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Commentary: Ethiopia’s Experiment with Federalism (Part II) – THE BIG U-TURN


Tsegaye R.Ararssa, Special to Addis Standard
In the first part of this series of reflection on Ethiopia’s experiment with federalism, I have discussed the sketchy ‘description’ of the federation in context and the current Ethiopian federal system and its fundamental features. In this part of the series I will reflect upon the major stages in which the Ethiopian federal experiment has evolved and has passed through, as well as a further explanation on why it is not synonymous with the Home Land System of Apartheid South Africa.

In practice, the Ethiopian federal experiment has evolved and has passed through four major stages: devolution (1991-1994); aggregation – constitutional moment of ‘coming together’ (1994); decentralization (1995-1998) and back to centralization (1998, especially since 2001 to date). In 1998, the decentralization process was halted because of the war with Eritrea. After 2001, while States’ power was shrinking (and the ‘oversight’ work of the Ministry of Federal Affairs was becoming more like usurping their powers in various ways), there was a contemporaneous movement in the direction of empowering local governments (i.e. Woredas), at least formally.
The process can thus be summarized as a movement from centralization to decentralization to re-centralization, increasingly eclipsing federal non-centralization. This movement towards re-centralization is visible especially in several post-2001 acts of the federal government, the most notable of which being the Federal Intervention Law (Proclamation 359/2003). The formation of the Ministry of Federal Affairs (in 2001) and assigning it responsibilities to manage, control and discipline the States; the reorganization of the Federal Police force under the Ministry of Federal Affairs (2003); the establishment of Federal Courts in states such as Gambella and SNNPRS starting from 2003; and other legislations and policies that pertain to urban development were some of the acts that epitomized the re-centralization.

These (re)centralizing tendencies, coupled with the increasing authoritarianism reinforced by the more recent laws on charities and societies (Proc 621/2009), media (Proc 590/2008), and antiterrorism (Proc 652/2009) (which themselves have been preceded by other government policies and programs that articulate the ‘developmentalist’ nature of the state), have superseded the ethics of non-centralization in federalism. The PRSP, PASDEP, BPR, BSC, GTP I, GTP II, etc, are in the list of such programs that are, made or implemented, often to override or ignore the Constitution. To a seasoned Ethiopian constitutional lawyer, these government policies and programs come as the ‘constitutions behind the constitution’, which s/he can ignore at her own peril.

No doubt, the Ethiopian federation manifests some distinct features such as its generous recognition of collective rights including secession (side by side with the standard liberal individual civil and political rights); and its daring posture to recognize the political salience of ethno-national categories as important, which stands in a rare contrast to the trend in Africa. (It must be added parenthetically that the post-colonial African states, in the endeavor at nation-building, chose to ignore sub-state nationalism. They reduced these categories into ‘tribes’ and are reputed for advancing the motto, “kill the tribe to build the nation,” often associated with the late Samora Machel of Mozambique). Its unique mode of constitutional interpretation (by the upper house of the legislature); its unlegislating upper house; and its lack of explicit provisions on executive power-sharing are also some of the distinct features of Ethiopian federation that attracted, at least for a while, the interests of comparatists.

Having done the above brief textual context, we now turn to the historical and political context in which to locate the story/ies of the Ethiopian federalism.

The Context: The crisis of state and political crises in the background

The historical juncture at which the federation came into being is crucial to the discussion of the Ethiopian federation. It was negotiated in the times between 1991 and 1994, a time which, seen in the longue duree of the history of the Ethiopian state, witnessed a crisis. It was a historical moment that signified the failure of a model of nation-building that was pursued since the 19th century. It was a moment of crisis promising a rupture. Indeed, this moment was once aptly characterized by Prof. Merera Gudina to be a moment of Ethiopia’s transition “from crisis through crisis to crisis.” It was a moment that marked the failure of the state’s attempt to build one nation out of many (e pluribus unum). The attempt to build one nation out of many was first done through overt acts of imperial violence, then through a policy of coercive assimilation, and later through a more subtle policy of integration through recognition of formal equality (a process of exclusion through inclusion). In 1991, the most emphatically centralist of all the Ethiopian regimes, the Derg, having just collapsed, it was a moment when ‘things fell apart’ for the empire and the ‘centre couldn’t hold’ anymore. It was a moment of failure of an idea (i.e., a model of nation-building) and the beginning of a rival idea (an alternative mode of nation-building). It was a moment when after what has hitherto been viewed as the ‘center’ has imploded, the ‘peripheries’ came to try their hands at state craft and unwittingly started what looked like an attempt at keeping ‘many nations in one’, plures in uno.

