Autonomy of Local Governments

Mohammed Dejen, Centre for Federalism and Governance Studies, Addis Ababa University

Relevance of the Practice

The 1995 Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) Constitution is the backbone of all forms of devolutions from the federal to the lowest levels of governments practiced in Ethiopia today. The Constitution under Article 1 officially establishes a federal state structure, where power is constitutionally dispersed between the federal and state governments (Articles 50, 51 and 52). After affirming the division of power between the states and federal governments, the Constitution stresses the need for devolving adequate power to the lowest levels possible. When one reads the interest of the Constitution to devolve adequate power to the lowest hierarchies of state administration (Article 50(4)) together with Article 39 that emphasizes on self-determination rights of every nation, nationality and people (NNP) in Ethiopia, it is pretty much clear that local governments will be established at grass-root levels taking into account the needs and preferences of the local community.  

However, the role and status of local government in its strict sense – as the third sphere of government with their own powers and responsibilities – are not clearly delineated in the Constitution. There are few references scattered here and there in the Constitution which can be invoked for their being in equal status with the other two spheres and as a ‘separate third sphere of government’ in the Ethiopian federation. The most direct expression referring to local government in the Constitution could be Article 50(4) which reads as: ‘[s]tate government shall be established at state and other administrative levels that they find necessary. Adequate power shall be granted to the lowest units of government to enable the People to participate directly in the administration of such unit’ [emphasis added]. Even in this provision it is not clear whether local governments are seen as ‘administrative agents’ of states or are ‘independent governments’ in themselves to give ultimate decisions in their own spheres of jurisdiction. The phrase ‘other administrative levels’ may presuppose simple decentralization of power to Zones, woredas (districts) or kebeles (lowest levels of government administration in Ethiopia) by states for administrative convenience.[1] The word ‘administrative’ also suggests the execution of certain laws and polices made at the national or sub-national level. Moreover, the powers and responsibilities to be given to these ‘lowest units of governments’ are not clearly specified in the Constitution.

One thing to be clear however is that the phrase ‘adequate power shall be granted to the lowest units of government’ suggests that the Constitution has given recognition to local government as the third sphere of government. The problem with this provision, nonetheless, is that ‘adequate power’ is not clear and it begs a question of ‘how adequate is adequate’? The discretion is given to state governments to grant adequate power to local government that they are required to establish by the national Constitution.[2]

Description of the Practice

Generally, the Ethiopian way of devolving power to the local government under the Federal Constitution is vague and ambiguous. First, the Constitution does not explicitly provide for the ‘independent existence’ of local governments having specified powers and functions. Second, the Constitution mandated state governments only to devolve ‘adequate power to the lowest levels administrative units’ without mentioning what powers and functions to be devolved. In a nutshell, it gives the discretion to each state to devolve powers that they consider ‘adequate’. The constitutional requirement is that ‘states must devolve power to local governments’ but no mention of the kind of powers and functions to be devolved. Put differently, the division of responsibilities among the three spheres of government is not specifically given in the Constitution. Therefore, it can be said that local government under the FDRE Constitution has legal recognition but with no granting of explicit powers and functions which is left to each state. Partly emanated from the ambiguity in the Federal Constitution itself and partly from the unwillingness of states to share their powers, all regional states created administrative agents rather than autonomous self-governing local governments at lower levels until 2001.

Following the 2001 regional states’ constitutional revisions, all the constitutions of the four major regions (Amhara, Oromia, Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region – SNNP and Tigray regional states) incorporated local governments as third sphere of government.[3] In subsequent years, local governments have received sub-national constitutional recognition in all member states of the Ethiopian federation. In some major regions, Amhara and SNNP regional states for instance, three levels of government were created: zones for territorially concentrated ethnic minorities, woredas (districts) and kebeles[4] as the lowest units of government. In some other states like Oromia and Tigray, woredas and kebeles have accorded sub-national constitutional recognition but zones as mere administrative units or intermediaries between the woreda and regional state.

