Development scholars have always been mesmerized by the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front’s development experiment, which combines a highly decentralized and democratic political order of federalism and state-driven fast economic growth. Thus far, things look to have worked fine with 15-years of double-digit growth and relatively stable political system. However, as of late, issues are creeping in the political spectrum and Ethiopia’s federalism is being increasingly put to test, writes Asrat Seyoum.
Residing in one of the most spectacular natural habitats in world, the Konso people of the Sothern Regional State stands out as one of the few indigenous communities in Ethiopia that managed to preserved their traditional customs and way of life. In recognition of that, the United Nations Education Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the Konso landscape and way of life as one of world’s most protected heritage sites.
With its stone terrace, contour farming of mountain hills, walled settlements, protected forests and ancient burial grounds, which transcends more than 20 generations (400 years), the Konso landscape is a testament to human beings traditional coexistence with the natural environment. Even further, the Konso landscape and way of life is recognized for the ingenuity of its indigenous engineering practices and its social cohesion, which was able to mobilize the labor force to keep up with the preservation of the environment.
What makes matters even more interesting is the strong resolve of the Konso people to stick to their traditional way of life until today. However, life has not been easy for them in past couple of years to say the least. Especially, after the regional administration passed the controversial decision to dissolve the Konso special wereda, a self-administration unit accountable directly to the region, in 2011, the problem of the Konso has intensified immensely. This decision amounted to reducing what was once a self-governing Konso wereda to an ordinary wereda administration under a blanket zonal administration called the Segen People’s Zone merged together with three other ethnic groups: Burji, Amero and Derashe.
According to experts, the downgrading from a special wereda status to an ordinary wereda in the Segen Zone is an unpleasant political gesture to the people of Konso, who have a long history and tradition in southern Ethiopia. And, since then, the Konso have been vehemently opposing the decision of the regional administration and have been campaigning for change. It does not end there. As the problem persists the peaceful agitation of the Konso have evolved into a damaging conflict with both security forces and other ethnic groups in their neighborhoods.
But how does a self-administration matter turn violent?
Well, according to a testimonial piece written by Nahusenay Belay, a lecturer and a PhD candidate at Addis Ababa University (AAU), the dissolution of the Konso self-governing wereda and its merger with Segen Zone was far more damaging to the Konso than the region would like to admit. Writing his open letter addressed to the country’s Prime Minister, Hailemariam Dessalegn and other relevant ministries, Nahusenay stressed the need to give attention to the tension in the area where Konso is located.
Although Nahusenay did not downplay the significance of the self-governing issues in the locality, he argues that he had learned of far worse injustices being committed on the Konso people. Based on his accounts, the systematic marginalization of the Konso people from the leadership position of the Segen zonal administration have cost them a lot in terms of deficit in services such as health, education and adequate budget allocation for social and economic gains. Furthermore, the continuous refusal of the regional administration to hear the concerns of the Konso regarding recall of politicians in the federal parliament and regional council and the decision taken by the region to nominate three kebeles under Konso to become a city rather than a wereda, resulted in fatal violence in the region.
The unrest has already taken huge toll both on the region and the Konso people. According to Hikma Keyredin, head of the Southern Regional State Communication Office, the damages caused by the conflict is far ranging and includes burning of houses, killing of 6 people (four shot and two burn victims) and mass displacements of close to 12,000 Konsos from their original homeland.
Nevertheless, at the heart of the conflict is the demand of the Konso people to be afforded self-governance structure in the form of a zonal administration and the refusal of the regional administration to accommodate this wish.
But, what would it mean for the Konso and indeed other ethnic groups to have zonal or a wereda administration of their own? And what is the legal basis to demand the said administrative structures?
In a nutshell, zones and weredas are the major sub-regional administrative structures in Ethiopia’s federalist system. However, to understand what the Konso are demanding one needs to understand what the basic structure of a zone or a wereda is in Ethiopia. Although the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) affords regional states the right to enact their own constitution and a suitable administrative structure, it also declares that a wereda is the smallest unit of government in federalist Ethiopia with its own elected council, administrative body and court system. A zonal structure comes immediately above a wereda and it would be accountable to the regional state. Still for administrative convince, regional states would have city administration and kebele structures with the purpose of further facilitating government service delivery and development activities.
However, the property of the zonal and hence wereda administrative structures is not homogeneous across all the regional states that makes up the Ethiopian federal state. As far as zones are concerned, there are two types of zones in Ethiopia: ordinary and special zones. Ordinary zone are common administrative tiers in most regional states in Ethiopia and structurally ordinary zones do not have an elected mandate from people and it mostly is composed of appointed officials. Meanwhile, the special zones are those zonal administrations which have an elected council and an administrative body accountable to the people and the regional states.
Structurally, the two are quite different. This difference is found embedded in Ethiopia’s most debated constitutional provision, Article 39, which states Ethiopian nations, nationalities and peoples have the right to self-determination up to secession. Nevertheless, as early as its genesis, framers of the Ethiopian federalist system were convinced that the right to self-determination, although an inalienable right to the nations, nationalities and people, is also a very difficult one to implement uniformly.
