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Two Tales, or One?: On Ethiopia’s Federalism and South Africa’s Apartheid

By Tsegaye R Ararssa*

  1. 1.     Introduction

What is the story of the Ethiopian federal experiment? What stories does it tell? And what stories can be told about it? Feeding from and into the ever polarized and polarizing ‘debate’ on Ethiopia’s politics, Dr Taye Negussie recently argued that the Ethiopian federal arrangement is synonymous with apartheid’s ‘racial federation’. In a similar vein, Dr Asfawossen Asrate also remarked that “ethnic federalism amounts to nothing but apartheid.”[i] In this piece, I seek to explore the tales the Ethiopian federal experiment tells (and masks) with a view to shedding light on whether, by juxtaposing the two systems, there emerges a tale of two federations or two tales of two differently unjust governance systems.

In what follows, I will first offer a sketchy ‘description’ of the federation in context. I will then discuss what to look for in a federal system as its fundamental features. I do this in order to determine whether the tale is of two federations in the strict sense. Next, I will make an excursion into why, in spite of its deficiencies and the injustices it masks, Ethiopia’s federation is not the same as apartheid. Lastly, I submit the claim that while the Ethiopian state practice can be likened to apartheid on many other grounds, its adoption of federalism won’t be one of these grounds. Throughout this piece, I argue that the story of apartheid and the story of the Ethiopian federal experiment form two stories, two different tales, of repressive governance systems, not one. For the story of apartheid is not a story of a federation.

I also argue that the story of the Ethiopian federation is a story, for now, of ‘an unfortunate means to a legitimate end.’ It is unfortunate because it is heavily contested and unnecessarily so.[ii] Its end is legitimate because it aims at restructuring the state on a morally just set of premises.[iii] In the longue duree of Ethiopian history, it can be told as a story of the first steps in the unbreakable quest for freedom from the bondage of an ethnicized/racialized hierarchy imposed by the Abyssinian Empire on the ‘other’ peoples of Ethiopia. It is a story of a relentless pursuit of ethno-cultural justice by (subaltern) folks who took a stride towards emancipation through self-determination. It is a story of devising an alternative model of ‘nation-and state-building’. Owing to the current ‘authoritarian constitutional rule’ that cunningly deploys law to mask the repression, co-optation, and manipulation of legitimate national aspirations (thereby perpetuating pre-existing injustice), federalism has not delivered the promised emancipation. In excavating this story and responding to the inapt association with apartheid, I will mainly rely on a close reading of the Ethiopian constitution along with its immediate antecedents and the story it tells about both the past and the future so that we can locate the federalism in that story. By so doing, I will also highlight, in passing, how different the assumptions, principles, and goals that motivated apartheid are from their counterparts in Ethiopia.

  1. 2.     Ethiopian’s Federal Experiment: ‘Description’ and/in Context

As is hinted at already, federalism in Ethiopia is a heavily contested notion. Owing to the hegemonic status that centralized unitary modes of governance enjoyed for long in Ethiopia,  federalism is often viewed as a qualitatively inferior mode of governance that has to be justified on other grounds (such as normative pluralism, peace, or justice). Consequently, its detractors have more terms with which to denounce it than its proponents have to ennoble it. Hence, the frequent use of the inaccurate term ‘ethnic federalism’ to refer to it. More unkind commentators would refer to it as ‘tribal [ye-gosa], or racist [ye-zer], federalism’. They thus use terms such as ‘balkanization’,‘ethnicization,’‘bantustanization,’ and, as in the most recent iterations, ‘apartheid’ to describe the dispensation that Ethiopia’s federal experiment seeks to put in place. Consequently, two decades after its formal adoption, and the life of a generation is shaped by it in more ways than one, it is still controverted as the appropriate option for Ethiopia’s transformation from a centralised state-socialist/state-nationalist state into a multi-foundational, multinational, multicultural federal republic premised on a just social foundation.

To be sure, the project of redemptive transformation has faltered, or perhaps derailed for good, and for good reasons that reveal how the ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), posing ambiguously in relation to the federal arrangement, is at once the custodian and the major subverter of the federalist project. This ambiguous posture of the EPRDF vis-à-vis the federal structure (paradoxically both as the primary sponsor and principal saboteur of the federal system) has contributed to this derailment of the transformative goal of federalism. This in turn has disaffected many a federalist forcing them to retract their initial support for the federal dispensation. In this section, I offer a sketchy ‘description’ of the federal system in context. But to help us get a more complete picture, it is important to identify some of the misconceptions that cloud our vision of the federal arrangement. It is important to stress that the criticisms marshalled against the federal arrangement are buttressed and reinforced by the misconceptions that surround it.

Consequently, the discursive undermining of the federal system relies on and contributes back to the old narrative that privileges the core over the periphery, the center over the margin, the dominant self over the subaltern other. It is part of what some, following tack of Donald Levine,[iv] rather benignly characterize as the ‘Greater Ethiopia’ narrative which takes the “Geez civilization”[v] as the core of the empire that subsumes all the rest under it. This dominant narrative that is deployed to undermine the federal experiment feeds from and feeds into several misconceptions about the federal arrangement.

One major misconception (or at times deliberate distortion) is noted in the characterization of the federation as ‘ethnic’ when in actual fact it is a multinational one. The term ‘ethnicity’ does not occur in Ethiopia’s constitutional language, in part because the ‘Nations, Nationalities’ rhetoric of the constitution is not directly translatable to the concept of ethnicity frequented in the rhetoric of liberal democracies and in part because the word ethnicity does not have an exact equivalent in Ethiopian languages. The use, in some circles, of ‘ethnicity’ interchangeably with gosa, a term that is closer in meaning to tribe than ethnicity, is a chosen way of belittling the effort to address the challenge of diversity. Given the fact that the constituent units are ‘nations’ (or a union of several ‘nations’) and given none of the states are ethnically homogenous, it is a misnomer to refer to the Ethiopian system as an ‘ethnic federation’.

Another oft repeated misconception is that Ethiopia’s federation seeks to build unity out of diversity (E Pluribus Unum) when in actual fact what it establishes is diversity in unity, i.e., a union of diverse nations in one larger polity (Plures in Uno, i.e., many in one). This misconception has often led to the confusion about the model of state-and nation-building aspired for under the federal dispensation.

The mistaking of regime transition for state transformation is another misconception usually entertained among the political elites of the regime in power. The change of regime, some assume, is also a change of the infrastructure of inequality that is the foundation of the Ethiopian imperial state. As a result, they denounce the quest for ethno-cultural justice and the demand for self-determination as irrelevant in post-Derg Ethiopia.[vi] While there is a change of regime to be sure, we are yet to see a transformation of the Ethiopian imperial state to a fairer, more just, more equitable, and democratically governed polity.

Two decades into the experiment, it is still remiss of us that what the federation does is a movement from a uni-foundational empire state to a multinational, multi-foundational republic ensconced on the constitutionally established set of principles that go beyond ‘blood and soil’. These principles (stated in arts 8-12 of the constitution as popular sovereignty, constitutionalism, human rights, secularism, and rule of law) render the old source of legitimacy (force, religion, and genealogy/tradition)[vii] obsolete. More importantly, it recognizes the co-eval presence and co-equal participation in the founding of the republic.[viii] By so doing, it makes a pronouncement that there is no hierarchic or core-periphery relationship among Ethiopia’s constituents. This misunderstanding of foundational issues is one of the misconceptions that are unaccounted for in the discourse on federalism and in the many instances of undermining it.

