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The Federalist and Unitary Systems in Comparative Perspective and in the Ethiopian Context

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                                              June 7, 2019

“The 21st century might be destined to be federalism’s secolo d’oro, its gilded age, the finest hour.” Michael A. Pagano

Ever since humans made a transition from hunting bands and pastoral communities to the first rudimentary sedentary cultures and the beginning of agrarian societies, from around 10,000 BCE to 2000 BCE, the first organized communities appeared simultaneously. This phenomenon, known in history as ‘farming revolution’, also brought along with it the incipient order vehicle known as the state and it is the latter that will ultimately evolve into a unitary state, mostly acquired by force and violence. Following this long, arduous, and painstakingly slow human performance, there appeared the first nation-state known as Kemet (black land or land of black people) or Egypt, first with the Badarian Era (4400 BCE) and then with the advent of Aha Mena (Narmer), the first king of the first dynasty, who united Upper and Lower Egypt circa 3400 BCE.

The unitary Egyptian state, though encountered several intermediaries engendered by intermittent foreign invasions, was basically an inexorable human and material force that ?major civilizations like the Ethiopian (Aksumite), Persian, Roman, Indian, Greek, Maya & Aztec, and Inca followed the example of Kemet and established relatively formidable unitary states and empires.

As I have tried to show in the above introductory note, the first states were unitary by their very nature (evolving from city-state to an all encompassing empires), and, in fact, even today, the majority of nation-states are still unitary compared to the federalist states. However, as we shall see below, it is the federalist state, and not the unitary state, that attempted to redress the grievances of members of society, and as we delve more into the nature and characteristics of the two systems, we shall witness that some unitary modern nations, influenced by federalist states, will either adopt elements of federalism or incorporate justice-related welfare and equity systems that federalist systems promoted as their primary policy spectrum.

My interest in this essay is to compare and contrast the federalist and unitary systems and in the concluding part to propose the significance of the continuation and preservation of the federalist structure in Ethiopia. This task requires an in depth analysis and interpretation not only of federalism in its generic sense but it would also be imperative to discuss and dissect the typologies of federalism. What is federalism? What is the nature and characteristics of the federalist state?

As Thomas O. Hueglin and Alan Fenna argue, “Federalism is almost always the result of careful deliberation, agreement and choice and compromise among constituent members. It differs from other forms of plural and multilevel governance in that it contains a strong commitment to balanced equality.”1 And in its philosophical sense, the authors further argue that “federalism can be understood as a way of approaching politics that acknowledges group identity alongside individual identity. However, it is a particular form of group identity that federalism acknowledges – a spatial, locational, or territorial one.”2 Above all, the federal system “rests principally on the degree of autonomy that the constituent units enjoy within the political system.”3

In order to have a good grasp of the essence of federalism, I like to add one more definitional statement: “Federalisms have been marked by the existence of at least two orders of government, one for the whole federation and the other for the constituent regional units, each acting directly on its citizens; a formal constitutional distribution of legislative and executive authority and allocation of revenue resources between the two (or more) orders of government ensuring some areas of genuine autonomy for each government.”4

Now that we understand what a federal system is all about, we must critically examine what the mission and objectives of the federalist state is. The most obvious objective or purpose of the modern federal state is the principle of divided and shared rule in order to meet the challenges of diversity, and in due course of its mission, the federalist state is characterized by what Heuglin and Fenna call “coming together” and “holding together” federalisms.

Beyond holding together, however, the federalist state main mission and objective, or as Michael Burgess aptly put it is “its raison d’etre is to furnish the basis for order and stability but in a framework that formally acknowledges protests, and promotes human dignity, difference and diversity.”6

The above definitions of the purpose and mission of the federalist state can now comfortably enable us toward analyzing comparative perspectives in relation to the federalist system and also vis-à-vis the unitary system. Federalism, by its very nature brings people together for a common agenda and purpose; it is essentially a people-to-people or community-to-community relationship, but this kind of relationship is neither novice nor invented by the modern federalist system. In fact, “…without much exaggeration, we might say that federalism is as old as human civilization. People have always organized social life in small communities, groups, clans, neighborhoods, towns, and regions, and have always engaged with such communities for the purpose of mutual benefit.”7

We have now many federal systems in the world, some of which are the USA, Switzerland, Belgium, India, Brazil, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa, Russia, Argentina, Malaysia, Pakistan, Venezuela etc. it is beyond the scope of this paper to compare and contrast all of the above federalist states, but by way of sampling, I will make a comparative analysis of some of them. Before I begin the comparison, however, I like to underscore that federalist states around the world, by and large, seriously consider identities associated with political history, life style, language, ethnicity, religion etc.

