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Federations Magazine Article
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Ethiopian Constitution protects diversity

By Mehari Tadele Maru
ultiethnic Ethiopia has miraculously
remained intact despite a dizzying 30 years that
has seen it go from a monarchy to communism
to a transition to democracy all while having to
endure several droughts, famines and oppressive
Its strength and its capacity to endure seem to lie in
Ethiopia’s diversity.
It has more than 85 ethnic communities with different languages
or dialects. It is the second-most populous sub-Saharan
African country after Nigeria. Ethiopia has religious diversity as
well. Christianity and Islam are the largest religions, and
Judaism and a number of other religions are also found there.
To govern this nation of 78 million inhabitants, one of the
most diverse and conflict-prone in the world, the government
introduced “ethnic federalism” which was
constitutionally enshrined in 1995. Ethiopia
places a high priority on issues related to its
ethnic groups, one of the many compelling
facets to the country’s form of federalism.
From the fourth century AD to 1974,
Ethiopia was ruled as several forms of a
Christian monarchy. The last emperor, Haile
Selassie, was overthrown in 1974 by a Marxist-
Leninist military group called the Derg, led by Mengistu Haile
Mariam. His group set up a single-party communist state. This
regime was overthrown in 1991 by a coalition of largely ethnicbased
rebel movements, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary
Democratic Front (EPRD F).
Constitution recognizes communities
The Constitution that came into effect in 1995 established a federation
made up of nine ethno-linguistically divided regional
states and two chartered federal cities – Addis Ababa and Dire
Dawa. The nine regional states are Afar, Amhara, Benis-hangul/
Gumuz, Gambella, Harari, Oromia, Somali, Tigray and the
Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region.
However, the Constitution also grants self-government to all
ethno-linguistic communities, including, if they so desire, the
right to form a regional state or even to secede and form an
independent country. The Constitution explicitly states that “all
sovereign power resides in the Nations, Nationalities and
Peoples of Ethiopia.” It defines ethno-linguistic communities as
a “Nation, Nationality or People … a group of people who have
or share a large measure of a common culture or similar customs,
mutual intelligibility of language, belief in a common or
related identities, a common psychological make-up, and who
inhabit an identifiable, predominantly contiguous territory.”
The federal Constitution explicitly gives all ethno-linguistic
communities the right to protect and promote
their culture, language and historical
heritage through self-government. It
assumes that every community has its own
territory and confers the right to “a full measure
of self-government which includes the
right to establish institutions of government
in the territory that it inhabits….”
The diversity of the regional states may be
measured according to:
• population
• ethnic diversity (multiethnic or homogeneous)
• religious diversity (as it overlaps with other factors)
• way of life (settled or nomadic)
• urban or rural setting
Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Oromia and Somali regional states all
are named after their dominant native inhabitants. These states
have one dominant indigenous ethnicity and language. The
other states – the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples;
Gambella; Benis-hangul/Gumuz; and Harari – are multiethnic
regional states with no single dominant ethnic community.
But the right to secession proves a
thorny issue along the borders
Mehari Taddele Maru is an Ethiopian scholar who earned his MSc
and LLB from Oxford University. He is currently a Mason Fellow at the
John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
An Ethiopian woman arrives at her synagogue in Addis Ababa at the
start of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, in September.
REUTERS/Radu Sig heti
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
Front, which has renamed itself the Ogaden National
Liberation Front, are mainly quasi-ethnic and quasi-religious
movements, fused with ethnic ties to Somalia. The spillover
effects of such movements who claim homelands in Ethiopia
and neighbouring countries pose a difficult question for
Ethiopia. How do you determine whether a particular movement
is a legitimate Ethiopian ethnic group pressing for its
legal right to secede or a group of foreign intruders when both
share the same language, ethnicity and politics? Some
Ethiopians along the border also fear that religious radicalism
from Somalia may cross the border into Ethiopia. Recently,
there have been sporadic tensions and outbreaks of violence in
several parts of Ethiopia between Orthodox Christians and
Muslims, heretofore known for their generally peaceful coexistence
and mutual respect.
UN body recognizes ancient city
In July 2007, the city of Harar, a UNE SCO -designated worldheritage
site, celebrated its 1,000th anniversary. Guarded by its
medieval walls, the ancient city has been an important centre
of Islamic culture and commerce since the thirteenth century.
