What are the prospects for the federal system?

Ethiopia’s federal system is controversial. It would be an error to re-litigate the rancorous debates of the 1990s. But a constitution that solved a set of problems for one generation will inevitably create another set of problems for the next generation. The debate that is needed is, what did the federal constitution achieve in the historical circumstances in which it was introduced, and what elements of it need to be reconsidered today? What are the positive and negative aspects of identity politics in Ethiopia?

Constitutions are living entities and need to be adapted as circumstances change. That is particularly the case for federal systems in countries undergoing rapid socio-economic transformation. The 1995 constitution is a framework for governing a post-imperial agrarian society. What is the constitutional system best suited for Ethiopia’s political-economic future as an industrializing middle-income country while protecting the valued legacies of the past?


The federal constitution kept Ethiopia together in the 1990s. For the first time, it recognized the equality of cultural-nations and the rights of minorities. It overturned the notion that Ethiopian identity could be defined by anyone culture, language, and value system. The federal system has provided different public-political goods to different groups, including: recognition of status as indigenous peoples with a privileged claim on their historic lands, self-government and an expression of national identity; cultural and language rights; and opportunities for political mobilization.

In most developing countries, identity politics takes the form of bargains between political leaders and the customary custodians of identity (tribal authorities, religious leaders).

Political entrepreneurs play the ethnic card in order to gain political advantage, but find that their legitimacy now depends on acceding to some of the demands of those custodians. In Ethiopia, the revolution removed most of the traditional authorities and reduced the power of religious leaders. However, identity-based legitimacy has re-emerged in new forms. Some legitimacy has accrued to the administrators of the ethno-national units of the federation (which is problematic, as administrative nationalists are inherently conservative). New cultural entrepreneurs have used the media to mobilize identity movements. New religious movements (Salafists and Pentecostals) have wiped away all intermediary spiritual hierarchies leaving only congregations of individuals facing the Almighty (a new and unpredictable element in the mix). Perhaps most importantly, some EPRDF leaders and cadres themselves also tried to manipulate the dynamics of ethno-nationalism for their own political advantage. Any hopes that the Federal Constitution might have tamed nationalism, or permanently solved the problem of multinationalism, were shown to be unfounded.

Identity politics is therefore in rapid flux and up for contestation. One of the generalities of exclusivist or intolerant identity politics is that it is rivalry for leadership within a group that is most powerful in fomenting extremism, with conflict between groups as the secondary outcome of that process, though a particularly dangerous one. Because the Ethiopian system consists not only of constitutional-administrative federalism but also of political ethnonationalism—the EPRDF’s constituent parties are organized on these lines—it is especially vulnerable to political entrepreneurship within its own structures based on appeals to ethnonationalist identity. In turn, the most effective means for mobilizing ethno-nationalist sentiment is hostility towards an out-group, especially one perceived as threatening or dishonest. Allegations of unfair or corrupt allocation of power and wealth, become a powerful instrument for political advancement and organization.

The way in which the constitution recognizes diversity is very simplistic: it doesn’t permit the kinds of multiple and shifting identities that allow societies to adapt and modernize.

The strength of the original EPRDF analytic of diversity is that it identifies of nations, nationalities and peoples as historical entities and thus prone to change. The weakness is that there is no mechanism for discussing that change in a constructive manner, let alone bringing it the required changes in the political and administrative system. In its implementation over the last quarter-century, the federal arrangement has become centrifugal, for several reasons. First, the educational curricula of the different regions have fragmented the Ethiopian public sphere, and parallel political debates are conducted in different languages. Second, the primordialist or essentialist view of ethnicity has become more pronounced as the historical-constructivist analytic has faded from view, and previous historic processes of identity-assimilation and cultural change have become more difficult. The way in which the constitution recognizes diversity is very simplistic: it doesn’t permit the kinds of multiple and shifting identities that allow societies to adapt and modernize. In the current generation, social capital has been reconfigured in an overwhelmingly ethno-nationalist manner. Third, the administrative organization of Ethiopia, along with the division of the EPRDF into ethnonational parties, has come to shape the nature of ethno-political identity itself. In other words, identity politics is ripe for tactical manipulation by populist leaders, including from the ranks of the EPRDF itself.

All these questions are extremely delicate and could be explosive if mishandled. Ethiopia can learn from other federal systems that have grappled with comparable complexities, in the context of rapid economic transitions, such as India.

There are alarming indications that the current political and territorial dispensation of the federal system is in jeopardy, with eruptions of intercommunal violence in many parts of the country. There are several conflicts over boundaries between regions (Amhara and Tigray, Somali and Oromo). There are conflicts over rights of residence in localities that may translate into demands for existing regions to be divided, possibly creating new states (Southern region). There are conflicts over the status of indigenous peoples and settlers in other locations (Gambella and Beni Shangul). There is a proposal that the House of Federation should develop criteria for allocating federal projects ‘equitably’ among regions, which, if adopted, would change the role of the Federal Government towards an allocator of wealth among the regions rather than the engine of building a common economic and political community—a formula for unending disputes.

Inter-communal violence will also have the very unfortunate effect of hardening ethno-national divisions. These divisions will appear deeprooted and primordial rather than a construct of historical circumstances. They will further legitimize political mobilization on the basis of identity politics.


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