Currently, Ethiopia has a state of affairs where the centre is struggling to hold, if not losing grip in many parts of the country. State authority at the local administrative level is in the process of weakening, causing alarm and distress among many citizens. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) recently admitted that the country he is entrusted to lead is indeed at a crossroads.
This has come essentially as a result of exercising federalism as ascribed by the constitution, which redrew the Ethiopian state from its unitary legacy to a federal form of governance. The political battle over this cleavage was actually won a quarter of a century ago, when the rebel advance from the north took control of the federal government and dismantled the historic centralised state.
Centralised systems of government may not offer the necessary separation and balance of power that federalism provides. But they are straightforward. Power emanates from the centre, and every single administrative unit within the nation-state is ultimately accountable to the central government.
In contrast, federal systems of government allow sub-national units to check the power of the centre. But what forms a distinction from a unitary state is not that each unit is wholly autonomous but that the level of authority the centre exerts is limited. Where such a line can be drawn though - how much prerogative and authority federated states can exercise at the expense of the preferences of the incumbents in the federal government - has long been debatable. When it comes to the separation of power between local and regional governments, the intricacy and complexity deepen.
This is no more evident than in Ethiopia, a country where local governments have historically been utilized as mere administrative arms, if not instruments of control, to either regional or central governments. Fortunately, throughout the past half century, the general move has been toward decentralisation, with the current constitution supporting the establishment of sub-regional units and that "adequate power shall be granted to the lowest units of government."
Despite the encouraging provisions in the Ethiopian constitution, there is little awareness that local governments are expected to exercise a degree of autonomy. Although they are accountable to the regional states - just as the regional states are accountable to the federal constitution - they have the power to prepare and decide on economic development and social services in their respective jurisdictions.
If indeed local governments were meant to be nothing more than administrative arms, local elections would be superfluous.
The misunderstanding runs deep, because the EPRDF, with its allies in the peripheral states, does not just have hegemony in federal and regional parliaments but also the local councils as well. Policies and leadership identical in all the tiers of government for over two decades did not just erode the separation between party and state. It ate away at the separation of power between the different units of administration.
But with the party as the glue that holds the various tiers of government together, not strong institutions mandated by the constitution, the tectonic shifts taking place at the federal level are rocking boats down the ladder. This is precisely because the reforms being undertaken in the federal government have not been manifested in local government.
A striking indicator of this is how conflicts and tensions have flared up across the country. Local governments are at their wit's end. Considering the severity of the problem, the federal government has been involved in many cases. Encouragingly, instead of resorting to coercive measures, these problems are usually trying to be addressed through dialogue. Discouragingly, local governments are sidelined for regional and federal officials or village elders to calm the situations.
Allowing this to continue will have dire consequences.
No doubt local governments need to be part and parcel of the efforts to address tensions and conflicts within communities. It will only be realised if zones, weredas, city administrations and kebelescan show their loyalty to the communities by asserting their degree of autonomy from regional governments.
The perception that local governments exist to help the incumbents at federal or regional governments control the local population needs to change.
It is all the more important given that there is an upcoming election next year, where almost 3.6 million local council seats would be up for grabs. Local governments do not only need to properly administer services and assure safety and stability during an election season. They should guarantee that campaigns can be carried out without fear of reprisal or favouritism to any party.
The change needs to begin in regional governments, most of which retain laws that lack clarity on the level of autonomy of local governments. This has allowed for the erosion of the autonomy of the local governments, as is the case in some regions where the president gets to directly appoint city mayors.
Lack of clarity on the separation of power between local and regional governments, in the latter's constitution, is disadvantageous on two grounds, the most evident of which being that it compromises the administrative units' accountability to the electorate in their jurisdictions. Just as importantly though, it makes it easier for regional governments to disempower local councils, as what is necessary is not the amendment of regional constitutions but the passing of proclamations.
It is also crucial for opposition parties to reorient their focus from federal parliamentary, or even regional, seats to that of local government councils. Infusing this tier of government with the optimum level of autonomy would encourage the opposition to put its weight behind winning local government seats.
But the rest of the work needs to be carried out by opposition parties that throughout the decades have been focusing on general elections and boycotting local ones.
There are barriers that continue to discourage opposition parties, especially the volume of council seats for zones, weredas,kebelesand city administrations across the country. With nearly 3.6 million open seats - which is larger than the entire population of Uruguay - they are expected to front and coordinate an army of candidates to make a significant difference.
This means that they require a considerable amount of funding, which nonetheless will not come from the Electoral Board, since it only provides financial support during federal and regional state elections. Currently, even political parties running for elections in the chartered cities of Addis Abeba and Dire Dawa are not eligible for funding. It can be addressed by reducing what is evidently an excessive number of council seats only the incumbent can fill. It was designed that way with the incumbent having in mind a competitive advantage in numbers, network and resources.
Opposition parties need to make their demands over the hindrances of running for local council seats heard and attempt to change not just the horizontal but vertical hegemony of the EPRDF and its affiliates, which has frustrated the efforts for checks and balances in government.