Federalism as an ideology, like socialism, communism and liberalism, is a pragmatic term which refers to the sharing of power among autonomous units and is considered to advocate the values of ‘unity in diversity’ or ‘shared rule and self-rule’ (Watts 2008:1) and to give regions some authority of their own. In his definition of federalism, Watts (2008:9) suggested that a federal system of government is one in which there is a division of power between one general and several regional authorities, each of which acts directly through his own administrative agencies. From the theoretical stand-point, the importance of a federal system, as shared by all political theories of federalism, is the sharing of power among regional states. This division of power may lead to the extinction of tyrannical regimes.
The other reason why a federal form of government is chosen over a unitary form is to accommodate divergent local interests that cannot bear centralised rule (Alemante 2003:85). Owing to this, a federal system of government as a solution was high on the agenda during the early phase of post-colonial politics in Africa as potential ways to reconcile unity and diversity. Unfortunately, however, such attempts ended up being rather short-lived experiments (Erk 2014). Those countries which exercised federal systems for a short while and stopped having them were Congo (1960-1965), Kenya (1963-1965) Uganda (1962-1966) Mali (1959), and Cameroon (1961-1972). Federalism’s track record as a source of instability and secession might well counsel against choosing this form of government for Sub-Saharan African states (Alemante 2003:85). Considering the negative experiences, a number of African countries have ignored a federal system of government. This is because the socio-cultural set-up of the African states is so hybrid in terms of identity, language and religion that the existing social realities might not entertain the federal model. The most striking feature of African identities and communities was their fluidity, heterogeneity and hybridity; a social world of multiple, overlapping and alternate identities with significant movement of peoples, intermingling of communities and cultural and linguistic borrowing (Berman 2010:2).
Notwithstanding such scepticism, three countries in Africa (Ethiopia, South Africa and Nigeria) have chosen a federal form of government so as to accommodate ethnic diversity. But there are significant points of departures among the three federal governments of Africa in their degree given to ethnicity. The Nigerian federal structure is to give legitimacy to territory over ethnicity by distributing the core population of each ethnic group in several states and thus the Nigeria’s federal structure helps avoid the crystallisation of ethnic identity around a particular territory (Alemante 2003:100). The South African constitution-makers rejected the claims of certain ethnic groups to self-governing status on the basis of their distinctive ethnic identity, whereas the organisation of the Ethiopian state is founded upon ethnic federalism, which uses ethnic groups as units of self-government (Alemante 2003:78).
Seen from the perspectives of South Africa’s and Nigeria’s federal structures, Ethiopia’s federal arrangement is highly ethnocentric. Implementing the federal system of government on the idea of ethno-nationalism, as shown in Ethiopia, could worsen the matter. To put the idea more precisely, ethno-nationalism, a belief claiming the distinctiveness of a particular people and their right to self-rule in their homeland, exacerbates community clashes which become tribalism. Therefore, in order to defend a non-ethnic federal system and to promote the welfare of the society, the Ghanaian Constitution (Article 55:4) strictly prohibits any political party organised on the basis of ethnic ground. Contrary to Ghanaian Constitution, the EPRDF’s Constitution encourages the formation of ethnic political party. Owing to this, since the advent of ethnic federalism that politicised tribal identity, there have been a number of conflicts, cases of ethnic cleansing and unspeakable crimes committed against humanity in the country; and all these have taken place without fair responses from the ‘EPRDF/TPLF government’. Ethnic politics generates hostility amongst Ethiopia’s different ethnic groups that hinders group interaction and entails ethnic conflicts. Due to the policy of the ruling party, mutual suspicion and hostility causing ethnic cleansing and conflict are bound to emerge among the various ethnic groups even at the present time.
In light of the above, we, Ethiopians, expect Lemma Megresa’s team or Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s administration to throw the TPLF’s ideology of ethnic federalism and to introduce a new administrative scheme in Ethiopia.
Alemante, G. Selassie 2003. Ethnic federalism: Its promise and pitfalls for Africa. The Yale Journal of International Law, 28 (51), pp. 51-107.
Berman, Bruce 2010. Ethnicity and democracy in Africa. Tokyo, Japan International Cooperation Agency Research Institute.
Erk, Jan 2014. Federalism and decentralization in Sub-Saharan Africa: Five patterns of evolution. Journal of African Affairs, 24 (5), pp. 535-552.
Ethiopia 1994. Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Available from :< http://www.wipo.int/edocs/lexdocs/laws/en/et/et007en.pdf>[Accessed 9 September 2015].
Ghana 1992. The Constitution of the Republic of Ghana. Available from :< https://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/republic/constitution>[Accessed 10 June 2015].
Watts, Ronald 2008. Comparing federal systems. London, McGill-Queen’s University Press.