Federalism in Ethiopia: Experience, Challenges, Prospects and Alternatives March 24 and 25, 2018, Washington D.C.
December 10, 2017
Following four successful conferences, Vision Ethiopia, an independent and nonpartisan network of Ethiopian academics and professionals, is pleased to announce that its fifth conference will be held on March 24 and 25, 2018, in Washington D.C. The fifth conference will be held in collaboration with the Ethiopian Satellite Television and Radio (ESAT) and the newly formed Consortium of Ethiopian Civic Society Organizations (TIBIBIR). The conference theme will be federalism.
The fifth conference is a continuation of the dialogue on peace, democracy, unity and transition. Consistent with its mission, Vision Ethiopia creates unhindered forums for scholars, professionals and concerned Ethiopians to present their carefully thought policy alternatives for Ethiopia. The need for independent forums for post conflict transition is increasingly becoming clear as government’s recent assessment of security situation and the ruling regime’s self-evaluation reveal that Ethiopia’s ethno- federalism is facing serious challenges.
In our second conference which was held in Washington, D.C. (March 26 and 27, 2016), distinguished legal and economic scholars and activists shared their views on the need for new political dispensation. Some speakers proposed multinational federalism while others expressed their preference for a different form of decentralization. Our third conference (October 22 & 23 2016) focused on searching for a roadmap for transition and constitution making in post-conflict Ethiopia while the fourth conference (September 24 & 25, 2017) addressed the importance of institutions, the challenges of strengthening existing institutions and creating new ones. These conferences have raised much needed awareness on several complex issues, including the thorny issues of federalism. However, the details of federalism largely remain unexplored, and speakers reflected different perspectives about this form of governance, while others embraced Ethiopia’s older geographic based administrative structure in forming “a new union”.
A discourse on federalism is often ideological. From neoliberal to neo Marxian (socialist) to messianistic and separatist ideologies are intensely advocated in the Ethiopian political landscape. In these debates, the types of federalism and the capacity to enforce contracts, are not discussed. Speakers hardly distinguish between regionalized unitary, devolved administration, federacy and federal systems. Some crudely define federalism as a process of splitting the country into different segments where the
segment’s politicians make decisions for their regions. Others are dogmatic about self-determination and argue that the union exists only with the blessing of its discrete constituents. Federal states however can be mono-national as in the United States and Germany or multiethnic as in Switzerland and present day Russia or somewhere in between as in Nigeria and South Africa. Unfortunately, there has not been sufficient studies of federalism in the context of Africa. In other words, even though there is growing trend towards decentralization in the continent, the choice between unitary decentralization and ethnic based decentralization has not been an easy one. The absence of consensus is also reflected in the country review reports of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM). What is holding together the post colony states in the continent while accommodating ethnic & faith pluralism remains unanswered. How older nations like Ethiopia should be decentralized is a hotly debated issue. Some document that the glue that holds together federations in Africa is the presence of dominant governing parties, top-down state administration structure and high degree of fiscal centralism. Critiques argue that federalism in any form increases the sources of cleavage and becomes worst when the governance system divides a country across the lines of basic (linguistic, faith) cleavages. Authors on federalism and democracy, argue that freedom requires cleavage within linguistic and faith groups, not between them.
At a basic level, federalism can be defined as a system of government in which regions or provinces share power with a national government. Studies also indicate that federalism has been attempted in over 25 of the world’s 193 countries, and not all of them were successful in resolving conflicts and advancing peace, stability, democracy and prosperity. America, Canada, Switzerland, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina are/were examples of federations. Some of these federalisms are integrationist or national federalist while others are specifically designed to address heterogeneity. In contrast, the United Kingdom and Spain are devolved governance systems while Denmark, Finland and France are federacies. Hence, less than 13% of the United Nations’ member countries are federations, and there is no single blue print of federalism. Classification is based on essence and attributes.
Scholars classify federalisms by nationality (multinational federalisms, where devolution can be with territory or without territory), dual federalism (where the federal government and the State/province share power but the “union” holds more than the individual states), cooperative federalism (where the federal government and the state government share power equally) and fiscal federalism (where finance controls everything). In short, federalism is not something that is just a desirable arrangement of governance or normative-mimetic pressure that is adopted to resolve political exigencies. Consistent with the late Eshetu Chole’s observation, as far back as in 1991, a serious discourse on federalism opens “a Pandora box”. It also helps to explain conflicts, the competition for resource control, state captures, popular views in majority and minority inhabited regions, the divide between richer and poorer regions, views of citizens of mixed heritages, alliances and counter alliances, and the emerging power games and the programs of political parties.
Scholars also document the advantages of federalism: it recognizes regional interests and differences, prevents secession, checks federal government’s power, manages a larger country, and promotes healthy competition among regions. The disadvantage is that policies (economic, education, languages, social
issues) are not uniform, protects powerful regional interests rather than democracy, lacks accountability, makes the federal government weak, raises territorial disputes, and regional governments can be obstructive power blocks. Harmful spillover effects in one region can create instability in other regions, benefits weak political parties that cannot garner support nationally, can lead to parochial regional parliaments and weaken national patriotism and identity, and allows the resurrection of historical wounds and opens space for revanchism. These advantages/disadvantages may be revealed or concealed in context, and attenuated /accentuated by state and non-state actors.
In our fourth conference where there were over 24 presenters, participants examined the need to nurture existing democratic institutions and establish new ones for a successful post-conflict transition. In line with the theme of our fourth conference, papers for the fifth conference therefore need to outline the most important stabilizing/destabilizing factors in federations of any kind, and find mitigation strategies in the context of developing countries where non-state actors are many, formal state institutions are weak, and the gap between the laws in books and the laws in action is high.
Vision Ethiopia would like to invite papers on federalism. Carefully thought manuscripts that are contextualized with real institutions (laws, organizations, cultures, political institutions, geography, demography, geopolitics, economics) in Ethiopia are welcome for presentation. Authors have to build their arguments why federalism is important and state the mitigation strategies for overcoming its limitations. Using comparative methods, authors must outline the merits and demerits of Ethiopia’s version of “socialist federation” and show why an alternative form of decentralization is “better” or “worse”. Authors need to avoid anecdotal and sketchy evidence, parochialism, revanchism and refrain from using offensive language as the proceedings of the conference will be transmitted to Ethiopians across the globe via ESAT. Papers must be adequately referenced and should not be just wishful essays or advocacy for/against a particular form of decentralization. Due to large number of manuscripts that get sent to us and the technical nature of the topic, acceptance is competitive.
Papers may be written in either Amharic or English, follow acceptable reasoning, statistics, maps and decorum. For the presentation, speakers are encouraged to communicate using language(s) that most of the audience at the conference venue and in Ethiopia comprehend. Authors must be present to address the conference participants and make their own travel and accommodation arrangements. Requests for electronic/audio/video/ or proxy presentation will not be accepted. Speakers who want to use other languages must provide their own interpretation service.
Papers will go through a review process and the best papers will be selected based on rubrics that contain the key issues discussed above. Authors must address review comments on time and send their revised manuscript. Accepted papers will be assigned to discussants/moderators and authors have the opportunity to respond. Representatives of political parties and civic organizations who wish to present a position paper on federalism are welcome to do so. There will a separate forum for the presentation of position papers. Papers must reach Visionethiopia2016@gmail.com on or before February 15, 2018.