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Eritrea for mobile viewing Ethiopia: Moving Beyond Killils

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Date: Friday, 05 October 2018

East Africa or Eastern Africa is the easterly region of the African continent

By Addissu Admas

October 5, 2018

I heard recently a man saying that the word Killil is more appropriate for animal farming than for people. It struck me that he was not only right, but to some extent, he awakened me to the original meaning of the word which I had come to accept unthinkingly, like most Ethiopians, to mean region. As everyone is well aware, the word Killil derives from the Amharic verb Kellele which means “to set limits, to protect, to block the view, to fence, etc…” and until the advent of the TPLF regime, the word was almost always used in reference to animal enclosures, and only sometimes to restricted areas, or property of some sort.

I am not sure who exactly is the author of such a misapplication of the word. Nor I am sure whether there was a message intended by it, or was dictated by carelessness, expediency or malice. But what I am convinced is that it has had a real effect on the perception of our political reality. From the etymological standpoint, Killil as signifying enclosure implies that those living in it are not supposed to leave it, and those outside of it must not breach it. It serves both as a protective limit against “outsiders”, but also restrains one to a demarcated space also. It is thus at the same time an instrument of separation and also of exclusion. And as such it fits perfectly the TPLF’s regime politics of divide and rule.

A Killil has been seen as the exclusive “enclosure” of an ethnic group or a cluster of ethnic groups; and these have implicitly or perhaps subconsciously accepted not to breach it. The Killil they are in becomes their exclusive space, and members of other ethnic group have not only no claim upon it, but mind they should never breach it. Or if they do, there will be consequences to consider.

The recrudescence of ethnic hostilities and conflicts in the last few months owes more to this understanding of the term Killil than we are willing to concede.  Words have effects in shaping our perceptions. And the word Killil must have had a profound determining effect in perceiving our political reality. Furthermore, the designation of Killils by placing a number next to them, rather than exorcise the term, it dehumanizes it even further. One can only wonder what the regime must have been thinking! One can only be reminded of feedlots or Gulags, in naming nations, nationalities etc… as Killil 1, 2, etc… One wonders if the regime couldn’t come up with a less demeaning word for a country that is so rich in history and culture!

Besides its dehumanizing and divisive connotation, the word Killil is also fraught with ambiguity. If Killil signifies the traditional boundaries of a particular ethnic group, as it is meant to imply, how can one then explain the lumping together of more than fifty ethnic groups each one with its own language and culture? It seems that those in charge of dividing up Ethiopia into Killils got simply tired after counting to nine; or run out of ideas, or more likely perhaps, they wanted to show their contempt for the people living in that particular Killil. On a more charitable note, maybe they decided that these “minority enclaves” did not meet their never explained criteria for being considered a Killil? And these “minority ethnicities” which together constitute nearly 25 percent of the entire population, and occupy nearly 20 percent of the entire inhabitable land of the country appear to have accepted the fait accompli without much protestation. The question again is: Are some ethnic enclaves more deserving than others of being called a Killil, for whatever it is worth? How was it decided that Harar, which has no more than a couple of hundred thousand people and is confined to a city is a Killil while the Sidama, the Gurage, the Wolaita, etc… each having populations and areas nearly twenty times bigger are not? What was the rationale behind such decision? If the goal was to establish an ethnic federalism wouldn’t it have been more logical that every ethnic group that identifies itself as such and occupies a discrete territory be designated as a Killil? Since there is no ostensible rational justification for the division of the country into Killils, and since there has not been any benefit in it, but on the contrary it has been a source of contention and discontent, I don’t believe that it should be maintained any longer. In fact, I contend that it has had no other purpose that maintaining the hegemony of one particular ethnicity and the marginalization of the rest!

The current rhetoric even among usually sober intellectuals and political operatives has unfortunately tended to bring the politics of Killil to its tragic conclusion. And that is to bring the end of the Ethiopian state as we have known it for over a century. This is a trend that goes against what all historians have always maintained. Yuval Noah Harriri, an Israeli historian, advances in fact the thesis that human beings’ quality of life and overall general progress occurs when they become part of ever larger communities. This is so because larger communities offer much more possibilities for their individual realization. And also because they have access to ever larger resources and skills. This something we should think about before we embrace the politics of separation.

Lately, we have been swept by patriotic call for unity. But I say that we should be moved more by pragmatic reasons for it. Because they are the ones that will last for a much longer time. Let us not forget that we remain member of the most wretchedly poor countries in the world. Drumming up old rancor, recriminations, and hostilities cannot provide us with bread. It can only put us on the path to civil war, and jeopardize in the process the very minuscule progress we have achieved so far. Thus it should be our primary motivation to seek peace first and above anything else. Because without it we shall achieve absolutely nothing. Let us not become tools of forces that want to benefit from our internecine conflicts!

