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The Model and Making of Ethnic Federalism: Problems for Consideration

Tsegaye Tegenu, PhD

  1. The Rationale for the System of Ethnic Decentralization in Ethiopia

Decentralization and federation are institutional arrangements referring to the devolution and sharing of power among autonomous units. In Ethiopia they point to the continuation and maturity of the peoples’ struggle for democracy and development ever since the outbreak of the 1974 revolution. Among the outstanding achievements of the 1974 revolution were the establishment of civil society organizations such as the kebele (neighbourhood self-administration) and mass organizations (youth, women, workers, and farmers associations) both in the urban and rural areas. These institutions are still working in Ethiopia and they will continue to work for many years to come. Similarly, the institutional arrangements of decentralization and federation will remain as an achievement of the peoples’ struggle and an integral part of their democratic culture and ways of governance. If the kebele and the various mass organizations represent the institutional reforms that stretched between the state and the family, federation and decentralization represent the reform occurring at the helm of power, namely the state. Federation and decentralization are the logical ends of the 1974 popular revolution aimed at abolishing any form of autocratic rule in Ethiopia. The decline of the credibility of the central state in Ethiopia could be attributed to the economic underdevelopment, to the emergence of violent opposition movements in the form of urban and rural guerrilla war, and to the increasing demand for democratization by the civil society. Federation and decentralization are therefore a continuum of the peoples’ struggle and their achievements.
The system of decentralization in Ethiopia is anchored on the very idea and principle of self-determination of the group. Regional states are viewed as the expression of the self-governance of the ethnic groups and as such they have to be entrusted with all elements of power, responsibilities and functions.
In the developed European countries the system of decentralization is advocated on the ground of efficiency in the use of scarce economic resources and for a better revenue mobilization. In these countries decentralization is the result of a technically inspired decision by national governments on the basis of decades of experience and economic theory in the reallocation of revenues and responsibilities to sub-national levels. In USA decentralization is the result of the tradition of libertarian and participatory values. A locality right to self-government is considered as an expression of the sovereignty of the individuals. In some developing countries decentralization can be motivated politically as an essential part of the democratization process. In Latin American countries the basic motives of decentralization are a political pressure, namely a democratization process, increasing participation and emerging regional movements. The ills of corruption, clientelism and political alienation are often regarded as the natural by-products of a bureaucracy that is distanced in space and is rendered insensitive, inefficient, and inflexible by its size. Reformers thus advocated fiscal and administrative decentralization as a cure for these ills.
Unlike the countries of Latin America, the system of decentralization in Ethiopia was total and encompassed various complex aspects. It was not devolution of one or two aspects of decentralization, for example administrative and/or fiscal decentralization. Had ethnicity in Ethiopia been interested only in cultural domination, it would have limited itself to cultural demands such as the use and celebration of the ethnic language and culture. But ethnicity views the process of power and resource centralization and cultural domination as two sides of a coin. That means ethnicity strives not only for cultural liberation of the ethnic group, but also for its political and economic autonomy. The type of devolution of power in Ethiopia was thus total and encompassed various complex aspects.
If one looks at functional arrangement, ethnic federation appears not to be different from other types of federation such as regional federation. A clear difference becomes apparent when one considers the purpose of the system of federation. The fundamental purpose of ethnic federation is to achieve unity and understanding among the constituent groups. Ethnic federation is used specifically in the context and strategy of resolving an ethnic conflict on a permanent basis. In addition to the common “federal functions” mentioned above, the problems of solving ethnic conflicts require additional structural elements and functions peculiar to the system of ethnic federation.

  1. Problems to consider when applying model of ethnic federalism

2.1. Identifying the Identity of the Ethnic Groups
One of the major peculiar problems at the federal level is the one that arises in identifying the identity the ethnic groups. Who are the independent subjects of the federation? Or, who are the ultimate bearers of the rights of sovereignty? How are they identified? What are the criteria for determining their status? What are the building blocks of identity?
