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Federalism and the Ethiopian Constitution


Federalism and the Ethiopian Constitution.


Bekele Berhanu                     March 19, 2019




Federalism is one of the most misunderstood concepts in Ethiopia.  A quick search on Google defines Federalism as follows: (Wikipedia)


Federalism is the mixed or compound mode of government, combining a general government (the central or 'federal' government) with regional governments (provincial, state, cantonal, territorial or other sub-unit governments) in a single political system. Its distinctive feature, exemplified in the founding example of modern federalism by the United States of America under the Constitution of 1787, is a relationship of parity between the two levels of government established.[1] It can thus be defined as a form of government in which there is a division of powers between two levels of government of equal status.[2]


In principle, it is safe to assume that the readers acknowledge a federal system and a unitary system - two popular forms of governance arrangements  - are normal administrative structures. Of course, there are variations of these systems that policy makers may devise to suit their own unique situations.


In federal structures of the proper form, all units that constitute the federation – the central

government and regional/ state governments - are assumed to have equal status. Hence, when the Ethiopian constitution states that power is given to the central government by the people (nationalities, people, etc..) they do so because they believed in one united Ethiopia that protects their local as well as national (Ethiopian) interest.


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The jurisdictional power that the central government possess is meant to protect and supplement the interest of all the constituent parts of the country. The Federal government is responsible in maintaining good foreign relations, establishing an efficient and capable military establishment to defend the interest of the country as stated in the constitution, and protect national wealth such as minerals and federal lands. 


So far so good.  This is the nature of federalism and there should not be any reasonable disagreement on this conceptual framework.


The Ethiopian Federal System


Reasonable people will also agree that federal regions/ states should be constructed based on language, culture, geographic positioning and other related points.  This is not unique for Ethiopia.  In Canada, for example, geographic positioning as well as culture and language (Quebec) are used to establish the federal provinces. Despite some minor differences, and the fact that the presidential system empowers the presidency, the American federal system gives substantial power to the states. So do several small countries in Europe, where several languages are spoken.


One seemingly reasonable argument about the language/culture based federal system is that it magnifies our differences and creates ethnic discourse.  But then the more reasonable people who espouse this fear also believe that cultural and linguistic assets of the different ethnic groups of Ethiopia should be preserved and promoted.  (start sentence with but?)


The only fair solution is then to identify the real cause of ethnic discourse and find a reasonable solution to it.  Respect for culture and language – a vision that all Ethiopian people value-- cannot possibly be a cause for animosity.


In my limited geographic knowledge, the only regions in Ethiopia that can claim contiguity are Somalia, Afar and Tigray (and possibly Gambella).  Hence, the federal arrangement in these regions should not be a cause for concern.  One may ask, how about regions such as Oromia, Amhara, Southern Ethiopia and Beni Shangul?  Does that mean they should be reconstituted?  Not at all, and let’s see the problems that I think needa deeper understanding of Federalism.


The Problems of Ethiopian Federalism


In recent days I have been following the ‘crisis’ in Addis to which many were speaking passionately. A Few points here.  First of all, Addis Ababa does not exist in a vacuum.  It must be in Oromia, in Amhara or the Debub region.  Historical facts and the Ethiopian Constitution put Addis Ababa in Oromia.  That should not be a point of contention for any reasonable person.


On the other hand, one who thinks that any land within Oromia, despite the fact many of the residents are not Oromos, should be ‘Oromized’ does not understand the concept of Federalism fully.  When we choose, as people of the Ethiopian nation, to enter the federal system, we are fundamentally agreeing that the residents of a given location have the right to choose their own government (local administration).  The fact that Addis is in Oromia proper does not mean that Oromos, despite their minority status in the city, should govern the city.  Nazreth/Adama is one other area where local residents should be encouraged to assert their rights.


This may not be unique to Oromia.  There could be towns and cities in other parts of Ethiopia where local citizenry needs to be empowered to govern themselves.


The other point of contention is that Oromia should extract special benefits from Addis Ababa. Given my current knowledge, I cannot form an opinion.  However, if there is a will, there is a way.   I am saddened to see many reasonable people stand on the opposite aisle and widen the gap unnecessarily. 


My small, but relevant question and advice to the Oromo leaders is as to why they choose Addis Ababa as their capital city?  In the industrialized countries, (especially those in North America) regional capital cities are built further away from large commercial cities.  This, has the benefit of boosting smaller cities through hiring/ relocation of civil servants.  This, in turn has a value chain effect, in that services that are beneficial to civil servants, can further increase economic activities.  This needs to be thoroughly thought after. It is the long-time interest of the people that matters, not impulsive measures.


There is one other grossly misunderstood concept of Federalism in Ethiopia.

No Amhara residing in Tigray , as an example, has no more or no less right than any Tigrian living in Tigray. The Tigray government has the duty and the responsibility to create suitable administrative needs for every resident.  So should be the case in all regional administrations of the country.  The Amhara government has no business in the affairs of an Amhara residing in Gambella or Oromia.  It is the duty of the respective regions to protect the interest of other residents from other regions. 


The Tigrian government or the Oromo government has no business regarding Tigrians or Oromos residing in other regions.  This is one of the big misconceptions of Federalism as it is recently practiced in Ethiopia.


This, of course, has more to do with the failure of the current federal government that seems to be intentionally intensifying ethnic strife in the country. 


Let me conclude with the following observation about the much-mentioned Ethiopian nationalism or Ethiopian citizenship (Zegnet).  These words are repeated even by sensible people who could play a positive role in stopping Ethiopia’s downward spiral.


Elsewhere in my previous writings, in Amharic as well in English, I have written about my dislike of the word nationalism.  Nations/ nationalities are realities that we have no control over.  Addressing the issues concerning nationalities is an issue of which we have no choice.  But nationalism is a construct that is used to promote ‘otherness’. It is the primary stage in the ladder for fascism and extremism.


Ethiopian citizenship (Zegnet) is a concept that many of us should agree with.  The current Constitution, as far as I can tell, is not against ‘Zegnet’.  If it is not satisfactorily amplified in the constitution, then it should be amended to do so.  But, to argue that nationality based federal arrangement negates Ethiopian ‘Zegnet’,  is not a fair assessment.

Last, but not least, I would like serious people to be part of the discussion and enrich our thought.  I would like activists and journalists such as Tedros to contribute their fair hare in solving our current crisis.

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