The basis for Ethiopia’s federal structure, for instance, are language and ethnicity, and as a result it created nine autonomous regional states composed of predominantly one linguistic nationality in each state in spite of the fact that these regions are not neatly and completely homogenous states. By contrast, Nigeria established thirty-six multiethnic autonomous states. While both countries’ federal systems are designed to devolve power to the regional states, the essential difference is that the Nigerian states are autonomous geographical provinces and those of Ethiopia are basically autonomous regional states with sub-national sameness (ethnic identities).

The Ethiopian federal structure is meant to redress the plight of the oppressed and forgotten nationalities, which was quite an achievement and to which I will come back later. The Nigerian federal system was first induced by the British colonizers in 1946 with the formation of three regions, but that of Ethiopia was entirely initiated by Ethiopians themselves. However, after independence in 1960, Nigerians took matters into their own hands and designed and redesigned their federation many times (1966, 1976, 1987/1989, and 1991/1996) until the present 36 constituent parts of the Nigerian federal structure were established by mergers and/or splits.

Similar to the Nigerian initial experiment in federalism, India also encountered the brunt of British colonial influence in designing its federal system. “The Indian federation was forged from 14 British colonial provinces as well as hundreds of semi-sovereign princely states comprising hundreds of languages as well as multitude of virtually all of the world’s major religions.”8 As already discussed above, it looks that India has considered a number of factors, including politics, history, language and religions to solidify its federal system.

Compared to the Indian subcontinent, little Belgium also attempted to bring together the French-speaking Wallonia and the Dutch-speaking Flanders, and even included a tiny German-speaking group to constitute an administrative region; the capital city Brussels is also defined as a region in the Belgian federal system.

Since its independence in 1830, Belgium was a centralized unitary state, but after 1970 it adopted the federal system that was constructed based on language, culture, and economic interests; the country’s units that comprise regions and communities are entirely autonomous communicating with three official languages, namely Dutch, French, and German; and despite the fact that Belgian regions are powerful, however, the federal government has an upper hand in the decision making process in regards to foreign affairs and national defense.

The German federation is similar to other federations in terms of decentralization and sharing power that is divided amongst the sixteen regional states (Lảnder) and Berlin, the capital, also empowered as the 17th Lảnder, but what makes Germany different is that there are institutions that play a pivotal role in German politics, and these include coalition parties, powerful state governments, the autonomous central bank, a powerful constitution court, self-determination bodies in local government, and social  insurance and higher education. These institutions act as formidable checks and balances in the overall political performance of the Federal Republic of Germany.

As we have seen above, each country experimenting and/or adopting the federal system, in the final analysis, followed its instinct of basing its history and unique circumstances in the construction of federal structures as viable and better political systems. In this case, Russia is a good example in which the country “looked toward a decentralized political system to both keep the remaining constituent parts of the nation together and maintain its reputation as an important international player.”10    

The US federal system is the oldest and biggest political system in the world, from which a lot of nations across the globe have learnt a lesson, although the US itself ironically made no deliberate efforts to introduce its type of federalism to other nations. Like other federal systems that we have discussed above, that of the US “was adopted in the Constitution…the framers established a government that recognized two distinct levels or units of official authority: a national government and several state governments. Both derive their authority from the United States Constitution. Neither can be destroyed by the other. Neither is beholden to the other for its existence.”11

