Ethiopian Federalism Challenged

The Regional States of Ethiopia
The Regional States of Ethiopia

By Binyam Tamene
The process of building a federal state in Ethiopia is currently challenged by the widespread poverty, says the representative of the Speaker of the House, Daniel Demmisse, but the system is the only way to keep the country intact.

In a consultative meeting organised by the Forum for Federalism and Democracy and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung on Ethiopian Federalism, the representative said no federal system is perfect.

“The Ethiopian federal system, as any other federation, is an ongoing experiment,” said Daniel Demmisse.
As a result, he said, challenges are often encountered. According to him, major ones include “the abject and widespread poverty and development inequality, particularly in the emerging regions.”

Others are a lack of good governance, democratic culture and tolerance that leads to conflicts; and a lack of reliable and strong institutions to promote healthy debate and discussion of federalism.

The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was founded in 1995 with federal regions created along linguistic divisions.
After nearly two decades of living under the federal system, he said it is time to move on and commence a new, informed debate to enrich the system.
“It is my belief that the debates and discussions on Ethiopian federalism should principally focus on how the government can address these and other challenges,” he added.

The representative indicated that two fundamental questions arose during the Ethiopian student movement: the right to self determination and ‘land to the tiller’, and these two issues continue to shape the politics of the country.

The military junta or Derg that seized power in 1974 ignored the principle of self-determination, and various political movements mounted an armed struggle until the 1991 revolution.

“It is my belief that the only viable way to save the unity of the country was to enter into a new deal, a new social contract,” he added.
According to Daniel, the new covenant must recognise past injustices and give guarantees to rectify them. It has to ensure that the new relationship is based on free will, equality, mutual respect, the rule of law and democracy.

In fact, what the current federal system of Ethiopia did was to save the country both from the continuation of war and disintegration of the Ethiopian state. This was because it accommodated ethnic diversity within a new federal Ethiopia based on the principle of political, economic, and social equality.

But there are those who argue that federalism in Ethiopia has serious limitations. As one opposition candidate put it in the third inter party election debate, if a federal state was given to tiny Harari, what was the logic of putting together over 45 ethnic groups in the southern region? In his view, the south should be divided and the number of regional states must increase.

The article on Federalism and Democracy by the former German Ambassador to Ethiopia Claas Dieter Knoop supports what was said by the opposition member during the debate. The ambassador said the federal system does not mean that you cannot change the composition of our federal state. But this can only happen if the people agree to change on the basis of a referendum.
He added that the objective of the constitution could be considered as a compromise between a unitary government that cannot accommodate diversity, and disintegration of the country into its constituent ethnic groups.