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Linguistic regionalization is debilitating rather than facilitating regional development in Ethiopia

Linguistic regionalization is debilitating rather than facilitating regional development in Ethiopia

Dr. Yohannes Aberra Ayele 2-1-19

The rationale for regionalization is to use the devolution of political power as a means to ensure appropriate and sustainable regional development as an end. The primacy of economy over politics is out of the question. The success or failure of politics depends on how it manages or mismanages the economy, not how smart it has been in kicking its adversary off the political arena and how successful it has been in influencing or dominating national politics from its regional power bases. Empty political maneuvering, devoid of economic aroma, misses the entire logic underlying regionalization. Of course, regionalization is done to provide for easy access to administrative services for the people. This is an ages old means to manage ways of life of human societies that have spanned for millennia. The Sumerians in Mesopotamia have had administrative devolution of their own sort; so did the Romans and Axumites. As populations increased, and economies and societies became more complex differences in the levels of economic and social development between geographical areas of the world became increasingly wider. As the pure and uncompromising economic principles of ‘least cost’ or benefit/cost became ruling guidelines for investment location decision making it was unavoidable that some regions became economically depressed and others became overwhelmed with economic prosperity. In the initial stages of development, which is based on primary resource exploitation, those geographical regions that are endowed with the needed natural resources, and at the same time, have locational advantages in terms of backward and forward linkages and also better access to services, will outdo other less fortunate regions. The consequences of such differences further enhance the differences between the regions.

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Investors  native to the depressed/backward/poor  regions prefer to invest in the better off regions. There will be financial outflow and depletion from the poor regions, as a result, darkens the hope for any significant future investment. The problem is aggravated by the outflow of skilled human resources to the regions of better opportunity. Poverty makes them even poorer in a vicious cycle. Hence, escaping from the trap on their own becomes almost impossible for the economically depressed geographical regions. This is where politics is expected to intervene. If the intervention is to come it comes from the central government which has larger coffers than those of the poor regions do. The revenues of the governments of the depressed regions are meager. They may be enough to run regional government bureaucracies; even sometimes not. So the resources needed for investments, to create jobs and propel the economy through multiplier effect, need to come from the National governments. In a free market/liberal economy such intervention is less likely. It is the responsibility of the respective regions to mend or break their economic life based their on their own means. Using tax payer’s money to support underdeveloped regions is considered to be against the basic tenets of capitalism. Parliaments do not usually approve this kinds of welfare. That is why, in capitalist countries, interventions into the economies of economically depressed regions is taken up where left wing or labor parties win elections. In Britain, whenever the conservatives are elected, whatever interventions in depressed regions the labor party had started will be neglected. This also happens in the depressed Italian southern region of “Il Mezzo Journo”. It was partly these kinds of inequalities and the reluctance or refusal of capitalist national governments that led to socialist revolutions. During the Military government of Ethiopia the administrative regions, whose boundaries were delimited by river valleys, had little value to manage depressed regions. When the regional planning office was opened it simply (carelessly) used the administrative regions as regional development planning units. It combined two or more administrative regions as one regional planning unit. The administrative regions were not fit for use as regional development units. Bale was separated from Hararghe by the Wabishebele River. It was a simple and arbitrary marker. The Ogaden divided into one in the east and the other in the west (Elkere). There is no difference between the two, which are put in two different regions, in terms of economic life: backward subsistence nomadic pastoralism. The solution, through regional planning, to the problem of poverty in the Ogaden is to regionalize it separately from the agrarian highland areas of Hararghe and Bale administrative regions. The same thing was true to the Gojjam and Wellega; economically similar regions but divided into two by the Abbay River. Historically, rivers in Ethiopia were potent dividers of societies. In the absence of modern roads and bridges connecting different parts of Ethiopia those places separated by rivers evolved into separate regions and awrajas, even weredas reinforced by the fact that they became fiefdoms of local and regional lords. This form of regionalization, unhelpful for the needs of modern time economies, was inherited and effective until 1994. The reason why it was kept intact is because there had evolved strong feelings of belongingness to the regions among the people of each region. The regionalism, bounded by the river valleys,had crystallized into a strong bondage between generation of people in the regions and awrajas. Even after the new linguistic regionalism was instated nostalgias of the former regions and awrajas still linger visibly and audibly. In fact, most of present day zones are almost the same as the former regions and awrajas. Nothing is helping to forget the past. There is always a challenge to plan for economic regions, regionalized separately, from administrative regions. National plans are almost invariably sectoral. The national government dispatches sectoral plans to administrative regions. That means the budget, human resource, etc. allocation also follows the same pattern. Each administrative region will do what is allocated and budgeted to it. If national plan is to be implemented in an economic planning region like Ogaden pastoral region that will be done as Hararghe region plan implementation and Bale region plan implementation separately. Implementation is done for warder from Harar and for Elkere from Goba; when Elkere and warder should have been in one regional planning unit. When the methodology is inappropriate the expected result doesn’t come. In the absence of appropriate regional planning poverty increasingly got worse through the decades, while central Ethiopia continued to be a magnet of investment and wealth from all over Ethiopia. The imbalance resulted in political instabilities and the proliferation of “Liberation Fronts” everywhere, fueled by political ambitions of politicians posing as deliverers of people in the regions from marginalization and abject poverty.

