Ethiopian Ethnic Federal System

Nepal Constitution Foundation

Nepal

Ethiopia’s population is seventy-eight million and comprises of at least sixty-four distinct ethnic groups. The Tigray, Ethiopia’s third largest ethnic group, is politically dominant, despite comprising only six percent of the population, because of its military prowess during Ethiopia’s civil war. In 1994, Ethiopia adopted its present Constitution. The Constitution creates an ethnically based federal republic, which is a break from prior authoritarian central rule because the Constitution includes the interests and concerns of ethnic rebel groups.

Federal Government under the Ethiopian Constitution

The Constitution creates a parliamentary government, with power distributed between a centralized federal government and regional states. The Federal Government is responsible for national policy and strategy with respect to economic, social, and development matters. Further, the Federal Government controls national standards and policy related to public health and education, enacts laws related to land and natural resources, administers the armed forces, oversees the national bank and regulates currency, handles foreign policy matters, and is responsible for other matters traditionally reserved to federal governments operating within a federalist system.

The Constitution recognizes and grants rights to Ethiopia’s ethnic groups. Further, the Constitution sets forth the shared powers and responsibilities of the federal and state governments with regard to Ethiopia’s ethnic groups. The Constitution creates nine states on the basis of settlement patterns, language, identity, and the consent of the people living within them. Further, each of Ethiopia’s “Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples” has an unconditional right to self-determination.

The Constitution’s unconditional right to self- determination includes the right of secession. The grant of such power is rare in governing documents attempting to foster unity among disparate ethnic groups within a single state. However, the measure may have been necessary in Ethiopia to accommodate the military forces of the ethnic- based groups because each pressed for an independent state.

Alternatively, the Constitution grants Ethiopia’s ethnic groups the right to seek the creation of independent states that add to the nine enumerated in the Constitution. An ethnic group may make a demand upon the State Council, the highest body of regional state power, for a referendum held among its people on the question of creating their own state. To pass, the referendum requires a simple majority. If the referendum passes, then the State Council of the state within which the new state is to be created must transfer its powers to the newly created state. The new state receives all the powers and responsibilities of its fellow states.

The Constitution’s right of self-determination also includes the right of each ethnic group to use its own language. Though the Constitution adopts Amharic as the official language of the Federal Government, each ethnic group has the right to establish its own official language within its regional territory. Further, the Constitution’s right of self-determination includes the right of each ethnic group to promote its own culture and preserve its own history. Also, the Constitution furthers Ethiopia’s goal of cohesiveness through the right of ethnic groups to participate and be represented in the Federal Government and federal institutions. The mechanisms used to elect members to Ethiopia’s federal legislature as well as the structure of the Council of Peoples’ Representatives and the Council of the Federation illustrates the Constitution’s right of ethnic groups to participate and be represented in the Federal Government.

The Council of Peoples’ Representatives is the highest authority of the federal government and consists of a maximum of 550 members elected from districts throughout the state. The political party or coalition of political parties that has the greatest number of seats in the Council forms and leads the Executive Branch. The Constitution ensures representation for minority nationalities and peoples believed to deserve special representation though they lack populations sufficient to assure a seat. The powers of the Council include the full legislative powers of the Federal Government.

The Council of the Federation, as opposed to the Council of Peoples’ Representatives’ legislative powers, consists of 110 members and has broad power to interpret the Constitution. The Council comprises the “Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples” enumerated in the Constitution. Further, the Constitution guarantees each of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups at least one member in the Council. Also, ethnic groups receive an additional representative for every one million people that comprise its population. Thus, both Councils protect ethnic representation in the Federal Government. The Council of Peoples’ Representatives constitutionally ensures representation for all ethnic groups, even those that do not meet minimum population requirements to acquire a seat, and the Council of the Federation constitutionally guarantees at least one seat to each of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups.