To some people, just because Amharic is the working language of the Federal government, it follows that everyone speaks, or should speak, Amharic. They hardly understand that Amharic is the language of the federal officials and institutions, not the language of the Ethiopian peoples (other than the Amhara people).

In recent discussions regarding the ‘Master Plan’ of Finfinne (which non-Oromos call Addis Abeba), another misconception was foregrounded: the misconception that Finfinne is a federal city when what it actually is, is the seat of the federal government.  It should be emphasized, then, that Finfinne is an Oromo city that is also serving as the seat of the Federal Government. It should have been clear by now that the city is not a designated federal district or federal territory. In fact, no territory is directly the territory of the federal government for domestic legal and political purposes. For international law purposes, the federal government represents Ethiopia as a country that claims the territory of its constituent states as its territory (art 2).

Moreover, one frequently meets people who mistake federalism for decentralized governance. These people fail to realize that federalism is not only a decentralized government but also non-centralized mode of governance. This misconception leads most people to confuse the states with the provinces (Kiflate-Hager, or Teklay-Gizat) of olden days, especially in the area of inter-governmental relations. This understanding has led to the treatment of the federal government as superior to state governments, federal laws as superior to state laws, federal institutions as superior to state institutions. It has also led to the treatment of the federal government as the ‘central’ government that spreads power to the periphery.

2.1.         ‘Description’: The Constitutional Context

In this sketchy description, I will focus on the founding, the goals, the principles, and assumptions of the Ethiopian federation. I will also limit myself to a quick, if veiled, identification of some of the institutions created for operationalizing the principles of self-rule and shared rule. The constitution makes it clear from the outset that the founders of the Ethiopian polity are the many ‘nations, nationalities, and peoples’[ix] of Ethiopia (‘nations’ for short in this piece). As has been hinted at in earlier sections, the opening statement makes it clear that federal Ethiopia is a multinational republic co-founded by co-equal and co-eval sovereign entities that wield constitutive authority. The sovereignty that found its loci in the constituent nations is later re-stated as one of the fundamental principles of the constitution (article 8). This sovereignty is already exercised when it was operationalized through self-determination (also recognized as a right later in art 39) supposedly through (for me, the flawed) election that led to the establishment of the constituent assembly in 1994. That the institution whose membership is representatives of these ‘nations’—the House of Federation—has the ultimate interpretive authority is the function of this foundational imperative that made them the custodians of the constitution and the umpires of the federation (while also serving as a site of exercising shared rule). The moral that emerges from this is that Ethiopia is no more a uni-national polity, that it is not a country of peoples identified as core and periphery, that there is no more hierarchy among its constituents who have primacy to determine ‘the cultural DNA’ of the country.

The primary goal of the federal set up is to speak to a history of uneven relationships among the various constituent nations. It thus seeks to dismantle the infrastructure of hierarchy thereby formally renouncing inequality and discrimination (much in a language that echoes anti-apartheid rhetoric in South Africa). The federation is posited as the first step to transform Ethiopia from a mono-foundational, mono-vocal, mono-confessional empire to a multi-foundational, multi-vocal, multi-confessional, secular, socially just federal republic.  The unstated ultimate goal is redemptive in aspiration (i.e., overcoming the deficits of substantive and formal equality, liberty, democracy, and all the other virtues that go along with these). Its stated goal is to forge an economic and political community that is based on the principle of equality, non-discrimination while also addressing/rectifying historical injustices. Perhaps informed by the history of warfare and strife, it also seeks to dispense ‘lasting peace.’[x]

The right to self-determination is the organizing principle of the Ethiopian constitution. Self-determination, exercised as a primal right of the ‘nations’, gave birth to the constitution. The constitution constituted the state as a federal republic. Apart from this overarching principle that ‘restored sovereignty’ to formerly oppressed (and yes, some colonized) peoples, there are other ‘fundamental principles’ that serve as the interpretive tools and framework of understanding for the constitution.  These principles are the sovereignty of ‘nations’ (and their peoples) (art 8), constitutional supremacy and constitutionalism (art 9), sanctity of human rights (art 10), secularism (art 11), and transparency and accountability of government (art 12). These articles are further corroborated by the policy objectives and directive principles in chapter 10, the principles that guide government policies in the country. These principles pertain to diplomatic (art 86), military (art 87), political (art 88), economic (art 89), social (art 90), cultural (art 91), and environmental (art 92) objectives of the Ethiopian state. These principles, combined, furnish moral imperatives that guide policy making while also articulating the values the state stands for.

The assumption on which the federal logic is built is that the century old nation building project premised on a state nationalist basis has failed.  Ethiopia has proved to be “a prison house of nations” in which groups are subjected to a range of forms of oppression. This assumption is rooted in and found its potent articulation in the student movement discourse of the 1960s on how to solve “the national question” in Ethiopia. [xi] Assimilationist policies of the old emperors having failed, there was a need to accommodate ‘competing nationalisms’[xii] albeit on the terms of the “center”. That it was posed as a question betrays who is facing it as such and is taking responsibility to “answer” the question. However, it is this assumption (that there is a question, a problem!) that precedes the decision to devise a federal set up that takes account of ethno-national differences. It was the assumption that there is fundamental inter-group inequality that pervades the state structure and its age old assimilationist policies that led to the recognition of diversity (preamble, art 8, etc), inter-personal and inter-group equality (arts 25, 39), the right to difference (in culture, language, and narrative) (art 39(2)), and territorial autonomy (art 39(1,3, and 4). As a result, all Ethiopian languages are co-equally official and the federal government and the state governments could only have working languages. Article 5 indicates that Amharic is the working language of the federal government. (This is a continuation of the trend that the Derg started when it recognized equality among languages and decided to have Amharic as a working, not official, language. See Art 2 of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) Constitution.)[xiii]

From the above discussion one can observe—contrary to what Dr Taye claims–that in its foundations, its goals, its principles, and its underlying assumptions, the Ethiopian federal system is very different from the ‘homeland’ system of apartheid South Africa.

After outlining the fundamental principles in its chapter 2 and presenting a catalogue of fundamental rights in chapter three, the constitution, in its chapter 4, discusses the structure of the state where it lists the nine members that constitute the federation which themselves are delimited on the basis of “settlement pattern, language, identity, and the consent of the people concerned (arts 46(2) cum art.47).[xiv] Art 46(1) makes it clear that the members are called ‘States’ (a term rendered kilil in Amharic) (art 50(2)). Changes to the borders of the states–if disputed, and failing agreement between the concerned States–is done in accordance with settlement pattern and “the wishes of the people concerned”(art 48). Despite the asymmetry in size, population, economy, and natural endowment among the States, the constitution stipulates that they have equal rights and equal powers (art 47(4)).[xv] Finfinne/Addis Abeba is designated to be the seat of the federal government while it is also the capital city of Oromia (art 49). For administrative purposes, the city is excised from Oromia’s jurisdiction and is granted a status of a self-governing chartered city accountable to the Federal government (art 49(2-3)). Conscious of the excision and Oromia’s consequent loss of jurisdiction over the city, its ‘special interest’ is recognized (art 49(5)) although that was never implemented in practice.