The forces of the ‘periphery’ that brought the agenda of the ‘periphery’ to the centre stage were ‘national liberation fronts’ which, in the language of the Transitional Charter, referred to themselves as ‘the peace loving forces of Ethiopia’. The ‘periphery’ took the ‘center’ and filled what looked like a power vacuum after the implosion of the state. Having found themselves in a rare historical moment at which to (re)build the Ethiopian state on a different edifice, the ‘founders’ took to federalism as an option to reconfigure the state. The mission assigned to the state by the international community (practically the US) at the time was three-fold: to pluralize the politics, to liberalize the economy, and to decentralize the state. The government (or the transitional place holders) thus promised a transition into an era of multiparty democracy, free market economy, and multinational federalism. The latter was opted for in order to restructure the state, reconfigure citizenship and its foundations (for ‘Ethiopians’), equalize the hitherto ‘unequals’, undo ethno-cultural injustice, defuse ethno-national conflicts, and establish a lasting peace.

The major protagonists that undertook the task at the time were the parties in the Transitional Council of Representatives (COR). They represented about 26 primarily ethno-nationalist liberation fronts that comprised the 87-seat council. The dominant political party was the EPRDF (with 32 seats) followed by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF – with 10 seats). Other smaller parties had their seats as well. One can characterize all these parties as forces of the periphery that captured the center and had to forge the new modes of relating to one another in a new yet-to-be-reconstructed state. The ways in which these seats were divided among them is not transparently done; they were a result of several behind the scene negotiations. EPRDF, OLF, and most of these parties had an orthodox commitment to the principle of self-determination of people. True to their liberationist ethos, the best they could imagine to accept in a possible life with others in Ethiopia is a federal system with accent on autonomy and difference allowing for secession – not as much for actualizing independence as for providing an exit route should the center threaten to violate their democratic rights. Secession, it was argued, was a tool of disciplining the arrogance of a potentially despotic ‘center’.

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By putting federalism at the top of the (supposedly) transformative political agenda of the day, the protagonists seemed to have seen self-determination as a counter-imperial emancipatory principle that dislodges oppressive (and colonial and imperial) state. They viewed self-determination as the condition that creates a possibility for restructuring and transforming the Ethiopian imperial state. Genealogically, finding a base and a ground in the student movement of the 1960s (and so speaking back to a repressive imperial state), they saw self-determination not only as a political principle but also as a moral-legal right that helps enhance democracy, human rights, and equality in dignity. The Transitional Charter they signed into force as an interim constitution starts with a recounting of the words of the 1948 UN Declaration, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Accordingly, its very article reads:

Based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly by Resolution 217/A (III) of 10 Dec. 1948, individual human rights shall be respected fully, and without any limitation whatsoever. Particularly, every individual shall have: a) the freedom of conscience, expression, and peaceable assembly; b) the right to engage in unrestricted political activity and to organize political parties, provided the exercise of such rights does not infringe upon the rights of others.

Similarly, in its article two, it recognized the rights of collectivities to self-determination. In this, it established what later became the jural postulate, the organizing principle, and the most pre-eminent right of groups in the country. Article two reads:

The right of nations, nationalities, and peoples to self-determination is affirmed. To this end, each nation, nationality, and people is guaranteed the right to: a) preserve its identity and have it respected, promote its culture and history, and use and develop its language; b) administer its own affairs within its own defined territory and effectively participate in the central government on the basis of freedom, and fair and proper representation; c) exercise its right to self-determination of independence, when concerned nation/nationality and people is convinced that the above rights are denied, abridged, or abrogated.

The Transitional Charter thus laid down the first steps toward federalizing the hitherto centralized unitary system that remained essentially the same in structure even after the change of regime in 1974. It viewed the collapse of the Derg, which marked the crisis of state, as a moment of opportunity for restructuring it on a democratic basis. The Charter also underscored the replacement of the era of “subjugation and oppression” by an era in which “freedom, equality, and self-determination of all peoples shall be the governing principles of political, economic, and social life” thereby also rescuing the Ethiopian peoples from “subjugation and backwardness.” Being also a truce document, the Charter insisted on “a democratic order as a categorical imperative” for establishing “the reign of a just peace” through cessation of hostilities, healing of wounds, and resolution of conflicts. It also insists on the dismantling of institutions of repression, redressing of “regional prejudices”, and safeguarding of “the rights and interests of deprived citizens” through “a democratic government elected by and accountable to the people.”

