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Ethiopia’s return to federalism

Ethiopia’s return to federalism A renewed House of the Federation could bolster minority rights and languages. BY TOM PÄTZ The next general elections in Ethiopia are scheduled for May 2005. Observers are hoping for a real competition this time. During the last elections, in May 2000, the government candidate ran unopposed in 50 per cent of the electoral districts for the lower house. But since then, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has already appeared on television in a debate with two opposition leaders. Other opposition parties boycotted the debate. Ethiopia has had a federal, democratic constitution, on paper, since 1994. But until quite recently, the reality more closely resembled an autocratic centralized regime, with power concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office. The 1994 constitution emerged out of a national negotiation that followed more than a quarter century of brutal, bloody civil war and dictatorship. That negotiation had engaged all of Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups and regions in an open and inclusive process. What emerged demonstrated a sincere effort to fully integrate Ethiopia’s 82 different ethnic groups in the country into the sinew and bone of the constitution. The constitution provided for strong regional governments and a two-house federal legislature in which the upper house, the House of the Federation, would be the voice of the regions at the centre. (See box: The House of the Federation) It also included, quite unusually, the constitutional right for states to secede, after a two-thirds majority vote of the council of the respective state and a simple majority in a referendum organized by the federal government. Although it did so before the Ethiopian constitution of 1994 was adopted, Eritrea actually followed much the same process when it seceded in 1993. But between the best intentions of the constitution and actual practice there was a great gulf. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the leading party in the Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Front coalition, had established something close to a one-party rule. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (r.) of Ethiopia signs the peace treaty between Ethiopia and Eritrea on December 12, 2000 in Algiers. Tom Paetz worked in Ethiopia as a project manager for Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit, (in English, Society for Technical Co-operation) an international development agency of the German government. The House of the Federation Because there is no constitutional court, the power to interpret the constitution was given to the House of the Federation. Furthermore, the House decides on issues relating to the “rights of nations, nationalities and peoples to selfdetermination”, and has the responsibility to “promote and consolidate their unity based on their mutual consent”. The House of the Federation is also charged with finding solutions to disputes or misunderstandings that may arise between states. It decides on division of revenues derived from joint federal and state tax sources and sets the subsidies that the federal government provides to the states. Finally, it has the power to order federal intervention “if any state, in violation of this constitution, endangers the constitutional order.” The composition of the House of the Federation is quite open. The election of members can be direct or indirect – the decision is left to the state councils, accepting local habits in nominating and electing ethnic representatives. Thus, state councils can decide whether they elect the members themselves or whether elections will be held. Additionally, each “nation or nationality” gets one member for each one million of its population. At present there are 112 members. Of this number, 71 are appointed by the states, and the other 41 seats are apportioned according to population. A split and a policy change In 2001, there was a split within the ruling party. Prime Minister Zenawi described it in an interview with the BBC: “The divisions had to do with … whether we have done enough in terms of institutionalizing democratic government in this country or not; as to whether we have done enough to promote economic growth and reform in this country or not …” Those divisions also extended to foreign relations and to relations with Eritrea. As a result of the power struggle in the ruling party, the rulers gave greater powers to Ethiopia’s second chamber, the House of the Federation. They downsized the power of the Prime Minister’s Office, equipped the government with more technocrats and fewer former combatants, allowed frequent internal party debate, and gave the states more space to protect their own interests. Amore genuine practice of federal governance made it possible to resolve conflicts among the states and between the states and the federal government. Self-confidence and self-assurance of the states resulted in open debates on intergovernmental conflicts such as disputes over constitutional jurisdictions and revenue sharing. There were Federations Vol. 4, No. 1, March 2004 Ethiopia – a recent history 1935 – Italians invade Ethiopia 1941 – Emperor Hailie Selassie restored to throne 1952 – UN federates Eritrea and Ethiopia 1962 – Hailie Selassie annexes Eritrea 1974 – Hailie Selassie overthrown by Marxist revolutionaries 1991 – Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front takes power 1993 – Eritreans win independence 1994 – New constitution drafted for federal Ethiopian state 1999 – War with Eritrea 2000 – Peace agreement with Eritrea 2002 – Agreement on boundary with Eritrea 2003 – Italians agree to return 2,000-yearold Axum obelisk also debates on regional development policies, debates over cultural, linguistic and religious differences, and resolution of conflicts arising due to lack of intergovernmental consultation. Members of the House of the Federation set up special committees, workgroups, and coordination mechanisms to manage “unity in diversity”. Because of the self-confidence and new demands of the states, the House of the Federation gained considerable influence. The government gave the House of the Federation adequate financial resources and legal provisions through a special proclamation in July 2001. The House is on its way to making itself into a core institution in Ethiopia’s nationbuilding process. A state copies the national initiative The federal government’s new-found commitment to federalism found echoes at the state level. One of the nine states, the “Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State” has created its own version of the House of the Federation. The state added the provision for a “Council of Nationalities” to its constitution in November 2001. This council is made up of at least one representative from each nation, nationality and people in the state. The council was given the power to “interpret the state constitution, organize the council of constitutional inquiry, and decide on (certain) issues relating to nations, nationalities or peoples”. The council was also mandated to “strive to find solutions to disputes or misunderstandings”. Other states with more than one ethnic group are actively considering this innovative and unique institutional arrangement. Federations Vol. 4, No. 1, March 2004 The institutional, legal, technical, and logistic challenges associated with this rapid transformation process are myriad. Borders between states are still not demarcated. Violent conflicts between ethnic groups of different states are common, even though each state has set up a Border Affairs Office to settle conflicts. In sharp contrast to the past, conflicts based on religion are rising. Aggressive campaigns mainly by Protestants and Wahhabis – a fundamentalist Muslim group – have led to violent clashes. All attempts to further develop Ethiopia’s political system are affected by the level of poverty and the enormous death-toll rate of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Apart from keeping the nation together, there is still a lot ahead. Filling the democratic deficit and the food reserves Will the powers given to the second chamber and the democratization so far be enough to bring real democracy? If so, will that democracy be able to cope with poor harvests, drought and the threat of a famine such as that of 1984 and 1985? In January, journalist Michael Buerk, who covered the 1984 famine, told a BBC interviewer why the repeat of such a famine was less likely today. “First of all the civil wars that cut these people off in 1984 and 1985 and made it so difficult to actually get food to them are over. “Secondly, there’s a very elaborate early warning system that’s been put in place, so they’re monitoring the price of food and so on and what’s happening in the villages, so it’s an early warning system too. “And thirdly … they’ve got a more benign government, at least, than existed in 1984.” That’s the good news. But there is also the bad news. As Buerk continues: “… the underlying situation is deteriorating – the population is rising, the ability of the land to feed them is falling – and that deteriorating situation is creating from year to year a really difficult situation and it could happen that the food doesn’t get there in time.” In 2004, Ethiopia has a real federal government and a way of representing its 82 different ethnic groups. As the BBC’s Buerk says, at the very least, its government is “benign”, compared to the past. Democratic, multinational federalism may be a necessary prerequisite to development and equitable distribution of resources. But democratic federalism alone can’t guarantee that there will be food on the table for everyone during the next drought or crop failure. Ethiopia: food vs. famine 1984 – Famine from drought kills nearly 1 million 1985 – LiveAid concerts by Bob Geldof raise US $60 million for famine relief 1999 – First of three years of bumper harvest 2000 – Coffee exports reach US $250 million 2001 – UNPAN reports GDP growth from 1992 to 2001 was 6 per cent a year 2002 – Gross National Income is US $100 per capita; GDP per capita is US $700 2003 – Ethiopia’s own aid concert, “A birr for a compatriot”, raises US $1 million 2004 – Forecast good for harvest, but falling coffee prices cause hardship 2004 – GDP growth for 2003 expected to come in at zero to 1.5 per cent Federations Vol. 4, No. 1, March 2004