State Powers and Responsibilities

Ethiopia’s Constitution is unique among African nations because it creates regional states based on inhabitants’ ethnicity. Each of Ethiopia’s nine states has extensive legislative, executive, and judicial authority as well as their own constitutions, flags, executive governments, legislatures, judiciaries, and police. The Constitution’s reserved-powers clause confers all powers not given expressly to the Federal Government or concurrently to the Federal Government and regional governments exclusively to the regional governments. The Constitution authorizes each state to establish a regional administration that “best advances self-government,” which furthers the Constitution’s goal of self-determination for all of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups.

The Constitution enumerates the basis of state creation. The Constitution creates states based on the settlement patterns, language, identity, and consent of those living within territories. Article 47 sets forth the nine regional states and each is named for the predominant ethnic group associated with a particular territory. In addition to the nine regional states, Ethiopia has two self-governing administrations located in Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa. To date, no ethnic group has successfully seceded from a state or gone through the procedures necessary to establish an additional autonomous state.

District and Neighborhood-Level Organizations

The State Council serves as the highest organ of political power at the state level and has authority to establish its own institutions and administrations. Further, the State Council has authority to create regional, local, and neighborhood administrations as deemed necessary. The district and neighborhood administrations provide for self- rule by increasingly smaller and decentralized units of government. Thus, even extremely small ethnic groups have the potential to acquire representation and participation in the governance of their local affairs.

Possible Benefits of the Ethnic Federal System

Unification of Ethiopian Polity

Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism provides several long-term benefits for the state. Ethnic federalism promotes the central government’s recognition of the importance of individual ethnic rights and the individual needs of the state’s many ethnic groups. Further, ethnic federalism aids in the prevention of ethnic splintering and violent civil war through fostering ethnic and regional autonomy while maintain Ethiopia as a formal political unit. Also, the creation of a formal political space for ethnic identities and social ties allows the state to harness the available political strength as a unified polity. Together, these long- term benefits of ethnic federalism contribute to overall state unity.

Aspirations of State Unity

The Constitution’s description of ethnic federalism provides a benefit through its unifying language and aspirations toward a stronger political entity. The preamble of the Constitution begins “We, the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia,” which acknowledges the state’s multi-ethnic character and honors the existence of the many distinct ethnic groups that comprise Ethiopia. Further, the phrase indicates that all ethnic groups collectively, rather than individual citizens, are the authors of the Constitution. Also, the Constitution reflects on the “rich and proud cultural legacies” that unite in a “full and free exercise of the right to self-determination” to build a unified political and economic community based on “common interest, common outlook, and common destiny.” The drafters included these precise phrases to underscore the need for political and economic unity among constituent ethnic groups and regions. The aspirations of state unity reflected in the Constitution provide a benefit in creating a clear foundation for a unified federal state.

State Concerns for Individual Ethnic Rights

Ethnic federalism in Ethiopia provides the state citizens with assurances that the state is committed to the protections of individual ethnic rights. Ethiopia provides this assurance through the Constitution and state practice. The Constitution sets forth the goal of expressing its “Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ sovereignty.” Each “Nation, Nationality or People of Ethiopia” enjoys “the right to a full measure of self-government.” The right includes locally organized governments within the individual ethnically based regions and equitable representation at the federal level. Further, ethnic groups possess the “unconditional right to self-determination” that includes the right to form its own state through secession. The Constitution serves as a foundation of trust between the central government and individual federalist entities.

Creation of Political Space

Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism creates political space in which ethnic groups can operate, exercise their respective rights, and achieve more equitable political representation. The Constitution provides for the creation of political space through the recognition and prioritization of respect for the cultures, identities, and languages of Ethiopia’s individual ethnic groups. In providing political space, the Constitution reflects a powerful first step towards a true multiparty system of government. Ethiopia recently experienced an increase in voter participation as almost twenty-six million Ethiopians cast ballots in the most recent elections in 2005, of which almost half were women. In the same election, the opposition coalition party won 170 of the 547 seats in the federal legislature, as compared with twelve seats in the previous term. Thus, the creation of political space in Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism provides greater political representation and thereby creates a more stable state.

