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Federation not Confederation

November 9 , 2019
By Tibebu Bekele ( Tibebu Bekele (, who is interested in constructive dialogue and civil engagement. )

The 1994 Ethiopian Constitution has been a bone of contention going on for more than two decades and a half now. Perhaps that should not come as a big surprise and should actually be expected. After all, the country’s experimentation with constitutional government is quite young. With the first written constitution promogulated only in 1931, there has not even been a century of constitutional history.

Of the four constitutions written in this time, the first two centralised power in the feudal monarchy, and the third under the Derguewas a flirtation with communism that was intended to give cover to the centralisation of power in the vanguard party. The 1994 Constitution, at least as a long-term objective, is really the first attempt to install a constitutional democracy.

Seen in this historical light, it is clear that constitutional governance in Ethiopia is still in its infancy. Therefore, it is natural for it to have teething problems. For that matter, even in mature democracies, there always are constant arguments and fights about constitutional provisions and their interpretation. As the Americans say, constitutions are an attempt to create a "more perfect union" over time.  They do not produce the finished article at birth.

But unlike what happens in this continent, most constitutional fights take place in courtrooms. Unfortunately for Ethiopia, the most glaring defect of the 1994 Constitution is its failure to establish an independent constitutional court. There would have been over 25 years of precedent and clarifications by now that would have helped in the formation of a more perfect union than the street battles that are seen almost daily.

Though there are several issues that have been hotly debated, there is one that does not get much attention but I believe is very pertinent to current problems. This little-discussed sentence is inserted in the preamble that states the foundational assumptions of the document. “…continuing to live with our rich and proud cultural legacies in territories we have long inhabited…”. This preamble, which is more forceful in the Amharic version, is referring to the conviction that the different ethnic groups in Ethiopia live in historically defined territories.

This in my view is a simplistic and even erroneous assumption that does not hold water on the ground. It also has sown the seeds that are now sprouting many territorial and boundary conflicts around the country.

The reality is, let alone the territorial demarcation between ethnic groups that have long lived side by side, intermarrying and mixing for centuries, even the boundary of the country itself is not a uniformly static, defined territory. The entity called Ethiopia has not had its current geographic shape in perpetuity. It has had different reaches and shapes at different points in history. Some territories that are included in neighbouring countries now, used to be part of the Ethiopian kingdom. And some areas that are now part of the nation were part of those countries a long time ago. Boundaries have not been static historically, especially before the formation of modern states.

The literal reading of this legal fiction is now causing conflicts and displacements all over the country as political entrepreneurs are agitating local populations that have lived together in harmony for centuries to expel their neighbours from the "historical lands" of their ethnic group. This is a dangerous trend that, left unchecked, could lead to widespread ethnic cleansing.

This erroneous foundational assumption also leads to another misunderstanding. Mixing federalism with confederation. Federalism, unlike a confederation, is not the coming together of several independent nation-states. It is rather a system of governance whereby political authority is divided between one national government and several subnational regional governments. This division of constitutionally delimited power is to be exercised all over the whole country by the federal government and only in their respective regions by the regional authorities.

Therefore, no matter where the geographical boundaries of a regional state lie, the federal government still exercises direct power over the people in these regions directly, within its constitutionally delineated limitations. Regional authorities are not the sole and only leaders of these areas as if they are independent states.

Therefore, there is an urgent need to curb the overemphasis on boundaries and the need to increase joint efforts to strengthen the building of one economic and political community. The common thread of failure that runs through Ethiopian politics from Emperor Tewodros to EPDRF is the use of force and coercion to form or hold the country together. That obviously has not worked.

Unfortunately, this time instead of the state, it is informal groups reverting to the use of force to dictate political reality. The country’s history is ample proof that it is doomed to fail. Any gains will only be temporary. The only lasting solution will be arrived at through discussion. That is what democracy is – government by discussion.

PUBLISHED ON Nov 09,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1019]

Tibebu Bekele (, who is interested in constructive dialogue and civil engagement.

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