Ethnic Federalism and Self-Determination for Nationalities in a Semi-Authoritarian State: the Case of Ethiopia

LOVISE AALEN[*]

HeinOnline -- 13 Int'l J. on Minority & Group Rts. 243 2006

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Introduction

Together with a large part of the states on the African continent, Ethiopia struggles with a double challenge: how to accommodate an ethnically diverse population and at the same time enhance democracy. Many African states have introduced territorial and non-territorial measures to accommodate their ethnically diverse populations, ranging from federalism in Nigeria, to the moderate regional devolution in South Africa, and the unbalanced union of Zanzibar and Tanganyika in Tanzania. It seems, however, that Ethiopia has gone further than any of these countries in promoting ethnic diversity through a federal system which is explicitly based on ethnicity. The main idea is to give ethnic groups, termed "nations, nationalities and peoples" the right to self-determination, which also includes the right to secession if certain conditions are fulfilled.' Sovereignty is not given to the member states of the federation, as is common in other federal systems, but "[a]ll sovereign powers resides in the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia" (Article 8.1). All languages are given equal state recognition (Article 5.1), and every national group has the right to develop and promote its own culture and preserve its own history (Article 39.2). Finally, they are entitled to a full measure of self-government including their own institutions within their territories and representation in regional and federal governments (Article 39.3).

But in spite of the extensive constitutional devolution of power to ethnic groups in Ethiopia, the ruling government holds a firm grip on political affairs in the country. Through the centralised party organisation of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), regional and local autonomy is undermined and opposition party activities are severely restricted. The ruling party's unwillingness to share power was exposed after the 2005 general elections, when the opposition's unprecedented progress led the incumbent to detain the opposition leadership and charge them with treason. So Ethiopia falls clearly into the category of semi-authoritarian states: the rulers accept liberal democracy rhetorically, but the system has apparent illiberal or authoritarian traits.' The political situation in Ethiopia implies therefore an apparent paradox: the regime is falling short of democracy, while at the same time claiming to accommodate its various ethnic groups in a sustainable way through a federal system. Central theorists on federalism support the argument that stable multiethnic federations presume democracy and constitutionalism. Federalism in itself is not enough to mitigate ethnic conflict, but needs to be reinforced by other factors, both institutional and societal. In this article, I will demonstrate the difficulties Ethiopia faces in its efforts to accommodate ethnic groups in a peaceful way while maintaining a non-democratic form of government.

 



[*] Political scientist and research fellow at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, University of Oslo (MA, African Studies, University of London and MPhil, Comparative Politics, University of Bergen), currently working on her PhD dissertation on Ethiopian federalism.

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