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Few points on the second round (federalism) election 2010 debate:

March 8, 2010

1. The Procedure of the Debate: Before I go in to the content of the debate, I would like to say few points about presentation of the debate. With all due respect for the Ethiopian TV journalists, the introduction was lifeless, boring and tense. I must say that the procedure was unnecessary, pointless and most of all it took 10 minutes of valuable airtime. This only confirms uneasiness and mistrust between the stakeholders and lack of confidence from the journalists to question the merits of reading the guidelines for 10 minutes. I suspect it was very uncomfortable to listen to the rule of the game for 10 minutes while opposition parties were given 7 minutes each to present their vision on federalism.

In the West, journalism is one of the most respected profession and journalists are the most feared people by politicians. It is journalists who critically scrutinize and expose the hypocrisy and flow of policies of both the government and the opposition. In the absence of free and independent journalism, it would be very difficult to build democratic institutions and make public figures and political parties accountable.

I know Ethiopia in not the West and we have a very long way to go to catch up with the West. Nevertheless, even by anybody’s standard, it is beyond me to understand why the Ethiopian TV journalists felt comfortable when their role is merely reduced to reading a written script! This is surely a disservice to journalism and an indicator how free the government journalists are.

The election debates are just beginning and there is ample time to address this problem and make it attractive.

2. Can Federalism work without a functioning liberal democracy? Let us see if federalism was properly examined on the debate. My view is that from EPRDF to all opposition parties, there is a consensus that federalism is the only option that is capable of remedying all the ills of Ethiopia. No one suggests or even discusses the merits or demerits of a unitary government with a devolved power or regional autonomy. A unanimous consensus on federalism is still worrying for the following reason.

As it was perceived being progressive to be a socialist by the Ethiopian Student Movement on the 1960’s and 1970’s with out thoroughly questioning the merits and demerits of socialism, it now seems a fashion to accept federalism as the only way forward for Ethiopia with out critically examining the merits and demerits of federalism or looking at the other alternatives.

King Haileselassie’s and Colonel Mengistu’s regimes were merely cited as examples of the failure of a unitary government. Was it really the cause? Allow me to say a few words on the matter.

Colonel Mengistu’s regime was officially following socialism which main aim was to bring about proletarian dictatorship. The system classified the people as the ‘oppressed’ and the ‘oppressor’. Even in rhetoric, the system was not there to protect and represent all the people; rather it believed in the elimination of the ‘oppressor’. The proletariat was one among the oppressed people, yet the system was aspiring to build proletariat dictatorship. Thus, it is very wrong to equate Colonel Mengistu’s regime which was aspiring to bring proletariat dictatorship with that of a functioning unitary government with a devolved power or regional autonomy. Any form of federalism under proletariat or military dictatorship wouldn’t have made any difference.

The King’s rule was an absolute monarchical system. In short the king was every thing and the people were his subjects. Hence, it would be another fashionable naivety to blame a unitary system as an example for the shortcomings of the monarchy. If federalism is the only pioneer for democracy and liberty, how come UK with a unitary system becomes the mother of democracy?

Let us look at the United Kingdom as one example where there exists one of the best functioning democracies in the world. It is a unitary government with a devolved power. Until recently England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales were governed from Westminster Parliament. After the New Labour Party swept to power in 1997 with an absolute majority, we now have a devolved power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with their respective regional parliaments. Thus, it is a unitary government with a devolved power but not a federal government that the UK chose to address the problem with.

I submit that the success of the UK and the failure of the King’s and the Colonel’s regimes were the implementation/lack of liberal democracy with in their unitary government but not for adopting the unitary form of government per se. By liberal democracy I mean a system where primacy is given to individual’s rights over and above the many and various forms of groups’ rights including but not limited to the rights of ethnicities.

To wind up the discussion, I am not in anyway suggesting a unitary government with a devolved power or regional autonomy. I am not also suggesting that federalism is the only solution for Ethiopia. What I am suggesting is that either federalism or even a unitary government with a devolved power or regional autonomy could be a solution to Ethiopia so long as either is based on liberal democracy.

The key to the solution to me is liberal democracy (a democracy which is primarily based on individual rights as opposed to group rights) but not federalism or unitary government. Failure of the existing federal system is a good example as whatever form of federalism cannot give the intended result when it is grafted on revolutionary democracy. A functioning federalism can be formed when the system recognizes and gives primacy to the rights of individuals to act on their free will to form a group that serves their best interest.

I found the lack of debate on the merits or demerits of the different forms of government unenlightening to the voters.

3. The basis of federalism: One thing that came out very clear from the discussion is that, apart from EPRDF, almost all the other opposition parties are objecting the current EPRDF’s federalism where the boundaries of the federal states are drawn based on entirely language.

The opposition rightly argues, in addition to language, population size, size of a federal region, natural boundaries such as rivers and mountains, cultural similarity, economic feasibility, administrative efficiency, etc have to be taken into consideration to redraw the federal state boundaries.

The other anomaly pointed by the opposition on EPRDF’s language based federalism is the case of Harari and Debub. While a federal state is carved out for Harari with a population size of less than 100,000 thousands, the likes of Sidama, Guraghe, Wolayta, Kembata, etc which have a population size of more than a million each have not got their own states. Rather they are lumped together as Debub kilil. How is EPRDF going to justify this? In addition, EPRDF has abandoned language as the basis of drawing federal boundaries when it lumped together different languages into a Debub kilil. Why?

As the opposition argues, nothing is static. Now is not 1991 when emotions were running high or now is not the appropriate time to recite Stalin’s ideology from heart. I hope every body has moved on. It is high time that EPRDF reflects on the opposition’s suggestion and act on it. If EPRDF wants to survive as a party and move forward, these are the essential lessons to be learned by the party.

