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Ethnic Federalism, Tyrants shield (Dejen Yemane Messele)

Dejen Yemane Messele
Lecturer of Law ,Wollo University & PhD student, Addis Ababa University
May 27, 2020

The ABC of international law tells us that states, which conventionally called countries, are the principal actors at the international level.  International law knows states, not their provinces, or units. All states are equal under the eyes of international law irrespective of their size, economic development, population, military capacity, and so forth. The ABC of international law has many things to tell us in this regard. 

As a sovereign entity, states are at liberty to design their system of governance.  States may design a system of government which promises them efficiency in all aspects.  Since the establishment of nation-states and the inception of sovereignty and territorial integrity three systems of governance came into place. These are unitary, con-federalism, and federalism. Only unitary and federalism are alive to this very day.  86% of states are adopting and functioning through a unitary form of governance while 14% are adopting federalism as their system of government. 

Contrary to Ethiopia’s historical reality, EPRDF has introduced an ethnic-based federalism to Ethiopia. The 1995 FDRE constitution legitimizes this ethnic-based federalism and regional states or members of the federation are structured on the basis of ethnic lines. The constitution does not know citizens nor Ethiopian people. It rather bestows ethnic groups both the sovereignty and the veto to decide on the states fate and its continuity. The constitution remains the only document in history that allows external self-determination through secession. External-self-determination was the concept introduced in the realm of international law to expedite Africa’s decolonization from the European colonial rule. The paradox and the amusing thing is the never colonized Ethiopia has adopted this concept of external-self-determination through secession where no African country incorporates this concept after independence. Why EPRDF introduced this alien concept to Ethiopia remains a conundrum.  

The reading of the constitution opines that Ethiopia’s federalism is introduced in a way ignoring the history of the country. A country which has some 3000 years existence with a formal state administration along with a strong central government cannot fit a coming-together form of federalism. If federalism is a must it could have been a holding together form. 

Well, it’s obvious that a vehement opposition has been echoed against the federalism which is in place by the constitution. The first and foremost opposition is the fact that this constitution was not the result of public discussion and dialogue, it was rather the party manifesto which directly crowned itself as a nation’s constitution. Rewriting of the constitution has long been asked by the public. 

Recently, this call brought two categories of nametags, the federalist and unionist/unitarist camp. TPLF and opposition political parties established on the Oromo ethnic line are grouped into the federalist line while the nationalist (Ethiopic-center) political parties are labeled as unitarists. But I argue that the ethno-nationalists groups who perceived themselves as a vanguard of the federalism system are misleading the public as their rhetoric towards the unitary system of government is false and they are not federalist forces in real terms. 

A false narrative about federalism and unitarism has indeed been established for more than two decades in Ethiopia. The propagandists and advocates of this ethnic-based federalism have mainstreamed that federalism is the blissful system unlike the unitary system to be applicable in Ethiopia. They intentionally preached the public that it’s only the federalism system which appropriates power to the federal/central government and the regional/sub-national administrations. They intentionally taught the public that unitray system is a rule of centralization which could not allow decentralization of power and self-rule.  They wrongly accuse unitrism as a system of dictatorship and authoritarianism and federalism as the only way for decentralisation. All of these narrations are wrong and are made just to maintain the status quo of political entrepreneurship in the name of ethnic groups. For those who call themselves as federalist forces, ethnic groups are their best commodities to trade on. This trade should come to end now. The public should know that the federalism which forgets citizens, oust popular sovereignty, puts national integrity and sovereignty at risk due to an unconditional secession of groups; which outweighs diversity over unity; does not base on the history of the state should come to an end. The only beneficiaries of this system are corrupt officials who assumed power on the name of ethnic groups. And yet this system brought us at the brink of a failed state as a nation.    

Unless we disregard history, it was in its long unitary history that Ethiopia reached the peak of civilization, not in the 28 or more years of the ethnic based federalism. Hence, a unitary system of governance can still be an option for Ethiopia. In this system, division of power among the central and sub-national administrative units can be done; self-rule or internal self-determination can be exercised; the force of unity will outweigh differences. The system can abandon the alien concept of external-self-determination through secession.  Unitary system can create a stronger Ethiopia where its peoples become the owner of their territory without distinction.  We should also know that it’s democracy which defines good governance, not federalism nor unitraism. There should be people’s constitution and constitutional democracy to live in a country where rule of law is realized; human rights are protected and fulfilled; free and fair elections are conducted. We should say no for political entrepreneurs who preached ethnic federalism as a matter of life and death.  

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