NEVIS REVIEW 9,
January 28, 2013
Ethnic Federalism in Ethiopia: Background, Present Conditions and Future Prospects
By Alem Habtu (PhD)
(Extracts from the paper)
In 1991 Ethiopia established an ethnic federal system that gave full recognition to ethnic
autonomy, while maintaining the unity of the state. Its new constitution created a federal system largely consisting of ethnic-based territorial units. The constitution aspires to achieve ethnic autonomy and equality while maintaining the state. The federal system is significant in that its constitution provides for secession of any ethnic unit. It encourages political parties to organize along ethnic lines, and champions an ethnicized federal state with a secession option. As an exception to the general pattern in Africa, it is a worthy case study. ………………………..
…The Ethiopian state historically evolved, over millennia, as a non-colonial empire-state.
The country has a great ethnic diversity. In the 20th century, imperial assimilationist policies and military communist policies failed to overcome ethnic alienation and revolt. The leadership since 1991 institutionalized ethnic federalism as a matter of ideological orientation and political necessity and as a way of resolving conflict between ethnonationalism and the state. The fact that most ethnic groups appear willing to live within the framework of the federal system is, in part, an achievement of ethnic federalism. Thus far, ethnic federalism has undercut the drive for secession by largely removing manifest aspects of ethnic oppression (e.g., language use) that would have served as a rallying cause for ethnonationalist organizations. Through its cultural
pluralist and political autonomy policies, ethnic federalism has contributed to state maintenance.
The Ethiopian federal system is unique in its constitutional marrying of political pluralism and the right of secession. But there is a mismatch between the liberal-democratic
political-pluralist elements of the constitution and the political praxis of the dominant party; it is wedded to the modus operandi of democratic centralism, inhibiting effective decentralization and democratization.
In the short run, the viability and stability of the infant political system is dependent on its flexibility and adaptability. In the long run, the success of ethnic federalism will be contingent, in good measure, on a more balanced share of power between the three major ethnic groups, the Oromo, the Amhara and the Tigray. At the moment, it appears to be in favor of the numerically small Tigray ethnic group. All three ethnic groups not only need to work out a mutual accommodation, they also need, in turn, to support pluralist policies and practices vis-à-vis all ethnic groups in the country. At the interstate level, Ethiopia needs to establish normal relations with all its neighboring states as there are co- ethnics residing in all of them.
(Eds Note- Associate Professor and Chair in the Department of Sociology at Queens College, City University of New York. His recent publications on federalism include an edited book on Ethiopian Federalism: Principle, Process and Practice)