In many ways, the Charter sought to undo and/or correct the past mistakes and usher in a democratic future. It suggested that it has remedial (seen in the language of redress) preventive, and redemptive (seen in the language of newness) purposes. It spelt out what one could consider a constitutional promise yet to be actualized.

After endorsing all human rights as codified in the UDHR, it went on to emphatically recognize, in its article two, the right to self-determination (i.e., the right to difference, the right to self-government, and the right to conditional secession). It also envisaged the establishment of “local governments” with the right to self-governance through elected councils. The local governments were to be established on the basis of settlement pattern (the English version oddly translates as ‘nationality’).

The close reading of the constitutional context (the textual commitments both in the Constitution and Transitional Charter), the historical context (the state crisis and the consequent enthusiasm to reconstruct it on an alternative, if only more democratic and more just, foundation), and political contexts (the post-Derg configuration of political interests and the parties behind those interests) do not suggest any similarity with apartheid South Africa. The guiding principles, the underlying assumptions, the goals and objectives – and even the pretension around implementing these through elections et al) – contrary to claims otherwise – suggest that the federal dispensation is in fact the exact antithesis of apartheid. This does not however mean that the Ethiopian government doesn’t have other practices that one can denounce even by likening them to the practices of Apartheid South Africa. Nevertheless, federalism, even with its emphasis on ethno-national concerns, cannot be the grounds for such denunciations.

Federation or not: The litmus test

Central to the notion of federalism is covenantal consent. This consent is often embodied in a written constitution that not only demarcates the boundaries of power but also prescribes the rules that govern the relationship among the various orders or spheres of government. This is why scholars in the field insist on the existence of a written, supreme, rigid or entrenched constitution that is interpreted by an impartial tribunal. Presumably, the constitution is the aggregation of the consent of all the diverse constituent units. Deficit in consent at the various stages of the constitution-making casts a shadow on the legitimacy of the constitution that gives birth to, and circumscribes, the federation.

Federalism is also a form of governance in which power is divided and shared between and/or among different tiers of government. This division of power emanates from the broken/dual sovereignty that is characteristic of federal polities. As a result, sovereignty is divided in such a way that the constituent units govern themselves at the sub-national level and they govern the larger polity together at the federal level. This is the essence of the principle encapsulated in the self-rule plus shared rule formula paramount in federations. In providing for self-rule and shared-rule, federalism makes room for the exercise of autonomy in a larger union. In federations where the constituent units adopt their own constitutional texts, the sub-national constitutional space is used as a site of deepening self-rule and actualizing sub-national sovereignty.

Collateral to the principle of self-rule and shared-rule is also the principle of subsidiarity that guides federal division of power and coordination of actions of the different spheres of government. The principle of subsidiarity gives primacy to subnational “hands” for handling sub-national problems or matters. Accordingly, only matters that the sub-national units cannot handle are consigned to the national/federal government.

In devolutionary federations such as Ethiopia, federalization involves decentralization but it goes further to embrace non-centralization. Contrary to popular understanding in Ethiopia, non-centralization – not just decentralization – is at the heart of federalism and that distinguishes it from forms of decentralized government. In other words, the federal government cannot unilaterally take (back) the power of the states without a constitutional amendment.

The above are some of the key features recurrent in most federal systems. Multinational federations such as Switzerland, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Canada (to an extent), provide for a de jure and/or de facto power-sharing in the Executive and even in the judiciary among the elites of the constituent units. Comparative studies suggest that the units in multinational federations tend to be more protective of their autonomy and increasingly more demanding for equitable share of federal/national power, resources, and opportunities. The demand for secession is also becoming increasingly more visible, and at times even legally intelligible, among multinational federations than their non-multinational counterparts. As is the case in Canada (Quebec), India (Kashmir), Belgium (Flanders), Nigeria (Biafra), Spain (Catalonia and the Basque Country), multinational federations are challenged by the demands for secession whether they formally recognize the right in the constitution or not.

