20 September 2017

Ethiopia's Experiment With Federalism: Eyeing the Federalism to Come


In this series of reflections, I touched upon the major stages in the evolution of the Ethiopian experiment with federalism. I highlighted the range of stories that one could tell about the federal experiment in the course of the contestations over its historical origin and necessity, its political rationale, its present mode of operation, or its future trajectory. I suggested that there are three stories that can be told about the federal experiment in Ethiopia, i.e., the stories of nostalgia, triumphalism, and of longing.

The first is identified as one that romanticizes the past and laments the present. The second, as we shall see in this piece, celebrates the federal dispensation virtually as a triumph of the oppressed over the oppressor, as an 'arrival' of a sort. The third story is a story of longing, a story of the unfulfilled promises of the federal choice. The third story is also the story of resistance, the story of seeking another Ethiopia. In a sense, it is a story of the federalism yet to come.

In the second part of this series, I outlined the narrative of the detractors which deploys several terms that invoke memories of diversity management that went awry such as 'balkanization', 'bantustanization,' 'tribalization,' 'ethnicization,' 'soviet style federation,' 'socialist federation,' 'apartheid,' and 'genocide' (Rwanda style). In this installment, I will present the second and third narratives. I point out the deficit (and the consequences) of misguided readings of the experiment and why it is not synonymous with South Africa's apartheid.

The triumphalist narrative

The second narrative that has emerged around the federal experiment is the one maintained by the regime in power, which I call the 'official or state' narrative. In this narrative, the state's self-description as a 'multinational federal democracy' looms large. In this story, the 'fact' that Ethiopia is "a nation of nations" is a dominant theme. The story goes as follows:

... there was once an old imperial state called Ethiopia. Its boundaries bulged and shrank from time to time depending on its relative military and economic strength. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the state began consolidating and it attained its current territorial and demographic shape. The process was unwieldy. Through brutal series of imperial conquests, people were subjugated, rival nations were subdued and deprived of self-governance, and territories were occupied.

The old state adopted a wide range of unjust policies (political, social, economic, cultural, linguistic, and negatively, environmental) that were repressive and destructive of the way of life of the people whom Ethiopia considered its others. Constitutionally-legally, the state sanctioned a hierarchical order that sees the Abyssinian at the top, the Galla (i.e., the Oromo) and the Cushitic speaking people of the wider South in the middle (known by a variety of derogatory names), and the Shanqilla (i.e., the Omotic and Nilotic peoples of the South-Western and Western periphery) at the bottom.

In terms of religion, the hierarchy maintains the Orthodox Christian at the top, the Muslim in the second, the Jews (alias bete-Israel, but pejoratively known as the 'Falasha' and the pagan (the aremenie) at the bottom of the ladder. This hierarchy defines the insider and the outsider in the empire. This distinction informed the problematic and unresolved issue of national identity, thereby making the progressive and restless youth of the 1960s ask: "Who is the Ethiopian?"

The injustice perpetrated in the course of creating, institutionalizing and operationalizing this hierarchy and the material poverty of the people, especially those in the lower rung of the hierarchy and in the lower class of even the Abyssinian core, itched and pained reformists and revolutionaries across time.

In time, this led to the student movement that catalyzed the 1974 upheaval. The revolution dethroned the monarch, deposed the aristocracy, suspended the constitution, dismissed the parliament, redistributed land and houses, proclaimed socialism, and sought to transform the society into a communist society by first changing the state into a socialist one. Although it acknowledged the challenge of diversity, it hesitated to restructure the state radically in the light of the plurality of the people and their demands for equality, inclusion, autonomy, and secession (among some groups such as Eritrea, Ogaden, and Oromiya).

In a gesture aimed at containing the demands, the military regime introduced a 'National Democratic Revolution Program' (NDRP) in 1976, acknowledged the diversity and equality of languages, ran basic education programs in (about 12 or 13) select languages (albeit in Sabean scripts), and subsequently established the Institute of Nationalities to study the ethno-national diversity and to design a constitution for a state that accommodates all these 'people'. However, the military regime insisted on the 'Ethiopia First' motto as its fundamental postulate, the grundnorm, on which the polity is built. Consequently, Ethiopia failed to face its plurality in earnest. It thus squandered the opportunity to address the 'question of nationalities'.