Power is divided between the federal and state governments (art 50(8)). Much like it is the case in other federations, the federal government commands foreign relations, immigration, defense, currency, international trade, inter-state commerce, infrastructure, and communication,  science and technology, standards and measurements, etc. (art 51). The states are ‘left with’ residual powers (art 52). Concurrent powers (shared and/or joint ones) are also envisaged in the constitution. To help enhance self-rule, the constitution provides for power to make constitutions at the State level (art 52(2)b)). The sub-national constitutional space is envisaged as the primary site of actualizing self-rule. Accordingly all the states have adopted their own state constitutions since 1995. In those constitutions, they have invariably designed normative, institutional, and procedural structures that they thought suits the needs of their own distinct demos. In terms of demographic configuration, none of the states are homogenous, but most of the states (Afar, Amhara, Oromia, Somalia, Tigray, and Harari) are named after the name of the dominant national group in those states. This often gives the wrong impression that the states are formed purely on the basis of ‘ethnicity.’

The structure of the federal government is parliamentarian (art 45). Ideally, the federal government institutions serve mainly as sites of shared rule while institutions of state governments serve as sites of self-rule. Needless to say, the constitution establishes various institutions to operationalize the federal arrangement. As a frame of government, first it establishes the triaspolitika, i.e., the legislature (arts 53-61), the executive (arts 72-77), and the judiciary (arts 78-81). The House of Representatives (HPR), the lower house of the (formally) bicameral legislature (arts 54-61), is the supreme political organ to which individuals are elected on plurality basis from 550 electoral districts of 100,000 inhabitants (art 54(3)). The HPR commands all legislative power over matters pertaining to the domain of the federal government. It thus exercises all the decisional,[xvi] deliberative,[xvii] and control/scrutiny[xviii] powers. The constitution provides for a quota of 20 seats for “minority nationalities” (art 54(3)).

The House of Federation (HOF) (arts 62-71), which poses as the upper house of the (formally bicameral) federal legislature (art 53), serves as the “house of nations”[xix] in which each nation is represented at least by one representative and one more for every additional one million that each nation has. Designed to be an institution of representation and participation (for the diverse nations), the HOF is supposed to enhance the shared rule component of the federalism. Constitutionally speaking, the members to the HOF may be elected directly by the people or indirectly by the state legislatures (61(3)). In practice, the members are so far elected only indirectly through the State Legislatures mostly from among their own members. In recent years, when the budget negotiations in the HOF became increasingly tough, the Executive officials of the State (including the Presidents of the States) began to participate in the HOF as members.

One of the key tasks of the HOF is interpretive (art 62(1)). In fact, textually speaking, it is the ultimate interpreter of the constitution. In this task, it is supported by an expert advisory body called the Council of Constitutional Inquiry (CCI) (Arts 81-84), the last vestige of the original proposal to have a constitutional court that serves as the apex court in the judicial hierarchy of the federation.[xx] The CCI is an 11-person body composed of six reputed legal professionals nominated by the HPR and appointed by the President; the President and Vice President of the federal Supreme Court; and three members designated by and from the HOF (art. 82(2)). This body examines the constitutional-legal issues in disputes and makes recommendations to the HOF on the kind of interpretation that, ideally, better preserves the core values, principles, structure, and integrity of the constitutional order. The operational details of HOF and the CCI are articulated in detail in Proclamations 250 and 251 of 2000. They also have their own rules of procedure for their proceedings.[xxi]

Rather idiosyncratically, the HOF is an ‘unlegislating legislature’ with little involvement in law making (such as identification of civil law areas over which the federal government needs to legislate on account of creating one economic community; or identifying the set of criteria that go into the formula for equitable sharing of revenues among the states). And in this, it seems to be an institution set up to perform a meta-legislative task.

The federal executive is made of the Council of Ministers (led by a primus inter pares Prime Minister) and a ceremonial Head of State (the President of the Republic). The Prime Minister is elected by the Political party that has the majority of the seats in parliament. Much to the consternation of Ethiopia’s opposition, there is no term limit to the tenure of the Prime Minister.

The federal judiciary is a three-tiered ensemble of Supreme, High, and First Instance courts.[xxii] Although there hardly is an explicit proscription, in practice, the court manifests disinterest in reviewing legislations for constitutionality. It generally shies away from entertaining disputes inviting constitutional interpretation. This and the state’s continuous strategic deployment of law for political purposes are among many factors that lead scholars to characterize the Ethiopian system as one of rule by law rather than rule of law.[xxiii] Indeed, the system looks to manifest ‘authoritarian rule of law’ akin to East Asian systems such as that of Singapore.[xxiv]

The system being sensitive, in theory, to human rights (nearly a third of the constitution is devoted to human rights in its famous entrenched, albeit mostly non-justiciable, chapter three), the constitution envisaged the establishment of specific human rights institutions such as the Institution of the Ombudsman and Human Rights Commission (both of which were subsequently established through statutes, Proclamations 210/2000 and 211/2000).

In practice, the Ethiopian federal experiment has evolved and has passed through four major stages: a) devolution (1991-1994), b) aggregation, constitutional moment of ‘coming together’ (1994)), c) decentralization (1995-1998) and d) back to centralization (1998, especially since 2001 to date).[xxv] 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 is the Federal Intervention Law (Proclamation 359/2003), the formation of the Ministry of Federal Affairs and assigning it responsibilities that control and discipline the States, the reorganization of the federal police under the Ministry of Federal Affairs, 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.

These 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 policies that articulate the ‘developmentalist’ nature of the state), have superseded the ethics of non-centralization in federalism.

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); 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[xxvi]); 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.

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.

2.2.         The Context: 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 process that started in the 19th century. 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 ‘centre’ 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.[xxvii]

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.[xxviii] 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 an exit route should the center threaten to violate their democratic rights. By making it at the top of the political agenda of the day, they 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).[xxix]

The Transitional Charter laid down the first steps toward federalizing a 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.” (Paragraph 2, preamble). 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 (Paragraph 3). 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.” (Paragraph 5). In many ways, the Charter sought to undo and/or correct the past mistakes and ushering in a democratic future. It suggests that it has a remedial (seen in the language of redress) and prevention (seen in the language of newness).

After endorsing all human rights as codified in the UDHR, it went on to emphatically recognize, in its article 2, 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” (art 5, cum art 13) 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 actually says ‘nationality’] (art 13).

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 practices that one can denounce even by likening them to the practices of Apartheid South Africa.

  1. 3.     Federation, or Not: The Litmus Test

Central to the notion of federalism is covenantal consent.[xxx] 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.[xxxi]  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 protective of their autonomy and increasingly more demanding for equitable share of federal/national power, resources, and opportunities. The demand for secession is also 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?

  1. 4.     Is Ethnic Federalism Synonymous with the Home Land System of Apartheid South Africa?

4.1.         Comparing the Incomparable: A Tale of Two Federations, Or Two different Tales of Repressive Governance?

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 coloured, 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 labour is called upon for service in the farms, factories, or mining centers. Even the private lives of blacks (including their sexuality and marital life) was 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,[xxxii] two distinct stories, of two different systems of governance unrelated not only in time and space but also in the structure of their logic.

