Ethnic Federalism

Since 1991, Ethiopia has gone further than any other country in using ethnicity as the fundamental organizing principle of a federal system of government. And yet this pioneering experiment in “ethnic federalism” has been largely ignored.

After the end of the cold war era one of the greatest challenge to world security and order emanate from multi-ethnic states. The problem of multiethnicity is not confined to the so called third world states in Africa. Some western democratic states who has been known for their long-term stability are seen to be precarious lately due to problems of multi-ethnicity.Quite a Varity of solutions have been forwarded by scholars as part of the search for solutions to this problem. The suggestions range from strong unitary dictatorial regime-as a means to suppress emerging ethnic nationalisms to ethnic based federalism-as a means of accommodating ethnic interests.

Ethiopian Regions

Ethiopian Regions

Federalism which may be identified as territorial based or ethnic based has come to be seen as the best alternative to promote the management of conflict prone multi-ethnic societies. Even those who extend sharp criticisms against this form of government admit that federalism, when properly implemented, has more often than not proved to offer tools for the better governess of supra-national institutions and has facilitated effective decision making in complex systems and promoted democracy.

In principle, relating federalism to multi-ethnicity and evaluating its success as a balance between unity and diversity involves a number of factors. In particular, how the boundaries of member states are drawn up and how powers are distributed horizontally as well as vertically. Moreover, the institutional set up should be examined if it represents a structure of diversity or at least minority accommodation providing institutional and political power

which democratically command loyalty to the common state.How far federalism, in particular ethnic federalism practically solves problem of multi-ethnicity is yet to be seen. However, daring decision has already been made in 1995 in Ethiopia adopting this approach as a solution to the longstanding ethnic problems of the country. Albeit with difficulty, the choice was made, and ethnicity was favored as the underling factor in the process of state formation.

The new model of government ,nevertheless, appeared to be peculiar from the outset not only because it follows an ethno-linguistic line for state formation but also in a sense that it allows the right to self-determination including secession. The inclusion of particularly the latter has made the

Ethiopian model of federalism prone to critiques.The success of the Ethiopian model of federalism in light of the inherent problems it poses along with some of the existing opportunities. Particular emphasis was given to power sharing arrangement-with a view to see how wholehearted is the federal arrangement, inclusion of secession clause-how far is it a threat to unity of the country, and uniform human rights implementation-how far will it serve as a binding force of the federation.

Ethnic Recognition

Ethnic Recognition

A close examination of the power sharing arrangement and the explicit recognition of the right to self determination including secession to nations,nationalities and peoples depicts that there is an apparent paradox in the federal arrangement. On the one hand, the nations, nationalities and peoples have been granted the right to exit from the federation with out any conditions albeit for procedural red tape. This gives the impression that the constituent unites are more independent compared to other federal arrangements. On the other hand, the powers of member states are relatively meager and regional government remain dependent on the federal level to be able to carry out their duties. As expressed by the the Constitution proposes few self determination remedies, since nothing is specified as lying in the gaps between secession. While the trend in multi-ethnic federations is to extend secession remedies through various areas of self-government, the Ethiopian federation has chosen quite the opposite: asserting the most extreme right to secession it failed to grant to the member states as the same time the power given to member states in the administration of daily affairs are quite scanty.

As federal theories underline that the functioning of federal system is not to be measured by only looking at the theoretical justifications or constitutional frame work attempt was made in this study to examine the de facto federal system of Ethiopia from socio-economic point of view revealing the asymmetric nature of the federal structure.

As argued by scientist in a study of Ethiopian federalism it can be  concluded that the major problems that make the federalism falter are half-hearted decentralization, deficient democracy, and insufficient protection extended to human rights. Accontrario reading of her conclusions would point to important solutions to the predicaments of the Ethiopian federalism, namely wholehearted federalism, a more vibrant democracy, and sufficient protectionof human rights values.

