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  • Ethnic Federalism: The Ethiopian Experience In a Comparative Perspective
  • John T. Ishiyama
Turton, David , ed. 2006. Ethnic Federalism: The Ethiopian Experience in a Comparative Perspective. Oxford: James Curry. 246 pp. $49.95 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

This book is quite interesting, and a rather welcome addition to the literature on the effects of federalism on ethnic politics. Federalism has long been viewed as a potential institutional remedy for ethnic conflict, but relatively little work in the extant literature has examined the Ethiopian case. Indeed, as the introductory chapter of the book rightly points out, although Ethiopia has gone further than any other state in the world in using ethnicity as a fundamental organizing principle of government, there is scant literature that systematically compares the case of Ethiopia with other cases of federalism. This book—a product of the seminar "Ethnic federalism: The challenges for Ethiopia," held at Addis Ababa University in April 2004—attempts to fill this gap. Its basic aim is to bring a timely comparative perspective to the discussion of Ethiopian federalism. The seminar, and the book itself, were framed by three basic assumptions: first, there is currently no alternative to some form of political federalism in Ethiopia; second, when compared to the past, the restructuring of Ethiopia as an ethnic federation has been an undeniable success; third, that despite this success, the main challenges for Ethiopian federalism lie ahead.

The book is really divided into two major sections. The first sets up the comparative framework, which includes an introductory chapter by Turton, which skillfully integrates the themes in the book, as well as a fine general theoretical chapter by Will Klymicka. Setting the tone for the volume, Klymicka compares the African experience with that of the West, and notes that the Western embrace of multinational federalism, as exhibited in Belgium, Canada, and more recently in the UK, has been promoted by two conditions: first, the "desecuritization" of ethnic relations in the West (i.e., there is no fear among ruling elites that national minorities will collaborate with potential external aggressors in their own region), and second, the widespread western consensus on liberal democratic values that cut across ethnic divisions. These conditions are absent in Ethiopia, where ethnic groups are often linked with external threats, such as Somalia and the Ogaden region; however, Klymicka acknowledges that ethnically based federalism was the [End Page 144] only solution that could accommodate the political situation in Ethiopia in the early 1990s and keep the country together. Nevertheless, the absence of the conditions of desecuritization and liberal democratic values means that federalism is likely to be forced in Ethiopia as opposed to evolve naturally from democratic politics.

In addition to these introductory chapters, there are two case studies of non-Western federal states, India and Nigeria, and discussions on how Ethiopia may learn from their experiences. In the chapter on Nigeria, Rotimi Suberu does an excellent job of contrasting the federal experience in Nigeria with the Ethiopian model, noting, in particular, that the Nigerian experience is quite different, because Nigerian authorities never sought to draw federal boundaries of states to correspond with ethnic divisions. Indeed, in Nigeria, boundaries were often drawn specifically not to correspond with ethnic divisions. In contrast, the second comparative case study, on India, by Rajeev Bhargava, focuses almost entirely on how the Indian case is unique in the world, and says little about Ethiopia. In brief concluding remarks, Bhargava lists lessons that might be derived from the Indian case, perhaps most notably that federalism is intimately part of a larger democratic process, and suggests that democratization must accompany the further development of Ethiopian federalism.

The second section of the book is devoted to the specific challenges facing Ethiopian federalism today: contradictory images of federalism and interethnic group relations in Ethiopian history (Merera Gudina), the tension between theory and practice and political decentralization in Ethiopian federalism (Assefa Fiseha), and the application of local languages under the current federal structure (Gideon Cohen). The last two chapters focus on the management of Ethiopian federalism at the regional level in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region (SNNPR), by Sarah Vaughn, and in Gambela (by Dereje Fiyessa). Finally, in...


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