Splitting Local Government and its (Un)expected Outcomes: The Case of Amhara National Regional State

Yilkal Ayalew Workneh, CFGS – Centre for Federalism and Governance Studies, Addis Ababa University

Relevance of the Practice

In Ethiopia, the splitting of local governments has been allowed in order to meet two objectives: first, to ensure the self-government of ethnic groups, and, secondly, to enhance development and public participation through a decentralized governance system. Articles in the Federal Constitution that make passing reference to local governments are Articles 39(3), 50(4) and 88(1). The first objective and its implementation accelerated the claims of self-determination by many minority ethnic groups. Even though, the response of Amhara National Regional State (ANRS) towards the ensuring ethnic self-government is relatively better than other regional states, as it establishes ethnic local governments for four ethnic minorities namely, Awi, Himra, Oromo and Argoba, the claim of Kimant ethnic group is not still materialized despite recognized by both the regional council and the Hose of Federation. This is because the controversy over border demarcation, as the Kimants claim additional three kebeles that are territorially detached from the other sixty nine while the regional government insists to keep the precedence of territorial contingency principle. The splitting practices aiming to achieve the second goal are accompanied by public requests. Delegates of various groups have frequently appeared before the regional state executive office of ANRS to claim new local government status in the hopes of receiving services in a more efficient and effective way. According to regional officials, the creation of local governments by splitting pre-existing ones is a result of insufficient infrastructure. People travel long distances to receive services from their respective governments, which is costly and time-consuming; the practice is hence relevant in bringing government closer to the people, at least physically. In this entry, the term ‘splitting’ is used to refer to the practice of forming new regular local governments by simply dividing the existing regular woreda or zone into two or more. As a matter of fact, the splitting practice is mostly the focus of local government politics in ANRS. Hence, assessing whether or not the splitting practice aligns with the demands and interests of the affected people and brought about the intended outcome regarding the provision of services and genuine popular participation has paramount importance. To this end, practical situations have been reviewed to understand what is happening in localities after splitting. The cases of two woredas (Farta, from which Guna Abaegemidir woreda was split, and Mecha, which was split into North and South Mecha) is used to show the outcomes of splitting practices.

Description of the Practice

Article 58(3) of the ANRS Constitution gives the final decision-making power over the claims of new local government status to the Council of the Regional Government. According to this provision, the demand for new local government status is expected from the lower levels of local government units. Without prejudice to the fact that the final decision-making power rests on the regional executive government, zones have the power to conduct preliminary investigations over the claims of restructuring and to submit a fundamental direction on the issue. 

After 2001, a steady increase in the creation of new local governments, mostly through splitting existing ones, has been witnessed. The following table shows the trend in local government creation in ANRS since the fiscal year of 2003/2004.

Table 1: Number of local governments and city administrations in Ethiopia (2003–2020).[1]

yearno of local governments except zonesno of city administrations

As the table indicates, the creation of new local governments has grown steadily over the years. By 2020, the number of such local government units had increased by 60 per cent since 2002, which is double the national growth in new local governments formed by means of splitting. Indeed, in 2007/08, 2008/09, 2010/11 and 2019 there are notable spikes in this trend. Senior officials of the regional state said that the reason for the relatively high increments in certain years relates to the performance of the regional government in responding to claims coming from the localities. The budgetary implications of the duplication of human personnel and resource-mobilization have often been mentioned. During times when there is an abundance of budget secured as a result of financial support from international development organizations, a greater-than-usual numbers of new local governments have been created.

At least four criteria are set out in ANRS for splitting local government: ethnicity, population size, administrative convenience, and area size.  Though it is not determined by the law, the regional executive tried to quantify the criteria by percentage to decide over the claims of woreda splitting. According to this criterion, a population number of 200,000 and above would have got 45 points out of a hundred. Similarly, area size, the nature of the landscape, the potential to generate income, and the number of kebeles are allocated 25, 15, 10, and 5 points, respectively.  In regard to urban local government, the ANRS’s legislation not only sets a population threshold different to that of the federal government but includes additional criteria such as potential revenue, the occupation of city residents, and strategic importance.  Regulation no 144/2015  provides a clearly defined and quantified threshold for the criteria of population size and revenue potential for each category of urban local government. However, its applicability in upgrading from one category to another remains uncertain. This is due to the fact that the other criteria are expressed in phrases such as ‘strategic importance’ and ‘occupation of city residents’ that lack precision and entail subjective decisions.  With the exception of population size, there is neither a specific threshold to get those points nor a minimum benchmark for the eligibility of a claim. The absence of clearly defined criteria in regard to both, the re-organization of urban local governments and the splitting of woreda governments, leaves fertile ground for elite interests at the local level and subjectivity at the regional-government level.