The strength of the US federal system is that it incorporates a strong mechanism of checks and balances that effectively impedes dictatorial and/or authoritarian propensities and practices; it also won’t allow concentration of power in either branch of government, more so in the central government. “The US constitution along with the fifty states’ constitutions defines the basic structure of... intergovernmental relations. The constitution identifies the general relationship between the national and state governments, provides the basic guidelines within which interstate relations occur, and establishes the fundamental liberties of all American citizens. The state constitutions determine the relationship between state and local units of government, and augment the rights, privileges, and obligations of those who live under their jurisdiction.”12 

All federal political systems, including the ones that we have discussed above, out of necessity and expediency have integrated or subsumed political, economic, ideological & philosophical, social, cultural, and legal factors that jointly serve as fulcrum to the system; on top of these factors, there is also the moral dimension of federalism. Michael Burgess captures the moral aspect of federalism and he argues, “Federalism deals simultaneously with fundamental moral questions as well as with amoral matter-of-fact issues. The former, like social diversity and individual and collective identities are highly charged emotional questions for many people, while the latter involve the routine pursuit of economic profit and security and reflect for the most part calculated and dispassionate self-interest. The moral basis to federalism derives from inherent virtues such as respect, tolerance, dignity and mutual recognition, which lead to a particular form of human association, namely, the federal state or federation. The amoral foundation suggests that no such qualities inhere in federalism at all and that it is nothing more than a particular and/or political technique for achieving certain overarching goals such as territorial expansion or economic benefits and security.”13  

After considering all elements that make up the federal system, it is important to see the distinction between federalism and unitary systems and their concomitant advantages and disadvantages. In terms of efficiency, for instance, it is the unitary system that is more efficient compared to the federal system; the former is efficient due to the fact that the central government has a heavy hand in decision making and policy formulating, while the latter is designed to operate slowly in order to safeguard justice-related issues. However, in some cases, unitary states like Sweden promote a more just society than some federal systems; and in some cases, some federal states like Austria are more centralized than other unitary states. In fact, “calls for greater local autonomy in centralized polities, such as Italy, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Spain, are clear signals that decentralized power, local autonomy and control, and fear of pernicious effects of centralizing ambitions are on ascendancy throughout the world.”14        

Despite the general trend of unitary states following suit federalist states, however, the ultimate authority, as has been discussed already, including administrative, legislative, and financial, lies within the orbit of the national government in the unitary states, and it is not as such ‘divided’ and ‘shared’ as in federalist states. Overall, federalist systems and nations have been more successful in national reconciliations, in the resolution of conflicts, in harmonizing the larger society, and in rectifying inequalities with respect to nationality, gender, and religion. Will Kymlicka convincingly argued that no other system came close to federalism in solving the grievances of minority or oppressed nationalities: “On any reasonable criteria,” Kymlicka contends, “democratic federations have been surprisingly successful in accommodating minority nationalisms…democratic multinational federations have succeeded in taming the force of nationalism….It is difficult to imagine any other political system that can make the same claim…[W]e are currently witnessing yet another burst of interest in federalism in multination countries.”14

The last part of this article deals with the Ethiopian federal system and the current politics of seemingly reformist policies and measures and yet circumvented by contradictions, chaos, instability, and internal displacements. The objective of this section of the article is to critically examine the Ethiopian experience in light of all other federalist states and also to initiate a debate amongst policymakers, intellectuals, and other stakeholders of the larger Ethiopian society in regards to preserving and continuing the present federal structure with some reform for a better system.

In modern Ethiopian history three types of federal systems were attempted from the late 19th century to the late 20th century. The first attempt was made by Emperor Yohannes (1872-1889) who presided over as king of kings and delegated power to regional kings such as King Menelik of Shewa, King Teklehaimanot of Gojjam, Abba Jiffar of Jimma, and Ras Michael of Wollo. The latter region apparently was divided into two spheres, one administered by Ras Michael and the second governed by the Emperor’s son, Araya Selassie. The objective of the Emperor’s federalism, however, was aimed to overcome the fragility of Ethiopia and create further unity with expansion and acquiring territorial possessions and establishing a unitary state. But, it should be clear that only Emperor Yohannes IV initiated devolution of power and founded a political system that comes very close to federalism. Neither his predecessor, Emperor Tewodros II, nor his successor kings Emperors Menelik II and Haile Selassie I considered a federal type governance; on the contrary they were very centralist and in favor of a unitary state.

