Reading the personal opinions of Lulit Amdemariam
that appear in this newspaper has been entertaining,
and sometimes puzzling. She is such an amazing
writer, I remember telling her this previously.
More often than not, I have been indifferent to her
views. I only take them as personal, and they have
of course been personal. But, her column headlined,
“Federalism” [Volume 9, Number 467, April 12, 2009]
is diametrically opposite to mine. And, that is the
cause for this piece of reflection.
In a rather sketchy manner, Lulit enumerated what
she believes in, and what she does not, about the
Ethiopian Constitution. Thus, I am not sure if she
has any convincing reasons on which her views are
based. I do not think reasons always dictate what we
believe in, for I too have some convictions for
which I cannot give sound reasons.
My feelings about Article 39 [which grants nations
and nationalities the right to secede from the
federal arrangement] have never been the same
was first hostile to it because I was - like Lulit -
raised flattering the glorious traits of Ethiopia
and being an Ethiopian. When I went to university, I
became less hostile because I realised that the
Ethiopia that I believed I knew is different from
the Ethiopia I discovered in the real world. Towards
the end of my college years, I found myself among
those who are not at least uncomfortable with
Article 39 of the current federal constitution. This
is because I am inclined to believe in the
theoretical foundations of the right of nations
enshrined in the same article.
Nevertheless, I am not a revolutionary democrat; and
I do not think I would be one. But, I understand why
it is important to keep Article 39 in place for the
continued viability of Ethiopia. Some people, such
as Lulit, may think making Ethiopia first [not
“secondary”] at the expense of unsatisfied ethnic
sentiments help Ethiopia’s viability as a nation. I
also used to share this view without knowing;
empirical research shows otherwise.
Reliable studies on ethnic conflicts in multiethnic
states, such as Ethiopia, show that sentimental
ethnic groups tend to push for secession mainly when
it is not recognised. Ethiopia does have more than a
handful of such sentimental national groups, unless
we dare to categorically agree with the mistaken
notion that Ethiopia has one nation, which is
What now worries me most is not the existence of
Article 39, which I believe helps ease the push for
secession. It is rather the move to take it out of
the current constitution.
Would that comfort the sentiments of the diverse
ethnic elements constituting Ethiopia?
am afraid not. Lulit seems to be confident that we
Ethiopians can do better with an ethnic-free
federalism than without it. Her dislike of ethnic
federalism is perhaps based on the liberal thinking
that there are ethnic-free federalisms. But I
believe in the opinion of constitutional lawyers who
describe the professed ethnic-free federalisms as
nothing but based on the exclusion of one or other
elements of diversity in a given multicultural
Which language and which culture would be regarded
as Ethiopian if we opt for an “ethnic-free”
federalism? Would this benefit, represent and
satisfy the ever existing sentiments of the
Ethiopian people living outside cities, who may
share language and culture?
Ethiopia and many other multiethnic states cannot
afford to base their federation on exclusionary but
Who comes first? Ethiopia or the people?
My friends and I used to have debates on this same
issue which is implicitly addressed in Lulit’s
column on Federalism. Ethiopia - the entity - is
only meant to serve the people. It is the people
that create this entity. At least theoretically, a
state is not a sacred entity imposed upon people.
Now, however, most of us think that the territorial
entity is more important than its inhabitants. This
is the very reason why ethnicly motivated civil wars
breakout in multiethnic states.
Some groups claim that they deserve autonomy, while
others fail to recognise this claim only for the
sake of keeping the territorial integrity of a
multiethnic state intact. Such situations are
usually followed by endless civil wars which would,
in most cases, strengthen the sentiment to secede.
In most cases, warfare hardly helps avoid the feared
risk - secession. That is why I believe Ethiopia is
appropriately secondary to the different ethnic
groups constituting it when it comes to dealing with
the problem of ethnic nationalism: A fact of life in
many multiethnic states, including Ethiopia.
Landlocked Ethiopia suffers from the secession of
Eritrea. It would definitely suffer again if another
region secedes as well. But, this is no excuse to
deny the right of self-determination to people who
do not change their sentiments for the sake of the
mother state. They attach more importance to their
independence than the hardship the “mother” state
suffers as a result of secession. The best mother
states can do to avoid eventualities of secessions
and subsequent hardships is to handle the delicate
problem of ethnic nationalism carefully.
think constitutional engineering devices like
Article 39 serve a purpose in handling such problems
pre-emptively, at least theoretically.
do not now think Ethiopia needs to do away with the
alleged divisive ethnic federalism. I do believe
Ethiopia can do better with Article 39 than without
it. It is there to satisfy the hitherto unsatisfied
“sense of self” existing among the different
cultural groups in its territory.
In the short run, arrogance and narrow nationalism
may take hold, if not cultivated, as a result of the
current setup, which make people like Lulit and I
feel uneasy. In the long run, however, we would
perhaps witness how people may consider ethnic
sentiments once they have satisfied their sense of
self. Let us hope Ethiopia would match its success
as a “beacon of black liberty” in the field it has
failed in the past. This was what Lulit argued for
immediately after Obama’s victory back in November