A Reflection on the Strategic and Final (Last Resort) Option of the “Ethiopian Republic of Tigray”
Makonnen Tesfaye 16 June 2019
The question of the strategic and ultimate options of a confederal association, or secession in the event of the irrecoverable and irredeemable subversion of the democratic federal state and the institution of a hegemonic and oppressor state order that fundamentally undermines self-determination and the sovereignty of the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia, has been a focus of discussion of late.
At the outset it must be made very clear that the discussion of political secession as a strategic and final, or last resort option does not imply that the issue is a burning question or is an agenda for the overwhelming majority of the people of Tigray, or the political leadership for that matter. The struggle to uphold the federal order, the integrity and unity of the country against the onslaught of chauvinist and hegemonic forces is not a lost cause yet. The odds are indeed in favour of democratic federalists. Ethiopia has traversed similar junctures in the past and the peoples have triumphed preserving its unity. It is crucially important to recognise that there is a built-in, solid and natural majority for democratic federalism in Ethiopia amongst all the nations and nationalities. The challenge is making it happen and sustaining it.
The contributions of Tigrayans to the genesis of Ethiopia, its survival and independence against the relentless onslaughts of medieval, colonialist and imperialist forces and their internal surrogates throughout the millennia and centuries are second to none. No authority, party or media is in a position to ever lecture to Tigrayans what it means to be Ethiopian, as pontificated, for example by the chauvinists and reactionaries thrown out of the genocidal ESAT, and now congregating as Ethio 360 Media. It is a documented evidence that ESAT (the mouth piece of Berhanu Nega (PhD) and Andargachew Tsige – Ginbot 7/Ezema Chairperson and General Secretary respectively) openly and unashamedly called for the genocidal elimination of the entire Tigrayan people in copy-cat Rwanda style genocide in order to combat what it called the “Woyanes” (TPLF), propagating, to quote verbatim from their Amharic programme that, “it would be necessary to empty the Tigray sea in order to kill the Woyanes fish”.
What is important to recognise is the pertinent truth that the Neftegnas and big nation chauvinists may succeed, god forbid, in forcing Tigray out of Ethiopia but will never take out Ethiopia from Tigray. Self-determination has always been about democracy and the sovereignty of the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia against an oppressor nation and its ruling classes and elites, not about the choice of being or not being Ethiopian. It is the ruling oppressor nation and its elites who defined and created a false and deliberate dichotomy between being Ethiopian and seeking and exercising self-determination, which is an age-old ploy to mask national oppression and subjugation under the mantra of “Ethiopiawinet”. Yet, it must be clearly stated that no nation, nationality or people is destined to be subjected to and live under tyranny and oppression in perpetuity, and that political secession from an oppressor state is a legitimate, legal, strategic and final, or last resort democratic option as stated clearly in the Article 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution. Yes, it must be underlined again and again as propagated over the last fifty years that it is about the rights of self-determination, including and up to secession. This fundamental right is a non-negotiable and done question, the lynch-pin, Alpha and Omega, and treble redlines of Ethiopian politics and constitution.
Without any doubt, the single biggest achievement of the struggle of the peoples and nationalities of Ethiopia over the last half century is the establishment of a federal democratic Ethiopia, which in addition to preserving the unity of the country as we know it (at least until recently), but also set up a constitutional framework for resolving the kernel questions self-determination of oppressed nationalities, unity and democracy. Self-determination is in essence a democratic question, but in the Ethiopian context it was also a land and economic question, in particular in the Southern, South-eastern and Western regions of the country, where under the former ruling class Neftegna system of land tenure the vast majority of the peoples and nationalities were tenants and serfs on their own land. Past lack of ability or willingness to address fundamental equality and diversity issues by the ruling Neftegna and Derg Militarist classes has cost Ethiopia very dear, including the death of millions of people, the secession of Eritrea and the prospect of the further disintegration of the country. We need to remember and learn the lessons from how the Neftegnas and Dergists not only forced Eritreans out of Ethiopia but also Ethiopia out of Eritreans, for the vast majority at least. Similar burden of oppression is/was felt amongst some Oromo nationalists who characterised their struggle for self-determination, until recently, as against Ethiopian colonialism, which is synonymous with Neftegna subjugation and oppression given their existential experience, if not a characterisation based on sound historical and political economy analysis of colonialism, or imperialism.
