Ethiopia: Referendum as a lasting political solution in Oromia and beyond
(Awashpost)—In a 24 March speech in parliament, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed acknowledged that his security forces have been fighting rebels in parts of the Oromia state. He also noted that internet and telephone communications had been cut in the restive areas—for months at a time—and many people have died in the fighting. It was a rare acknowledgment of a conflict that has festered in total darkness since 2018 in Wallaga, Guji, and Borana zones.
The civil war in Oromia continues to grind on in the shadow of the Tigray war. Yet, these are not the only challenges Ethiopia faces currently. Statehood demands have mushroomed across the South, sometimes accompanied by communal conflict and political tensions. Afar and Somali states are engaged in a stormy border dispute. The Amhara militia and special forces are on ethnic cleansing expeditions in Tigray, Wollo, and the Benishangul Gumuz region. At the root of these conflicts are unsettled historical debates, contested territories, and divergent aspirations about Ethiopia’s future.
To understand the multipronged challenges in Ethiopia, we must look to the country’s history and repeated failures to reckon with its complex past because these dynamics keep showing up in the present moment. Turning a blind eye to this historical trauma is preventing Ethiopia from moving forward. The multinational federal system enshrined in the current constitution has attempted to transition the country from empire and dictatorship to democracy.
Still, the desires for pluralism, regional self-rule, competitive politics, human rights, and self-determination keep colliding with the intentions upon which the country was initially built: to control and exploit resources, dominate people and create a single nation-state characterized by one language, one religion, and one cultural makeup (i.e., an Amharhanized state). Unlike the rest of the African continent, there was no decolonization process in Ethiopia. No real effort was ever made to remedy the wounds that were cut into the country and its people from the early days of its creation.
Ethiopia enjoys a reputation as the only African country that was never colonized, but the modern Ethiopian empire was created via colonial and military means carried out in collaboration with European forces from the early-mid 1800s onward. This process culminated in the reign of Menelik II, who consolidated the Ethiopian state via mass genocide, cultural, linguistic, spiritual, economic, and political decimation and assimilation. Vast regions were subjected to colonial control. They have always resisted.
Many believe that dwelling on past historical injustices is counterproductive when imagining political solutions for the present. I argue the opposite, i.e., the past, when it is clouded with trauma and left unaddressed, will continue to, directly and indirectly, control the future we attempt to create. It must be addressed. The question, then, becomes, how? What will it take to adequately address the political questions, social and economic conditions that are interlinked with Ethiopia’s colonialist past and present? It will take political courage and political will that untethers itself from patterns of control and abuse and strives to uplift the genuine desires of the people.
One way to know those desires and acknowledge the truth is for the people to decide what Ethiopia is or is not by holding a referendum. Ethiopia has not yet engaged in any decolonial practice. It is past time to consider it seriously. Many Ethiopians and Ethiopia’s western allies are now calling on the ruling Prosperity Party to initiate a National Dialogue process. I argue that referendum should be a central part of that dialogue and not be left to be decided by whatever ruling arrangement emerges from this event.
Ethiopia is a nation of nations with more than 80 ethnic groups; ten of those nations are formally recognized as “regional states.” The past impacts each people group in unique ways. Although my concern is not exclusive, my knowledge and experience put me in a position to speak to the Oromo experience. I believe that the solution of a referendum applies to all of Ethiopia’s peoples. It is the right of those people to discern the political solution most appropriate for their past, present, and future.
Two crucial truths help us understand the position of a referendum as a political solution for the Oromo nation. The first is that when Oromia was colonized, a functioning, diverse, culturally and linguistically unique, politically, economically, and socially organized nation with a respective history and an indigenous, ancestral custodianship to land was dismantled and replaced with a highly centralized Ethiopian state.
The second truth is that every ruler and conqueror of Ethiopia, from Menelik II to the current regime, had Oromo individuals serving at high-level public and grassroots positions. But there has never been a moment or an arena in which the Oromo people, en masse, have decided upon their political fate and whether they see themselves as part of Ethiopia. The combination of these two realities has seen each Oromo generation engage in various forms of resistance against the Ethiopian state. Ethiopia has always responded violently, without fail.
