter, because their constituencies are mostly in Addis Ababa, not withstanding their recruiting attempts in greater Addis Ababa and other cities. In the end, the fierce competition in the forthcoming election is going to be between the PP and the Forum, unless the leaders of the latter are systematically eliminated (as this piece is ready to go to publication, one BeniShangul- Gumuz leader who participated in the Mekelle conference was assassinated on January 2, 2020).

The distinct advantage that the PP is going to have during the election is the fact that it controls state media, finance, the defense forces and the federal police, as well as foreign relations and support from foreign governments. Forum, on the other hand could easily rally the nations and nationalities especially in Tigray, Afar, Somalia, Gambella, and BeniShangul-Gumuz, Harar, and to some extent from the Southern Regional State, which is almost on the verge of disappearance. However, the forum could also encounter a distinct disadvantage of limited resources, including scarcity in media outlets, finance, and external networking. Election 2020 is going to be historic, if it is conducted in a fair and free electoral process, and it will seal the fate of Ethiopia for the rest of the 21st century. We have to wait and see how it will unfold in the eyes of a hundred million Ethiopians!

Notes

1.      Ghelawdewos Araia, “Is Ethiopia Heading Toward a One Man Show Politics or One Party Dictatorship?” www.africanidea.org/Is_Ethiopia_heading.html

2.      Ghelawdewos Araia, “Transposing Ethiopia while Concurrently Preserving Its Institutional Heritage and Its Political Economy Achievements”, www.africanidea.org/Transposing_Ethiopia.html

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