Ethnic Federalism: The Ethiopian Experience in Comparative Perspective

By Keller, Edmond | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Ethnic Federalism: The Ethiopian Experience in Comparative Perspective


Keller, Edmond, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Ethnic Federalism: The Ethiopian Experience in Comparative Perspective. Edited By David Turton. East African Studies. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press; Oxford: James Currey, 2006. Pp. 246; 6 maps and 9 tables. $49.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.

For a decade and a half, the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has been involved in the construction of a novel form of federalism based largely upon ethnic identities. In 2004, in an effort to understand the impact of this process on governmental effectiveness and on the daily lives of ordinary citizens, the British Council in Ethiopia organized a three-day conference at Addis Ababa University. The papers presented at the conference provide the material for this edited volume.

The volume consists of nine substantive chapters and an introduction by the editor, which comprehensively synthesizes the arguments and findings of the individual chapters. Three primary assumptions guided the contributors. First, given its multi-ethnic character, there was agreement that there is no alternative to some form of federal system for Ethiopia. second, given the relative lack of internal, ethnically based violence since the introduction of the federal system, it was generally agreed by the authors that the experiment until now has been largely successful in ameliorating ethnic tensions. Finally, the contributors agreed that when measured against the requirements of federalism in practice as opposed to federalism in theory, Ethiopia still has a long way to go.

Chapter 1, by William Kymlicka, critically examines Western models of what he calls "multination federalism," and then asks whether any of them are relevant for Africa. He concludes that although Ethiopia has appropriately chosen a federal form of governance, it presently lacks two essential ingredients found in successful federal systems in the West: a culture of democracy and democratic ethnic relations (pp. 57-58). Rather than being the result of a compact entered into voluntarily by constituent ethnic groups, ethnic federalism in Ethiopia was imposed from the top.

The volume attempts to compare the process of constructing a federal system in Ethiopia with the experiences of Nigeria and India. Like India, Ethiopia was already a unitary state when the federal idea was introduced, but unlike India states were organized around ethnicity rather than language. This would make these cases examples of "holding together" federations as compared to "coming together" federations as was the case for Nigeria. A common characteristic of these three examples is that federal principles and institutions were created in an effort to "proliferate points of power," so that ethno-linguistic groups could have a measure of autonomy and self-determination. …

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