The second attempt of devolution of power (or “federalism”) was attempted by the military government or the Derg (1974-1991), and Ethiopia under the rule of this regime was divided into twenty-four administrative regions, i.e. Adding ten more provinces to the already existing 14 provinces under the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie. I have critically examined the Derg’s devolution of power in my book Ethiopia: Democracy, Devolution of Power and the Developmental State: “Although the Derg officially declared devolution of power and had conducted secret negotiations with the Eritrean and Tigrayan guerrillas, it was rather conducting wars against the nationalist armed combatants and seriously engaged in maintaining the unitary Ethiopian state. The Derg was no different from the centralization policy of Emperor Haile Selassie in terms of administering the respective regions from Addis Ababa. To be sure mere compartmentalization of Ethiopia into autonomous and regional administrative units without the formation of an actual local government that could ran their own affairs could hardly be called devolution of power. The fact that the Derg curved out Aseb from Eritrea and put it on the Ethiopian map as a separate region is quite obvious that its intention was to guarantee Ethiopia an outlet to the sea if Eritrea successfully divorced itself from Ethiopia.”15

The real devolution of power and a federal system came into being by the initiative of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the proclamation of Ethiopia as a Federal Democratic Republic (FDRE).

The opening statement of the Preamble of the Ethiopian constitution states: “We , the Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples of Ethiopia”, and this declaration is a testament of the Ethiopian grand design of coming together and holding together of the various Ethiopian nationalities, and on whose behalf a federalist system will be established; and according to Article 47 of the constitution, thus, “member states of the federal democratic republic” were proclaimed and formed in right order as follows:

1.    The State of Tigray

2.    The State of Afar

3.    The State of Amhara

4.    The State of Oromia

5.    The State of Somalia

6.    The State of Benishangul/Gumuz

7.    The State of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples

8.    The State of the Gambella Peoples

9.    The State of the Harari People

The above nine autonomous regional states, known as Kilil in Amharic “shall have equal rights and powers” according to sub-article 4 of the Constitution. Additionally, Article 39 of the Ethiopian constitution grants to the regional states “unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession.”

In many of my previous writings I have endorsed the present federal structure of Ethiopia and hailed the right of the nationalities but I was not at ease with the secession clause of Article 39, which by the way a similar clause is not to be found in any of the federalist states except the old Soviet Union, as we have comparatively examined in this essay. My main concern was that the idea of secession could altogether dismantle historic Ethiopia. In regards to this concern, I have in fact made a cautionary note in my debut book Ethiopia: The Political Economy of Transition (1995) and this is how I put it then:

The TGE’s [Transitional Government of Ethiopia] policy of Kilil and self-determination is commendable, but the consequence of fragmentation as a result of new wave of ethnic political consciousness, and the inability of some minority nationalities to become economically and politically viable , would ultimately preoccupy Ethiopians to otherwise unforeseen problem.16          

However, although Article 39 is troublesome at face value, it should also be known that the same Article has embodied a safety net, because it could only be translated into action or shall come into effect when some criteria enumerated below are met:

·         When a demand for secession has been approved by two-thirds majority of the members of the Legislative Council of the Nation, Nationality, or people concerned.

·         When the Federal government has organized a referendum which must take place within three years from the time it received the concerned council’s decision for secession.

·         When the demand for secession is supported by majority vote in the referendum.

·         When the Federal government will have transferred its powers to the council of the Nation, Nationality or People who has voted to secede.

·         When the division of assets is affected in a manner prescribed by law.

The safety net against dismemberment of historic Ethiopia is remarkable indeed, but my fear and concern some two and half decades ago have now come to haunt Ethiopia as a specter of lawlessness, disorder, chaos, civil strife, ethnic animosity, violent conflict, and internal displacement, unheard of in Ethiopian history.

