Professor John Kincaid was a rapporteur for the 5th International Conference on Federalism hosted by the government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa, December 13-16, 2010. He also served as a participant and discussant in a workshop in Addis on “Rethinking Post-Conflict Constitutional Design” co-sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace and Forum of Federations (December 17-18).

The international conference, which focused on “Equality and Unity in Diversity for Development,” was addressed by the prime minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, and other African leaders, including Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, Omar al-Bashir, president of Sudan, and Olusegun Obasanjo, former president of Nigeria (1999-2007). More than 600 people participated, with representation from almost every African country.

“Allowing Sudan’s president to speak was very disturbing,” commented Kincaid. “On March 4, 2008, the International Criminal Court charged him with war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, many African leaders oppose this arrest warrant, and inviting al-Bashir to the conference was another diplomatic effort to try to help resolve Sudan’s humanitarian crisis and forestall an escalation of violence over the upcoming January 9 referendum on Southern Sudanese independence.”

“Ethiopia is a fascinating new federation of ‘nations, nationalities, and peoples,’” he added. “It has nine ethno-linguistically based states, two self-governing city administrations, 83 official languages, and one federal working language. The federal system was established in 1994 following the 1991 overthrow of the brutal Marxist-Leninist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam.”

“Two of its really interesting federalism experiments are its constitutional provision giving the constituent states the right to secede from Ethiopia and its House of the Federation. This upper house of the federal parliament is not a senate, although its members are elected by the councils of the constituent states,” explained Kincaid. “Instead, this house resolves conflicts between constituent states; acts to preserve the rights of the country’s nations, nationalities, and peoples; recommends formulas for fiscal equalization and other federal-state revenue distributions; and, most interestingly, serves as the constitutional court of last resort.”

“If it works, Ethiopia’s federalism could be a model for the many African countries having comparable diversity,” said Kincaid, “but the true test of the model’s value will come only when opposition parties can win elections against the monopolistic Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and the country can hold together when opposition parties control some of the states. A genuine federal democracy would be a huge achievement in Africa. The country farthest on this road is Nigeria.”

“Unfortunately, most national constitutions last less than 20 years,” he noted. “The workshop on Post-Conflict Constitutional Design, which included political representatives from Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Nepal, Sudan, and other countries, explored potential paths toward more viable constitutions as peace agreements and instruments for inclusive democracy and equity.”