Identification of an ethnic group is done in two ways that should at least much in the degree of assessment. The group and/or the individual in the group can define itself. Since ethnicity does not exist in isolation, “others” must also define the group. There must be a mutual acceptance and correspondence between these two definitions if one wants to arrive to a sound understanding of the problem and create a will for settlement. Ethnic group is usually defined as having the same language, religion, custom, institutions, shared history, myth, common decent, kinship and other distinctive traits. This type of definition is loaded with concepts that are a short hand term of reference for researchers. It contains properties that belong to distinctive stages of ethnicity; those that are objective attributes such as language and religion and those that are constructed attributes such as myth and shared history.
In spite of this problem one can still try to identify the ethnic group identity using common traits such as language, religion and other shared attributes (folklore, architecture, dress, food, music and the arts) as criteria. But what one calls the essential qualities of the ethnic group may connote little more than labels. Maybe they are hollow categories, conceptual divisions within a set of people. People can label others without communication or agreement about the terms they use. In order to call a characteristic an identity, it is necessary that the individuals/group accept that the term is a meaningful description of them. Ethnic identities exist if the people labelled by others identify with the objective categories given to them and interact consistently with each other on that basis. It is often possible that an ethnic group might not embrace or reluctantly accept the identification given to it on the basis of observable categories. Contrary to outsider identification, the ethnic group or the individuals in the ethnic groups may identify themselves by a regional identity. This identity may be the result of historical forces of migration and settlement in the region. It may be also the result of the particular type of production system compatible with the eco-climatic zone of the area, the traditional pattern of land ownership, the system of taxation payment, the organization of local power and the traditional means of conflict resolution belonging to the community. A contrasting difference in identification of a group by others and the identity to which the ethnic group gives to itself is problematic. So what is the constitutional principle used to identify the identity of an ethnic group? This is one of the fundamental problems, which the federal government has to solve.
2.2. Identifying the Territorial Location of Ethnic Groups
Another problem is how to designate the territorial location of an ethnic group. How can one designate a territory as belonging to this or that ethnic group? What are the criteria for designating an ethnic territory? Given the history of internal migration and settlement, how can one demarcate the territory belonging to each ethnic group without experiencing the multitude of claims and counter claims that will definitely arise from such an attempt? How can one claim that a specific area belongs to one or another specific group? Does one know the ethno-geographical realities on the grounds, in the farmsteads, the hamlets, the villages, the hunting grounds, the fishing grounds, the pastures, the marshlands, the markets, and the towns and cities of a country? Where does one mark the territorial boundary between the ethnic groups? Where does one set the limits of the territory between ethnic groups that relate  one  to another? Where does one set the historical baseline, with regards to the demarcation of the boundaries in order to sort out amicably the conflicting territorial claims? Can one take the present ethnic-geographic situation as given and work on that, or does one go back to an earlier period? Which year or century should be the historical baseline?
There are many people who speak about the impossibility of demarcating the boundary between most of the ethnic groups of contemporary Ethiopia and their neighbours. These nationalities intermesh into one another at the level of language, culture, identity and territory. Any attempt to carve out the territories of ethnic groups, to create ethnically based federating units, will lead to violent conflicts and sustained border wars because there is no basis for these boundaries at the ethnic level, given the mosaic nature of the ethnic and cultural geography of Ethiopia.
Theoretically, the territorial claim/demand of an ethnic group should be related to the absolute size of the group and to the pattern of territorial distribution of the group itself. This statement refers to two inseparable aspects. First, it refers to the size/proportion of the ethnic group in the designated territory. The ethnic group should be the majority in the designated territory (i.e., they must dominate the designated territory). In the designated area there may live populations of other ethnic groups. In other words, the designated territory may consist of non-members of the group. In that case, one should describe the proportion of the group in the designated area. Second, it refers to the territorial distribution/concentration of the group: A majority of the total members of the ethnic group should reside in the designated area. This means that the territorial claim is weak if the majority of members of the ethnic group live dispersed outside the designated territory. If the ethnic group is locally weak, then it may be that the people live dispersed in other territories. In that case what percent of the total population of the ethnic group live in the designated area? Thus, territorial solutions imply two things: territorial concentration of the group making the demand and ethnic homogeneity of the territory on behalf of which the demand or claim is being made. To the extent that these conditions fail to be satisfied, any concession of a demand for a territorial settlement is likely to run into opposition from members of other ethnic groups.
