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The conflict in Ethiopia's left hundreds dead and thousands more displaced.

Africa

Authoritarianism and its fragile blend with federalism in the Horn of Africa

By Ogoti Bokombe.

Federalism in Africa is mirrored in negative images around micro-nationalisms manifested in ethnicity and religious fundamentalism. The ‘divide and rule’ colonial legacy has taken center stage in modern-day political decentralization in Africa, stocking both carrots and sticks for the central governments against starved peripheral regional states.

In Africa Nigeria, Ethiopia and South Africa are some of the established federal states, Somalia is also building a nation of a ‘fragile’ federal system.

The Horn of Africa has a fragile political, economic, social and security system in which central governments seek to assert authority, consolidate power by centralizing it through abstract federalization of the states.

The fragile federalism that exists in the Horn of Africa is due to the existence of multiple micro-nationalisms that persistently compete with national sovereignty and the rise in authoritarianism seeking to counter rise in opposition in federal autonomies. Federalism is increasingly been used as the tool to distort democratic ideals by suffocating efforts of consensus-building between central and periphery governments.

The onset of COVID-19, has uncovered the fragile enterprise that is federalism in the authoritarian horn of Africa region. Arbitral election postponements, political reforms and targeted force have brought to fore the persistent commitment of weakening federal autonomies.

In 2018 Prime Minister Abiy reign in Ethiopia promised reforms to the political and economic spheres, seeking to entrench liberalization, democracy and an Ethiopian nationalism ideology. In his tracks, he sought to underplay the ethnic federalism that has existed in the Horn of Africa’s most populous nation with over 90 ethnic groups. Ethiopia is divided into nine ethnic federal states; Amhara, Oromia, Tigray, Somali, Sidama, Afar, Gambela, Harari, and the Southern Nations or Peoples and the Benishagul – Gumuz regions. Though meant to achieve ‘peace in parts’ it has bred divisions, ethnic mobilization and competition for the seat in Addis.  

In 2019, Abiy’s administration had to deal with call for greater representation in the national government and autonomy in Oromo, an attempted coup in Amhara and Sidama zone’s quest for a regional state out of Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR). These challenged Abiy’s reform agenda of building an Ethiopian nation. He responded by deploying forces to crackdown on dissidents and protestors, leading to arbitral arrests of key leaders such as Jawar Mohammed of the Oromo Federalist Congress and loss of lives and property.

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Politically, in December 2019 PM Abiy unveiled the Prosperity Party dissolving the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPDRF) a coalition of four regional ethnic parties namely the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Party (SEPDM).

TPLF rejected the move to dissolve the EPDRF, and refused to join the new Prosperity Party as this would dilute its stranglehold on power for three decades in Ethiopia. Nationally, the merger centralizes power and seeks to control calls for autonomy and gradually weakens the federal structure in Ethiopia while consolidating power for Abiy.

The Ethiopian National Elections Board postponed parliamentary elections scheduled for August 2020 due to coronavirus pandemic a move that was rejected by parties not allied with Abiy’s Prosperity Party. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front defied Ethiopia’s election postponement citing inadequate consultation and held elections in Tigray, garnering 98% of the seats in Tigray. Abiy termed the elections as unconstitutional, instituted funding and communication blockades on Tigray and appointed new leaders for the region. This situation gave Abiy feet to fight what he terms “lawlessness” by flaming a conflict with the TPLF.

On November 4, 2020, Abiy deployed troops to the Tigray region in response to an alleged attack by the TPLF on a military base in the region. The military action has resulted in thousands of deaths and over 60,000 refugee outflow to the neighbouring Sudan.

Abiy’s reform agenda is devoid of political consensus, even as he seeks to bring ethnicities together. His tactics include weakening existing federal regional government while repressing any call for autonomy, this is done by seeking to centralize power and plant loyalists through the Prosperity Party in the upcoming 2021 elections.

 

Somalia’s federal project as instituted in 2004, under domestic will and external interests for a stable but weak Somalia, and as a solution to Somalia’s instability has created room for authoritarian rule and more instability.

In her search for democracy and stability, Somalia has failed to build consensus between federal member states and Villa Somalia. President Farmaajo’s reign borrows from Abiy’s commitment to weaken federalism in Ethiopia as they both eye second terms on the wheels.

Somalia’s transition to democracy is locked in an impasse due to incompatibilities between Farmajo’s federal government and member states on resource and power sharing, election modalities and constitutional reforms as we as the squabbles in the Jubbaland, Puntland and Somaliland elections. The control of regional forces by Federal Member States has also dealt a blow to the federal dream of building one nation. It has pitted regional forces against the Somalia National Army in the center- periphery squabbles as in the case of the clash between Jubbaland forces and Somalia’s security forces in Bula Hawo in January 2021.

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The incompatibilities have led to delayed elections and Farmaajo’s term extension beyond February 8, 2021 due to electoral impasse.

Further, the federal system and the security situation in Somalia has proved to be divisionary in regional geo-politics for instance in the tensions that exist in Kenya-Somalia diplomatic relations. Kenya values Jubbaland as a buffer-zone to its security, Jubbaland President Madobe is Kenya’s ally and Farmaajo’s foe, a situation that complicates the relations between Kenya and Somalia.

Sudan’s authoritarian history depicts the dangers of authoritarianism on federalism as a tool to exert power and its unexpected shift to breed division of the South from the North and sustained conflicts in war torn Darfur, Kordofan and Blue Nile.

Unlike Ethiopia’s ethno-federalism, Sudan’s tale is one of federalism based on micro-nationalisms in religion in the form of Islamist versus Christian southerners and even racial/ethnic manifested in Arab dominance in Khartoum against non-Arabs. These factors led to the ultimate divorce of the larger Sudan with the South Sudan. South Sudan has also taken a similar route, with persisting disagreements on the number of states and their leadership between Vice President Riek Machar and President Kiir’s  camps.

In Sudan, truce is eminent with the overthrow of Bashir and the quick steps by the transitional government to sign a peace deal with rebel groups in the Southern regions. The transitional process has seen the appointment of former rebel leaders to positions such as the appointment of the Gibril Ibrahim who led the Justice and Equality Movement to Sudan’s finance docket as minister.

 

Historical authoritarianism in the Horn of Africa has ingrained federalism as the partial satisfaction of ethno-nationalisms, while the center wields the power and influence to manipulate political institutions and systems for Machiavellian interests.

Political reforms and institutions in the Horn of Africa should redirect the true purpose of federalism to socio-economic development, nation-building through embracing national consensus and collaboration. Federalism should not only cuddle and satisfy micro-nationalism but also enhance sub-national development and emancipation. 

The author is a policy analyst on international affairs.

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