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Democratic Self-rule Federalism: The Legitimacy of Self-Determination in Ethiopia

By Professor, Desta Asayehgn
Ethiopian News, Tigrai Online, January 23, 2015

Democratic Self-rule Federalism: The Legitimacy of Self-Determination in Ethiopia

Based on the recent unrest that has been precipitated by the Oromo people in Ethiopia, a number of observers such as Davison,2015;Muindi, 2016; and Borago, 2016, have argued that the Addis Ababa Master Plan has not only undermined self-determination but also contributed to a further loss of autonomy and the marginalization of Oromos living on the outskirts of the Federal capital, Addis Ababa. As stated by the European Parliament (1, 21, 2016): for the past two months,


Ethiopia’s largest region, Oromia, has been hit by a wave of mass protests over the expansion of the municipal boundary of the capital, Addis Abba, which has posed risks of eviction for farmers from their land.

Initially, the Ethiopian Government argued that it planned to use its Master Plan to expand the limits of the Federal City of Addis Ababa into the Oromo Regional State. Agitators believe there are hidden motives in this plan. Countering the attacks, Ethiopian Government Officials and their surrogates argue that the strategic plan depicted in the Addis Ababa Master Plan is nothing but a topographic sketch meant to enhance and foster the development of both Addis Ababa and the Oromo Regional States.That is, with the expansion of Addis Ababa to include lands that belong to the Oromos, it was assumed that this would contribute substantial direct and spillover benefits to both regions. In addition, if the plan were implemented, the government has stated that any evicted farmers in the Oromo Region might be given reasonable compensation.

Araia (2016) candidly asserts that the Addis Ababa-Oromia Integrated Master Plan is not by any means related to ‘land garp’.  However, he Araia persuasively condemns the EPRDF governing party for the “1) lack of transparency: the government should have clearly and openly explained the nature and characteristics of the Integrated Master Plan; 2) lack of peaceful resolution to the crisis once the people (mostly youth)  in the Oromia region began protesting ...”.

While there is a long way to go before achieving the intricately designed Article 39 of the 1994 Ethiopian constitution, the magnitude of the Oromo uprising has given a plausible signal for the possibility of secession or the dismemberment of the Oromo Region from Ethiopia’s political landscape. Given these debatable views, the questions that need to be posed at this juncture are: Besides self-determination and/or secession, does Article 39 as codified in the 1994 Ethiopian Constitution allow for a possible expansion or at the extreme amalgamation of regional states in Ethiopia?  Did the respective regional communities or their representatives effectively bargain for their interests, express their grievances, and divulge their aspirations before the Addis Ababa Master Plan was designed? To examine these pivotal questions, the content of Article 39 of the 1994 Ethiopian Constitution is briefly reviewed.

The Structure of the Ethiopia’s Polity

After dismantling the brutal and authoritarian Derg regime in 1991, the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE), led by the Peoples’ Revolutionary Front (EPRDF), subdivided the Ethiopian polity into nine autonomous regional states and two federally administered city states. In the second phase that started in 2001, the EPRDF further embarked on the devolution of powers and responsibilities of the woreda,or lower level of administration.  As highlighted by Assefa (2015),the 1991 manifestation of decentralization was aimed at creating and empowering national and regional states of governments, whereas as the second phase of decentralization extended the devolution of powers to the woreda.

A number of people supporting centralized states warned against devolution,  because it might serve as the ‘Trojan horse to independence.’ Others were concerned that extending devolution to Ethiopian localities might cause major inequalities with regard to economic development, taxes, opportunities and administrative performances. Thus, from the start, Article 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution faced a ‘Pandora’s Box’ of criticisms. Merera (2003), for instance, strongly argues that the application of Article 39 would wipe the state of Ethiopia from the political map of the world. Fleiner (2006), warned that if self-determination, up to and including secession, as warranted in Article 39 of the federal constitution, is seriously implemented, the viability and existence of Ethiopian federal states is likely to become highly questionable. Actually, Ethiopia is a heterogeneous or multicultural society. The fact that the then Transitional Government in Ethiopia by and large used homogenous ethnic denominations to subdivide Ethiopia and restructure Ethiopia into different political regions was less controversial than the inclusion of Article 39 in the 1994 Ethiopian Constitution.

Article 39 includes various impediments to its application. For example, it renders an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right of secession to regional states, as follows: a) a demand for secession has been approved by two-thirds majority of the members of the regional parliament, b) the federal government arranges for a nation-wide plebiscite within 3 years after receiving the demand for secession, and c) the demand for secession is supported by majority vote in the referendum.

