Social Sciences
Volume 4, Issue 4, August 2015, Pages: 94-105

Ethnic Federalism: A Means for Managing or a Triggering Factor for Ethnic Conflicts in Ethiopia

Muhabie Mekonnen Mengistu

Department of Cooperatives, College of Business and Economics, Mizan-Tepi University, Mizan-Teferi, Ethiopia

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To cite this article:

Muhabie Mekonnen Mengistu. Ethnic Federalism: A Means for Managing or a Triggering Factor for Ethnic Conflicts in Ethiopia. Social Sciences. Vol. 4, No. 4, 2015, pp. 94-105. doi: 10.11648/j.ss.20150404.15


Abstract: Being one of the most diverse nations in the world, Ethiopia is not an exception to be free from ethnic conflicts due to its weak political structures and mal governance. The existing ethnic federal arrangement of EPRDF is devised with the aim to accommodate the interests of distinct ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Meanwhile, it is still subject to criticisms. Hence, this study questions whether the contemporary ethnic federalism in Ethiopia enables to manage ethnic conflicts or exacerbates them due to its theoretical and empirical applicability. The study is entirely based on secondary sources of data that were interpreted using a mix of interpretivism and constructivism to guide the qualitative method of research. The findings of the study revealed that ethnic federal model of Ethiopia, which solely or majorly formed on the basis of ethno-linguistic lines in most, but not all situations exacerbate and/or generate and transform ethnic conflicts from national into lower structural levels. Thus, a mixed federal system that guarantees ethnic groups self-governance with high inducements for integration and inter-ethnic collaboration is a suggestive solution to move federalism forward in Ethiopia.

Keywords: Ethnic Federalism, Ethnic Conflicts, Ethiopia, Triggering Factors, Management


1. Introduction

1.1. Background of the Study

Ethiopia is one of ethnically diverse nations in the world. This multiplicity in language, religion, culture, tradition and the overall identity is actually a beauty for the country considering the fact that the peoples of Ethiopia have had the culture of living together without any narrowly and shallowly-focused ethnic belongingness. Meanwhile, nowadays, due to variety of factors, some identity-based conflicts have been seen in some parts of the country. As a result, the idea of pan-Ethiopian sense has become de-emphasized. Principally, the territorial expansion and incorporation of a large number of diverse ethnic groups with the aim of building Ethiopian state in the second half of 19th century has created a multifarious evolving situation especially it creates a dilemma between the broader Ethiopian nationalism versus the narrow ethnic nationalist sentiments among different ethnic groups.

Modern Ethiopia has been emerged in the second half of the 19th century with the coming into the power of Emperor Tewodros II (1855-1868). This had turned the country’s history of warfare among provisional rulers. Tewodros initiated the twin imperial policies of modernization and centralization (Bahru 1991; Teshale 1995 cited in Asnake 2009). Almost all of his successors (Yohannes IV, 1872-1889; Menelik II, 1889-1913; Haile Selassie, 1930-1974) followed these policies, notwithstanding with different levels of zeal and dynamism.

After Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed, a Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) rather known as Derg in Amharic, assumed political power and declared socialism as its ideology. Though the Derg had attempted to answer the ‘national question’ on its own terms, none of the efforts had satisfied the demands of ethnic nationalists. Soon, contrary to the expectation of many scholars and students who made the revolution a reality, the Derg pursued a very harsh measure against any political dissent including ethno-regional movements. The complete closure of political space by the Derg reinforced ethno-regional movements namely, the Tigrean People Liberation Front (TPLF), Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). According to the assessment of ethno nationalists, the Derg rule was simply a continuation of the imperial period when it comes to the issue of ethnic oppression (Semahegn 2012).

Mobilization of these ethno-regional forces coupled with some military gains further strengthened and took the ‘question of nationalities’ beyond the scope of the Marxist view of the concept that was advocated during the period of the students movement. Among the ethno-regional movements, north-based Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF) and Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) who fought for the ‘self-determination’ rights of the Eritrea and Tigray provinces respectively became more prominent in terms of posing threat to the military regime. Finally, these two groups collaborated their forces and defeated the military regime in 1991. EPLF took control of Eritrea while TPLF controlled Ethiopia through its cover organization, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) (Semahegn 2012).

After the collapse of the military regime in 1991 and the seizure of state power by EPRDF, the country has been reconstituted into an ethnic federation. The adoption of federalism in Ethiopia appears to have been motivated by the problem of finding an appropriate state structure that could be used as an instrument of managing the complex ethno-linguistic diversity of the country and reduce conflicts. In spite of this, ethnic conflicts are still critical challenges in the country. In fact, the record of federalism regarding ethnic conflict is a mixed one. On the one hand, it led to the recognition of the cultural and linguistic rights of ethnic groups in the country. On the other hand, it appears to have transformed and generated localized ethnic conflicts (Abbink 2006). Many of the conflicts that emerged at local and regional levels and related to the federal restructuring of the country could be conflicts that emerge on a range of issues such as self-determination/secession, the politics of resource sharing, political power, representation, identity, citizenship, ethnic and regional boundary and others (Asnake 2009).

1.2. Statement of the Problem

The introduction of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia by EPRDF after the overthrown of the oppressive Derg regime in 1991 has had different implications for the country. In the first place, the system promoted cultural diversity and multi-ethnic political participation by devolving political power to local communities and on the other it put in to question the survival of the Ethiopian state since several ethnic groups exert pressure on the government and claims for secession periled to disintegrate Ethiopia.

It seems true that the current Ethiopian government is aware of the country’s fragility due to the system it adopted more particularly because of opt of secession. They believed that self-determination, decentralization and constitutionally guaranteeing the right to secession is the only means to remain the state intact. However, the persistence and continuations of ethnic conflicts indicate that ethnic federalism has not alleviated ethnic tensions as envisaged by the EPRDF (Frank M. 2009).

The very purpose of the federal restructuring of Ethiopia is aimed at finding a means for managing ethnic conflicts though it led to the changing of arenas of conflicts by decentralizing them and also generated new localized inter-ethnic conflicts (Horowitz, 1985). These conflicts could be inter-regional conflicts over the boundaries of different ethno-linguistically formed regions, and even there are distinct forms of conflicts emanating from resource and power sharing from local to regional and federal levels.