In response, protracted 'civil' wars raged from all directions. Liberation movements proliferated. When the regime eventually collapsed in 1991, these liberation movements came together as 'the peace loving forces of Ethiopia' to 'rebuild and restructure the state' on a democratic basis that recognizes not only the individual civil and political rights of citizens but also the collective rights of 'nations, nationalities, and peoples' to self-determination.

Through this, peace was regained. Hostilities stopped. Sovereign ties were restored to the nations. Self-governance was started. Languages, cultures, religions, customs, and traditions were set free 'from bondage'. A Transitional Charter was adopted to acknowledge this political fact and to serve as an interim constitutional pact. Fairly autonomous Regional self-governments were established in 1992. These governments were governed by their own elected local officials using local vernaculars as the working languages of their regions. Conditional right of secession was recognized under the Charter. Soon, a Constitutional Commission was established to draft a new constitution that follows the blue print laid down in the Transitional Charter. In 1994, a constitution was adopted.

This constitution provided for a federal structure. It (re)founded Ethiopia as a multinational, multi-foundational, multicultural republic. It continued on the national self-determination rhetoric, only to make it better. Secession became an unconditional constitutional right of a group. Regions became States. Federalism became the new mode of governance. Groups enjoy self-rule at the state and sub-state level while also enjoying shared rule at the country level.

There are institutions of shared rule (for ensuring representation, participation, and power-sharing) at various levels. The House of Federation (HOF), 'the house of nationalities,' is one such site. Linguistic justice is ensured at various levels. Amharic is the working language of the federal government. Other languages are used as chosen working languages of the State and local governments. All languages enjoy official status as they are used as media of instruction at least at elementary school level. The state is secular. All religions have equal status. Freedom of religion is recognized. Through recognizing the right to self-determination, the state emphatically addressed the historic 'question of nationalities'. As a result, peace has reigned...

The tone of this story is celebratory. It depicts a rosy picture of Ethiopia. The state, it insists, is restructured on a democratic, plural, and just foundation. Ethiopian identity is put on a new pedestal defined in terms of mutual recognition, respect and equality in dignity.

Ethno-national rights are fully recognized and ethno-cultural justice is advanced. The infrastructure of hierarchy is unsettled and dismantled. Individuals' and minorities' rights to equality and non-discrimination are respected through the instrumentality of constitutional human rights. The utopia is achieved. The 'peaceable kingdom' is established. The renaissance has started. If the first narrative describes a paradise lost, the second describes a paradise (re)gained.

Accordingly, the detractors' criticism is an empty noise. The state narrative maintains that some of these detractors belong to a group of sympathizers of the old unitarist regimes who still command the cultural power with which to denigrate the current dispensation and the collectivities it valorizes. Some others belong to 'narrow nationalists' who seek to destabilize the state and derail the peace and development endeavors of the state. By saying this, the regime authorizes itself to define its new 'others' as threats to the constitutional federal order and to eliminate them as such.

This story, of course, has a shadow side. The shadow side to the state/official narrative is the story of exclusion, repression, and co-optation that it renders unintelligible. It masks the violence EPRDF metes out on the voices of resistance from the historic periphery such as the Somali (ONLF), Gambela (GPDP), Oromia (OLF), Afar (AFL), and numerous other groups from the SNNPRS (such as the Sidama Liberation Movement [SLM]), and even from the 'Center' (e.g. All Amhara People's Organization [AAPO]) from the very day of inauguration of the federal dispensation. It renders invisible this violent exclusion, not just of the parties but also of the populace behind them. It hides the story of how the EPRDF ensured that authentic popular voices are repressed as 'narrow nationalists, anti-peace elements, and terrorists').

Moreover, it mutes the story of how EPRDF launched its long enduring campaign of co-optation through the creation of ethno-national parties famously known as 'PDO's (as in OPDO, GDPO, APDO, etc) although they also come in other acronyms (e.g. SPDM, ANDM, etc). It makes us desensitized to how, owing to the dominant nature of the party and the consequent subordination of the state to EPRDF, power is (re)centralized and states are deprived of their autonomy. It sanitizes what one can see as a retrenching of the fundamentally imperial character of the Ethiopian state. This suggests the emergence of another tale, another story that can be told about the Ethiopian federation).