Calming Ethnic Conflict and Promoting Cooperation

Ethiopia’s creation of political space and individual self- expression allows for a higher level of cooperation among ethnic groups and a stronger Ethiopian polity as a whole. Since the inception of ethnic federalism, no ethnic splintering or violent civil wars occurred in Ethiopia. Also, in at least one instance, different ethnic groups cooperated with one another to strive for a common goal under one Ethiopian banner. In 1998, the border war with Eritrea united Ethiopians of diverse ethnic groups such as Somali, Afar, and Gambella together to fight as part of a coordinated force in the war effort. The united front reflects the potential long-term benefit of a united Ethiopian polity because security in one’s individual political space allows for a higher level of cooperation among groups that in turn promotes stronger national unity.

Improved International Recognition

Ethiopia’s international reputation is also bolstered through the political stability created by ethnic federalism. The improved reputation manifests itself through heightened monetary donation and aid. The current Ethiopian government enjoys support internationally and receives extensive funds from Western states. The United Kingdom’s Department for International Development reversed its suspension of financial support in June 2006 and distributed ninety-four million pounds sterling to a World Bank health, water, and education program for the Ethiopian government to implement. The heightened monetary contribution reflects international appreciation of the improved structure for the distribution of donor funds and the management of development opportunities throughout the state. Therefore, the stability of ethnic federalism provides Ethiopia with the opportunity for greater international recognition.

Challenges to Ethiopian Ethnic Federalism

Though Ethiopia’s institution of ethnic federalism resulted in several long-term benefits, the system harbors short- term challenges. Challenges include practical implementation regarding how to delineate ethnic entities and the challenge of combating disunity. Also, some experts suggest the Ethiopian Constitution creates a more unstable state as opposed to a united and stable state. An unstable state may result from entrenched ethnic differences implicated in the Constitution, a disparate regional history, and ethnic group pursuance of the right of secession. It is unclear how the potential benefits and challenges will unfold in Ethiopia’s future.

Difficulty in Distinguishing Between Ethnic Groups

Ethnic federalism presents the challenge of how to make accurate ethnic distinctions in order to demarcate territorial lines for the respective federalist entities. A close analysis of the ethno-federal lines drawn in Ethiopia’s system reveals doubt as to whether it is possible to make clear distinctions between the ethnic groups. Other states face similar challenges in the implementation of ethnic federalism. Eritrea as an ethnic entity does not exist and reflects the difficulties of drawing regional lines of separation. Eritrea comprises many different ethnic groups with different languages. Also, some of the ethnic groups spill over international Eritrean boundaries. The challenges faced by Ehtrea are comparable to Ethiopia’s situation. Uncertain and poorly demarcated boundary lines could contribute to greater state instability. Therefore, ethnic federalism may present the challenge of implementation in creating ethnically consistent entities.

Entrenched Ethnic Difference

Though the potential for long-term political unity exists, ethnic federalism also promotes instability through entrenchment of ethnic difference rather than promotion of state unity. The demarcation of territories based on ethnic lines in Ethiopia may promote ethnic identity as more important than state identity. The emphasis of ethnic identity could transform Ethiopia’s federal system into a system of treaties between autonomous regions that has only helped to prevent outbreak of civil war. However, no ethnic group has seceded from the nine states enumerated in the Constitution.

Imposition of Ethnic Classification

Similarly, Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism requires citizens to identify themselves foremost as members of an ethnic group rather than members of the state. All interactions with government offices require Ethiopians to declare their ethnic affiliation to one of the eighty-four officially recognized classifications. The imposition of ethnic classification is counter-productive to state unity because ethnic federalism forces citizens to identify predominately as part of one of the recognized ethnic classifications rather than as Ethiopians. Further, Ethiopians may be offspring of parents from two different ethnic groups but forced to identify as just one ethnicity. The imposition of ethnic classifications and division may contribute to state instability.

Lack of Equitable Power Sharing

Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), controls all levels of government either directly or indirectly through allied ethnic parties. The EPRDF consists of just three ethnic and one multi-ethnic organization. Inequitable control of government creates political fragility. Further, a politically fragile Ethiopia creates the potential for military seizure of the state or complete ethnic fracture and state disintegration. The EPRDF must disengage itself from democratic centralism in order to deepen and extend Ethiopia’s democratization and equitable power sharing arrangement.

