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Opinion: The clamor for own state in Ethiopia: Ill-timed

The zonal council of Bench Majo zone were the latest to unanimously approve the demand for regional state status 

Zemelak Ayitenew Ayele, for Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, December 03/2018 – Several ethnic communities (Nations and nationalities in the parlance of the FDRE Constitution) of the SNNPRS are clamoring to secede from the region and establish their own state using the clause under Article 47(2) of the FDRE Constitution. The zonal councils of Guraghe, Sidama, Kaffa, and Gamo communities, among others, have unanimously resolved to secede from SNNP and establish their own states. So far, the regional state state council has affirmatively resolved on the Sidama case. Accordingly, the House of Federation (HoF) and the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) are expected to organize a referendum. If the majority of members of the community supports the resolution for own state, which is the most likely case, the Sidama zone will be a state and – automatically – a member of the Ethiopian federation. The other three are awaiting the decision of the state council.  The demand for own state is neither limited to the four communities mentioned above nor is it limited to the SNNPRS. Other communities in the region are also on the move to make similar demands as are the Agews in the Amhara region. The demand for own state from various communities should come as no surprise since it is based on a constitutionally entrenched principle that entitles each and every community to establish its own state, even to secede from the federation to establish independent state. If the federal principle is taken to is logical conclusion, Ethiopia may have as many as 80 states.

The purpose of this piece is not to appraise the appropriateness of the move towards establishing new states, nor is the aim of the article to argue for or against the ethnic federal system.  It simply maintains that this is not an appropriate time for making decisions on such sensitive issue as establishing new states for the following three reasons.

First, with the ascendance to power of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia is undergoing unprecedented political transformation. For all intents and purposes, the country is in a transitional mood.  If this transformation is steered with care and far sightedness, it may take Ethiopia to the promised land of democratic order putting the unity and stability of the country on stable ground. However, this transformation is already facing mammoth challenges that have the potential to derail it, the most serious challenge being inter-state and intra-state boundary disputes. The boundary disputes between Amhara and Tigray regional states are threatening (perish the thought) to lead to civil war. The boundary disputes between Somali and Oromia have been a cause for the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of our citizens. Establishing new states is not expected to be a smooth ride. It is likely to complicate already existing challenges and cause unnecessary confrontations and even conflicts among different communities. These are in turn likely to distract the federal government (the Prime Minister) from single-mindedly pursuing the transformation agenda since the latter will be consumed by these problems.

Second, the fact that our federal system seeks to manage the ethnic diversity of the Ethiopian people is understandable and even unavoidable. However, the federal principle that aims to award each ethnic community with a state of its own and to enclose each community in a single state, as Yonatan Fessha, an astute scholar of African federal systems, argues was the system’s ‘original sin’. The strict enforcement of this principle is almost impossible since each of the 80 or so ethnic communities of the country cannot establish politically, socially and economically viable states. Yet, the federal principle creates unreasonable expectation in every, numerically infinitesimal, community for own state. The political transformation in the country will be incomplete if it fails to address this issue. At least there should be a discussion on the relevance of maintaining the above federal principle. The establishment of any new state should therefore be undertaken only after such discussions are made.

Finally, the existing local councils were elected in May 2013 and their term came to an end in May 2018. The only reason the councils are still in power is because the political situation in the country did not allow the holding of fresh local elections as per the electoral rules of the country. The existing local councils are hence functioning on borrowed time. Moreover, it is by now public knowledge that the existing local councils were elected in elections that were less than free and fair. Even the PM himself has admitted this. When explaining to leaders of opposition parties as to why any issue relating to constitutional amendment should be postponed until after the next elections, he reasoned that all councils at regional, state and local level have legitimacy deficiency to undertake constitutional amendment. The PM seems to imply that this is so because the councils were elected in what can be considered unfree and unfair elections. The existing councils, therefore, equally lack the necessary mandate and legitimacy to pass resolutions on the establishment of new states which will have immense political and constitutional consequences.

For the reasons mentioned above, it is maintained that local councils should desist from passing resolutions demanding for the establishment of new states. And the councils that have already so resolved should suspend the implementation of their resolution at least until after the next elections. AS

Editor’s Note: Zemelak Ayitenew Ayele is Associate Professor and Director: Centre for Federalism and Governance Studies, Addis Abeba University (AAU); Extra-ordinary Associate Professor at the Dullah Omar Institute (DOI), University of the Westen Cape (UWC) South Africa.

He can be reached at: 

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