The narrative of longing: Eyeing the federalism to come

The third narrative generally accepts the first premises of the second narrative. It accepts the diagnostic aspect of its analysis, i.e., the aspect that identifies the problems as a 'crisis of state' and the failure of a project of state-building that ignored and/or resisted the fact of plurinationality. However, it rejects the prognostic aspect of that analysis, i.e., the aspect which prescriptively suggests that, since the political utopia is here and now and that the constitutional federalism has encapsulated and eternalized it, no resistance is tolerated.

It also rejects the half-truths in the second narrative and maintains that, while it is true that the constitutional federalism that embraces multi-foundationalism and multi-nationalism is a step in the right direction, it is only a step that signals a road not yet fully traveled. This narrative can be summarized as follows:

... as a result of the interplay of historical factors, the current Ethiopia is a land of diverse peoples. The inaugural violence deployed in the process of its formation and the imperial and hierarchic system of governance in the wake of its formation has created uneven and unjust relations among its diverse peoples. Apart from and on top of the raids, mass killings/genocides, dispossessions, displacements, domination, and exploitation, it inflicted wounds through its 'act' of (un)recognition or misrecognition. As a result, the citizenship of the large majority of the non-Abyssinian peoples was generally discounted. They were treated as 'subjects of empire' who inhabit the margins of the polity (the realm of citizenship and participation in government). Even when it is benign, the Ethiopian state sees them as its 'others'.

Apart from the positive act of injustice inflicted upon them as individuals and cross-generationally as collectivities, it wounds them by resisting their attempts at inclusion and participation. It erases them from historical recollections even when they sacrificially contribute to the state-building project. Its failure at inclusion even on its own terms shows the limits of the state and the citizenship it confers. This impenetrability of the state and this limit of the outer reach of citizenship make clear only one thing: that the state is imperial with a clear core and periphery, center and margin, thereby drawing a rigid boundary between what Mahmood Mamdani felicitously called "the citizen and the subject."

The quest for inclusion in citizenship, this innocent demand to be in the polis, was reframed as the 'question of nationalities' by the progressive elite of the 1960s. By so doing, the elites of the 'center' - while genuinely rebellious and resistant to the politics of empire -appropriated the subject position to determine who has to answer whose question. The 'nations, nationalities, and peoples' thus became a term that now denotes Ethiopia's historic 'others' (albeit 'respectfully' this time around) thereby unwittingly creating another boundary between the apparently post-ethnic civic (Amhara-Tigray Abyssinian) identity on the one hand and the ethnic 'other' identities on the other.

Constitutional rhetoric aside, this imperial state is practically yet to be transformed in such a way that it turns subjects into citizens. The multi-foundational basis for the federation is yet to yield a co-equal citizenship and a state that is equally accessible to all. The constitutional recognition of the right of peoples to self-determination promises peaceful exit without warfare in the event that the terms of 'living together' are viewed as unfair to any of the constituent units.

It is a guarantee against oppression in Ethiopia. It also holds out the promise of an open system that welcomes others in the neighborhood to join the federation just as much as it allows members to relinquish their membership in the federation. It might be the clause that actually unites while sounding like it divides. As a political principle, it encapsulates the seed that continually renews the polity by disallowing the risk of being too grounded in some definitive state orthodoxy. Nonetheless, the self-determination right of peoples has yet to deliver and secure democratic self-rule. It has only been strategically deployed by EPRDF to gain pseudo-legitimacy among the 'other' peoples of Ethiopia. It is being used to rationalize EPRDF rule. The constitutional federalism is only a reminder of, or a mere pointer to, the transformation to come. ...

Seen in aspirational terms, this third story marks an undelivered promise. In the eyes of the large majority of the peoples of the wider South (who can tell this story as their story about the federalism), Ethiopia's multinational federalism has the promise of autonomy in the federal dispensation and the 'restoration' of lost sovereignty through self-determination, and the recognition of secession as an antidote to potential future repression (much in line with the preventive theory of secession). In its promise of self-determination, they see a specterof their resistance to 'northerners" hegemony that may, if unattended, rear its head again. It resists the closure the EPRDF seeks to bring about to the quest for emancipation. It does so by posing as a living commentary to - sort of a lamentation of- EPRDF's consistent deployment of federalism only to silence the periphery.

