The Prosperity Party is a threat to multinational federalism
Prosperity Party’s ideological and institutional drift away from multinational federalism is turning Ethiopia into a failed state. It will have devastating national and regional ramifications.
Ethiopia is in the throes of a dreadful civil war. It is a culmination of more than two years of pissing-match between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali and the leaders of the Tigray regional state. The war is being fought in the backdrop of an ideological conflict and competing visions for the future of Ethiopia.
Since he was swept to power in 2018, Abiy has made no secret of his disdain for federalism and nostalgia for the centralized and assimilationist days of the unitary state. On the other hand, his opponents in Tigray have positioned themselves as the only buffer standing in the way of Abiy and his highly centralized vision for the country.
To understand Abiy’s anti-federalist views, consider his recent parliamentary speech in which he touted the democratic merits of a unitary state. Unsurprisingly, his comments raised many eyebrows. Why did the leader of a multinational federation even bother to defend the accommodationist quality of a unitary system? Was it a Freudian slip or a subliminal message?
Abiy has continually repudiated and at times trivialized the mounting demands for statehood in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR). For example, he has suggested that the demand for statehood is simply a desire by local elites for more V8 vehicles rather than a genuine demand for autonomy or self-rule.
He has also tried to coerce zonal representatives to delay their formal request to the House Federation for statehood until a comprehensive political roadmap is devised and decided upon. When Sidama became the 10th member of the federation, following a historic referendum, neither Abiy nor his office extended a congratulatory message to the Sidama people.
The diversity challenge
Ethiopia has followed a unitary state system ever since the polity took its current shape through the conquest of Menelik II at the turn of the 20th century. Multinational federalism was adopted in 1995 to accommodate a century-old ‘diversity challenge.’ For the first time, it recognized and at least in theory celebrated ethnic diversity. To codify these changes, the constitution established nine regional states based on ethno-linguistic identity and granted significant autonomous power over regional matters to the constituent parts. It also enshrined the powers and principles of shared rule.
Ethnic groups became sovereign entities and the building blocks of the new arrangement. They were also given the right to co-govern and take their due share in the national cake. Pointedly, Article 39(3) of the constitution recognized the unconditional rights of ethnic groups to have an ‘equitable representation’ in the federal government
However, if we draw a balance sheet of the last 27 years, the principles and rules of federalism have been honored in the breach. While the country was constitutionally a federal state, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) snatched self-rule and compromised shared rule through its practice of democratic centralism. (Democratic centralism is a Leninist organizational principle in which a centrally decided policy is binding on all members.) Hence, the constitutional rights and powers of ethnic groups were short-circuited by a party dogma. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the dominant partner in the wobbly coalition, employed this tactic to offset its numeric minority and held an unquestioned hegemonic power.
That is why TPLF met opposition and resistance at every turn. A 2014 Addis Ababa Master Plan rekindled sustained Oromo protests sealing TPLF’s fate. At its core, the Oromo protests were a demand for the respect of regional autonomy over development and urban planning. The protest eventually expanded to other states, most crucially to the Amhara region, and grew to include demands for regime change. The protesters sought to end TPLF’s authoritarian rule and establish a fair, just, federal, and democratic order.
The four-year-long protest movement precipitated TPLF’s demise and paved the way for the rise to power of Oromo and Amhara reformists inside the EPRDF. The upheaval culminated in the selection of Abiy Ahmed as the prime minister.
Abiy wasted no time to disband the EPRDF and haphazardly rebrand it as Prosperity Party (PP). Initially, PP vowed to build on the achievements of the EPRDF and rectify its political and economic shortcomings. Abiy quickly made an about-face as his electoral chances dwindled under the new party tag.
Regressive ideological shift
PP is progressively drifting toward the right by embracing a dangerous and divisive narrative. The party’s Medemer ideology has been billed as an indigenous philosophical solution to Ethiopia’s problems. But a closer examination reveals that it is institutional engineering based on a simplistic and distorted reading of history. It applies a reductionist and revisionist approach to unpack the many contradictions of Ethiopia. For example, it purports to dismiss ethno-national movements as ‘elitist instrumentalism’ rather than a genuine quest for recognition and inclusion.
While it grudgingly accepts the existence of national oppression in imperial Ethiopia, Medemer dismisses the last 50 years’ efforts to accommodate ethnic diversity as a national disaster. In short, Medemer is predicated on restoring the homogenization and centralization legacy of pre-1991 Ethiopia.
While disastrous humanitarian and human rights violations were committed over the last 50 years, this period also saw relentless efforts and sacrifices to remake Ethiopia as a multicultural and multinational polity. Both the class revolution and the adoption of federalism had brought about positive changes in managing diversity. Hence, a political ideology that casts this period in a bad historical light could not be considered as a solution to manage diversity.