A genuine referendum will give all the people living within the boundaries of Ethiopia the opportunity to decide whether they: a) remain a federation, b) rearrange the union into a confederacy, or c) become entirely independent and stand-alone or d) form new voluntary unions from the position of independence. These options intentionally and contextually address and provide a remedy for the condition that resulted in the organization of the Ethiopian state as a project of force. It acknowledges that ordinary people have not been afforded a say as many iterations of Ethiopia have come and gone. It attends to the immense suffering of subjugated peoples throughout each chapter. Please note that these four options are articulated only for the purpose of this piece. The number of options and their articulations must be decided via a deliberative process undertaken by, for example, a selected committee or counsel entrusted by the people to shape the referendum process.
On the surface, a referendum may seem to favor those with secessionist ambitions. However, if conducted in the spirit of trust in the public and their capacity to decide their fate, no political ideology can manipulate the process than engage in awareness raising-campaigns in the lead-up to the vote.
Moreover, suppose we believe that the character of politics, when in actual service of people, listens to and responds to the interest of the collective. In that case, all political camps are obliged to accept and abide by the final decision that the people make. That includes me, as an advocate for Oromia’s independent statehood; it also includes proponents of multinational federalism and those that advance unitary state politics.
The benefits of a referendum within the process of national dialogue are many. First, whatever the next chapter is for Ethiopia, we enter it knowing that the people decided it, and thus the people and any elected leaders are accountable for that decision. The moment of the people’s decision is what matters most, though it may not appear to be the least challenging path. The second benefit, and one that cannot be understated, is that a referendum is the most likely political solution to bring all armed parties to the table.
The Oromo Liberation Army, a force that is exponentially growing and supported across Oromia, says it is struggling to enable the Oromo people to determine their future. It is common rhetoric amongst the army that they cannot decide independence for the people, even if that’s what the group advocates. They are fighting for the opportunity to enable the Oromo people to decide and then serve the people’s decision.
We can draw another example of this point from the protracted civil war in Tigray. After the waves of horror unleashed against the Tegaru people by ENDF, Eritrean soldiers, and Amhara militias, the TPLF says independence is “probably the most viable option” for the Tigray nation. Other organized groups, for example, in the Somali and Benishangul states, are likely to turn to armed resistance as all avenues for peaceful struggle dwindle and as PP works to erode the foundations of the multinational federal arrangement. A decisive public decision-making instrument like a referendum could see all of these parties come to the table.
At a foundational level, convening a referendum would need to be protected from government interference, including the military and security extensions of the incumbent government. All stakeholders should have the opportunity to campaign for and raise awareness about their position of interest. In the case of Oromia, the convening of a referendum should be conducted in collaboration with groups and institutions, local or otherwise, identified and trusted by the local population in Oromia.
The prospect of Ethiopia changing dramatically and the formation of new states are often seen as risky and disruptive. Ethiopian leaders often deploy this tactic—warning about risks of balkanization—to evade accountability and cling to power, even at the cost of protracted oppression and conflict. But time and again, the top-down state-building approach has brought neither lasting stability nor democracy to Ethiopia. The nation-state is an idea that is made appealing to groups of people by providing opportunities for growth, a fulfilling sense of identity and community, protection against harm, and more.
In many cases, and Ethiopia is one of those cases, the nation-state embodying an empire of indigenous nations is an idea that was created via violence and served only an elite few, refusing to evolve beyond that point. If the concept in practice is not productive and instead causes suffering, new ideas should be explored and embraced. After many aborted attempts at the transition to a democratic order, Ethiopia needs this more than ever.
In the case of the vote resulting in the country’s fragmentation, robust preparation for this transition at a local and collective level by those advocating for new statehood can protect against the political, economic, and social failure of these new nations.
A referendum as a political solution in Ethiopia might feel like a daunting consideration and terrifying as a practical undertaking. There are reasons for this. For one, if a referendum vote reveals that the people want freedom from the construct of Ethiopia, economic relationships will need to change, geopolitics will need to shift, and diplomacy will have to be rethought. Be that as it may, I insist that keeping over 80 million people (the Oromo and other southern and marginalized peoples) in an arrangement that produces trauma, generation after generation, is far more terrifying. The act of choosing can break this cycle of trauma for the Oromo and many others who form the vast majority of Ethiopia’s 110 million population.
Ethiopia urgently needs an all-inclusive national dialogue to avert an inevitable fragmentation. To succeed, the dialogue should be convened by a neutral body, and all parties must seriously consider a referendum as a legitimate political tool to settle historical and contemporary grievances. Ultimately, it is the people who must decide their political fate.