Politics in Ethiopia becomes heavily centralized on ethnicity rather than on shared concerns such as democracy, development, justice, human rights, etc. This calculation in turn led to ethnic disputes. Moreover, no one benefits from this disintegration than those who are interested in maintaining the status quo, mainly the ruling regime. Theoretically, federalism in Ethiopia is adopted to ensure equitable distribution of power and resources among regional states. But in reality, the system is devised to maintain political dominance at the hands of minority Tigrian elites.

The ambition to establish an ethnically egalitarian nation-state appeared as best achievable through the instauration of ethnic federalism since it was supposed to solve Ethiopia’s chronical ethnic conflicts generated by the flawed nation-building process of the 19th and 20th century (Mengisteab 2001). However, the promises of ethnic federalism were short-lived, and soon betrayed TPLF’s "divide and rule" strategy (Ghai 2000) aiming at securing Tigreans’ political supremacy resulting notably in a pro-Tigrean public good allocation due to excessive financial dependence of the federal regions on the central government.

The recent political model of Ethiopia less undeniably accorded ethnic and cultural rights particularly minority groups though civil and political and economic rights are neglected or sided to selected ethnic groups that the ruling party affiliates with. Thus, the country’s recent political record shows that a hybrid of ethnic recognition and ethnic division which led into ethnic conflicts among different groups due to a self-centered political strategy of the current authoritarian government model. Hence, as aimed by this research, it is paramount important to deal in-depth with whether the present ethnically based Ethiopian political formation exacerbates or reduces ethnic conflicts throughout the country.

1.3. Objective of the Study

1.3.1. General Objective of the Study

The main objective of the study is to critically analyze the current Ethiopian Ethnic Federal System in a manner that whether it is used as a means for managing ethnic conflicts or a triggering factor for these conflicts in the country.

1.3.2. Specific Objectives of the Study

Specific objectives of the study include:

1.   To assess the need to adopt Ethnic Federal System in Ethiopia.

2.   To analyze how ethnic based federal system is used as a means for managing ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia.

3.   To question and evaluate how Ethnic Federal System in Ethiopia is an exacerbating factor for ethnic conflicts in the country.

4.   To provide constructive policy recommendations based on the findings of the study.

2. Methodology of the Study

The study was an explanatory research study design following more of a qualitative approach for making a detail description, diagnosis and explanation of ethnic federalism and its effects towards ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia. This method was selected due to the reason that the type of data that have been collected and the nature of the research in itself was a qualitatively explanatory type. In other words, the study was objectively intended to identify and portray the effect of the system established by the ruling government rather than making any exploratory or experimental analysis.

2.1. Sources of Data

The study was entirely dependent on the secondary sources of data due to time and financial constraints. Thus, physical presence and collecting first-hand information from the study area was impossible. As a result, relevant documents produced by the government (EPRDF) and opposition parties were sourced to undertake the research. Likewise, related literature both from websites and published and unpublished printed documents such as books, journals and reports have been used.

2.2. Sampling Method and Sample Size

Since the objective of the study is focused on the examination of the effects of ethnic federalism towards ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia, data that has been collected and analyzed reflects only from 1991 onwards. Furthermore, subject to financial and time limitations, sampling other African nations that adopted Federalism system of government was unattainable. Hence, this study is only targeted on Ethiopia and its sub-nations.

2.3. Methods of Data Analysis and Interpretation

Following the completion of data collection, the data have been edited and structured for analysis and interpretation purposes. In the end, interpretation of data using a combination of interpretivism and constructivism to guide the qualitative method of research was conducted.

3. Review of Related Literatures

3.1. Definitions of Terminologies: Ethnicity, Federalism, and Ethnic Conflicts

In the process of conducting such scientific studies, primarily, it is highly imperative to conceptually define some important terminologies with a view of clarifying the concepts related with the study. For that reason, terms such as ethnicity, federalism and ethnic conflicts amongst others will be defined accordingly. Despite the fact that different authors and researchers defined them in different ways, the following definitions are drawn with a view that they most contribute to this research.

For Horowitz (1985), Ethnicity as a term designates a sense of collective belonging, which could be based on common descent, language, history, culture, race, or religion (or some combination of these).

Johnson in his part defined federalism as ‘‘it is a form of government designed to get the better of two worlds: the advantages of a unified state and the benefits of the diversity which is inherent in the peoples and the regions which make up the state.’’ The Free Dictionary also defined Federalism as "A system of government in which power is divided between a central authority and constituent political units." Likewise, Duhaime's Law Dictionary defined Federalism as "A system of government which has created, by written agreement, a central and national government to which it has distributed specified legislative (law-making) powers, called the federal government, and regional or local governments (or sometimes called provinces or states) to which is distributed other, specified legislative powers." Therefore, Federalism is a political organization in which the activities of government are divided between regional governments and a central government in such a way that each kind of government has some activities on which it makes final decisions.

Ethnic conflicts can be defined as conflicts between ethnic groups within a multi-ethnic state, which have been going on sometime, which may appear to be unsolvable to the parties caught up in them. According to Michael E. Brown, an ethnic conflict is a dispute about important political, economic, cultural, or territorial issues between two or more ethnic communities. Many ethnic conflicts result in a significant loss of life, a serious denial of basic human rights and considerable material destruction, some escalating into interethnic or internal war.

3.2. Ethiopia and Ethnic Federalism

Ethiopia provides the most recent example of an African government to introduce federalism in an attempt to create an enabling environment for democracy and development. On assuming the leading role in a transitional government following the overthrow of Ethiopia’s Marxist-Leninist regime in 1991, the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) declared its target to pursue an administrative path of ethnic federalism.

Scholars are divided on the merits of ethnic federalism as an institutional approach to the management of ethnically divided societies. For some, ethnic federalism is a potentially workable compromise between the demands for independence of territorially concentrated ethnic groups and the desire of a common state to preserve its territorial integrity. On the other side, for many of them who critic federalism, it is a short-cut to secession and ultimate state collapse. The argument of critics is theoretically plausible, but an examination of the universe of post-1945 states with ethnic federal arrangements shows that ethnic federalism has succeeded more often than it has failed. Within this universe of cases, moreover, ethnic federalism has demonstrably outperformed institutional alternatives, and where ethnic federal systems have failed where no institutional alternatives could plausibly have succeeded. The increasing enthusiasm among policymakers and practitioners for prescribing federal solutions to ethnic problems is both understandable and defensible in light of these findings.

