Assefa Fisseha (PhD), associate professor, is chairman of the Centre for Federal Studies, Addis Ababa University. A constitutional lawyer by background, he is one of the leading experts in comparative federalism and has published several articles in reputable journals at home and in Europe. He has been teaching and researching in this field for nearly 15 years now. Solomon Goshu of the Reporter caught up with the federalism expert to discuss the current state of the federal system in Ethiopia. Excerpts:
The Reporter: What led to the flourishing of the federal form of governance globally and particularly in Ethiopia?
Assefa Fisseha (PhD): The idea of the nation-state and its pitfalls, that is, addressing the concerns of marginalized ethno-national minorities in the context of a dominant nation that commands the state institutions and nurtures its identity, has a big part to play for the emergence of federalism globally, including in Ethiopia. The nation-state as we know it in the west, and as developed since Westphalia, had assumed that the nation and the boundary of the state must match together, that the state should reflect the wishes of the nation, and the nation would have its own boundary and government. And this would be aligned with the liberal model which focuses on the individual as a basic unit to analyze and understand society and politics. And this was the model that many advanced Western countries have practiced for centuries and the one we transplanted to Africa after the end of colonialism. Ethiopia is an exception. Although Ethiopia has had a long political history, largely the modern Ethiopian state was a nation-state designed along the model of a centralized, unitary, Christian and Amharic-speaking state. Some sections of the Ethiopian society were not thrilled with this arrangement. Globally as well as in Ethiopia, the creation of a nation-state was not a voluntary process. There is always a dominant nation which shares language, culture, and history, which is in charge of the nation-building process with a certain ideology trying to amalgamate and assimilate pockets of minorities. And the question is those left out from the nation-building project were not happy. Various ideologies, including Marxism, liberalism, modernization, and globalization, predicted that if the nation-state remains liberal, democratic, and ensures a fair economic growth, pockets of minorities will wither away into the dominant culture, tradition and language. That was the expectation in the 1960s. But the empirical reality seems to indicate otherwise. The nation-state is still a dominant phenomenon. For instance, President Trump is espousing that in clear terms. He is trying to withdraw the U.S. from international institutions and bilateral agreements. I am not sure if the nation-state is the right ideology. In any case, the nation-state had left out sections of society. It marginalized them from political process and the economy. Their identity was also considered as second class. So, the marginalized began to threaten the nation-state. That is the case of Scotland in the U.K., Quebec in Canada, and Catalonia in Spain. If seen in this context, Ethiopian national liberation movements are largely of the same mold. The nation-state was not accommodative, inclusive and it had also a democratic deficit. Some in the current multiculturalism debate have over the last 30 years tried to undermine multiculturalism as a failure and that multiculturalism for minorities is the question of cuisine, dress and feeding habit. However, hardcore culturalists like Will Kymilka and Charles Taylor would argue that multiculturalism, apart from the view that there is more than one public identity in a state at its core, is addressing political and economic issues of those marginalized. A prominent writer on ethno-nationalism, Anthony Smith, says “this is the era of ethnic revival.” That is to say that ethnicity has survived all predictions like that of modernization, liberalism, and the withering away hypothesis. Even the liberal state cannot afford to ignore groups anymore. In divided societies, although societies could mobilize themselves along class, gender, and civil society, identity has become a very key mobilizing factor nowadays. Now, there is this new liberal camp which says that the group also exists alongside the individual.
Generally, there are two types of federalism. You have the classic American, German and Austrian types which are called ‘territorial federations’. The main goal of this dispensation is to make sure that power is devolved from one center to many centers in the state. The states are largely organized on the basis of geography. We also call them ‘nation-state federations’ because the same majority remains a majority at the federal level and also enjoys a majority at state levels. On the contrary, we have federations like Ethiopia and India, who primarily aim not only to devolve power but also aim to address mobilized ethno-nationalist groups. You can deal with diversity in many ways. The problem in Ethiopia is that we had national liberation movements mobilized against the center. Group identities have gained a political momentum. We call this ‘the political relevance of identity’. Identity dominates all other factors of political mobilization. The federal project in Ethiopia promises that the ethno-national groups would rule themselves and they would also have fair representation in federal institutions. The self-rule is designed to ensure political and territorial autonomy to groups. In divided societies, federal institutions should reflect the diversity on the ground. It is like a group photo. Individuals look first for their pictures when they see the group photo. Public institutions should reflect the reality on the ground. A genuine representation of a certain community in public institutions is expected to enhance the legitimacy of these institutions. The representation at the federal level is expected to provide opportunity for groups to influence policy-making at national level.