Home to more than 100 mosques, some of which are older than
those in Saudi Arabia, Harar is generally considered the fourth
holiest city of Islam.
Even though non-indigenous
Oromo and Amharas constitute
a majority, Harari state is mainly
designated to be territorially
administered by and for the
Harari. The power of the regional
state is, therefore, divided mainly
between the Harari and Oromo
ethno-linguistic communities.
Compared to regional states
such as Oromia, with a population
of 27.3 million, and Amhara
regional state’s 19.6 million,
Harari, with 131,000 residents,
would normally be considered
too small to enjoy the privileges
of a regional state. Nonetheless,
Harar i ’s special place i n
Ethiopian history as a centre of
Islamic faith, along with its cultural and religious diversity, has
justified this status.
Capital city draws rural folks
Ethiopia’s two largest cities are urban oases in an overwhelmingly
rural country, melting pots amid ethnically-based states
and regions. With a combined population of nearly 3.4 million,
Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa are two chartered regional citystates
of huge diversity. These cities are the exception in
Ethiopia: overall, nearly 85 per cent of Ethiopia’s population is
rural. Members of almost all of Ethiopia’s ethno-linguistic
communities live in these two cities, and for this reason, the
cities are answerable to the federal government, not to a specific
ethno-linguistic group. Although the numerical majority
in Dire Dawa is Oromo, Amharic is the official language of city
[please turn to page 21]
While the federal Constitution has conferred an unlimited
right to self-determination to ethno-cultural communities, the
regional states are also expected, as some already have, to grant
special administrative status to minority ethno-cultural communities
by creating special zones called Liyu Zones or special
districts known as Liyu Woreda.
The purpose of this federal arrangement is to promote
“unity in diversity” by guaranteeing preservation of the cultural,
linguistic and religious distinctiveness of the ethno-linguistic
communities, as well as their distinct lifestyles. Thus, in the
Ethiopian federal system, diverse identities are not merely tolerated
but are constitutionally protected, and public
expression of these diverse identities is politically promoted.
Upper house arbitrates
Another institutional expression of “unity in diversity” is the
House of Federation. The upper houses in most federations
have an equal number of representatives for each constituent
unit or else are weighted somewhat for population. The House
of Federation, however, is composed of one representative per
ethnic group plus an additional representative for each one
million population of that group.
This formulation means that, for example, the ethnically
very diverse Southern region has a larger voting block than
more populous but relatively
homogenous regions l ike
Oromia and Amhara. In all cases
the representatives are either
appointed by the state legislatures
or each state may organize
direct elections. The roles of the
House are less in the general
legislative areas and more specifical
ly in sett l ing conf l ict s
between regions, acting as final
arbitrator of the Constitution
and determining the revenuesharing
The following cities and
regions, which are home to various
groups of differing identities,
serve as good examples of both
the diversi ty and uni ty of
Religious tensions plague Somali state
The Somali regional state has three overlapping identities and
a secessionist movement. About 96 per cent of the population
of the Somali regional state is Somali and about the same proportion
is Muslim, while 85 per cent of the population is
nomadic. The nomadic way of life has a culture of bearing arms
as a birthright. All these identities are also commonly shared
with the population of Somalia, a country with a 1,600-km long
border with Ethiopia. The border areas have long served as
bases for several Ethiopian secessionist movements and as a
safe haven for armed separatist groups fighting in Ethiopia.
There are overlapping identities of ethnic groups along
Ethiopia’s borders with other countries, including Somalia.
Indeed, movements such as the Western Somalia Liberation
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
Young boys from the Hamer people, one of Ethiopia’s 85 ethnic
communities, watch a bull jumping ceremony in the Lower
Omo Valley.
istockp hoto .com /David Kerk hoff
ethiopia [from page 16]
administration. Moreover, even if the majority residents of
Addis Ababa are the Amhara, Addis Ababa is the capital, not
only of Ethiopia, but also of Oromia regional state.
Nomads blur demography
The effect of diversity within one region in Ethiopia can be seen
in Gambella regional state, located in southwestern Ethiopia
bordering Sudan. An ethnically heterogeneous regional state
without a dominant ethnic community, Gambella is host to
about 253,000 people from the Anywaas, Nuer, Mezengir, Opio
and Komo, plus settlers from Tigray, Amhara, Oromia and
Southern Regional State. The Nuers constitute the largest
group, 39.7 per cent, while the Anywaa make up 27.4 per cent of
the total population.