Students of federalism classify federations into two categories based on their recognition of ethnic and linguistic diversities (Burgess 2006; József 2005; Kymlicka 2006; Requejo 2001). In the first category, there are those federations that ensure territorial power sharing and do not recognize ethnic and linguistic cleavages (József 2005). Many of the older Western federations such as the US, Australia, and Germany fall under this category. Most of these federations resulted from the coming together of their units, which previously existed independently. Their main purpose was ‘to unite people living in different political units, who nevertheless shared a common language and culture’ (Forsyth cited in O’Leary, 2001).

Federations in the second category not only recognize ethnic and linguistic diversity but also reflect them in their ideology and structures. Such federations are called as multinational and ethnic federations. There is no clear distinction between ethnic federalism rarely used in the Western context but emerged as a popular way of labeling Ethiopian federalism from that of multinational federalism (Asnake 2009). On the one hand, scholars like Will Kymlicka identify all those countries ‘in which internal boundaries have been drawn and powers distributed in such a way as to ensure that each national group can maintain itself as a distinct and self-governing society and culture’ as multinational federations (2006). On the other hand, Henry E. Hale conceived an ethno-federal state as one in which ‘component territorial governance units are intentionally associated with specific ethnic categories’ (2004). One may then ask why ethnic, as opposed to multinational federalism, is more appropriate in the Ethiopian context. It is conceivable to view this from the ideological rigor of ethnic regionalization in that country (Kymlicka, 2006). In Ethiopia, unlike Western multinational federations (e.g. Spain) that mediated questions of ethnic autonomy through a protracted bargaining between the State and mobilized minority groups, federalism entailed a top down reconstitution of the country based on ethnicity.

As a result, many ethnic groups, which before 1991 did not mobilized based on ethnic nationalism, were required to organize themselves according to their ethnicity so that they fit into the new ethno-federal system. Thus, ethnic regionalization led to the overall ethnic-centered politics in the country as the state promoted ethnicity as the key instrument of political mobilization and state organization. Indeed, Ethiopia today shows some of the characters of what Lidija Flexner called ethnified polities.

That is why it is more appropriate to use ethnic federalism in the Ethiopian context than multinational federalism. In contrast to Ethiopia, those western federations (e.g. Canada and Switzerland) usually categorized as multinational do not promote ethnicity as the chief instrument of state organization and mobilization. Nor do they seek congruence between ethnic and intra-federal boundaries.

3.3. Federalism and Ethnic Conflicts in Ethiopia

For decades, federalism has been prescribed as a recipe for overcoming ethnic conflict and separatism in divided societies with geographically-concentrated ethnic groups. Recently, however, some scholars have alerted instead that federalism can exacerbate the very problems it seeks to address (Martínez.E. 2008). Similarly, Debates on multi-ethnic federalism exhibit two broad contending views. On the one hand, many scholars advocate the use of federalism as a way of stabilizing multi-ethnic countries (Kimenyi 1998; Linz and Stepan 1996; Young 1994). On the other hand, there are scholars who argue that federalism exacerbates conflicts (Cornell 2002; Snyder 2000).

Most scholars who supported multi-ethnic federalism (the first position in this case) argued that federalism is a means for managing ethnic conflicts than triggering the existing conflicts and/or generating the new ones. John Agnew, for example, squabbles, ‘federalism helps to manage intergroup conflicts that might otherwise escalate into violence and lead to the proliferation of mini-states without much viability’ (1995). Similarly, David Lake and Donald Rothchild asserted that federalism ‘can play a role in managing political conflicts. By enabling local and regional authorities to wield a degree of autonomous power, elites at the political center can promote confidence among local leaders’ (1998). Vincent Ostrom also underscores that no other political structure provides better opportunities for multi-ethnic countries in the contemporary world than federalism (1979). Federalism’s attractiveness as an instrument of conflict management lies in its promise of making ethnically heterogeneous states more homogenous through the creation of sub-units (O’Leary, 2001).

To the researchers, federalism in Ethiopia has had a twin effect. Among others, Andreas (2003) concludes that formerly marginalized minority ethnic groups in Ethiopia have been given representation at federal and regional levels. Merara (2007), of the opposite, find out that because of injustice-able power sharing, and impracticability of democracy and self-determination, the system remains empty premises.

To Horowitz, 1985; Federalism could also be used to reduce inter-ethnic conflicts by the proliferation of points of power which in turn promotes inter-ethnic electoral cooperation, promoting alignments based on interests other than ethnicity.

The reality in federal Ethiopia is far from what is proposed here. In fact, the most noticeable change regarding conflict in Ethiopia after the formation of the federal structure has been the emergence of localized violent conflicts involving several of the ethnically constituted regions (Abbink 2006; Asnake 2004; Solomon 2006 cited in Asnake 2009). Though these conflicts do not appear to affect EPRDF’s power position, they became menacing to local communities. At the same time, there are secessionist movements engaged in low-level armed warfare.

In contrast to the above optimistic views about the role of federalism in reducing ethnic conflicts, some scholars argue that it exacerbates them (Gagnon 2001). Skepticism about the use of federalism in managing ethnic conflicts relates in part to the susceptibility of multi-ethnic federations to fragmentation. The USSR, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, which collapsed after the end of the Cold War, exhibited vulnerability of multi-ethnic federations to conflict and fragmentation. Even some of the existing multi-ethnic federations like Belgium appear in a state of what Graham Smith called ‘perpetual crises’ (1995).

There are several arguments against the use of federalism as an instrument of ethnic conflict management. One of the major problems refers to the impossibility of making ethnic and administrative boundaries congruent. This tends to engender tensions and conflicts in the relationship between local/regional majorities and minorities. That is why A.C. Cairns suggested that ‘federalism can contribute to inter-ethnic harmony and civility only when the ethnic groups in question are territorially concentrated and thus capable of escaping from each other’ (Cairns, cited in Gagnon 1993). This problem appears more profound in multi-ethnic countries that adopted federalism through federal restructuring processes. In fact, what Walker Connor (1973) observed as practical challenges to the quest of ethno-nationalism at the international level like the sheer size of ethnic groups and the problem of fixing boundaries emerged in microcosm when many multi-ethnic countries like Ethiopia embarked upon federal restructuring processes.

