What now for Ethiopia’s multinational federation?

Ethiopia’s political realities suggest compromise by both Ethiopianists and ethno-nationalists is the only sane path forwards

It has been half a century since Wallelign Mekonnen, one of the Ethiopian Student Movement leaders, wrote his famous treatise “On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia”. Fifty years on, sub-state nationalism remains the major issue in Ethiopian politics.

Ethiopia has changed radically since Wallelign published in 1969. Ethno-nationalism, which made progressive forces in the student movement uneasy at first, eventually became the main organizing principle and ideological battleground for insurgents.

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which cast itself as the guardian of the question of nationalities, assumed state power in 1991. The alliance of ethno-nationalist forces then took a series of measures that reconfigured the Ethiopian state. A 1995 constitution, labelled by some as ‘Wallelign-ian’, recognized the sovereign power of nations, nationalities and peoples, with the right of self-governance and self-determination, up to and including secession.

It thus established a multinational federation, in which regional states were organized mostly on an ethno-linguistic basis. Semi-autonomous regions were granted authority over hot-button policy areas such as language, land, and security. Some groups were essentially given their own regions to govern: Afar, Amhara, Oromia, Harari, Somali and Tigray; while others shared them, as in Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz and Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples. The ‘nationalities or peoples’ within these regions, such as the Sidama, Wolayta, Agew, or Anuak, administered geographic areas where they comprised a majority at a lower administrative level, and were thus also granted a significant degree of self-rule and the political, economic and cultural rights that accompany it.

Sub-state nationalism, therefore, became the government’s core political organizing principle, and the EPRDF and allied parties dominated politics from the federal to village level. Consequently, ethnic consciousness increased dramatically.

After the 1974 revolution, the Derg had dismantled the feudal system in the southern part of Ethiopia, confiscating land from feudal lords and redistributing it. The EPRDF constitution also recognized this collective ownership of land and gave regions the power to administer it. Tax revenues were shared but weighted towards the federal government, which redistributes them through regional subsidies.

Yet, despite largely admirable intentions from the system’s architects, a myriad of unintended consequences have manifested themselves, leading to civil unrest and internal strife. The EPRDF is moribund, and the future murky. Wallelign’s nightmare of ‘Amhara-Tigre’ domination has effectively been put to rest. In its place, however, other warning signs are flashing, including ethno-nationalist rivalries and concerns about the viability of Ethiopian federalism.

The current transition is marked by tensions among competing ideologies, interests and factions, including over the federal system itself. Old grievances have re-emerged and new ones are coming to the fore. Security has deteriorated. Minorities have been forcibly displaced or killed and their property destroyed.

The time has therefore come for a thorough re-examination of the roles of sub-state nationalism and federalism in Ethiopia’s future.

Political realities

There are three key realities strewn across Ethiopia’s contested political landscape. The first is that both ethno-nationalist and Ethiopian nationalist forces have legitimate grievances that were not adequately addressed under EPRDF rule.

There is, for example, a lot of truth in the nationalities’ argument that self-rule and federalism existed only on paper under the EPRDF, which exerted a tight grip on power from the centre. Decisions made at the top were cascaded down through the EPRDF system all the way to local levels. This prevented genuine local democracy and thus real self-rule. Rising national consciousness and the EPRDF decline has led to increased clamour for the autonomy that groups were promised.

The EPRDF also failed to live up to its constitutional promises on self-determination. In fact, national aspirations were put down, sometimes harshly. It took the Sidama years of struggle, for example, to achieve a referendum on regional status. Others groups, such as the Qemant or Konso in recent times, had to endure intimidation, arrests and killings for recognition and upgraded administrative status. That not only created grievances, but also fuelled a greater desire for recognition and an attendant expectation of power and resources that is unlikely to be matched when regional status is attained.

