EZEMA is a Federalist Party? Comments on Dr. Berhanu Nega’s Speech in Adama

EZEMA is a Federalist Party? Comments on Dr. Berhanu Nega’s Speech in Adama

By Guluma Gemeda,  Ph.D., December 31, 2019

Dr. Berhanu Nega, leader of the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA) party, made a speech (listen below) to his supporters in Adama on December 22, 2019. Reading from a paper prepared ahead of the meeting, he responded to some critics and clarified the position of his party. Although delivered to a small group in the room, Dr. Berhanu’s message was aimed at the wider audience outside the meeting hall. Attempting to appeal to the Ethiopian people, may be as a campaign rehearsal for the upcoming elections, he presented a softer view of the party.

Without mentioning any names, he also attempted to dissociate himself and the EZEMA party from the Balderas group and its leader, Eskinder Nega—who condemns Oromo youth—by recognizing the positive contributions of Qeerroo to the downfall of the TPLF repressive regime.  Besides appealing to Qeerroo directly, he mentioned the role of various institutions—such as the Oromo gadaa system—in building societies and the value of cultural diversity to Ethiopia’s strength.

Dr. Berhanu Nega, however, criticized unnamed activists and political leaders who defend ethnic (multinational) federalism. He speculated that some these activists and political leaders are probably behind the current disturbances in the country because they want to advance their interests at expense of innocent people who have no reason to fight each other unless they are prompted by the elite.  Dr. Berhanu pretends that he and his party members are free from elite manipulations of ordinary people for political interests.  But this is not true.  In fact, Dr. Berhanu’s supporters were implicated in the Burayu incident of September 2018. A few weeks after he returned from exile, a youth group affiliated with the Ginbot 7 (led by him) attacked Oromo residents of Burayu in the suburb of Addis Ababa (Finfinnee) and triggered an ethnic clash that claimed the lives of several people. Some Ginbot 7/ EZEMA youth groups are also suspected to have been involved in other ethnic clashes in Oromia in recent months. Yet, pontificating from a higher pedestal, Dr. Berhanu accuses other leaders and activists only, but does not take any responsibility for the role of his party in the current turmoil in the country or the actions of the youth groups associated with it.

In his speech, Dr. Berhanu raised three issues levelled against EZEMA party by critics. First, he argued his party is falsely accused of working to bring back or to establish a unitary system of government. But he claimed EZAMA does not stand for a unitary system. Instead, the party respects diversity and the equality of all nations and nationalities in Ethiopia. He said, EZEMA supports the rights of nations and nationalities to use their languages, and to cherish and develop their cultures. Although EZEMA accepts federalism, Dr. Berhanu says, it is wrongly portrayed as a party that opposes federalism. However, he makes it clear that, even though his party accepts federalism in principle, it is opposed to ethnic (multinational) federalism.  That means, if it wins elections, EZEMA plans to replace the ethnic-based regional states by new administrative structures based on economic and social factors.

Second, Dr. Berhanu noted, his party plans to enshrine democracy through representation of citizens. The party’s democratic expansion is focused on representatives at the local level of government—districts and qebeles. Third, Dr. Beranu emphasized EZEMA’s position on security and stability in the country. He said the incumbent government, led by Dr. Abiy Ahmed, is working hard to implement reforms and conduct national elections in five months. For this reason, his party fully supports the government and its effort to establish peace and security.

In his response to critics, Dr. Berhanu failed to address the major problems and the dilemmas facing Ethiopian politics. First, the question of multinational federation is a critical political issue. Let alone a veteran politician, anyone in Ethiopia today understands that ethnicity (the question of nations and nationalities) is fundamental political factor in determining Ethiopia’s destiny as a state. The country may make or break on the question of ethnicity because it is an issue which is deeply entangled with Ethiopia’s history of conquest and oppression. Generations of Oromo, Somali, Sidama, etc. nationalists have sacrificed their lives to reverse the cycle of national oppression and cultural domination.

Besides the land issue, the national question was one of the major factors that contributed to the downfall of the monarchical system in the mid-1970s. Failure to address it satisfactorily by the Derg continued to destabilize the country and finally toppled the regime from power. When it came to power in 1991, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)/Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was forced to establish federalism because the demand of the Oromo and other peoples’ for national self-determination was potent.

However, the TPLF/EPRDF regime also failed to fulfill the promises of the 1995 constitution beyond creating the structure of federalism and ‘appointing’ weak satellite TPLF affiliated parties to rule the federal regions. TPLF/EPRDF government did not allow the development of genuine federalism and the functioning of acceptable self-rule of nations and nationalities. For this reason, the national question continued to attract many young people and millions of supporters throughout the country. While political parties which were organized in the 1970s around class and socialist ideology fizzled out, those nationalist parties (like the Oromo Liberation Front) have endured years of repression and earned their reputation as liberators of their people. After years of exile and armed insurgencies, they are now contending as opposition parties for power peacefully. In short, the national question is real and deserves an honest and lasting solution.

