The Last Post-Cold War Socialist Federation

​Semahagn Gashu Abebe's "The Last Post-Cold War Socialist Federation: Ethnicity, Ideology and Democracy in Ethiopia" (2014) offers a wealth of insight in Ethiopian federalism, with a particular strength of offering depth of constitutional context.

Of recent, much has been said of Ethiopia's "developmental state" approach, less about its "revolutionary democracy". Semahagn provides useful context on this: "Revolutionary democracy could be considered as the new invention of the TPLF/EPRDF that is used to maintain hegemonic power as well as providing the party with a veneer of democratic pretention in the eyes of western donors" (p. 130). Also: "Revolutionary democracy also divides society into friends and enemies" (p. 136).

The book provides good examples of the contradictions between the constitution and the implementation of these ideologies: "On the one hand, the system is formally regulated by the constitutional principles such as transparency, accountability of government, vertical and horizontal separation of powers, protection of human rights and the establishment of democratic institutions. On the other hand, the system is practically regulated by the merits of revolutionary democracy that do not recognize popular sovereignty, independence of institutions and equality of citizens. Contrary to the principle of popular sovereignty, revolutionary democracy recognizes popular participation in the light of implementing policies that emanate from the elites at the top of the party structure rather than from a bottom-up approach… the constitution provides for the establishment of an independent electoral commission and an independent judiciary. Revolutionary democracy, on the other hand, maintains that the aforementioned institutions are duty bound to implement the ideals of revolutionary democracy rather than having their own independent existence" (p. 138)

The book also offers a unique theory, suggesting that identity was historically more geographic with cultural and linguistic components, but that ethnic identity is a relatively recent phenomenon (1960s). For example, the author suggests that only after ethnic federalism, ethnicity "suddenly became an issue in political, social and economic relations in the country" (p. 153, also see p. 100). This thesis is partially contradicted within the text with many historical examples, such as Tigray discontent Shewan dominance during Menelik's time (p. 158). Would be interested to hear how historians like Bahru Zewde might respond to this idea.

While I enjoyed the book, about half way through the number of errors and inconsistencies in the text diverted my attention. Many of these are editorial, but were distracting. For example, inconsistent spelling: Wolita (p. 102) / "Wolayta" (p. 171) / "Welaita" (p. 70); "nefeteya" (p. 74) / "nefteya" (p. 95) / "neftegna" (p. 157); "Dire Dewa" (p. 178) / "Dire Dawa" (p. 71); "Affar" (p. 71) / "Afar" (p. 70); many others. Inconsistent referencing styles (e.g. 164, 166, 170, 178, 180). Quotes without page numbers (e.g. 166, 167, 174, 175). Some errors, for example "geological descent" (instead of genealogical) (p. 89), Southern Sudan (instead of South Sudan) (p. 154), "Benishangul-Gumuz regional states" (should be state) (p. 156), and many others. Other issues were content related, such as stating that Silte got administrative autonomy but Wolaita did not (p. 171), when they are both newly created zonal authorities (Wolaita, in fact, gaining that status first). The book claims Ethiopians have celebrated inter-ethnic and inter-religious marriages and harmonious living together without strife for generations (p. 71); the forced conversions of Muslims in Wollo by Yohannes, lest they lose all land, is one example, of many, that complicates this story.

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A History of Modern Ethiopia

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