Now, regional parties are demanding greater control over local economic rents and resources. The Oromo protests were initiated by a development master plan for the periphery of Addis Ababa, thus seen as formalizing the spread of the federal capital into Oromia without due compensation for Oromo farmers. Ethno-nationalist groups commonly claim that others received preferential treatment in resource distribution, disproportionately benefiting the favoured few, who consequently enjoyed greater rates of economic growth. The prime example is Tigray, which was perceived as having been ‘more equal’ than other regions due to the domination of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the founding and controlling member of the EPRDF. This perception was allowed to fester for decades, giving other identity-based parties the opportunity to portray the EPRDF as a corrupt vehicle for Tigrayan chauvinism, effectively a self-serving system of repression.

Ethiopianist forces comprise a wide range of people, including those of mixed heritage, as well as individuals who consider Ethiopia a single nation and see ethno-nationalism as a divisive system. They mostly oppose multinational federalism, often referring pejoratively to it as ‘race (ye’zer) federalism’ in Amharic and ‘ethnic federalism’ in English. They claim the EPRDF system has all but destroyed Ethiopian identity. The EPRDF dismissed this group as heirs of an idea that was defeated during the armed struggle and excluded them from state power. Ethiopianists argue that they have become second-class citizens, politically exiled and subject to arrest, intimidation and constant pressure. They see themselves as legitimate political actors—and they have a point.

Unbridled nationalism

The second reality is that nationalities parties have not really become accountable and progressive as Wallelign and others envisioned. In fact, militant, undemocratic ethnic-nationalism is becoming the biggest challenge to Ethiopia’s stability. Even ardent proponents of multinational federalism warn against the dangers of untamed ethno-nationalism, which, when not kept in check, can become an instrument of oppression.

The EPRDF’s answer was to advocate for what it called democratic nationalism, arguing for vigilance against undemocratic forms such as ethnic “chauvinism” and “narrow nationalism”, which do not consider the common interest. Clearly, the EPRDF failed in this regard. Neither its constituent parties nor opposition nationalist forces became sufficiently democratic. Most are willing to use intimidation and misinformation to promote ethnic division in their campaigns. While ruling parties need to become more inclusive, opposition groups have made then more extreme.

Arguably, this was the EPRDF’s biggest failing: it did not enforce a federalism based on the rule of law and human rights. For years, local minorities were displaced and killed by dominant nationalities, often with official involvement, as with the case of the Amhara in many different places outside their region and more recently with the Gedeo living in the Guji zones of Oromia or in Sidama. The freedom of movement of one group to work in another has been severely compromised, as is the case now for Tigrayans who had to flee Gondar in 2016 and Tigrayan traders who cannot travel safely through Amhara. Outrageous incidents have occurred without any serious accountability, as with the atrocities committed by Somali and Oromo factions against each other in 2017.

To make matters worse, nationalist forces are militarised. Regions have their own police, militia, and even special forces.  They also now control their own influential media and sponsor social media activists to promote propaganda. The ‘other’ nationality is often presented as a threat and so the use of force is justified. An arms race is developing in which groups are militarizing to protect themselves from others that they think are also arming themselves.

As is clear from the scrabble for autonomy in Southern Nations region, sub-state nationalism has become a source of rent and power, rather than merely an instrument to create an equitable polity. Self-rule was supposed to prevent external subjugation and enable nationalities to solve their own problems of justice and poverty. But little was done to ensure that ruling parties were held to account and thus group solidarity became a shield for corruption and oppression. EPRDF parties had blank cheques to stay in power, so they got away with maladministration and abuse. Maintaining power became the over-riding goal without any thought about what it would be used for. By the EPRDF’s own admission, its elites became a ruling class whose primary interest was accumulating wealth.

In the other corner, advocates of pan-Ethiopianism savagely criticise EPRDF, but they have hardly been paragons of progressivism and democracy themselves. Though their influence is limited, their ideas are still prominent, especially in the diaspora and urban elite. They maintain influential media and finance domestic opposition groups. They have a history of endorsing undemocratic methods, including armed struggle, as long as it is directed against their enemy.

