opinion By Zeray Hailemariam
Some 45% of the world’s populations live under federal states, including hugely diverse countries like USA, India, Brazil, Canada, Nigeria and Ethiopia. Empirical evidence shows that most countries under federal systems are relatively peaceful and democratic.
Questions are being raised loudly by citizens from various corners of the country and elsewhere regarding the validity and vitality of the federal system in keeping the existence and unity of the country. Of course their concerns are undeniable and have acceptance if not fully endorsed. The current crisis and inability of the government to govern the country as per Ethiopians can create such concerns and pose questions.
Federal form of state, contrary to unitary form of state, is a system of governance with diverse features of state power-sharing. The most globally notable characteristic of federalism is that power is not given to regional states from the center, as in the case of a unitary system. Rather, the central government is delegated by, and gains its power from the regions.
In federalism, the federal government is not the creator of its own power, for the decisive power rests in the constituent unities – in our case, the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples.
In the federal system, all nations and nationalities have fair and equal rights in the decision making process of the country. No ethnic group is superior or inferior in the system. These are the typical features of federal systems globally. And that is why it is considered as better form of government for ethnically diverse countries like ours.
What is more unique in the Ethiopian federal case is that article 39 of the Constitution which grants any nations the right to establish independent state. Of course, secession could only be exercised through long and stringent procedural requirements and if nations are guaranteed constitutionally, there is no will to go away.
As is discussed above, the current federal system has resulted in the existing stable political progress as well as fast economic and social advancement. However, with all the major achievements combined, there are serious limitations.
And, even if Ethiopia was left without a single choice other than introducing the current federal system; it did not escape both negative and positive criticisms.
There are two strong opposing views regarding the federal state held by those who stand for the federal system and those who go for a unitary state. The former are of the opinion that the Federal Constitution is not being put into action fully.
The proponents of unitary system are of the opinion that the current federal system which gives equal footing to all ethnic groups constitutionally is against the unity of the country. Thus, some scholars and opposing politicians have stated that the authorization of federalism was a “historical mistake” because it is intended to threaten “unity” and will “totally divide” the country.
These groups see the federal system as mechanisms conspired to undo the assimilation policies massively realized by previous regimes._ However, many Ethiopians suspect them of having intentions to maintain the domination of one ethnic group over the rest in the name of unity. Plus, there is no historical record in theory or in action that the system by itself is naturally against unity.
But, it will be wrong to completely ignore their concern of unity and label them as pro-previous-regimes.
Other than criticizing the system, they could not, however, provide better and convincing alternatives. Thus, they are simply fault finder scholars. They, I believe, might have positive advises on the issue of unity and letting them be heard is the best option.
It should be known that 99% of the Ethiopian nations and nationalities believe that the current federalism is the sole assurance of the state and tend to fight anybody who attempts to restore the past unitary form of state. Therefore, the two opposing views in this country are extremely antagonistic in nature.
Multinational federalism is believed globally as better system to unify a diverse country based on will and trust._ Federalism does not inevitably cause ethnic conflict. _Well, if it is not handled well, however, it can cause disintegrations.
A number of scholars also have explained concerns that the implementation of federalism was aimed at marking ethno-linguistic identity and cause splits. In Ethiopia, however, ethno linguistic identities were already deeply imprinted before the adoption of ethno-linguistic federalism in 1994, as a result of the ethno-linguistic domination that had existed for so long.
Hence, the argument that the introduction of the federal system created new ethnic based conflicts in Ethiopia does not hold water. In fact, there were more than 17 ethnic based armed forces fighting against domination even before the adaptation of the current system. Rightly, the current system was adapted to address the century old national questions.
If federalism based on language was against unity or a system that causes conflicts, Switzerland, Belgium and Canada would not have been excellent examples of the system.
And, more importantly, realties on the ground speak loudly that Ethiopians are more unified (regardless of shortcomings here and there) than before, thanks to the federal system.