As numerous and overwhelming are our immediate problems, I believe that we should not ignore the fact that we are victims of the Killil mentality. It is imperative that we rid ourselves of such an ignominious term and the politics and economy that it has engendered, and work towards a more rational and productive form of federalism in Ethiopia. It is undeniable that returning to the old imperial system of dividing the country into Ager Gezat (provinces) is not only against the whole philosophy of self-determination but will be impractical given our current expectations and sensibilities. Retaining the current system of Killils is not only abasing but will perpetuate the mentality of division and exclusion. Yet we must accept that we cannot simply declare a form of unity that does not make allowance to our ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity. What could then be done?

I believe that we must rid ourselves of the Killil system which aims at treating each Killil as an independent nation, and move towards a system which acknowledges and maintains our interdependence. This means that our federal system, while sensitive to our ethnic and linguistic heritage, must also accept the reality that Ethiopia must not be parceled into separate ethnic and linguistic nations or nationalities. The subdivision of the Ethiopian state has a better chance of succeeding if it aims at a dividing the country into smaller territories rather than into large ethnic or linguistic enclaves. Ethnic subdivision into Killils presupposes that we are separate nations with no historical or cultural space to share. On the other hand, dividing Ethiopia along well-established federal systems in the world where many ethnicities share the same territory maybe our best chance of maintain the unity, peace and prosperity of the country.

What I have in mind is a kind of division that combines the French system of “Departments” and the Swiss Cantons. The former appears to have been guided by the principle of territorial and demographic proportionality, while the latter seems dictated mainly by concerns of ethnic, cultural and linguistic homogeneity. This would translate in dividing the whole Ethiopian state into Awrajjas (which is the closest translation for the French Department, or the Swiss Canton, or for that matter the English County) of comparable population and area, while at the same time aiming at preserving the ethnic, cultural and linguistic homogeneity of each of them. Each Awrajja (or whatever one may choose to call it) will have its own particular name, its own laws, its own official (local) language, and its own autonomous government along federalist principles. It will at the same time be represented in the federal government by its own elected members, the number of which will be determined by the federal constitution.

Whereas the ultimate goal of the Killil system appears to be to create autonomous nations that supposedly would have come together to negotiate the terms of their existence, the Awrajja system, by recognizing the commonality of the Ethiopian peoples, aims at preserving the unity of the country by granting much greater autonomy to smaller territorial spaces. Once the Awrajjas have been established, each one of them may choose to further divide their territory in the manner they deem fit.

As we have come to realize, the disproportionate and unjust subdivision of Ethiopia into Killils has produced more problems than solutions in every sector, and they are too many to list here. They require in fact a whole separate treatment. Conversely the benefits of the Awrajja system are many and lasting. For one, what better way to fulfill the fundamental aims of the principle of self-determination? As all democratic federal systems know, subdivision in smaller territories achieves better self-governance than larger ones. Smaller territories, as stated above, have a much easier time in obtaining ethnic, linguistic and cultural homogeneity if such remains the goal. Furthermore, resources can be allocated fairly and expeditiously. Political participation will be more direct and engaged, and so the quality of the democratic process will improve greatly.

Each Awrajja, once demographically and territorially demarcated, will be entitled to a fixed number of seats in the lower and upper chambers of the House of Representatives. Thus the federal system, which continues to be our sole logical option, will no longer be dependent on the arbitrary, unwieldy and questionable Killil system, but will be based on a more evenly, justly and homogeneously subdivided federal system.

It must be noted, however, that a system of Awrajjas, unlike the Killil system, eschews any tendency of containment of a people and exclusion of others. It fundamentally aims at implementing the core goals of the principle of self-determination while at the same time providing a more efficient system of government. Thus it is inherently opposed to the idea that Ethiopians must be confined to their particular historical spaces. It would be also a system designed to acknowledge our complete interdependence rather inculcate and radicalize our differences.

Finally, the entire country’s government, or simply the federal government, which will have its own separate set of responsibilities, duties and obligations, will be formed by direct participation of the Awrajjas. Thus the Prime Minister will be elected and his/her government will be formed by the majoritarian party in the House. The head of the state, by whatever name he/she will be called, can either be chosen directly by universal suffrage, or through the parliamentary process. His/her duties will be determined by the constitution of the Ethiopian state. The constitutional court of the country, which will eventually head the judiciary, can be formed by a parliamentary committee dedicated to selecting the best legal minds from the entire nation.

This proposal is, of course, very far from being complete, it is only a sketch meant to open up a productive discussion. Because I am fully convinced that the kind of federalism we shall adopt will not only determine the course of our history, but whether we become a successful state or a failed state.

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