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Peacebuilding through federalism: A road half-travelled in Ethiopia

It has been two decades now since Ethiopia formally adopted a decentralized/federal form of governance. Ethiopia’s federalist project was a radical departure from the hitherto highly centralized state structure and it represented the culmination of a century old nation-building project. The remaking of the state was unique not only for it adopted a federal system of governance but also because of the prominence it gave to ‘ethnicity’ and the notion of ‘self-determination’ in the affairs of the state.

After the fall of the Derg[1] regime in 1991, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the victor of the civil war, utilized federalism as an instrument of truce, as a mechanism to come up with a negotiated state building venture to accommodate the grievances of the many ethno-nationalist power contenders. At the formative stage of the federalist project, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi argued that they opted for the multi-ethnic federal system to stop the war and prevent another one and to democratically restructure the state by way of entrenching ethno-cultural justice and self-determination to the hitherto oppressed nationalities.[2] This was nothing but a peacebuilding project. Reflecting on the 20 years of political praxis, this piece attempts to discuss the synergy between Ethiopia’s federalism and its ‘peacebuilding’ project.

‘Nation state’: genesis and evolution

The central theme and ideological orientation[3] of the 1995 constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is ‘ethno-cultural justice’ and the right to self-determination. The genesis of this ideological orientation can be traced back to the 1960s Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM). In a bold departure from the mainstream political dictum, the ESM attempted to redefine the ‘Ethiopian-Nation State’ whose state politics was largely defined by the Amhara culture[4].

Amharic and Orthodox Christianity were the identity of the state and one should speak Amharic and be an Orthodox Christian to identify with and to relate to the state. The ESM challenged that idea of the state and contended that Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-cultural polity and mobilized people along the Stalinist thesis of ‘the national question’. In line with this thesis, it diagnosed ‘national oppression’[5] as the political malaise at the heart of the problem.

However, the ESM’s agenda was hijacked by the military, which later called itself the Derg, which toppled the Haile Selassie regime in 1974 and stayed in power until 1991. Despite the Derg’s rhetoric that it subscribed to Marxism-Leninism, it delivered too little to make peace with the political wings of the ESM, hence a fierce political rivalry between the civilian opposition and the military regime. However, the Derg was swift enough to quash the opposition with the infamous use of state force called ‘Red terror’, and by practically turning Ethiopia into a brutal police state.

The Derg’s success in suppressing political opposition by the intelligentsia in the urban areas was short-lived. It proved to be a futile attempt as the other offspring of the ESM, who exchanged politics with the barrel of the gun, sustained the very ideological orientation the ESM used in diagnosing the political ills of the ancien regime. After more than a decade of insurgency and conflict, mostly in the northern part of the country, the ethno-nationalist rebels (such as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) grew in strength against the Derg. As a desperate attempt to appease the constituency of the rebel forces, if not the rebels themselves, the Derg established the Institute of Nationalities to set up a new administrative structure along the geographic settlement of nationalities in the country.

Following the Institute’s study, the Derg constitutionally restructured the country into 24 provinces and five autonomous regions. The latter include Eritrea, Tigray, Diredawa, Addis Ababa, and Asab. The constitution was designed, albeit hesitantly, to lower the momentum of the rebellion in the northern part of the country as most of the regions with autonomous status were hubs of the anti-regime rebellion. By then, the TPLF and EPLF had the upper hand in the war and had the political capital to topple the Derg. In May 1991, the ethno-nationalist forces, mainly the TPLF within the umbrella of EPRDF and EPLF, removed the Derg regime and controlled Addis Ababa and Asmara, respectively.

In a very short period of time, the EPRDF convened a conference (‘Democratic and Peaceful Transitional Conference’) in July 1991 and signalled the official resurgence of the national question as a core value of the transitional charter and future constitutional design and state building. Among the more than 28 mostly ethnic parties who participated in the conference, EPRDF and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) were the key players with regard to setting the agenda. The conference led to a reconfiguration of the state in the transitional period and later in the 1995 constitution, despite OLF’s withdrawal and declaration of armed resistance complaining about the harassment and exclusion by the EPRDF on the eve of regional election.

