Federalism in an Era of Globalization: Reflections on Ethiopia

By Professor Desta, Asayehgn, Ph.D
Dec. 12 2010

The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia started implementing its new constitution on August 21, 1995, four years after the military junta (Derge) which replaced the ancient regime collapsed in 1991. The cardinal principles of the 1995 constitution were to establish a federal governance based on unity and diversity, and to achieve stability in the remaining Ethiopian polity. The Ethiopian polity was predominantly divided into nine ethnic regional states (i.e., Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Oromia, Somali, Benishangual-Gumuz, Gamebella, and Harar); the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP-- a voluntary merger of 5 regions); and the cities of Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa (see Habtu, 2003; Serra-Horguelin, A. 1999). To achieve this, in line with Article 39 of the constitution, each Nation, Nationality and Peoples in Ethiopia were assured the unconditional right to self-determination, including the rights to secession. As stated in the constitution the rights of self-determination could only come into effect:

  1. when a demand for secession has been approved by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Legislative Council of the Nation, Nationality and Peoples concerned;
  2. when the federal government has organized a referendum to take place
    within three years from the time it receives the concerned council’s decision for secession;
  3. when the demand for secession is supported by a majority vote in the referendum;
    when the federal government will have transferred its powers to the Council of the Nation, Nationality or People who voted to secede; and
  4. when the division of assets is effected in a manner prescribed by law (Federal Negarit Gazeta, August 21, 1995).

For the implementation of the 1995 constitution, a brief review of the literature indicates that three outstanding perspectives seem to have been advanced over a period of fifteen years as possible explanations of Ethiopia’s current federal status. The first perspective argues that the federal state is moving in the right direction to render its people self- and shared rule. Opposing the first view, the second perspective strongly argues that the ethnic federalism designed by the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and in particular Article 39 of the Constitution is a threat to the unity and territorial integrity of Ethiopia. The third perspective, highly endorsed by the writer of this article, holds the opinion that the type of ethnic and regional federalism created in Ethiopia in 1995 was not carefully worked out and is too cumbersome to facilitate adequate communication among the constituents in the New Age. The 1995 Constitution was too haphazardly designed to appeal to some of the disgruntled and powerful Oromio groups at that time. This third perspectives further argues that confining the various Nations, Nationality and Peoples of Ethiopia into watertight compartments was not wisely strategized because times are changing and the world known then is not the same today in the era of globalization (Tabor and Manlam, 2010). It is not too late for the existing Ethiopian federal structure to be altered and amended to cope with the challenges of the emerging era of globalization. Among other things, since globalization is no longer an idea but an imperative strategy that institutions and regional groups must incorporate into their framework for long –term growth and prosperity, the various constituents within the Ethiopian federation need to be interdependent and have effective communication among themselves to serve in today’s global environment (see for example, Tabor and Manlam, 2010).

Government officials who played a major role in designing the 1995 federal constitution and who have been busy implementing it, expressed their opinion on Ethiopian Television that the modus operendi of the Ethiopian federal structure is more democratic when compared with the oppressive, centrist-oriented, feudal monarchy, and unitary military dictatorship that subsequently ruled Ethiopia. Moreover, they argue that by giving assurance to the Ethiopian people as stated in Article 39 of the constitution, that the Ethiopian people will understand that they have been given shared rule and may live in relatively stable political environment that guarantees their inalienable rights of enjoying divers life-styles. After reviewing the literature on federalism and articulating the lessons that can be learned, Ambassador Habisso almost agreed with the position of the government officials. In his words, “Today, the gradual and incremental growth and development as well as practice and management of the (Ethiopian) federal model (federation) is deepening and progressing in the right direction” (December 06, 2010).

People of the second perspective complain that the current federalism in Ethiopia is exclusively dominated by the Tigrai Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and EPRDF. They strongly argue that it will inevitably threaten the unity and territorial integrity of Ethiopia. In addition, unlike those who whole-heartedly support the existing federalism in Ethiopia, the second group argues that instead of giving assurance to the Ethiopian Nations, Nationalities and Peoples, Article 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution would cause political turmoil. Though not as extreme as those who categorize the current government in Ethiopia as nihilist and an enemy of the Ethiopian people, Hirbe (August 13, 2010), for example, argues that “the current government in power has at least recognized in principle the rights of nationalities to self-rule. People of different nationalities in Ethiopia are no longer ashamed of their identities nor afraid to speak their native language. They can develop, promote, and preserve their language and culture.” They have achieved cultural autonomy. Since diversity (ethnic, linguistic, religious, etc.) is a very important human rights issue, Hirbe argues that “this is a huge step forward and there will be no way of turning back. ...the TPLF/EPRDF should be commended for this achievement. But on the other hand, Hirbe argues that the same people are denied to exercise their political and economic rights” (August 13, 2010).

