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Ethiopia and the Federal System

Ethiopia and the Federal System

Assefa A. Lemu 11-22-18

In 1950s, Ethiopia was one of the countries that had federal system of government. In early 1960s, Ethiopian Government dissolved the federal system and the country went back to the unitary system.  The dissolution of Ethio-Eritrean Federation which was approved on September 15, 1952 and revoked on November 15, 1962 resulted in three decades of civil war and dismemberment of Ethiopia. It also intensified the war for independence of Eritrea which was started in 1961 when an Eritrean Hamid Idris Awate and his comrades fired the first shots on September 1, 1961 against the Ethiopian Army whom they considered the occupying force. After 30 years of continuous war, Eritreans won the war for independence the outcome of which was endorsed through 1993 Eritrean referendum.

Ethiopia became a federal state once again in early 1990s and some Ethiopians hoped that the period of war was over and the period of peaceful coexistence of peoples in Ethiopia began. Unfortunately, after the implementation of the federal system for about two decades, groups that campaign against the federal system have emerged once again in Ethiopia. At this point, we are not sure if these anti-federalism campaigns are leading once again to the dissolution of the federal system and where that dissolution will lead.  What we know at this point is that the struggle between pro-federalism and anti- federalism is going on in different forms.

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 Federal system of government is a midpoint between unitary system of government (for example Uganda) and confederation (for example European Union).  It can be formed by coming together of former independent entities like in the case of Switzerland, Canada, and Australia or by devolution of power like in the case of Belgium and Ethiopia.  Today, 40% of the world population and 50% of the surface of the earth is administered by the federal system ( ).

In case of Ethiopia, the question of nations and nationalities which was started in 1960s among the elites culminated in the federal form of government in 1995. As Walelegn Mekonnen put it “…. sociologically speaking at this stage Ethiopia is not really one nation. It is made up of a dozen nationalities with their own languages, ways of dressing, history, social organization and territorial entity. And what else is a nation? It is not made of a people with a particular tongue, particular ways of dressing, particular history, particular social and economic organization? Then may I conclude that in Ethiopia there is the Oromo Nation, the Tigrai Nation, the Amhara Nation, the Gurage Nation, the Sidama Nation, the Wellamo [Wolayta] Nation, the Adere [Harari] Nation, and however much you may not like it the Somali Nation.

This is the true picture of Ethiopia. There is of course the fake Ethiopian Nationalism advanced by the ruling class and unwillingly accepted and even propagated by innocent fellow travellers”  ( ).

Unless someone blindly and entirely denies the fact on the ground, Ethiopia is a country with lots of diversities. To accommodate these diversities, federalism is the preferred form of government. Ethiopia tried unitary system for 96 years and federal system for 33 years, including the period of federation with Eritrea.  What Ethiopia didn’t try in its modern history is confederation. If the unitary form of government was tried and failed to hold the country together and if confederation is not a preferred option, why the anti-federalism groups opened campaign against the current federal system in Ethiopia? What are their arguments and how valid are these arguments?

Ethnic Federalism- The propaganda which says Ethiopian federalism is an ethnic federalism is false. There is no federal unit in Ethiopia in which only one ethnic group exclusively lives and establishing ethnic federalism is not an intension of the Ethiopian constitution.  Article 46 (2) of the constitution says “States shall be delimited on the basis of the settlement patterns, language, identity and consent of the peoples concerned”. This doesn’t mean that states are established based on the ethnic identity only. Identity is one of the factors, but not the only factor. There are Agew and Oromo ethnic groups in Amhara State; there are Tigri Werji, Zay, Amhara and other ethnic groups in Oromia State; there is Argoba ethnic group in Afar State, et cetera.

Mobility of Labor and Capital- The other argument used to discredit Ethiopian federal system is to blame the system of obstructing movement of labor and capital from one state to another. For example, ESAT’s selected economist called Dr. Zelalem Teklu argues that the current federal structure  denied the Amhara farmers a chance to go to  Southern Ethiopia and Oromia to make wealth and take it back home ( ).

However, the preamble of the Ethiopian constitution says “…to live as one economic community is necessary in order to create sustainable and mutually supportive conditions for ensuring respect for our rights and freedoms and for the collective promotion of our interests”. In addition, Article 32 of the constitution saysAny Ethiopian or foreign national lawfully in Ethiopia has, within the national territory, the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose his residence, as well as the freedom to leave the country at any time he wishes to”. The right to private property is also enshrined under Article 40. Article 40(1) of Ethiopian constitution saysEvery Ethiopian citizen has the right to the ownership of private property”. If the constitution enshrines freedom of movement and the right to property, how the Ethiopian federal system blocks mobility of labor and capital within Ethiopia? If the capital has the power to flow from capital-abundant area to capita-scares area even crossing the sovereign boundaries, how it is blocked by state boundaries within one country?

Ethiopian Federal System is Unique— The opponents of Ethiopian federalism argue that the federal system established in Ethiopia is unique and there is no other country in the world who uses similar system ( ). They argue that since there is no similar federal system in the world to be used as a reference, Ethiopian federal system is bad. They don’t accept the fact that Ethiopia has a unique history and unique problem which required unique federal structure.  Customizing a system to fit to a unique nature of a particular country didn’t start in Ethiopia. If we buy into the argument which says doing something which is not done by other countries or peoples  is bad, are we also saying that we need to stop eating Ijera until other countries will start eating  and be our reference and  do we need to stop using Geez alphabet until others use to be our examples? 



In sum, the opponents of Ethiopian federalism are actively working to undo it and attacking it in 360 degree. On the other hand the supporters of the federal system are doing nothing or little except referring to the constitution which authorized the federal system in Ethiopia. Since democratic politics is about convincing the audience and getting supporters regardless of what is right and wrong, the silence of the supporters of federalism put them in the disadvantaged position. Vowing to defend federalism alone is not sufficient. Preparation to defend it from the propaganda campaigns through counter propaganda, foiling the conspiracies that undermine the federal system through necessary means, and educating the people on the gains and advantages of federal system as compared to the unitary system is necessary.


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