When the transitional council sat to chart the future of Ethiopia, it did not seem to take seriously what caused the rebellions, against central power, in the first place. People were bitter about the fact that their languages, cultural values and ways of life were not only neglected but also being degraded into disappearance. That was true. May be the former ruling elite wanted to follow the example of Anglo Saxons in North America, the conquistadors in Latin America, The British in Australia, etc. In Ethiopia, it did not succeed, as it did in other places. It simply triggered the proliferation of regional and local rebellions. Hence, most of those who attended the transitional council were national liberation movement leader: Oromo, Sidama, Tigray, Afar, Somali, and what have you! That was the critical juncture for Ethiopia’s current regionalization. The real enemy of those who were sitting in the hall, on behalf of different groups of people in Ethiopia, was the grinding poverty of their people and the lack of civil and democratic rights. Initially, the “national liberation” was, a rallying cry for the real motive of the movements: class struggle! The TPLF is on record for this motto in the first few years of its existence: “Nationalism as a tactic; class struggle as an end”. This means, people have become poor; but their idea of who made them poor was distorted. The reality was their poverty was caused by a ruling class, so they have to fight that ruling class. The ruling class constituted members from other regions as well. Of course, the proportion was skewed towards the Amhara elite. However, that doesn’t change the fact that it was a socioeconomic class cutting across linguistic and cultural boundaries. Were the people ready for a class struggle? No! Were they ready to fight against national oppression (cultural marginalization)? Yes! Because they felt that their poverty emanated from national oppression by another nation (which, they were convinced, included poor fellows like them) rather than the other way round. That is why all the “Liberation Fronts” were manned with fervent nationalists. When the class struggle element lost its flavor because of the ethnic nature that the wars with the central government took, the alliance was changed from class alliance into an ethnic brotherhood regardless of social class. Unfortunately, this was a clear mis-conceptualization. The way of the world is that if you are rich everything of yours will be respected. People would love to learn your language, imitate your life styles, and accept your cultural values as scientific. Eliminating economic marginalization is logically followed by the elimination of cultural/linguistic marginalization. So, what the different regions badly needed was a form of re-regionalization that is based on socioeconomic criteria. Linguistic regionalization has little to do with poverty eradication in the economically depressed regions. They don’t become economically viable because they use their language with-out restrictions, they have their own TV channels, recordings of their folk songs are sold in the open market, and their administrator, judge, and police is one of their own linguistically.

For the Transitional Council poverty was not an issue; putting out the fire of secession threats through power sharing was! Because of the power sharing by creating power bases for the “Liberation Fronts” regionalization was done based on linguistic criteria; because language was considered to be a key indicator of national/ ethnic homogeneity. The means (nationalism) became an end and the end became the political and economic power of the liberation movements’ elite. Class rule came again, in a different but more intractable form, with full cooperation and sacrifice of the unsuspecting poor. More intractable, because this time the ruling class was not centered in Addis Ababa only but also in all regions! Instead of trying to solve the economic problems (rampant unemployment, bad governance, and poor quality of education) of their respective regions many of them were busy amassing their wealth in the Center at the expense of the regions. Many of the members of the new regional ruling class work in the regions, live in Addis Ababa, and send their kid to overseas schools just like the former ruling class did. Even the elites of those ethnic groups who did not have liberation movements, like the Amhara, enjoyed the outcome of liberation wars! Four former regions were linguistically regionalized as Amhara. Now, we have a wealthy and politically powerful class of Amhara elite sitting at the top tier of the Amhara society dominated millions of people who are trying hard to make ends meet.

In the past the oppressed social class, united with all Ethiopians of the same class, had every chance to engage in class struggle and end all forms of oppression in Ethiopia. This chance was lost when these people chose national liberation in place of class struggle. Nowadays, the chance for all poor Ethiopians to unite for a class struggle is becoming dimmer and dimmer with every passing day. The new ruling class is more educated and more skilled in political maneuvering than the old timers were. The analysis of contradictions has already been systematically twisted into an interregional contradiction. What the poor people have in common is being replaced by what they don’t. The more they realize about their differences the more their blood boils, and the more they will be in a fighting mood. Who can reverse this downward trend? The people!

It is by now clear that, when it comes to balancing the development of regions by helping the depressed regions to gather development momentum, linguistic regions have made no contribution. Instead, they are debilitating the possibility for regional specialization of production and services based on comparative advantage and the creation of a National market, which is at the core of sound regional development.Such bright possibility is being hampered by the hate propaganda and belligerence incited by the regional political and economic elite. In a vicious cycle, people of different regions are getting further apart. This is a one way ticket to the doom of Ethiopia. It has to be stopped soon enough. As long as the regionalization is designed to fit sustainable regional development principles and criteria, at the sametime, protecting the languages and cultural values of different groups, the economic imbalance and the resulting poverty can be eliminated. Who is going to bell the cat? The people of Ethiopia! If they want to survive in the future as Ethiopians, not as 86 unviable and warring political units, they have to act now. What are they expected to do? Through an amended Federal Constitution the criterion for regionalization should be a hybrid of economic (levels of poverty, resource endowment), physical (geology, terrain, hydrology, climate), cultural homogeneity, linguistic preferences for economic convenience, and closely shared history. Ethiopia should remain a Federal State. There is no question about that. It is so culturally, economically, geographically diverse that a unitary arrangement does not make any sense, except for those who want to rule everyone in one piece by an iron hand.However, the Federation should not be based on single criteria, which has scant contribution for sustainable regional development. Unitary and linguistic criteria for Federalism are the two bad edges of a National political spectrum. We have unwisely jumped from one to the other. A host of other useful criteria are located in between. I consider applying unitary state and linguistic criteria as “cutting the Gordian Knot”. This is about trying to solve a complex problem by a shortcut and more convenient solution. Alexander the Great is said to have been presented with an intricate knot to untie if he wants to prove that he is not only a warrior but also a wise leader. In one version of the story, warrior Alexander did not want to waste his time. As he has learned to do in battle he drew his sword a cut the knot into pieces. The wise men around him predicted that his empire building will not last long because of his lack of wisdom in handling complex administrative issues in far away lands. 


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