Federalism is a system of government where power is shared between a central authority and smaller regional governments.
Many countries adopt federalism to manage ethnic diversity within their borders and help promote unity. There are 25 federal countries globally, representing 40% of the world’s population.
Federalism allows regions to govern some of their affairs – such as decisions regarding education or working languages – while being part of the larger country.
Ethiopia adopted federalism in 1991 when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – a coalition of four major parties – came to power. This followed 17 years of insurgencies to depose the Derg, a communist military junta that ruled the country from 1974 to 1991.
The primary aim of Ethiopian federalism is to accommodate the country’s diverse ethnic groups. Before 1991, Ethiopia had a centralised unitary government that suppressed diversity. It restricted ethnic groups from using their languages in official settings and schools.
Ethiopian federalism grants ethnic groups the right to self-determination. An ethnic group can form its own region or become an independent country. This approach has drawn both praise and criticism.
Some academics view it as a novel approach to resolving conflicts and preventing state disintegration. It’s impossible to forge unity without the voluntary alliance and assurance of the right to self-determination. Others argue that it worsens tensions and could eventually lead to disintegration.
I have studied Ethiopian politics for more than a decade, with a focus on the implementation of federalism. After more than 30 years, ethnic conflict in Ethiopia hasn’t been resolved – but neither has the country disintegrated.
In my view, federalism remains the best approach for Ethiopia. It allows for cultural and language freedoms. It enables self-rule at regional levels, and has contributed to economic growth. The system, however, is not without its drawbacks. An increase in democratic space would allow more voices to be heard.
How Ethiopian federalism works
Ethiopia’s approach to federalism is bold compared to other highly diverse African federal states. Nigeria, for instance, has avoided constitutional recognition of ethnic diversity. Article 39 of Ethiopia’s federal constitution, adopted in 1995, explicitly acknowledges the country’s ethnic diversity.
Ethiopia is a federation comprising nations and nationalities, each possessing sovereignty as defined in Article 8 of the constitution. Nations and nationalities with defined territorial homelands have the right to establish their own regions or even seek independence.
There are 12 regions in the country, each with extensive authority. This includes policymaking, constitution making, choosing a working language, and maintaining regional police and civil services.
However, the exercise of these powers has been constrained by the dominance of the party system.
Between 1991 and 2019, the EPRDF tightly controlled regional governments. It suppressed any demands for self-rule. The coming to power of Abiy Ahmed in 2018 helped open up the political space. The prime minister established the Prosperity Party by merging three of the parties that made up the EPRDF, as well as its smaller affiliates. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front refused to amalgamate.
The working of Ethiopian federalism, however, depends on the party system. Party norms often supersede constitutional principles. Internal party crises tend to lead to government instability and potential conflict.
The Tigray war between 2020 and 2022 is a stark example. It originated from tensions between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the federal government. Disagreement was triggered by the dissolution of the EPRDF.
Ethiopian federalism has had three major benefits.
First, it allows for language and cultural freedom. The country’s 80 ethnic groups fought long and hard to secure their rights to culture, language and identity. More than 57 of Ethiopia’s 80 languages are used as mediums of instruction in schools.
Second, the system has allowed many ethnic groups to exercise self-rule in areas where they constitute the majority. Ethnic minorities are also entitled to form local governments, such as district administrations.
One of the primary challenges of Ethiopian federalism lies in its inability to entirely resolve conflicts.
Some of these conflicts – for instance in the western region of Benishangul-Gumuz and in western Tigray – are instigated partly by the system’s attempt to empower a particular ethnic group in an area. This has created divisions between empowered groups and others.
A recent report by the International Organization for Migration found that more than half of the 4.4 million internally displaced people in Ethiopia left their homes due to conflict.
A second challenge is the gap between the constitution and the practice of political rights. Certain ethnic groups have not exercised their rights due to political repression.
Since Abiy assumed power in 2018, ethnic groups’ demands for regions has increased. The government addressed some of these demands, but repression of certain requests has led to grievances and conflicts. Some ethnic groups are too small to have their own region.
A third challenge is the dominance of the ruling party and the lack of democracy. The tendency of party norms to undermine constitutional principles casts a shadow on the federal system.
While federalism may exist in form, it struggles to operate effectively without democracy and a multiparty system.
In a democratic system, the rule of law and protection of individual rights complement federalism by ensuring respect for citizen rights. A multiparty system would include diverse voices in decision-making and help protect minorities. Following these principles would help build peace and unity in a country as ethnically diverse as Ethiopia.