Their relationship with ethno-nationalist forces is adversarial. They claim the moral superiority of the Ethiopian cause and delegitimize ethno-nationalist forces through prejudice and misunderstanding. Many actors in this camp still use belittling racial terms gosa, gote, zere and are stuck in their understanding from 30 years ago. Their unwillingness to engage democratically backfired, reinforcing animosities, and contributing to the increased power and influence of their nemeses. Furthermore, they lack a clear understanding of the fears and aspirations of the youngest 70 percent of Ethiopia’s population who have never known life without the EPRDF.

Nationalist extremism

The third reality is the struggle between opposing sub-state nationalisms. This is largely a consequence of the two previously discussed realities. The lack of a coherent framework for Ethiopian ethno-nationalism, along with the rise of undemocratic groups under that umbrella, has given rise to extreme versions that articulate a vision of struggle against other nationalities. They mobilize support on exaggerated claims of abuses by other groups, border disputes, or perceived historical injustices.

One reason for this is the failure of intellectuals. Such movements were once led by a generation that considered intellectual rigor a critical virtue, but that passion has not been passed down to their heirs. Amhara nationalism, for example, is lacking a clear definition of its goals and methods, Oromo nationalism needs a fresh vision to reflect its newfound status, and Tigrayan nationalism should reflect on the fact that it no longer enjoys a privileged position. The same goes for all newly empowered nationalities. Unlike the visionaries of the previous era, today’s leaders simply appeal to emotional, populist and radical sentiments to stay relevant.

Another reason for the rise of extremism in recent years is the failure of the ruling coalition to mediate disagreements among contending nationalities. EPRDF’s biggest fear was the re-emergence of the Ethiopianist force, but that meant it ignored the rise of militant, undemocratic regional factions from within. There was no credible state structure, system, or institution to mediate and settle inter-regional disputes once EPRDF became part of the problem not the solution. The weakening of the front meant the loss of any legitimate or effective body to serve that purpose.

Also encouraging extremism is the failure to create an Ethiopian identity and a strong common aspiration for a better future. There is no agreement on history among the various groups, and, in fact, there are incompatible versions. What is worse, old scores are not settled, and so are simmering. Clearly, the objective of the constitution to create one political and economic community remains unrealized. Rather, mutual mistrust among nationalities has led to fear about what the future may hold rather than excitement about it.

Means of struggle

Wallelign concluded in his article that an egalitarian state could only be achieved through revolutionary armed struggle. Given the existing tensions among Ethiopia’s nationalities, confrontational rhetoric and deteriorating security conditions, his violent vision may come to pass—just not in the way he imagined.

Ethno-nationalist groups have the capacity to use violence against each other, against Ethiopianist forces, or even against the federal government. The government monopoly on violence is relative and there is a risk, however slight, of a full-fledged armed confrontation.

Ethiopian nationalist forces, on the other hand, might claim the moral high ground to challenge the current system by any means necessary, but they have no plausible means to prevail. They have neither political power, military strength, nor a strong organization with popular support.

Realistically, however, military action by any of the contending forces would probably be ineffective as well as counterproductive. Demands for political recognition, equality, true federalism and democratic rights are best gained through peaceful civic action, not by the gun. The constitutional system already provides nationalities the means to address their legitimate grievances. If the EPRDF has been the greatest barrier to their aspirations, that barrier has been effectively removed.

Military force would also be ineffective. Victory is virtually impossible in the likely Ethiopian scenario of multi-dimensional infighting among relatively symmetrical forces. We would be fighting each other, brother against brother, neighbour against neighbour. The costs would be astronomical in human and material terms. And, the bigger risk is not just the collapse of Ethiopia as a federation, but a perpetual state of war where no faction can win. We are seeing that in Libya and Yemen, we see it in Syria, in Afghanistan, and in other places.

What now?

