ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - When Meles Zenawi’s rebels closed in on Addis Ababa in the early months of 1991, their biggest threat did not come from Mengistu Haile Mariam’s army but from a potential breakup of Ethiopia.
The group was about to end centuries of Amhara domination over the country’s 70 ethnic groups, but some feared Ethiopia’s long marginalised regions might seek to cut loose, as Eritrea eventually did later.
Two decades on, Ethiopia remains one nation. Meles, now prime minister, says the country’s “balkanisation” was only averted by an ethnicity-based federal system, although analysts say political authoritarianism and poverty still pose risks.
The model has drawn plaudits from Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir who hailed it as an “example” for Africa at a time his own country, plagued by civil wars since independence, may split after the south votes in a referendum on secession on Sunday.
In a continent where colonial powers arbitrarily drew frontiers indifferent to ethnic divisions, Meles said last month that Ethiopia only survived as a nation by granting autonomy to its provinces — as well as the right to secede.
“The successful management of our diversity has become one of the pillars of the ongoing Ethiopian renaissance,” he said,
Ethiopia’s nine regions have the right to self-governance and to draw up and administer their own budgets to fund their economic, social and development policies.
Meles’ supporters point to Ethiopia’s progress since 1991 with the number of schools surging 10-fold, health services expanding and infrastructure projects booming nationwide.
Over the past six years, the economy of Africa’s second most populous economy has grown by an average 10 percent, official data shows, though this is disputed by the opposition.
But experts are divided on whether Ethiopia has finally conjured up the right formula to rid itself from ethnic strife.
“It has obviously served well the purposes of the EPRDF (ruling party),” David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, told Reuters.
“Most ethnic groups, especially the Oromo, like the language policy, which allows selection of the predominant language in each region,” he said.
“Article 39, on the other hand, has caused a lot of confusion and has the potential to create dangerous divisions in the unity of the Ethiopian state,” he said, referring to a clause in the constitution which grants the right to secession.
Ethiopia is home to two low-key insurgencies. Both the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) have waged decades-long campaigns seeking more autonomy for the Oromia and Somali regions.
Some opposition leaders also lament a perceived political hegemony by Meles’ Tigrayan ethnic group which makes up six percent of the population. Officials point out there are only two Tigrayan ministers in the 20-strong cabinet.
Political analysts say Addis Ababa can only solve ethnic issues by strengthening its democracy, which they claim has stalled since disputed polls in 2005.
Some experts believe Meles has narrowed the political space since those elections when the opposition won an unprecedented 174 seats in the 547-seat parliament. In 2010 elections, the ruling party and allies won all but two seats.
In 2005, the main opposition group Kinijit had rallied on a nationalist ticket that accused Meles of forging a “divide-and-rule” system to suit his grip in power.
“Future conflicts in Ethiopia will be put in motion not by the type of state model they chose, but by how they govern,” said Kjetil Tronvoll, Ethiopia analyst at the International Law and Policy Institute.
“If repression and political authoritarianism continues, it will eventually inspire resistance,” Kjetil said.
Opposition leader Bulcha Demeksa adds that the regions are yet to be granted sufficient powers.
“The present PM removes regional presidents at will,” he told Reuters. “True federalism does not usurp the powers of regional states. It strictly observes constitutionally-assigned duties and responsibilities.”
Ethiopians are quick to minimise ethnic issues by pointing at past victories over Egyptian and Italian invaders in the 19th century despite huge ethnic rivalries at that time.
Some experts evoke similar views, arguing Ethiopia’s federal system has in fact strengthened the sense for unity.
“Federalism has given previously marginalised (Ethiopian) regions a voice and recognition,” said Petra Zimmermann-Steinhart, an expert on federalism.
She points at poverty as the main cause of worry in Ethiopia. Despite some impressive economic gains during Meles’ 20-year rule, it remains one of the world’s poorest nations.
“People fight over territory not because of border issues but because of resources,” Zimmermann-Steinhart said.
“Ethiopia is working to achieve development in an equitable manner. When that is achieved, then there won’t be any conflict.”