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The Horn of Africa States De-Federalization – A Possibility?

June 14, 2023

By Dr. Suleiman Walhad
June 14th, 2023

The Horn of Africa States is one of the most conflicted regions of Africa. The others include the Sahel Belt, the East Africa Community (the DR Congo/Rwanda/Burundi area), the SADC (Mozambique/Malawi) and the ECOWAS (Senegal, The Gambia, Sierra Leone and Liberia). Some of the conflicts are still ongoing while others are on sleep modes. What concerns us in this article is the arrival of the concept of federalism into the Horn of Africa States region and how useful and/or useless it has been over the years and the possibility of reforming it or removing it and replacing it with new structures of governance that is more suitable for the region.

We shall address these matters in this article and more. In this respect, we must start with defining the region and the formation of the Horn of Africa States. It is the easternmost region of Africa and is shaped like a rhinoceros horn, consisting of the SEED countries, an acronym for Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti. The countries of the region have had differing histories, but the current shape and mapping of the region is mainly due to European demarcations in the nineteenth century.

Even Ethiopia, which was not generally colonized, has parts of it under British rule until 1954, when the Somali State of the country was handed over to Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie by the United Kingdom, an event which gave rise to Somali nationalism, which has been a base for some of the conflicts/wars in the region until today. It had given rise to the breakup of the Somali state into clan fiefdoms, named federal sub-states of the main Somali state (Read my numerous articles on the subject of the Horn of Africa States published in Eurasia Review.com and/or Zehabesha.com).

Federalism came to the region in the early 1990s, when it was first adopted in Ethiopia under its then new constitution, which approved in a referendum and adopted the Federal structure in 1995.  Somalia also in a provisional constitution, which remains to be completed and approved by the population, adopted a federal-cum-parliamentarian system in 2012.

The fact is that federalism has caused more pain than good in the region and the two main countries of the region, namely Ethiopia and Somalia, remain today under federal systems which seems to be designed for splintering each of them further into a multitude of clan/tribe fiefdoms. This, indeed, requires new thinking and new thought processes to not only create a modicum of stable states but also avoid creating more problems in the already conflicted region.

The federal structures created in Somalia and Ethiopia are based on ethnic lines.  Ethiopia consists of over 80 different nationalities but are cramped into 10 states and a number of federally administered regions/cities. Most of the nationalities are in the Southern Nationalities Region, while Somalia is populated by one tribe which consists of a multitude of sub-clans. Currently the country is made up of 6 states with Somaliland declaring independence and secession from the state and 5 other sub-states, in what used to be referred to as South Somalia or the Ex-Italian administered Somalia UN Trust Territory.

Prior to the early 1990s, wars between Somalia and Ethiopia were a continual feature from the early sixties, sometimes outright and open and other times at low intensities. Both governments used to finance opposition groups of one against the other and these were mostly based on tribes and clans which claimed misfortunes with the administration of either state.  These claimed ethnic repressions in Ethiopia and/or Somalia had the fortune of being given leadership in both countries in the early nineties, and henceforth designed structures that promoted ethnicity as a way of managing the countries – the federal infrastructure in place today in the two countries.

Ethiopia started the ethnic-based federal infrastructure and introduced the same to Somalia when there was really no governance in that country and clans were at each others’ throats, through the elites which they controlled and used against the previous regime of Somalia. All the rebellious movements that toppled the military regime of Somalia were financed and supported by the old DERG regime of Ethiopia. The TPLF which helped topple the DERG regime in Ethiopia and later formed the EPRDF was likewise supported and financed by the Somali Military regime earlier.

Indeed, the federal infrastructures of the largest two states of the Horn of Africa States region has created only more competition and animosities among the ethnic groups and elites of the various sub-regions and ethnic based sub-states within each state. It has also given rise to other smaller groups rebelling against the dominant groups in each region. Note the Tigray/Amhara/Oromo uprisings and inter-conflicts in Ethiopia or the LAS Anod and Gedo conflicts in Somalia. In the case of both countries, religious terrorism is also rampant, more in Somalia than Ethiopia. The other two states of the region, Eritrea and Djibouti, are present a bit more stable but are at each other’s throats themselves.

