Academic journal article Africa

'Decentralised There, Centralised Here': Local Governance and Paradoxes of Household Autonomy and Control in North-East Ethiopia, 1991-2001

Academic journal article Africa

'Decentralised There, Centralised Here': Local Governance and Paradoxes of Household Autonomy and Control in North-East Ethiopia, 1991-2001

Article excerpt

On 28 May 1991, a coalition of insurgent movements calling itself the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) captured Addis Ababa. (1) It did so after nearly two decades of rural-based guerrilla warfare waged against the military regime of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, which came to power in the wake of the 1974 popular uprising that dethroned Emperor Haile Sellassie I. Over the years since 1991, the EPRDF has embarked on a programme of devolving state powers. The centrepiece of this programme is a new constitution which claims to solve long-term political questions concerning power-sharing, ethnicity and human rights by restructuring the country into nine broadly decentralised ethnically based units called 'national regional states'. (2) Each national regional state is empowered to formulate and implement its own policies by further devolving power to district (worada) and local (kaballe) government levels. More importantly, EPRDF leaders have publicly stated their intent to implement these provisions through participatory democracy which they viewed as a tool for achieving the desired goals of bringing government closer to the people and making it responsive to local concerns (see, for instance, EPRDF 1995).

These changes are still in full swing throughout Ethiopia, and it may be difficult at this stage to pass judgment on their outcome. But rural people have certainly been affected by the processes through which the fine-sounding objectives of power devolution were articulated and implemented in different localities. As a consequence, two competing views of devolution have increasingly dominated the Ethiopian political discourse. One view characterises it as 'radical reversals', from decades of monarchical despotism and socialist dictatorship, to a genuine decentralisation that would enhance local autonomy and self-governance. A second view counters this by arguing that the devolution process appeared rather as the 'continuation and working out' of the centralising projects of previous Ethiopian regimes (Donham 2002: 3).

The 'reversals' argument, which is best reflected in the official statements of EPRDF leaders and in the writings of some scholars, tends to be highly discursive (see, for example, Young 1998a). It encapsulates the administrative systems of past Ethiopian regimes as hopelessly authoritarian and acclaims the present as qualitatively superior and unencumbered by the past. Indeed, proponents of this argument maintain that Ethiopia's experience with power devolution is 'radically different' from similar programmes implemented elsewhere in Africa both in its causes and objectives. To begin with, the argument goes, the impetus for devolution in Ethiopia came from a political and military coalition of formerly marginalised nationalities, as opposed to being a result of the national government's initiative or that of pressure from external donors. As a consequence, the argument continues, the objective of devolution in Ethiopia was not a mere transfer of power and resources from the centre to regions, but the creation of a 'new political and economic community' by the 'free will' of regional states. While this argument praises Article 39 of Ethiopia's new constitution which formally recognises the rights of regional states to self-determination, up to and including secession, it does not tell us much about the ways devolution has been actually undertaken in different localities. (3) Proponents of this argument do not explain whether these changes in the EPRDF's self-representation and ideology were accompanied by similar changes in the images, metaphors and administrative practices through which state powers have been locally understood and experienced by ordinary citizens.

The 'continuation' view is best reflected in a recent collection of edited articles by a group of scholars who examined broader effects of the devolution process by taking specific societies mainly from southern Ethiopia as examples. …

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