Beyond ethnic federalism

Ethnic federalism is inherently flawed as it drags most political and economic debates down to the level of ethnicity. Ethiopia deserves a better political system.

When the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ruling coalition established the system of ethnic federalism after coming to power in 1991, it served a clear purpose. Following the end of the war, the post-conflict government led by Meles Zenawi needed to balance the demands of over 90 ethnic groups, many of which were organised into armed nationalist movements. Ethnic federalism, which divided Ethiopia into nine semi-autonomous states (and eventually two multi-ethnic cities), granted larger ethnic groups a greater degree of self-governance and offered recognition and reduced levels of autonomy to many smaller groups.

Over two decades on, however, the system once designed to fuse together an unwieldy nation is now tearing it apart. It has sown political dysfunction as ordinary tasks of governance have turned into sites of ethnic competition and conflict. The delineation of administrative boundaries, the allocation of state resources, the organisation of a now twice-postponed census, and plans for a general election in May 2020 are all fraught with tension. Even the use of Amharic, Ethiopia’s lingua franca and the language of the federal government, which has allowed the vast and diverse country to communicate, is contested. It is laden with resentment against the former dominance of people predominantly from what became the Amhara region.

These tensions have intensified under the liberalising reforms of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed since he took office in April 2018. With the press enjoying greater protections, political prisoners being released, and civil society able to organise more freely, several ethnic grievances have come to the fore. Relations have also become further strained among Ethiopia’s three most dominant groups: the Amhara, Oromo, and Tigray. As the EPRDF has loosened its tight control, new opportunities have emerged for regional political leaders to fan the flames of ethnic strife.

It was the widespread protests that began in 2015 among the Oromo people—who have long complained of political exclusion—that culminated in Abiy becoming prime minister. And since his ascension to power, there have been harbingers of national disintegration. This is most notable in the surge of interethnic violence and the vote to become a regional state by Sidama Zone—the administrative territory of a large group in the multi-ethnic Southern Nationalities, Nations, and People’s Region (SNNPR). There was an alleged attempted regional coup in June 2019, while there have been widespread evictions and expulsions, with more than half a million people from West Guji and Gedeo zones fleeing their homes in Oromia and SNNPR in 2018 alone. In Abiy’s home state of Oromia, there has been a resumption of deadly protests recently.

These are not isolated and unexpected crises. Rather, they are logical outcomes of a system based on competing ethno-nationalisms that rewards regional homogeneity and increase the salience of ethnic identity.

Incremental reform

Understanding the future of ethnic federalism requires looking back to Haile Selassie’s nation-building efforts in the 20th century to centralize and modernize Ethiopia through the establishment of a dominant Amhara identity at the expense of all other ethnic groups. When ethnic federalism was put in place, it gave voice and legitimacy to deep feelings of oppression and subjugation of many Ethiopians. Yet, the country has now evolved past that function, and it must once again reform the state.

While Ethiopia should not lose the gains from ethnic federalism—the empowerment of formerly disenfranchised ethnic groups, the promotion of cultural diversity, and a greater pluralism in the Ethiopian identity—it must move towards unity. The current system will only lead to further fragmentation and perhaps down the path of a failed state.

It is therefore time to begin a process of incremental reform with the long-term aim of dismantling the entire system of ethnic federalism.

At the moment, most people are governed as members of ethnic groups first and foremost, rather than as Ethiopians. This is because the country’s regional states (known as kilils in Amharic) were designed to contain populations based on their ethnicity and language. Five regions are dominated by just one group: 91 percent of the population in Amhara Region are Amhara; 90 percent in Afar Region are Afar; 97 percent in Tigray are Tigrayan; 96 percent in Somali region are Somali; and 88 percent in Oromia are Oromo, according to the 2007 census. The other four contain many minorities: In Harari Region, less than 10 percent are Harari; the populations of Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz and SNNPR are all more diverse.

If the constitutional order was reconfigured so that Ethiopia’s regions were instead defined according to geographic features or other administrative criteria, the hope is that citizens’ sense of belonging as Ethiopians would be foregrounded. By delinking ethnicity and territory, state boundaries could allow for the formation of regional identities that cut across—rather than reinforce—ethnic divides. It would also require local and national politicians to represent multi-ethnic constituents.

Territorial gains

One critical task in this ambitious endeavour is to amend the constitution. Article 47, which allows any ethnic groups to form its own regional state subject to a request and referendum, should be changed to put in greater barriers to demands for autonomy. Article 39, which asserts that “Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession”, needs to be removed entirely. More broadly, Ethiopia’s constitution would have to be rebalanced to centre civil and human rights over ethnic self-determination and prioritise individual over group rights.

A shift to a territorial system would not require the creation of a new map overnight. Instead, it could involve a process of examination into how existing states could be broken up, redrawn, or even renamed based on criteria that is not exclusively ethnic. This would not solve all the countries problems. Ethnic rivalries would persist among the Tigray, who have strong ties to the military, the Amhara, who ruled Ethiopia for much of its history, and the Oromo, the country’s most populous group.

A move to a territorial system risks being highly destabilizing and threatens to spark greater intercommunal conflict in the short term. However, there are few good alternatives. Sticking with the current ethnic arrangement could have even greater disastrous consequences. Elections have little chance of being more than an ethnic head count, which from political scientist Donald Horowitz’s well-known work, is a recipe for ethnic conflict. More importantly, ethnic subdivision has no natural end point, as revealed by Ethiopia’s neighbours, South Sudan and Somalia.