As shown above, Article 39 of the 1994 Ethiopian Constitution was vaguely worded. It also includes clearing various insurmountable impediments before it is implemented. Intuitively  Article 39 appeared appealing not only to emotionally charged ethnic groups but also to those who were infatuated with Lenin’s  concept  of the “National Question” issue because it used to be the driving slogan of the Ethiopian student movement in the late 1960s.  A sober examination of Article 39 gives an impression that it might have been purposely included in the 1994 Constitution not with the intention of granting ultimate secession rights to a regional stateof Ethiopia after referendum is consummated, but rather to be used as a tactical selling point to lure members of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) into remaining participants in the Ethiopian political union. With this in mind, it would make sense to assume that although the other regional groups didn’t ask for it, the exercise of self-determination was imposed on them, even their right to declare for secession, if their conditions were to become inhumane and excessively intolerable.

A case in point is that history tells us that the former Soviet Union subscribed to Lenin’s politically designed concept of  the “National Question,” and pronounced the right of self- determination in its constitution, but the member states never acted to secede or separate from the Soviet Union during its tenure. The most glaring aspect of secessionism is that though China included the right to secede in its constitution of 1931, after China was fully consolidated,  it had to remove it from its Constitution when the Chinese Constitution was revised in 1975 (kreptul, A. 2003).

It is known that the value of geographical and economic ties and the advantages of a big market and big state induce economic of scale and efficiency. Based on this economic premise, Lenin might have argued that the masses resort to secession only when national oppression and national friction make joint life absolutely intolerable and hinder them from all economic intercourse the masses (Lenin cited by Dixon, 2016).Thus, contradicting those who opposed self-determination and the freedom to secede as stated in Article 39 of the Ethiopian 1994 Constitution, as an ardent supporter of the Lenin’s persuasive ideology, the EPRDF forcefully defended Lenin’s position for self-determination and secession. As articulated by the ideologies of the EPRDF, democratic federalism increases self-government and political participation.  Therefore, instead of dismantling the Ethiopian Federal state, the EPRDF ideologies forcefully claimed that Article 39 would consolidate and harmonize all groups of Ethiopia and provide for a better life. Given this contextual argument, the question that needs to be addressed here is: Has the creation of a democratic federal structure ever advanced the formation of self-government and political participation, or created uncorrupt systems of governance at the local or woreda level in Ethiopia?

Before assessing the status of democracy in Ethiopia, it is worth looking at some of the basic elements of democracy. Among other things, as a system of government, democracy includes: 1) a political system of competition of power that is based on free election- such that  those in authority are selected, monitored , and replaced, 2) the active participation of the people, as citizens, in political and civic life, 3)consensus-oriented decision making process, 4) accountability and  transparency,  5) the tenets of human rights principles, and 6) the existence of a rule of law that applies equally to all citizens (See, UNESCAP 2010; UNDP 2002; and WorldBank,2007).Bearing some of elements of this framework, let us look at the status of democracy in Ethiopia.

The Status of Democracy in Ethiopia

Two decades after the implementation of federalism in Ethiopia, Turton’s (2005:92-93) assessment of the Ethiopian political space indicates that Ethiopia, which was on the brink of collapse during the centrist feudal monarchy and the unitary military dictatorship, there structuring of Ethiopia as an ethnic-based federation has been an undeniable success. Although some internal and external opposition groups occasionally trigger some form of violence, it is manageable. Currently, Ethiopia provides peace and security for the great majority of the population and is reasonably stable. Similarly, an analysis of the implementation of Ethiopia’s federalism bythe World Bank reveals that Ethiopia:

…has embarked on a bold and thoughtful process of decentralization, which has been supported by a widely shared consensus over both the development strategy and objectives, and very large transfers of united resources from the federal government to the regions. At this point the system is unquestionably working well (1999).

However more specifically, on the status of democracy in Ethiopia, the Africa Report (2009) claims that the dominance of one party behind the façade of regional and local autonomy and an extensive patronage system have severely hampered such a utopian view and the  proclamation of democratic rhetoric has not been matched by democratic practice. In actuality, the African Report states that the Ethiopian type of Federalism has allowed new ethnic elites to emerge but has not fundamentally altered the principle of the elite-based paternalistic politics of the past.

As it stands, Ethiopia’s democracy is represented as a plan-oriented development process. The current Ethiopian organization structure is ruled by paternalistic political rule. Instead of power flowing from the people to the leaders, the EPRDF controls the government.  The existing bureaucracy is managed by civil servants, functionaries that are primarily members of the political party. The 1994 Constitution is supposed to provide for a multiparty electoral system to promote political choice and guarantee the democratic rights of the all Ethiopian people. However, Araia’s (2013) observation seems to indicate that Ethiopia is led by the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) that has been reluctant to reconcile democracy and government.

In every election, the opposition political parties in Ethiopia have complained of harassment and intimidation. As ascertained by the Africa Development Bank (2009), opposition parties perceive an absence of a level playing field, attributing the outcome of the electoral process to have narrowed the democratic space. The electoral process appears to lack administration by a neutral and professional body that treats all political parties equally.

