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Identity politics

Bipin Adhikari
Source: constituentassembly.blogspot.com
The Kathmandu Post
24 February, 2010

Identities may be defined in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, language, culture, gender, sexual orientation and similar other variables. Politics aimed at establishing these identities, among other things, involves empowering the oppressed segments among them to articulate their oppression in terms of their experience, and establishing their claims for equality, nondiscrimination and for real opportunities to end marginalisation.

Whether the institution of ethnicity-based federalism per se or some identical discriminatory arrangement under its broad set-up is the answer to achieve this objective is still a very controversial issue.

It has become a fashion in Nepal to refer to Ethiopia as a successful model of ethnic federalism. Indeed Nepali experts got the same impression from Ethiopian expert Dr. Hashim Mohamed Tewfik, who is also Minister of Law in his country at present. He visited Nepal last month as a guest of the Nepal Constitution Foundation. It is said that ethnic federalism enabled Ethiopia to avoid falling back into violent internal conflict during the transition to a federal state.

Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa, and one of the oldest in the world — at least 2,000 years. Its 1994 Constitution created an ethnically based federal republic in response to the ideological orientation of the major political forces at that time and as a way of resolving conflict between ethno-nationalism and the state. The government has created nine ethnic-based regional states and two federally administered city-states. This ethnic federalism intends to significantly protect and promote the interests and concern of the ethnic groups by creating nine states on the basis of settlement patterns, language, identity and the consent of the people living within them.

The system tries to marry political pluralism with the right of secession in the federal parliamentary framework. The constitution empowers each state the power to draft, adopt and amend the state constitution, so long as its provisions are consistent with the federal constitution. A federal judiciary, which is independent of the executive and the legislature, is expected to safeguard the constitution by maintaining its supremacy. Ethnicity and federalism are so intertwined that they have become the major factors in organising the political and territorial space in the country.

Yet, Ethiopia has neither scored high on ethnic empowerment nor on democracy. It has certainly given a guaranteed space for ethno-politics, democratic elections and self-determination; but the forces working for communalisation have not disappeared. A majority of the people hardly feel that their "ethnic self" has been protected. There is widespread ethnic discontent in the country even after 15 years of identity politics and democratic exercise. The system is still described as a "hybrid regime" falling somewhere between a "flawed democracy" and an "authoritarian regime".

Ethiopia ranks 105 out of 167 countries with the larger number being less democratic in the report of The Economist. (It is amazing to note that Nepal's position is 115, only 10 points less, even though it has not gone beyond the transitional arrangement, and current uncertainties must have affected Nepal's ranking.) The threat of instability is still looming large in Ethiopia. There is no improvement in mass poverty, stagnant agriculture, slow rate of investment and the general economic crisis. The only apparent achievement is the gradual decline in the pan-nationalist sentiment of a proud country, which nobody wants to see declining. What then is the value addition for Ethiopia as an ethnic federalism? This is an important issue.

At the time of promulgation, the constitution was applauded for its commitment to liberal democracy and respect for political freedoms and human rights. By now, many analysts think there is a mismatch in Ethiopia between the liberal-democratic political-pluralist elements of the constitution and ethnic politics. Ethnic considerations have impacted the quality of the constitutional system, norms and procedures.

The 2009 report of the International Crisis Group (ICG) states, "Authoritarianism and reluctance to accept genuine multi-party competition, political positions and parties have proliferated in recent years. This process, however, is not driven by democratisation or the inclusion of opposition parties in representative institutions. Rather it is the result of a continuous polarisation of national politics that has sharpened tensions between and within parties and ethnic groups since the mid-1990s." According to the report, the ethnic federalism employed in Ethiopia "has not dampened conflict, but rather increased competition among groups that vie over land and natural resources, as well as administrative boundaries and government budgets". Furthermore, the report also points out that ethnic federalism has failed to resolve the "national question".

Contrary to what had been expected, the liberal values of state organisations and the multiparty system have suffered in Ethiopia in recent years. They have resulted in insurmountable governance problems. Although the constitution vests all powers not attributed to the federal government in the states, the regional states are in fact weak. The ICG report as quoted above frankly admits against this background that the next federal and regional elections, scheduled for June 2010, most probably will be much more contentious as numerous opposition parties are preparing to challenge the ruling party, which is likely to continue to use its political machine to retain its position.

It is imperative for multi-ethnic states to engineer an accommodative structure ensuring participation of all in the political system of the country in order to achieve peaceful coexistence. This does not require politicisation of ethnicity and excessive leverage to blood relationships and ascriptive loyalties in place of rights and duties. Such an arrangement is bound to promote the rule of kin, instead of the rule of law, and minimise value-based politics. This space is bound to be used by ethnic leaders to gather justification or legitimisation for autocratic rule in the name of their ethnic state. Such kinship ties within societies when they go beyond a certain limit pose formidable barriers to building tolerant multiethnic societies.

[The writer is a lawyer]


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