Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia addresses a United Nations meeting on Sudan at UN headquarters in New York City in September 2010.
Meles Zenawi has been prime minister of Ethiopia since 1995, prior to which he was its president from 1991 to 1995.
He has gone from being among Africa’s young lion leaders, to one of its most senior, steady and experienced heads of government.
Naysayers said 20 years ago Ethiopia would fall part. Instead it is booming.
In the following interview, Prime Minister Meles credits Ethiopia’s success to its federal, democratic system, which he says "accommodates the ethnic and religious diversity of the country” very well.
He sat down with the Forum’s Africa director, Shawn Houlihan, and granted the following interview on the eve of the Fifth International Conference on Federalism.
FEDERATIONS: Mr. Prime Minister, it’s been almost 20 years since the fall of the Derg military regime and 15 years since the federal constitution of 1995. You, more than anyone else, have presided over this major transition. What are your reflections on the design and actual workings of Ethiopia’s federal system over the past 15 or 20 years?
PRIME MINISTER MELES: As you probably know, when the Derg military regime collapsed in 1991 many people drew parallels with what was happening in the former Yugoslavia and former Soviet Union I think with legitimate cause. Because what was happening in Ethiopia had many parallels with what was happening in former Yugoslavia and former Soviet Union. The possibility of disintegration of the Ethiopian entity was more than a theoretical possibility. Among other things, in Eritrea there was a very strong desire on the part of the people of Eritrea to establish their own independent state, and many feared that this would have a knock-on effect on the rest of the country. We were moving out of a command economy into a market economy and we were moving from a one-party system to a multi-party democratic system.
And so the prognosis was not all that encouraging; everyone expected us to disintegrate like the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. That didn’t happen. I think the primary reason that did not happen was that we were able to design a system that would could accommodate diversity adequately, and this for the first time in our history. That system is the federal democratic system. And so over the past 20 years I think we have proved the skeptics wrong, we have proven that Ethiopia is here to stay, but to do so on a new basis, on the basis of a federal system, of a democratic system, a system that accommodates the ethnic and religious diversity of the country adequately. So I think that’s the key achievement of the past 20 years.
FEDERATIONS: As you mentioned, one of the main drivers was to manage diversity, and one of the innovative aspects of the new system is a significant emphasis on ethnic composition of the federation. What impact has that had on national unity and on the sense of Ethiopian identity?
PRIME MINISTER MELES: Again, to go back to 1991 there were about 17 armed ethnic-based organized groups. That was one of the reasons people expected us to completely disintegrate. So the issue of identity in terms of ethnic identity and how it expresses itself in the political process, the issue of religious tolerance and equality, were the issues uppermost in the minds of people at that time. And so when the federal system was designed, it could not, but be designed to make sure that these issues which were uppermost in people’s minds would be addressed and accommodated adequately in the new Ethiopia. And that’s what we did.
As it happens, the various ethnic groups in Ethiopia live in specific geographic locations, so there is a large element of coincidence between ethnic groups and regional geographic divisions. We made it possible in the constitution for people to be on top of their own local affairs, to manage their local affairs in an autonomous fashion, to use their own language, develop their own culture and to participate in the common federal political activities on an equal basis. This is what some people call "ethic federalism.”
It goes beyond that and allows every ethnic group in Ethiopia if it so wishes to secede. And so the new Ethiopia is based on the freely expressed will of its peoples to live together and work together. The new Ethiopia is an expression of the mosaic of cultures, languages, religions it’s a composite. And we are now creating, revitalizing the Ethiopian identity on a new basis, on a more diversified, on a more equitable basis for all of the component parts of the Ethiopian identity.
FEDERATIONS: Under your leadership, Ethiopia has become a "development state” that is, the economy, while "mixed” in terms of promoting both the private and public sectors, is run with a relatively strong role for government. How does that reconcile and work within a federal system where states are meant to have significant autonomy?
PRIME MINISTER MELES: What the federal government does is set the national framework for development and that national framework for development is articulated on the basis of consultation at all levels of government. And so we have a common framework. Within that common framework the various regions are free to devise their own development strategies.
The development strategies in various regions will be very different. If you take one of these regions, Harar, it is essentially a city state and so agriculture is not that important in that region. On the other hand, nationally agriculture happens to be the driver of economic growth. And so in Harar they have to devise their own strategy that reflects their own specific circumstances. In the pastoralist areas in the Somali region and Afar region, for example the key issue is going to be how to promote and develop pastoralist agriculture. That’s quite different than the rest of the country because in the rest of the country we don’t have pastoralists.
When it comes to education, again the education program in the pastoralist areas will obviously have to be different from the education programs in the non-pastoralist areas. Among other things, we need to have mobile schools at the elementary school level. We need to have mobile schools in the pastoralist areas because the people are mobile. In the non-pastoralist areas there is no need for mobile schools. There are many such variations that need to be developed in each region, but they all adapt to the same national framework.
The other point that I think needs to be highlighted is that unlike other development states let’s say like South Korea and similar countries the approach here is for massive grassroots mobilization. You can’t have massive grassroots mobilization on the basis of a national uniform plan. It has to vary not only from region to region but also from village to village because the circumstances in each village are unique. So the national plan, the national framework, is just that; it is a framework on which basis every village will have to write its own story, but a story that will have to adapt into the national development program.