Given the number and composition of political actors in the conference that yielded the transitional charter and government, particularly ethnic-based political actors, the process can be considered inclusive. In fact, looking at the composition of the then transitional government, some argue that it was the most legitimate government ever.[6] The charter recognized the right to self-determination including the right to secession (with conditions) and established regional states along ethnic lines. This very notion of the right to self-determination and the official recognition of the country as the conglomeration of multitudes of nationalities was a revolutionary step as it changed the identity of the state and decentralized power to sub-national groups.[7]

Nonetheless, the process was dominated by ethno-nationalist forces. Those ‘pan-Ethiopian’/nationalist forces and remnants of the ESM such as Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and All-Ethiopian Socialist Movement (MEISON) were not represented because EPRDF set a condition that they should renounce violence. In fact, the absence/and forcing out of these forces from the process of remaking the state has been at the heart of the legitimacy deficit and contestation of the Ethiopian brand of federalism.

The 1995 constitution: ‘destructible union’

The 1995 constitution declares Ethiopia a federal democratic republic. The preamble of the constitution implies the core ideological and political dictum the constitution revolves around: the ‘national question’ and ‘self-determination’. Among others, it asserts that it is the product of ‘nations, nationalities and peoples’ exercise of their right to self-determination’ in a bid to ‘rectifying unjust historical relationships’ and building a political community ‘capable of ensuring a lasting peace’. The notion that there was a need to rectify historically unjust relationships stems from the political conviction (of EPRDF) that there were ethnic oppressions in the past which ought to be redressed by granting the right to self-determination to those ethnic communities. In effect, it aspires, to realize sustainable peace.

The constitution is unique as it declares the federation as a conglomeration of ethno-linguistic groups. More so, sovereignty resides in the ‘nations, nationalities and peoples’ of Ethiopia (article 8/1). In line with this, the controversial article 39/1 states that every nation, nationality and people has an unconditional right to self-determination including the right to secession. With some unequivocally stipulated procedures, the constitution grants the right to a unilateral secession to those ethno-linguistic communities, hence a ‘destructible union’.

As per the constitution, the right to self-determination is twofold—external and internal. Even though, the constitution restructured the country in to nine multi-ethnic regional states (article 47/1) and a ‘capital city’ responsible to the federal government (article 49), it recognizes the right of ethno-linguistic communities within the nine regional states to establish their own regional states (article 47/2) along, chiefly, ethno-linguistic criteria such as settlement pattern, language, identity and consent of the people concerned (article 46/2).

The constitution also contains some other provisions that are, seemingly, designed to rekindle ‘ethno-cultural justice’ for the ‘oppressed nationalities’. With all the linguistic diversity in Ethiopia, ‘all languages […] enjoy equal state recognition’ (article 5/1) and regional states shall determine their working language (article 5/2). In what seems to be a constitutional prudence devised to make the state (the federal state) neutral, the federation does not have either an official or national language, but a working language which is Amharic (article 5/2).

The other key departure from the hitherto state is the notion of secularism which is enshrined in article 11. Article 11/1 and 11/2 entrench the separation of state and religion and that there shall be no state religion. Undercurrent in the notion of secularism and the constitutional semantic in labelling Amharic as a ‘working language’ is the ‘national oppression’ narrative (manifested through linguistic and religious oppression) the ethno-nationalist forces subscribed to.

These and other provisions are basically related to, and translations of, the ‘national question’ ideological orientation and the subsequent ‘national oppression’ narrative the ethno-nationalist forces subscribed to after diagnosing the political malaise of the long centralized state. Implicit in the text is, therefore, peacebuilding by way of dismantling ethnic domination and making ethno-cultural rights constitutional.

The genius of a federal model for multi-ethnic/multi-national politics is the institutions it sets up in a bid to realize both ‘the politics of recognition’ and ‘the politics of representation’.[8] While the former could be achieved by the ‘self-rule’ notion at sub-national level coupled with ethno-cultural rights, institutions like second chambers redress grievances for ‘the politics of representation’. Federalism also avails some conventional divisions of power to further perfect those institutions. In this regard, the Ethiopian constitution tells a mixed story.

The constitution ‘grants’ almost all crucial group rights (the rights to self-administration, use and develop, promote and sustain one’s own language and culture, establish their own state, properly represented at every level of government etc). Parliamentary in form, with the prime minister being primus inter pares,, the federal government and the regional states have legislative, executive and judicial powers (article 50/2) while residual powers are reserved to the states (article 52/1). One could discern a ‘classic’ federation approach with regard to division of powers from these provisions but a critical look at the list of exclusive powers of the federal government (article 51) and others throughout the constitution tells us a different story—more federal powers.

