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Can Ethnic Federalism Help to Manage Ethnic Conflicts and Accommodate National Diversity?

Tigrai Online, Oct. 11, 2012

Ambassador Tesfaye Habisso
Tesfaye Habisso is a former Ethiopian ambassodor to South Africa

The answer to the above question depends on whom you ask. If you ask most citizens of India, Ethiopia, Canada, Switzerland, and Belgium, they would say yes. Many people in other countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia are resistant to the idea of accommodating national and ethnic communities through federal institutions. For them, federalism in general, and ethnic federalism in particular, is a dirty word and a detestable phrase. For the ICG (“Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism And Its Discontents”, African Report No. 153, 4 September 2009) and the vocal/vociferous Ethiopian Diaspora in US America, Europe and elsewhere, ethnic federalism is nothing but a recipe for a “violent eruption” of endless inter-communal conflicts leading eventually to the disintegration or dissolution of the Ethiopian state, an evil project deliberately and maliciously pursued by the TPLF/EPRDF party and government toward that end, so goes their pathetic stance. In Western Europe, the French are hostile to federalism. Americans, those who live in the world’s first and longest enduring federation, like federalism but tend to be against using it to give self-government to distinct peoples. They consciously drew the internal boundaries of their own federation to avoid this. Today, when many international experts recommend federalism for other countries, such as Iraq, it is also a non-ethnic model they usually have in mind: a federation in which internal boundaries intersect with rather than coincide with ethnic and national boundaries. 

The widespread opposition to ethnic or multi-national (multi-ethnic) federalism is connected to the belief that it does not work. It is thought that giving self-government to territorially concentrated distinct peoples and ethnic-linguistic groups unleashes centrifugal forces that result in the break-up or breakdown of the state. Critics of ethnic/ multi-national federalism like to point, in particular, to the experience of post-communist Eastern Europe.

While all of communist Eastern Europe’s unitary states stayed together after 1989, all three of its multi-national federations (the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) fell apart. The federations also experienced more violent transitions than the unitary states. Before this, multi-national federations that were formed in the wake of decolonisation had a similarly abysmal track record. They fell apart in the Caribbean (the Federation of the West Indies); in east Africa (the East African Federation and the Ethiopia-Eritrea Federation); in northern Africa (the United Arab Republic); in western Africa (Senegambia); southern Africa (Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland); and in Asia (Pakistan, the Union of Malaya). The Nigerian pseudo-federation managed to stay together, but only after a brutal civil war and decades of military dictatorship. It would be difficult to argue, in the light of this evidence, that federalism is a panacea for ethnically and culturally diverse (plural) states. It also seems clear that giving national/ethnic groups their own federal units provides them with resources that they can use to launch secessionist movements, should they choose to. 

But does the evidence also indicate, as some critics suggest, that ethnic or multi-national federalism will not work in any circumstances? Plainly, the answer is no. Critics point to evidence of failure, but there are also important success stories. Two of the world’s oldest federal states, Canada and Switzerland, effectively give self-government to their principal ethnic, linguistic or national communities. The success of Canada, which has longstanding issues with its own secessionist movement, in keeping ethnic conflict in check is noteworthy, and even more so in Switzerland, whose ethnic-based federalist system has successfully managed conflicts between four different ethnic groups for centuries. 

More recently, Belgium has reorganized itself as an ethnic federation, and Spain has also assumed several multi-ethnic federal traits. Most notably, India, the post-colonial world’s most successful democracy, and the world’s largest, is also an “ethno-federal” state. 

Clearly, ethnic federalism is no panacea and won’t work everywhere; as some commentators suggest, for instance, it wouldn’t work under current conditions in Israel/Palestine. But, overall, it has been a great success in Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, and a number of other countries. By allowing each ethnic/cultural-linguistic community to have control of those regions of the country where it is in the majority, while respecting basic minority rights, it prevents the kind of zero-sum power struggle between groups that is likely to occur in an ethnically divided society where all the power is in the hands of the central government. 