Despite the current frightening political mess, however, an important and significant historical phenomenon took shape in Ethiopia, which I believe is a result and legacy of the federal system, and the majority of the Ethiopian people and the regional states are in favor of the now existing federal structure. There are some nascent political groupings, mostly from ex-Diaspora opposition movements, that now managed to converge in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and are advocating on behalf of the unitary state; and some of these groupings even endorse the idea of going back to the old imperial provincial governance based on geography alone and completely abandon the cause of the nationalities and the prize won by the regional states. They are detached from the reality on the ground in Ethiopia and their agenda of replacing the federal system by a unitary state would not be accepted to the regional states; in a recent Mekelle conference of the legally registered opposition parties and the TPLF leaders, almost all of the conferees reaffirmed that the federal system is the only political structure that met their needs in self-determination and in terms of honoring their identities, flourishing their culture and languages as well. A gentleman from the Afar Regional State bluntly asserted in the conference that the Afar people had no national identity before the federal structure was installed; they were known as Afar from Tigray, Wollo, and Shewa; now, thanks to the federal system, they have their own regional state and one and undivided identity. This sentiment of the Afar people is shared by the Somali, Gambella, BeniShangul-Gumuz, Oromo, Harari, Tigray, and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples; the only exception in this general consensus of endorsing the present federal structure and the constitution, including the national Ethiopian flag that represents the regional states and nationalities, is the Amhara State. Given this reality, thus, it would be extremely difficult to overturn the Ethiopian federal republic and put instead a unitary state that would not represent the Ethiopian people interests.     

In light of the success stories championed and implemented by the many federal systems around the world, and also in relation to Ethiopia’s relative advancement in a span of two and half decades, it is imperative that Ethiopian politicians, elites, intellectuals, and civic leaders (including religious and business leaders) strive for the continuation of the federal system, and reform it if necessary, via dialogue and all-Ethiopia conference. Ethiopians must understand that it is much easier to build on what already exists than demolish present institutions and start from scratch. As Michael Burgess convincingly argues, “In the making of federations political elites must work with the grain. They have to work with materials that they have at hand. Federation is appropriate only at certain times and in certain circumstances. It is a theory of circumstantial causation. Indeed, the contingents of these circumstances in respect of nationality, was recognized as far back as 1946; Kenneth Weare first observed that the desire to unite to form the federations of Canada and Switzerland ‘arose in spite of differences of language and race…religion…and nationality.”17         

The unique Ethiopian experience was also influenced by history and circumstances and the country managed to device and design a federal system that suits the Ethiopian people in general and the nationalities in particular; it has successfully registered in the annals of history its secolo d’oro, its gilded age, and its finest hour and as such it must jealously guard its federation.



1.    Thomas O. Hueglin and Allan Fenna, Comparative Federalism: A Systematic Inquiry, 2nd Edition, P. XIV

2.    Heuglin and Fenna, Ibid, P. 16

3.    Michael A. Pagano (author) and R. Leonardi (editor), The Dynamics of Federalism in National and Supranational Political Systems, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, P. 4

4.    Alan-G. Gagnon and Soeran Keil, Understanding Federalism and Federation, Routledge, 2015,

5.    Hueglin and Fena, op cit, P. 2

6.    Michael Burgess, Comparative Federalism: Theory and Practice, Routledge, P. 3

7.    Hueglin and Fenna, op cit, P. 2

8.    Hueglin and Fenna, Ibid, P. 11

9.    Manfred G. Schmidt, Political Institutions in the Federal Republic of Germany, oxford University Press, 2007, P. 3

10. Michael A. Pagano, “In the Eye of the Beholder: The Dynamics of Federalism in National and Supranational Systems” in Michael A. Pagano and R. Leonardi

11. Charles V. Hamilton, American Government, Scott, Foresman and Company, 1982, P. 57

12. Virginia Gray, Herbert Jacob, and Robert B. Albritton, Politics in the American States: A Comparative Analysis, Scott, Foresman/Little, Brown Higher Education, 1990, P. 39

13. Michael Burgess, op cit, P. 3

14. Quoted in Michael Burgess

15. Ghelawdewos Araia, Democracy, Devolution of Power, and the Developmental State, Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA), 2013, pp. 75-76

16. Ghelawdewos Araia, Ethiopia: The Political Economy of Transition, University Press of America, 1995, P. 166

17.  Michael Burgess, op cit, P. 109

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