4. The problem with the federalism and the constitution: The legal basis of the federalism is the constitution. To amend the federalism, the constitution has to be amended first. It is now about 17 years since the constitution is enacted. However, no attempt is ever made so far to amend the constitution.

Of all the participants on the debate, I found Ato Lidetu of EDP very impressive when he discussed the problem with the federalism and the constitution. He did a superb job. From Dr Beyene’s presentation, Medrek’s problem with the federalism appears to be the lack of implementation but not a substantive issue.

Among the reasons cited by the opposition to amend the federalism are: that the federalism was primarily crafted to serve the interest of EDPRF but not the country as a whole from the very beginning, that the federalism is incomplete as it was drafted to address only the problem of ‘nations and nationalities’, that the federalism is imposed top to bottom by the EPRDF, that the federalism put the rights of ethnicities to override the rights of individuals contrary to liberal democracy, that the federalism gives too much emphasis on the difference among the different ethnicities than their common and shared history, etc.

The danger the current arrangement pauses on the unity of the country is well articulated by Ato Lidetu Ayalew of EDP. While is enough to get 51% for a certain killil to cede from Ethiopia, a majority at least in five regions is required to amend the constitution. Thus, it is much easier to cede than amend the constitution under the present arrangement. This can not be the way forward.

I submit that a constitution is a living document. It is not stagnant. It can and should change with time. After the constitution is enacted, we have encountered new challenges as well. Change is long over due. Thus, it is high time that the comments of the opposition are taken positively and acted upon by EPRDF.

5. The plight of mixed Ethiopians: To my surprise, no opposition party picks on the plight of mixed Ethiopians who have been grossly overlooked and undermined in Ethiopian political landscape for the last 18 years under the current single-ethnic based federal arrangement.

Mixed Ethiopians are a product of two or more ethnicities with a mixed heritage. Mixed Ethiopians want to categorise themselves as ethnic Ethiopians since they find it difficult to categorise their identity to a single ethnic group as prescribed by the federal arrangement. The current federal arrangement denies the very existence of ethnic Ethiopians.

In liberal democracy, individuals as well as groups have rights to choose and their choice have to be respected. It is high time that the federal arrangement stop forcing ethnic Ethiopians to take this or that ethnic group and accept them as an entity by themselves i.e as ethnic Ethiopians. That is to say a person from an Oromo and Amhara mixed heritage has to be recognized as ethnic Ethiopian if the person chooses so.

If Harari with a population of a little more than 100,000 thousands is recognised as an entity and given its own killil under the current federal arrangement, surely the free choice of ethnic Ethiopians who are in millions has to be accepted and respected by the federal arrangement. It can no more be accepted to force ethnic Ethiopians to choose a single ethnic group.

For more elaborated discussion of the plights of ethnic Ethiopians under the present federal arrangement, I refer readers to articles on Jimma Times and Ethiofact.

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8 comments on “Few points on the second round (federalism) election 2010 debate:

  1. I read about ethnic Ethiopians on Jimma Times and Ethio fact after following the link. As i am also a product of three ethnicities ( Amhara, Oromo and Guraghe, I found the articles interesting and educational. I thank the writers Teshome Borga and Mahelet.

  2. Yes it seems a fashion to prescribe federalism for Ethiopia.Both EPRDF and all the opposition parties prescribe federalim to Ethiopia. This is one area where there is a unanimous agreement by all parties.

    However, as the writer pointed out, the adv and disadv of federalism and every other options have to be exhausted before accepting federalism as the only solution. Well done Yeneneh.

  3. I found the article more or less interesting. One thing i fundamentally disagree with the writer is that It is very wrong to blame the Ethiopian TV journalists as their hands are shackled by the dictatorial EPRDF regime.

  4. The most irritating thing was when the moderators of the debate said, each time representative finished presentation, “you finished 10 seconds earlier”, you finished 13 seconds earlier” etc., It was just unnecessary to talk about seconds, milliseconds or nanoseconds. No need for precision.

    As for the debate the representative of EDP argued the issue much better than the others. In my opinion the ruling party did not perform well on this debate.
    Finally thank you At Yeneneh for your reflection on then debate.

  5. Good observation, Yeneneh. Can Federalism work without a functioning liberal democracy is very interesting and out of the box question that everyone need to think about? What is happening is probably putting the cart before the horse. Those efficient systems of government we see in the developed and developing world from India to UK are indeed a result of liberal values, which allows and empowers individuals to choose the system that serves their best interest. I agree Yeneneh; the central issue has to be about empowering the people to make an informed choice and not prescribing solutions. That could be achieved through broader understanding of liberal values such as importance of liberty and equality, secular society, free and fair election, human right, limited government, tolerance and reason. These lead to a better form of government whatever the structure is, federalism or unitary. The debate is somehow is pointing in that direction and particularly EDP is doing better by likening Liberal values with that of system of governance.

  6. I would have liked if the writer included the graphic illustration presented by Ato Lidetu when he showed the implications of the cessation of Oromia region. In my view nothing showed as clearly as this presentation the clear danger posed by the cessation of Oromia. Put simply, if Oromia separates, there will not be a country called Ethiopia.

    What makes the above comment more worrying is that it is easier to separate as the constitution only demands a simple 50% 1 vote from Oromia region to separate.

    Thus,the ammendment of the constitution has to be taken seriously for such reasons. The sooner,the better.

  7. Very good article, I hope cool headed Ethiopians will contribute more and more to the public debate. EDP for me also did well, anyone that wants an alternative to EPRDF must consider EDP, going to MEDREK is no change at all except in figureheads.

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