Astonishingly, critics of ethnic federalism/ multi-national federalism usually fail to note that the major federal failures, including the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Nigeria, were, in practice, sham or pseudo-federations. In several cases, they were forced together. They were often, in practice, tightly centralized states. They lacked democracy. This last fact alone meant that their governments were unrepresentative of their populations, and that there was no possibility of dialogue or cooperation among their different national communities. It is hardly surprising that their minorities broke free when the opportunity arose. All of the communist and post-colonial federations that broke apart were economically weak. Because of corruption or the shortcomings of central planning, they could not provide a responsible or growing standard of living for their populations. Relatively enterprising regions of these states, such as Slovenia or the Baltic republics, found this particularly difficult to deal with. 

Critics of multi-ethnic federalism would be on stronger ground if they could show that any of the federal failures could have been democratically governed as unitary states or as American-type federations, as suggested by the International Crisis Group (“ Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism and Its Discontents”) or by David Ciepley (“Minimizing Conflict in Multi-ethnic Democracy: The Case for Dispersed Constituency Democracy”). However, there is little evidence to support such a view. Even Lenin, who was strongly opposed to multi-ethnic federalism, understood that accepting it was the only way to hold the Soviet Union together. Tito was similarly forced to adopt federalism in Yugoslavia against his first preferences.

While only federations broke apart in communist Europe, this glosses over the more basic fact that these were also by far the most nationally diverse states. This explains, after all, why they were federations in the first place. It makes at least as much sense to argue that the instability of these federations resulted from their diversity as from their ethno-federal institutional structures.

The theoretical justification for federalism, or decentralization, is based on the combination of shared rule and self-rule: federalism offers the potential to retain the territorial integrity of the state while providing some form of self-governance for disaffected groups. Thus, a growing literature has emphasized the merits of federalism as “peace preserving.” 

Notable, however, is a set of countervailing arguments that include diametrically opposed hypothesis and empirical research reaching very different conclusions. While some argue that federal institutions reduce the likelihood of armed conflict by providing sub-national challengers with institutional channels for voicing their demands, others suggest that such institutions may encourage nationalist mobilization and/or separatist conflict. 

Some studies have indicated four key findings in this regard. First, fiscal decentralization increases the likelihood of ethnic rebellion and ethnic protest in contexts where there are high levels of inter-regional inequality. Second, large, encompassing national governing parties increase the likelihood of armed conflict, ethnic rebellion, and ethnic protest when minority regions are excluded from those parties. Third, inter-regional inequality increases the likelihood of ethnic rebellion when ethnic groups are regionally concentrated. Fourth, increased fiscal transfers by central governments to decentralized governments serve to reduce the likelihood of ethnic protest when ethnic groups are regionally concentrated. [Kristien M.B. & Erik Wibbels, “ Diversity, Disparity, and Civil Conflict in Federal States”]. 

In a seminal work, S. Rufus Davis argued that there was no causal relationship between federalism and anything else:

“The truth of the matter is…. and experience has been the teacher…that some ‘federal’ systems fail, some do not; some promote a great measure of civil liberty, some do not; some are highly adaptive, some are not… Whatever their condition at any one time… it is rarely clear that it is so because of their federalness, or the particular character of their federal institutions, or the special way they practice federalism, or in spite of their federalness.” [S. Rufus Davis, The Federal Principle, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, pp. 211-212]

If Davis is right, then federalism may be associated in some cases with a rise in the frequency and intensity of ethnic problems, and in other cases with a decline in the frequency and intensity of such problems. That is, no consistent relationship would exist between federalism and the rise or decline of ethnic problems, as some critics fret to portray.

 The preponderance of scholarly work on the issue in Africa and elsewhere supports the Davis thesis, i.e. it suggests that federalism is not consistently related to the promotion or settlement of ethnic problems. Further, as Robert McKown contends, “neither a federal nor a unitary constitution is a solution to multi-culturally based problems but a structural context within which they may be confronted”. Yet, federalism continues to be viewed by some leaders of minority groups in Africa as a solution to, and by some leaders of majority groups as a cause of, such problems. This brings us to the problematic of federalism: Why would these leaders advocate or oppose something which has not proved to consistently cause or solve ethnic problems? There is no satisfactory answer provided yet.