Another danger is that limiting ethnicity-based rights could increase feelings of marginalisation among the many smaller groups who flourished under ethnic federalism. This could be mitigated as the replacement of ethnicity with geography as the organising principle of national politics could still allow space for multiculturalist policies locally. Measures could be taken to preserve the rights of ethnic groups to conduct local politics and education in regional languages.

Nonetheless, along with reconceptualizing states as multi-ethnic entities, it will also be necessary to embark on other strategies to strengthen social and political bonds that cross groups. There is an opportunity with the ongoing merger of the three participating regional parties in the EPRDF coalition with the five other regional ruling parties. The result is to be a single encompassing party, called Prosperity Party, centred around Abiy’s new vision of Ethiopian politics. This step opens up a possibility to move away from the EPRDF’s history of ethnic patronage and exclusion.

There is also a need to forge a national identity that is distinctly Ethiopian. Abiy, along with regional leaders, could shift national dialogue away from particularistic histories and demands. This process of historical synthesis could also be done in schools and by the media, in which ethnic groups’ diverse contributions would be reframed as part of an inclusive national heritage. There are many places to start. Ethiopia is rich in history and culture: it is the only African nation never to be colonised, possesses unique scripts and literature, indigenous practices of democracy, and a long tradition of religious pluralism. These could be the building blocks for a shared story.

Hard road ahead

Leaving behind ethnic federalism and its problems will not be easy. Since the system was put in place, it has hardened group identities and nurtured an ethnic mobilisation set in motion by student movements in late-1960s. The process for changing the constitution is also complicated and requires near consensus. It therefore is inevitable that ethnicity will continue to be a major force in Ethiopian society and politics for years to come. To cultivate change in the long-term may even require many steps backwards and concessions to groups already mobilised—such as in the addition of a new Sidama state and elevation of Afaan Oromo to a working language of the federal government—with a view towards diminishing the grounds for future claims.

Still, there is cause for hope. While Prime Minister Abiy is unlikely to completely abolish the system that brought him to power and therefore alienate his largely pro-ethnic federalism Oromo political base, he is committed to reinforcing national unity. His new book, Medemer, expounds this political mission of “togetherness” or “synergy” explicitly. In it, he argues that the values of integration and unity should be added to, without undermining, ethnic sovereignty. His recently awarded Nobel Peace Prize may also lend him the legitimacy he needs to transform Ethiopian politics.

Most importantly, Abiy’s background makes him particularly well-placed to drive change. He has multiculturalist and progressive leanings, while his own background as the son of an Orthodox Christian Amhara and Muslim Oromo serves as a symbol of cross-ethnic identity. As his personal biography shows, Ethiopia has always been a mixed country and its regions have never—even today—been mono-ethnic.

Incompatible with democracy

While moving away from ethnic federalism will be a long process, the government can start by targeting low-hanging fruit. The first step may be the merger of EPRDF into one inclusive party. Then, the recently established Administrative Boundaries and Identity Issues Commission Establishment could make recommendations on where to begin reform away from ethnicity-based federal units.

Political leaders can start shaping political dialogue by extolling the civic values of liberty, tolerance and transparency over ethnic identity. Meanwhile, the strengthening political opposition social media figures and activists, and the diaspora, who are influential in media, could use their respective platforms to expand the citizenry’s imagination as to what an inclusive Ethiopian polity could look like.

Ethiopia deserves a better political system. Ethnic federalism is inherently flawed and incompatible with democracy as it drags most political and economic debates down to the level of ethnicity. Ethiopians, like all people, have concerns and values that reach far beyond this limited category. It will not be easy or quick, and it will yet require much more debate and vision, but there is an urgent need for progress towards a new cosmopolitan Ethiopian identity and politics.

Query or correction? Email us

Published in partnership with African Arguments

Edited by James Wan and William Davison

Main photo: Supporters at the Ginbot 7 rally in Addis Ababa on September 9, 2018, Charlier Rosser

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished. 

Related Insight

September 18, 2018: Domestic despair shadows Abiy’s diplomatic waltz

October 21, 2018: Ethiopia: Climbing Mount Uncertainty

January 10, 2019: Ethiopia’s federation needs reviving, not reconfiguring

July 24, 2019 Elections in End Times

August 18, 2019: Federalist façade for centralist front

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About the author

Olivia Woldemikael

Olivia is a PhD student in the Harvard Government Department. Her research focuses on migration in the Global South, with a focus on exclusion and inclusion of refugees and migrants.


  • “By delinking ethnicity and territory, state boundaries could allow for the formation of regional identities that cut across—rather than reinforce—ethnic divides.”

  • In my opinion, the easiest way to move from ethnic federalism in Ethiopia is to adopt English as working language so that all ethnicities have some fair ground in the political center. Moving a way from ethnic federalism to accommodate ahmarization once more will turn Ethiopia into Yugoslavia. A good example for Ethiopia is to at the most democratic, multilingual nations in Africa like Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa etc.They all adopted English as working language so that their citizens don’t disintegrate into competing ethnicities. So should we create Ethiopia that is fair and equal for its people or we should neighbors because I am not willing to adopt Ahmaric over mine

  • Ethnic federalism is the only hope for the so-called Ethiopia as a better political system. 80% of the peoples in Ethiopia support multi-ethnic/multinational federalism. They have currently established the “Federalist Front”. The Amhara (Sidaama) people are the only opponents of the multi-ethnic/multinational federalism. Okay?

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