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The constitutional arrangement of Ethiopia's multinational federalism

Yigezu Abate


(Continued from "The theoretical keystones of Ethiopia's multi-national federalism")

The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is founded by the constitution that is “an expression of the mutual commitment” of nation, nationalities and peoples rather than individual actors or citizens. Though its commitment to the protection individual rights is unequivocally expressed, the issue of group right is also given equal status.

Thus, the constitution accedes to the politics of recognition not only as a means of addressing its implication on the individual level but also on the group level. The constitution aims at building one political and economic community that “redeems the historical unjust relationship”.  Between the nation, nationalities and enabling them to promote, develop and preserve their identities. As a result, it endows nation, nationalities and peoples, “the right to establish its own self government in the territory it inhabits and to proportional representation in higher levels of organs”.  

Many researchers concur with the fact that there were about seventeen armed groups organized along nationalist lines during the downfall of the Dergue regime. The presence of the OLF, Somali, Afar, Beninshangul and Sidama armed groups, among others, at the doorsteps of the transitional Government.

Though right self-government of nation, nationalities and peoples includes the status of regional state, not all of them established their own regional state. Among the nine regional states established by the constitution, only five are inhabited by the Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Oromo and Somali nations having majority in the corresponding regions.

While the remaining regional states are self-governments of two or more nation/nationalities, in the case of the Regional States of Benishangul-Gumuz, SNNP and Gambella, or an especial arrangement accorded to a numerical minority group, in the case of Harari.

The right of nations, nationalities and peoples to self-governance is also applied at sub-regional level. Groups either that do not have their own regional state or residing outside their home regions exercise a self-governance with the status of special zone or special Woreda or special Kebele.

For example, nations, nationalities and peoples of the SNNP Region have self-government of one form or another. The Agaw people and the Oromo in the Amhara Regional State enjoy a special zone level self-governance. Though this practice is not uniformly exercised in all regional states, the experience of the SNNP Region and the Proclamation on inter-state border delimitation suggest members of a nation/nationality that constitute a majority in an area at least a size of Kebele can exercise self-governance. 

The proportional representation of nations, nationalities and peoples is constitutionally provided for both Federal and Regional levels of government.

The constitution guarantees the representation of all nation, nationalities and peoples in the House of Federation, which has the power to interpret the constitution, handle inter-nation/nationality and inter-state matters and demands for self-governance and secession, among others.  Every nation, nationality and group is guaranteed at least one seat in the House and extra one seat per million people, which reflects the numerical strength of the groups.

 The other House, the House of Representatives, though it is composed of representatives elected by majoritarian system from every electoral district, is supposed to include all nation, nationality and peoples of the Republic. Thus, the constitution reserves some twenty chairs for minorities who are unable to be represented in the normal course of the election.

The Representation of minority at Regional level is not similar. It is understood a group constituting a majority of an electoral district will be able to be represented in the concerned councils of the region, at least in principle.

This is more the case where the area is an autonomous entity of the concerned group. Thus among the five Regional states with a numerically majority nation, the councils of the Regional States of Tigray and Amhara guarantee a representation for regional minorities.

The other four regional states, where no single group constitutes a numeric majority, have a council aimed at joint administration. While the Beninshangul-Gumuz, SNNP and Gambella Regional states are a joint administration of the respective indigenous groups, the Harari regional state shows a power sharing arrangement between the indigenous Harari people and the rest of residents of the Region that is heterogeneous.

In general, except the SNNP Regional state, the existence of territorial majority is a precondition for the Representation of a regionally minority group in the council of Regional States. It is worth noting that the entitlement to representation of regionally minority groups is not extended to all but to those groups considered indigenous.

Winding up the discussion of this essay by commenting on the democratization process of FDRE would enables us both recapitulate the core issues of our federal system and to weigh their practical relevant.

In Constitutional terms, one can surely regard the FDRE as a transitional democracy. The constitution endorses not only the concept of democratic governance but also recognizes and guarantees the basic political institutions that characterize a democratic political system. Such as, universal franchise, elected government, freed on of political expression and organization with the incorporation of a longest of human and democratic rights, principle of secularism  and market economy in the constitution, it can justifiably regarded as a liberal democracy. Our federalism is not free from challenges, we should understand.

Constitutionalism, rule of law, political freedoms, limited government, and the like has scant historic legacy in the Ethiopian state. Hence, the democratic transition of FDRE cannot be nurtured by preexisting political institutions at any meaningful rate. On the contrary, experiences of militarism, monarchy and traditional paternalist rule are well – entrenched. Except for Kenya, which experiencing a virtually permanent political standoff, no meaning full democratic transition exists in the immediate neighborhood of FDRE. These are challenges that can be surpassed with an even greater commitment of all Ethiopians towards our multi-national federalism.

Ethiopia’s multi-national federalism provides several long-term benefits for the state. It promote peace and helps in the prevention of ethnic conflict and civil war fostering cultural and regional autonomy while maintaining Ethiopia as one political and economic unit.

Nothing illustrates this than how naysayers said Ethiopia would fall apart 20 years ago, instead it is thriving. Their grim predictions stemmed from lack of confidence in the ability to manage diversity and fear of disintegration arising out of federalism.

Now, conversely, the tide is turning and Africans are looking for institutions that are more responsive to them and more reflective of their diversity. Ethiopia and Nigeria have a system of federalism. Federalism influenced the constitution of D.R. Congo. South Africa has a devolved government with federal characteristics. Kenya has approved a new constitution which is centered on devolution of power. Tanzania has a semi-federal arrangement due to the status of Zanzibar. There are initiatives for federalism many other African countries as well.

A Well designed federal system can help soothe a country’s politics, create more space for democratic competition and bring government closer to the people. Though federalism can carry risks, it has proven itself in rich, middle-income and poor countries with very diverse conditions. A majority of the world’s people who live in democracies operate within some form of federal or devolved governance. As each country must find its own formula. Ethiopia designed one that fits her realities.


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