4.2.         Tales of a Federation in a Fractured Multinational Polity—and Redirecting a Tale as a Critique of a Repressive Regime

In the way it is framed in the piece by Dr Taye Negussie and provocatively remarked on by Dr Asfawosen,[xxxiii] the attempt 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 judgement about the federation (already undermined by the identification with apartheid rule) about 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 contest 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, then? I now turn to these questions. 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 its actual likeness 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.

Accordingly, 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 such as ‘balkanization’, bantustanization, tribalization, ethnicization, soviet style federation, socialist federation[xxxiv], apartheid, and genocide (Rwanda style).[xxxv] According to this 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’[xxxvi] (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 especially in the last century. People were intermarrying, cultures were intermixing, and people 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-stablizer 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 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).[xxxvii]  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 a 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.

The second dominant narrative is that which is maintained by the regime in power, which I call the   official or state narrative.[xxxviii] In this narrative, the state’s self-description looms large. The story goes as follows:

…there was an old imperial state called Ethiopia. Its boundaries bulged and shrinked from time to time depending on its relative military and economic strength. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the state began consolidating and it attained its current territorial and demographic shape. The process was unwieldy. Through brutal series of imperial conquests, people were subjugated, rival nations were subdued and deprived of self-governance, and territories were occupied. The state adopted a wide range of unjust policies (political, social, economic, cultural, linguistic, and negatively, environmental) that was repressive and destructive of the way of being of the people Ethiopia considered its others. Constitutionally-legally, the state sanctioned a hierarchical order that sees the Abyssinian at the top, the Galla (i.e., the Oromo and the Cushitic speaking people of the wider South) in the middle, and the Shanqilla (the Omotic and Nilotic peoples of the South-Western and Western periphery) at the bottom. In terms of religion, the hierarchy maintains the Orthodox Christian at the top, the Muslim in the second, the Jews (alias bete-Israel, but pejoratively known as the ‘Falasha’ and the pagan (the aremenie) at the bottom of the ladder.[xxxix] This hierarchy defines the insider and the outsider in the empire. This distinction informed the problematic and unresolved issue of national identity making the progressive and restless youth of the 1960s ask: “Who is the Ethiopian?”. The injustice perpetrated in the course of creating, institutionalizing and operationalizing this hierarchy and the material poverty of the people, especially those in the lower rung of the hierarchy and in the lower class of even the Abyssinian core, itched and pained reformists and revolutionaries across time. In time, this led to the student movement that catalyzed the 1974 upheaval. The revolution dethroned the monarch, deposed the aristocracy, suspended the constitution, dismissed the parliament, redistributed land and houses, proclaimed socialism, and sought to transform the society into a communist society by first changing the state into a socialist one. Although it acknowledged the challenge of diversity, it hesitated to restructure the state radically in the light of the plurality of the people and their demands for equality, inclusion, autonomy, and secession (among some groups such as Eritrea, Ogaden, and Oromiya). In a gesture aimed at containing the demands, the military regime introduced a ‘National Democratic Revolution Program’ in 1976, acknowledged the diversity and equality of languages, ran basic education programs in (about 12 or 13) select languages (albeit with Sabean scripts), and subsequently established the Institute of Nationalities to study the diversity and design a constitution for a state that accommodates all these ‘people’. However, the military regime insisted on the ‘Ethiopia First’ motto as its fundamental postulate, the grundnorm, on which the polity is built. Consequently, Ethiopia failed to face its plurality in earnest. It thus squandered the opportunity to address the ‘question of nationalities’.

In response, protracted ‘civil’ wars raged from all directions. Liberation movements proliferated. When the regime eventually collapsed in 1991, these liberation movements came together as ‘the peace loving forces of Ethiopia’ to ‘rebuild and restructure the state’ on a democratic basis that recognizes not only the individual civil and political rights of citizens but also the collective rights of ‘nations, nationalities, and peoples’ to self-determination. Through this, peace was regained. Hostilities stopped. Sovereignties were restored to the nations. Self-governance was started. Languages, cultures, religions, customs, and traditions were set free ‘from bondage’ (as Mazrui would say)[xl]. A Transitional Charter was adopted to acknowledge this political fact and to serve as an interim constitutional pact. Fairly autonomous Regional self-governments were established in 1992. These governments were governed by their own elected local officials using local vernaculars as the working languages of their regions. Conditional right of secession was recognized under the Charter. Soon, a Constitutional Commission was established to draft a new constitution that follows the blue print laid down in the Transitional Charter. In 1994, a constitution was adopted.

The constitution provided for a federal structure. It (re)founded Ethiopia as a multinational, multi-foundational, multicultural republic. It continued on the national self-determination rhetoric, only made it better. Secession became an unconditional constitutional right of a group. Regions became States. Federalism became the new mode of governance. Groups enjoy self-rule at the state and sub-state level while also enjoying shared rule at the country level. There are institutions of shared rule (for ensuring representation, participation, and power-sharing) at various levels. The HOF, ‘the house of nationalities,’ is one such site. …Linguistic justice is ensured at various levels. Amharic is the working language of the federal government. Other languages are used as chosen working languages of the State and local governments. All languages enjoy official status as they are used as media of instruction at least at elementary school level. The state is secular. All religions have equal status. Freedom of religion is recognized. Through recognizing the right to self-determination, the state emphatically addressed the historic ‘question of nationalities’. As a result, peace has reigned…

 The tone of this story is celebratory. It depicts a rosy picture of Ethiopia. The state is restructured on a democratic, plural, and just foundation. Ethiopian identity is put on a new pedestal defined in terms of mutual recognition, respect and equality in dignity. Ethno-national rights are fully recognized and ethno-cultural justice is advanced. The infrastructure of hierarchy is unsettled and dismantled. Individuals’ and minorities’ rights to equality and non-discrimination are respected through the instrumentality of constitutional human rights. The utopia is achieved. The ‘peaceable kingdom’[xli] is established. The renaissance has started.

Accordingly, the detractors’ criticism is an empty noise. The state narrative maintains that some of these detractors belong to a group of sympathisers of the old unitarist regimes who still command the cultural power with which to denigrate the current dispensation and the collectivities it valorizes. Some others belong to ‘narrow nationalists’ who seek to de-stabilize the state and derail the peace and development endeavours of the state. By saying this, the regime authorizes itself to define its new ‘others’ as threats to the constitutional federal order and eliminate them as such.

This story of course has a shadow side. The shadow side to the state/official narrative is the story of exclusion, repression, and co-optation that it renders unintelligible. It masks the violence EPRDF metes out on the voices of resistance from the historic periphery such as the Somali (ONLF), Gambela (GPDP), Oromia (OLF), Afar (AFL), and numerous other groups from the SNNPRS (such as the Sidama Liberation Movement [SLM]), and even from the ‘Center’ All Amhara People’s Organization (AAPO) from the very day of inauguration of the federal dispensation. It renders invisible this violent exclusion, not just of the parties but also of the populace behind them. It hides the story of how the EPRDF ensured that authentic popular voices are repressed as ‘narrow nationalists, anti-peace elements, and terrorists’). Moreover, it mutes the story of how EPRDF launched its long enduring campaign of co-optation through creation of ethno-national parties famously known as ‘PDOs (as in OPDO, GDPO, APDO, etc) although they also come in other acronyms (e.g. SPDM, ANDM, etc). It makes us desensitized to how, owing to the dominant nature of the party and the consequent subordination of the state to EPRDF, power is (re)centralized and states are deprived of their autonomy. It sanitizes what one can see as a retrenching of the fundamentally imperial character of the Ethiopian state. This suggests the emergence of another tale, another story, that can be told about the Ethiopian federation or the Ethiopian federation tells).