Federalism is a concrete manifestation of the right to internal self-determination of specific communities in a multi-ethnic or multi-national state. A federal structure of the state has the potential to accommodate the legitimate aspirations of all ethnic, linguistic or religious communities for self-government and protection of their distinct cultural and religious identities, while at the same time guaranteeing equal participation by all communities and by all citizens in the political and economic affairs of the country as a whole. Thus, federalism is considered as a multi-layered political structure that facilitates both unity and diversity: “The federal idea, in short, is generally conceived as a compromise, conveyed by the image of checks and balances between unity and diversity, autonomy and sovereignty, the national and regional.” (Smith 2001, p.5)  It is a system that allows for a balance between “…the preservation of the autonomy, the self-consciousness, and the influence of territorially concentrated social groups, on the one hand, (and) desires for a strong country-wide community on the other.”(Simeon/Swinton 1995, p.7) So federalism comes into play as a reasonable design for a political system that secures social unity and political stability within (culturally/ethnically) divided societies. 

Federalism is considered as a means to live with cultural diversity. The federal political order allows to give space to the expression of different identities or diversities within a country. It is a political order that allows for the peaceful coexistence of people of varying cultures within one country. It is as well a device for nation building (or the preservation of a nation) as for the preservation and the protection of sub-national political communities. From the point of view of the individual, federalism requires the establishment of multiple loyalties and it facilitates the expression of several identities (being Québécois and Canadian; Corsican and French; [Oromo and Ethiopian]; Tamil Nadu and Indian; Scot and British): “In a stable federal system, the division of jurisdiction between the two orders of government is duplicated by dual identities and loyalties in the psyche of each citizen.” (Cairns 1995, p.34)

However, the question still remains why exactly federalism is an appropriate form of governance in multiethnic societies. Further, we need to ask if federations that are constructed on the basis of ethno-regional markers facilitate the establishment of a dual identity or, as their critics maintain, reinforce, or even reify ethnic, linguistic and/or religious divisions and thus make inter-communal tensions and fragmentation even more probable..

In order to answer these questions, we need to have a look at the empirical evidence as well as the theoretical assumptions concerning federalism. The empirical examples give, at first sight, a rather unclear picture: some federations, such as Switzerland, have been successful in accommodating diversity; others, such as Yugoslavia or Pakistan, have been failures, while still others hang in the balance, such as Canada and Nigeria. We are therefore led to assume that the successful working of a federal system, whether ethnic or other model, depends largely on the particular federal arrangement, its context and the symbolic meanings behind the identificatory boundaries upon which such federalism is constructed. It is necessary to have a closer look at the institutional variations in which a federal system can occur. 

Apart from the defining characteristics mentioned above, federal systems can take a variety of shapes and there is no single “model” of federalism! The qualifying adjectives, which are added to the word, such as “quasi-federalism”, “centralized federalism”, “decentralized federalism”, “symmetrical federalism”, ”asymmetrical federalism”, “cooperative federalism” or “executive federalism” give a first glance at this diversity. If we have a look at the existing, real federal systems around the world (for example, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Switzerland and the United States), we realize that each federal system is a system sui generis (or unique to each country or state), both in circumstances which gave birth to it and in the forms that it takes: the relation between the governments on the different levels, the degree to which the subunits are represented within central institutions and the allocation of powers and competencies, differ tremendously between those federal systems.

Some federations emerged from a voluntary contract between previously autonomous states, such as the United States, Switzerland and Canada. In these cases, autonomous states transferred part of their powers to a new central authority. In other cases, unitary states undertook a constitutional reform and restructured as federal systems, so powers were given from an existing national government to the newly created subunits. The second mechanism, which is rather seldom, holds true for Ethiopia and Belgium.

The existing federal systems also differ with regard to their formation. Federalism, when considered as a principle, can be realized in highly different institutional arrangements and political mechanisms. In fact, there is a wide range of federal types and no federal system can be simply adopted and introduced in another state because each institutional design has to consider the specific ethnic composition of a country, the existing identities, the political cleavage structure, its socio-economic state and its history, in short, the “spirit and soul of the people”, as the great 18th century French philosopher Montesquieu, stated a long time ago.