Moreover, federalism might exacerbate the plight of local minorities. In this respect, William Riker (1964) dismissed the notion that federalism promotes minoritarian freedom. He reached to this conclusion after observing the stiff resistance of the American South during the 1960s against the civil rights of blacks (local minorities) and the use of federalism as a shield to frustrate the wishes of the national majority on the question. It is because of federalism’s tendency of exacerbating conflicts between local majorities and local minorities that Nordlinger E. excluded it from his conflict regulation mechanisms (1972).

Moreover, defining the boundaries of ethnically constituted sub- national units of multi-ethnic federations has proven problematic and could cause ethnic tensions and conflicts. This is particularly true in urban areas and ethnic borderlands where two or more ethnic groups converge. The fluid and overlapping nature of ethnic identity in many multi-ethnic countries make drawing of intra-federal boundaries cause for conflicts (Asnake 2009). In Ethiopia, for example, several violent conflicts between neighboring ethnic groups erupted because of contested boundaries. In some cases, traditional territorial conflicts over land resources between neighboring pastoral ethnic groups are turning into more dangerous nation-state type boundary conflicts (Asnake 2004). In fact, this tends to support what A. Murphy observed:

‘When the territories in question are spatial surrogates of large-scale, potentially self-conscious cultural communities, most territorial conflicts become community conflicts as well. In the process, feelings of ethnicity are strengthened and new issues take on ethnoterritorial significance’ (1995).

On top of the problem of incongruence between ethnic and sub-national boundaries, ethnic federalism has the tendency to reify and solidify ethnic cleavages in multi-ethnic countries giving them political, legal, institutional and above all territorial basis. As a result, many scholars do not view multi-ethnic federalism as helpful in managing ethnic conflicts. For instance, John Agnew observed that ‘federalism institutionalizes what may be "temporary" or partial group identities as permanent ones. The territorial nature of the federal solution inscribes difference and ensures its reproduction’ (1995).

Additionally, ethnic federalism tends to strengthen what David Brown calls the ‘ideology of resentment’ between both ethnic majorities and minorities. It could make difficult if not impossible the development of countrywide civic citizenship, which is required for deliberative democracy (2007). Ethnic federalism has been also accused of fostering ethnic mobilization, secessionism and contributing to more conflicts. In this respect, several scholars emphasize the institutional and territorial basis that federalism provides to ethno-nationalist movements. For example, S. E. Cornell argued that territorial autonomy/federalism gives multifaceted support for secession by providing ethno-nationalist forces borders, group identity, cohesion, government, parliament, leadership and external support (2002). Similarly, E. Nordlinger noted that combination of territorially distinctive segments and federalism’s grant of partial autonomy sometimes provides additional impetus to demands for greater autonomy; when the centrally-situated or centralist-oriented conflict group refuses these demands, secession, and civil war follow (1972).

In the same vein, federalism is criticized for frustrating countrywide free mobility of citizens and turning every constitutional conflict into ethnic conflicts (Basta Fleiner 2000). By mentioning empirical examples of India and Switzerland among successful nations by espousing federal system of government and Yugoslavia, Soviet Union and many other developing countries as the failed states, the above arguments tried their level best to convince each other. However, beyond their debates, it would be essential to consider factors such as the presence of: democratic system, rule of law, harmonized cross-ethnic relationships, demographic balance, etc.

4. Data Analysis and Interpretation

4.1. The Whys and Wherefores of Ethnic Federalism in Ethiopia

As a system of government, Federalism has been drawn for overcoming ethnic conflict and separatism in ethnically diverse societies with geographically-concentrated ethnic groups. It has been assumed that since it devolves power, resource and administrative situations of a given country among the constituting ethno-linguistically segregated groups, it was the primary option of form of government for countries that are deeply divided along ethnic lines. In recent times, nonetheless, several intellectuals have viewed instead that federalism can rather intensify ethnic conflicts and a sense of secessionism.

Numerous researches have been undertaken about federalism. In broader spectrums, their arguments can be divided into two different as the same time opposing responses to federalism and its effects in managing multi-ethnic societies. The first groups of scholars debated that federalism is a means to mitigate most of the problems raised by ethnic and minority nationalist conflicts (Lijphart 1999 and Horowitz 1985). They tried to convince that granting self-rule to these ethnic groups will avoid the threat of existing as a distinctive group by which they can protect and promote their own cultures and values. Furthermore, they argued that it enables them to foster their interests both as a group and as single individuals. The second group of scholarly works on the other assertively forwarded that Federalism especially ethnic federalism aggravates ethnic conflicts in the form of deconstructing the "We" and "Those", "They" and "Us" and "Ours" and "Others" mentality that had led to the loss of togetherness, empathy and sympathy among the peoples. This opens the way for political entrepreneurs and ethnic activists to fire the tensed groups to go to ethnic conflicts (Muhabie, 2015). Besides, cited in Enric Martínez-Herrera (2008); Roeder (1999), Skalnik-Leff (1999) and Hale (2000) formidably underline that resource and power decentralization opens a room for ethno-nationalist to divert the budget or resource decentralized for their political consumptions particularly to organize large-scale rebellion and secessionism attitude among that specified ethnic group. This implies it promotes the danger of pro-secessionism rather than nationalism.

The intellectuals of the former category in addition speaks that federalism decentralizes administration which in turn paves the way for political elites of ethnic groups to indoctrinate the people with nationalist beliefs and values by using the powerful communicative machinery of the state (Clarke et al. 2000 cited on Enric Martínez-Herrera, 2008). Plus to that, it could be possible to utter that federalism opens new political arenas by facilitating different political parties to organize themselves along ethnic lines which after all creates competition effect among ethnic groups to be politically represented in the Federal government of the country. However, it is sound to conclude that these competitions may lead to disintegration rather than integration sentiments.

Three decades ago, being the second most populous and diversified nation in Africa, Ethiopia has been integrated with ethno-linguistic federal political arrangements.         Dated on 1991, EPRDF has had engineered ethnic federalism as a means for addressing the national question of Ethiopian nations, nationalities and peoples, which could if not otherwise unfavorably prevailed by the former unitary systems of governments. To the contrary, this model of administration in Ethiopia is criticized for its promotion of secession and ultimate disintegration of the country. Furthermore, it has been disparage seeing that it is based on ethnicity and will deeply imprint ethno-linguistic identity.