The challenges of managing ethnic diversity in Ethiopia and clan structures in Somalia are enormous. It often involves conflicts over small pieces of land and territories and sharing of the national wealth or the wealth found in each sub-region or sub-state with the rest of the larger state. It has given rise to issues that were never thought of well, before, including but not limited to possibilities of dealing with non-national entities from beyond the region for direct investments and the management of the potential incomes, sharing of the tax burdens and the costs of funding the federal administrations. Indeed, the sub-regions and ethnic groups have adopted foreign policies of their own contrary to the policies of the federal state, which undermine the countries.  The federal infrastructures have not been able to avoid and/or manage inter-ethnic or inter-regional conflicts.

In the case of Somalia, the majority of the elites of the population believe that the federal infrastructure currently in place was imposed by the international community with Kenyan/Ethiopian support, and hence does not assist in the formation of a stable Somali governance/administration. It has given rise only to more conflicts and claims and counter claims based on clan-desires and not national and societal desires and promotion. The constitution is incomplete and vague on many issues, which directly affect a classical Muslim society. Regional actors like Kenya and Ethiopia have played a greater role in the formation of the infrastructure and this undermines its legitimacy. The federal infrastructure has caused more problems than solving the problem of competition for power, where instead of ideas and competency, currently competition for power is based more on clans and clan motivations, which can never build a nation.

The ethnic-based infrastructures in place now cause fear and fierce competition among the citizens of the countries. This not only undermines the safety of the individual and/or his freedom of movement/investment, but also prioritizing development projects. Every ethnic-based region claims that it has been neglected by the center. How does, then, the countries move forward in such a dilemma?

This introduces the prospect of debating the issue. Should federalism continue in the region in the present guise, or should it be reformed, or should it be removed, and administration reversed to the old center versus the periphery where the plans are made in the center and implemented in the periphery?

The region does not have a functioning judicial system with checks and balances, which can be applied even to the leadership. It is how the federal system of the United States works, at least. The region is far from having such a system, where a leader can be brought to court at the highest level in the judicial system.

The federal infrastructures did not foresee, at least, in the case of Ethiopia claims of one ethnic group against another and hence did not put formulae for solving such issues. In the case of Somalia, the constitution is provisional and incomplete, and hence no solutions for anything under the law. It is managed on ad-hoc basis and on the whims of people in leadership positions at any one time. In either case, the ability of the federal government infrastructures to find solutions for both domestic and foreign issues and conflicts remain open to question. In the case of Somalia local regional administrations sign international contracts that have long term implications with foreign parties. How would this affect the national cohesion of the nation is again open to question.

The most abhorring feature of the federal infrastructures of the region is that it created first-class and second-class citizens within each state and especially more so in Ethiopia and Somalia, where minority groups are, indeed, removed from positions of power and or contribution to the state. There are now first-class citizens and second-class citizens of each state. How would they expect loyalty of the second-class citizens, which collectively are large numbers, even larger than the so-called bigger groups? The glaring fact is that there is no level playing field for all citizens of each country in the realm of constitutionality and constitutional rights.

This again demonstrates and in a glaring way the illegality and dysfunctionality of the federal systems chosen and/or imposed on the populations of the region, which has caused only more miseries. It is a system which creates first- and second-class citizens and a system which does not afford every citizen the right and ability to drive himself/herself up the hill to become leaders of the countries. It only allows certain groups to enjoy ill-gotten privileges and rights which they may not deserve. It is time to debate and opine on the illegality and distresses the federal infrastructure have caused in the countries of the region and the conflicts this has given rise to. Better development and more resource accumulation and progress could have happened if there were no federal infrastructures. The best and the most competent should serve instead of the tribe/clan idiot. Would there be such a possibility?