FEDERATIONS: Would you draw a linkage between Ethiopia’s robust economic growth of the past several years and the development of its federal system to this point?
PRIME MINISTER MELES: I think the two are interlinked. The fact that we now have a system that allows us to accommodate diversity, and accommodation of diversity has been an Achilles heel of Ethiopia because it has exposed us to all kinds of instability and violence. That has made it possible for us to concentrate on development, because we have achieved relative peace, much more solid peace than we have had for centuries. So we have been able to concentrate on development.
The fact that we have a system that accommodates diversity means that every group, every village, as I said, is able to design its own plan within the national framework and therefore is able to maximize the impact of its own local assets, much more so than any centralized plan could ever achieve. And so the decentralization that is essential to federalism has made it possible for people to release their own energies, maximize the impact of their own assets in the overall framework of our plan.
So federalism has been key to the progress we have made in the economic field. The progress that we have made in the economic field has also played a key role in consolidating our democracy because now the people of Ethiopia are rebuilding their country. We call it the Ethiopian renaissance. It’s the building of Ethiopia, the rebuilding of Ethiopia on a new basis. It’s a joint project that every ethnic group is participating in equally and it’s a joint project that everyone is benefiting from adequately.
As you probably know, we have the most equitable economy in the whole of the continent. The measure of equity in any economy varies, but one of these measures is the Gini coefficient. We have the lowest Gini coefficient in Africa. And so the fact that people are contributing and benefiting on an equitable basis makes this joint project of federalism something that everybody supports and has contributed to its consolidation.
FEDERATIONS: Ethiopia is a case study to be compared to other new federal or even non-federal countries that, especially since the cold war, went through major transitions. But in Ethiopia it was the institution of a federal system that took place after centuries of highly centralized feudal and military regimes. Looking back, what are the benchmarks you can remember or highlight in your mind that indicate that the regional states have matured and become equal members of the federation?
PRIME MINISTER MELES: Not all states are equally capable but most of these states have now reached a stage where they can plan and implement the vast majority of development programs. It was absolutely not like that when we started. For example, when we look at the education programs, only higher education is under federal authority. The rest of the programs are under state authority. We have had massive improvement in education in this country and this has come about largely because the states have done so. Healthcare programs, including tertiary health, are under state authority. The federal government provides the framework and it has some referral hospitals, but the rest is under state authority. Here again we have made massive progress and again because the states were capable of designing and implementing these projects.
The whole agricultural development program of this country is under state authority. The federal government only provides support to the states; it’s the states that carry out the agricultural development program. Agriculture has been the driving force of our economy. The states have been critical in making that achievement possible. Some of these states in particular are now capable of managing their affairs without much federal government assistance. Some other states, in particular the pastoral areas, need assistance, technical assistance, from the federal government to design and implement some of their programs but even they have made a lot of progress. So I think the institutional capability of the federal system has now reached a very significant level. Not only the states but even the districts have built up their capacity to design and implement their own programs.
FEDERATIONS: Since 1991, Ethiopia has been governed at all levels by a single dominant party the EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) a coalition of regional parties headed by you. What is the relationship between this reality and the development federalism system to this point and how do you see this issue evolving over say the next 10 years?
PRIME MINISTER MELES: About five of the nine states of the federation are run by parties that are not members of our coalition, but over 85% of the population lives in states that are run by the EPRDF. This has had its own, in my view, positive impact on the consolidation of our democracy. The fact that we have one party, albeit one front composed of different parties who are in coalition with each other, has provided a certain unifying ethos to our federalism without stifling our diversity, because the EPRDF is itself a coalition and it’s a collation based on the states themselves. So in the Oromia region, which is the biggest region in our country, we have a group member of the EPRDF that carries out all of its activities using the Oromo language because it is an Oromo organization. And so you have the diversity in-built. The diversity in the states is also reflected in the diversity of the ruling party itself which is a coalition of various parties.
The diversity of our system has not been stifled by the fact that we have a common umbrella organization. On the other hand, the fact that we have a common umbrella organization running many of the states has created a certain sense of common purpose. This means that we have this unique circumstance that has allowed us to have unity on the basis of diversity and go through a transition, a very difficult transition. Because it could go either way; you could go too far toward unity and stifle diversity, or go too far toward diversity and the centrifugal forces would take over and it becomes the end of federalism. The current arrangements, I think, have very fortunately made it possible for us to not only design but also implement federalism in an effective manner.
FEDERATIONS: When the Forum of Federations asked you to host the 5th International Conference on Federalism you did not hesitate to accept. What do you hope to accomplish by hosting the conference?
PRIME MINISTER MELES: We would hope to convey the message to Ethiopians that federalism, while it is a new thing for us, it’s not really a new thing to the rest of the world, and that there’s a lot that we can learn from the experience of other countries that will help us to consolidate our own federalism.
To other Africans we hope to convey the message that, given the extreme diversity of many of our countries and the move towards democratization across the continent, federalism a federal democratic system could be and is likely to be a very useful alternative for many African states. And that the experience of the rest of the world and the experience of federalism in Ethiopia could help African countries to design their own systems according to their own requirements.
To the rest of the world we hope to convey that there is a lot of experimentation happening in the political sphere in Africa including in the area of federalism. And therefore the states with experience in federalism have their own allies and partners in Africa from which they can learn something but to whom they can contribute a lot through sharing their experiences.