Speaking to the past, first it reveals the story of their resistance to diverse forms and consequences of misrecognition in the past. It yields a memory of saying 'No' to the violent extermination and involuntary assimilation that attended the colonial/state-building project. It symbolizes a juridico-political act (albeit only discursive in pro tem) of memorializing, of remembering, what they endured in the past.

This story is the story of hope deferred. It represents a story of dreams unfulfilled, promises undelivered, and state transformative projects unfinished. It is a tale of the redemption yet to come. The most important political virtue that the federalism claims to promote is dispensation of ethno-cultural justice. However, while it is normatively validated and practically vindicated to an extent, it is yet to be fully actualized.

Making sense of the three narratives

From reading the three competing stories one could tell about Ethiopia's federalism, we can observe that the first story sees only a story of decline and possible dismemberment of Ethiopia. The second sees a story of arrival, as story of 'being there' already, of having resolved the historical conundrum, and with that, the beginning of the 'closure of history'. The third sees the story of deferred hope, undelivered promise, of unachieved transformation and it signals the imperative of continued resistance. From among these three, it is the first story, the story that longs for a return to the glory of the past that characterizes Ethiopia's multinational federalism as 'nothing but apartheid.'

The motivation comes from the interest to delegitimize the system internally so that, in the event the regime in power relents, they will roll it back to a unitary system or at least a more centralized federation that is blind to ethno-national concerns. Genealogically speaking, the invocation of apartheid to 'demonize' the system - while fully aware of its descriptive inadequacy - is merely a strategic ploy meant not only to discredit it as an alternative project of state and nation-building but also to mute the discourse on it as an option to consider for future transformative tasks.

This act also helps rationalize the atrocities of the past and to absolve the historic Ethiopian state - past and present - from any responsibility. In a sense, it is a discursive disavowal of state responsibility for historic injustice. Sub-consciously, the people who promote this discourse might be repressing the guilt of perpetrating injustice that is much like the ones perpetrated by apartheid. Indeed, if one looks closely, there is more similarity between the structure of the logic of apartheid and the logic of the old Ethiopian empire than there is between apartheid and the Ethiopian federal system.

Is Ethiopia an Apartheid system because it is a federation?

The detractors of the federal experiment maintain that it is nothing but apartheid in another name. In an attempt to show similarity between the Ethiopian federal arrangement and the homeland system of apartheid, some commentators focused on the terms used, the guiding principles, and assumptions of the two systems. In particular, they draw parallels between the Amharic word Kilil and the word apartheid claiming that both terms denote aparthood, or apartness. It is important to note that, to start with, Kilil is the Amharic word used in practice to denote the constituent units in Ethiopia; apartheid is not the term so used to refer to the homelands.

Apartheid denotes the entire system that was also euphemistically referred to as 'separate development'. Moreover, the mere distaste for the word Kilil does not lead us to the conclusion that it denotes what it does not. Kilil (translated as 'Region' in the English version of the Proclamation that established Regional governments, Proclamation No 7/1992) has nothing to do with separate living or apartness.

It only stands as the Amharic placeholder of the various terms used to refer to constituent units in federations, terms such as 'states' (USA, Australia, India, Ethiopia), 'Provinces'(Canada, South Africa), 'Cantons'(Switzerland), 'Communes' (Belgium), 'Entities' (Bosnia-Herzegovina), 'Autonomous Regions'(Spain), and 'Lander' (Germany, Austria). In the Ethiopian constitution, the units are referred to as 'states' and the Amharic equivalent could only be 'Mengist', a term that conflates 'State' and 'Government'. In practice, the term used is the more elaborate National Regional States. It is not clear how this denotes apartheid.

A more profound difference becomes visible when one observes that the organizing principle of the Ethiopian federation is self-determination. The goal is the radical transformation of the state and democratizing the governance by restoring sovereignty to the people that hitherto have been under imperial cum colonial oppression. The objective is inclusion of the 'other' peoples of Ethiopia into equal citizenship and forging a country of which they are co-equal founders.

The organizing principle of South African Apartheid, in contrast, was the principle of 'separate development.' The underlying motivation is subordination of the non-white population by establishing a racialized hierarchy that disenfranchises the large majority of the black, Indian, and colored peoples. It was rationalized as a system intended to lead to 'separate development'. That is what they, especially leaders like Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd wrongly referred to as federation (in his famous quip meant to justify apartheid as 'nothing but ethnic federalism'). The objective is preservation of the white dominance and continuation of the colonial legacy by excluding the blacks from involvement in governance of South Africa.