The country has faced turmoil over the past two years. For some, this is a sign that the federal system is not working well. For others, the success of the federal system is much broader than its recent hiccups. Since no other person has explored the successes and challenges of the federal system than yourself, what is your take on the current health of the federal system?
It is a very broad topic. To start with, we need to understand the political context that led to the constitutional framework and the existing crisis that we discussed earlier. In many ways, we have come a long way in terms of addressing questions by ethno-national groups and building the political and administrative units of the state. Twenty-five years ago, regional states had little institutional and human capacity to give even the barest minimum of services. Today, regional states are quite well-equipped in terms of human resources and to a certain extent even financial resources. But we also have problems. And this is where I would like to put emphasis. First, the challenges in 2015 and 2016 have indicated that we have not used federalism as a tool for polity building. Apart from dispersing power and accommodating ethno-national groups, successful federal systems used federalism to construct a new identity for building the state. I am not going to use nation-building. Instead, I would use polity building because the concept ‘nation’ in Ethiopia is also very controversial. Starting from the transitional period all the way to the present, there is this ongoing debate on the relationship between Ethiopian identity vis-à-vis ethnic identities. In almost all these debates, people tend to understand that these are mutually exclusive identities. This is where things are going wrong. You have multiple identities in a federation. You have a specific birthplace. You may belong to a certain professional association or religious community. We are Ethiopians. We have also ethno-national identities. How do you reconcile these layered identities? In a working federal system, you can have several identities at several layers of the state. There is no contradiction among these several identities. You can enjoy your ethno-national identity at a local level. But you also have an over-arching Ethiopian identity which embraces everyone. So, we have to nest these identities together. The idea that Ethiopia first should come at the cost of all other identities, or that ethno-nationalism identity should prevail over all other identities, is a wrong understanding of federalism. I don’t think that the political leadership at various levels have captured or effectively used federalism to harmonize all the conflicting and differing visions of layers of identities.
Second, we have seen in the crisis that erupted in 2015 and 2016, and even earlier, a wrong perception of self-rule. Self-rule is the right to administer oneself in political institutions at regional or local levels. You also have the right to use your own language and culture. But there is this idea in some parts of the country where self-rule is used as a means to build turfs or rigid boundaries. With growing ethno-nationalism, this is becoming very dangerous. Self-rule is also about respecting and accommodating others’ identities. There must be a dialogue and continuous interaction among several identities. After the crisis, I travelled to the regional states and some remote woredas. I was informed that carrying the federal flag at some localities was risky. It was quite dangerous. You could be killed. I was shocked to see an extreme ethno-nationalism that has gone wrong terrorizing other groups that speak a different language. Such was the situation in Gambella and Benishangul-Gumuz some years back. But in the crisis it became so visible that some sections of the society were worried about the fate of the system in general. We have a federal education policy proclaimed during the transitional period. That policy states that Amharic has to be promoted as a working language and starting from grade 3 or 5, it has to be taught in schools. I have witnessed in some regional states that when it was time for Amharic lessons, students are told to do some physical exercise or music or dance. This is deliberately designed by some regional states not to promote the working language. This is basically another version of building turfs. Groups can renegotiate with the federal government to have their languages promoted to the federal level. But not implementing clear federal policies weakens the common bond.
Third, the relationship between the federal government and the regional states is interdependent. One does not exist independent of the other. So, if a regional state X faces a crisis, we think that it is that particular regional state’s crisis. But, sooner or later, it will affect the other regional states and the federal government. So, when Oromia faced that storm in 2015 and 2016, and Amhara faced that crisis in the summer of 2016, first and foremost the respective regional states had to address those issues without waiting for anyone. If that fails, then other regional states and the federal government have to help. Eleven months into the crisis in Oromia, the regional state did not take any political measure to address the problem; nor did federal institutions like the House of the Federation or any other organ of the federal executive branch. The same thing happened in the Amhara region. So, we failed to see the nature of interdependence in our federal system. It does not seem to have captured the minds of the political decision-makers, including the society at large. During the crisis, regional and federal institutions were not able to respond in time as required. Everybody was waiting for the ruling party to react. In the process, we lost several lives and lots of property. This shouldn’t have happened. Intervention should be the last resort. Political solution could have been the best way of addressing the problems that emerged.
Why haven’t we witnessed a basic change in the huge gap between the promises of the federal system in the normative framework and the practical implementation after 22 years of constitutional experiment?
