From the Soviet Union to Ethiopia’s ethnoterritorial federalism

Contesting ethnolinguistic homogenization: the Soviet Union as an inspiration

As mentioned earlier, the imperial nation-state-building project in Ethiopia became particularly contested in the late 1960s, when the Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM), inspired by marxist-leninist ideas - or even ‘scientific socialism' (Balsvik 2007: 38) - ‘discovered’ and vehemently debated the ‘nationalities issue.’ In essence, this ‘issue' referred to the forced assimilation (i.e. Amharization) of dozens of ethnic groups in the country (Van der Beken 2012: 77). The debates within the ESM resembled the discussions on similar topics conducted among the Bolsheviks in the aftermath of the October Revolution in 1917. Whereas the ultimately victorious faction led by Vladimir Lenin and then Joseph Stalin emphasized the importance of recognizing the right to national self-determination for all the Soviet Union’s nations (nationalities), including secession (Connor 1989: 27), others - the so-called internationalists - subordinated the issue of national self-determination to class struggle. They argued that a successful class struggle would make the question of national self-determination irrelevant (Martin 2001: 2). The debate in the ESM similarly revolved around whether the recognition of the right to national self-determination (including secession) was a prerequisite for a successful class struggle or whether national self-determination had to be made secondary to the struggle against feudalism and imperialism. In the latter case, self-determination would not be allowed to proceed beyond regional autonomy (Bahru 2014: 205-211). Eventually, the recognition of the right to national self-determination up to and including secession prevailed among the Ethiopian students. This conclusion was in agreement with the position originally taken by Lenin and Stalin in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The ESM encouraged the creation of a variety of marxist-leninist parties that later exerted a fundamental impact on Ethiopian politics and on the successive Ethiopian governments’ approach to the processes of nation and state building in the following decades (Bahru 2014: 263). The first category of marxist-leninist parties (notably the EPRP and the MEISON) had multiethnic memberships and adopted Lenin and Stalin’s views on ethno-linguistically defined nationalism as a transitory phenomenon to be phased out by the government once the developmental stage of socialism has been reached (Ghelawdewos 1995: 134; Leenco Lata 1999: 199; Young 1997: 59-60). Although Lenin and Stalin supported the constitutional acknowledgment and institutionalization of ethnicity in the Soviet Union (including the right to national self-determination up to secession), they perceived this as a temporary and tactical concession while they were working toward the creation of a homogeneous socialist (communist) Soviet people in a potentially worldwide state (Connor 1989: 31; Brubaker 1994: 49).

This explains why the Soviet-Derg, or the military government that removed and replaced the imperial regime in the course of the 1974 Revolution, continued with the imperial regime’s policy of strong centralization. As recommended by the Soviet model, the Soviet-Derg sought to centralize all power in their hands only. To this end, the regime annihilated the EPRP (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party) and MEISON (All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement) in the immediate years after the revolution. The process was similar in pattern to the power struggle between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, which the Bolsheviks won after the Bolshevik Revolution. The victorious Bolsheviks suppressed the Mensheviks, finally banning them in 1921. However, the Bolsheviks took over many ideological tenets and policies developed by the Mensheviks. Like in the case of Bolshevik (Soviet) Russia, in revolutionary Ethiopia, the victorious Soviet-Derg and its ideology seriously benefited from the EPRP’s and MEISON’s intellectual contributions. This explains, to a degree, the official espousal of the dichotomy, which was also characteristic of the Soviet Union in this regard, between the official rhetoric and the actual practice in socialist (communist) Ethiopia’s approach to ethnicity. While the Soviet-Derg formally recognized the right to national self-determination for all Ethiopian nationalities (ethnic groups), this regime in practice instituted a highly centralized authoritarian administration. The term nations in plural was consciously avoided, due to the traditional Central European and Soviet ideological distinction between nations and nationalities. In the marxist-leninist take on the nationality issue, the former have the right to secession, while the latter do not. Nationalities have the right to national (cultural, linguistic, ethnic) territorial autonomy.

The aforementioned dichotomy between rhetoric and practice in this regard generated a strong sociopolitical tension in communist Ethiopia, leading to the creation of a number of ethnolinguistically defined liberation

From Soviet Union to federalism 37 movements. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the main one among these movements. It also originated from the revolutionary intellectual ferment in the ESM circles (Bahru 2014: 258). Unsurprisingly then, the TPLF adopted a type of marxist-leninist ideology and practices. However, the TPLF differed from the EPRP, the MEISON and the ruling Soviet-Derg in the ways this party approached the issue of ethnicity. For the TPLF, ethnicity was not simply a tactical or rhetorical issue but the major foundation for and focus of the party’s struggle. For the TPLF, national or ethnic antagonisms were a primary concern, and this party presented itself as a movement fighting for the right to national self-determination of the Tigray people or nation (Leenco Lata 1999: 210; Vaughan 1994: 11; Young 1997: 154). In 1989, when communism collapsed across the Soviet bloc in Europe and Asia, the TPLF decided to broaden its objectives. Quite ambitiously, the party decided to strive for bringing about the complete downfall of the ruling Soviet-Derg regime. To this end, the TPLF established the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which was a coalition of four ethnicity-based parties that fought for the national liberation of a variety of ethnolinguistically defined ethnic groups (nationalities, nations). Apart from the leading TPLF, the EPRDF was also joined by the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP),1 the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM).

In 1991, the EPRDF’s military forces decisively defeated the Soviet-Derg, and thus the almost three-decade-long Ethiopian Civil War finally came to an end. Since that moment, the EPRDF ruled postcommunist Ethiopia until 2019. In late 2019, the EPRDF morphed into the Prosperity Party, but without the participation of the TPLF (The EPRDF 2019). The EPRDF, in cooperation with other ethnicity-based parties, granted extensive rights to Ethiopia’s 'nations, nationalities and peoples’2 and pressed on with the ethnolinguistically construed decentralization of the country’s administrative structure that was implemented in 1992.3 This new administrative structure of Ethiopia became the foundation for the introduction of full-fledged ethnoterritorial federalism three years later. This momentous change became possible thanks to the Constitution, which was approved in December 1994 and promulgated in the following year.

This chapter’s following section focuses on present-day Ethiopia’s constitutional terminology, as employed for referring to ethnicity. Furthermore, it discusses the most important constitutional provisions adopted for the sake of fulfilling the EPRDF’s promise of national self-determination for Ethiopia’s numerous ethnic groups (i.e. nations, nationalities and peoples). Obviously, most of these terms and many provisions of this kind stem from the marxist-leninist tradition and practices of the Soviet nationality policy (Semahagn Gashu Abebe 2014: 123-127). Yet the Ethiopian Constitution of 1995 embraced ethnic diversity more fully than did the postwar Soviet Union's corresponding constitutional provisions, as evidenced in the Constitution of the Soviet Union of 1977.