Federalism has already been institutionalized and member states of the federation are exercising some degree of political and cultural autonomy.Nonetheless, financial dependency of the member states on the centralgovernment, among other things limits the scope of the federal decentralization. Democracy, as expressed through the principle of popular sovereignty, is not far out of reach legally, nonetheless, lack of strong alternative parties due to many reasons, lack of civil societies and civic culture, undue interference in the independence of the judiciary, and other reasons could not help democracy be utilized concretely. Human rights arewell articulated in the federal as well as state constitutions to the extent of becoming an overriding principle. The absence of strong law enforcement agencies and lack of political will, however, could not enable intensive utilization of the principle. The pathetic situation of all legal institutions in the states and the no less pathetic situation of the Federal Courts and Federal prisons, coupled with the inoperation of the institution of the Ombudsman and of the Human Rights Commission so far, could be invoked as reasons.

Apart from the above, one might suggest the following as solutions to problems of multi-ethnic Ethiopia.

1. Exploit the structures inherent in federalism. This can be done by instituting true bi-cameralism through making the upper house a legislative upper house with a veto power over legislations this canhappen only if its composition is restructured, either through equal representation of each state as it is the case in mature democracies or through equal numerical representation of each people group as it is intended to be done (on the face of it in Ethiopia). A clearer separation of power must complement this bicameralism. Relegation of the task of constitutional interpretation to the courts or special constitutional court might also be considered.

2. Intensify the task of Federal Government to build a country of united destiny.The House Of Federation is entrusted with this duty. The federal intervention of the sake of maintain a uniform human rights standards while at the same time empowering state governments to take self-administration seriously( thereby molding the process of developing peculiar area of concern vis-à-vis human rights is immediately important.

3. Intensification of democracy requires the increase in civil societies substantive pluralism of parties and a secure legal ground protection freedom of association. Furthermore, it is imperative that parties be organized in a manner that can access cross-ethnic constituencies.

4. Concerned legislative and law enforcement agencies should try to strike a balance between the uniform implementation of human rights standards and religious and customary laws of the different ethnic groups borrowing interdisciplinary approach, brining to the ground the debates on universality of human rights norms and multi-culturalism; and with due consideration of the overriding nature of human rights norms in the constitutional framework.It is noticeable from the forgoing that readymade solutions are hard to come by.

On the other hand some of the criticisms advanced by commentators on the Ethiopian model appear to be excessive as they stem from what seems exaggerated expectation from the process. Knowing the situation the country has underwent for 17 years, knowing the change undertaken with a totally new institutional set up, new political personnel etc. it will be utopian-lookingoptimism to expect bloom and blossom out of the new model of federalism. One should also note that federalism is hardly a perfect institution. As any imperfect institution, it evolves, and dealing with the problems that unfold is worth the experiment as the solutions given promote the politics of love, tolerance and association than hatred, intolerance and dissociation

*Read more on Ethiopian Ethnic  Federalism  Here

Ethnic Federalism: The Ethiopian Experience in Comparative Perspective (Eastern African Studies)

-Abate Nikodimos Alemayehu Ethnic Federalism in Ethiopia


14 thoughts on “Ethnic Federalism

  1. Pingback: ODM Talking Majimbo Again - Mashada Forums

  2. Muigwithania,

    My mom’s Oromo and I couldn’t disagree more with this article.By the way, thanks for visiting my blog.

    Could you elaborate what parts of the article you disagree with (for our readers).The article points to and argues various points, including some of major problems that do exist within the Ethiopian system of federalism.

  3. *Godfrey -Sorry for the deleted comment -Could you kindly repost your comments. We regret the administrative error.

