How empires end

How empires end

By Professor John Harbeson

Ethiopia is at a crossroads – between a pathway toward the establishment of an economically and politically viable democratic state, and the possibility of its unravelling into a plethora of small ethnically-based mini-polities as they mostly were a century ago, and more prior to their incorporation in the Ethiopian empire by the conquests of Menelik II.  

In recent weeks, the existential possibility that Ethiopia may follow this latter pathway has arisen because the fifth largest ethnic group in the country, the Sidama, are poised to declare themselves an independent state within a few months. If successful, there is nothing to prevent many smaller ethnic communities from following suit, leading potentially to a centrally ungovernable array of ethnically defined mini-states. If the Sidama are unsuccessful, depending upon how that occurs and for what reasons, the legitimacy of a core promise of ethnic self-determination in the ruling regime’s constitutional dispensation, and the legitimacy of the regime itself, may be further and dangerously undermined.  

How has Ethiopia come to this crossroads? It’s a long and fascinating story.

Menelik and his successor, Haile Selassie (1930-1974), kept the empire together until more than a decade after most, but not all, sub-Saharan African colonies had won their independence from European colonial powers. The fundamental question of what should happen to this African empire has been and remains at issue to this day. Is the Ethiopia empire destined to come to an end in some fashion as have those of European powers in sub-Saharan Africa? Or can the Ethiopian empire be transformed into a strong, politically and economically viable state anchoring the Horn of Africa? 

Two successor regimes, a brutal military dictatorship (1974-1991) and the current Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front (EPRDF have sought, so far unsuccessfully, to establish a viable post-imperial state on the ruins of the ancient empire. The military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam sought to eradicate the underlying deeply traditional feudal socioeconomic structure of the empire and to erect a Marxist-Leninist state in its place. It failed because it hijacked a genuine grassroots popular revolution that drove Haile Selassie from power, set up a veneer of civilian rule that comprehensively denied it in reality, failed militarily to prevent the secession of Eritrea, and essentially alienated the entire country, sparking the grassroots insurgency that brought about its overthrow and the EPRDF to power. 

The EPRDF’s founder and leader, until his 2012 death, Meles Zenawi, reasoned that the only way to establish a viable post-imperial Ethiopian state, preventing other communities from following Eritrea’s secessionist path, was to endow each component ethnic community a high degree of self-determination, including the option to pursue independence by carefully written constitutional procedures.  The four largest communities—Amhara, Oromo, Tigre and Somali—gained regional states of their own. The five other administrative regions are multi-ethnic, the most so being the Southern Nations Nationalities and People’s region (SNNPR) in which the Sidama were included. On this basis, the EPRDF regime has engineered one of the fastest, albeit not untroubled economic growth rates in the world. But the EPRDF has also established one of the world’s worst human rights records, ruling autocratically and repressively throughout its tenure eventually, sparking protests of unparalleled scope, duration, and intensity since 2015, prompting the departure of Zenawi’s successor as prime minister and the elevation of his reform-minded successor, Abiy Ahmed, in mid-2018.

Abiy has largely lifted the yoke of repression, promising free and fair elections in mid-2020, freeing political prisoners, welcoming political exiles home, unbanning opposition parties, reconciling with Eritrea, replacing large numbers of senior officials, and proposing to liberalise the state-run economy. Ironically, in instituting these reforms, Abiy has  paid the price of a quarter-century of repressive rule by his two EPRDF predecessors: essentially the contradiction and delegitimization of its own ethnic federal vision of a post-imperial Ethiopian state. 

Abiy’s commitment to multi-party electoral democracy, while wholly commendable is, however, profoundly risky. Absent prior democratic formulation of constitutional terms on which parties can agree to remain participants in a multi-ethnic Ethiopian polity, the worst-case possibility becomes that the Sidama and others will mobilise to leave Ethiopia rather compete to realise self-determination democratically within it. Any move by Abiy’s administration to thwart departures may be as likely discourage as to encourage their remaining within Ethiopia.

Parenthetically, Ethiopia’s potential crossroads moment has shed an odd light on European colonisation elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. European grouping of African peoples in colonial structures arbitrarily without regard to ethnic spheres of influence has been roundly and rightly criticised. But sixty years after independence, while militant and terrorist assaults have threatened the very existence of some independent sub-Saharan African states, most of the others have survived ethnically inspired secessionist impulses. Considering Ethiopia’s current circumstances, has the then OAU’s decision to uphold rather remap state boundaries been validated or not?

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