The assumption of the Ethiopian federation- its very starting point - is that there was a national oppression (of various forms) and that there is an ethno-national hierarchy that brought about ethno-cultural injustice. Federalism is viewed as a corrective to the historic injustice, a technology of securing redemptive transformation of an evil empire. In contrast, the interest behind the apartheid system is that - owing to the relative numerical smallness of the whites - unless they transform their relative numerical inferiority to political superiority, they will be overwhelmed by the black majority population. To them, democracy was a threat. So, apartheid is motivated by a thorough going antipathy for democracy (majority rule).

Not surprisingly, therefore, the two systems are radically different from one another in consequences and the responses thereto. The consequence of apartheid was disenfranchisement of the majority black population and increasing securitization and terrorization of blackness. It provoked black resistance. The ultimate result of the resistance was the eventual multiparty constitutional negotiation that eventually led to the adoption of a South African federal arrangement. The fact that South Africa saw its redemption from the legacy of apartheid in a plurinational federation that attends to diversity suggests how federalism, contrary to what our commentators claim, was an antidote to apartheid rather than its institutionalization.

So, when one asks the question "Is the Ethiopian federal experiment synonymous with apartheid South Africa style?", it is imperative for the answer to take account of the radically different historical, political, constitutional, and demographic contexts of the two systems in order to offer a palatable answer.

That said, the question can only be answered in nuances. There is a sense in which Ethiopia's federalism can degenerate into apartheid unless the state is transformed in such a way that everyone is co-equally a citizen that matters and the governance is totally democratic. The multinational foundation on which the federation is established, and the inherently democratizing nature of the self-determination clause in the constitution, can help transform the state from empire to a genuine democracy.

With the deficits in citizenship and democracy, with the hierarchic relation among the ruling political elites, seemingly justified in the role and order of contribution made to the final demise of the Derg regime - in which the TPLF figures at the top, followed by the ANDM, further to be followed by the OPDO and the SPDM in that order - and the complete disregard for human rights and rule of law (which is further reinforced by securitizing all forms of identity, especially of the Oromo, Somali, and more recently, some sectors of the Amhara and the Guraghe), the system is already showing the strains of an authoritarian system that is steadily unraveling.

It might end up in apartheid unless more democracy is injected, the human rights deficits are overcome, and fundamental issues of state restructuring and citizenship are discussed, problematized, and (re)negotiated. In the meantime, if the system looks like apartheid, it won't be because it adopted federalism but rather because, in resisting democracy, equal citizenship, human rights, and self-determination, it has subverted the federalist project only bringing back the residue of ethnicized/racialized hierarchy that evokes the memory of apartheid.

To be sure, the Ethiopian federation can be faulted for a number of reasons. For example, in design, the fact that the constitution has not provided for a distinct institution of intergovernmental relations; the predominantly political interpretation of the constitution; the fact that it fell short of making all Ethiopian languages the co-equal working language of the federal government (thereby saddling us with the residue of hierarchy among languages); the absence of minoritarian institutions (because the HOF mirrored the majoritarianism of the Lower House, HPR); the fact that the principle of federal supremacy (preponderance of federal laws over state laws) is not explicitly recognized; the uncertainty about the status of international treaties in the hierarchy of laws in the country; the failure to provide for a federal capital territory; the ambiguity of justiciability of the human rights chapter (compounded by the judiciary's ambiguous position vis-à-vis interpretation of constitutional human rights clauses); the neglect of the Proportional Representation system of election as befits multinational federations; the constitutional silence on the matter of executive power-sharing as befits a country of competing nationalisms necessitating the consociation imperative; the silence about the execution of the 'judgments' of the HOF; the lack of definition for what constitutes 'minority nationalities'; on the propriety of the choice of parliamentary system as opposed to presidential system; on the role of the speaker of the HOF, and/or the President in times of constitutional crisis after the dissolution of the Parliament; the constitutional silence on the dissolution of the HoF, on the rules that constrain the military in times of emergency, on the mode of succession to power when the incumbent Prime Minister falls ill for a prolonged period of time or has died (as happened in August 2012); etc., can be raised as some of the imperfections in design.

