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The Stress Test for Ethiopian Federalism

Ethiopian Constitution Stress Test
Source – Ethiopia Insight

By Samuel Estefanous

Physicians administer a procedure called cardiac Stress Test to gauge how well or badly the human heart functions during regimented physical exercise.  It is a desirable, beneficial and above all controlled procedure. Unfortunately there is little room for such premeditated protocol to apply to the politics of governance.  However much effort is exerted and a procedure of check and balance is put in place (particularly in African context) in most instances than not,    ‘we learn as we go’ and if we are bad at damage control we are certain to crush into the bleak pit of chaos most unceremoniously. 

Breaking Loose From a Federation

Take the European Union. It has got its version of Article 39 and any member State can invoke Article 50 of the Treaty and unilaterally and voluntarily withdraw from the Union whenever it finds the going is getting tougher than assumed at the time of accession. Some folks say the European Union is just like any other Continental Union of the Willing (like the African Union or ASEAN) and might find the comparison far-fetched. I beg to differ. I mean it has got an elected Parliament, a President, a Commissioner (Head of the EU government) and maintains a large corps of diplomatic missions. Sometimes it makes me wonder what it is that the Federal Government of the US has got and the EU doesn’t. Except perhaps it isn’t called the Federal Government of the European Union? So, the more the EU flexes its mighty muscles the more uneasy some member Countries feel. 

Thus, when the UK could take the bullying of the EU no more it parted ways. In our case I strongly believe that there is no way any one Regional State is going to invoke Article 39 and activate legal procedures of secession. Chances are, if we have to, we are going to part ways the proven good old fashioned way- beating war drums, invariably appealing to our patriotism or ethnic loyalty.  Either way  when Federations fail the stress test under ideal circumstances they go the Velvet way of the Czech and Slovakia or the UK and EU or the bloody ones of former Yugoslavia.   

Founded on a lingering lack of total trust, no member wants to close the door behind it. Federalism has never been a joy to behold. It is a compromised settlement of diverging interests. In most federally constituted Countries the Federal government is accused of usurping power from the legitimate original custodians of the power. True, the original power is vested with the states constituting the Federal Union.  In this connection, whenever it suits him Ato Meles used to take cover behind this humbling regal Constitutional dictum. He would scratch his bald patch and mockingly sigh ‘What can I do? I am exercising a limited delegated power.’ 

When you read Emperor Hailesilassie’s autobiography- My life and the Advancement of Ethiopia-the one thing you wouldn’t be able to miss is the late Emperor’s bold assertion that he was able to forge a strong Central Government at the expense of regional autonomy. He did break the de facto Federation that had existed for millennia before him. And he was convinced that he was doing the Nation a great service by shifting the power base from the regions to the center. By all accounts it was a colossal achievement. In the process he had become the sole custodian of political power and he dispensed it as he saw it fit. He couldn’t even stand the Federal status of Eritrea.  The other take away from his book is his unabashed claim that the destiny of the country is squarely tied up with his fate- something Fitawrari Tekle Hawariat found obnoxious before the publication of the book. At the end of the day the question that needs to be answered is-does political power trickle to the Center from the Regions or does it flow from the Center to the regions.      

Even in the United States practical nutcases like Timothy McVeigh vented their rage against the Federal government employing violent means and targeting Federal Buildings. Not to mention the Branch Dravidians cult group that had tried to wage war against the Federal government.  These outlaws are very notorious among American law enforcement agencies. Though no comparison is intended here, in the United States as well these armed outlaws are self-designated as Constitutional Militia. They perceive the Federal Government as a bully exacting a lot from the citizens by involving them in wars, taxing them heavily, encumbering their natural rights and giving back little in return. So the tendency is to always keep the Federal Government in check lest it should overreach the power delegated to it and act beyond the edicts of authorization. 

In our Country post 2005 organized or otherwise discontents are dominated by Regional/ethnic grievances and rhetoric. Hence one can safely conclude that the conflict is between the Federation of Nationalities as represented by the Federal government and a group of disgruntled ethnic constituencies. Increasingly the conflicts are assuming a form of federal versus regional power tug war.  

The Culprit- Article 8 or 39?    