There are more than enough reasons to demonstrate that the centralism of the past in Ethiopia led to atrocities that created grave consequences in Ethiopia. But, unlike the first and second perspective, the third group based on historical materialism, offers constructive criticism by suggesting pragmatic imperatives to Ethiopia’s policy makers to improve federal governance in Ethiopia. The third perspective, however is taking into consideration how the federal systems in the Soviet Socialist System (USSR) and Yugoslavia (which according to their communist constitutions gave each republic a right to self-determination and secession) have eventually disintegrated. Thus, it can be argued that Ethiopia’s structure for federalism was not only ahistorical but was implemented without pondering its relevance to the Ethiopian society.

Considering the aim of Ethiopian federal administrators in line with Africa’s communal deliberation modus operandi, in order to achieve internal harmony among distinct and irreconcilable ethnic and various groups as beneficiaries, policy makers should have attempted to include the various stakeholders in designing the nation’s federal development process. Participation by the local stakeholders would have given a deeper understanding of local conditions and concerns of each resident, which is so vital for decision making. In short, since the process lacked any systematic studies or discussions by the various stakeholders there were hardly constructive initiatives to reconcile cultural diversity that could lead to equal power- sharing necessary for forming a cohesive Ethiopian nation. In retrospect, the third perspective argues that it was the politicians running for office, who were socializing with the various local constituents in order to be elected. Thus, the local people were hardly involved in the creation of the federal system. Because the Ethiopian Federal constitution was hurriedly accepted without adequate deliberations that would appease some disgruntled ethnic groups, whom the EPRDF perceived to be very important actors in the then very volatile political environment, the federal system was imposed on various regional states.

Therefore, to use Hirbe’s phrase now, Ethiopia “can not go back.” Instead, Ethiopia has to march on realizing that the federal model is a challenging work in progress and that the federal structure has to be constantly altered and amended to cope with the challenges that are likely to arise in an Age of Globalization (see for example, Forum of Federation, October, 1999; August, 2002; March, 2005). If the inhabitants in a federal state have more than one identity, every individual should have the right to travel and settle within any region of Ethiopia not as second class citizens as is overtly and covertly practiced today. Each citizen of Ethiopia should be regarded as a primary citizen of the Ethiopian federal system. That is to say, every Ethiopian citizen has the same opportunity to enjoy the same social conditions and the same ability to establish business in every part of the federation. To achieve this, the educational framework in Ethiopia needs to be restructured so that the curriculum is created with one language system that could be taught starting in the primary grades, in addition to vernaculars designed for each region. Moreover, the teaching of English should begin in the first grade in order to broaden the minds of students so that they are aware and ready to encounter the emerging global environment.

Since the current federal system is cumbersome and regional states feel threatened by ever-growing federal institutions, instead of basing them solely on ethnicity, for efficiency purposes each region could be demarcated into a number of manageable units and then incorporated into the federal system. To reduce inequity, for example, the Oromia region, Amhara regions, Benishangual-Gumuz, and the Tigrai regions could be subdivided into smaller, more manageable regions. However, since sub-national units can not be equal in resources, to reduce disparity among constituent units, the federal government could design an equalizing income support for inter-unit transfer of resources so essential for social services. These infrastructure basics such as health, education, etc., are effective drivers of growth (see Sen, 1999 ).

Finally, a more effective way to carry out the above briefly suggested solutions and the right way to mend the existing federal system in Ethiopia is to create a democracy. Of course, the cornerstone of a democratic federal polity is based on diversity. Among other things, the most viable and necessary condition for an Ethiopian federal government is to encourage and require each community to choose its own representatives in government. In short, in addition to power-sharing, an effectively designed federal system of government can not be a panacea for solving some of the economic problems that Ethiopia is facing today. If we subscribe to Laurate Sen’s hypothisis that large scale famines have never happened in a democracy, instead they can only happen in authoritarian systems that lack openness of information and transparency. Then when Ethiopia redesigns its federalism and practices a sound democratic system (based on mutual checks and balances and gives power-sharing that empowers the local people), it is very likely that hunger is likely to be a thing of the past. Therefore, given that effective federalism is a license to self rule and also an effective structure for shared rule with the assurance of checks and balances, it is suggested that a predictable and transparent democracy needs to be widely entertained at the local level. Participation often results in a multiplier effect since it promotes the empowerment of stakeholders (see for example, Rogers, et al., 2009). If Ethiopia can effectively implement at the local level a working democracy that empowers local citizens, the relevance of the alien Article 39 of the Ethiopian constitution seems to be unnecessary. In fact, the writer is of the opinion that if Article 39 of the constitution is eliminated by the Ethiopian Parliament, the invigorating federal system suggested above will most likely be the basis for enticing the silent majority at home as well as rallying a number of disgruntled Ethiopians in diaspora to be designers and vibrant actors in the global economic order.


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Hirbe, T. (August 13, 2010). “Ethnic federalism: Problems or Solution? http://addisvoice.com/2010/08/ethnic -federalism-problem-orsolution/
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