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Ethiopia: From Authoritarian Rule to Democratic Future: Ethiopia’s Federalism Framework

Paulos Milkias1

Paper presented at Ethiopia Forum:

Challenges and Prospects for Constitutional Democracy in Ethiopia International Center, Michigan State University East Lansing, Michigan, March 22-24, 2019



In order to understand the trajectory of the post 2018 political transition in Ethiopia, we need to probe the essence of authoritarianism and democracy. These opposing philosophies provide answers that are poles apart. The authoritarian hypothesis insists on the supremacy of the state over society and individual citizens whereas democratic philosophy holds that a person’s liberty cannot be legitimately denied by any authority barring a situation in which one’s personal freedom impinges on the freedom of others. Contrary to this, Meles Zenawi’s so called “revolutionary democracy” and “developmental state” goes directly against the latter hypothesis since it is extreme in the level of its coercion and control.

Ethiopia had experienced two types of dictatorships within a span of 44 years. The Derg regime was totalitarian whereas the pre-reform EPRDF regime was authoritarian. Now, there is a clarion call for democracy: freedom of the press, secret ballot, regular and fair elections and the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has promised to change course in order to achieve them.



Political science recognizes federalism as a system with a mode of organization that unites separate states within an overarching political structure such as to allow each to maintain its own constitutionally prescribed political authority. Ethiopia had in fact a form of federalism during the feudal era when regional princes were responsible for their own local administrative matters while the king of kings had supreme authority on everything else including taxation and residual powers. But it was the federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia in 1950 that registered the first modern experience in federalism in the country

After carefully checking forms of known federalisms around the world, the author has come to the conclusion that Canada and India can serve as best examples for Ethiopia; and out of the two systems, the latter is by far preferable. India is the world’s largest federation in terms of demographic and geographic size. Similar to Canada, India entrusts residual powers to the central federal government equipping it with more clout so that it can deal with dissident groups competently if a situation that threatens the integrity of the union arises. In India, both the regional governments and the centre could legislate on their own but central legislation overrides the local.

Meles falsely claimed he was following the Indian example when he created ethnic federalism in Ethiopia. Even the historical analogy was false. Ethiopia was wrongly portrayed as a colonial empire

1*Paulos Milkias, Ph.D. McGill (Dean’s Honor List) is currently professor of Political Science at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada. His most recent book on Ethiopia has been adopted into the Special Collection of Culture by the Smithsonian Institution:!silibraries&uri=full=3100001~!1033 564~!0#focus of 100 years duration. The reality is however starkly different. It is true that at the outset, India had considered dividing the country based on ethnicity. But the idea, when presented to parliament, was soundly rejected. The fathers of the Indian constitution concluded that, reorganization on an ethnic base would in the long run inspire narrow nationalist elements to grow into a formidable force which would lead to the disintegration of the country. Thus, the Indian federation was constructed on the basis of regions and historical incident not on the basis of ethnicity.

If we take three Indian states at random, we find that all of them have people who speak many different languages. For example: Uttar Pradesh, the largest Indian state (with 204 million people) has many languages other than Hindi and Urdu; Bihar also with a population of 99 million has many languages including Hindi, and Urdu; Tamil Nadu (pop. 67 million) has citizens who speak Telugu, and Urdu. All the remaining 26 states also have plurality of languages.1 The fathers of the Indian constitution were, resolved that the centre should have a robust legal power while the regional bodies had to be limited to local administrative concerns.

As things stand now, legally, the parliament of the Federal Republic of India can redraw the map of the country as it deems fit since it is equipped with supreme authority. Terrorism in the name of creating a new state or agitation for the secession of a constituent part of the federation of India is treated as treason punishable by death.