Thus any federal institutional system in Ethiopia may borrow features from existing federal systems but in its overall structure it is likely to be unique to Ethiopia. Ethnic federalism, it is widely believed among social elites in Ethiopia, was adopted as a response to the age-long aspirations of Ethiopia’s diverse “nations, nationalities and peoples” (more than eighty cultural-linguistic communities or ethnic groups) as forcefully propagated by the Ethiopian Student Movement and all progressive forces of the country since the 1960s and 1970s for self-rule and shared-rule and vehemently opposed to the policy of centralization and assimilation pursued by the past successive regimes of the country. Thus, the programme of ethnic federalism undoubtedly reflected the “soul and spirit” of the Ethiopian “nations, nationalities and peoples”, and today ethnic federalism just works well for them, even though some advocates of the nation-state model of nation-building do not support it at all whereas some political forces such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) believe that the implementation of ethnic federalism is still not deep enough, that is, the FDRE Constitution that recognizes the constitutional right of self-determination is not fully and satisfactorily implemented to grant them full autonomy due to the ruling party’s and state’s alleged centralizing role.

Finally, it must be clearly and firmly stated that it is absolutely difficult to formulate abstract generalizations about federal institutions and the prospects for their stability, since it might well be that institutions that work perfectly in one context will fail to perform if transplanted to another. This paper rejects the notion that federalism can be a one-size-fits-all solution to ethnic and other forms of intrastate conflict. Instead, it proposes a vision of federalism deeply rooted in the specific features of diverse societies.

Some systems that name themselves “federal” in their constitution would not be given this attribute from another point of view, or, to put it differently, “federalism” means different things at different places and different times, so also “ethnic federalism” in Ethiopia today. And, ethnic federalism in Ethiopia will succeed if it serves as a political tool to manage our ethnic diversity and to strengthen our democratic unity based on equality and equitable sharing of the political and economic resources of the country as well as our capability to solve the ever-nagging problems of underdevelopment, and the intermittent/internecine ethnic conflicts over resources, identity and state power. It will undoubtedly fail if it cannot help us resolve these problems and if it is not widely embraced, based on its performance, by the majority of social elites as well as the general populace of Ethiopia. Furthermore, it should be well understood that neither federalism/ethnic federalism, nor any other constitutional arrangement, can be a panacea for resolving ethnic conflicts or other socio-economic and political problems in Ethiopia or elsewhere.

Whatever the case, ethnic federalism is destined to stay with us for a long time to come; it will, of course, survive longer if and only if it continues to enjoy the wide support of the majority of the Ethiopian population and social elites at home and abroad. On the other hand, it is bound to fail, as any constitutional engineering or experiment by ruling elites, the day it is denied such overwhelming support, which seems not the case as the prevailing reality strongly shows in Ethiopia today. Lastly, I would like to conclude the paper with the thought-provoking words of one of our best economists of modern-day Ethiopia, Dr Eshetu Chole:

“…Politically, the era of centralization seems to have come to an end, and this is as it should be. A multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious society such as ours cannot and should not be administered in a highly centralized manner. That people in their respective localities have the right to administer themselves, exercise a degree of command over their own resources, and develop their own cultures and languages must be taken as axiomatic…But there must also be unity within diversity. In the past we emphasized unity at the expense of diversity, and we have paid dearly for it. Let us hope that now we will not move to the other extreme and emphasize diversity at the expense of unity.” [Eshetu Chole, “Ethiopia At the Crossroads…”, DIALOGUE, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia].

If Dr Eshetu Chole is right, then, it would be unwise of us to brush aside ethnic federalism as a mistaken or misguided model of federalism. Let us see how it works and judge it over its performance and outcome in the years to come instead of categorically condemning this novel experiment or project as unworkable and destructive.

Lastly, let us not forget that Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-religious society, a plural society like any African country and not a class society similar to well-established industrialized and democratic societies of the world. What will work for the latter societies may not work for the former.. Under these circumstances, ethnicity cannot be wished away; instead, it could serve us as “an organizing principle”, as political scholars have already suggested, and ethnicity could be managed through internal self-determination. It is worth noting the late Samora Machel of Mozambique who, at a stage, decided to try the policy “for the sake of the nation, the tribe must die,” but, I think, found out his mistake in due time. Let us not fall into the trap of making that same mistake ever 

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