Yet, the power of the subjective ideal and the objective reality of the quest for self-determination is such that writing a piece for FP Magazine on 4 June 2019 entitled “You Cannot Defeat Nationalism, Stop Trying”, Stephen M. Walt, a political analyst, argues that: “Way back in 2011, I wrote a column for Foreign Policy on ‘the most powerful force in the world.’ The powerful force I had in mind wasn’t nuclear deterrence, the Internet, God, Lady Gaga, or even the bond market; it was nationalism. The idea that humans form distinct tribes based on a common language, culture, ethnicity, and self-awareness, and that such groups ought to be able to govern themselves, has shaped the history of the past 500 years in ways that many people still do not fully appreciate”.
The discussion of the option of political secession is brought to the forefront by the current ominous state of politics in the country, which is characterised by the deliberate undermining of the federal constitution (e.g. the kidnapping, by the Federal Government/Oromia Regional Government, of the Ethiopian Somali President in contradiction to the Regional Parliament and the undermining of the authority of the House of Federation), the politics of ethnic targeting, cleansing and internal displacement of close to three million people, which is the largest in the world (e.g. the displacement/ethnic cleansing in Gedeo, West Guji, Northern Gondar and Ethiopian Somali Region), the persecution of minority nationalities (e.g. the massacre of hundreds of the Gumuz people), lack of safety and security, and the generalised break-down of law and order (e.g. as evidenced by the dismal ranking of Ethiopia, 131st out of 163 countries, in the Global Peace Index 2019 Report).
The political agenda of unitarian and totalitarian Amhara nationalist elites and the Abiy-Lemma wing of chauvinistic Oromo nationalists is deliberately and strategically ambivalent on self-determination of the Regions and the federal democratic political order, which is premised on the voluntary, equal and sovereign union of nations, nationalities and peoples, big or small. The “unholy” alliance of the big nation chauvinists do not seem to get the logic of Ethiopia’s Federal Constitution, which is a bottom-up union, not top-down devolution of autonomy by mystical central Ethiopian entity or authority. The federal state authority is derived from and is subordinate to the collective sovereignty of the union parts. It does not exist and has no meaning or power outside the union, and is expressed as the voluntary union of, by and for the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia. Size matters only in terms of political representation in federal government structures and resource and budget allocation not in terms of the hierarchy of sovereignty, regional autonomy, or fundamental rights. Alternatively, Ethiopia’s sovereignty is nothing but the sum total, collective, concentrated and historically-rooted expression of the sovereignty of its union parts, big or small. Hence, by the same logic, any form of senior-junior “nationality alliance” to dominate and subjugate is not only anti-federalist and undemocratic in essence, but undermines the sovereignty of the excluded parts. Undermine the parts, big or small, you undermine the whole. Moreover, it is a sure way of eroding the political integrity and viability of the Ethiopian State.
Unlike at the beginning of the struggle for national self-determination that began some fifty years ago, the first 25 year rule of the EPRDF has demonstrated (contrary to the revisionist, opportunist rhetoric of current “EPRDF” leadership) the benefits of democratic federalism by ushering in peace and stability, social cohesion and unpresented economic development, advance in education and health. This is notwithstanding the significant and major challenges, including legitimate and popular grievances pertaining to lack of democratisation, bad governance and economic injustice. The current crisis has been brought about by the internal political and ideological decay of the EPRDF, which facilitated and enabled the internal usurpation of party and state power by an alliance of reactionary, politically and ideologically vacillating and anti-federalist ruling elites, who are also assisted and abated by external forces who want the destabilisation and fragmentation of the country, and the end of a successful democratic developmental state experiment of nation-building and a non-aligned and independent foreign policy.
Yes, we can discuss the options of secession, a confederal association or the preservation of the federal system for it is a right provided by the constitution. It is the Constitution, Stupid. Moreover, it is the inalienable right of nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia. Moreover, the oppressed nationalities of Ethiopia did not begin the struggle for self-deamination decades ago because it was permitted by Haile-Selassie’s, or Mengistu’s constitutions, but in spite of it. However, what is crucially important, a burning question and on the agenda now is that federalist forces must not wait for the Abiy Government to dictate and unitarily determine the future of federalism and the nature of the state in Ethiopia, and they must therefore take the initiative at forging strategic alliances of all democratic federalists as a matter of existential priority. Failing on this historic mission is bound to threaten the very survival of the Ethiopian state as a cohesive political entity, and leads to relinquishing the gains of self-determination and federalism, that is apart from triggering the final or last resort options of a confederalist association, or secession. Whilst the odds are for democrats, federalists and progressives to prevail, the key message is that united they succeed, but divided they fall.