Proponents of federalism in Ethiopia squabbled that unless diversified nature of the country is recognized through extending such a like structures, it would be a mere wish to reconstruct a unified and prospers Ethiopia. Granting the right to self-determination up to secession is the only way to sustain Ethiopia as a nation state. For example, Andreas Eshete in 2003 explicitly remarked that the Ethiopian ethnic federalism is the consequence of the coming together of the country’s ethnic groups to reconstruct a federal government on the new basis. But still some like Edmond Keller (2002) suggested that Ethiopian federalism is a form of ‘putting together’ type which is the result of the monopolization of the political landscape by the TPLF/EPRDF.

Thus here, one can firmly conclude that ethnic federalism in Ethiopia has had different implications as far as managing the multi-ethnic nature of the country. For this reason, the following analysis has been fortified.

4.2. Ethnic Federalism: A Means for Managing or a Triggering Factor for Ethnic Conflicts in Ethiopia

Federalism is debatable not only in practice but also at theoretical levels. Different scholars analyze in different ways. Even for distinct schools of thoughts, federalism mean different. More often than not, the nature and functions of federalism classified in to normative and empirical. At a normative level, for instance, some relate federalism with peace, security, citizenship and democracy. To the contrary, others argue that federalism brings regional inequalities and oppression of local minorities by local majorities (Shapiro cited in Asnake 2009). Likewise, empirical studies hammer out federalism on elements of self-rule and shared-rule (Ibid).

Constructing a political system in which diverse peoples feel free and equal, able to govern themselves in their own areas, protect and preserve their languages, cultures and traditions, while at the same time give their political loyalty to the nation state becomes the felt need but difficult to answer among the contemporary politicians throughout the world.

To pro-ethno-federalists in Ethiopia, ethnic federalism has been devised to resolve problems of ethnic discriminations by the then (prior to EPRDF) regimes of the country with the aim of nation building. Accordingly, the current government of Ethiopia promotes ethnicity as the key instrument of political mobilization and state organization to overcome ethnic conflicts that could emerge otherwise. However, considerable researchers, not withstanding with the merits of federalism conveyed that most of post 1991 armed liberation movements in different parts of the country were shaped by ethnic federalism which entirely depend up on ethnicity rather than other shared components of democracy and governance.

On the other hand, opponents of ethnic federalism debated with the stand that the new political arrangement is not democratic and inclusive as supposed to be. Rather, it is a reconstruction of a decidedly discriminatory scheme which favors EPRDF, primarily Tigrayan elites. There are also some peoples who assert that there was nothing ‘ethnocratic’ about the old arrangement and that a centralized system is, in principle, much to be preferred than the current one. In line with this argument; Horowitz in 1991 forwarded that "talking about ethnicity creates or reinforces ethnic divisions". More understandingly, Walle Engedayehu in 1993, by illustrating the case of Former Yugoslavia, depicted that ethnic politicization is always ended with disaster. Further than ethnic categorization in itself, debate on the necessity of ethnic-based classification is likely to intensify conflicts in Ethiopia.

Some researchers appreciated federalism for the thing that it has given the right to self-determination, which some Ethiopian ethnic groups are pleased about; nonetheless, it is highly important to be sure that it is really by the will and intent of ethnic groups themselves and not by the outside impositions. EPRDF and its land mark ‘Ethnic Federalism’ are highly criticized for their intension to use the cover ‘self-determination’ as an instrument for the political mobilization of ethnic elites and groups. Besides, EPRDF should be sure that more than a talk to ‘create’ these groups as a viable, coherent, and identifiably bounded collective ‘self’ in order to be able to make full use of the right of self-determination. Nowadays, language rather than knowledge and skill became the only and primary criteria to get a job out of one’s region. Of course, language should be promoted and recognized since it is one of the means for exercising one’s rights; however, it should not be the only gate to reach into the destinations.

A further detail on whether Federalism intensifies ethnic conflicts, or a means to manage it can be analyzed from the following angles.

    i.        Addressing the "National Question" in Effect Overcoming Ethnic Conflicts

Before discussing how ethnic federalism devised to address the national question of ethnic groups, it would be necessary to confer the historical evolvement of Ethiopia as a nation state.

The history of Ethiopian state formation is a contending issue. According to pan-Ethiopian nationalists, the Ethiopian state has existed for millennia. Whereas, for ethno-nationalists like Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) claims that the making of Ethiopia is the result of colonization of the Abyssinian Empire in the second half of the 19th c. Thus, they pointed out that those ethno-national colonies such as Oromia need to undergo the decolonization process. However, the most agreeable, of the two extreme positions, is the first one that confers that Ethiopia is a non-colonial but historically evolved country through conquest and incorporation of adjoining territories. This argument essentially considered as a precursor for the ‘Ethnic Federalism’ concept in Ethiopia yet it is subject to debates among intellectuals.

In the first hand, EPRDF itself and advocators of ethnic federalism portray that federalism has been emerged with the aim to transform the empire-state into a democratic state of ethnic federalism (Alem 2003). Semahegn (2012) additionally strengths this idea by saying with its distinct form, ethnic federalism in Ethiopia transforms ethnic tensions into cooperation while it is also facing serious challenges.

In the second hand, Africa Report (2009) showed that ethnic federalism has not resolved the national question from the fact that ethnic conflicts are widened, transformed from the national to lower structural levels or been contained by the security forces. The competitive and hostile inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic relationships are increasing from time to time specially with the ambition to control the administrative boundaries and government budgets in addition to land and natural resources. Birhanu also remarked that in almost all instances, the objectives of EPRDF and its hundreds of registered ethnic organizations are redressing injustices of the past through the processes of self-administration and developing of culture and usage of languages. Nonetheless, these claims are more of a demand for social status, political power, and economic benefits (instrumental) rather than preserving their relationships intact. He, furthermore, explicitly stated that ethnic federalism or the practices that took place because of ethnic federalism are inclined to creating a ‘permanent’ cleavage that could widen and has opened a venue for further exclusion, discrimination and hostilities (Birhanu, 2008). By citing Markais (1994), he arraigns the central state for its ethnic favoritism. Principally, the connotation of the prior 1991 rule associated with ‘Amhara Rule’ enables them to gain significant supporters along ethnic lines. At last, he concludes that the enduring ethnic federal arrangement of Ethiopia does not reflect the real interests of the peoples of Ethiopia but it is simply driven by a sectional interest of the TPLF that used a ‘divide and rule’ strategy in order to countervail its minority position in the ethnic map of Ethiopia. Hence, to him, ethnic federalism does not address the national question of Ethiopia.