The third narrative generally accepts the first premises of the second narrative. It accepts the diagnostic aspect of its analysis, i.e., the aspect that identifies the problems as a ‘crisis of state’ and the failure of a project of nation- and state-building that ignored and/or resisted the fact of national plurality. However, it rejects the prognostic aspect of that analysis, i.e., the aspect which prescriptively suggests that, since the political utopia is here and now and that the constitutional federalism has encapsulated and eternalized it, no resistance is tolerated. This narrative views this aspect of the prognosis as based on half-truths. Thus, it maintains that while it is true that the constitutional federalism that embraces multi-nationalism, multi-foundationalism, and multiculturalism is a step in the right direction, it is only a step that signals a road not yet travelled, not even half-travelled. This narrative can be summarized as follows:

… as a result of the interplay of historical factors, the current Ethiopia is a land of diverse peoples. The inaugural violence deployed in the process of its formation and the imperial and hierarchic system of governance in the wake of its formation has created uneven and unjust relations among its diverse peoples. Apart from and on top of the raids, mass killings/genocides, dispossessions, displacements, domination, and exploitation, it inflicted wounds through its ‘act’ of unrecognition or misrecognition. As a result, the citizenship of the large majority of the non-Abyssinian peoples was generally discounted. They were treated as ‘subjects of empire’ who inhabit the margins of the polity (the realm of citizenship and participation in government). Even when it is benign, the Ethiopian state sees them as its ‘others’.

Apart from the positive act of injustice inflicted upon them as individuals and cross-generationally as collectivities, it wounds them by resisting their attempts at inclusion and participation. It erases them from historical recollections even when they sacrificially contribute to the state-building project. Its failure at inclusion even on its own terms shows the limits of the state and the citizenship it confers. This, impenetrability of the state and this limits of the outer reach of citizenship makes clear only one thing: that the state is imperial with a clear core and periphery, centre and margin, inside and outside, thereby drawing a rigid boundary between what Mahmood Mamdani felicitously called “the citizen and the subject.”[xlii] The quest for inclusion –in-citizenship, this innocent demand to be in the polis, was reframed as the ‘question of nationalities’ by the progressive elite of the 1960s. By so doing, the elites of the ‘center’—while genuinely rebellious and resistant to the politics of empire—appropriated the subject position to determine who has to answer whose question. The ‘nations, nationalities, and peoples’ thus became a term that now denotes Ethiopia’s historic ‘others’ (albeit ‘respectfully’ this time around) thereby unwittingly creating another boundary between the apparently post-ethnic civic (Amhara-Tigray Abyssinian) identity on the one hand and the ethnic ‘other’ identities on the other.

… Constitutional rhetoric aside, this imperial state is practically yet to be transformed in such a way that it turns subjects into citizens. The multi-foundational basis for the federation is yet to yield a co-equal citizenship and a state that is equally accessible to all. The constitutional recognition of the right of peoples to self-determination promises peaceful exit without warfare in the event that the terms of ‘living together’ are viewed as unfair to any of the constituent units. It is a guarantee against oppression in Ethiopia. It also holds out the promise of an open system that welcomes others in the neighborhood to join the federation just as much as it allows members to relinquish their membership in the federation. It might be the clause that actually unites while sounding like it divides. As a political principle, it encapsulates the seed that continually renews the polity by disallowing the risk of being too grounded in some definitive state orthodoxy. Nonetheless, the self-determination right of peoples has yet to deliver and secure democratic self-rule. It has only been strategically deployed by EPRDF to gain pseudo-legitimacy among the ‘other’ peoples of Ethiopia. It is being used to rationalize EPRDF rule. The constitutional federalism is only a reminder of, or a mere pointer to, the transformation to come. …

Seen in aspirational terms, this third story marks an undelivered promise. In the eyes of the large majority of the peoples of the wider South (who can tell this story as their story about the federalism), Ethiopia’s multinational federalism had the promise of autonomy in the federal dispensation and the ‘restoration’ of lost sovereignty through self-determination, and the recognition of secession as an antidote to potential future repression (much in line with the preventive theory of secession). In its promise of self-determination, they see a spectre of their resistance to ‘northern’ hegemony that may rear its head again. It resists the closure the EPRDF seeks to bring to the quest for emancipation. It does so by posing as a living commentary—sort of a lamentation—of EPRDF’s consistent deployment of federalism to silence the periphery.

Speaking to the past, first it reveals the story of their resistance to diverse forms and consequences of misrecognition. It yields a memory of saying ‘No’ to violent extermination and involuntary assimilation. It symbolizes a juridico-political act (albeit only discursive in pro tem) of memorializing, of re-membering, what they endured in the past.

This story is the story of hope deferred. It represents a story of dreams unfulfilled, of promises undelivered, and of state transformative projects unfinished. It is a tale of the redemption yet to come. The most important political virtue that the federalism claims to promote is dispensation of ethno-cultural justice. However, while it is normatively validated and practically vindicated to an extent, it is yet to be fully actualized.


From reading the above three competing stories one can tell about Ethiopia’s federalism, we can observe that the first story sees only a story of decline and possible dismemberment of Ethiopia. The second sees a story of arrival, as tory of ‘being there’ already, of having resolved the historical conundrum, and with that, the beginning of the ‘closure of history’. The third sees the story of deferred hope, undelivered promise, of unachieved transformation and it signals the imperative of continued resistance.  From among these three, it is the first story, the story that longs for a return to the glory of the past that characterizes Ethiopia’s multinational federalism as ‘nothing but apartheid.’

The motivation comes from the interest to delegitimize the system internally so that, in the event the regime in power relents, they will roll it back to a unitary system or at least a more centralized federation that is blind to ethno-national concerns. Genealogically speaking, the invocation of apartheid to ‘demonize’ the system—while it is inaccurate in every possible way–is merely a strategic ploy meant not only to discredit it as an alternative project of state- and nation-building but also to mute the discourse on it as an option to consider for future transformative tasks. This act helps also to rationalize the atrocities of the past and to absolve the historic Ethiopian state—past and present–from any responsibility. Sub-consciously, the people who promote this discourse might be repressing the guilt of perpetrating injustice that is much like the ones perpetrated by apartheid. Indeed, if one looks closely, there is more similarity between the structure of the logic of apartheid and the logic of the old Ethiopian empire than that between the former and the current federal system.

4.3.         Responding to misguided comparisons: attention to specifics – and to an abbreviated story of Apartheid and beyond – in passing

In an attempt to show similarity between the Ethiopian federal arrangement and the homeland system of Apartheid, Dr Taye Negussie focused on the terms used, the guiding principles, and assumptions of the two systems. In particular, he drew a parallel between the Amharic word Kilil and the word apartheid claiming that both terms denote aparthood, or apartness. To start with, apartheid is not the term used to refer to the homelands. Moreover, the mere distaste for the word Kilil does not lead us to the conclusion that it denotes what it does not. Kilil (translated as ‘Region’ in the English version of the Proclamation that established Regional governments, Proclamation No 7/1992) has nothing to do with separate living or apartness. It only stands as the Amharic placeholder of the various terms used to refer to constituent units in federations, terms such as ‘states’ (USA, Australia, India, Ethiopia), ‘Provinces’(Canada, South Africa), ‘Cantons’(Switzerland), ‘Communes’ (Belgium), ‘Entities’ (Bosnia-Herzegovina), ‘Autonomous Regions’(Spain), and ‘Lander’ (Germany, Austria). In the Ethiopian constitution, the units are referred to as ‘states’ and the Amharic equivalent could only be ‘Mengist’, a term that conflates ‘State’ and ‘Government’. In practice, the term used is the more elaborate National Regional States. It is not clear how this denotes apartheid.