We have to be more specific to explain the gap. There are areas where the system has met expectations. For example, there are massive expansions in infrastructure. The economy is also doing well. But largely in the governance area you see gaps. Since 2001, there is a focus on the political ideology of development. So we have two important projects: Federalism as a political solution to our age-old concentration of power, and development to address Ethiopia’s age-old poverty. These are two important pillars which in themselves are not a problem. But we can trace some of the sources of the crisis in the way we implement them. So why do they contradict? There are countries that have aligned federalism and development well. India is the best example. India also addresses the governance issue. Where does our governance problem come from then? When the government put developmental ideology as a centerpiece dominant ideology, it comes with centrally planned mega projects. How do regional states and communities participate in the design of the development projects? Are they consulted in advance? Do they benefit from these projects? In Gambella and Oromia, where the crises have erupted several times, local communities feel that they were not consulted enough during the process. Some of the projects may have been successful, but not necessarily by ensuring community interests. Local communities have some resentment with these development projects. This is combined with land. The constitution has some ambiguities with respect to land, which further complicates matters on the ground. The constitution says laws in relation to land and natural resources are mandates of the federal government. It also says that regional states will administer land based on federal law. This will give the impression that administration of land belongs to the states and making laws belongs to the federal government. But this is not the only story. According to Article 40 of the constitution, land belongs to the state and nations nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia. Self-determination is also very much related to land. My view is that land is a concurrent mandate of the federal government and the states. Of course, the crisis is aggravated by the party system we have. The dominant party system we have had largely dominated the federal and state institutions for more than two decades. This by itself may not be a problem so long as it is the result of a democratic political process. So long as it is the result of the free will of the people, in principle, staying in power for a number of terms by winning elections is not a problem. Where we have a problem is that this may not necessarily have been the wishes of the people. In my reading of African and even other countries’ political history, a protest of this magnitude that we have had in 2015 and 2016 after a 100% electoral victory by the ruling party is a very rare phenomenon. If you win 100% and deliver, you wouldn’t face a protest of this magnitude in such a short period of time. The government was elected in May 2015 and the government was established in September 2015, and the protest in Oromia started in November 2015. This is quite abnormal. We have to ask why this did happen after a 100% electoral victory. The dominant party may have done a lot of miracles in terms of economic development, grassroots mobilization, and peace and security. But along the lines we may have had marginalized the loyal political opposition. This means that any discontented section of society has no real way of expressing its discontent either in the legislature or in the media or through other ways of staging peaceful protest. So the sidelining of the political opposition may have been the price that we have paid for the economic growth that we have earned through the dominant party system. The discontented sections of society were left to heed the calls of hardliners outside of the country. So I was not surprised when senior local opposition political figures were saying in public that “this protest is not led by us.” I think it is time for opening up the political space to the political opposition which is determined to bring about political change through a peaceful and democratic electoral process. The second impact of the dominant party is that because the ruling party was very strong and hegemonic at federal and state levels, it has sidelined institutions. The ruling party should operate independently of institutions, and the institutions, like the parliament, the media, and the judiciary need to get separate lives of their own.
One of the reasons for multi-ethnic countries like Ethiopia to adopt a federal system is mainly as a means of conflict resolution. In some of your works you argued that the system has contributed to the alleviation of conflicts. But at the same time many reports show that ethnic- and identity-based conflicts and questions are emerging widely in recent times. How do you evaluate these contradictory claims?
My view is that the so-called ‘ethnic conflicts’ are not ethnic conflicts. I would take the Silte, Kimant and Konso cases as exceptions. We have regional states that are ethno-national or language based. One of the features of this kind of federalism is that groups who may be a minority at federal level would be given an opportunity to become a majority in their own regional state. We have 76 ethno-national groups recognized in the House of the Federation. But we have only 9 regional states. So there is a mismatch between the number of ethno-national groups and regional states. The rights of minorities are not well addressed in the Ethiopian federal system. Those who have their own regional states, zones, and woredas are doing fine. When you have dominant political elites in regional states which control the whole political institutions including the territory, there is little political incentive for these political elites to open up political space to minorities because of their number. The political elite in regional states does not seem to be responsive to demands by Kimant, Konso, and other pockets of minorities — demands which still need to be addressed. According to our research, we may probably need four basic reforms to address these emerging issues. Most of the cases that are reported as ‘ethnic questions’ are, in reality, questions pertaining to the rights of minorities. We have marginalized minorities in regional states which are under the mercy of dominant ethno-national groups who think that the territory and the political institutions belong to them only. Large sections of the society who are living outside of their regional states are now politically marginalized and reduced to second-class citizens. The first measure we have to take is that we have to allow minorities — despite their number — to have a fair and proportionate representation in the legislature, executive, and the judiciary. We also need to allocate budget fairly among the communities. If you do justice to these marginalized communities, you reduce tension between the majority and the minority in regional states. The second measure is to allow them to use their language and culture. This is the non-territorial autonomy. That is what the Oromos are asking in Addis Ababa. The third measure is if regional governments failed to respond to these issues, the federal government can intervene. You cannot use self-rule to terrorize minorities. The last measure is enforcing human rights provisions of the constitution. I am not undermining that there are no ethnic conflicts. But largely, this is about addressing the rights of minorities in regional states.