2.3. Ethnic Cleansing and Minority Rights
There are practical problems in the application of principles of identifying the identity and designating the territorial location of each ethnic group. According to these principles the process of boundary delimitation is not guided by historical accidents (internal migrations as a result of wars, demographic pressure, and the like) that have been given a particular legitimacy by the passage of time. The spirit of the principles is that internal boundaries have to evolve on the basis of the ethnic criteria (i.e., the identity of the group, the absolute size of the group and the pattern of its territorial distribution). These types of solutions call for the alteration of the spatial distribution of members of an ethnic group.
The application of this ethnic principle for the political and administrative organisation of the country will stop at the boundaries of the new ethnic regional units. It is possible that some powerful members of the ethnic group will forcefully demand its application right down to the local government, district and village levels. In that case members of a particular ethnic group may be expelled from that particular territory. This will cause much disruption, devastation and dislocation of lives. Moreover it may disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of people who have made other parts of the country their homes, and who will clearly become non-citizens in the ethnically defined regional states. There is thus a question of how to stop ethnic cleansing carried out to change the ethno-geographical situation before the ethnic regional units have their boundaries demarcated. There is also a question of empowering the ethnic minorities. It is possible that the minorities may not be geographically concentrated and there may be a need for mandatory representation at the regional state level.
Protecting and safeguarding ethnic members and groups living as minorities in other regional states is the task of the federal government. The federal government must find certain mechanisms that protect members of an ethnic group from political and economic discrimination. As minorities living in other regions, they should not be prohibited from practicing their religion or using their language, nor should they be restricted in their freedom of expression and economic activities.
2.4. Asymmetric Power Relationship
In an ethnic federation, there is a problem of treating unequal ethnic groups equally. In principle, ethnic groups are the independent subjects of the federation and they enjoy equal status. As Table 1.1 shows taking the case of Ethiopia, in reality the ethnic groups are different in terms of their territorial size, population and economic potential. Who is to occupy offices in the legislative and executive branch of the federal government? Is the federal government offices dominated by ethnic groups that are big in size of territory and population? Is the allocation of federal government offices based on the principle of proportional representation?
Table 1.1. Population, Area, Number of Zones and Districts of Regional States

Regional StatesPopulation
Area in thousands Km2Regional
Number of  ZonesNumber of Weredas districtsNumber of  Special Weredas- Districts
South National, Nationalities & Peoples11,064,818112.0Awasa9715
Addis Ababa2,341,9640.4Addis Ababa628 
Total55,765,7651089.1 665506

Source: Website of The Parliament of Ethiopia. http://www.ethiopar.net/English/basinfo/regninfo.htm
The federal government is comprised of three branches; the legislative, the executive and the judicial branch. Each branch has a distinct responsibility that is separate and apart from the others. The legislative branch of the government is responsible for making law. Its members are directly elected by the people periodically and may represent a broader range of interests/characteristics/places. The executive branch of the government is responsible for organizing the laws enacted by the legislative branch of the government and implementing and enforcing those laws. The executive branch is divided into different ministries and it performs its governmental duties partly as an independent force and partly in conjunction with other governmental bodies both at the national and sub-national levels – the former including parliament and the head of state; the latter, regional governments. The overwhelming majority of laws, the parliamentary agenda, and decisions by the head of state are all prepared or proposed by the executive body of the federal government. At the same time, it is also responsible for the implementation of these decisions. The government carries out its directional activities independently and within constitutional limits and can take actions on any matter that falls within the sphere of public administration. It is entitled to directly supervise any branch of public administration and also to set up separate bodies, which handle special assignments. The government can establish offices, committees, consultative and advisory bodies, appoint government commissioners, and transfer parts of authority to these and other arms of the government.