The organizing principle of the Ethiopian federation is self-determination. The goal is the radical transformation of the state and democratizing the governance by restoring sovereignty to the people that hitherto have been under imperial cum colonial oppression. The objective is inclusion of the ‘other’ peoples of Ethiopia into equal citizenship and forging a country of which they are co-equal founders. The underlying principles of apartheid is subordination of the non-white people by establishing a racialized hierarchy that disenfranchises the large majority of the black, Indian, and colored population. In its most benignly articulated form, it was said to lead to ‘separate development’. That is what they wrongly referred to as federation. The objective is preservation of the white dominance and continuation of the colonial legacy by excluding the blacks from involvement in governance of South Africa.

The assumption of the Ethiopian federation—its very starting point—is that there is a national oppression (of various forms) and that there is an ethno-national hierarchy (the Abyssinian at the top, the Galla [Oromo and the Southern nations] in the middle, and the Shanqilla at the bottom) that brought about ethno-cultural injustice. Federalism is viewed as a corrective to the historic injustice, a technology of securing redemptive transformation of an evil empire. The assumption of the apartheid system is that given the relative numerical smallness of the whites, unless they transform their relative numerical inferiority to political superiority, they will be overwhelmed by the black majority population. To them, democracy was a threat. So, apartheid is motivated by a thorough going antipathy for democracy (majority rule).

Not surprisingly, the two systems are radically different from one another in consequences and the responses thereto. The consequence of apartheid was disenfranchisement of the majority black population and increasing securitization and terrorization of blackness. It led to sham political trials, tortures, arbitrary arrests, killings, and disappearances. In response came the long years of resistance by ANC, IFP, and several other political parties and liberation movements. The ultimate result of the resistance was the multiparty constitutional negotiation that eventually led to the adoption of a South African federal arrangement in an attempt to accommodate the nationalist demands of some of the provinces such as the KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape for autonomy. The fact that South Africa saw its redemption from the legacy of apartheid in a federation that attends to diversity suggests how federalism, contrary to Dr Taye’ claim, was an antidote to apartheid rather than its institutionalization.

The above shows that the comparison fails to take account of the radically different historical, political, constitutional, and demographic context of the two systems. The attempt to draw similarities based on the terms used, the assumptions alluded to, and the guiding principles mentioned are shown to be strained.

  1. 5.     Is Ethiopia an Apartheid System because it is a Federation?

The answer to this question can only be answered in nuances. There is a sense in which Ethiopia’s federalism can degenerate into apartheid unless the state is transformed in such a way that everyone is co-equally a citizen that counts and the governance is totally democratic. The multinational foundation on which the federation is established and the inherently democratizing nature of the self-determination clause in the constitution can help in this effort to transform the state from empire to a genuine democracy. With the deficits in citizenship and democracy, with the hierarchic relation among the political elites, seemingly justified in the role and order of contribution made to the final demise of the Derg regime—in which the TPLF is at the top, followed by the ANDM, further to be followed by the OPDO and the SPDM in that order—and the disregard for human rights and rule of law (which is further reinforced by securitizing all forms of dissent, especially from the Oromo, Somali, and more recently, the some sectors of the Amhara), the system is already showing the strains of an authoritarian system that is steadily unravelling. It might end up in apartheid unless more democracy is injected, the human rights deficits are overcome, and fundamental issues of state restructuring and citizenship are discussed and negotiated.  In the meantime, if the system looks like apartheid, it won’t be because it adopted federalism but rather because in resisting democracy, equal citizenship, human rights, and self-determination, it has subverted the federalist project only bringing back the residue of ethnicized/racialized hierarchy that evokes apartheid.

To be sure, the Ethiopian federation can be faulted for a number of reasons.[xliii] However, it will not be faulted for responding to the challenge of diversity or even for recognizing secession.

Interestingly, both Dr Taye and Prince Asfawosen seem to understand that there is no better alternative to federalism for Ethiopia. The insistence by Dr Taye on a “historically well-informed, truly pluralistic (ethnically, religiously or otherwise), unprejudiced, cooperative, compassionate, sincerely democratic and forward-looking federal governance”and the recognition by Dr Asfawossen of the ‘multiethnic’ nature of Ethiopia that necessitates the reassertion of federalist imperative, we hope, are not empty political gestures to the ethic of inclusion (sameness) and recognition (difference). Therefore, to dismiss the federal arrangement because of the reasons Dr Taye discussed is not only misdiagnosing the problem, misplacing the blame, and taking a misguided direction in the search for a solution; but also to throw the baby with the bathwater, and do so for the wrong reason. To undo the federal arrangement in Ethiopia now is tantamount to ‘turning the clock back.’ This can prove dangerous as, once the wheels of federalism have started to steer, one can try to stop them only at her/his own cost.


  1. 6.     Conclusion


In an attempt to discursively undermine EPRDF, there has emerged the tendency to denigrate the federal dispensation and its legitimate attempt to speak to the age old ‘Questions of Nationalities’. In dismissing it as apartheid, we might be dismissing its potential to transform Ethiopia on a multinational, multi-foundational, and multicultural basis. We might be depriving the generations of the opportunity to redeem the deficits of justice, citizenship, equality, and peace. With the rejection of federalism, we might be rejecting its potential to contain, if not defuse, conflicts. The rhetorical practice of the vocal opposition parties to denounce the Ethiopian federalism has impoverished the opposition’s political imagination to present an alternative mode of governance to the one posed by EPRDF. It has given the EPRDF a space in which it can co-opt many an ethnic entrepreneur and manipulate the ethnic agenda in a way it serves its purpose of continued rule. EPRDF’s ambiguous and complex posture vis-à-vis the federal system—as a revolutionary party subscribing to the ideals embodied in self-determination as a democratizing discipline on the one hand and as an organization that has evolved into a dominant party that identifies itself with the state on the other—makes its practice half-hearted at best and inconsistent at worst. Its strategic and ad hoc instrumentalization of the federalism to pursue, at times, contradictory objectives leaves people—citizen/subjects as well as political actors—thoroughly confused. Lack of constitutional fidelity on the part of the EPRDF (as the chief sponsor of the constitution) contributes further to the already fractured legitimacy it commands in the eyes of others. This erodes faith, the little faith there might have been, in the possibility of redemptive transformation.

The result is the enhanced polarization over an already contested model of institutional design that responds to the underlying problems of the Ethiopian state. The polarizations manifest themselves in the stories one could tell about Ethiopian federal experiment. Having showed how the two dominant stories that are constantly in conflict invisibilize another story, a third story only the beneficiaries of this federalism could tell, I have tried to highlight how, in this third story, we see encapsulated a story of resistance and hope. This is because, understood in its constitutional-legal, historical, and political context, the federal dispensation still has the kernel that can speak to our past (via resistance encapsulated in the right and principle of self-determination) and the future (via equality-in-dignity inscribed in a multinational, multi-foundational, and multicultural federalism that helps to actualize both self-rule and shared rule). When so understood, it becomes easy why the Ethiopian federation—seen even in the light of terms used, the assumptions held, guiding principles posited, and ideological frame it is rooted in; and even with all its deficiencies—it is the antithesis of institutionalized hierarchy and inequality and, by extension, any form of apartheid.