As opposed to these rights of minorities, what is your observation on the performance of institutions responsible for addressing identity-related questions so far?
All those issues that have been tabled to be addressed through the institutional political process have taken quite a long time. Some are still on the table. There is also a lot of misunderstanding on the meaning of identity. Language is not the only variable where groups identify themselves. People can mobilize by picking any of layers of identities against the next other if there is any marginalization or discrimination. I think the constitution is flexible enough in terms of defining the nations, nationalities, and peoples. But the way experts are trying to address those issues is not necessarily going well. The institutions have not largely been responsive enough. Some issues have taken 10 years. The longer time you take, the more mobilization it will engender within political elites, and then radicalization sets in. That is how conflicts erupt.
For many commentators, the issue of Wolkait has brought new challenges which were not explored before in the federal system. What is your take on this highly controversial issue in recent times?
Without going to the historical controversies that surround this issue, there are two different layers of problem related to Wolkait. The first one is political mobilization. The second is minority right. We had a province called Shewa. During the time when there were14 provinces, it was also the capital city of Ethiopia. Shewa does not exist anymore. Now, the Amharic-speaking part of Shewa is the North Shewa Zone of the Amhara Regional State. The Oromiffa-speaking section including Ziway, Shashemene and Fiche became parts of Oromia and Amhara regions. The Hadya, Kembata, and Gurage zones became part of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Regional State. And then there is Addis Ababa. If you take Addis Ababa as a regional state for our purpose, four regional states have been created from Shewa. Literally, Shewa has been dismembered from the political map. We have had a province called Harerge which included Harar, Dire Dawa, Somali region and parts of Afar region. As a result of the federal structuring, only Western and Eastern Harerge of Oromia exist, but the rest is in Oromia, Somali, Harari, and Afar regional states, and the Dire Dawa City Administration. So we have dismembered Harerge literally or it exists in a new form now. The reason why I brought these two examples is to show the political mobilization problem in Wolkait. There may truly be an Amharic-speaking community in this disputed area whose rights have to be respected like other minorities in the other regional states. But the idea that a territory in Tigray has been taken from Gondar and has to be returned is fallacious if you compare it with the case of Shewa and Harerge. Historically, it may have been in Gondar. Long time ago it may have probably been in Tigray as well. So if you go to history, which history is more important? That is not helpful. At some stage, we have decided in the constitution that language becomes a criterion to define a regional state. So if there is a dominant Tigrigna-speaking community in this contested area, I don’t see any problem why it shouldn’t be in Tigray Regional State. But there is a lot of politicization. This confused the genuine question. However, this should not in any case overshadow the rights of minorities.
The government has promised to enact a proclamation that defines the special interests of Oromia in Addis Ababa this year. Considering the fact that the issue is one of your research areas, what direction should the intended law follow?
In Addis Ababa, there are three governments: the federal government, the Oromia Regional State and the City Government of Addis Ababa. Any decision around Addis Ababa has to be the result of the consensus of these three entities. I agree with the government that the issue has to be addressed. The constitution promised it. But now we have every reason to address this question. The government has to do further study. My view is that the law could contain a package of solutions, one of which is to address the concern regarding Oromo traditions, cultures, and languages in the city. It was also vivid in the recent protests. We can have public schools that teach in Oromiffa for the Oromo community. We can open cultural centers. That has already begun. Incidentally, the city government happened to elect an Oromo mayor for the last several years. I think this should also be seen as part of the solution. In some of the areas, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You just have to strengthen what already exists. I don’t have the exact figure about how the executive is organized apart from the mayor. But if there are deficits in terms of representing the Oromo community, that should also be investigated. Waste disposal has largely been a controversial issue in Addis Ababa for many years now. This needs to be addressed as well. Possibly, parts of the revenue coming from the city could be allocated to the Oromia region. Of course, this needs further investigation. These are possible solutions.