  4. I couldn’t disagree more Godfrey.yes your historical view is correct but that doesn’t mean that a federal system would be bad for Kenya. The federal system that would be implemented in Kenya would not be the nassir type majimbo but rather a properly worked out system that doesn’t drag with it the odm nassir majimbo philosophies. Ethnic federalism in Ethiopia for example does not mean that Afrar people can not own land and live in Oromania .We have to move beyond the nassir majimbo association and come up with a workable system. As for the rich history Ethiopia has, we too have a rich history certainly older than Christianity.On cultural differences ,the differences between Oromos and Tigre people are no greater than differences between Tugens and Merus, so that can not be a justification why the system can work in Kenya. .

    I think it is important for readers to go through and understand the post and the various complex issues it raises.(dont be quick to give your two cents -understand the limitations of government,the concept of not perfect but working to perfection) This by far is one of the best posts I have read on this blog or any other blog on majimbo.Yes we have the kenyan experiences of federalism but people should understand that’s not the system being talked about. Our politicians might think that is the system they want or plan to implement but we want real federalism not a nassir version or a bogus one that fails to address that need of modern Kenya

  5. Well, let me try to recall what I had posted but it won’t be in the same words.

    I was trying to recalling the reasons behind the calls for federalism, or majimbo in today’s Kenya. We did have a federal system of government briefly in the early 1960s. After independence, the first African government decided to have a centralized government due to the fear that federalism could result in ethnic nationalism that could divide the country. Now, for 30 years, the majimbo debate was dormant until the return of multi-party politics in the 1990s.

    There was a very real danger within the ruling KANU party that President Moi would lose the polls. Moi’s Kalenjin ethnic group was not happy that the Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kisii and Kamba living among them were voting for opposition candidates. This led to the infamous KANU zones and eventually calls for Majimbo. The argument was that every ethnic group should live by itself and vote for the person of their choice instead of the situation in the Rift Valley where different ethnic groups could not be counted upon to vote for the incumbent of the time.

    Another reason why the Majimbo debate arose was the tendency of Moi to create tribal kingpins. Sharrif Nassir was the unofficial head of the coast, Mulu Mutisya – Kamba, Francis Lotodo – Pokot, William Ntimama – Maasai, Mulu Mutisya – Kamba, and so on. These people began demanding Majimbo because they beleived they would have a head start in the race for regional governors. Nassir wanted to become president of coast, Ntimama president of South Rift, Lotodo president of North Rift, …. you get the drift.

    In short, the point I am making is that the calls for Majimbo are not driven by inherent hatred among ethnic groups. Instead, they are driven by politicians for their own strategic advantage.

    Sam makes the point that we can have federalism while ignoring the context of it. This is the same argument ODM made in 2007, that federalism can be a good experience as seen in Nigeria, Ethiopia and so on. However, ODM learnt from the debate that you cannot divorce Majimbo from recent history, especially the past 18 years or so. Whether we want to admit it or not, there are people who will equate majimbo with ethnic clashes. I am talking of both perpetrators and victims.

    Some people will take Majimbo to mean chasing away immigrant ethnic groups. Others will take Majimbo to mean death and destruction. Unfortunately, these are the beliefs that distort the debate. Perhaps, at a later time, people will be sober enough for rational discussion on the merits or demerits of federalism.

  6. Federal government is a form of government or country which power is divided between one central government and several regional govenments according to my Angus & Robertson Dictionary.

    Africans should be thiking of the Federation of African States,USA if you like; instead of little tribal cocoons.

    The first federation on the planet was Black African and it stretched steadily and intermittenty depending on situations; from present day Uganda/Kenya all the way to the Nile Delta in today’s Egypt. It was known as Kemet. Africans new government when the rest of humanity were in various barbaric/primitive stages.

    Our childen need to know such facts to foster a sense of pride and purpose in them as we Kenyan African adults seem to have lost it.

    The semantics of federation in Kenya immediately springs forth the litte tribal parochialism that we now know can lead to murderous abandon.It is a cheap tool of trade of the ruling class on a whim to fear monger and/or obfuscate their obvious inadequacies.