Many empirical and scholarly works show that the current EPRDF’s system of government gets the country’s into the risk of ethnic hostilities by darkening national solidity.

  ii.        Is Ethnic Federalism an Elite Cooptation than Ethnic Cooperation in Ethiopia?

The EPRDF’s ethnic federalism is a determinant political change in the history of Ethiopia. In its constitution even during Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE) under a transitional charter, EPRDF boldly stated that the current political arrangement is the product of a multiethnic coalition of Ethiopian Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples. To the contrary, many intellectuals oppose this stand point. For instance, the transitional period charter is considered to be a legitimate contract among constituting ethnic groups, however, the charter was produced by an assembly which had neither the direct representation of the Ethiopian people nor the approval of the various ethnic groupings. By and large, the ethnic federalism of EPRDF is accused for its artificial representation by which it claims that no body or ethnic representation has been excluded. In its structure, it is uncommon to found those who did not sing a song of the government. In simple words, it is a collection of elite co-opts who are not answerable for their people. Besides, the establishment of ethnic federal system is not through the consultation of Ethiopian peoples and ethnic groups rather it was architected by the TPLF and agreed by the ethnic elite co-opts. The assumption was that ‘the leaders of the different nations bear the moral and political burden of guiding and counseling the people in their national and political constituencies’ (Kinfe 1994). If this is the case, peoples of the country will continue to challenge the regime and the rule will in turn react out of the due process of law. Eventually, this creates tension and conflicts.

iii.        Power Sharing Versus Ethnic Conflicts Under Ethnic Federalism in Ethiopia

In principle, federalism is the method of decentralizing powers so that the federal and regional governments are each, within a sphere, co-ordinate and independent. In other words, federalism is designed with the objective of power sharing between these two governments wherein it allows developing a strategy to manage differences and also to establish ways in which the various ethnic groups will participate in local or national government and the parts of decisions affecting their life. Meanwhile, decision making is usually problematic because the values of minority groups are not considered. Decision making is usually by the majority.

Ethnic federalism is actually extended with the aim of de-concentration, distribution and decentralization of power from the mainstream or central government to regional provinces or to other decentralized bodies without the central government loosing grip or control of these decentralized units. But in reality, this arrangement is criticized for its fictitious ethnic coalition organizations which have formed EPRDF. In simple and clear manner, it is a system stretched to assure the TPLF’s hegemonic project by using ethnic rights discourse. Thus, unless these political elites do not come to power through the full consent of the people, it was totally impossible to say there is a legitimate power sharing among ethnic groups. This again implies that unless ethnic groups are not involved in power sharing, they mistrust the governing body, and they assumed that it is the government of other ethnic groups. This finally leads to inter-ethnic conflicts in the one hand and government and the underrepresented peoples on the other.

 iv.        Self-determination up to Secession: Does it Exacerbates Ethnic Conflicts or enhances Ethnic Cohesion?

The ideology of EPRDF’s ethnic federalism project has a direct link with Marxist-Leninist ideology and its conception of "the national question." The project has been modeled after the USSR and Yugoslavia. According to the Constitution, ethnic groups enjoy equal rights. Article 39 of the constitution further grants nations, nationalities, and peoples to have an unrestricted right to self- determination up to secession. It also provides considerable executive, legislative and judicial authority to regional states. For example, Article 52 stated that "All powers not given expressly to the Federal Government alone, or concurrently to the Federal government and the States are reserved to the States."

Nowadays, EPRDF is proudly proclaiming that the right to a session is one of the manifestations of its excellence on the spot of democracy. It formidably tries to convince that the union members should not be forced to remain under but by their full consent and willingness. The federal government is formed if not and otherwise the claiming member will be let to go if and only if it meets the procedures stated under the Constitution. Meanwhile, some argue that the grant of a constitutional right to self-determination is in contradiction with the very idea of a federalist constitution. How a government that preaches the unification of peoples along ethnic lines simultaneously promotes secession? It contradicts in itself. The government defends this hypothesis by saying the federation is a contractual agreement which should allow any members to decide freely either to remain or withdrew the association. But the logic of secessionism presumes the collapse of the federal structure. This is supported by Crawford Young (1986) who said that ‘if nationalism was a progressive and worthy topic, ethnicity was a retrogressive and shameful one’. Due to this fact, many scholars including Tsegaye (2006) conclude that Secession means the consolidation of local authority over the boundaries of the ethnic group by excluding the federal government, and the unilateral elimination of the dual allegiance of its citizenry, replacing it with an integral duty to a single local authority. This, in effect, means the disintegration of the federal state.’ What would be its final consequence? It is ethnic conflict and may escalate into civil wars as has been seen between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Self-determination in this ethnic based federal system endowed every nation, nationality and peoples to exercise a full measure of self-administration which includes the right to establish institutions of government in the territory that it inhabits and to equitable representation in state and federal governments. The principle of self-rule is effective in recognizing the linguistic and cultural rights of the various ethnic groups of the country, however, its effect on political autonomy is almost nil (Asnake, 2009). Some also disparage the recent federal system of Ethiopia for its ban of ethnic fluidity and intermix by politically discouraging exclusive arrangements and fragmentations that could hinder mobility and evolutionary fusion. If there is no free movement of peoples between regions, ethnic groups will develop the ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’ sentiments. This is after all the major cause for ethnic conflicts throughout the country.

Plus to that, self-determination and power decentralization is judged to be a generator and transformer of conflicts into kebele, woreda, zonal and regional levels. More importantly, it enables ‘political entrepreneurs’ and ‘ethnic activists’ to play their catalyzing role of inter and intra conflicts by provoking emotions, political memories, and myths. Even with in a region, when one group feels unhappy due to power or resource sharing, it directly claims to have its own new region and its own resources which are reinforced by federalism.