EPRDF’s increasing authoritarianism as a dominant political party and the government self-description as a vanguard of a developmental state might deepen the democratic and human rights deficits. This in turn might intensify TPLF’s dominance of co-opted elites in the coalition and in the wider country. The hierarchy among the elite that might be entrenched within EPRDF might deepen the social cleavage on ethno-national lines. This in time might lead to the regime’s degeneration into an outright apartheid. But this will be more the function of democratic deficit than the implementation of multinational federalism.

To the ‘other’ peoples of Ethiopia (especially to the Oromo and the wider South) on whose behalf the federal dispensation was negotiated, federalism does not pose the threat of apartheid. It represents a hope deferred, a promised yet undelivered, a state yet untransformed, a past yet unredeemed. The ‘politics of recognition’ and the right of self-determination in the constitution offer the spectre of resistance in the face of oppression and of hope in the face of adversity. A retreat from it signals a return to ethnicized/racialized hierarchy akin to those in apartheid South Africa.

*Tsegaye R Ararssa is a PhD Candidate at The University of Melbourne Law School. He can be reached at:

 July 2014


[i] This was the subject of his piece in a recent issue of Addis Standard on 25 June 2014. The piece, ‘A Tale of Two Federations,’ is available online at:  In an intriguing coincidence, two days before that, on June 23, 2014, in an interview with SBS Amharic on Human Rights, Dr Asfawossen Asrate had also made a similar remark, albeit only incidental to the subject of the discussion, saying that Ethiopia’s ‘ethnic federalism amounts to nothing but apartheid’.  The interview is available online at:  While he insists that federalism is the only solution for ‘a multiethnic state’ such as Ethiopia, he strongly affirmed that ethnicity should not have a vital place in the Ethiopian federation. He also favored a form of federalism that we see in Germany or USA or India. Note that Germany and USA hardly qualify as multiethnic states. Note further that India actually is a multiethnic federation that, through state formation over the years, made the federal structure respond to and align with, if not give expression to, the ethno-linguistic cleavages.

[ii] The fact that the federal arrangement (its taking account of the multinational configuration of the country), the devolution of original sovereignty to sub-state national entities (called nations, nationalities, and peoples), and the constitutional recognition of self-determination including secession (the famous Article 39) take the center stage in every political debate in election campaigns instantiates the contestation over federalism—and unfortunately so. The other issue mostly debated is the issue of state ownership of land.  These issues recur in the programs and campaign themes of political parties whose primary support base is the urban and regional Amharas. This includes the All-Amhara People’s Organization (AAPO), All-Ethiopian People’s Organization (AEPO), Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), and, more recently, the Semayawi [Blue] Party. The latter has even issued a proposal for revision of the constitution basically in the same line of stamping out the sovereignty of the sub-state nations (the Preamble, art 8), collective rights such as self-determination, especially secession (art 39), state and collective ownership of land (art 40(3)), and the provision regarding the working language of the federal government (art 5). The Semayawi Party insists on having a national language for Ethiopia, although they are short of saying how many or which language(s) should enjoy this status. The fact that it is constantly a subject of controversy at every election campaign over the years indicates that the federal idea is far from an uncontested idea. This is despite the hesitant concession among some of these parties that they do accept federalism for Ethiopia except its accent on ethno-national criteria of establishing constituent units. Given the history of uneven inter-group relations and the imperative of rectifying the unjust relations that emanate therefrom, the continued contestation is rather unfortunate.

[iii] The end is addressing one of the two most salient political questions of the 20th century Ethiopia as articulated by the student movement of the 1960s, namely the historic ‘question of nationalities’ and the question of land. The 1974 Revolution (which can be summed up as a revolution conducted under the banner of ‘Land to the Tiller’) has led to land redistribution and abolished class hierarchy (via redistributive justice). The federalist revolution (if one can call it that) encapsulated in the current Ethiopian constitution was, at least aspirationally, meant to bring about ethno-cultural justice and abolish ethnicized/racialized status hierarchy (via self-determination).  Seen in this light, its end was legitimate.

[iv] Donald Levine, Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multi-ethnic Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. In this narrative one can include the stories told in the classics such as Herodotus, the legend of Solomon and Sheba (as recounted in the Kibre Negest), the myth of the medieval Christian King, whom Europe identified as the “Prester John of Indies’, the story of resistance to Italian colonialism (at Adwa and later in WWII) (that gave Ethiopia the image of a rare survivor of the colonial scramble for Africa) thereby becoming a ‘symbol of black/African independence’, etc.

[v] Teshale Tibebu, The Making of Modern Ethiopia: 1896-1974. Trenton, NJ: The Red Sea Press, 1995.

[vi] This is observed in the standard government line which claims that “the ‘national question’ is already answered.”

[vii] This triad of force, religion, and tradition is encapsulated in the formal title of the Kings of Ethiopia: “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, King of Kings, ‘X’, Emperor of Ethiopia.” Conquest, birth from the members of the Solomonic/Davidic line, supposedly through Menelik I (genealogy, tradition), and formal anointing by the Abun, the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as the elect of God are the traditional mode of rationalizing imperial power.

[viii] This is clearly seen in the opening statement of the Federal Constitution (FDRE ) where the founders are stated as “We, the Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples of Ethiopia,…”.

[ix] This term ‘Nation, Nationality, and People’ is awkwardly defined in art 39 (5) as a group of people with common culture, language, identity, psychological makeup, and inhabiting a contiguous territory. The fact that one definition is accorded to all three words as one term gives the impression that there is no difference of meaning among these three words although in practice, I have observed officials routinely make a distinction that privileges ‘nation’ over ‘nationality’ and  ‘nationality’ over ‘people’. This, of course, has no legal basis.

[x] A cursory glance at the minutes of the Constituent Assembly and the Transitional council of Representatives (COR) suggests that the goal is also, among other things, undoing unjust historic relations.


[xi] Most notable in this regard is Walelign Mekonnen’s famous article of 1969. See Walelign Mekonnen, ‘On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia’ 5 Struggle 2, Vol 5, No. 2 (17 Nov, 1969). See also Randi R Balsvik, Haileselassie’s Students. East Lansing, Michigan State University (1985), AAU Press, 2005. p.277.

[xii] Merera Gudina, Ethiopia: Competing Ethnic Nationalisms and the Quest for Democracy, 1960-2000. Shaker Publishing, 2003.

[xiii] This is the Constitution that the military regime issued in 1987, and it should not be confused with the Federal Democratic republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) constitution, which I refer to as ‘the constitution’ throughout.

[xiv] This provision is quite clear, contrary to what critics say, the list of the criteria state delimitation includes far more than language: consent (free choice of the citizens), settlement pattern (which happens only in place and space—another meaning of geography, hence underscoring territorial considerations), and identity (which could be a subjective attitude—self-identification—also expressed through concrete/objective signifiers). The critics’ oft-repeated call for a territorial federalism seems to underestimate or ignore the demands of territorially concentrated collective entities for a form of self-determination that is also called ‘territorial autonomy’.