    I will not pretend to comment much about Ethiopia’s federation style governmen but seeing our Oromo sister here(they form 32% of Ethiopia’s 82 million with te Amara at 30%) cautioning Kenyans about getting agog and all about it should not be ignored.

    I say sematics of federation because if resouces are chanelled to all adminstrative divisions eg constituencies/provinces/districts/villages faily,properly and used efficiently this would still be federal government in the sense that at grassroot level Knyans will get to determine their priorities. Within a great supranational framework.

    This is the idea behind the Consituency dev Funds. Which with time and capacity build up should lead to even greater levlels of resources provided by Treasury/central government.

    The upshot is that Kenyans have it all figured out really! The most erudite sounding sessional papers. Even the constitution that we have wanted to throw out for a generation really just needed a tweak or two to curtail tin-god behaviours/proclivities by the executive.

    We have a crisis in Kenya and it is MORAL MALAISE. Which has led to inaility to implement excellent plans after coffee & samosa workshops.

    It is malignant and those who should know better are letting themselves get infected with cynicism and cocoon mentalities.Instead of inpiring the masses towards a higher, unifying ideal of Africa and Kenya.

    We are not genuine as a people. We secretly want to join/associate/hobnob in the gravy train that as ioverished us. Many attempt to to hide these low-level instincts with intellectual sounding garb.

    What a pity.

  7. We nations in Africa suffer from conflicts based on colonial borders and because of disregarding national rights as some thing “ethnic”. This desigantion “ethnic” instead of nation/nationality/people is used by both European colonizers and their puppet African colonizers aka Abyssinians. In reality Africa was borderless, all being called as Ethiopia or Sudan, i.e land of blacks. It is true all of Africa is land of blacks.

    To tackle the present global challenge, Africans are trying to come together and forge an AUG (African Union Government). They are looking at USA or EU as an example. But both can not be good examples. USA is the melting pot for all nations around the world migrating to America and learning english. EU is the Union of well developed and independent mono-national-states, all with their own respective languages good developed and used.

    Africa can be neither a melting pot nor a union of well developed only mono-national-states. The nations in Africa are diverse in development and size. What is good for Africa is to build a union with autonomous national areas for all nations aka “ethnies”

    Based on their size and development, some nations can forge mono-national-state like Oromia. The others, which are too small to have their own state can forge multi-national-state like SNNP of Ethiopia, with all nations having their own Province/Zone, District/Wereda or Community/Qebele as autonomous natonal areas based on their size. Relatively bigger nations like Sidama can have their own autonomous Province/Zone, nations smaller than this like Alaba can have autonomous District/Wereda and the smallest nations like Dorze can have their own Community/Qebele. Based on their geographical position, certain small nations like Agew and Harari can join the bigger neighbour nations like Amhara or Oromia, but have their own autonomy, be it as province, district or community. Such 5 tier organization (African Federation — Mono-/Multinational States — Mono-/Multinational Provinces — Mono-/Multionational Districts and Mono-/Multinational Communities) is the best way of adiministrative Organization for Africa.

    In Short Ethiopian model can be used as that of African, just changing its fake status under Weyane to a very genuine one, for which OLF and the likes are struggling!!


    Interesting take on the true essence of the Ethiopian model.I support your view in one aspect . We have to go back to the basics of precolonial nations before we can move ahead.

  8. It simply is a dictators method to keep people divided and easily conquer them. It is a colonial formula. All ethnicity problems in Africa today are created by white colonials. We don’t have to be victims colonial powers trick. Ethnic Federalism is fascism. It doesn’t work.

  9. A country like Kenya is too poor, has too small a population, too small an economies of scale, too little domestic economy for a Federal System. Just bankrolling the administration itself would bankrupt the country. Nyeusi Ni Mungu if you read this please contact me at I would like to talk to you in depth about ideas you have presented on this blog about Pan-Africanism. Your thoughts are in-depth and progressive and it would be a privilege to engage in actionable dialogue with you.

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