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A learning curve of Federalism and managing conflicts

A learning curve of Federalism and managing conflicts

Mesle A.


Ethiopia is a land of diverse peoples with divergent interests. Carlo Conti-Rossini, an Italian historian, has reportedly said that Ethiopia is “un museo di popoli”, a museum of peoples. The demographic diversity is expressed in various ways such as ethno-national, cultural, religious, economic way of life, and so on. Of late, the ethno-cultural diversity of type has become noticeable in the public square. As a result, ethnicity is taken seriously in the endeavor to reconstruct the state as a multi-national, multicultural federal polity. Federalism, being essentially a covenant or a treaty, is a solemn agreement among smaller polities to form a larger perpetual polity.

Federalism is often used as a tool of accommodating diversity. Federalism has become a very popular “solution” for problems of ethnic conflict in public discourse. But owing to the fact that the American model is often taken as the prototypical model of federalism, a federal type that takes ethnicity into account in the process of carving its constituent units is viewed as rather unconventional. They also observe that: Ethnic federations are among the most difficult of all to sustain and are least likely to survive because constituent units based on ethnic nationalisms normally do not want to merge into the kind of tight-knit units necessary for federation. It may be that confederations of ethnic states have a better chance of success.

Indeed most scholars consider ethnic federalism with a degree of suspicion because to base a federal arrangement on such an inflexible trait such as ethnicity is to freeze the compromise and negotiation inherent and necessary for an operational federal system. Nonetheless, trends in recent years suggest that perhaps ethnic federalism must be given a chance because it has two major advantages: a) it brings about peace and stability in conflicted societies; and b) it entrenches and institutionalizes ethno-cultural justice. In countries such as that of the horn –which share common peoples, cultures, fears, and vulnerabilities - ethnic federalism with the secession clause might even help for regional integration. It is important, however, that for ethnic federalism to effectively respond to the challenge of diversity, it needs to be augmented by an electoral and political system that provides for power-sharing, equal representation, veto power on select matters, etc. It should also be working under the provenance of a legitimate, supreme, and rigid constitution that can be interpreted impartially and neutrally (or evenly). It should also be supported by a robust minority rights regime that can protect new minorities or minorities within minorities.

The conventional view with regard to federalism is that it is a form of non-centralized mode of organizing a polity. Thus it is said that “federal polities are characteristically non-centralized.” It refers to a "union of separate states in which power is divided and shared between a strong union government and strong state governments." Inherent in the federal idea is thus the idea of "shared rule and self-rule." Moreover, federalism presumes the existence of at least two layers (tiers) of government in a polity, namely, that of the Federal (General, also Union) government and of the State (Local, also Provincial, or even Cantonal-- in the case of Switzerland) governments. The idea of shared rule and self-rule in federalism is advantageous in many respects. Kincaid argues that federalism aspires to “maximize the democratic and economic advantages of both small and large republics by minimizing the anarchistic temptations of small republics to fight each other and the monopolistic temptations of large republics to become tyrannical.” Thus it is evident that federalism intensifies democracy by creating an atmosphere of popular participation at, at least, two levels.

Nonetheless, federalism is not universally accepted without any opposition. There are oppositions that come from two directions. According to Daniel Elazar, the forces that oppose federalism are forces of centralization and of fragmentation. Those who oppose federalism on behalf of centralization tend to be totalitarian with consolidationist trends while those who oppose it on behalf of fragmentation are ethno-nationalist movements seeking secession. Yet contemporary problems of ethnic conflict seem to have brought about a drift into ethnic federations as a situation.

Nonetheless, one can hardly fail to notice the following features of federalism (which have all been hinted at directly or indirectly in the discussion above): allocation of power between federal and state governments; representation at the center; and territoriality. Other commentators see yet other features of federalism such as its importance "as a form of empowerment", i.e., its capability to create "opportunities for regional voices to be heard; and to create regional political elites where they previously did not exist," and to "establish more civil service jobs for local regional groupings." Thus, federalism, being a form of empowerment, creates "more opportunities for negotiating the territorial distribution of power and more representative institutions. Smith further notes that innovation is also an aspect of federalism. This means that federalism lets the states exercise creative politics in meeting local needs thereby serving, in a sense, as "a social laboratory."

