EthioPoint: Ethiopians Analysis | Research Articles

Federalism without the Guardian: Ethiopia in the Row

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Marew Abebe, Lecturer of Federalism Studies at Debark University, Ethiopia; Contact him via [email protected]; ID


During the last three decades of federalism experiences in Ethiopia, it was the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)–the ruling government since the inception of the federal system– political ideology not the constitution that dictates the country’s federalism promises. The EPRDF party– composed of four ethic based parties– did follow only centralized decision making and ordered member parties of the coalition to channel its political interest within their respective constituencies.  Following the coming of new PM Abyi Ahmed and the dissolution of the EPRDF–that claimed itself as ‘patronage’ of Ethiopian federalism–the government has struggled to hold the country together.

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Federalism by constitution and unitary in practice

In December 2019, EPRDF ceased and was rebranded as the new Prosperity Party with three former parties.  The Prosperity Party has also dismantled the old age decentralized decision making and the party’s ideology have been challenged and forced to change its top down order to local governments. As the result when the local governments, as the independent administration regions of most federal states, trying to exercise their own constitutional granted rights for their own internal matters shakes the long-held ‘federalism’ practice in Ethiopia. It becomes risky to the very federal system when the federal government still wants to retain its status quo–being the ‘higher’ government. This conundrum between the federal and local government was evident when the Tigray region, one of the ten members of the Ethiopian federation, unilaterally decided and held regional elections amidst the pandemic that was postponed by the federal government. The Tigray region’s decision of holding election on 9 September 2020 for its State Council in explicit defiance of federal government severely exacerbated the situation and has remained one of the greatest litmus tests to the Ethiopian ethnic based federalism. Later this led to the full scale war between the Ethiopian federal and the Tigray regional governments.

Recently, the vertical federalism arrangement between the federal and regional governments becomes fragile due to the federalism culture not being embedded by constitutionalism but has long been guided by political ideologies and considerations. When parties change and ideologies shift, the very state’s structure (federalism) is, now, without guardian. This is due the Ethiopian federalism has long been handing on the single party willingness and directives. The intergovernmental situation, the horizontal relationships among regional governments themselves, also deteriorates due to, among other things, border conflicts between regional governments, competitions over scarce resources and competing nationalisms. Moreover, the Ethiopian federalism has not any legal frameworks that would have guided the intergovernmental relations and has not set any common mode of communications, although as a matter of fact Amharic has been used.

Wheare in his 1946 seminal work on ‘Federal Government’ defined federalism as follows: “by the federal principle I mean the method of dividing powers so that the general and regional governments are each, within a sphere, co-ordinate and independent”. Thus, in federalism state structure, as opposed to unitary one, there exists a compound polity in which two ‘co-equally supreme’ levels of governments both acted directly on the citizen through their own law, under a written constitution. Federalism, by its very nature, needs a common written law (constitution) and an observance of it, what is called constitutionalism. This is exactly what the Ethiopian federalism lacks, constitutionalism, as neither the federal nor the states act based on the common covenant document, the Ethiopian federal Constitution. It was arbitrary rule and mere political agreements among and between groups, short of political parties at the expense of the constitutional provisions, rules the country.

According to Berihune Adugna (2020), federalism in Ethiopia has operated in a single-party system run by the EPRDF with a blatant disregard of the Ethiopian Constitution and official rejection of liberal democracy. The Constitution has merely been often cited as a justification for the authoritarian and undemocratic actions of the EPRDF, its leading ideology of revolutionary democracy and the party practice of democratic centralism has played the real constitutional function in practice. Since the introduction of federalism, multi-party democracy, respect for human rights, and constitutionalism have been put aside and given way to the emergence of the EPRDF as the only viable political party in the country. The Ethiopian federalism has been submissive to the short lived political ideologies of a single party. And there were not genuine federalism experiences; rather there was more a unitary state in its practices as the real power comes from the center and from the party.

Generally, after three decades of ethnic federalism experiences, the dominant rhetorical figure in Ethiopian politics is that of ethnicity, which has permeated daily life and overtaken democratic decision-making and shared issue-politics. This overshadowed real federalism exercise in Ethiopia. The regional governments had been accorded nominal decentralized power and the government has developed structures of central control and top-down rule that preclude local initiative and autonomy.

The way outs

This highly combustible mixture—a divided political center, an ineffective and ambiguous regional elite, ethnic based federalism, competing nationalism and the liberation struggle—is at the root of today’s unrest. But how these are to be reconciled and what scope they can have still remains unclear. To quell the masses and to heralded genuine federalism, the government in Ethiopia must work hard to respect for political liberties, human rights and economic equality. Recognizing the fundamental unity, rights and solidarity of all Ethiopians requires positive, constructive attitude and should be based on the umpire constitution.

Marew Abebe