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A war of visions

The sham election and the ongoing conflicts in Ethiopia are all related to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s attempt to establish a durable authoritarian regime that centralises power and destroys the current Ethiopian federalism.

One of the first moves Abiy made in this direction was to merge the parties within the coalition Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – which formerly ruled the country and maintained at least a de jure federal system – into one party, his Prosperity Party.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), one of the core parties in the EPRDF which has ruled Tigray for decades, decided not to join the new formation. When Abiy announced the postponement of the elections in 2020, Tigray rejected it, seeing it as an illegal extension of the prime minister’s term and as a threat to people’s right to self-determination. On September 4, Tigray conducted a regional election, which Abiy declared illegal. Shortly after, Addis Ababa cut ties with the Tigray government and slashed its budget, eventually declaring war and deploying troops to the region.

Abiy is clearly intent on crushing any opposition to his efforts to concentrate power. It is quite ironic that when he came to power in 2018, there was society-wide hope that he would finally guarantee the rights of various communities which had faced repression for so long. But that was short-lived. It soon became clear that he wants centralised absolute power, and federalism – which decentralises power to the various regions of the country – stands in the way.

The demand for federalism, which Abiy is trying to suppress, has to be understood within the context of Ethiopia’s past history of domination by one ethnic group, forced assimilation and the denial of cultural rights and identity of various communities. The 1995 constitution tried to address this by establishing a multinational federal system that grants cultural communities the right to self-determination all the way up to secession. Though plainly stipulated in the constitution, Ethiopian federalism was never effectively practised.

The ever-increasing demand for self-determination and self-rule is an outcome of the short supply of democratic constitutional governance that guarantees the rights of all ethnic and religious communities in Ethiopia.

Abiy and his ruling party, albeit promoting a mild level of decentralisation, aim to abolish the current federalist arrangement. Feeding on extreme nationalism and quasi-imperial ambitions, they are hellbent on securing and monopolising power by any means.

When possible, they employ constitutional norms and when necessary, unconstitutional, brutal, oppressive means, including a genocidal war on those who resist. This is a vision that is inherently undemocratic, antagonistic to multiculturalism, and even fascistic and that threatens the integrity of the state.

On the other side is a vision of federalism, of decentralised power, more autonomy, confederal arrangements, self-determination and even, where necessary, independence from the central authority. Some members of the ruling party may support maintaining the current constitution, but they exercise little influence in setting Abiy’s vision for the country.

Excerpted: ‘Ethiopia’s election will not bring peace’

Aljazeera.com