The judicial branch of the government is an independent organ that has the responsibility of resolving disputes that citizens of the community have with one another. They are, of course, charged with the responsibility of resolving those disputes in a fair, just, impartial and expeditious fashion. In many instances they must resolve disputes in accordance with rules and regulations enacted by the legislative branch or enforced by the executive branch of the government.
The question is now how is power to be shared by the ethnic groups in the three branches of government. Should power and offices be distributed proportionally according to the size and economic potential of the ethnic groups? Asymmetrical distribution of power, i.e., treating different ethnic groups differently, may raise a fundamental political problem. The option of giving more federal government offices to big ethnic groups requires the consent of minority ethnic groups to receive less offices in the federal government. If it is difficult to get their consent, is it fair to treat all ethnic groups similarly, in the face of the reality that there are very wide and relevant differences among them? The federal government has to find solutions to such kinds of problems.
2.5. Unsynchronized Decentralization
Unsynchronization refers to the speed, timing and weight of decentralization. In an ethnic federation, decentralization (devolution of power) is in principle coming at one moment and including all ingredients (political, fiscal, economic, administrative, etc.). In such type of wholesale decentralization, there is no flexibility in preparing the amount of ingredients in the right way and presenting them at the right moment. In other words, there is no plan to synchronise the decentralization element in the right way to achieve success. Ethnic groups do not have the same kind of previous experience and the necessary capacity to shoulder and carry out all responsibilities. In the face of such diversities, the only one approach with respect to decentralization, namely “one size fits all”, may not lead to the desired success, for it does not get the mix right. Transferring of all power at one and the same moment may fit those ethnic groups that are enormous in size, economy and administrative experience. For some ethnic groups it may create corruption and inefficiency. Depending on the ethnic group’s objective situation and considering feasibility of functions, it is possible to design decentralization arrangements to achieve the potential benefit it offers. Accordingly, some ethnic groups may be given political and administrative responsibilities, while others may be given fiscal and economic responsibilities.
But synchronization is difficult not only because of the many fiscal, political and administrative issues which require careful consideration, but also because each service and even each function within a service will differ with regard to the appropriate form of decentralization. Depending on the nature of the service, the political landscape and possibly the administrative capacity, the amount of autonomy (or “decision space”) given to a local government will differ. Whatever policy of synchronization of decentralization is presumed, it will create a political problem among ethnic groups that are constitutionally regarded as equals.
2.6. Intergovernmental Fiscal Relation
The assignment of most revenue yielding taxes to the federal government and the devolution of important expenditure responsibilities to the regional governments can create a high degree of vertical fiscal imbalance. In Ethiopia the federal government is assigned buoyant taxes such as foreign trade taxes, whereas direct taxes, whose economic base is limited, is under the jurisdiction of the regional governments. Foreign trade taxes have the capacity to expand with the growth of commerce, while direct taxes can mainly be increased by tax-technical measures. Productive taxes are thus under the exclusive domain of the federal government. Besides this, the sharing of revenue from taxes jointly levied and collected by the federal and regional governments is not yet defined. Presently, access to domestic borrowing for the regions is allowed only under conditions and with the approval of the federal government.
There is no clear allocation criterion that determines the shares of the federal and the regional governments in total national revenues. The total resources are divided between the federal and the regional governments on the basis of negotiated assessments of existing expenditure assignments.
Intergovernmental transfer is another mechanism for dealing with vertical imbalance. From the regions’ overall expenditure ceiling, allocations to individuals regions are made using a general formula. In the case of Ethiopia, the formula used for allocating federal grants to the regions has been modified many times since the beginning of preparing a regular budget for the regions. For the transfer of the 1995/96 budget, the formula included three variables: population, the regional revenue budget and the I-distance indicators. An equal weight of 33.3% was assigned to each. A variety of problems can be associated with such a formula: a) the lack of adequate and up-to-date information; b) the shortcomings of the I-distance indicator; c) the built-in disincentives for enhancing tax efforts; d) the reconciliation of multiple objectives; e) the need for interregional equity; f) the need for encouraging the implementation of minimum standards; g) correcting for spill-overs.