It should be clear that the concept of the right of secession that Meles and his minions embraced and inscribed in the Ethiopian constitution of 1995 was Leninist and was in an important sense a carbon copy of the Soviet Constitution of 1924. This concept is, of course, a far cry for liberal democratic constitutions including those of Britain, France, and the USA. One should not forget the American civil war fought in opposition to the secession of its southern states. The vicious war was waged from 1861 to 1865; and in the end consumed the lives of 620,000 Americans. Canada toyed with the idea of the right of secession but soundly rejected it at the Constitutional Conference in Victoria which was conducted during June 14 to 16, 1971.

In the case of the USSR, the right of secession culminated with the dissolution of the Soviet Union on 26 December 1991. We are the only one of the odd twins remaining at the moment. This author argued in opposition to the secession clause vigorously in his VOA interview in 1995 when the constitution was promulgated, but his argument fell on deaf ears. The national press as well as some claiming to be private but actually sponsored by the regime in power argued a la Trump that all Western democratic systems have enshrined the right of secession in their constitutions. Should Ethiopians allow what happened to the Soviet Union, to happen to them? For Ethiopian intellectuals to keep quiet at this critical juncture is to enable the evil doers to get away with their treacherous acts; and that by itself is an egregious lapse that deserves no exoneration.2


The Abiy Reform

With Abiy in command, Ethiopian politics has jumped into a seismic shift mode; it has ushered in the age of rapid transformation. At 42, Abiy Ahmed is the youngest leader on the continent of Africa but his impact is proving to be far greater than his age.3 When he launched his reform agenda, Abiy asked dissident party heads which the previous leadership castigated as terrorists and in some cases sentenced to death in absentia, to return from exile and peacefully campaign to be elected. He has promised to change the constitution and to limit the Prime Minister’s term of office. It took Abiy only a few months to change from one-party dominant authoritarian regime to a party that reformed itself to work towards a multi-party parliamentary system. The reforming Prime Minister appointed women to the key posts of State President, head of the federal supreme court, executive director of the electoral bard, and Minister of Defence.


At the moment, Dr. Abiy is trying to hold down a Pandora’s Box of ethnic revolts rooted in the ancient regime’s policy of dividé et impera which has pitted one ethnic group against another leading to the dislocation of millions of citizens. He also has many other issues to tackle. He needs to adapt a correct policy for land ownership, both rural and urban. The employment of the Latin alphabet side by side with the Ethiopic script needs to be addressed. The use of both simultaneously is supported by some and opposed by others and Abiy is trying to strike a right balance. The policy that Amharic that uses the Ethiopic syllabary should have the status of lingua franca of the nation is unassailable because the language is understood in every corner of Ethiopia. Even in Eritrea, some young people who were born after secession are said to be fluent in Amharic. Amharic is therefore becoming a uniting force not only in Ethiopia proper but also regionally which would help in the re-federation of both countries in the future. One way or another, the employment of the Latin script side by side with the Ethiopic alphabet needs to be addressed. What complicates matters here, however, is that a whole generation of Oromo’s were raised using Qubé which is of Latin derivation. Thus, it would not be practical to ban their use at the local level.


However, following the example of Canada recognizing Afan-Oromo as additional official language is a smart move. We should note that two referendums conducted to achieve independence of Quebec from Canada were defeated partly owing to Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s policy of bilingualism and biculturalism.


The Abiy team has to try to close the widening gap between a privileged elite most of them young under forties, who were enriched themselves through graft, money laundering and “ayer-bayer, a left over system from the Derg period in which foreign trade was conducted with the cover of officials and with no taxes paid to the state. On the other side, there is abject poverty with the number of slum dwellers and homeless youth increasing by leaps and bounds such that the hungry poor are forced to pitch their dwellings on the side of garbage mountains of Addis Ababa that at one time crumbled in a major landslide killing 65 homeless squatters.4


The reformers face myriads of existential challenges that need to be addressed. But balance should be kept between commitment to peace and stability, the democratization drive, the upholding of human rights and the rigorous application of the rule of law. Abiy’s Achilles heel remains to be adapting a stance to smother the divisive blight of ethnicity while at the same time he has to be determined to protect Ethiopia’s unity and territorial integrity. The reform group should embark on a complete re-writing of the constitution. The new charter should lay down a set of fixed norms or principles that are construed as the fundamental law of the polity which effectively defines the way in which political power will be exercised. It should set standards for the delimitation of the exercise of power by the central government and a constellation of regionally based state organs in such a manner that they are each subjected to reciprocal managements and compelled to cooperate in upholding the will of the people.


