Ethiopia’s Experience with Federalism
The Ethiopian federal experiment was both a political necessity and the expression of the Ethiopian peoples’ desire to close a chaotic chapter of poverty and conflict and start a peaceful and prosperous new journey. The federal system that Ethiopia adopted in 1995, labeled then as over-ambitious and impractical, has withstood the test of time with achievements far greater than originally anticipated. The adoption of the Federal constitution was intended to break with an imperial and centralizing tradition of government in 12 Ethiopia dating back to the second half of the nineteenth century and indeed far longer. In particular the federal system would redress the multi-national and regional imbalances that had become acute during the ‘Imperial’ regime of Haile Selassie and the ‘Marxist’ military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) opened a new and different chapter of political history for the nation. It laid down the human and democratic rights of the Ethiopian nations, nationalities and peoples for the first time in their history. The preamble of the FDRE constitution starts with the phrase: “We, the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia”. It recognizes, in fact, that the nations, nationalities and peoples are the real owners and beneficiaries of their own constitution; and that they are strongly committed, in the full and free exercise of their rights to self-determination, to building a political community founded on the rule of law and capable of ensuring lasting peace, guaranteeing a democratic order, and advancing their economic and social development and that of Ethiopia. Devolution of power from the highly centralized unitary state to the periphery also fulfilled one of the pillars of the constitution, that is, the recognition of the right to self-determination of the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia. Ultimately designed to make the numerous Ethiopian nations the owners of their own political and economic destiny, the federal structure has been successful in providing a functional system of conflict resolution, governance institutions fit for the exercise of the political autonomy reserved for the nations and nationalities, and provision of the resources to pursue their economic aspirations. One of the most pressing imperatives for the adoption and implementation of a federal structure as the government system in 1995 was the multi-national diversity of the Ethiopian state. That fact alone made it necessary to have a political system, that not only accorded the various ethnic groups the necessary administrative autonomy to determine their own fates, but also to provide a platform for the sharing of political power. The political and state restructuring that came about through the federal arrangement created, for the first time in Ethiopia, the constitutional foundations for ethnic equality across the entire political spectrum. Ethno-linguistic groups previously at the margins of state power were able to become active participants and stakeholders in political deliberations and in the decision-making processes. The successful devolution of power from the center to regional governments, and the empowerment of the various ethno-national groups implied in that devolution, has also brought highly visible results in developmental terms as well. Granting the regional and local governments the political power to prioritize and articulate their own needs and desires, in tandem with their respective local realities and cultural and historical values, has made substantial improvements possible in their living conditions. Equally, it has to be noted that establishing the Ethiopian federal system and the associated economic and social developments, including granting historically marginalized groups the requisite political autonomy to decide on their own fate, and the right to self-determination, was not just a matter of efficacy. It also provided an answer to the question of adequately addressing the desire for unity in diversity. Ethiopia’s federal experiment, with its successful implementation of federalism to meet its political, social and economic needs and aspirations, has captured the attention of a number of other countries, not least when it successfully hosted the 5th International Conference on Federalism in December 2010. Although federalism is not always a panacea for ethnically and culturally diverse states and countries endowed with different languages, religions, beliefs and traditions, several countries with a history of conflict have shown interest in learning from Ethiopian experiences of the effectiveness of its federal system in encouraging development and prosperity. Recently the Speaker of the House of Federation, Kassa Tekleberhan, visited Sudan at the invitation of the Sudanese government to attend an experience-sharing forum to provide insights into the federal system of Ethiopia and its achievements. An intensive discussion was held following the presentation of papers on “Federalism and State Building in Ethiopia”; “Constitutional Framework and Implementation”; and “Democratic and Economic achievements registered”. According to Speaker Kassa, the visit successfully explained the origin of Ethiopia’s economic growth, which lay in the inclusive economic participation of the people and the effectiveness of the federal system. It provided the Sudanese government with a concrete example of achievement that could be used as an input into the constitutional reforms that the Sudan is considering. Most recently, a 50-member delegation from the Yemen, comprising members of parliament, academic institutions, senior officials, and representatives of different political parties and civic associations, as well as women and youth associations, paid an official visit to Ethiopia with the aim of sharing the experience of the federal system and political administration in Ethiopia. The delegation was briefed by members of the House 13 of Federation on the structure of the Ethiopian federal system, on the country’s constitution and the structure and duties of the House of Federation itself as well as the operation of federalism in practice, the distribution of wealth within the system and on the operation of conflict resolution. The delegation visited Ethiopia just as Yemen endorsed the idea of introducing a federal system in Yemen, and one of the obvious options is to use the Ethiopian example as a model. Speaker Kassa told the delegation that Ethiopia today was in a far better position than it had been in 1991 because of the introduction of a federal system which was specifically based on the country’s nations, nationalities and peoples. Since every Ethiopian took part in the process of adopting the Constitution, he stressed, the country was able to achieve faster and greater growth and promote internal peace. Yemen, he suggested, needed to focus on issues that could offer the prospect of unity regardless of religious, political, cultural or gender differences. The Speaker underlined that it was the introduction of federalism that allowed this, ensuring the unity and peace of the country and thus bringing about economic growth and peaceful coexistence among its peoples. If Yemen aspired to build effective federalism, he said, it must be prepared to accommodate all parties in the adoption and implementation of the process. Ethiopia’s federal system, he said “is based on democratic order, the rule of law and socio-economic advancement; and nowadays, all Ethiopian nations, nationalities and peoples enjoy equal rights as stipulated in the Constitution.” The Speaker added that Ethiopia and Yemen in many respects shared a common history, culture and other links; and Ethiopia would fully support and assist the Yemeni people in moves towards democratization and federalism. Members of the delegation indicated that the current situation in Yemen in many respects resembled that of Ethiopia in 1991 when there were a number of armed factions and groups raising the issue of secession and threatening to plunge the country into crisis. They noted, however, that once the Ethiopian constitution was adopted and federalism introduced, the country managed to resolve its crises and resolve the various demands of the people. They saw those achievements as a useful and appropriate lesson for Yemen, as it was currently faced with similar challenges to those Ethiopia went through on its way to introduce a federal system. The delegation suggested the two countries could work together in development and in building a democratic and federal system. Ethiopia’s federal system, they said, was an exemplary model for Yemen as it ensured the rights of all nations, nationalities and peoples fairly and equally. The Yemeni delegation has visited a number of other countries as well as Ethiopia on a similar mission, but they felt that the lessons offered by Ethiopia were more appropriate and important for Yemen because of the geographic, historic and cultural bonds between the two states.