For us to judge whether a polity is federal or not, the ultimate criteria of evaluation will be the extent to which self-rule and shared-rule is exercised. Does apartheid South Africa qualify as a federation when it doesn’t have any of these basic features which serve as descriptors of a federation? The answer, as we shall see below, is an emphatic ‘No!’.

Is Ethnic Federalism synonymous with the ‘Home Land’ System of Apartheid South Africa?

If ‘ethnic federalism’ (assuming it means a federal arrangement that takes account of ethnicity as a politically salient component of the federal structure) is a consent based system that forges a union out of disparate ethnic groups on the basis of the principle of self-rule and shared rule, it is conceptually difficult how one can equate it with the homeland system of apartheid South Africa. One only needs to ask as to whether in apartheid South Africa, the blacks, the Indians, the colored, and the Afrikaners were engaged in self-rule locally and in shared rule nationally, especially the latter. For all we know, the pass laws are a graphic reminder that the Apartheid government policed and regulated even the movement of black bodies to contain and control them within a designated territory until and unless their labor is called upon for service in the farms, factories, or mining centers. Even the private lives of blacks (including their sexuality and marital life) were regulated by apartheid laws that proscribe intermarriages. Considering the fact that the blacks were disenfranchised and that they were not involved in shared governance of South Africa (in deed the whole system was designed to exclude the blacks from any form of national governance), it is impossible to imagine how it can even qualify as a federal arrangement. The system was a form of extending the legacy of settler colonialism which in itself was achieved through violence.

Once we decide that apartheid South Africa was not a federal system, it becomes clear that it is a non-starter to invoke it as an object of comparison in a discussion regarding Ethiopia’s federal system. It is also impossible to develop a tale, i.e., one story, by comparing these two incomparable systems. What we could tell is perhaps two tales, two distinct stories, of two different systems of governance unrelated not only in time and space but also in the structure of their logic.

Tales of a federation in a fractured multinational polity

Current attempts by different commentators to draw parallels between the Ethiopian federation and apartheid South Africa is more a critique of the former than a comparative appraisal of the latter. Seen in this light, it becomes clear that it is part of the discursive contestation with the dominant state narrative about the federal dispensation. It is coming to grips with the matter from a different angle, from a different place, a place that identifies with the hero (the oppressed blacks in South Africa) in order to authorize oneself to undermine the villain (the racist apartheid regime). From this place, it becomes easy to assume a moral high ground to pass a judgment about the federation (already undermined by the identification with apartheid rule) and the democratic credentials of the federal system. By just invoking the term ‘apartheid’, we delegitimize its claims to ethno-cultural justice, its quest for undoing an unjust past. We turn it into the most degenerate system of governance that has to be eradicated along with its claims to justice et al. We note, of course, that this is also a contestation about history, an attempt to erase the memory of a bad past that the federal dispensation speaks to, a tactical move to dissolve the ‘problems’ it seeks to resolve. In a sense, it is a call for selective collective amnesia, a refusal to remember.

This suggests that the story of federalism in Ethiopia is not just one. How many stories are there, then? How many stories can we tell about it?
Owing to the contested nature of federalism, there are different tales people could tell about it. In this section, I will first present a summary of these multiple tales of federalism in Ethiopia one after another. I will then suggest that the association with apartheid is more a manifestation of the incommensurability of the stories we can tell about the federalism in Ethiopia than of the actual likeness of the federal system to apartheid. Out of the contestation around the Ethiopian federal system, there emerged two dominant narratives that keep clashing season in, season out. And the clash between them has invisibilized a third narrative that I seek to highlight in this section.

The narrative of the detractors

The most dominant narrative is the narrative of the detractors of the federal arrangement which, as has been suggested earlier on, deploys several terms that invoke memories of diversity management that went awry. The terms deployed for this task of demonizing the federal dispensation include‘balkanization’, ‘bantustanization’, ‘tribalization,’ ’ethnicization,’ ’soviet style federation,’ ’socialist federation,’ ‘apartheid,’ and ‘genocide’ (Rwanda style).While there are those who, perhaps rightly, fear that the inter-ethnic tension (especially in border areas where there are competition over resources, power, opportunities, rival narratives of history, and identity) may lead to political violence, there is also a disconcertingly far-fetched and unfounded concern among some that the state is encouraging a form of genocide in the guise of Ethiopian federalism. The EPRDF on its part claims, especially since 2005, that the opposition parties are hate-mongering forces of genocide. In the course of an election debate in 2005, the EPRDF even went as far as referring to them as Interahamwe, evoking the memory of one of the protagonists in the Hutu-Tutsi clash that led the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The strategies of mutual de-legitimization have led to the rhetorical undermining of the ‘virtues’ of federalism. (As a result, a more dispassionate appraisal and a more mature and productive discourse could not emerge on the issues of diversity management through a federal system.)