To some analysts like Semahegn (2012), the process of labeling of the political discourses solely in ethnic terms has also put a match to ethnic conflicts and tensions in the society. Thanks to federalism, social relations have become more and more ethnic-oriented, which disintegrated the people and made them to ethnically compete for controlling the political power and economic resources. Asnake (2009) in his part said that violent and protracted conflict accompanied intra-federal boundary making. For instance, he mentioned that ethnic regionalization transforms the Afar and Issa conflict into an intra-federal boundary conflict.

Even though it is only by name, the emergence of ‘a multi-party system’ in the current political order of the country has an astonishing effect towards the political discourse as well as ethnic conflicts. In reality, the existing political system in Ethiopia is a de facto one-party system. This narrowed political arena seriously affected the ability of Ethiopia’s federalism to manage conflicts.

   v.        Does Ethnic Federalism in Ethiopia opens a way for Bargaining and Compromise and in turn enables to Manage Ethnic Conflicts?

Theoretically, Federal structure is assumed to opens an avenue for bargaining and compromise by which ethnic conflicts could be better managed (Chapman, 1993). Nonetheless, Ethiopia’s experience shows that bargaining and compromise have been deterred for the reason that power remains at the hand of a defacto single dominant party. Thus, rather than opening possibilities for managing conflicts, federalism in Ethiopia triggers intra and inter-ethnic conflicts.

 vi.        The ethno-linguistic and politico-administrative (boundaries) Demarcation System of EPRDF: Does it aggravates or opens an opportunity for managing Ethnic Conflicts?

According to Asnake (2009), the twin ethnic and politico-administrative boundary settings of EPRDF ‘engendered new violent conflicts and transformed old resource conflicts into boundary conflicts.’ He took an example of the boundary sought between Benishangul-Gumuz and the Oromia regions that adversely affected the relationship between the two regions that lived peacefully in ethnically mixed villages for several years.

The redrawing of administrative boundaries was particularly painful for groups that had historically changing identities, such as Oromo-Somali pastoralists like the Garri, Gabra, and Guji. Resource-sharing agreements with neighboring pastoral groups became increasingly difficult since territorial control is a prerequisite to claiming a district. They were forced to settle for an Oromo or Somali ethnic identity and ally with the predominant ethnic group in those regional states. Oromiya and Somali claimed their territory which finally led into disputes between the two states (Africa Report 2009).

vii.        Minority Rights and Ethnic Conflicts Under Ethnic Federalism

Among the significant achievements of the present ethnic federal arrangements, minority ethnic groups, even numerically small ones, are recognized. Even they got a say at the national level than ever before in Ethiopia’s history. To Vaughan S. and Tronvoll K. (2003), however, ‘a number of occupational or clan minorities within ethnic groups continue to be marginalized, despised, and disadvantaged, their political representation subsumed within the wider ethnic groups. Particularly, stigmatized and despised groups (often craftsmen or hunters) exist amongst many if not all of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups, and a number have been encouraged by ethnic federalism to petition for separate representation. Since they live together with other ethnic groups they are unlikely ever to secure representation in a ‘first past the post’ electoral system and remain largely excluded from the local socio-political arena’. In short, ethnic minorities may not be geographically concentrated. Hence, a special empowerment mechanism than the current one is highly essential to enable them truly represented at the regional and federal levels.

Another category of minorities in its disgusting form is peoples who are identified as settlers of an ethnically defined region because of the new arrangement. According to Africa report (2009), these populations became minorities that in some cases did not speak the language of the new administration. This in a most case makes these peoples to be considered as secondary citizens. They may expel from their property especially land, and they may also not have a legitimate political representation, etc. This is mostly aggravated by local indigenous politicians. Sadly enough, it is finally ended by intra-ethnic conflicts as empirically evidenced in; first, the conflict between the Berta and Amhara and Oromo settlers in Asosa zone that exploded during the 2000 federal elections. Second, the severe conflicts may be termed as ‘ethnic cleansing’ of "non-natives" have been chased away in Arussi, Harar, and Bale. Thirdly, in the Southern region, using the opportunity of ethnically defined administration, the historically dominant Sidama and Wolayta ethnic groups discriminate the lower caste groups such as craftsmen and slave descendants.

Sometimes, due to EPRDF’s propaganda and its self appointed ethnic elite’s synthetic political provocation, most minority groups blow behind the central government. But at the end, if they critically evaluate the effects of the new politico-administrative system, it may worth minimal. For example, the 1994 conference’s slogan of Agew/Kamyr was ‘Waag without the ERPDF is nothing’. This was really surprising and a fictitious enforcement of elite co-opts. The area is the most drought-prone area of the country may be starting from centuries ago. Sadly enough, it continues during the era of EPRDF. What really the current government did for this zone more than using it for its political consumption by rationing Canada Wheat and Oil which left the people to remain in poverty and famine? The region should ask itself to adopt a strategy which can assure its sustainable development rather than blowing politics behind the federal government that helps nothing or insignificant at the end. Its collective problem then led into intra-ethnic conflict between Waag specially Sahila and Telaje with that of its adjacent small place, ‘Arbatseguar’ (a particular kebele which is found under Amhara Regional State speaking a mix of Amharic-Agawigna language) due to the large sum migration of the Agaw people to this area in search of pasture for their cattle.

viii.        Ethnic Federalism constructs ‘Who is lesser than whom?’ Sentiments and Concluded by Ethnic Conflicts

Ethnicity has become the primary means of political mobilization in Ethiopia. Since political representation is organized on ethnic grounds, groups are encouraged to claim "ethnic rights" at the expense of others. The constitutionally enshrined self-determination clause incites them to control kebeles, districts and regions to have a share of resources channeled from the federal to the local level. Local politicians and party officials from all ethnic groups – and from both government and opposition – have at times incited followers to engage in conflict with competing groups. Territorial gains translate into more administrative power, land, tax revenue and, potentially, food aid (Africa Report, 2009).

Failure to agree on the common language desired by the central government as the media of administration and of instruction in school is another contending issue more especially among the highly diverse regions of the country. For instance, when Wegagoda texts for Daro Kontigna, Gamogna, Goffigna, and Welaiytigna were introduced in 1996, two years later, no group saw them as anything but a retrogressive step away from an established form of their own language, which was being diluted with alien variants (Vaughan 2003).