The basic reason here is the sheer diversity of the Ethiopian nations and nationalities, which according to the proclamation 7/1992, enacted during the transitional period, is composed of 63 different ethnic groups. Based on this specification, around five of these major ethnic groups (Oromo, Amhara, Tigray, Somali and Afar) were allowed to attain the highest form of self-determination by forming regional states. However, the rest, Southern, Gambella and Benishangul-Gumuz, were decided to be multinational regional states; with Harari being an exception to rule and still allowed to form as a regional state in its name although it was a minority in the region.
So, as per the proclamation 7/1992, 45 ethnic groups were identified or rather designated to be fit to exercise self-determination albeit under sub-regional structures. This is the genesis of special zones in some of multinational regions in Ethiopia. And, the structure of special zones at present day is an extension of the self-determination right of the nations and nationalities existing in multinational regional states.
Nevertheless, today, both ordinary and special zones are found mixed in most regional states. Regional states like Tigray are the exceptions to this picture employing no special zone structures in their administrative tiers; but they do have ordinary zones. Southern is by far the most ethnically heterogeneous region in Ethiopia have 56 different ethnic groups, large and small in population size and territorial coverage. And hence, the region is by far the biggest pool of special zones and especial weredas with close of 15 different special zones and a handful of special weredas making up the regional administrative structure.
Back in the transitional days, the Southern Regional State was in fact a region which was divided into five different regional states making up the 14 regions defining the provisional region classification at the time. However, when the five come together to form one regional state, it was quite obvious that the issue of self-administration would creep upon on the system, experts explain. And it did. The long list of conflicts involving ethnic groups such as Wolayita, Gamo, Goffa and Dawro; the other involving the Kefficho and Shekicho; the other involving the Sidama wanting to establish own regional administration are some but few of the bloody conflicts in the regions over the years.
These conflicts were followed by mass special zone and special wereda establishments to resolve the ethnic clashes. And they have worked in terms attaining stability. However, recent trends have been nothing but worrisome for the Southern Regional State. For instance, a recent report by the region’s security office corroborate this perception identifying 166 potential violent conflict conditions in the region last year alone. Of course, Konso is one of these conflicts threatening the security of the region.
According to Wubishet Mulat, a constitutional law expert, special zones administration is what is being demanded by the Konso people at the moment. And he says this nothing but a question of self-determination for the Konso people. Zemelak Ayitenew (PhD), a lecturer at AAU’s Center for Federal Studies, says that the Konso people are constitutionally guaranteed (both by the federal and regional) to seek special zone administration.
Ironically, the response of the regional administration refers to purely administrative matters to deny the request of the Konso. According to Hikma, the decision to change governance structure is not based on number of population or territorial occupation; rather, it is about development and ensuring the benefit of the people in terms of economic and social developments. Here one cannot help but appreciate widely opposing perspective of the demand of the people which is self-deterministic in nature and the response of the regional administration that is an administrative convince.
Wubishet, however, argues that this should not come as a surprise because the deterministic criteria for the creation of self-administration zones and weredas have always been arbitrary in Ethiopia. He argues that even during the transitional period 45 ethnic groups selected out of 63 to actualize their self-determination via administrative structure were hardly backed by compelling criteria and reasoning. And, in his opinion, it would be a fool’s errand to seek for solid and objective conditions for lodging such claims and/or rejecting or accepting them.
As far as Zemelak is concerned, the constitutions of the region and of Ethiopia are adequate conditions for the Konos to demand self-administration. He says: “The Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Constitution provides the procedure for establishing ethnic self-government at sub-regional level. Accordingly, Konso special wereda was already established. The ruling party of the region, however, made a political decision in 2011, to dissolve the Konso, Amaro, Burji and Derashe special weredas and merge them to form what is called Segen Zone”. So, for him, the problem did not arise for the lack of constitutional framework for dealing with the matter but due to the political decision to merge the four special weredas to create a mere administrative zone.
On the flip side, experts also raise the issue of practicality should all the ethnic groups were allowed to exercise self-administration at regional, zonal or even at the wereda level. For one, the resource constraint especially for regions like the south is far too great to overcome, they say. Wubishet seems to appreciate some of these challenges. For instance, he says, in regions like Gambella, where three out of five ethnic groups are allowed to set up special zones (Anuak, Nuer and Majang), one can appreciate the challenges in situation where one of ethnic groups, which is significantly less in number, could not have feasible way of actualizing self-governance in form of zones or weredas. “The same is true in Benishangul-Gumuz where Mao and Komo ethnic groups had to be combined to form administrative structure but their number being barely adequate to form one woreda (100,000),” Wubishet explains.
Zemelak also appreciates the problem with strict implementation of the constitutional principle entitling every ethnic community for self-government. “It is not practically feasible. On the other hand, refusing to grant demands for self-government for those who demand it is not only a violation of the constitution but also, as we have been witnessing, a cause for violence,” he contends.
However, an anonymous commentator is of the view that the argument about practicality and resource strain could be a bit stretched as far as a special zone and wereda are concerned. According to him, as far as resource is concerned the cost would be setting up the administration structures in these new zones or weredas. “It is not like the budget that is allotted to these people would suddenly increase; budget is allocated based on the population number and it will stay that way whether special zone or not,” he told The Reporter.
Even then, he says that it is a price too small to pay for one of the pillar principles of the constitution and the loss of life and property due to ensuing conflict because of denying these rights. The party and the government should choice between its principles and other priorities, he argues. “If it was me, I would always choose the principle respecting the constitutional right of people in this case,” he concludes.