Gambella has both settled and nomadic populations, so it is
influenced by the seasonal migration of the nomadic Nuers,
which has an effect on demographic and other aspects, such as
power sharing and conflict over resources. As a regional state
with a porous international border with Sudan, Gambella has
inhabitants in areas where ethnic groups are divided across a
border. There was fighting between different ethnic groups
there in 2003 and 2004, and the situation is still volatile to this
The ethnically-based power-allocation system set by the
federal Constitution has affected the relationship among the
ethno-cultural communities and led to violent conflicts at the
local level as different groups vie for what they see as their
rightful share of power and control over resources. Lessons will
surely be drawn from this unintended result.
Pragmatists support ethnic federalism
Unfortunately, Ethiopia does not benefit from a broad-based
consensus among the political class about the role and brand
of federalism that is right for the country. The political reaction
to the ethno-linguistic federalist arrangement in Ethiopia can
be summarized into three views. First are those who support
ethno-linguistic federalism as a matter of the ethno-linguistic
communities’ human right to self-determination, up to and
including secession. They support federalism even at the cost
of unity. Second are those who see ethno-linguistic federalism
as regrettable but the only way to prevent disintegration. This is
a calculated version of unity: inherently they are opposed to
secession but they support ethno-linguistic federalism as a
necessary means to unity, not for its own inherent merit.
A third view is held by those who are totally opposed to
ethno-linguistic federalism; they want to do away with it and
replace it with either another form of federalism or a unitary
system. It is this author’s position that if this view was to be
implemented it could turn the country into bloody civil war.
Moreover, it could lead ultimately to the disintegration of the
country – the very outcome the holders of this view abhor. In
other words, this position is blind to the essential Ethiopian
reality – which is that only a system that politically and legally
guarantees and explicitly celebrates Ethiopia’s diversity can
achieve durable peace and unity. Ethiopia has the constitutional
framework to accommodate diversity. The task now is to
apply that framework fairly throughout all of the country.
transfer of services “downward” and later dealt with the latest
power transfers in health and education for some regions.
• Joint plans and programs between Madrid and autonomous
community governments, especially in areas of joint or overlapping
competencies, including those related to EU
• Most numerous are bilateral and multilateral collaboration
agreements: contracts linking two or more governments.
More than 5,000 collaboration agreements have been signed
by Madrid and regional governments, as well as countless
others between provincial and municipal governments, and
special units of government.
The building of Spain’s “State of Autonomous Regions”
(Estado de las Autonómias) has depended heavily on these four
types of agreements and commissions.
Fiscal links are also fundamental in a system that is vertically
unbalanced. The latest studies reveal that “own source
taxes” – taxes imposed locally – of autonomous communities
in 2005 amounted to only 0.9 per cent of all revenues. The
autonomous communities receive 50.3 per cent of their revenues
as a fixed share of various taxes levied by the central
government on their behalf. They receive another 46 per cent
in the form of various transfer payments from the central budget
(apart from the special fiscal regime for the Basque and
Navarre autonomous communities).
Municipalities fare somewhat better, inasmuch as direct
and indirect taxes, charges and fees, and other revenue sources
in 2002 amounted to about 65 per cent of local revenues.
Another 13 per cent comes from state transfers, and the remainder
from provincial and autonomous community transfers.
Only a portion of these are unconditional, and the others are
dependent on completion of specific projects.
Forces that drive intergovernmental relations
Several important factors appear to animate IGR dynamics:
• Constitutional and institutional frameworks of the state, particularly
guarantees of autonomy and a share of state revenues,
assure that the levels interact.
• Framework laws in many core policy areas, plus the basic
structure of autonomous community and local governments,
lock in interdependence among levels.
• Europeanization means areas such as employment, immigration,
urban waste, landfills, public procurement, employees’
work time and environmental impact involve a fourth tier of
• Electoral competition, coalition governments and the rotation
of political parties in office have strengthened
autonomous communities and, to some extent, local governments,
and insulated them from top-down control, creating a
“politics of place,” unit by unit of government.
• Spanish political culture feeds on the importance of place and
individualism leading to the tradition of multiple unilateral
contacts to supplement or complement any multilateral
• Following subnational traditions of deep administrative
involvement in intergovernmental relations, administrative
and executive federalism are the prevailing interactive modes.
These reinforce the federalizing nature of Spanish intergovernmental