The regime's failings in practice to implement a genuine federalism are too many to recount in a piece like this one. EPRDF is roundly criticized for the failings, and that is as it should be. However, the federal experiment won't be faulted for taking account of ethnic diversity or recognizing ethno-cultural justice.


In an attempt to discursively undermine EPRDF, there has emerged the tendency to denigrate the federal dispensation and its legitimate attempt to speak to the age old 'Questions of Nationalities'. In dismissing it as apartheid, we might be dismissing its potential to transform Ethiopia on a multinational, multi-foundational, and multicultural basis. We might be depriving posterity of the opportunity to redeem the deficits of justice, citizenship, equality, and peace.

By rejecting federalism, we might be rejecting its potential to contain, if not defuse, conflicts. The rhetorical practice of the vocal opposition parties to denounce the Ethiopian federalism has impoverished the opposition's political imagination to present an alternative mode of governance to the one posed by EPRDF. It has given the EPRDF a space in which it can co-opt many an ethnic entrepreneur and manipulate the ethnic agenda in a way it serves its purpose of continued rule. EPRDF's ambiguous and complex posture vis-à-vis the federal system - as a once revolutionary party subscribing to the ideals embodied in self-determination as a democratizing discipline on the one hand and as an organization that has evolved into a dominant party that identifies itself with the state on the other - makes its practice half-hearted at best and anti-democratic at worst. Its strategic and ad hoc instrumentalization of the federalism to pursue, at times, contradictory objectives leaves people thoroughly confused. EPRDF thrives on manipulation of fears and pains.

It thus manipulates the Northern fear of (future) dismemberment to control the South just as much as it manipulates the (historic) pain of the South to delegitimize the North. Lack of constitutional fidelity on the part of the EPRDF (as the chief sponsor of the constitution) contributes further to the already fractured legitimacy it commands in the eyes of others. This erodes faith, the little faith there might have been, in the possibility of redemptive transformation.

The result is enhanced polarization over an already contested model of institutional design that responds to the underlying problems of the Ethiopian state. The polarizations manifest themselves in the stories one could tell about the Ethiopian federal experiment.

Having showed how the two dominant stories that are constantly in conflict invisibilize another story, a third story only the beneficiaries of this federalism could tell, I have tried to highlight how, in this third story, the story of longing, we see encapsulated a specter of resistance and hope.

This is because, understood in its constitutional-legal, historical, and political context, the federal dispensation still has the kernel that can speak to our past (via resistance encapsulated in the right and principle of self-determination) and the future (via equality-in-dignity inscribed in a multinational, multi-foundational, and multicultural federalism that helps to actualize both self-rule and shared rule). When so understood, it becomes easy why the Ethiopian federation - seen even in the light of terms used, the assumptions held, guiding principles posited, and ideological frame it is rooted in; and even with all its deficiencies - is the antithesis of institutionalized hierarchy and inequality and, by extension, any form of apartheid.

EPRDF's increasing authoritarianism and anti-democratic overtures and its self-description as a developmental state might deepen the democratic and human rights deficits. This in turn might intensify TPLF's dominance of co-opted elites in the coalition and in the wider country. The hierarchy among the elite that might be entrenched within EPRDF might deepen the social cleavage on ethno-national lines. In time, this might lead to the regime's degeneration into an outright apartheid system. But this will be more the function of democratic deficit than the implementation of multinational federalism.

To the 'other' peoples of Ethiopia (especially the Oromo and those in the wider South) on whose 'behalf' - albeit in whose absence - the federal dispensation was negotiated in the first place, federalism does not pose the threat of apartheid. It represents a hope deferred, a promise yet undelivered, a state yet untransformed, a past yet unredeemed. The 'politics of recognition' and the right of self-determination in the constitution offer the specter of resistance in the face of oppression, and of hope in the face of adversity. A retreat from it signals a return to ethnicized/racialized hierarchy akin to the one in apartheid South Africa.

Ed's Note: Tsegaye R Ararssa, Melbourne Law School. Email: tsegayer@gmail.com

As part of a series of reflection on Ethiopia's experiment with federalism, this Article was originally published on Addis Standard Print and Online in January 2016.


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