Research conducted in Simien Omo, Awassa, and Addis Ababa in 1999, 2000, and 2002 revealed a surprisingly uniform consensus amongst participants and observers suggesting that whilst the language issue may have constituted a marker, or form, of the conflict. Likewise, Esmonde (1994) stated that ‘after the introduction of the ethnic policy of the present government, the eastern Silte have found their position unstable. Their area has been facing periods of conflict and displacement since 1991’. The question of territorial rights in the Yeki area is complicated by the coexistence of differing norms regarding access and ownership of land amongst the different ethnic groups which populate it.

Thus, from the above analysis, it is pertinent enough to conclude that federalism in Ethiopia constructs a competition and hostile sentiments among different ethnicities and which generates ethnic conflicts among them. Hence, it could be a time-bomb for EPRDF unless and otherwise it accommodates in a different and inclusive manner.

 ix.        During the Era of Ethnic Federalism, Ethnic Discrimination is prevailing

Ethnicity does not cause conflict in itself. It is a normal concept if we allow it to develop independently, will develop simultaneously with many cultures, languages and religion, other forms of pluralism without any hostility. However, this is not the situation today in Ethiopia. Ethnicity is associated with violence, dissension, and separatism.

With the hidden mission of weakening the Amhara’s hegemony and avoiding the threat of its ridding power, EPRDF nowadays develops the hostile approach towards Amhara nation. To meet its objectives, stigmatizing the nation as ‘Neftegna’, ‘Tihmekitegna’ etc. are some of the common expressions. Furthermore, it has used as a means for mobilizing other ethnic groups that it considered to be discriminated by the former Amhara ruling imperial regimes. Evidently enough, most ethnic groups all over the country nowadays are following the systematic provocative tread of EPRDF. It is more prevalent in the rural parts of the country because of the continuous subjective political propaganda of EPRDF as Amhara has had been the most oppressive people of the time. However, in reality, the civilians of Amhara peoples were not benefited from the former ruling parties as opposed to what is thought to be. Off course, only the ruling classes might benefit from the former governments. As a result of this, many of the Amhara peoples especially intellectuals become offended by such shallow and narrow-minded substantiations. This is also easy to estimate that it can be a ground or serious threat for future inter-ethnic conflicts.

5. Conclusion and Recommendation

As clearly depicted in the discussion above, ethnic federalism in Ethiopia enables to recognize the diversity of distinct ethnic groups specially by granting them an opportunity to speak by their own languages. However, it also led to ethnic conflicts by which different ethnic groups mistrust each other and, as a result, endangered the sense of nationalism. Thus, it is highly recommended that the recognition of diversity should not go at the expense of national ideal. A mixed federal system that guarantees ethnic groups self-government with high inducements for integration and inter-ethnic collaboration is the right way to move federalism forward in Ethiopia.

According to the existing government and its proponents, response to the national question is the very basis of federalism in Ethiopia. Meanwhile, ethnic federalism has not resolved the national question from the fact that ethnic conflicts are widened, transformed from the national to lower structural levels. The competitive and hostile inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic relationships are increasing from time to time specially with the ambition to control the administrative boundaries and government budgets in addition to land and natural resources.

Ethnicity is the major or sometimes the only organizing criteria for ethnic federalism in Ethiopia. As Brown (2007) apparently said that ‘a federal system that calls its constituent parts by ethnic names is asking for trouble’. Therefore, the federal system in Ethiopia should be based on several criteria such as socio-economic factors, geography, population mix, etc. Nigeria, having almost a similar ethnic composition as Ethiopia, follows federalism but with a mix of criteria to form its states has been largely benefited from it.

The boundary make-up of ethnic federal states generates inter and/or intra-ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia. Its special focus on the twin ethnic and politico-administrative boundary settings created new fierce conflicts and converted the previous power and resource rivalries into boundary conflicts. Hence, evading the need to link ethno-linguistic and politico-administration has a paramount importance.

Article 39 of the current constitution which grants the right to session creates controversy among politicians, scholars and peoples by and large. Though the government defends the dilemma of the right to session by proclaiming that session is a safety valve by which any members of the federation will decide freely either to remain or withdrew from the association, nevertheless, the logic of secessionism presumes the collapse of the federal structure. Secession in simple manner is the consolidation of local authority over the boundaries of the ethnic group by excluding the federal government. In consequence, it led to the disintegration of the federal state. Furthermore, it is a potential source of ethnic conflict as it has been seen between Ethiopia and Eritrea. It seems, then, essential to getting rid of the secession provision from the constitution.

Another very crucial but argumentative issue as far as federalism in Ethiopia concerns is power sharing through the hybrid model of shared rule and self rule principles. Quite number of studies pinpoints that one of the courses in conflict prevailing in Ethiopia is the disparity in sharing, distribution, and shaping of power and wealth among the peoples of the country. Therefore, a consociation governance or structural and functional power sharing based on the principle of ‘equity and law’ is a way to look forward. More specifically, Franciase M. Deng and Luriene Renechand’s recommendation of ‘proportionality in civil service equipment, a higher degree of autonomy for each segment to run their internal affairs and constitutional vetoes for minorities’ have had a contextual meaning for Ethiopia. This could also be a mechanism to resolve the power concentration problem at the hands of TPLF’s political elites which became a hurdle for entertaining power sharing in ethnically federated Ethiopia.

Among the positive records of ethnic federal arrangements, ethnic minority groups, even numerically small ones, are recognized. However, their political representation at local and federal levels is in question due to the domination of the majority groups. Another category of minorities, in its disgusting form, are peoples who settled out of their regions. Due to the impact of federalism, they are in most cases considered as secondary citizens. They may also expel from their property especially from their land, and may not also have a legitimate political representation. So, unless the new arrangements which entertain these kinds of setbacks are not engineered, ethnic conflicts between settlers and indigenous peoples will continue. It may also after sometime become a wider national agenda.

Above all, the current legislative mechanisms and the federal government’s conflict management have proven unsatisfactory to manage intra and inter-ethnic conflicts. The House of Federation is accused of its reluctance to meet regularly and deeply involved to mitigate ethnic conflicts. Therefore, structural changes and continuous evaluation and monitoring of conflict management mechanisms adopted by the present ethnic federal government is paramount important.


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