Ethnic Federalism in Ethiopia: Genuine Federalism or Divide and Rule?

Seminar date: 
05 February 2009
Speaker(s): Dr Aregawi Berhe

Aregawi Berhe is an independent scholar on the politics of the Horn of Africa. His forthcoming book is entitled The Political History of the TPLF (1975-1991): Revolt, Ideology and Mobilization in Ethiopia, and is based on his PhD thesis that was defended at the VU University in Amsterdam on 2 September 2008.

This seminar explores the complexities surrounding ethnicity as a guiding principle of governance in contemporary Ethiopia and investigates how an ethnically based state policy is being pursued and is impacting on endeavors to democratize society. Ethiopia is historically a multi-ethnic state and, in this polity, ethnic politics and ethnic mobilization, in their latent or open forms, have played a pivotal role in power politics. For some decades now, ethnic grounds - under various banners and pretences -- have been essential components of social and power bases of the Ethiopian political elite. At present, the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which in some senses is radical, has set up an ethnically based federal government structure with a constitution that stipulates the 'right' of nationalities (ethnic groups) to secede. Applied for the last seventeen years, this approach to governance has not ushered in a period of stability and genuine democratic processes. There is no political space for collective demands at ethnic or civil society level to make any headway towards a negotiated settlement. And in fact the tendency of resorting to unconventional means to hammer out differences is growing. An examination of ethnic politics and its modus operandi in Ethiopia will help to understand why, in multi-ethnic polities, governments on the one hand and society on the other behave in an unconciliatory manner, often derailing the process of democratization in which all could have been assured shared satisfaction. This seminar will look at how the democratization process is being impaired by the prevalence of ethic politics in Ethiopia, thereby reflecting the realities in other countries where ethnicity is dictating the politics of the day.