Some of the prime minister’s surrogates do not even hide PP’s ultimate objective. For example, earlier this year, Abiy’s senior advisor Daniel Kibret underscored that the main task of PP is to finish the nation-building process initiated by Menelik II. So far, neither the party nor the prime minister has denounced and distanced themselves from that outrageous remark. It could only be interpreted as tacit approval of the statement. Abiy’s latest speech is thus in keeping with the deliberate effort to slowly but surely chip away at the federal project. It is under this context that Abiy and TPLF are now engaged in an omnious conflict that could destablize the entire Horn of Africa.
A unitary structure and policy
Several comparative studies have shown that a party structure can significantly affect federalism. While an autonomist party system enhances the principles of self-rule, a unitary party weakens regional autonomy. The impact of PP on federalism is more pronounced for two reasons. First, PP is a ruling party that controls the federal government and all regional states except Tigray. Second, and most importantly, PP is a hegemonic political party. Under EPRDF, Ethiopia effectively became a one-party state. And every function and sector of government has been impacted by the unrestrained party-state fusion. That is also why a shift in party policies and structures carries serious political repercussions for the body politics.
Besides the ideological backsliding, PP’s organizational structure also undermines the multinational federal arrangement. A cursory reading of PP documents reveals that it is a unitary party. Unlike EPRDF which was a coalition of institutionally autonomous regional political parties, PP was established as a single national entity without leaving any room for regional and institutional autonomy. All meaningful and consequential party policies and decisions are made at the center by the highest party echelon. Local branches are merely there to execute what has been decided at the center. For example, there is no Oromia or Somali Prosperity Party but a Prosperity Party branch in Oromia and Somali regions. The branches do not necessarily represent the interests of the local people other than having PP presence at the regional level.
In other words, the organization makeup of PP undermines constitutionally sanctified state autonomy by reducing the regional party branch into an instrument of central leadership. Worryingly, the leadership of the branch offices (including the administrators of the regional states) is made accountable to the federal Central Committee. Even if the so-called ‘affiliates’ (Agar) parties were brought into the fold, upgrading affiliates to PP members came at the cost of losing relative local autonomy. Thus, concerning regional self-rule, if EPRDF’s democratic centralism was akin to indirect rule, PP’s organizational structure resembles a direct rule
Furthermore, membership in PP is individual-based without any ethnic affiliation. Meaning, its members do not represent a group but themselves as individuals. This defies one of the essential requirements of multinational federalism that calls for the existence of an autonomous local party that protects and advances local interests.
In characteristic PP self-contradiction and doublespeak, the party claims that the composition of its party Council and Central Committee is based on population size. Whether this refers to ethnicity or residence is not clear. Since membership is an individual-based – without ethnic affiliation or linguistic proficiency – the population size clause may refer to residency. This is contrary to multinational federalism which requires ethnic representation in shared-rule institutions.
Such a unitary structure could also negatively affect the constitutional requirement of equitable ethnic representation at the federal level. How does a person who joined the party in an individual capacity represent an ethnic group? Since ethnicity or language is not a requirement for membership, there is a likelihood that PP branches could be dominated by members of different linguistic groups, eschewing ethnic quota and representation.
Dismantle or Democratize?
Reversing Ethiopia’s federal system let alone the multinational version risks disintegration. It is highly unlikely to reset the clock on multinational federalism easily without risking the country’s territorial integrity and unity. Ethiopia should not go far to discern the danger of rollbacking federalism. The dissolution and concomitant political ramifications of the Eritrean federation is a glaring lesson. The seeds for Eritrean secession were sown during the dissolution of the federation act. If PP attempts to dismantle federalism, the specter of more Eritrea-like scenarios won’t be far-fetched. Not only a risk of secession but it could also lead to bloody communal violence. Localized and spontaneous pogrom would be commonplace as seceding entities would engage in downward homogenization and ethnic purification.
But democratization and further institutionalization can work and perhaps save Ethiopia from the abyss. Multinational federalism and constitutional dispensation while lacking original democratic legitimacy, over time, have earned a redeemed legitimacy as attested by wider support among Ethiopian people.
Today, except for the so-called pan-Ethiopianist forces and urban-based elites, multinational federalism enjoys widespread acceptance and support. As a recent Afro Barometer survey shows 61 percent (had it not been for a methodological flaw of the survey, the support rate could have been higher) of Ethiopians support the continuity of the federalism system. Hence, the way forward is to democratize and ensure institutional autonomy and complement it with a robust minority protection regime.
PP’s ideological and institutional drift away from multinational federalism and Abiy Ahmed’s stubborn refusal to change tack will only escalate the already tense political atmosphere in Ethiopia. It has already engendered a civil war in Tigray, bringing the country one step closer to a failed state with devastating national and regional ramifications.