As such, federalism might be a helpful tool to be used against legitimacy crisis. To this list, one can add the following features as basic to one’s description of federalism, namely, the existence of: at least two orders (tiers, or spheres) of government; a written constitution which is legitimate, supreme, rigid, and adjudicable by an impartial body; allocation of legislative powers to states with some genuine autonomy for each order; equal or equitable representation of the constituent units at the center often in an upper house; an umpire and/or procedure (e.g. courts, referendum, or upper house) to rule on constitutional disputes between governments; and a set of processes and institutions for facilitating or conducting relations between governments. The above mentioned features of federalism also imply some of the values inherent in federalism such as lessening tyranny especially of the executive, being responsive to local public needs, and encouraging innovation.

Federal diversity in unity can offer a solution to the concern of both “national” and local nationalisms. (Often “national” patriotism/nationalism is haunted by fear of disintegration; particular/local nationalists are haunted by fear of oppression. But federalism offers that golden mean sought to keep both fears at bay.) In such scenarios, federalism can be an incentive for peace. However, it can do so only if both/all groups are willing to compromise having realized that the military option is not viable any more.

Learning to live with conflicts in transforming conflicts, federalism simply makes us prepare for an important lesson: that a mature polity learns to live with conflicts rather than trying--rather naively—to resolve them mostly by wishing them away. By providing for a normative, institutional, and procedural framework for an effective and efficient handling of conflicts, federalism makes its peace with conflicts. The normative framework is an assemblage of laws, policies, strategies and plans for prevention, management, settlement, and transformation of conflicts. This in turn refers to a body of rules beginning from the constitution to other primary and subordinate laws that help handle incompatibility of interests of the diverse actors in the matrix of actors in a federal arrangement.

Once the routes that political and legal actions take are predicted or made fairly predictable, then the escalation and violence of conflicts are avoided. All actors will know the legal and political resources they can mobilize within the ambits of the constitutional framework. The normative framework also provides for an elaborate legislative frame which grants specific guidelines on a peaceful settlement of disputes whenever they arise. It will also provide for a rational conflict policy that systematically responds to conflicts. Institutions in charge of handling diverse constitutional disputes emanating from federalism also come up with a conflict strategy that is directed, intentional, methodical, rational, effective and efficient in its response to conflicts (overt or covert, latent or manifest).

John Markakis, a long-time scholar on Ethiopia, suggests that causes of ethnic conflicts are mostly competition for resources and power although in what looks like a lapse in thought he also seems to endorse the cultural difference theory when he tried to explain the Issa-Afar conflict in the light of historical/traditional enmity between the two groups. Merera Gudina attributes ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia to, among other things, contending nationalisms that have emerged and evolved over time in Ethiopia. He also deplores the incomplete transition to democracy as a result of which we continue to have political instability that is rooted in ethnicity.

In the context of Ethiopia, institutions such as the ordinary Courts, the House of Federation (HOF), the Council of Constitutional Inquiry (CCI), the National Electoral Board, the Institution of the Ombudsman, or the Human Rights Commission fall within the category of legal institutions. By political institutions we mean the legislative bodies such as the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR), its Committees, the Council of Ministers and Ministries (e.g. the Ministry of Federal Affairs) which, with or without delegation, make serious policy decisions on important matters that concern diverse actors in the federal matrix.

It is imperative that we constantly remind ourselves of the fact that federalism is not a panacea for conflicts. We need to remind ourselves that while federalism solves some kinds of conflicts, it might induce the emergence of other kinds of conflicts. It is therefore important to prepare the federal arrangement for a new breed of conflicts that might arise with the advent of federalism. This helps us enhance our lesson that in federal systems, we learn more how to live with conflicts than how to do away with them.

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