Federalism – Ethiopia’s Irreversible Course of Progress

Ethiopia was ruled by regimes who thought that the sovereignty and unity of the state is vested in the personality of the rulers and the crown. Tampering with state power was thought to be coming at loggerheads with God. The rulers, the late emperor Haileselassie I in particular claimed to be the descendant of the Lion of Judea.

The downfall of the Emperor heralded another round of repressive rule by the army under the smokescreen of socialism. The trend that has been going on for more than 100 years multiplied the misery of the peoples of Ethiopia.

The prevalence of social injustices, economic, political and cultural oppressions characterized the pervious regimes. Linguistic, cultural and religious discriminations resulted in the proliferation of a number of armed resistance groups that called for democratic changes, self determination and civil liberties. Many of these armed groups conducted sporadic and later fully fledged resistances in which they even managed to acquire liberated areas in different parts of the country.

By 1991, Ethiopia was at the cross roads of imminent balkanization or a possibility to remain as a state.

“In those days, there were 17 armed liberation fronts waiting to take action at any time. The economy of the country was devastated; instability and social frustrations marked the order of the days. However, the victory of May 28 closed this chaotic situation,” recalled Professor Fasil Nahom, Special Advisor to the Prime Minister speaking to ENA on the gains of May 28.

The situation in the neighboring countries was no better. After the fall of the Ziad Barre regime in 1991, Somalia was in utter turmoil and civil war and with no government to speak of. The civil war in Sudan was raging for over 30 years. Eretria was a zone of total war. The Horn of Africa and the littoral states were either in no peace on war situation or are already plunged in devastating wars.

After controlling the entire territory of the country, the EPRDF adopted an inclusive policy of peace and suggested to convene a ‘Peace Conference’ in July 1991 on which all existing opposition organizations, armed or not armed, participated except the Workers Party of Ethiopia (WPE, established by the military government), the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and the All Ethiopian Socialist Movement (AESM).

The holding of the conference was in accordance with the agreement at the London Conference which was facilitated by the governments of the U.S.A. and G.B. and was attended by the representatives of the EPLF (Eritrean People Liberation Front), the TPLF (Tigryan People Liberation Front) and the Military Government of Ethiopia.

The July Peace Conference discussed on issues of paramount importance and set the ground for the establishment of the federal system in Ethiopia. The Conference adopted historical resolutions including transitional charter, establishment of a transitional government, organizing a referendum on Eritrean independence and creation of new administrative structure that took into account the self determination of the nations, nationalities and peoples of the country and several other important resolutions.

What were the main reasons that led to the adoption and establishment of a federal system in Ethiopia? Those familiar with the introduction of the system or who witnessed the event unfold back in the days might have varying opinions but according to Professor Fasil: “Federalism is an accommodative system that embraces the cultural, political and economic interests of the peoples of Ethiopia. All pervious systems were not able to answer the basic needs of the peoples.”

Ethiopia is historically known as the mosaic of more than 80 nations, nationalities and peoples. They had witnessed unfathomable and multi-dimensional repression and oppression and the imperative of redressing such conditions could not have been addressed in all the pervious unitary state structures that were established in the name of unity.

The geopolitical location of Ethiopia and the political and economic conditions in the Horn of Africa demanded setting up a government structure that will coincide with the provisions of the entire articles in the Constitution. The history of Ethiopia has repeatedly indicated that genuine peace in the country should be reciprocated by the struggle for peace and peaceful coexistence with the neighboring countries, the African region and ultimately global peace.

Political pluralism, democracy, rapid economic development and ascertaining the unalienable rights of Ethiopian citizens to their human and economic, social rights is far better served in a constitutionally fixed federal arrangement as opposed to a unitary state structures that have been tested to be repressive.

Professor Fasil Nahom notes that: “there are various types of federalism. Some federal systems are based on territorial demarcations (USA, Canada, Australia) while others are based on peoples (Germany, Austria, India, Malaysia, Switzerland). Ethiopia chose to base its federalism on its peoples.”

Federalism in Ethiopia was introduced by the Constitution based on the principles of self- determination, shared rule and self rule of peoples of Ethiopia. The preamble of the constitution clearly states this.

“We, the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia: Strongly committed, in full and free exercise of our right to self-determination, to building a political community founded on the rule of law and capable of ensuring a lasting peace, guaranteeing a democratic order, and advancing our economic and social development;

Firmly convinced that the fulfillment of this objective requires full respect of

Individual and people’s fundamental freedoms and rights, to live together on the basis of equality and without any sexual, religious or cultural discrimination”

The right of nations, nationalities and peoples to self determination is also clearly stated in the constitution.

“All sovereign power resides in the nations, nationalities, and peoples of Ethiopia” (art. 8/1). Rights of the Ethiopian Nations, Nationalities and Peoples are listed in Article 39 and read as follows: “1. Every Nation, Nationalities, and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession. 2. Every nation, nationality and people in Ethiopia has the right to speak, to write and to develop its own language; to express and to promote its culture; and to preserve its history. 3. Every nation, nationality and people in Ethiopia have the right to a full means of self-government which includes the right to establish institutions of government in the territory that it inhabits and equitable representation in the regional and national government.”

The Ethiopian federal system has proved itself to be the main instrument for the maintenance of internal peace as well as regional peace and has proved itself to keep up to its international obligations in every aspect.

The Constitution provided for the establishment of bicameral parliaments including the House of Peoples Representatives and House of Federation. Balanced representation of all nations, nationalities and peoples particularly in the House of Federation has helped to resolve various problems between the components of the federal system through a systematic approach by the Constitutional Inquiry Commission.

In his keynote address to the 5th International Conference on Federalism, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, said:

” Democratic Federalism is one of the two pillars of our national renaissance. Together with the establishment and consolidation of an effective developmental state in our country it has enabled us to begin the long road back to the frontlines of our civilization. Just as our failure to embrace our diversity had over the centuries been one of the primary causes of our retreat from the front ranks of human civilization- the successful management of our diversity through Democratic Federalism has become one of the pillars of the ongoing Ethiopian renaissance.”

Ethiopia’s federal system did not take off from a red carpet. Terrorist activities of OLF and the ONLF, periodic and isolated conflicts between pastoral communities, issues of good governance and rent seeking, recurrent mismanagement of public property by individuals, narrow nationalist understanding of the federal system and chauvinism have been among the threats against the federal system which call for proactive action for the system to continue to prevail.

Abject poverty and destitution has continued to be a major challenge the country has been facing over the last 25 years. Ethiopia has instituted several poverty reduction strategies and policies that proved to be instrumental in promoting the development pace of the nation. Policies and strategies implemented in the areas of education, health, agricultural development, industry, energy, food security, gender and development, job creation have emerged successful yielding encouraging results in the successful implementation of the MDGs, and GTP I.

Ethiopia’s federalism, just like any other federal arrangement is not a static system. It is expected to promote a democratic unity of all nations, nationalities and peoples in the country. No doubt much has been done in strengthening the country’s federal system and the silver jubilee anniversary of May 28 will initiate more calls for more gains.

Source: Ethiopian News Agency.