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Hard lessons for Sri Lanka from Ethiopia Why ethnic federalism is never a solution?

Last updated on November 24, 2020

In December last year, Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister and Africa’s youngest won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in courting peace with former foe, Eritrea and thus ending the Horn of Africa’s longest-running war.

Barely a year since then, Ethiopia is back in the thick of another war, that has already sent 20,000 refugees across the border to Sudan, and reports of ethnic massacres are trickling in. Grave enough, but these personal tragedies are mere footnotes of a greater catastrophe for this is a zero-sum war that if the central government fails to prevail in, would most likely lead to the disintegration of Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous state along tricky ethnic lines.

Abiy’s new enemy is Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which was the dominant party of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) until Abiy’s elevation as the Prime Minister in 2018. The TPLF withdrew from the government after Abiy merged ethnic-based regional parties into a single party, known as Prosperity Party and when the Central Government postponed regional and national elections this year under the pretext of Covid, it went ahead and held its own election in its home turf, Tigray region which is home to six million people, and refused to accept the legitimacy of the Central Government, which in its part announced the regional election as void. The immediate catalyst for the war was an attack on the garrison of federal troops in the Tigray region by TPLF and it led to the Centre to declare war.

In Sri Lanka, pundits have advocated devolution of police power as if it is just another form of administrative power, which it isn’t

Many observers have pinpointed a wide range of causes for Ethiopia’s recent troubles – most of which had long persisted and are structural. But the most obvious of all is the weak foundation of the Ethiopian State on ethnic federalism, which pits the Centre against competing for ethnic-based parties and groups in the region.
In 1991, a motley group of parties led by TPLF defeated Derg, the pro-Soviet military Junta that ruled Ethiopia since it overthrew the long-standing emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.

TPLF converted the centralised state of Ethiopia into a federal ( in theory, a con-federal) state with nine regional states based on ethnicity and two federally administered areas. The new constitution was hailed for its promotion of ethnic and cultural exclusivity, though Ethiopia has never had competitive multi-party elections to test these claims. Instead, unelected or appointed ethnic elites ruled the roost in the regions and as long as they remained subordinate to the Centre, none of that mattered.

In the meantime, Ethiopia, which was earlier known for its devastating famine in the 80s. charted a commendable economic journey, and become one of Africa’s fasted growing states; especially since the dawn of this century, its economy has clocked near double-digit growth annually. Read more on the site.

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