Democratic federalism: a viable political model in Ethiopia

By Omot Oduol Othou*
posted to web 15th of June 2006


June 15, 2006 - Democracy is an instrument to pursue peaceful life in western society. Some of its characteristics include; justice, good governance, free and fair elections and respect for fundamental human and democratic rights. The ideal nature of democracy in the west fulfills aspirations and dreams of human kind irrespective of political backgrounds, race, religion, and beliefs. In the 21st century, of course, where relative modernity seems an ultimate aim of every society, normality and peaceful life, optimistically, would indicate the purpose for human existence on this planet.

Human beings and other living creatures at birth, naturally, enjoy enormous peace and happiness without limit. Injustice and other non-democratic norms begin at some stage of social development as a result of interaction of different entities and the trend shifts to extreme lack of justice in the community during the feudal stage of social development. In the present days, however, injustice has increased considerably including wide range of social deprivation in different forms across humanity. The quest for peace and happiness in human life remains unfulfilled by social, political and economic institutions modified by interactions of different social and political forces. The magnificent social structure and the interaction of different community members with different social and political institutions necessitate institutions presumed free and accommodative. Thus, democratic system is a key role in cementing diverse cultural and national ties to achieve the balance between dynamic social and political forces. Democratic rule requires governing systems such as unitary, or confederation, or federalism in accordance with prevailing social and political relationships and development in the country.

This essay attempts to analysis the claim for democratic concepts in one of the developing world. It deals with the claim of democratic rule and good governance in Ethiopia and the introduction of federal governance structure in the post dergue regime, 1991. The primary focus will be on stability or instabilityas a result ofdemocratic transition and introduction of dynamic form of governance, federalism, in these diverse social, political and economic communities in the country. The argument is that Ethiopia had experienced considerable types of governance over its historical development and the introduction of democracy and federal form of governance would cement the fragile ties between different nationalities and nations. The broad spectrum of political development of the country is realized in this essay and less focus paid on its early days as far as democratic rule is concerned. This, however, leaves with a comparative Ethiopian regional study and democratic governance that fairly begins with the moderate claim over different territories that form its current international boundaries increasing waves of political and social forces interacting in the country.

The foundation of democratic rule and social justice in any social and political setting firmly lies on eviction of all forms of evil, collectively referred to as injustice, among community members, upholding the rule of law and protection of political and numeric minority. Ethiopian societies, a diverse social and political structure, by far would understand the need for democratic institutions and respect for human rights in its various regional settings. It is possible to conclude that the beauty of this country is based on cumulative multiple factors associated with over 80 nations and nationalities residing in the country; from Somali state in the east to Gambela peoples state (Part of Pa-Anywaa Kingdom) in the west and from Amhara state in the north to the southern peoples state in the south, making modern Ethiopia a unique state in the globe. In similar fashion, Africa, a continent with different form of democratic systems and national diversities, from Ghana in the west to Ethiopia in the east and Egypt in the north to Zimbabwe in the south, has a unique status in the world. The African type of democracy, dictatorship democracy, in particular, defeats all sorts of arguments as the nature of democratic rule overrides the existence of dictatorship;  injustice, violations of fundamental human rights and peoples rights, mass killings, ban on free press and information, and extreme form of poverty to mention few.

The political diversity and the implementation of democratic concept in the African continent raise fundamental questions as to why Ethiopia, one of a symbol of black and continental pride, resorts to dictatorship while Ghana enjoys relative democracy in the 21st century. It is possible to argue that, current Ethiopian misery; civil and inter-state conflicts, poverty and underdevelopment emanates from factors such as lack of personalities concern with the rule of law without prejudice on skin color, ethnic origin and regional favoritism, abolishing traditional myths to give room to other distinct national groups to participate on equal footing in the political and economic life in the country.  This notion of democracy based on fairness and the rule of law ought to abrogate all forms of injustice including the usage of derogatory words such as Baria, shankella, Agame, etc through legislations and making such dehumanizing words as criminal offences punishable by law.  As it stands, many highland Ethiopians, in Addis or elsewhere in the country, including their government, do at will intimidate distinct national and political minorities without any legal remedies. The Ethiopian Statistic authority, a government body, has officially adopted the use of derogatory word-shankella in its census in the past. Such loose legal and political implementation of democratic rule could be a potential source of conflict in the long-run and resentment to the concept of united Ethiopia based on equality and rule of law. For instance, one would very much doubt the upholding of rule of law in the future, even if the Anywaa decide to forgive, as individual Anywaa advocate portrays to the world and Ethiopians, the December 2003 participants and those historians who gave wrong accounts about land ownership of the Anywaa peoples leading to systematic genocide.   

Ethiopians, on the other hand, to some degree, do understand better a desire for freedom as they have not been subject to any form of foreign rule. This sort of freedom of different nations and nationalities in the country is a great asset that would give a country a better understanding of its cultural and regional diversities, to base its strong foundation for any meaningful democratic and good governance in the country. However, the commonality among the past and current regime include; conflict of wide range of degree and magnitudes. The sources of these conflicts being compounded with lack of lessons and any meaningful strategic direction; be it systems of governance or development strategies. 