Moreover, after 2001, the four major regions (Oromia, Amhara, Tigray and SNNP regional states) decided to move important sectors of public services like health, education, water supply and other social sectors from the state governments to the zonal and woreda levels.[5] Nonetheless, although kebeles are important places for citizens’ easy communication, they do not enjoy such powers and functions as the woredas and zones.

Various city proclamations also came into being both at the federal and regional levels to enlist the powers and responsibilities of municipalities or cities. The first one being the Addis Ababa City Government Charter.[6] The City of Addis Ababa is being recognized as a federal capital in the FDRE Constitution and its residents are entitled to self-government. Article 49 provides that ‘Addis Ababa shall be the capital city of the Federal State (…) and the residents of Addis Ababa shall have a full measure of self-government’. Moreover, the Federal Constitution indicates the need for introducing other subsidiary laws to determine the power of the city and implement its self-governing rights. As a result, the proclamation was promulgated in 1997 and revised in 2003. The proclamation provides for the organization of the city government consisting of the city council, the mayor, city cabinet, city judicial organs, and the office of the city chief auditor. It also lists down the powers and functions of the city government.

Other regional states also introduced their respective city proclamations. Amhara Regional State was the first to promulgate in 2000 followed by Southern Nations Nationalities and People’s Regional State in 2002, Tigray in 2003, and Oromia in 2003. The other five regional states such as Benishangul/Gumuz, Gambella, Somali, Harari and Afar introduced their city proclamations in 2006 and 2007, some of which were revised in the subsequent years.

As it is discussed above, the major purpose of the Ethiopian federal system is to accommodate ethnic diversity by granting all ethnic groups (NNP) – their own ‘mother states”’ with their own defined territories.[7] However, for the implementation on the ground it is difficult – if not impossible – to grant each ethnic group with its own mother state in the federation.[8] Hence, the alternative is to establish local governments within states.[9] Many of the regional states, with few exceptions,[10] are heterogeneous comprising several ethnic groups in their jurisdictions. In those states with ethnic heterogeneity, one can find two types of local governments; ordinary/regular and ethnic local governments.

The regular local governments, usually called woreda in Amharic (equivalent to the English term district), are established across the board and their main aim is to enhance public participation through direct or indirect involvement in local affairs.[11] They are formed on the basis of population size, territory and administrative convenience in order to bring government closer to the people with an ultimate goal of enhancing good governance and democracy.

Ethnic local governments, on the other hand, as their name suggests are designed for the purpose of accommodating ethnic interests at the local levels. They are not intended for administrative convenience but their main purpose is to provide self-rule rights for territorially concentrated ethnic groups. Depending on their population size, these local governments are named differently. Those with fewer in population size are called as liyu woreda (an Amharic term to mean special district) and those local governments whose population is bigger and its territory larger is termed as nationality zone. In the latter case, it may consist of more than one woreda.

With regard to hierarchical structures, the regular woredas are accountable to zones, which are intermediaries between local governments and the regional state. Special woredas and nationality zones on the other hand are directly accountable to regional states.

In Oromia, all local governments are regular/ordinary as the regional state is meant to be for the Oromos. In this context, zones are intermediaries with no elected councils and executives. Amhara and SNNP, on the other hand, follow a different approach of organizing local governments. Some of the local governments are ordinary while others are special intended for accommodating ethnic groups other than the dominant ethnic group in the region. The Amhara Regional State, for instance, has two types of zonal administrations: functional and nationality zones. Functional zones are those intermediaries between self-governing local governments and the regional state that do not have their own elected councils and executives. Nationality zones, on the other hand, are established as part of a local government for those ethnic groups other than the numerically dominant Amhara ethnic group in the region. They include the Agew Awi Nationality Zone (for the Agew ethnic group), the Wag Himra Nationality Zone (for the Agew ethnic group but not territorially contiguous to Agew Awi), the Kemant Nationality Zone (recently established for the Kemant ethnic group) and the Oromo Nationality Zone (formed for ethnic Oromos of the Amhara region). There are also special woredas for those ethnic minorities whose population number is very small. Argoba special woreda is one practical example established for ethnic Argoba in the region. In SNNPRS, almost all zones (14 in total) are ethnic in nature but some are multiethnic comprising more than one ethnic group. There are also special woredas for very small ethnic groups.