Since transfers are the main source of revenue for the regional states, the design of transfers is of critical importance to the success of decentralization. Transfers should be determined as objectively and openly as possible, by some well-established formula. They should not be subject to hidden political negotiation. A quasi-independent expert body (e.g. a grant commission) should study the transfer system, not by a certain department at the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development as was practised. This type of body can examine various options for reforming the grant system and make recommendations to the Federal Council as envisaged under the constitution.
2.7. Equitable Development and Inter Regional Co-operation
Bringing about an equitable development among the regions is another problem of the federal government. As a result of past administrations’ misguided policies, some ethnically defined regional states have had an historical experience of isolation and marginalization. For instance, the four lowland regional states, namely the Afar State, the Somali State, the Gambela State and the Benishangul State, had low levels of political, economic and administrative development during the centralized states of Haile Selassie and the military Derg. The federal government, therefore, have a greater responsibility in building up the self-government and economy of these low land regions, since they could not by themselves be capable of fulfilling such goals. The federal government must provide technical personnel, political advisors and assistance in the development of infrastructure and services. It must also devise a private investment policy biased toward the less developed regions and this is to be done through the provision of incentives.
Another problem that exacerbates regional equitable development is the practical outcome of an ethnically defined economic regionalism that hinders the free flow of labour and capital. People belonging to other ethnic groups might feel insecure in migrating into and working in other regions. This insecurity hinders the maximization of income by moving to places of opportunity. Securing fixed capital investment is the other problem. People may have too little confidence to invest in places of their own choice, as they might anticipate harassment or confiscation of properties. Instead, they may prefer to invest in cities, which have their own administrative autonomy. This brings about not only a lopsided development, but also, speaking in economics language, leads to a sub-optimal solution in terms of GDP. Scarce resources that could have been better invested in agriculture, for example, would go to the ever-enlarging service sector of the urban areas, mainly, to hotels and coffee houses. This is an example of misallocation of resources and a great loss to a given country where the main priority is the eradication of poverty.
2.8. Self-determination and Secessionism
According to the constitution ethnic groups enjoy equal rights. They are granted the status of a nation. They are given self-determination up to secession. One of the essentials of federation is that the union should be constitutionally immune to dissolution by secession. The grant of a constitutional right to self-determination is in contradiction with the very idea of a federalist constitution. A central government, which accepts secession by an ethnic group, simultaneously accepts the extinction of any reciprocal duty between itself and its own citizenry in the affected territory. This is something not compatible with federal constitutional arrangements whose purpose is to secure union –whether highly centralised or decentralised– on an enduring basis. However, some who interpret federation as essentially contractual (treaty or agreement) consisting of sovereign entities, advocate the inclusion of the provision of secession in the constitution. The logic is that any contractual party remains as free to withdraw from the association in circumstances where the other party or parties violate the terms agreed upon, or if the arrangement in other respects proves unfair or inadequate. But secessionism presupposes the collapse of the federal structure. By virtue of its exercise of distinct national functions (such as defence, policy, etc.), the function of the federal government affects the system as a whole. Secessionism thus requires the extinction of such national functions and partial authority of the federal government over all citizens of the federation.
Secession means the consolidation of local authority over the boundaries of the ethnic group by excluding the federal government, and the unilateral elimination of the dual allegiance of its citizenry, replacing it with an integral duty to a single local authority. This, in effect, means the disintegration of the federal state. If a federation’s component territorial parts are implicitly entitled to secede in any effective sense, then the federal centre can only adopt and implement policies with the express or tacit concurrence of each member unit. The component parts may support or veto/block the initiative depending on their interest. In a federal structure, the interests are structurally incorporated into a single and coherent frame (e.g., identification of the territorial location and culture of the group, the minority question, etc), such that it becomes difficult to negate that structure. Federations are so structured as to preclude any effective right to secession, except formally.