Dr. Abiy should be commended for courageously breaking the ice between Ethiopia and Eritrea, two sister countries that were forced to live precariously with the policies of Meles Zenawi and Isaias Afeworki of “no war no peace” for two decades.5 The mode of the relation should, however, be transparent. The issue of currency, the Ethiopian Birr and the Eritrean Nakfa and how they should be used in both countries needs clarification. In the long run, Eritrea and Ethiopia should be tied at a minimum by confederation which would have to be approved by a plebiscite in both countries. This may slowly morph into a federation that became defunct due to the wrong-headed policies of the Haile Selassie regime in the 1960’s. Only then can Ethiopia re-establish its proposed naval force at Massawa. It defies logic to attempt to do so now as announced by the Abiy team since currently, the port is not located within Ethiopia’s sovereign territory. If they fail to heed the ancient Roman advice, caveat emptor the establishment of the naval force in Massawa will be manna thrown from heaven for dictator Isayas Afeworki.


Furthermore, the appalling situation in Eritrea even after the thaw has to stop. Eritreans deserve a respite from the post 1993 police state: repression and compulsory military draft that is forcing its youth to flee and drawn in the Mediterranean and the Red sea or become victims of extortion, torture and beheadings in the hands of kidnappers and bandits in the Sinai and Libyan deserts.6 While our brothers and sisters in Eritrea are not free we, Ethiopians are not free either. The role of the intelligentsia in both countries to achieve this aim is a vital component of bringing success to the relationship. No need to wait for action by the political class. As Mwalimu Nyerere of Tanzania once remarked, the intellectuals should be cognizant of the fact that in an important sense, they are also their country’s leaders!7


The Qérro Phenomenon

The Qérros, an Oromo “National Youth Movement for Freedom and Democracy,” inspired by the Arab Spring of 2011 were the trail blazers for the Abiy reform. The Qérros protested violently against a controversial proposal, known as “the master-plan”, to expand Addis Ababa into the territory of the surrounding Oromia state. They castigated the regime by claiming that Oromo were paid much below the going price for their prime farmland which was leased to real estate agencies mostly owned by government officials and their surrogates, they organized strikes, occupied factories demanding justice. They employed social media to galvanize publicize and launch revolutionary drive and direct their movement. With the hope of smothering their communication, the government clamped down with a total shutdown of mobile internet in all areas beyond the capital. But it did not succeed. Colleagues in the diaspora shed light on their activities so that the international community would know they were still in action.


The Qérros pointed out that the government confiscated land with very little compensation and made it available for industrial parks and posh condominiums for the well to do ignoring the fate of the poor farmers who have lost their property and their livelihood owing to land seizures. When the Chinese inspired spearheaded foreign owned industrial parks, were attacked by Qerro radicals, the anger was aimed at the regime’s confiscation of property and giving them to investors. The Qerro’s pointed out that the affected regions had little say in major agricultural projects or urban expansion. This action, they pointed out, caused mass evictions. Consequently, the Qérros intensified their struggle all over the Oromo speaking areas of Ethiopia and created road blocks, stopped trucks from passing through the highways and made it difficult to conduct inter kilil trade. That was when the government realized they were dead serious and started to listen and take corrective actions.


