Politics in Ethiopia | Ethiopian federalism and 2015 national elections
By Bewket Abebe
ADDIS ABABA - The politics of this independent East African country is characterized by mainly a monarchical system for thousands of years, throughout which powerful and visionary emperors such as emperor Tewodrose and emperor Minilik had led the country. Until the late 1960s, power had been taken mainly by calculating blood lines from King Solomon. The monarchy in Ethiopia was overthrown following the university students’ movement in the late 1960s. The intellectual groups behind the monarchical administration of emperor Hailesillassie, who was oppressive of the poor, however, couldn’t take power given that they were not well-organized. Instead, the military took power first as a transitional administration and then continued to govern with a military socialist ideology, which was—above all—a dictatorship. 17 years later, ethnic groups from the north together with the Eritrea front took power and Eritrea held a referendum. There is one characteristic common to the above—both ruling groups took power by the force of gun.
Federalism in Ethiopia
The current administration of Ethiopia came to power in 1991 and it introduced a federal system and has drafted a constitution that aims to provide all citizens with full democratic rights. The constitution also allows for a multi-party system.
Ethiopia remains a peaceful country, especially for foreign investors and tourists. “It is a very safe place to do any kind of business.”
The federal system, of which the key element is the ethnic federalism, has divided the country into nine ethnically-based administrative regions and two city administrations, including the capital Addis Ababa.
Federalism in the country has enabled some minority ethnic groups to make themselves visible as well as devolve them the power of being semi-autonomous with abilities to raise their own revenues and use their own budget within their sovereign administration. “When I started Flintstone in 1991, there was a change of government in Ethiopia from a military government and it was a whole different market for construction. First of all, federalism came into place and the constitution was a republic—it turned into a federal republic. Because of the decentralization of power, there was so much to build,” reminds Tsedeke Yihune, owner of Flintstone Engineering, one of the largest construction companies in Ethiopia.
When it comes to nationalism, however, the administration is highly blamed for distorting the idea of Ethiopianism—an ideology that even became a driving force for a number of African countries to stand for their unity and independence in the 1960s. As a result, the issue of ethnicity has become very sensitive ever since.
Though there are 75 opposition political parties (excluding those characterized as terrorists by the government) registered by the national election board of the country, the ruling party—the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has about 6 million supporters out of the total of 93 million population—has remained to be the ‘dominant party’ in the country for over two decades.
The opposition political parties are now simply nominal and not enjoying the same strong position as they did 10 years ago. There is one group which seems strong enough but it is characterized by the government as a terrorist group. Its name is Ginbot Sebat, which literally means ‘May Seven’, and is meant to refer to the specific date when the 2005 national election was held. Despite strong intelligence institutions of the government, this group reveals top secrets of the ruling party through its satellite television—Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT).
Another area the current administration is blamed for is the representation of ethnic groups in different significant positions. Within the federalist system, which claims that ethic groups should be represented well, the representation is limited to certain areas. To see the representation in practice, we can scrutinize the composition of the military and intelligence offices. Out of the total of 60 generals the country, 58 of them are from one ethnic group—Tigray, from where the ruling party originated and of course from where the late prime minister Meles Zenawi came from.
Despite these political deficiencies, Ethiopia remains a peaceful country, especially for foreign investors and tourists. “It is a very safe place to do any kind of business,” comments Aboma Taye, managing director of Baraton Trade, the leading provider of drilling machinery for infrastructure projects in Ethiopia and East Africa. Getachew Regassa, secretary general of the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce & Sectoral Associations (AACCSA), also strongly contends that the country’s political situation is suitable for externals. “The security in this country is also a big plus,” he says.
With regard to political commitment towards economic growth, the current administration seems to have a positive impact by following its ‘free market’ economic ideology. Nevertheless, the government continues to interfere in certain segments of the economy. Most significantly, the government keeps larger projects in monopoly despite its lip-services to let the private sector to highly involve in the economy.
Eng. Samson Bekure Tefera, managing director of SABA Engineering, who claims that huge projects are under the government, complains that his agreement with the government is problematic. “The contracts that we are always signing with the government have some drawbacks. I would say most of the contracts that we are signing are fixed type contracts and don’t have provisions for price escalation and such. So once we enter into a contract, until we complete it, if the price goes up, we will be affected,” says Tefera.
That is how the current administration’s political practice looks like from a bird’s eye view. Ethiopia is to have national elections in a year. Will the upcoming May 2015 elections stir the waters that have been still for more than two decades?
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