Assessment of the Practice

As Ayele argues, for a local government to be considered adequately empowered, at least the following elements should be fulfilled: it should have constitutionally defined functional competencies, its administration must be elected democratically, it must empower local communities to control their own affairs and must be financially empowered.[12]

Despite the constitutional design for devolving power at the lowest level, the practice on the ground in Ethiopia shows that local governments are still far behind achieving their intended purposes. One of the many constraints that local governments encounter in fulfilling their responsibilities is a lack of sufficient financial resources and autonomy to decide on their expenditure priorities. In principle, although they have the autonomy to spend the money they received as block grants from the regional government, it is stipulated by the regional government in the form of financial guidelines how and when to spend. Some minimum requirements are imposed from above to spend on capital investment.[13] More than that, most of the block grants are spent on recurrent expenditures in the form of salaries for their employees. They also lack adequate taxing powers from local sources as most of the tax rates are determined by the regional governments.[14] Lack of trained manpower both in the bureaucracy and the professional field is also another challenge local governments face. Woredas are also considered as subordinates and administrative agents of the upper level of government and hence lack autonomy in the decision-making process.[15]

Lack of Political Autonomy

Politically, the country was ruled by a centralized and hierarchical system for a long period of time. Immediately before 1991, the country was ruled under the military junta where power was concentrated at the center. There was a single party called Workers’ Party of Ethiopia and a multiparty system was totally alien to the country’s political history. In sharp contrast to the previous regimes, the Constitution allows for a multiparty system where power is to be obtained through fair, competitive and free elections. More than five consecutive elections have been held since 1991. Nonetheless, it is the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the incumbent party, that won all the elections. The ruling party is usually accused of election rages and of never having conducted free and fair elections.[16]

The ruling party dominates all state structures from the federal all the way down to local government levels. The government introduces various laws that narrows down the spaces for political competition and restricts the involvement of political parties in elections. Hence, the country is slowly moving towards a de facto one party rule which was witnessed in the hundred per cent victory of EPRDF during the 2015 election. The party channel is the most widely used system of intergovernmental relations and a mechanism of enforcing laws at all levels of government instead of using other formal state structures.[17] Officials at the local level are more loyal to their party than to the local electorate. This is because their positions are secured by their loyalty to the party rather than by the trust they have from the local community. Woreda officials are seen as agents of the ruling party and used as instruments of controlling dissent at the local level.

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Legal Documents:

Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (1995)

Addis Ababa City Government Revised Charter Proclamation no 361/2003

Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications:

Arriola RL, ‘Ethnicity, Economic Conditions, and Opposition Support: Evidence from Ethiopia’s 2005 Election’ (2008) 10 Northeast African Studies 115

Fiseha A, Federalism and the Accommodation of Diversity in Ethiopia (revised edition, Wolf Legal Publishers 2007)

Fenta TM, ‘Local Government in Ethiopia: Practices and Challenges’ (2014) 2 Journal of Management Science and Practice 71

Yilmaz S and Venugopal V, ‘Local Government Discretion and Accountability in Ethiopia’ (International Studies Working Program Working Paper, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Georgia State University 2006)

Ayele ZA, ‘Local Government in Ethiopia: Adequately Empowered?’ (LL.M thesis, University of the Western Cape 2008)

——‘Local Government in Ethiopia: Still an Apparatus of Control?’ (2011) 15 Law, Democracy and Development 1

——Local Government in Ethiopia: Advancing Development and Accommodating Ethnic Minorities (Nomos 2014)

——‘The Politics of Sub-National Constitutions and Local Government in Ethiopia’ (2014) 6 Perspectives on Federalism 89 ——and Fessha YT, ‘The Constitutional Status of Local Government in Federal Systems: The Case of Ethiopia’ (2012) 58 Africa Today88

[1] Zemelak A Ayele and Yonatan T Fessha, ‘The Constitutional Status of Local Government in Federal Systems: The Case of Ethiopia’ (2012) 58 Africa Today 88.