It is pivotal that citizens in a democratic system participate in public life. Also, participation comes not only in public services but arises through active membership in civic affairs.  However, a cursory look at the Ethiopian local (woreda) levels shows that residents are hardly empowered. They have not been able to participate meaningfully in selecting their representatives for public offices, except when the outcome is a forgone conclusion. The local people do not have the right to choose their leaders.  In name, all local (woredas) are supposed to be autonomous and the leaders are chosen by the local people, however, the zone governors, mayors, and killel leaders are carefully chosen by the ruling party from the hard core cadres of the governing party. As observed, this kind of system has encouraged voter apathy and has allowed the existing ruling party to perpetuate its power.

A case in point is this. During the last election in 2015, some of the federal members of parliament were never endorsed by their constituents and never went to their local areas to present their agendas for the future. To add insult to injury, some of the candidates never cared to listen to the concerns of their constituents. Being faithful and accountable to their political party, the cadres were endorsed; a green signal was given to the constituent units to elect them rather than encouraging the local people to be active members of the election process (Desta, 2015). This clearly indicates that the citizens of Ethiopia are being denied their basic rights. Democracy entails abiding by a system of rule by laws, and not by individuals or parties. Therefore, if Ethiopia wants to exist as a viable country, the political climate needs to be competitive and the existing ruling party needs to stimulate voters to entertain many options. This would rekindle reforms in Ethiopia’s polity.

Building a democracy out of the ruins of a brutal dictatorship and highly cherished command system requires courage. For the last twenty five years, by design or default, Ethiopia has been on slippery slope, governmentally, though it has been participating in a very successful market economy.  To support more strongly the path to democracy, however, the ruling party, EPRDF, has the duty to encourage local residents to choose their representatives. To foster dynamism within the Ethiopian political climate, the ruling party must encourage and allow other parties to compete equally on a level playing field.  If the EPRDF doesn’t stimulate other parties to reorganize and compete against it, it is very likely that the EPRDF Party will lose its early dynamism and it then resort to authoritarianism its stay in power.


Given the current political unrest that has mushroomed within the Oromo regional division, it would have been possible to resolve it peacefully before it arose, if the Ethiopian governors were willing to accept and respect the democratic rights of their citizens. It is because the Oromo people were excluded and the system failed to listen to them that the whole situation turned ugly. The result was, it didn’t only frustrate the Oromos, but triggered a number of Oromo university students to act violently. Before it got out of  hand, and in accordance with autonomy and self-determination as stated in the 1994 Ethiopian Constitution (such as, autonomy over culture, religion, education, language, land, physical structures etc), the local people of the two regions should have entered into a fruitful dialogue.

It is possible that the expansion plan of Addis Ababa might have been intended for a good cause. But, as it stands now, the Plan infringes on the self-determination clause and violates the rights of the Oromo People. Since democracy is based on compromise, if the Addis Ababa Regional Unit wants to expand, for whatever purpose, the Oromo people and the residents of Addis Ababa need to sit down with one another and negotiate, and openly reexamine the direct and spillover effects of Addis Ababa’s expansion plan. Now, the government’s decision to scrap the Addis Ababa Master Plan is welcomed because as stated by the European Parliament (January 19, 2016) it

calls for an immediate inclusion and transparent political dialogue, including the government, opposition parties, civil representatives and the local population preventing any further violence or radicalization of the population; takes the view that such dialogue, conducting to the democratization of the country, is not possible under the current political conditions.”

Finally, Article 39 of the 1994 Ethiopian Constitution was politically motivated and not meant to be practiced. It has created anxiety and disillusionment in the Ethiopian people. Now it is worthy that the Ethiopian Parliament, democratically nominated and elected by the people, deliberate on the relevance of Article 39 in the Ethiopian society.  Personally, I am of the opinion that if Article 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution, as in China, is being deleted from the Ethiopian Constitution, it will give respite to the Ethiopian people from the intolerable headache they endured for the last twenty five years. Instead of cogitating over this incurable disorder, borrowed from elsewhere, it is better for the open-minded nature of the Ethiopian people to become visionary and seriously dwell on pursuing fulfillment of democracy in Ethiopia. Of course, Ethiopia can’t achieve full-fledged democracy without undergoing challenging hardships.  Since the existing political structure of Ethiopia is impossible, the existing federated system needs to be further divided into manageable autonomous democratic units.


In short, the goals of a democratic and self-ruling federalism created by the Ethiopian people needs to guarantee self-determination, provide for power-sharing, and contribute to government stability. It needs to be transparent and include a reciprocal relationship between central and local governments, and between local governments and citizens. Through the transfer of authority, responsibility, and accountability from the central to local governments, democratic political decentralization incorporates both devolution and power to develop, implementing policy, and fostering the extension of the democratic processes to lower levels of government (Barnett, C. et al 1997, and Araia, 2013).


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  17. Muindi, M. (2016). “Why Ethiopia is making a historic “master plan” U-turn.” BBC Monitoring.
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