There should be such a possibility. The region cannot handle more conflicts that are mostly ethno-based. The region needs to move forward, and conflicts have to be reduced and/or eliminated, to allow the investor class of the region, the small farmer, the small businessperson, the small artisanal labor force and, indeed, the foreign direct investor to work and venture into the region with ease and tranquility. We know there are forces that would oppose such a possibility with vehemence, because the current infrastructure gives them powers and opportunities beyond their capacities and/or abilities. Should one listen to them or proceed with what is good for the region and individual states in the region?

Federal infrastructure as a form of governance in the region is hardly understood and this has been abused by those who came to power over the past three decades. In the case of Ethiopia, it was abused by the EPRDF while in the case of Somalia by incompetent politicians who use the clan infrastructure to come to power and rule over the nation.  In the case of Somalia, federalism is not a concept appreciated by a homogeneous population such as Somalia represents, and it is seen as a foreign-imposed system aimed at dividing and weakening the nation. Federalism, therefore, remains a major strategic error, which must not be reformed but removed from the constitutions of the region. De-federalization of the region should be kept in the agendas of the region, and the constitutions of the region should be reformed to allow only those with the rightful competencies (to be defined therein), should one of the ways to handle matters of governance in the region.



  1. The issue of federalism is very essential in contemporary Africa and before discussing on the topic of federalism concept we need sound definition and I put the credible Britannica dictionary that is equivalent to Oxford dictionary most of African scholars are familiar.
    “Federalism, mode of political organization that unites separate states or other policies within an overarching political system in a way that allows each to maintain its own integrity. Federal systems do this by requiring that basic policies be made and implemented through negotiation in some form, so that all the members can share in making and executing decisions. The political principles that animate federal systems emphasize the primacy of bargaining and negotiated coordination among several power centres; they stress the virtues of dispersed power centres as a means for safeguarding individual and local liberties”
    With orthodoxy definition there is no better system of government in Africa other than federalism.The bottomline in this debate is because some abuse federalism we can’t condemn federalism and same is true in the case of religion ,the chief motive of religion was the wellbeing of humanity but evil people abuse it for the purpose of instrument of slavery and colonialism and in our time for corruption and cheating.
    In the case of African nations federalism abused using ethnic or tribal approach like it happen in Ethiopia and clan in the case of Somalia the writer put it correctly.
    But we have to see convenient appropriate approach federalism using it with non hotaile basis may be geographical locations like Nigeria and Kenya apply or former ancient regional name that may include more than one ethnic or tribal groups.
    Federalism os unity in diversity and our African continent is blessed by multitudes of diversity ethnicities that we should include all and use this diversity for the wellbeing of all ethnic groups and tribes.
    https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-concept-of-federalism/ Eddie aka Adefris Habte Mekasha ,Community Chaplain and Conflict mediator
    <a href="https://stmarkomaha.org/immpact/&quot; rel="nofollow ugc

  2. Another masterpiece by HOA’s patriot. We are very lucky to have Brother Dr. Suleiman among us.

  3. The problem is not Federalism as a system , we have experimented with various models- the result is catastrophic failure in the entire continent. We must think outside the box to search for a creative and unorthodox governance model , I would suggest to outsource all state function excluding National Security …to a country that has demonstrated a profound transformation and made a quantum leap from underdevelopment to the
    information age ….One country that comes to mind is Singapore, there other
    countries to consider. I have lost confidence and trust in Africans to do the right thing. Can you name one African leader that has transformed a country to the 21st Century? The entire continent is stuck in the 16th century!!!

  4. This article provides a comprehensive analysis of the concept of federalism in the Horn of Africa States and its implications over the years. It’s interesting to see how the author, Dr. Suleiman Walhad, explores the possibility of reforming or removing federalism and replacing it with new structures of governance that are more suitable for the region.

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