ETHIOPIA-: Ethnic Federalism Could Lead to Election Violence

  • by Omer Redi (addis ababa)
  • Monday, September 21, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

A recent international report warns if this system, and the resultant lack of governance, continues the entire Horn of Africa could be destabilised.

The report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) warned that unless the ruling coalition, Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), improved governance it would risk ethnic conflict from the over 70 different ethnic groups in the country during the 2010 federal and regional elections. The ICG also cautioned the entire Horn of Africa could be destabilised because of the expected conflict.

But Ethiopia’s Prime Minster, who has been in power for 18 years and who is expected to stand for another five-year term of office, has dismissed the report. 'The report is not worth the price of writing it up,' Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said.

But not everyone is in agreement. The opposition have denounced the system of ethnic federalism as a way for the EPRDF to stay in power, while academics have said that it is a system that remains impossible to implement.

The opposition has agreed with the report saying that there is a high probability for ethnic conflict in the upcoming elections.

'The system (of rule) has not satisfied neither those who supported federalism nor the ones who opposed it,' Dr. Merera Gudina told IPS. Merera is Co-Chair of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC). The Oromo ethnic group is the country’s largest. 'This unfair and undemocratic system dominated by one (Tigrayan) ethnic group (the strong base of the ruling part) will lead to crisis. That is why I think ICG’s report is prepared with superior understanding of the realities in Ethiopia.'

Ethnic federalism is a system of administration where regional states - formed based on geographical settlement of ethnic groups - share part of their power with a central government to run their collective affairs on their behalf.

The EPRDF introduced the federal administrative system over 14 years ago when it established the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. This was three years after it ousted the Derg, the dictatorial communist government, concluding 17 years of civil war.

The report stated that despite the structure crafted for decentralised administration, because the EPRDF has power in all the regions, it controls all matters. In effect the regions do not have actual power and they don’t actually govern themselves, the report noted.

The ICG alleges the system has increased ethnic polarisation in Ethiopia. 'Ethnic federalism has not dampened conflict, but rather increased competition among groups fighting for land, natural resources, administrative boundaries and government budgets', says François Grignon, ICG’s Africa Program Director. 'This concept has powerfully promoted ethnic self-awareness among all groups and failed to accommodate grievances,' he said.

The report stated that while ethnic federalism was initially greeted with enthusiasm by Ethiopia’s people, it has failed to resolve the country’s national issue — 'a democratic country free of any dominance by any ethnic group'.

'Instead it generates greater conflict at local level, as ethnic groups fight over political influence. That policy has empowered some groups but has not been accompanied by dialogue and reconciliation on grievances over past misdeeds,' the report stated.

But government denies this and believes that Ethiopia is now a more united state than before. It boasts that previously marginalised communities now enjoy self governance and control their own resources and have better access to public services.

According to the new constitution the country is divided into 9 regions based on the geographical settlement of ethnic groups, and two chartered administrations (Addis Ababa city and Diredawa town) both with mixed-ethnic population.

The Federal Government is responsible for national defence, foreign relations, and general policies of common interests and benefits. Regional States are vested with legislative, executive and judicial powers for self-administration.

However, the regional governments have serious constraints from lack of adequate financial and human resources to effectively carry out the management of decentralised administration and development.

Some opposition politicians criticise the system as a 'divide-and-rule' approach the EPRDF devised to ensure it will not be challenged.

'The only thing EPRDF’s federalism has achieved is that it helped the party hold tight grip on the people through divide-and-rule system,' said Merera, who is also a professor of Political Science and International Relations at the Addis Ababa University. Though Merera says OFC supports genuine federalism, he strongly opposes Ethiopia’s current system saying it is neither negotiated by the people nor does it have a democratic content.

'It is a system EPRDF redrew Ethiopia the way it wanted simply because it came to power,' he told IPS.

Political analysts including the current Dean and professor at the Addis Ababa University, Department of Political Science and International Relations, Dr. Yaekob Arsano, critically opposed the federal system when it was tabled for discussion almost 16 years ago.

'Ethnic federalism is neither politically correct nor technically possible to apply in Ethiopia’s context,' he had said.

A core argument against ethnic federalism is that considering the intermarriage among most ethnic groups in Ethiopia, 'it is impossible to clearly define and demarcate regional boundaries'.

The ICG report concluded that economic growth and the expansion of public services are to the EPRDF’s credit, but they increasingly fail to translate into popular support from the people.

As opposition parties gear up to challenge the EPRDF in the June 2010 elections, many fear a violent crackdown by the government, similar to the intimidation, harassment and violence experienced by opposition parties during the 2005 elections, ICG alleges.

In the aftermath of the May 2005 elections, a wave of violence between opposition protestors and government forces erupted and more than 200 people were killed. Following that some opposition accused the government of harassing some people for belonging to a certain ethnic group.

But Degife Bula, Speaker of Ethiopia’s House of Federation has said the 'report has not considered the actual context in Ethiopia at all'.

The House of Federation is the highest institution on matters of the federal system and was formed with at least one representative from each ethnic group.

But Degife blames the ICG for not seeking comments from the House of Federation while compiling a report on issue that is completely under its jurisdiction. 'They [ICG] have prepared the report with information collected from researches of smaller scopes by such institutions like NGOs and media organisations here and there,' Degife told IPS.

The House of Federation is formally mandated to deal with nationality issues and federal-regional relations, but it meets only twice a year and lacks the authority to effectively mitigate ethnic conflicts; it has been reluctant to approve referendums to decide the status of disputed localities, according to ICG.

In conclusion ICG suggests that the current federal system may need to be modified, but it is unlikely Ethiopia can return to the old unitary state system.

'The international community has ignored or downplayed the problems. Some donors consider food security more important than democracy in Ethiopia. In view of the mounting ethnic awareness and political tensions created by the regionalisation policy, however, external actors would be well advised to take the governance problems more seriously and adopt a more principled position towards the Meles Zenawi government,' ICG says.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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