[xv] This is striking as it tends to disregard the trend among multinational federations about the asymmetry among constituent units. See Rainer Baubock, United in Misunderstanding: Asymmetry in Multinational Federations (ICE Working Paper Series, No 26, [nd], where he observes that multinational federations are inherently asymmetrical.

[xvi] The decisional power comprises the legislative, the political (appointment, and removal), and financial (budgetary) decisions.

[xvii] The deliberative power comprises the representation and re-presentation of the electorate through parliamentary votes (for decisions) and voices (for influencing decisions and for airing the concerns and grievances of the public).

[xviii] Scrutiny has to do with questioning, demanding reports, monitoring including through on-site visits), inquiry commissions, etc.

[xix] Fasil Nahum, Constitution for a Nation of Nations: The Ethiopian Prospect. Lawrenceville, NJ: The Red Sea Press, 1997.

[xx] The fact that the provisions dealing with the CCI are in the chapter meant to provide for the Judiciary is a testament to this fact.

[xxi] Legal professionals often complained about the paucity of procedural rules for constitutional litigation from the moment of setting justice in motion to the moment of execution of judgement. Politicians on their part complain that the parliamentary rules of procedure have narrowed down the space for debate and discussion instigated by the opposition.

[xxii] The states have added a fourth tier of courts, the social courts, first through legislations but later by making a space for them in their constitutions as well. Owing to the fact that they originated in the times of the Derg often serving as institutions of local control run by local political functionaries, their position as legitimate courts is disputed among lawyers.

[xxiii] E.g. Adem Kassie Abebe, ‘Rule by law in Ethiopia: Rendering limits on government power nonsensical’ Working Paper, Centre of Governance and Human Rights, University of Cambridge, Research Group Seminar Series 1 (2012);

[xxiv] See Jothie Rajah, Authoritarian Rule of Law: Legislation, Discourse, and Legitimacy in Singapore. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

[xxv] 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 simultaneous movement in the direction of empowering local governments (i.e. Woredas), at least formally.

[xxvi] The post-colonial African state, in the endeavour 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. The neglect of ethnicity has been characterized as leaving it in bondage by Ali Mazrui. See Mazrui, ‘Ethnicity in Bondage’ (1995), available at:, accessed in July 2014. Ethiopia broke this pattern in embracing a different kind of nation-and state-building, perhaps because of the state crisis that manifested the limit of a century old state nationalism.

[xxvii] Some of these values have even found their way into the 1995 constitution.

[xxviii] See Sarah Vaughan, Ethnicity and Power in Ethiopia. (PhD Thesis submitted to Edinburgh University, 2003), pp-27-39 for details. The thesis is available at:

[xxix] The Transitional Period Charter of Ethiopia, Negarit Gazeta No. 1 (July 1991), art .1.

[xxx] See generally Daniel Elazar, Exploring Federalism. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1987.

[xxxi] E.g. Ronald Watts, Comparing Federal Systems. (3rd ed). Queens, 2008.

[xxxii] Of course, it is possible to tell more than one tale, about each—as we observe, for example, in the multiple tales we will tell about Ethiopia’s federal system in this piece.

[xxxiii] See note 1 above.

[xxxiv] The latest such reference is for example seen in Semahagn Gashu Abebe, The Last Post-Cold War Socialist Federation: Ethnicity, Ideology, and Democracy in Ethiopia. London: Ashgate, 2014.

[xxxv] 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 such as genocide, 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 invoking the group involved in the Rwandese genocide. The strategies of mutual de-legitimization have led to the rhetorical undermining of the ‘virtues’ of federalism.

[xxxvi] Conti Rossini is reported to have said this phrase (“une museo di popoli”) about Ethiopia, cited in Donald Levine, Greater Ethiopia (1974), pp 19-20.

[xxxvii] The story of these people (Ethiopia’s ‘others’) is told ethnographically through more recent, if unconventional, publications such as those by Wendy James and Donald Donham (eds), The Southern Marches of Imperial Ethiopia (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985 (2002)),Donald Donham, Marxist Modern: An Ethnographic History of the Ethiopian Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999; John Markakis, Ethiopia: The Last Two Frontiers. New York: James Currey/Boydel  & Brewer(2011); etc

[xxxviii] In characterizing it as such, I borrowed the term ‘state narrative’ from Jothie Rajah, Authoritarian Rule of Law: Legislation, Discourse, and Legitimacy in Singapore. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, ch 1.

[xxxix] See the Preamble of [introduction to?] to 1931 Constitution written by Tekle-Hawariat Tekle-Mariam to see the legally significant position of these categories. This is also elaborated further in the assimilationist strategies proposed by Tedla Haile, later Haileselassie’s Minister of education until the start of the Ethio-Italian war of 1935-1941.

[xl] Ali Mazrui, “Ethnicity in Bondage” (1995), n.20 above.

[xli] Edward Hicks, ‘The Peaceable Kingdom’ (a painting inspired by the text of Isaiah 11: 6-9). The text of Isaiah 11:6-9 reads as follows:

“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf

and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow

will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat

straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young

child puts his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all

my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the

waters cover the sea.”(See Holy Bible, NIV, 1978).

[xlii] Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Colonialism.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

[xliii] For example, in design, the fact that it has not explicitly provided for an institution of intergovernmental relations; the predominantly political interpretation of the constitution; the fact that it fell short of making all Ethiopian languages the co-equal working language of the federal government (thereby saddling us with the residue of hierarchy among languages); the absence of minoritarian institutions (because the HOF mirrored the majoritarianism of the Lower House, HPR); the fact that the principle of federal supremacy (preponderance of federal laws over state laws) is not explicitly recognized; the uncertainty about the position of international treaties in the hierarchy of laws in the country; the failure to provide for a federal capital territory; the ambiguity of justiciability of the human rights chapter (compounded by the judiciary’s ambiguous position vis-à-vis constitutional human rights); the neglect of the Proportional Representation system of election as befits a multinational federation; the unclarity on the matter of executive power sharing as befits a country of competing nationalisms that invite the consociation imperative; the unclarity about the execution of the ‘judgements’ of the HOF; the lack of definition for  what constitutes ‘minority nationalities’; on the propriety of the choice of parliamentary system as opposed to presidential system; on the role of the speaker of the HOF, and/or the President in times of constitutional crisis after the dissolution of the Parliament; the constitutional silence on the dissolution of the HoF; the silence on the rules that constrain the military in times of emergency; silence on the mode of succession when the incumbent Prime Minister falls ill for a prolonged period of time (as happened in 2012) or has died; etc., can be raised as some of the areas that might need some serious thinking and some tweaking. The practice of EPRDF might be faulted on many more accounts that can go longer than the list above. The lack of democratic opening (some scholars call it the incomplete transition to democracy), the neglect of human rights, the weakening of democratic institutions (institutions of representation such as Parliament, the HOF, and the Electoral Board; institutions of accountability such as the courts, anti-corruption, Auditor General; and institutions of human rights such as the human rights commission and the ombudsman; institutions of voice such as the media and civil society organizations; etc); the increasing recentralization of power through legislative acts (such as proclamation 85/1996; proclamation 250 and 251/2001; proclamation 359/2001; etc) and other policy documents; the increased concentration of power in the executive such as the security and intelligence institutions, etc.

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