Why Esayas Afawarqi fights against Multinational Federalism in Ethiopia

Why Esayas Afawarqi fights against Multinational Federalism in Ethiopia

By Bisil Gurre, July 23, 2020

Esayas Afawarqi
Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea

Multinational federalism arrangement is an effective means of alleviating deep ethnic divisions and hold together the common state. This is the stand non-Habasha scholars uphold unanimously. For the Habash group, Multinational federalism is an insidious institutional recipe for the inevitable disintegration of the common state.

The vitality of the debate between the advocates and critics of federal arrangement should not obscure the fact that hostility toward ethnic federalism is generally more widespread among the Habashas than is sympathy for it. This is because they have serious ignorance about the real concerns of the nations and nationalities who live inside empire Ethiopia.

Like most Habashas do, the Eritrean leader worries that little Eritrea will disintegrate if the Blain, the Kunamaas and 7 more ethnic minorities are given the right to develop their identities. To justify his assertion, he relies on the former Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and the former Yugoslavia disintegration. This is where they all lack understanding that the disintegrated states were nondemocratic countries whose cruel actions inspire secessionist tendencies.

The question the Habash group need to answer however is, “if not ethno-federalism, then what?”

Realistically, only two institutional alternatives exist as a remedy to democratically manage the problem of ethnic identities.

The first is “Unitarism”, whereby power is centralized, and, presumably, controlled by a majority group.

The second is “Federalism” in which the geographical distribution of ethnic groups is irrelevant to the delineation of ethnic boundary lines.

To argue for a Unitary system as an alternatives requires a realistic answer that such system has a chance of being better institutional alternative to ethnic-federalism. The truth the matter is that Unitary system can not be a better alternative neither in Ethiopia or in Eritrean because the Hamasein ethnic group is not the majority in Eritrea, the same way the Amharas are not majority in Ethiopia. The most feasible justifiable answer for the pro unitary system will be, the Oromos to dominate Ethiopia and the Kunamaas to do the same in Eritrea.

Therefore, Isayas Afawarqi and Abiy Ahmed’s pro Unitary system thesis, not only offers a fallacy against the system that has been tried already and failed, but it contradict their own logic that a unitary system requires domination by the majority ethnic group, such as the Oromo.

Although the details vary, pro unitary groups focus on two consequences of ethnic-federalism.

First, they worry that the creation of ethnic-federalism furnishes ethnic leaders with the institutional resources necessary to mount a secessionist challenge to the common state such as empire Ethiopia. They fear that each federal states are endowed with constitutionally guaranteed competences in a range of areas, including the full apparatus of governing institutions capable of articulating demands, and a clearly defined borders. Hence, an ethnic minority with autonomous status can challenge the central government.

The heartburn of the Habasha groups at this point therefore is, the Tigrai State that they believe poses the power over its internal security, in the form of police or militia forces; control over mass media (currently shut down by Abiy Ahmed).

Afawarqi, like Abiy Ahmed, (an Amhara), thinks that, through the media it controls, the TPLF can promote its cause for statehood, already uses its own state anthems, arms and mottos and enhance its capacity to sustain a successful secessionist bid. Esayas and the Amhara leader, Abiy, believe that the collapse of the soviet union neatly summarizes their points.

In their view, the Soviet breakup was crucially framed and structured by the territorial-political crystallization of nationhood in the form of national republics already existed as internal quasi-nation states, with axed territories, names, legislatures, administrative staffs, cultural and political elites.

In isolation, however, the institutional resources argument cannot logically suffice to explain why ethnic federations are more susceptible to secession than none ethnic federations. For example, the states in the united states of America or the UK are, after all, endowed with the same institutional resources as their counterparts in ethnic-federations in Ethiopia, yet, never resorted to secessionism.

Hence, the fear that ethnic-federalism will sharpen ethnic identity by providing ethnic groups the autonomous control over the mass media, education system, and helps them establish separate systems of native language and education, which creates an institution dedicated to instilling a common and separate identity among the students presumes that ethnic identities are susceptible to strategic manipulation by unscrupulous ethnic leaders for personal gain.

The peculiar susceptibility of ethno-federations to secession, then, would appear to result from an interactive combination of enhanced capacity and desire that is uniquely present in ethno-federations and absent in other system types. Hence, although unitary systems have suffered their fair share of violent secessionist movements by ethnic groups that have demonstrated a clear willingness to secede, none has succeeded because these groups lack the institutional capacity that ethno-federalism provides. Meanwhile, Ethnic groups in simple federations possess all of the requisite institutional resources to mount a secession bid but (presumably) choose not to, because simple federations do not promote or enhance the willingness to secede.

The case against ethno-federalism, however, is more fragile and less coherent than it first appears. The two most serious problems are;

The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia have driven the evolution of the theoretical arguments advanced by critics of ethnic federalism. These cases shared three characteristics.

First, they were all socialist “pseudo” or “sham” federations in which real power remained centralized in the hands of a single political party.

Second, they all experienced severe traumas as a result of simultaneous transitions (political and economic) during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Third, all three were federal systems in which all of the ethnic groups were ethnically positioned in the sense of providing a “homeland” for a special ethnic group. They were, in other words, fully ethno-federal. These three shared characteristics make these cases, at least, distinctive, if not “unique.

If so, what reasonably can be generalized in explanatory or prescriptive terms beyond these three special cases?

Taken literally, the policy prescription that follows logically is that a fully ethno-federal system is a poor choice of institution for authoritarian, socialist regimes if they are, at some point, to attempt simultaneous political and economic transitions. This is not an argument against ethno-federalism per se, but against a special form of ethno-federalism in a special context, and the number of contemporary states for which this has any relevance is probably limited.