Divide and Rule

Ethnic federalism creates the potential for a ruling political party or coalition to acquire and retain political power through a policy of divide and rule. A dominant political party may pressure and persuade less organized ethnic groups to join a coalition in order to gain more seats in government. A larger coalition acquires more government seats but does not have to equitably and proportionally confer the seats to the ethnic groups that comprise the coalition. In Benishangul Gumuz Region of Ethiopia, the Benishangul ethnic group pressured and persuaded Gumuz and Shinasha politicians to join the Benishangul coalition without their consent or freewill. The practice of divide and rule over small ethnic groups is not limited to the Benishangul Gumuz Region of Ethiopia. Further, such practice creates inequitable treatment and undermines the Constitution’s intent of cooperation and compromise. Also, divide and rule reduces the effectiveness of the government and fosters intra-ethnic rivalries. Therefore, without further mechanisms to protect small minority ethnicities, the practice of divide and rule will sustain an inequitable balance of power.

A History of Disunity and the Right of Secession

An ethnic federal structure coupled with a history of disunity and the right to secession may promote state division, If Eritrea, freely associated with Ethiopia prior to 1993, had a right to independence, then other regions of Ethiopia could claim a similar right to independence. The Oromo ethnic group, the largest in Ethiopia, is committed to seceding from Ethiopia. The Oromo Liberation Front’s desire for independence is so great that if the right of secession had not been included as part of the Constitution, then the OLF would not have signed on to the Transitional Government of Ethiopia. The institution of the right to secede within the ethnic pluralism structure may encourage already passionate separatist groups in Ethiopia to secede and hurt the overall goal of a unified Ethiopian polity.

Conclusion

The Constitution creates an ethnically based federal republic that recognizes and grants rights to Ethiopia’s ethnic groups and sets forth the shared powers and responsibilities of the federal and state governments with regard to Ethiopia’s ethnic groups. The Constitution creates nine states on the basis of settlement patterns, language, identity, and the consent of the people living within them. Also, each of Ethiopia’s “Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples” has an unconditional right to self-determination. Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism provides several long-term benefits for the state that include promotion of individual ethnic rights, prevention of ethnic splintering and violent civil war through fostering ethnic and regional autonomy while maintain Ethiopia as a formal political unit, and creation of a formal political space for ethnic identities and social ties that allow the state to harness the available political strength as a unified polity. However, Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism harbors short-term challenges that include practical implementation regarding how to delineate ethnic entities and the challenge of combating disunity. Also, some experts suggest the Constitution creates a more unstable state. Further, an ethnic federal structure coupled with a history of disunity and the right to secession may promote state division and create the potential for a ruling political party or coalition to acquire and retain political power through a policy of divide and rule. It is unclear how the potential benefits and challenges will unfold in Ethiopia’s future.

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Comments

  • Posted on - 2011-02-10    by     selam desta
  • The writer has little knowledge about the concept of collective rights let alone give coherent analyses about the multi-cultural federalism of ethiopia. He can't differentiate ethnicity from nationas and nationalities. He don't understand the core principles enshrined in the constitution. This article is more of a biased political article and the writer should review his article so as to make sense of a constitutional analyses.
  • Posted on - 2011-02-10    by     abdi fara
  • Oromo should be given the right to cede and claim independence, they have been oprressed by the minority notherners for centuries, even though they form 35 % of the population (30,000000).
  • Posted on - 2011-02-09    by     jamino
  • The worst system in africa is that exist in Ethiopia. Federal system does not mean all times provided justice in the multicaltural system, The rulling party in Ethiopia mainly from Tigre ' the ethinic which rull the country since 1991' and more dictatorial regime in Africa. In the last election the rulling party has got 99.70% which denyed by all the watching & civic organization, and many and many of the ethinic clearance in Ogadein and Beneshangol and others.
  • Posted on - 2011-02-09    by     Karari
  • most fools may Think Ethiopia is Wrong it was never colonized!they make decisions devoid of colonial hangovers1