In Africa, a Bold Test to Spread Power

But dividing Ethiopia by ethnic areas seems to fuel, not ease, conflict

ON a continent better known for its ethnic cleansing than tribal harmony, Ethiopia has embarked on a daring experiment to break the African mold.

Strong federalism, dividing the country into ethnically based regions, is its novel approach. The aim: to avoid the tensions or war occurring in Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan, Angola, Zanzibar, and South Africa.

Ethiopia's Constitution gives the country's 10 new regions the right to secede. The jury is still out on whether the system will be a model for the rest of Africa. But so far it appears to be fueling rather than defusing ethnic rivalries.

"Like many things, it was beautiful on paper," said one African diplomat based in Addis Ababa. "[It's] a good idea that is being poorly executed. But we still hold out hope it might come right."

It is a tough order for any country emerging from several decades of war, famine, and dictatorship to develop a completely new political system.

It does not help that the economy, one of the world's poorest, is undergoing free-market reforms that are often unpopular.

Besides, setting up new semiautonomous regions along ethnic lines can be hard to adjust to for the 55 million residents. The 70 different ethnic groups have a long tradition of harmony and are accustomed to heavily centralized power, first imperial and then Marxist.

Only one "nationality" so far has seceded - Eritreans. Eritrea, for 50 years an Italian colony and later absorbed by Ethiopia, had its own guerrilla movement in the fight against dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam and became fully independent in 1993. Many Ethiopians question the wisdom of losing their northernmost region, which gave them access to the Red Sea.

Diplomats are giving the Ethiopian government the benefit of the doubt. But Ethiopians who are eager for long-awaited democracy interviewed across the country are more cynical.

The biggest criticism is that the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is still dominated by the Tigrayan ethnic group, which makes up only 5 percent of the population but was a major force in the guerrilla struggle that ousted Soviet-backed Mr. Mengistu in 1991.

The government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says it has the political authority to make its grand plan work after last June's elections that gave the EPRDF 90 percent of the seats in parliament.

But opposition groups, many of whose leaders are in jail or suffer harassment by the security forces, argue that the vote was far from fair. They boycotted the poll, saying its results were predetermined.

They accuse the EPRDF of using the federalist system to divide and conquer, by creating satellite parties and bogus opposition groups in the provinces. They resent the fact that the central government still decides how much money will be allocated to each region.

They also complain that people from various ethnic groups say they cannot get jobs in regions dominated by another nationality.

"We accept a federal basis of decentralization. But we don't agree on the formula being used - ethnic criteria," says Beyene Petros.

He heads two of Ethiopia's largest opposition organizations - the Southern Ethiopian People's Democratic Coalition and the Coalition of Alternative Force for Peace and Democracy.

Supporting his words is Andualem Ademan, a student who is entering the job market.

He would like to leave this northern town, but having looked around for work in other regions was told to go back to where he came from.

"Forget about getting work in another area. I have to stay here, whether I like it or not," he complains.

The one exception is Tigrayans. For instance, this ethnic group is often awarded sought-after government jobs in Lalibela, an ancient town populated by the Amharic people, which is continually afflicted by drought and some of Ethiopia's worst poverty.

An Ethiopian aid worker with the Dutch Development Organization said that devolution of powers to the provinces is only on paper, and the new system is hindering and not helping economic development in one of the poorest areas.

"It's highly centralized like the previous government. In reality, I'm not sure there has been a devolution of power. Decisions still come from the top," says Assefa Adeige.

Resentment is particularly great among the Amhara, the traditional ruling class that makes up 20 percent of the population. In Somaliland, the largely Muslim region bordering on Somalia, complaints of discrimination are rife.

Anger among Oromos, who make up 30 percent of the population, has frothed into armed revolt. The Oromo Liberation Front, which fought to topple Mengistu alongside the Tigrayans, has been waging its own liberation war since 1992.

Actions have been small scale, but have worried the government enough to jail hundreds if not thousands of suspected activists over the past couple of years.

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