The military regime that governs Ethiopia for over a decade in a unitary form of governance could today be remembered among intellectuals and politicians for its negative attributes; red-terror, forceful recruitment of youths into national military service and political mobilization of millions of destitute farmers to re-settle them in fertile lands in the peripheries. Yet, efforts such as national modernization to include non-Abyssinian in the peripheries have been undermined. For instance, the Gambela indigenous populations like many other nationalities in the peripheries barely assumed Ethiopian identity prior to dergue era. The supporters of the current regimes do undermined some important steps undertaken by the previous regime and they do engage in re-writing history to suit their time with limited concern for good lessons and experience of past regimes. This approach by itself engineers vicious cycle of conflicts and mistrusts in a volatile political environment. If any political coalition is to step ahead by assuming power in united Ethiopia in post Wayane era, calculations and considerations are paramount important by including all stakeholders as non-Abyssinians in the east, south and in the west. The current regime strategies and tactics of governing fragile nation-state provide massive experience to any transformed and genuine political association in the country.

As mentioned earlier, conflict and underdevelopment characterized different regimes including the current regime that had made effort to introduce federal structure arrangement based on recognition of pre-modern Ethiopian historical nations and nationalities boundaries. On similar path, the dergue regime promised to modernize Ethiopia out of monarch rule as a result of famine in the north that killed many innocent civilians in early 1970s. The introduction of unitary model of governance did not either relieve Ethiopia from scorch of poverty, famine, drought, conflict and underdevelopment in its 17 years of rule. Today, some intellectuals and politicians regret the loss of ports and former province as a result of inflexibility on the governing system.

Well, did the current regime learn from its predecessors by minimizing conflicts, improving Ethiopian economic conditions, and avoiding the threat of drought and famine by introducing democratic changes and federal state system in the country? Wide range of evidences suggest similar trends are on the rise; conflicts, famine and drought, threats of further disintegration, actual genocide and ethnic cleansing, and many more tensions.

Nonetheless, no doubt that in a multi-nations and nationalities country like, Ethiopia, a democratic rule and federal state form of governance would improve nations and nationalities relationship for better. This form of governance would have shown the best result so far under in the country and a credit worth taking by the regime. However, the regime had fall short of its capital gains of introducing dynamic form of governance and democratic rule. The under achievement of the regime is as a result of multiple factors both internally and externally. The implementation of the genuine democratic rule and the desire federal structure for the country are mismatched. Instability rather than stability is a norm under this form of governance for various reasons in Ethiopia.

Advocates of federalism in Ethiopia, however, do applaud the regime for its far-reaching budge from unitary state system of its predecessors to this academic federalism and democracy in the country. There are enormous genuine benefits of federalism to the country, they argue, some of which to safeguard the entity from any form of disintegration, to involve and empower peripherals in country wide decision making processes, and to strengthen traditional nations’ and nationalities’ social, economic and political institutions along side modern state concepts in the process of democratization and development to realize full potentials of its citizens across the country. Fundamental constitutional provisions such as Article 39 of the current constitution could also be sited as the primary cementing factor by its supporters in this diverse nation-state.

Federalism, however, others opposed to the concept argue, does not suit multi ethnic country like Ethiopia. They oppose Ethiopian form of federalism, in particular, its constitutional provisions such as Article 39. The fear and skeptic are based on some historical fact such as the disintegration of former USSR, and Yugoslavia after the cold war. Perhaps the underlying fundamental factors that led to the ashes of the above two sited federal states in Europe, seems to have been ignored in Ethiopian context. Where did the current regime, out of touch with the public, went wrong in upholding essential prerequisites necessary for sustaining federalism in a former unitary and monarch entity?

The regime, apparently stumbles over issues ranging from foreign policy formulation, fiscal and administrative matters. The wider environment plays critical role for the success of federal administration in the country; current regime or any other to come. The current regime, in particular, suffers heavily from some internal basic factors such as continued peaceful demonstrations and violent conflicts, putting immense pressure on the government already lacking wide range of change of direction in both state level and federal affairs. For instance, in the recent years, the state of Gambela peoples has seen considerable administrative adjustments ranging from fluid ethnic boundaries that left the Anywaa (or Anuak) with over 90% of land ownership homeless and displaced.

However, the above critical analysis of the current regime and its predecessors would lead to a conclusion that the impetus to deny the current regime or the previous regime wholly of any substantial institutional buildings would do disservice to a genuine democratic cry of over 70 million diverse nationalities in the country. Instead, the genuine and widely accepted Ethiopian unity following the fall of military regime in 1991, for instance, was based on understanding to formulate country wide sustainable development policies, build shattered economic and social infrastructures following decades of internal and inter-state conflicts, transform the country through phases of democratic transitions by adopting federalism as mode of governance which recognizes nations and nationalities state boundaries through history. 
One would, then, further foresee the future of this country under different waves; disintegration, unitary or further better form of federal structure supported by impartial democratic institutions in the country. As many would wish, Ethiopia will remain united under unitary state system. Like wise, there are those on the extreme edge to see to it that Ethiopia falls into its pre-historical boundaries. The two extreme cases could only be avoided by moderate Ethiopian leaders who would accept the diversity of its nations and nationalities by adopting a common framework to govern the country. Federalism supported by democratic institutions remains a viable option to cement different political, regional, cultural, economic and social diversities. If the current debate of united Ethiopia under either unitary or further federal arrangement to avoid disintegration is to strive, then one would suggest avoiding common mistakes highlighted in the above; focusing on the negative attributes of the past regimes rather than building on already established foundation. It will take additional 34+ years to bring a genuine democratic rule in the country if Ethiopian can not learn from their past mistakes.

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