Taking the debate on federalism a step forward

Chilay Chilay chilaychilay@gmail.com
March 03 2010

This is a reaction to the debate on federalism and devolution of power going on among the political parties. First, it is impressive to hear that all agreed to the federal option though, as they say, the devil is in the details. That was not the case some years back. In this respect, there is some modest progress.

Prof Beyene representing Medrek, emphasized that the process of introducing the federation lacked openness/inclusiveness and hence is top bottom as opposed to the more inclusive system we had in the transition. He also emphasized that in many cases federalism in diverse societies like ours should be kind of elite peace making, result of negotiation among the key political elites of the country. He also mentioned some of the tensions and conflicts that emerged in the last decade and half and the grave consequences. Some of the parties, to be honest had no clues as to what the debate was all about, one speaker was literally reading from Lidetu Ayalew’s new book. A lot of them mentioned about “international standards”. There is no such thing called international standard, every federation has its own unique context and there is enough warning that no federation is for transplantation, though lessons can be learned. EPRDF representatives were more pragmatic focusing on the foundation and strengths of the system, on the merits of devolution and its achievements but were also a bit outdated at least in terms of articulating newly emerging issues, indicated later. EDP was more focused, articulate as always but more concerned on the risks of adopting “ethnic based federalism,” impressively as well indicated the paradox in the constitution in terms of the requirements for conducting an amendment (tougher one where every units must consent or at least 6 out of 9 must consent) but easier process for secession where two-third vote of local council plus fifty plus one vote in a referendum is enough. This does not address though the existential question as to who is the ‘self’ that determines its destiny: is it the particular identity or do other sections of society whose position will be affected significantly also have a say in the process? This question becomes even more relevant to none other than Lidetu himself for he has brought the issue forward using a clear map that indicates the dismemberment of Ethiopia with the secession of Oromia, hence proving that this time around it is not mere secession but total destruction of the Ethiopian state. I assume that the issue of emerging tensions/conflicts related to border demarcation, minorities within regions, claims for having new regions, new zones, weredas, referendums etc will be debated well in the second part of the debate but still we can put our reflections.

First, there should not be any illusion about the fact that federalism in general and its detail institutional and policy ramifications need a broad based support. As is said, federalism is a covenant between the constituent units and the federal government as well as between the federal government and the voter. These two aspects need to be clear at the outset. Federalism is neither the creation of the units alone (there is a lot of myth in this respect in Ethiopia, Americans 1861-65 and the Swiss 1847 had to go through a costly civil war to clear this confusion), nor of the voters alone. It is not by coincidence that we find two houses in nearly all federations where the voter (in lower house) and the units (in upper house) are represented. So the conception that it is kind of elite peace making is reductionism to say the least and only one speaks about consociational power sharing and not federalism, if it stops at elite peace making. It hijacks the broad based support needed for it to be effective. Indeed this is crucial element, if missed, would cause the collapse of the federation.

With respect to the emerging tensions and conflicts, let it be clear to every one that federalism is not medicine for every human political problem. It resolves old issues but it also gives rise to new challenges. Institutions once created influence the society and the society as well shapes and influences the institutions. Thus, following the transition and formally since 1995, the federation was set up to resolve the age old “nationality question” but since then a lot has happened. Surely there are ample studies indicating that if identities are territorially grouped- found occupying a kind of ethnic homeland, there has been elite based ethno nationalist mobilization to redress structural problems in a state (unfair power and resource sharing), mythologies of good old days to reconstruct history and reclaim new position in the political process as well as a claim for regained social status (dignity), then ensuring self rule, that is, political decentralization at units level is the best approach to accommodate ethno nationalist forces. Indeed the efforts in decentralizing political power at regional state level in Ethiopia can be well defended along this line. But what are the key criteria to establish units? How do we resolve the existing paradoxes in this respect? No surprise Harari and the Southern Region dominated the debate and it was not easy at all for EPRDF to defend. How do we ensure the rights of every voter throughout the units whether he belongs to this identity or not? More importantly, what are the best institutional and policy options to deal with identities that are found not territorially dispersed? For example the different identities in Benishangul Gumuz; cities with intermixed identities but there are many others as well. That is where one has to sit down with sober mind and think critically at this moment to find out what has been achieved and what the key emerging challenges are since the set up of the federation. Lets bear in mind the point that AAPO, the now allegedly transformed party led by Eng Hailu, as some claim, was established not in the Amhara region but in Oromia. Thus we see that the federation when it was established in 1995 was preoccupied and rightly so with the question of nationalities (claims for recognition, political autonomy and power sharing have been the triple causes of our political instability for long) but it has stuck there. It needs to be dynamic to address new challenges. It needs to be complemented with institutions and policies to address identities that are found territorially dispersed. Among the key ones are strengthening power sharing schemes at units level so that federalism becomes not only a means for forging unity in diversity at federal level but also even at units level. Regional institutions in multiethnic units need to be fairly shared down from the kebele level up to the regional executive level so that every one feels at home in the political process. Cultural and linguistic autonomy can also be sought to these identities without necessarily having a zonal/werda/regional level.

On the border conflicts, or claims to new political administration etc, one could say they are conflicts of low intensity and are not threats to the Ethiopian state but they still need to be managed carefully and should not have happened in the first place. I think there are enough experiences to be learned and make appropriate policy intervention. So called border conflicts or claims for new restructuring often happen to be key issues related to power and resource sharing at various levels. So border redrawing does not necessarily address them head on. Every time we try to draw borders, there emerge new majorities and new minorities and the problem replicates itself after the new redrawing. Thus border demarcations need to come, if at all they have to come, with packages: anticipating that it will give rise to new tensions, minorities at all levels, however small they may be, need to be allowed to share power/resources and more importantly have some autonomy so that they can decide issues related language etc. This is the way to ensure their rights and if done so appropriately and timely, it will not matter whether they belong to this regional state or the other and in many cases this measure may make the conducting of expensive referendums now and then unnecessary. The case studies from Wondogenet area (Oromia and South), Oromia and Somalia, tensions from the Southern region amply illustrate the above assertion. In a nut shell it is about making the federation dynamic not merely concerned with the nationality question but with newly emerging challenges as well.

Thus the debate, though insightful in many respects, has failed to provide concrete alternatives to the new challenges, which only a few are mentioned in this short piece. For example, what is the link between federalism and party system in Ethiopia? One of the toughest challenges posed against the system is that the federation operates under the widely discussed concept called ‘democratic centralism’ where the polit bureau decides key political issues and then regional states are merely reduced to routine administrative matters. How is this to be explained by the ruling party? Has the Ministry of federal Affairs really contributed any to the resolution of the emerging issues? How is its current mandate to be explained against the constitutional clause that declares equal power of all regional states? The House of Federation particularly its mandate on interpretation of the constitution needs to be explained on a principled basis. How is the House a political body able to ensure the interpretation of the constitution that is meant to serve for generation impartially? How about the language issue? Many are not aware of the fact that the federal government has duty to ensure standards across the federation, including standards related to language. Does the right to use once language include the right to chose scripts as well? How is the choice of Latin scripts by some regional states to be explained? Part of the new generation coming from the regions has no clue about the federal working language. How is this generation to be absorbed in the federal institutions, including the civil service? Reciprocally how about promoting one or two more regional state languages to the federal level? By the way, I was puzzled to find a Minster of Agriculture/ Science and Technology defending federalism for the ruling party. I have no qualms with the Ministers as heads of their respective offices but just in terms of relevance. Are not the House of Federation, Ministry of Federal Affairs or any of the Regional Presidents more relevant? Just curious!!