The legal frameworks does not indicate ways of consulting the local people regarding the practice of splitting and creating new local governments. Although local councils are established to enable political representation and participation, their powers and responsibilities are not stipulated in detail. Neither the state’s constitution nor legislation provides for the local councils, with the exception of zones, a power to discuss or make recommendations on local government demarcation. However, in practice, such initiatives are indeed discussed in local councils and presented informally to the zonal and regional executive.

Observation of regional government finds that there are limitations in public participation in regard to claims for new local governments. This also evident in discontentment among the people and in the inefficiency of institutions after splitting has occurred. The local elites, including public servants, merchants and government officials, are crucial in initiating, framing and facilitating requests for new local government status. They call for public participation with some pre-determined outcome, basically the inevitability of splitting. Public gatherings are neither inclusive nor genuine.

The democratic deficit of this local government practice is manifested in complaints and resentment amongst sectors of society within the newly established local government. Such practices in the regional state result in rural woredas being cut off from the infrastructural and economic core of their former towns. Consequently, tensions arise between the kebeles of people who lost relatively good services and those of people who find themselves closer to a new capital. While this is a problem witnessed in many of the newly established localities, it is most pressing, and still unresolved, in woredas cut off from Mecha, in West Gojjam Zone, and Farta, in South Gondar Zone. It is true that many demands are made for new local-government creation and that this could be regarded as public participation, but, as mentioned, these demands for better service are often captured by elite interests seeking to advance their own political and material ambitions.

Data obtained from local informants indicates that there are deteriorating relationships between two woredas that were formerly one, along with disputes between kebeles in a newly split woreda. The reason for the latter is that some kebeles were expecting to be the capital of the new woreda. This expectation stems from the promises of elites during the initiation and framing phase. Many kebeles from North Mecha woreda returned to their former government. This led to fluidity in local government boundaries, which affects the institutional security of each individual unit. Moreover, many people were surprised, as they had not heard about the decision but happened to find themselves living in a new woreda. In addition, after having been split, woredas either lose or retain their former names, which could threaten the autonomy of local government. The coining of new names might be welcomed or rejected by the people. In some cases, such as Kuara and Menz woredas, there was resistance by the public to the splitting processes as many wished to maintain the ‘greatness’ and traditional name of their district. While such scenarios can be moderated by a suitable public-participation process, there has been a clear lack of institutional mechanisms for involving local communities in the splitting process and communicating decisions made. As things stand, demarcation is hardly transparent, free and fair in the eyes of the public, which tends to be suspicious about the process and outcome of local-government creation.

Assessment of the Practice

It was found that there are multiple bases for splitting and creating local governments in ANRS. In theory, the security of existence of local government is ensured by setting clear criteria and procedures for changing its size and boundaries, but a closer look at the mechanisms of the regional state revealed that there are no clearly defined criteria that have to be strictly adhered to, as opposed to being cherry-picked because they suit the exigencies of particular circumstances. Instead, the splitting of local government has been subject to pragmatic and informal considerations and undergirded by elite-driven negotiations among various networks of interest. Hence, the security of existence of local government as a sphere of level of government is compromised and the interests of the local people are of little, if any, genuine concern.

The creation of new districts is meant to improve service delivery and local democracy by bringing government closer to the people and enhancing public participation. The newly created local governments are not efficient enough on their own to provide services, a situation that in 2019 prompted the regional state to stop creating new local governments. Local government administrations are also supposed to be autonomous administrative units. However, there are no clear functions and mechanisms of popular participation. All local governments are controlled by ruling-party decisions which overshadow the role of their own legislatures. Hence, it is difficult for them to fulfill their responsibility of ensuring service delivery and grass-roots democracy.

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Legal Documents:

The ANRS Revised Cities’ Organizational Category, Determination and Establishment, Proclamation no 144/2015

The ANRS Revised Regional, Nationality/Zonal and Woreda Government/Administrative Councils’ Organization, Membership Composition, Meeting Time and Decision Making Procedure Determination, Council of Regional Government Regulation no 144/2016

[1] Computed from annual budget allocations for woredas and city administrations, using data from the Bureau of Finance and Economic Development (ANRS) of June 2020.