Be that as it may, the legislative power of the second chamber, the House of Federation (HOF), which is designed to be the house for those ethno-linguistic groups, is almost none compared to other federations. It is, in fact, ironic that the house is more of an adjudicatory body with powers such as constitutional interpretation, inter-state dispute regulation and distribution of federal subsidies (as it stands now) to regions.

In essence, the HOF, as the house of those nationalities, should have had more of a legislative competence as second chambers are often designed to advance the interest of sub-national units, in the Ethiopian case ethno-linguistic groups. Ironically, the apparent majoritarian composition[9] of the HOF also defies the very purpose, among others, of second chambers in federations-withstanding majority tyranny. Paradoxical as it is, this underscores a constitutional silence pertaining to the ‘politics of representation’.

A contested agenda

The current federal dispensation is as contested as it was in the 1990s and has been the issue that controlled the political terrain among political groups, the academia and the public alike. In a nutshell, one can relate this to three intertwined sources of discontent: discontent over the process that led to the current federal arrangement; ‘contradictory interpretation of Ethiopian history’[10] impregnated with ‘competing nationalisms’[11]; and the practice of the system.

The discontent over the process that led to the current system is related to the inclusiveness of the transitional period that culminated with the adoption of federalism. This discontent has been consequential as it laid a ‘cracked foundation’ and a severe ‘legitimacy vacuum’ for the federalist project. The discontent that the formative stage of the state restructuring process was dominated by EPRDF and its allies brought critical questions to the fore, such as ‘whose agenda was federalism?’

The withdrawal of OLF, a senior guerrilla front that for long had the backing of the Oromos, was a political blow to EPRDF, as it was to the transition process, which cemented political distrust among the political actors and even some pro-federalist ethno-linguistic communities. The discontent over the process is, to some extent, related to the question of ‘who took part in setting the agenda’ and ‘who lost the political space to set the (other/alternative) agenda’.

The notion of ‘agenda setting’ leads us to the second source of contestation as those who claimed to have been excluded from the process are the ‘pan-Ethiopian’/unionist political forces. These forces reject the ethno-linguistic/multi-national federal arrangement and characterize it as divisive at best and, at worst, a project designed to disintegrate the hitherto intact nation-state. More often than not, they claim an EPRDF conspiracy of disintegrating the ‘nation’ through the federalist project and single out the secession clause as evidence. There is a world of difference between the nationalists and ethno-nationalists in understanding and interpreting the political history of Ethiopia[12].

While it is a story of national glory and a ‘conventional’ empire for the nationalists, the ethno-nationalists conceive it as a story of domination by one ethno-linguistic group over the many others. This irreconcilable political disagreement is reflected in their stance on the role of federalism in the political life of the state. For the EPRDF and other ethno-nationalist forces it is accommodating, while the mainstream ‘Ethiopianist’ nationalists consider it ‘disintegrating and anti-unity’.

The third source of contestation emanates from the practice of federalism. The ruling EPRDF, ever since the inception of the federalist project, often presents itself as the sole guardian of the constitution and the federal setup. It claims that federalism has already brought peace, stability and development. This mentality stems from the orthodoxy that federalism is the panacea—it is not. As contested as it has been, Ethiopia’s federalism has, to a certain degree, achieved its ‘peacebuilding project’. The self-determination notion preeminent in the transitional charter resolved the 30 years bloody civil war, with Eritrea becoming an independent state. Within Ethiopia, it has helped manage the potential inter-ethnic conflict simmering in the early 1990s and fairly reduced secessionist movements compared to the preceding years on the one hand and on the other hand, the federal dispensation has also created new conflicts with new dynamics. [13]]

The self-determination notion preeminent in the transitional charter resolved the 30 years bloody civil war, with Eritrea becoming an independent state. It has fairly reduced secessionist movements compared to the preceding years. But, the federal dispensation has also created new conflicts with new dynamics.[14]

For all the rhetoric that every ethno-linguistic group has the right to establish its own homeland, there is no one entirely homogeneous regional state in the federation. In multi-ethnic regional states, for instance in Gambella, it revitalized inter-ethnic disputes over who controls the government[15] and the spoils thereof. In the other multi-ethnic region, the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples region, it brought about a quest for new regional state status which led to violent conflicts over the years.