“Self-determination presupposes the prior determination of the unit—the national self—that is to enjoy the right of self-determination. But the identification and boundaries of this self cannot themselves be self-determined: They must be determined by others.” The principle of self-determination begs answers to two interrelated questions: a) who are the people? b) what is the relevant territorial unit in which they should exercise self-determination? These issues are complex as described in the sections above.
2.9. Conflict Resolving Mechanisms and Institutions
The federal problems, disputes and conflicts discussed above are mainly referred to the House of Federation which is believed to be the best place to protect and ensure the rights of all nations and nationalities. In the context of the federal constitution of Ethiopia, it has the following constitutional power and functions:
Article 62 (3-11) of the Constitution gives the House of Federation responsibility for: Interpreting the Constitution;

  • Organising the Council of Constitutional Inquiry;
  • Deciding on claims based upon the rights of nations, nationalities, and peoples to self-determination, including their right to secession;
  • Promoting the equality of the peoples of Ethiopia enshrined in the constitution and promoting their unity based on their mutual consent;
  • Exercising the powers and the functions concurrently entrusted to it and the Council of Peoples’ Representatives;
  • Striving to find solutions to disputes or misunderstandings that may arise between States;
  • Determining the division of revenues derived from joint Federal and State tax sources and the subsidies that the Federal Government may provide to the States;
  • Identifying civil cases that require legislation by the House of Peoples’ Representatives
  • Ordering Federal intervention if any State, in violation of this Constitution, endangers the constitutional order,

The House of Federation, which represents the ethnic groups of the country, has the role of supreme interpretation of the constitution and resolving key questions of the nationalities/ethnic groups. The House of Federation is not an “upper” house but has unique duties and responsibilities to interpret the Constitution and protect the rights of the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia. In many countries, matters of constitutional interpretation are decided by the Constitutional Court or by the Supreme Court. In the case of Ethiopia it is the House of Federation which is entrusted with the power of interpreting the constitution. This makes ethnic federation different from other types of federation which treat constitutional disputes through either separately established constitutional courts or delegate this power to the highest regular federal court. The rationale behind the preference to resolve constitutional disputes through the House stemmed from the conviction that constitutional disputes are very likely to have something to do with ethnic matters. From the outset, solving ethnic conflict is considered the ultimate objective of the federal constitution.
However, there are practical problems in solving the conflicts on a permanent basis. One can fix temporary solutions to the problems by devising mechanisms that may contain or arrest negative developments that threaten the unity of the groups. One way is the monopolization of power both at the federal and regional level through the formation of a coalition of parties or a front. Using the centralised structure of the party command, it might be possible to mitigate the conflicts between the actors. But this type of political solution is fragile and it may collapse if and when the coalition splits or as some members of it withdraw from it feeling marginalized. Another method can be the search for or use of a unifying ideological formula such as the Marxist-Leninist ideology which underlines the invariable significance of class struggle rather than cultural demands of ethnic groups. By definition, a worker or a peasant from one ethnic group cannot have a different interest from the other. However, this ideology has no future as it basically sweeps the ethnic issue under the carpet, for which purpose the regions were set up in the first instance. One may as well try to maintain internal unity of the regional states by emphasising some kind of an overarching assimilationist or integrationist supra nationalist identity named, for instance, after the name of the country. But this type of identity is only acceptable to those people particularly coming from mixed marriages, but not to proponents of the ethnic movements. Ethnic federation is apparently dependent on democratic rules and it requires democracy for its successful accomplishment.
This article is extracted from the book
Tsegaye Tegenu, (2006), Evaluation of the Operation and Performance of Ethnic Decentralization System in Ethiopia. The Case of the Gurage People, 1992-2000. Addis Ababa University Press.
The author can be reached at tsegaye.tegenu@epmc.se

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