According to this dominant narrative, the regime in power is using federalism merely to advance its strategy of ‘divide and rule’. In this narrative, the story line goes as follows:

…there was once a great country governed as one (from time immemorial). Its diverse people lived in harmony in what is ‘a museum of people’(except for some dynastic and expansionist wars in the rivalry for power). The people, ever vigilant of external enemies who sought to impose their suzerainty upon them, readily collaborated to defend their sovereignty against colonizers. The story of the late 19th and the early 20th century is a story of modernization and civilization (Western style). The unity of the country was established on a firm foundation especiallyin the last century. People were intermarrying, cultures wereintermixing, and groups were coming together. Ethiopia was becoming a melting pot of cultures. The language of the dominant cultural core (Amharic), by a mere accident of history, was becoming a common ‘national’ (i.e., country-wide) vernacular. The reunion of Eritrea with its ‘motherland’ after WWII completed the historic quest for unity. Ethiopian identity was beyond and above the different particular ethno-national identities. It is not only transcendent but also neutral to cultures or languages of Ethiopia. The devolution and subsequent federalization is a de-stabilizer to the longstanding unity and territorial integrity of the country. It is divisive to the people and ultimately destructive of Ethiopia. It is a reversal of the project of unification…

The story of federalism in Ethiopia, according to this narrative, is a story of fragmentation and a potential dismemberment of Ethiopia as ‘we’ know it so far.

Heavily reliant on the great ‘Ethiopianist’ tradition, this narrative glosses over the lived experiences of the peoples of the non-Abyssinian heritages (of those who often figure as the pagan, the ‘falasha’, and the Muslim other) and the range of oppression (conquest, raid, and repressive genocide; violent dispossession and displacement; cultural domination and denigration; discrimination, marginalization and exclusion; erasure of language, voice, and narratives; economic exploitation; retardation and loss of socio-political and legal institutions, etc) inflicted upon them systematically in the process of ‘nation-building’. It seeks to ignore the excesses of Ethiopian nationalism, and when it is reminded, it acquiesces in it by rationalizing it (as a necessary price to be paid for independence from European colonialism or a historical inevitability demanded by the time). In this narrative, Ethiopia’s plurality tends to pass unacknowledged. When it is, it is viewed either in the immemorial past or a transient phenomenon we are going to outgrow soon, or a politically negligible ‘problem’ that foreigners and ‘historic enemies’ seek to create. To this narrative, rethinking the approach to state-building by re-centering Ethiopia’s ‘multitudes’ is not only dangerous to Ethiopia’s ‘sovereignty and territorial integrity’ but also divisive to the people as it invokes irrelevant trivial primordial tribalist sentiments. The institutionalization of federalism on a multinational, multi-foundational, multicultural basis is thus a historical heresy. This story, which served as the official/state narrative until the fall of the Derg, is only one story that is told about the genesis of the federal dispensation. For there is another story, a second story, that is being told.

In the third and last series of this reflection I will discuss the second and third narratives of Ethiopia’s experiment with federalism. In the second narrative, which I refer to as the official state narrative, I will discuss in detail about its celebratory tone at the expense of exclusion, repression, and co-optation that it renders unintelligible and masks the violence the ruling EPRDF metes out on the voices of resistance from Ethiopia’s historic periphery. I will also discuss the third narrative which accepts half the premises of the second narrative and rejects its analytical framework and its pessimistic conclusions. In winding up this series, I will discuss the deficit (and its consequences) of misguided readings of Ethiopia’s experiment with federalism and why federalism does not pose the threat of apartheid on the ‘other’ peoples of Ethiopia (especially to the Oromo and the wider South) on whose behalf the federal dispensation was negotiated in the first place.

Ed’s Note Tsegaye R Ararssa, Melbourne Law School. Email:

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