Pioneers of Democratization

The commitment and carefully laid strategies of some EPRDF leaders was one of the major factors that hastened the attempt to bring about a transition to democracy in Ethiopia. Foremost among the pioneers are Lemma Megersa and Abiy Ahmed of Oromia and, Gedu Andargachew and Demeke Mekonnen of the Amhara kilil. Before the demise of the TPLF dominated coalition in 2018, very few people in Ethiopia new anything about these leaders. But now they know they have the base and their base stretches beyond narrow nationalism.


Within a few months of taking over power, Abiy announced that he is a leader for all Ethiopians. By a single stroke, he transformed Ethiopian politics, diplomacy and economics. He introduced sweeping reforms and stamped out political repression. He released tens of thousands of political prisoners and closed down prisons.8 He relaxed the tight state control on the economy.9 Abiy dismissed long-serving and powerful EPRDF officials, and with that act triggered a political tremor. Barely three months into his election, almost all influential actors in the ‘deep- state’, the intelligence service, the military and the TPLF-associated economic complexes have been purged. With such bold action Abiy succeeded to win over skeptical militants not only at home but also in the diaspora. He opposes narrow nationalism and pledges unity in diversity, and most importantly is he is dedicated to bringing about democratization. He advances political discourse in place of authoritarian diktat. Unlike the dominated group that preceded him he does not consider the opposition as an enemy but rather as colleagues in the game of politics that form the government of tomorrow.


Abiy has committed himself to forge free and open competition in national elections due to take place 2020. In the few weeks since he was elected as Prime Minister, nearly all the established norms that underpin Ethiopian politics have begun to unravel. But his challenge is enormous. Abiy was able to replace the old vocabulary of “revolutionary democracy” with a new narrative of awakening and participation that he labeled “Medemer” [pluralism.]10 With his inspiring slogan of Medemer, Abiy has to struggle to handle the tinder box of ethnic discontent with utmost care and to foster the idea of a united Ethiopia which will demand considerable political acumen and legal steadfastness not liable to stumble or fall. Furthermore, the Qérro, the youth who traced the blaze and engineered him into power expect rapid reform and jobs. Abiy’s challenge of trying to unite a deliberately divided country without upsetting the radical Qésrros and the deeply entrenched political class is indeed a Herculean task.


Abiy needs to make the Chinese supported state-driven development that has delivered high growth to Ethiopia in less than a decade and a half sustainable while at the same time allowing an open and vibrant private sector. Though liberal economists are elated by the measure, many progressive economists are wary of the possibility of neo-liberalism bringing back the frozen economy situation under Haile Selassie’s feudalism and the Derg’s military dictatorship. They also fear an exploitative atmosphere might crop up and tarnish the integrity of the financial sector and the aviation industry both of which are hitherto healthy by any standard. Progressive economists also fear that the introduction of neo-liberal economy and the arresting of the Chinese driven expeditious development agenda which has made Ethiopia the fastest growing economy in the world in the late 2010s come to an end. They add that though foreign investment originating from the West may answer the foreign currency shortfall plaguing the country at the moment, but that the solution is short term and may in the long run spawn rabid corruption.


Even the skeptics have no choice but to give the devil its dew for up to the time the reform was launched, the TPLF led EPRDF had launched the construction of the Millennium dam, electrified a large part of the countryside, laid down an electrified railway line from the Red Sea to the suburb of the capital, and had establishment numerous textile factories. Thus, within a span of a little more than a decade, Ethiopia had become an economic juggernaut. By 2017, Ethiopia had already overtaken Kenya as East Africa’s largest economy. Ethiopia’s economic growth according to the World Bank and the IMF rose tenfold in less than 15 years. Its gross domestic product of $8bn in 2003 rose to $80bn in 2015. This growth ought to be sustainable and if all goes well with the reform in 2020, Ethiopia is slated to show a $100bn economy. Against this background, Abiy has to walk a tight rope in applying his bold democratization programme. If he does not do so, a society that has lived under authoritarianism for almost half a century can end up with implosion and disintegration as did the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the 1990’s. What is worrying is that the similarities are starkly similar. Just like Gorbachev who dropped his policies of glasnost and perestroika like a thunderbolt, Abiy has telescoped decades into months and announced major democratizing changes in rapid succession. It is not hard to see that just like Ethiopia under the Derg and TPLF hegemony, the Soviet Union had kept its peripheries precariously together under iron clad Stalinist control for 74 years. Yugoslavia was kept together by a police state established by Marshal Broz Tito starting after the end of the Second World War. Both imploded as soon as authoritarianism was lifted, and democratization was introduced.