Ethiopia’s state-building is still in the making and ethno-nationalism will play a major part if we are going to have any chance of success in creating a fair and just system. Characterizing ethno-nationalism as a threat to Ethiopia’s democratization and development is unhelpful because it fosters instability, and it also fails to confront reality. Trying to contain it by force, or by any undemocratic means for that matter, would likely be a disaster. History has shown that whenever ethno-nationalism is supressed by force, as has happened in Ethiopia in the past, an extreme and undemocratic version of it is emboldened.

In a context where ethno-nationalist forces are on the rise, Ethiopia’s aspiration should be building a democratic multinational federation along the lines of Switzerland, Belgium, or Canada, although those nations are far wealthier (and smaller) than ours. Reforming the existing federal system must involve improving it, not threatening to abolish it. Trying to enforce geographic federalism, or banning ethnic-based parties, given the current state of affairs, would invite catastrophe. Threatening a top-down dismantling of the federal structure would likewise be the downfall of whatever party were to advocate it, whether from a position of power or opposition.

Unfortunately, the position of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government on ethno-nationalism and federalism is still confusing. It is still uncertain if he will strengthen centrist rule at the expense of greater federalism. Or maybe we are heading in the direction of a confederation that will further empower ethno-nationalists. One thing is clear: Any Prime Minister who hopes to rule Ethiopia effectively must be crystal clear on the questions of sub-state nationalism and the federal system, and must be dogged in pursuing his chosen strategy. Any equivocation invites a further unravelling of the Ethiopian polity.

Addressing the failings of ethnic nationalism must be paramount. Nationalities parties must become more democratic and accountable, preferably by their own initiative. They must revitalise their intellectual basis and redefine their goals and the means of achieving them. They must address the rise of untamed political nationalism, distance themselves from identity politics, and focus on policy issues. Their biggest incentive to do so is their own survival. If this dispensation continues with a populist and extremist agenda, Ethiopia will descend into chaos, which will not serve the purpose of any one of the forces, let alone the Ethiopian people.

However, the fate of these parties must not entirely be left to their discretion. Incentives and disincentives are needed to guide them in a positive direction. It is imperative that legal and political solutions are found to restore law and order.  Measures should be taken to enforce the rights of minority groups all over the country and to protect people from the predations of vigilantes. Impunity for rights abuses must end, with severe and well-publicised punishment for perpetrators.

A commitment to decentralisation with accountability is pivotal. This will not be easy. The system has unleashed a network of beneficiaries of nationalities politics, whose ultimate objective is to sustain the status quo to stay in power and perpetuate their personal economic gains. They will resist. They will use their ethnic or religious shield as long as it serves them. Strong action is required to discourage this type of behaviour. It will require tough policy actions that empower people to hold their local officials to account. It requires fixing what is broken in the system including lack of credible institutions and depoliticizing the civil service. These are areas where little serious effort has been made so far, only rhetoric and symbolic appointments.

The role of the federal government in mediating between opposing nationalities at this critical juncture cannot be overstated. The government in Addis Ababa must take all measures at its disposal to incentivise the de-escalation of tensions. This could entail political, legal, fiscal, economic and even security measures, including but not limited to a carefully coordinated gradual demilitarization of the combat capacities of regional states.

But to do this, the federal government must be trusted as a legitimate force by ethno-nationalist groups. It must be a credible deterrent capable of convincing adversarial groups to stand down from belligerence and opt for democratic competition and real negotiation. This is a task at which Addis Ababa has clearly failed, instead becoming party to the multi-dimensional confrontation; sometimes through its actions, other times through inaction.

For their part, Ethiopianists should understand that any attempt to precipitously disrupt the basic tenets of the current ethno-centric federal system could provoke the fury of the masses, who have been raised to believe in its correctness. In the near term, they should concentrate on serving as a watchdog on abuses by ethno-nationalist forces while promoting the wisdom of building a stronger common national identity. They should stop seeing the current state of confusion as an opportunity to overturn the current system. As appealing as it might appear, that day is not yet at hand.