Unfortunately, the EZEMA party attempts to deny this fundamental question. Instead, it appeals to zegnet (citizenship) to solve Ethiopia’s complicated and enduring political problems. The use of zegnet as a party platform is, however, puzzling because both zegnet and citizenship are new concepts for Ethiopians to associate both with rights which are considered essential to the people. For example, except those who have applied for visas to travel abroad, many ordinary people may not associate zegnet to individual rights. Zegnet was used for the first time as a translation for nationality in a proclamation of 1930, a document that defined the legal status of Ethiopians married to foreigners or naturalized foreign nationals. Later, it was required on passports of those who traveled abroad. Before 1930, zegnet was not associated with any rights but a lack of it. Amharic dictionaries continued to define it as “destitution“ and “landlessness” until the 1970s.

Similarly, the concept of citizenship is understood only by the educated elite, as it requires knowledge of the English language and the rights that it grants to individuals in western democracies. Citizenship is neither inclusive nor does it guarantee the protection of the rights of individuals in the absence of independent judicial system and strong group (ethnic) rights. But the first (independent judiciary) either weak or does not exist in Ethiopia, and the latter (ethnic right) is denied by EZEMA. Therefore, while legally enjoying citizenship rights, individuals may  still face discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and other categories. In fact, since the 1931 constitution, all people within the Ethiopian empire/state were considered as citizens of the country. But that did not protect the Oromo, Afar, Somali and others from national oppression. If zegnet/citizenship had protected them, the country wouldn’t have faced many insurgent nationalist groups over the last five decades.

However, it does not mean that citizenship is not needed. Whether the concept is new, not inclusive in practice, or meant a different thing in the past, the rights of individuals should be respected and protected anywhere and everywhere, including Ethiopia.  But such rights should also include group rights, including ethnic rights, because the denial of individual rights could be linked to the absence of group rights. For example, individual worker needs to join a labor union to guarantee his/her rights. Similarly, how could members of an ethnic group develop their language and culture unless their ethnic rights included the right to make and implement laws in their respective states in the federal system? In Ethiopia where a tradition of an independent judiciary and check and balance of power between the parliament and the executive branches of government do not exist, and the abuse of power is rampant, how could an individual effectively protect his/her rights? In such a case, ethnic federalism provides a safety net for individuals and groups to develop their languages and cultures, and practice democracy and self-rule. An ethnic-based state could also protect the rights of all residents irrespective of their ethnic origin. Therefore, it is disingenuous to claim that current conflicts in Ethiopia are caused by ethnic federalism or that ethnic-based states could not guarantee individual rights.

It is true that people should be served by officials they elect in free and fair elections at all levels of government. But it is also misleading for EZEMA to claim that it wants to expand federalism by focusing on district and qebele representations while rejecting ethnic-based federal arrangements. Even if they are democratically elected, district level officials may not have strong influence on the central government. For that matter, qebele level officials were nominally elected by the residents since the Derg created the structure in the 1970s. But elected qebele officials soon proved to be the agents of the state rather than the servants of their electors.  It is unlikely that district and qebele officials could be effective agents for the protection of ethnic rights or the expansion of democracy, as Dr. Berhanu suggests.

Furthermore, EZEMA’s focus on security and stability, above everything else, is worrisome. Defending security and the search for stability should not jeopardize the rights of citizens. While fulfilling its basic obligations, both the regionl and federal governments should be very careful to balance their actions and their use of force in maintaining peace and security. Currently, they are not doing good their use force, maintaining peace and creating security. But while praising Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s government for its commitment to peace and security, Dr. Berhanu ignores the regime’s failures to delivery these essential functions of a government. He is also silent on the government’s extended use of command posts in various parts of the country. Surprisingly, Dr. Berhanu did not mention or condemn the mosque burnings in Gojam a day before his speech.

By allying the program of his party and praising Dr. Aby Ahmed’s government, Dr. Berhanu Nega gives some credence to the rumor that EZEMA is positioning itself to align or merge with the Prosperity Party (PP). Finally, his clarifications on EZAMA party’s position do not assuage the critics’ concerns. Honestly speaking, a realistic solution to Ethiopia’s complex political problems should still include acceptance of ethnic (multinational) federalism rather than denying it. In today’s Ethiopian politics, it is a sensible solution. Thus, without explicitly accepting multinational federalism, EZEMA’s claim to a federalist party status remains suspect or a disguise for its support of a unitarist state system.

Dr. Berhanu Nega and his EZEMA party are welcome to debate this matter.