On the other hand those who are for the federal system argue that by legitimizing ethnicity as the only valid marker for membership of a homeland state is the only way out to see peaceful Ethiopia. “Politicized ethno-cultural communities are not new products of Ethiopian ethno-linguistic federalism. Rather, ethno-linguistic federalism is an outcome of the old mobilization and struggles of politicized ethno-cultural communities”,_says Dr Mahari Tadele while responding to those who say that federalism is producing localized conflicts.
This politicization of ethno-linguistic groups, or the ethnicisation of Ethiopian politics, he adds, is not a one-day event due to promulgation of the Federal Constitution; it is, instead, a product of Ethiopia’s long political history.
Nonetheless, what is new is that now ethnically-based political mobilization and power-sharing is constitutionally legitimized. Linguistic communities are entities bearing sovereignty with constitutional standing. In a nutshell, Ethiopian ethno-linguistic federalism is a response to the “unfavorable conditions” that prevailed in a unitary system, he concludes.
Hence, the pro-federalists see ethnic based federalism as a means to intensify unity, and they support diversity for the sake of unity. _Dr. Mahari may call them calculative federalists.
The unitarists see the federal system against the assimilation policy that they believe is good to the unity of the country. This line of thought is similar to the theory of cultural assimilation, which encourages the absorption of minorities into the dominant culture.
It is contrary to the principle of multiculturalism which treats all to be equally flourished. Each of these positions has legitimate concerns that demand serious consideration – but not equally.
The strong position held by the unitarists is even dangerous to unity. They wrongly want us believe them that only a unitary system will guarantee the unity of the country. But such position has led countries to fall apart.
This wicked view could lead to policy of forced assimilation -could cause total disrespect to democratic rights, group injustice and huge human rights violation, including ethnic cleansing and genocide which eventually heralds the end of the country as it was about to happen during the Derg regime.
_History has convinced us that federal system, if wisely handled, is possibly the finest of all the alternatives for unity with peace and equality. Federalism, as an instrument for conflict management – a political solution to a political issue – and as a tool to contain disintegrative forces and create a balance between the forces of unity and diversity is tested globally practically.
What is more unique to the Ethiopian federalism is that the (phrase/article 39) right to self-determination up to secession, serves as a brake on any form of attempts to establish a unitary government and tyrannical and discriminatory treatment of nationalities. It is aimed at making sure that no government will be able to create one ethnic-domination over others as before.
Any attempt to restore unitary type of system at the expense of the current article would be politically costly as it would put the unity of the country at risk and nationalities could be forced to use their constitutional right to secession.
Expectedly, the various Ethiopian nationalities are guaranteed under the federal system and it could be said that the current Ethiopia is based on the spirit of all Ethiopians. This is called unity based on will.
Other limitations, talked about over, are attributable to the infancy of the federal system. The main challenges can best be illustrated as one of execution, understanding, legal interpretation and shortcomings. The inherently undemocratic culture inherited from past autocratic regimes could also be major obstacle.
The father of the federal system, EPRDF itself – has been one of the obstacles knowingly or not. The organizational culture of the very party – democratic centralism and centralised party structure- undermined the federal system. Dr. Mahari rightly stated that the political constitution of EPRDF effectively antagonizes the federal system it has built.
The gradual consequence, however, can be shocking for the unity of the country when such strong party control weakens the federal government. As a result, some regional states may fall into the hands of extreme nationalist officials, distinguished scholars warned.
Scholars of federal system and concerned politicians should conduct extensive debates on the current realities on the media. Thus, the public would be well aware of the system governing them.
Hence, the scholars, opposing politicians and the public at large should play very vital role in strengthening the federal based statehood process. Government officials must understand the shortcomings pointed out during the debate and they should lean to correct them. Hence, the media in deepening the federal system is indeed vital in this country.
Extensive trainings on the conduct and behavior of the federal system should be offered to higher and middle level officials. I can see officials lacking the knowledge of federalism.
While addressing historical grievances due to previous exclusionist regimes and rejecting any new political tendencies to bring back the old regimes of discrimination and exclusion, much has to be done in championing commonly appreciated and accepted legacies. In this regard, a deliberate policy of promoting consensus and unity in diversity around positive historical legacies has to be designed and implemented.