By Jawar Mohammed
“An exercise in Yugoslavia’s Federal system of government collapsed because a single ethnic/ religious group (the Serbs) dominated and excluded the rest. The Soviet federation disintegrated through prevalence of authoritarianism and absence of democracy” commented Abay Tsehaye at recent conference organized to discuss Ethiopia’s federal experiment.
He was right except that he is repeating the same thing in Ethiopia. He is right that multinational federalism and authoritarianism are combustive mixture. That is because adoption of federalism under authoritarian government sets off multiple contradictory developments.
On the one hand, federalism codifies and legitimizes multitude of identities making national identity congruent with its territorial border (perceived or real] short of full sovereignty. In other words, ethnic groups are allowed if not encouraged to showcase their distinct identity and also promised full self-governance over their homeland and share of power and wealth. They learn, work, worship in their language, pledge allegiance to flag of their homeland and so on. This leads to heightened consciousness. On the other hand, the persistence of authoritarian system means although the state is formally decentralized political power remains centralized.
Despite the promise of autonomous self-rule, in reality, nations do not possess power over their territory and do not necessarily get fair share from the federation. Moreover, in theory federalism assumes states of the federation horizontally compete and collaborate over their shared power and wealth. Yet, centralized power of authoritarian system means decisions on resource allocation are made centrally and passed down vertically. There is little to no horizontal bargaining.
In replacing unitary state with federalism the system assumes that nation building would be achieved through gradual voluntary integration driven the market place of politics. Yet lack of horizontal competition, compromise and interaction among regions means the market place is closed and there is little chance for integration. The interaction of these two contradictory developments would pave way for further contradictions.
First, codification of identity heightens nationalism. Second ethno-national groups are ‘given’ their own homeland, but denied the real power to govern or utilize resources. It is like telling someone “this bread belongs to you. You can hold it. But I am going to eat and give you the leftover, if there would be any” . This makes the person not just hungry but also angry. Third, consolidating and maintaining dictatorship usually requires the ruling clique using a given group (economic class, social group or military faction) within the country as its support base.
In multinational state ,the social base of support for the authoritarian system is almost always an ethnic group. To maintain loyalty and cohesion of the base, the authoritarianism system exercises favoritism. The resulting inequality further intensifies misgivings by the excluded groups. The longer the authoritarian system stays, the broader the disparity and the more intense the grievance.
Combination of all these developments leads to rapid erosion of identification and loyalty to the state and the political center. With its legitimacy and support among other nationalities depleting, the center gradually but surely weakens.
Interestingly, the regions gain strength by tapping into grievances of their group and exploiting the nom. But more importantly, although authoritarianism denies them real power, federalism give them governing structure and bureaucracy. Sure the regional administrative/bureaucratic structure serves as vehicle for centralized rule by center. But as the center weakens, regional political entrepreneurs begin to utilize these structures to assert themselves. The center could respond to such erosion in two possible ways; suppress or tolerate.
In tolerating it hopes it can tame and contain. But as the center is unwilling to concede real power fully, the concession do not satisfy the regions. Instead it makes them salivate for more. They utilize the increased power and resources gained through the center’s concession to build their capacity and flex their muscle to win further concession. Unable or unwilling to give further concession, the center would attempt to suppress. However, its capabilities have depleted and unlikely to regain the level of control it once had.
Unless an equilibrium where enough concession to the regions without killing the center is achieved , tension will continue to raise. Eventually, the center would likely collapse. Since regions have little to no horizontal structural relation as the center is what was holding them together, collapse of the center leaves regions and their political entrepreneurs gaining separate statehood by default or plunge into war in cases of contested territories and enclaves.
Studies show that regions with higher level of consciousness and stronger bureaucratic and military capabilities have better chance of emerging as an independent state while others might fail into the hands of a neighboring new republic.
Generally speaking this was what happened in Yugoslavia and Soviet Union. Are we witnessing somewhat similar developments in Ethiopia over the last 26 years? I leave the answer to you. Abay Tsehaye subconsciously admits we are, of course he should be as he and his team has been at the center of it. My advise to all stakeholders is; hope for the best yet prepare for any and all possible outcomes.