According to Article 8 of the FDRE Constitution member states of the Federal Union could only be representatives of Nationalities- as political power is exclusively the domain of Nation and Nationalities. Thus, any political party vying for a portion of that power could only claim it for and in the name of a given Nationality. Otherwise- taking it to the extreme case scenario- technically the NEBE should reject the application for registration. One can legitimately argue that in the Ethiopian context non ethnic political parties are illegitimate children of the FDRE Constitution.  That is why they are ill-treated, neglected and their growth is thus stunted.  It is neither the fault of the incumbent nor that of the NEBE; it is solely on account of their precarious illegitimate birth.  Considering the sweeping unconditional original power vested with the Nation and Nationalities under Article 8 of the Constitution, the right of Nationalities enshrined under Article 39 is merely a derivative and declaratory one. As long as Article 8 remains valid and functional the existence or scraping of Article 39 is of little practical significance or consequence.

Straddling the Fence 

In this regard the fate of the Prosperity Party is hardly enviable. Half its face is ethnic based and the other half has got a semblance of multinational origin. So conveniently or otherwise it has always got two readily available different answers for a single question depending on the composition of the crowd lending it ears. Being a hybrid party, it tried to be all inclusive but ended up having few loyal members let alone vocal supporters. It set out to placate all (something no seasoned political group should venture to do) and at the end of the day it disappointed all. Otherwise I don’t harbor the slightest suspicion that the Prosperity Party didn’t have honest good intentions in the first place.         

Failing to keep the Regions on tight leach

EPRDF knew the power the Nationality-Regional-States wielded and kept them on close and tight leach emasculating them by strict democratic centralism and uncompromising party discipline. It never forgot the lesson it was taught during the tumultuous transitional period.  

On the other hand, driven by mob pressure, PP let them loose without devising an effective means to deal with the consequences.  For a year or two it feasted on the decays of its predecessor demonizing it and dancing on its grave to the tune of popular idolization but after the party was over it had to deal with the stark reality of walking on its own and has cut a sorry picture worse than one walking a pair of stilts.  One has only to contrast this with the way EPRDF had guarded its right to the monopoly of violence so jealously.  It was literally running a police state. No one group or individual could think or dream of lynching let alone hanging a human being upside down in broad day at a public square and get away with it. 

These days a bunch of ill-educated cadres driven by peer jealousy of their own fellow cadres can force their unholy will on the authorities demanding a special Woreda status for their families, a Zonal administration for their communities or a Regional one for their ethnic group and there is nothing PP could do about it.  However during the reign of EPRDF the slightest hint of airing local agenda would earn the speaker a disgraceful label of narrow mindedness. EPRDF used such labels for its own purpose to stay in power for as long as it could but in the process the multitude was benefiting from the blessings of “Law and Order”.  Besides, the vice of narrow-mindedness doesn’t cease to be cheap, mean and stupide just because EPRDF had employed the term for political gains.

True Regional States please stand up

Regional states aren’t subservient to the Federal Government. They are governments per se and could define legitimate agendas for the Federal government the way Tigray National Regional State has been doing these past four years. When Regional States break loose from party centralism, we are going to witness true Federalism in action. But that action might not be to our liking.   

Had Oromia PP lost the Chaffee to an opposition party or to a coalition of the same at the last election the impact would have crushed the Federal Government considering the gravity of the agendas, the proximity, sheer number and size of the constituency and readily available army of disillusioned youth.  The same is going to be true for the Amhara Region in the coming elections. The challenges for the Federal government are getting stronger and more organized; on the contrary, organs of the Federal government aren’t braced to meet the adversaries in equal measure. Different organs of the Defense forces are mobilized to quell internal conflicts. Under normal circumstances this should have been the task of the Federal police not that of the Defense Forces.

Naturally Defense Forces aren’t police forces and they fire to kill not to apprehend. Any effort of the Federal government to quell restive regions by military operation cannot be and is not a law enforcement operation; it is a full-fledged war theater. What most people fail to comprehend is taking arms against the Defense forces isn’t as simple as resisting arrest by the police. Defense forces defend the Nation at large; the police maintain peace and order.   

In such circumstances any atrocity committed should be understood in the context of war not law enforcement excesses or misconducts.  Scholars should research this issue at great length instead of soliciting more power for the government to enable it to indict more people by extensively broadening its basis of defining criminal offenses as a recent press release by a local NGO insinuated.       

God Bless.      

 Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of  


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