Ethiopia, a fully ethno-federal system used to be, dominated by a single party, the EPRDF transitioned from a vague form of socialism to a market economy, might conceivably have benefited from heeding these warnings, but it is not easy to think of other potential beneficiaries. Strictly speaking, then, the collapse of ethno-federations in Eastern Europe says nothing about the survival prospects of democratic ethno-federations that are not under going dual transitions; ethno-federations that are not in place at the moment of transition but implemented as part of the transition process; or ethno-federations that are not organized around ethnic homelands.

To understand the origin of ethnic federalism, one must look into the particular history of federalism adopted by the Soviet Union to manage its “nationalities problem” in which every one of society’s important ethnic groups enjoyed its own autonomous “homeland”.

Ethiopia, Belgium, and, arguably, Bosnia are organized around ethnic home lands. Historically, Serbia-Montenegro and Ethiopia, Eritrea qualify, along with the Nigerian First Republic, Pakistan, and the short lived Malaysian Federation.

What is interesting here is that the Eritrean Liberation Front relied on the argument that its federal status of 1952–62 was violated by Ethiopia, and convinced its youth to fight and won independence in 1993.

The reason that led to the disintegration of Czechoslovakia also was similar to Eritrea. Czechoslovakia was organized under federal structure since 1968 but when forced to be centralized, it disintegrated in 93.

Similarly, Nigeria implemented the same federal structure in 1960, Malaysian 1963, Pakistan in 1947, Serbia/Montenegro in 1992, the Soviet Union in 1922, Yugoslavia in 1946, South Sudan 1972, until it was forced to integrate with north Sudan in 1983 but seceded in 2011.

The most obvious effect of broadening an argument against ethnic- federalism is to increase the universe of relevant cases against which theory can be tested; as this occurs, however, the evidence against ethnic federalism becomes less convincing.


If all ethno-federations are seen as a sign of failure, and unitary system must be implemented under a majority ethnic group, then, there would be little purpose for Isayas and Abiy to fight the Oromo people for that the Oromians are the majority and destined to dominate the rest. Similar argument can be made saying that the Kunamaas must take over Eritrea. If not, Ethnic-federalism should remain an alternative institutional form.

If giving another chance to a war is what Isayas and Abiy are up to and partitioning Tigrai into Eritrea, Amhara and Afar regions is an appealing plan, that approach indicates the Darg era failure on empire Ethiopia side.

If permanent solution is need to fix the social ills of empire Ethiopia, federalism that uses subunit boundary lines that cut across the existing societal divisions need to be implemented fully.

Ethiopia and Eritrea began life as a federation after the big four postwar powers proved unable to decide the fate of the former Italian colony of Eritrea. Because Eritrea was claimed by Ethiopia for historical and strategic reasons, opinion in Eritrea regarding its future status was divided between those wanting independence and those favoring union with Ethiopia.

The United Nations General Assembly, empowered to make a binding recommendation on Eritrea’s future status, was also divided, but was ultimately able to muster an affirmative vote for the idea of a federation. Accordingly, General Assembly Resolution 390-A(V) of December 1950 determined that “Eritrea shall constitute an autonomous unit federated with Ethiopia under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian Crown.

It also established some broad guidelines for the division of powers between Eritrea and the federal government and mandated the establishment of the Imperial Federal Council, with equal representation, to advise upon the common affairs of the federation. Resolution 390 was incorporated into a Federal Act, which the newly elected Eritrean Assembly ratified along with the draft Eritrean constitution in July 1952. Following the requisite ratification by the Ethiopian emperor, the Eritrea-Ethiopia federation came into being on September 15, 1952.

Almost immediately, the agreement began to unravel. The Ethiopian government suspended the Eritrean constitution in 1952, unilaterally replaced the Eritrean president in 1953, suspended the Eritrean Assembly in 1956, replaced Arabic and Tigrinya with Amharic as the state’s ofacial language in 1956, and banned the the Eritrean flag in 1959.

Finally, what little remained of Eritrea’s autonomy was formally eliminated in 1962, when the Eritrean Assembly voted for its own elimination at gun point and Eritrea was officially annexed by Ethiopia.

By this point, armed resistance to Ethiopia had already begun to form in the shape of the Eritrean Liberation Front. Under its successor, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, conducted a successful guerrilla campaign against Ethiopian government forces and eventually won a series of decisive military victories in the late 1980s.

In 1991 the Front announced the formation of a provisional government for Eritrea, and in 1993 Eritreans voted almost unanimously for independence from Ethiopia in a referendum agreed to by a new regime in Addis Ababa.

As one can see, the case of Eritrea-Ethiopia federation is a failed unitary system dissolved in 1962 in the same way that unitarism was dissolved in Yugoslavia (1939 or 1946.

What is true therefore is, the success rate of ethno-federations is far higher than acknowledged by unitarists, higher even than many defenders of ethno-federalism seem prepared to concede. The argument of critics is at its most compelling when the subject is federations in which all subunits are organized into ethnic homelands but this argument suffers from a lack of real-world relevance.

Historically, there have been few full ethno-federations, and in the contemporary world, there are few states for which a fully ethno-federal system would be a relevant option. As the case against ethno-federalism has expanded its reach to encompass a larger universe of cases, so the argument has increased its real-world relevance, but at considerable cost to its empirical heft. Ethnic-federations have an excellent track record.

In a large majority of cases, ethnic federalism is not implemented as a panacea, or because it is the choice of resort. It is implemented only after an alternative institutional form, usually unitarism, has failed; it is implemented precisely because the alternative failed. Therefore ethno-federalism is invariably the choice of last resort, because it is the only choice available in the absence of feasible alternatives.

1 Comment

  1. Brilliant! All Ethiopian federalists can survive except Amhara because they’re incapable of being themselves. They love being a parasite than a host.

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