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Diversity, Conflicts and the Success of Multicultural Federations

Diversity, Conflicts and the Success of Multicultural Federations

Mesle A.


Contending views on the relationship between federalism and ethnic conflict remain polarized and do not offer a clue regarding those factors that explain the successes and failures of federal experiments in multi-ethnic countries. In fact, both views provide ample empirical cases to substantiate their claims.

Those who advocate the use of federalism as an instrument of ethnic conflict management could easily cite Switzerland and India as valid examples of federalism’s promise to provide a system of government that balances unity and diversity. On the other hand, those who consider federalism a recipe for more conflicts have their fair share of empirical examples.

The presence of federalist successes and failures calls for the examination of those contextual factors that help explain why some federations succeed in democratically maintaining their multi-ethnic societies, while others miserably fail. Indeed, studying some of the salient features of those federations that have been reasonably successful in ensuring democratic self-rule and shared-rule sheds some light to this question.

First, the presence of a functional democratic system where there is open and peaceful contestation for power by some mutually agreed rules is quintessentially important for successful federations. In fact, almost all of those federations (e.g. India, Canada and Switzerland) that were reasonably successful in ensuring self-rule and shared-rule in a peaceful and democratic manner have been either fledgling or developed democracies. In a democratic system institutions like political parties, civil society organizations and independent press positively contribute to peaceful management of ethnic conflicts by creating crosscutting partnerships that surpass mere ethnic cleavages.

Second, federalism has been reasonably successful in those countries where there is a good tradition of rule of law. In contrast, in countries where the gap between constitutional principles and practice is wide, both federal stability and conflict management will be at risk. Most developing countries, including Ethiopia, does not have a good social tradition and record regarding the rule of law.

Third, the lack of cross-ethnic consensus on human rights, diversity and patronage reduces the possibility of the success of multination federalism. The fear that prevails in many developing multi-ethnic countries that any state recognition of ethnic pluralism could undermine national unity and embolden neighboring countries with territorial ambitions. In contrast, the lack of cross-ethnic commitment to human rights adversely affects the relationship between local majorities and minorities. Hence, it makes ethnic federalism less attractive.

Finally, the extent to which multi-ethnic federations should give a role to ethnicity and citizenship in their institutional and ideological construction. While the need to respond to demands of ethnic groups for representation and self-administration is widely acknowledged, the development of civic citizenship is also vital.

Based on these points, the following broad conclusions are possible. First, several factors that motivate the formation of federal systems. The normative basis for establishing federalism relates to its ideological dispensation towards centralization, decentralization and balance. In the context of managing ethnic conflicts, the role of the federalist ideology of balance between self-rule and shared-rule is more significant.

Second, unlike other millenarian ideologies, it does not have systematic answers concerning crucial problems of humanity (Thorlakson 2003). The incoherence of ideological federalism appears to have been partly responsible for the emergence of a wide variety of federations with a high level of cultural, social, economic, political and ideological variations. The difficulty of finding a general theory for federations becomes clear when one makes a quick survey of defunct and existing federations. For instance, the USSR and Yugoslavia were both federations but under highly centralized communist parties. Nigeria has had for most of its independent history military federal governments. In contrast, federations in the west operate under a democratic framework. This shows us that finding commonality between federal systems with the exception of constitutional division of power is still a difficult task.

Reactions of multi-ethnic states to ethnic diversity and ethnic conflicts have always been variable. Some attempt to eliminate ethnic differences, while others seek to manage them. There is currently a growing international trend to use autonomy and federal arrangements as a way of managing ethnic conflicts. The interface between ethno nationalist conflicts and federalism lies in the capacity of the latter to provide a balance between self-rule and shared-rule. However, the use of federalism as a way of managing ethnic conflicts has both its supporters and detractors. As observed from the experiences of many federations the success or failure of federations in handling conflicts depends on contextual factors that include democracy, rule of law, institutional design, civic culture and others.

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.

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).

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