[2] ibid.

[3] See Ayele and Fessha, ‘The Constitutional Status of Local Government in Federal Systems’, above. According to the authors, there were two major objectives for state constitutional revisions. First, they argue that ‘the changes were made not as a result of a desire to comply with the dictates of the Constitution’. It was rather dictated by some political motives. It was intended to snatch power from regional states and give it to local governments. The motive behind devolving power was to weaken state governments in order to minimize the threat of challenge against the central government from states. As stated by them, ‘one reason for the revision of the regional constitutions’ corresponds ‘with the decision to reduce the power of the regional government and particularly the presidents of regional states’. The second reason could be related to enhance efficiency and public participation by decentralizing power to local governments.

[4] Kebeles are lowest levels of state administrations in the Ethiopian federation.

[5] Yilmaz Serdar and Varsha Venugopal, ‘Local Government Discretion and Accountability in Ethiopia’ (International Studies Working Program Working Paper, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Georgia State University 2006).

[6] Proclamation no 87/1997 as revised under Proclamation no 361/2003.

[7] Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Constitution, 1995. Art 39(3), for example, illustrates that ‘[e]very Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has the right to a full measure of self-government which includes the right to establish institutions of government in the territory that it inhabits and to equitable representation in State and Federal Governments’. Art 47(4) even takes this right one step further by guaranteeing NNP the right to establish their own states at any time if they wish. 

[8] This fact is clearly seen in the Constitution under Art 47(1) when it enlists only 9 national regional states (the states of Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Oromia, Somali, Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples, Benishangul/Gumuz, Gambella and Harari) for the more than 85 ethnic groups of the country as members of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. It seems that only 9 ethnic groups secured their own mother-states and even in that case some of the regions are designated not in ethnic names as expected but in terms of territorial locations such as SNNPRS and Gambella. It is only Afar, Amhara, Tigray, Harari, Oromo and Somali ethnic groups that got their own mother-states in the federation.

[9] In Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Regional State (SNNPRS), for instance, 56 officially recognized ethnic groups are lumped together to form one integrated region. Hence, 14 zones and 8 special woredas were formed to accommodate the interests of various ethnic groups to have their own mother-states or realize their constitutional self-rule rights. 

[10] The states of Tigray, Oromia, Afar and Somali are relatively homogenous although they also host different ethnic groups within their jurisdictions. The remaining five regions (Amhara, Gambella, Harari, Benishangul/Gumuz and SNNP) are heterogeneous where they are obliged to form ethnic-based zonal, woreda and kebele administrations in order to accommodate ethnic minorities.

[11] Zemelak A Ayele, ‘The Politics of Sub-National Constitutions and Local Government in Ethiopia’ (2014) 6 Perspectives on Federalism 89.

[12] Zemelak A Ayele, ‘Local Government in Ethiopia: Adequately Empowered?’ (LL.M thesis, University of the Western Cape 2008) 15.

[13] Tilahun M Fenta, ‘Local Government in Ethiopia: Practices and Challenges’ (2014) 2 Journal of Management Science and Practice 71.

[14] Ayele, ‘Local Government in Ethiopia: Adequately Empowered?’, above.

[15] Fenta, ‘Local Government in Ethiopia: Practices and Challenges’, above.

[16] Leonardo R Arriola, ‘Ethnicity, Economic Conditions, and Opposition Support: Evidence from Ethiopia’s 2005 Election’ (2008) 10 Northeast African Studies 115.

[17] Assefa Fiseha, Federalism and the Accommodation of Diversity in Ethiopia (revised edition, Wolf Legal Publishers 2007).