Ethiopia’s Ethnic-Federalism: The chickens are coming home to roost.



“If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” – John F. kennedy


If you’re following news from Ethiopia or scrolling down any of your social media feeds, you know that various uprisings resulting from political and economic dissatisfactions are taking place mainly in the Amhara and Oromia regions of Ethiopia. If you’re well versed on the political and economic history of Ethiopia, this piece will only serve as a quick evening read, but if you’re confused as to what’s going on or are more likely to skip any news regarding Ethiopian politics because it just confuses you, then this will serve as a helpful, and hopefully fun, read about our political history (or at least provide enough info to make you sound smart next time you’re at a party making small talk about the topic).

Ethiopia and our Ethnicities.

Ethiopia is one of the most ethnically diverse nations in the world, with about 80 ethnic groups calling it home. Here is the breakdown:

Oromo – 34.4%

Amhara – 27%

Somali – 6.2%

Tigray – 6.1%

Sidama – 4%

Gurage – 2.5%

Others – 19.8%

(2007 Census)

As you might imagine, governing a nation with such diverse groups of people can be quite challenging. How does a nation accommodate and address the cultural, political and economic needs of a people that may not necessarily see things eye to eye, especially when those people have had complicated relationships with one another? This is a question that has been tackled for decades in Ethiopia and it was a key question that needed to be addressed in 1991 when the current ruling party (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) headed by the Tigrayan People Liberation Front (TPLF)) came into power after ousting the socialist Derg regime.

Historically, federalism is used as a system of governance in nations with vast and diverse people. In such nations, power is shared between a central government and regional governments. Federalism is used as a way to keep a nation united under one flag, while at the same time upholding democracy for all groups of people. Thus, the idea that federalism would/should be implemented in Ethiopia was a no-brainer. The surprise came when it was decided that Ethiopia would function under ethnic-based federalism. This decision, in my opinion, is akin to buying a newly renovated house with ‘termite issues’ you neglected to address. It looks great and functional on the outside, but it’s only a matter of time before it all comes slowly crashing down.

According to the 1995 constitution, the nation was to be divided into 9 regional states or kililoch based on ethnic territoriality. The constitution highlighted the equality of nations and nationalities, for example by giving all states a right to use their language. Member states were entitled to adopt their own constitution, flags and anthems. More importantly if the need/want arises, all states were given the right to secede. Centralized rule under a single ethnic group was viewed as the source of abuse and discrimination, thus federalism was to deliver us justice and prosperity.

Why Ethnic Federalism?

We need to do a little history-101 if we want to understand the ‘why’ of the matter. Ethiopia is a multi ethnic nation (a fact worth repeating to highlight the complexity and challenge of the situation), with one group having always dominated the other. Historically the Amhara ethnic group has enjoyed the privileges that come with power. You do not really need to open history books to be aware of the political, economic and cultural power this group has enjoyed over centuries of our history. For example, the simple fact that I’m multi-ethnic, but only speak Amharic fluently (I’m not Amhara, no doubt I have the blood somewhere in me) and wear ‘hager libs’ (notice the term itself) to represent Ethiopia and identify doro wet as the traditional Ethiopian meal (which no doubt should be hulbet meregh btw!) says enough about the cultural hegemony the Amhara ethnic group has enjoyed in our nation.

As you might imagine, for one group to dominate, there needs to be others to dominate over, thus come all the lands and people that have been ruled over by the Amharas. For centuries, various ethnic groups have felt ostracized and abused by the powers that be. Most obviously the Oromo (the most populous ethnic group of the nation) have been a people that have felt marginalized economically, culturally and politically. Other ethnic groups have felt similarly over the years, including the Tigrayans and much of the people of the South. Remember, when a community’s culture and language is disregarded, it very much robes them of respect and dignity, which are basic human rights. When that identity is not recognized, there is a good chance their political rights will also not be recognized. Thus, it should not be surprising that various ethnic based resentments exist in our history and persist to this day.

So, it was to resolve such grievances and address the lack of human rights that ethnic federalism was set up by the EPRDF. When the 1995 constitution was being drafted, the idea was that ethnic groups would be given the right to rule themselves, thus no longer feel marginalized or abused. If this sounds pretty fair and square to you, get ready to have your bubble blown. The problem with all of this is that while it sounds logical in theory, it almost never works in reality. I won’t bore with examples of nations that demonstrate why (if interested, Google Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia…). While ethnic federalism has the potential to protect the rights of all, it also has the potential to make people start to strongly identify with their specific ethnicity more than the identity of the collective (for example feeling more Gurage or Oromo than Ethiopian), easily creating an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’ There are many who argue that TPLF purposefully used this system of governance to divide and rule the nation while holding on to the real power. Looking at events today, this theory may have some merit, but I’m not one to delve into guessing of intentions, so I’ll leave that for you to decide.

But, here we are today, 2016, and grievances are ripe as ever. While our constitution says that all ethnic groups are equal under the eyes of the law, reality seems to point to the opposite direction. The current regime, dominated by TPLF, is constantly being accused of human rights abuses, preferential treatment of its own people and stifling any dissent that may arise. What is taking place today is almost a natural progression of what happens when a people are made to claim their ethnicities as the core of who they are. If a goverment prioritizes a people’s ethnicity as their main identity, it should not come as a surprise when the people use that same identity to organize themselves and fight for what they believe in. When a people feel discriminated and abused because of their ethnic identity, it is natural for them to hold on to that identity when they attempt to regain what they perceive to be their constitutionally given rights and self respect.

Decades old ethnic based grievances coupled with crippling poverty of the masses are a dangerous combination for any nation to face. The staggering income inequality that currently exists will most likely worsen the situation. I do not have the insight or knowledge to predict what the future holds for our nation but I hope we all learn to have productive conversations, based on facts and some compassion, about these issues so that we can move forward and hopefully contribute to the prosperity of our nation.

Tena Yistelegn.

2 thoughts on “Ethiopia’s Ethnic-Federalism: The chickens are coming home to roost.

  1. Hi sis, you know I always wonder how you right this good. And you almost got away with one big Falaci. The statement “What is taking place today is almost a natural progression of what happens when a people are made to claim their ethnicities as the core of who they are”. You can not state this after what you built up. The logical one will be ” What is taking place today is almost a natural progression of what happens when a people in power start fevering their own”. This is true because you big brother says so.

  2. haha, I’ll accept it not only because my big bro says so, but also because what you just said is logical. The point I was trying to highlight was that people are not born being zeregna – favoring people of their own ethnicities more than others and wanting to organize with only those of their kind, the structure of our government made it inevitable that our ethnicities would become a major part of who we are. Glad you dropped by Refiko <3.

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