It should be recognized that Abiy has many enemies. On 23 June 2018, an assassination attempt was made against him in Addis Ababa during a major event held to celebrate his rise to power. Whereas Abiy had survived, two people died and 150 were seriously injured. It is still unclear who was behind the attack. At another time, a group of commandos boldly entered the palace in order to assassinate the Prime Minister but failed to succeed. The instigators of this terrorist act also remain shrouded in mystery.


In the meantime, the Abiy reform is unfolding against a backdrop of deepening ethnic discord throughout the country. Conflict in the Oromia and Somali regions has already led to the death of thousands of people, the destruction of property and the forced dislocation of almost a million people. For someone who has witnessed what had expired in Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, this is a déjà vu.


For now, Abiy is undaunted. He is pushing his democratization programme with gusto. But he is seeking to heal the wounds first. He has admitted to the excesses of the EPRDF government of which he was a part and has exposed torture chambers throughout the capital and arrested some of the rights abusers. He has openly asked forgiveness from families of individuals who were imprisoned, tortured, killed and disappeared – actions attributed to government security forces and deep state organized killing squads. He has established a Mandela style truth and reconciliation commission to heal the wounds and wash away hatred and vendetta.


It should be stressed that despite the astounding growth achieved by the Meles’ inspired Chinese model, the relative gap has increased by leaps and bounds. For very few nouveau riche spending thousands of Birr a night at the posh night clubs in the capital, one sees a vast number of unemployed youth. There are tens of thousands of jobless youth on the streets panhandling, sniffing harmful substances, and passing the nights in makeshift shelters or in open spaces around the sprawling high rises.


No doubt, Abiy has the passion and the determination that any pioneer in his position ought to have. But he has to walk warily when a ticking bomb lumpen proletariats envelope the streets. The immediate challenge for him is not only to close the economic gap; it is to stem an escalation of ethnic conflicts, safeguarding security without resorting to the repressive and violent methods of the Meles era, and maintaining his reformist agenda till the national elections scheduled to take place in 2020.


The Abiy reform has targeted important issues to tackle. It has tried to open up political space by freeing all political prisoners. It has tried to create an inclusive, transparent more open and democratic political system. It has employed parliamentary powers to repeal all repressive laws passed under Meles Zenawi and his surrogates; it has abrogated the Charities and Societies Law;11 the Counter-Terrorism Law, the Law Regarding Freedom of Assembly, the Media Law and Political Party Registration Law, all of which were restrictive, unjust and totalitarian in nature.


Starting from its takeover of power in 1991, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has gone through only two leaders and neither were elected by their peers. So, it was a novelty that Dr. Abiy Ahmed was collegially elected as the country’s leader on March 27, 2018. Abiy won the backing of 108 party kingpins, while 59 voting for Shiferaw Shigute of the South. Pathetically, Dr. Debretsion Gebremichael of the TPLF got only two votes.

Ethiopian Provinces with Eritrean Federation (Haile Selassie-Derg Period)

Ethiopia: With 13 Provinces – Post-EPRDF-immediate


1 thought on “Ethiopia: From Authoritarian Rule to Democratic Future: Ethiopia’s Federalism Framework”

  1. This a well written article by our dear countryman Obbo Paulos.bin Milkias. It is a very good conversation inducer/starter. I’m gonna bookmark it. Keep writing brother!

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