The constitutional assumption that ethno-linguistic communities are territorially concentrated in a certain geographic area and the subsequent delimitation of regional borders as such has fuelled inter-ethnic conflict among different pastoral communities—the enduring Afar-Issa dispute is a case in point. Federalism entails non-centralization[16] but there is a perennial accusation that the ruling EPRDF has a centralization tendency[17].

There is more to the list. On top of these, the democratic credential of the government is far from what federalism presumes to entail. Institutions of justice (e.g. the judiciary, the police forces), institutions of governance (e.g. the parliament) and overall democratization efforts are still weak. The goals of the ‘peacebuilding project’ are yet to be attained.

Way forward

The Ethiopian brand of federalism has registered mixed results against its peacebuilding aspirations. It averted an all-out civil war and has fostered relative stability. Nonetheless, the acid test for Ethiopia’s federalism, to survive beyond one regime, has yet to come. With all its achievements, the federal set up demands vibrant and independent institutions, commitment to democratization and the ‘text and spirit’ of the constitution. Federalism is about ‘non-centralization’; it is about installing multiple centres. The Ethiopian experience tells a story of one dominant centre. Ethiopia should take the critical leap forward in empowering the regional states and making the federation a federation of multiple centres. To achieve its peacebuilding aspirations, the system needs to be open to transcend and adapt to new circumstances and remain as dynamic as a federal set up should be.

Tegbaru Yared is a Lecturer and PhD Candidate at the Center for Federal Studies, College of Law and Governance, Addis Ababa University. He can be reached at tegbar2000(at)


[1] Derg is an Amharic term for ‘Committee’

[2] Voughan, Sarah. 2003. ‘Ethnicity and Power in Ethiopia’. PhD Thesis, University of Edinburgh

[3] On the ‘history and ideology’ of Ethiopia’s ethnic-based federalism see generally Asnake Kefale. 2009. ‘Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Ethiopia: A Comparative Study of the Somali and Benishangul-Gumuz Regions’. PhD Thesis, University of Leiden.

[4] Amhara is the second largest ‘ethno-cultural’ group in Ethiopia, next to the Oromo, but in this context in represents a dominant group in the state’s political history since the reign of Emperor Menelik II. It also signifies not only the group per se, but also the dominant culture (for instance, the language-Amharic, religion-orthodox Christianity, and even dressing codes and the likes)

[5] National oppression was introduced to the Ethiopian political vocabulary by the ESM and it stipulates that multitudes of nationalities in the Ethiopian polity were oppressed by one dominant nation and they were politically and economically marginalized

[6] See Assefa Fisseha. 2005. Federalism and the Adjudication of Constitutional Issues: The Ethiopian Experience:

Netherlands International Law Review, LII: 1-30

[7] See, for instance, Markakis, John. 2011. Ethiopia: The Last Two Frontiers. New York, Jams Currey.

[8] For a detailed discussion on the ‘politics of recognition’ and ‘politics of representation’, see Charles Taylor .1992. ‘The Politics of Recognition’, in A. Gutmann (ed.), Multiculturalism and the ‘Politics of Recognition’. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

[9] As per article 61/2 of the constitution, every ethno-linguistic group shall have at least one representative and ‘one additional representative for each one million of its population’

[10] Merera Gudina. 2003. Ethiopia: Competing Ethnic Nationalisms and the Quest for Democracy, 1960-2002.Maastricht, Shaker Publishing

[11] Ibid

[12] Supra note 10

[13] For a detailed discussion and a revealing analysis on this, see Tsegaye Regassa. 2010. Learning to Live With Conflicts: Federalism As A Tool Of Conflict Management In Ethiopia — An Overview. Mizan Law Review, Vol. 4 No.1

[14] For a detailed discussion and a revealing analysis on this, see Tsegaye Regassa. 2010. Learning to Live With Conflicts: Federalism As A Tool Of Conflict Management In Ethiopia — An Overview. Mizan Law Review, Vol. 4 No.1

[15] See Generally Dereje Feyissa. 2011. Playing Different Games: The Paradox of the identification strategies of the Anuak and the Nuer in Gambella Region. New York, Berghahn Books

[16] See Daniel Elazar. 1987. Exploring Federalism. Tuscaloosa, AL, University of Alabama Press

[17] See Aalen Lovise. 2003. Ethnic Federalism in Dominant Party State: The Ethiopian Experience 1991-2000. Bergen, Chr. Michael Institute

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