In Defense of Federalism in Ethiopia by By Assefa Fiseha

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In Defense of Federalism in Ethiopia
Wednesday 15 June 2005.

In Defense of Federalism, Multiculturalism and Constitutional Order

By Assefa Fiseha

Despite the historically unprecedented positive pre-election period we seem to be sliding back to the abyss of history (the endless cycle of crisis) once again dashing into ashes the very hopes for democracy, tolerance and accommodation. Alas the Ethiopian factor (ghost of terror, culture of militancy, arrogance and culture of exclusion to mention few that are at the heart of our political ills) has popped up once again as an obstacle in our effort to move forward.

I guess it was John Markakis in his pioneer work Anatomy of Traditional Polity(1974) and following him Christopher Clapham and many others who at various times questioned if we Ethiopians take our constitutions seriously. Constitutions apart from serving as code of conduct in public life, defining powers and responsibilities of institutions and the citizen also serves as way for peaceful transfer of power from one party to another. In our present context as a channel for peaceful sharing of power among different contenders. We need to note that in our long history we have no constitution that survived its maker. We were about to cross this RED Line and we seem to be missing this golden opportunity once more. Is it a curse or what! As responsible Ethiopians we have to urge the parties to make a break through in this regard.

Aggravating this factor are political parties on both sides of the equation (ruling party as well as the opposition). This is no surprise because such parties are nothing but products of an imperfect society, a society impoverished by poverty, ignorance and dictatorship of one kind or another for the longest part of its history. Added to this is the authoritarian culture in public life. Can we expect the parties to deliver any better?

What is worrisome however is the content of the writing of Ethiopian intellectuals, elites and some forums. While it is human and rational to condemn such acts for what they are on objective basis (no one with sane mind can endorse the atrocities of the previous week) some have even went to the extent of aggravating the already fragile democracy and complex society, making sense to the Interhamwe rhetoric by subscribing to base less allegations of Tigrayans attacking their fellow Ethiopians and over looking the rash on the side of the opposition. Adding fuel to fire is the legality of the one- month ban (and now it is extended) to the peaceful demonstration in Addis Ababa, for the competent authority to take such measure appears to fall on the Council of Ministers and the legislative body. This is an irony because the main justification for the ban was to urge political parties to stick to legal institutions in airing their complaints.

A big part of the political process is already spoiled but there is still hope and way out. We have to push the political parties to come to some merging point and address our historical ills: the culture of exclusion and the tendency to control political power by one group or groups to the exclusion of others, a culture that is at the bed rock of our crisis, past and present and that stands as an obstacle for the future. Needless to say, many Ethiopians forget to realize that Ethiopia is multicultural, multi religious and multi-regional and that it is a must that the government and its institutions should reflect in one way or another this reality. Further more we tend to forget that in Ethiopia unlike other nation state federations, we do not have a majority ( by majority I mean here a group that constitutes fifty one percent and that can command the political process). It is a hard fact that all the nationalities/ethnic groups by whatever name one prefers to call them, none of them taken alone constitute a majority.

Census figures indicate (like many issues in Ethiopia, the figures as well are contested) the Oromos as the largest but fall far short of becoming a majority. At the center of the state crisis in Ethiopia then is not an issue of majority versus minority, as some would make us believe but a question of establishing a stable and legitimate federal government from the numerous MINORITIES.

There is one more myth that deserves demystification. In the last decade or so there appears to be an emerging consensus that given the existing diversity and sad legacy of concentrated power, the only way to “hold Ethiopia together” is by adopting one of the variants of federalism. It seems that it is no more a choice from alternatives but something destined for the country to be, in other words, a matter of necessity, a long overdue project. Yet there are contentions about the way the federal system should be structured. It is frequently mentioned in the academic discourse, however limited it may be, as well as among some political party leaders that the model subscribed is the “ethnic free” United States style of federal system. It is not surprising that this is more known than other more relevant multicultural federal systems like India and Switzerland. Ironically America despite its geographical distance is so close to Ethiopia and Ethiopians. The CNN dot COM effect is so close and so powerful in this “global world.” It is also a hard fact that the United States federal system, the great invention of the famous Philadelphia convention of 1787 has influenced many federal systems, young and old. Yet having carefully studied multicultural federal systems, distinct from what are commonly referred as nation state federal systems (the United States and Germany are examples), there is more in common with the former than the latter. They provide us with alternative scenarios on crucial issues of the accommodation of diversity both at federal and state level, issues that the federal system in Ethiopia is facing at the moment. We have a lot to gain from them and one may adapt them to local circumstances.

For those who insist that the United States federal system is an “ethnic free” federal system, however attractive it may appear to be, let me state a hard fact from the out set. For those who are familiar to the arguments articulated on The Federalist Papers (particularly No. 2) it is unmistakably stated that it is a federal system founded on the Anglo-Saxon tradition with English as its language. In the last decade or so many have deciphered and uncovered this myth. The so called “civil-nation state,” the only alternative that liberal democracy pretends to prescribe is itself founded on some exclusionist element. In the end it is the majority culture, language, religion that becomes the national culture, language and religion. It is the assumption in this short piece that for multicultural states this is wrong solution. Countries like Ethiopia, India (taking language as a factor) and perhaps Switzerland (taking religion as a factor), lacking a dominant majority both in terms of number and political hold, cannot afford to impose one ethnic group’s culture, language and religion on others. Those who attempted it like Ethiopia have rather paid dearly, while those who ventured on a different course of political action like India and Switzerland are doing well so far. Crucial in this regard seem the federal society and the institutions that absorb the society, the political expression of diversity apart from concrete recognition of linguistic and religious diversity and the values that predominate the federal system. It has been said time and again that diversity as such is not a cause of conflict but becomes a fertile ground for instability when political institutions fail to absorb the diverse groups into the decision making process.

The outcome of the May 15, 2005 election with all the imperfections and doubts was significant because it was a step in the right direction in breaking this cycle of crisis. A significant part of the Ethiopian community that felt marginalized from the political process has worked hard and succeeded to come back to the process. This process should have been continued to include on board other political actors in the future that for one reason or another have not made it in this year’s election.

Thus unless the political parties, acknowledge these facts, that the country is a country of minorities, that it is multicultural and adhere to federalism, there is no way to break the cycle of crisis. We will continue to repeat the sad history of ethnic and regional rivalry with no hope for the future.

Assefa Fiseha, is a constitutional lawyer and a currently a researcher University of Utrecht, Netherlands.