The Inherent Tension within Federalism

The incident in Jijiga, capital of the Somali Regional State, has brought focus to the problem of the inherent tensions between local and federal governments. Although this has created confusion, it should be understood that federalism is a concept elastic enough to cushion the impact of such incidents, writes Tibebu Bekele (, who has 16 years of experience in leadership positions in the non-profit sector, including conflict resolution in rural communities.

George Wallace, former governor of Alabama, stood firmly, blocking the doorway to the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963. He was defying federal officials who were there to escort two African-American students who were trying to enrol in the all-white school. Historians refer to the incident as the “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door,” one of the milestones in the history of the civil rights struggle in the United States.

The federal officials returned a few hours later. This time they came with the state’s national guard that was federalised following an executive order by President John F. Kennedy. Seeing the overwhelming force, Wallace backed down, but he did not stay quiet.

He became a loud voice for what is still referred to as “states’ rights” block of the conservative American body politic. Of course, his extremist position went much further than that doctrine. He is best remembered for his “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech.

The states’ rights doctrine, of course, predates Wallace and has outlived him. It was the cornerstone of the secessionist argument of the South for their position supporting slavery that eventually led to the American Civil War in the 19th century. It still enjoys significant support in US politics.

The doctrine is best explained as one that advocates for more powers being retained by the states rather than by the federal government. It views the federal system as a voluntarily created union between sovereign states and claims the power of the federal government should be narrowly limited to powers explicitly delineated by the constituent states. It stands for strong states and a weak federal government.

However, other federalists are suspicious of this arrangement, fearing it can lead to fragmentation and human rights abuses in belligerent regions. They prefer what is sometimes referred to as cooperative federalism where a strong federal government works in close cooperation with the states. These two positions are indicative of the inherent tensions that exist within any federal form of government.

There are many forms of federalism practised by a third of all countries around the world. Though hardly any two countries practice the exact same form, they all share the same problem of the natural competition between national supremacy and local sovereignty.

For instance, Shipra Chorida and Andrew Lynch, in a 2014 article in the University of Queensland Law Journal, discuss case comparisons that highlight the emphasises given by different Australian jurists regarding the competing powers of the federal and regional governments in Australia.

They describe these doctrines as “a common and indivisible sovereignty across the tiers of Australian government” on one side, and “a rival account that emphasises dual sovereignty within the Australian constitutional system” on the other.

Meanwhile, in Canada, both the Quebec question and the discontents of the Western regions have been a constant thorn in the flesh of Canadian federalism. The Quebec sovereignty movement had two significant showdowns resulting in referenda in 1980 and 1995 putting the Canadian constitution to the severest test possible. Canada passed that test by its calm response and fidelity to democratic principles.

From the United States to Australia to Canada, it is evident that the federal form of government has some inherent tensions within it that flare up from time to time. When it comes to ethnic federalism, this natural tension is stretched to its limit because the highly combustible force of ethnicity is added to the mix.

Recently, events in Jijiga in particular and the Ethiopian Somali region in general, have posed some serious questions to the very young Ethiopian federal system. There has been heated and sometimes bitter debate whether and when the federal government can interject itself into the crisis that was unfolding.

On one side, there was a strong case calling for intervention to stop a humanitarian crisis. On the other, there were those who were arguing strongly that any challenge to the regional president was the end of the constitutional arrangement and a betrayal to federalism itself. Some have even gone as far as to suggest that the country is disintegrating and falling apart.

First of all, there is an urgent need to calm down and take a deep breath. The situation is serious but the sky has not fallen and the country is not falling to pieces. It is important to realise that federalism is a system that has a built-in elasticity to help it absorb the bumps and shocks that come along the way.

If handled the right way, in complete adherence to democratic principles, the push and pull factors of the competition for power and sovereignty between the centre and the regions will self-correct within the constitutional framework. But for that to happen, there has to be a willingness to have an open debate on the issues.

Commenting on how Canada dealt with the Quebec question, John Parisella said, “The creative tensions inherent in a federal structure can best be dealt with when combined with healthy and intense political discourse and debate.”

My own take on the issue is in line with Alain Gagnon and Raffaele Lacovino who in “Federalism, Citizenship and Quebec” say, “multinational democracies are not to be viewed as confederations of independent nation-states. They are characterised by an overlap of jurisdictions, modes of representation and participation, and national identities of citizens that are open to negotiation.”

While the political, legal and technical mechanisms of intervention have been discussed thoroughly, the moral dimension should not be disregarded either.

After all, what is the point of inserting a human rights clause in the constitution if it cannot be guaranteed to all citizens in the political union?

As US President John F. Kennedy said after the confrontation with Alabama’s George Wallace, “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue, it is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all.”

By Tibebu Bekele (
Tibebu , who has 16 years of experience in leadership positions in the non-profit sector, including conflict resolution in rural communities.

Published on Aug 18,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 955]



With a reformist administration in charge of the executive, there has b...


The new electricity tariffs that became effective on December 1, 2018,...


Who it is that midwifed the rapprochement between E...


Ethiopia’s economy is at a crossroads. The same old advice will not s...


A recent photo between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) and George Soros...


The future is bleak. Millennials and younger generations who will inher...

View From Arada

There is heated debate on the propriety, decency and morality of breast...

Business Indicators


Editors Pick