Unionists should be realistic about what is possible given the trajectory of ethno-nationalism and moderate their ‘I-told-you-so’ attitude. They should see this as an opportunity to engage with their opponents rather than demonizing them, and become a constructive factor in righting the ills of ethno-nationalism. They should compete for public office and aspire to administer urban towns and cities; achieving results with exemplary governance to showcase what a more united Ethiopia might look like.

The survival of Ethiopia, I believe, relies on achieving a balance between accepting the imperfect reality and creating an egalitarian aspiration for the future.  The Prime Minister has done well to popularize a vision of unity and democracy in the future, but he must do more to ensure that today’s issues are adequately addressed and select his pace accordingly. Ethiopia is, for better or worse, a multinational state. Its future relies on a realistic assessment by all actors, ethno-nationalist or otherwise, of their strengths and shortcomings; and their commitment to forge a common future based on shared values of democracy, rule of law, and justice.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Editors: Peter Heinlein, William Davison

Main photo: Unity Park’s Ethiopian Regions Pavilion, Addis Ababa; January 26, 2020; William Davison

Query or correction? Email us

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

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About the author

Mistir Sew

This is a generic byline for all anonymous authors. The anonymity could be because they fear repercussions, as they are not authorized by their employers to express their views publicly, or for other reasons.


  • Many thanks for the excellent article. I was very impressed by the author’s analytical depth. Ethiopia has become much more interesting to the outside world under Mr. Abuy and articles like this one give us a better understanding of this country. My sincere thanks for this!

  • Yes, the only solution for the survival and future of Ethiopia as a harmonious society and united geographic entity lies with either multinational federation,federalusm system in way or another. This idea is consisten with the well articulated and postulated positions by many
    foreign experts and native intellectuals like Wolelegn Mekonin et al. since 1960s. There is no turning point as some hang-ons and backward thinking ,who live with the past, would entertain.
    Another thing , I could be wrong but I wished if all writers contributing in the discussion like this one used their real names even first names , but not pseudo names., to have real impact and traction on the issue and debate . Why habesha folks fond of mysterious being I wonder. Are there still security and personal safety concern issue back home? Why still anonymity? Le men yewashal

  • Problem with this type of commentary/analysis is that it is too descriptive and remains too general in its scope. Coupled with the tendency (due to implicit biases) to absolve the current PM and the people around him for the crisis facing the Ethiopian state, when it is clear that a combination of myopic political decision making-steps and and incompetence explain so much of the problems across the country. The author’s point that the provisions and structures of federal system shouldn’t be tinkered with is sensible. Would be nice for a change to read commentary/analysis which doesn’t limit itself to repeating the conventional wisdom and where the political preferences of the author don’t determine the flow and contents.

    • Hi Ekop

      I’ll ask the author to respond to your comment.

      Meanwhile, I suggest you submit your own commentary.


  • Thank you for this article. There seems to a fever in this country (ethno-nationalist and nationalist) which has created bubbles that prevent people and politicians from considering the wider realities of the situation. Hopefully, politicians become less antagonistic and promote reconciliation and compromise as the way forward. Otherwise, it looks like we are headed towards becoming not only a poor country with 10% of the population dependent on food aid, massive unemployment, inadequate health and education services, rampant inflation, growing debt but also a breeding ground for armed groups, ethnic conflict, displacement and destabilization.

    • Only a strong centre can tame ethnic nationalism. But the centre has devastated itself over the last 60 years. Abiy is trying to restore it slowly, but it will take decades at best. Until then, he will have to use equivocation and all other time tested political tools to keep disaster at bay.

      But there’s no other road to peace. Ethnic nationalism without a strong centre will trample its moderates. It will result in balkanization and forced repatriation of all ‘settler’ populations.

      Let’s not forget that despite all of Canada’s tactful and studied handling of Quebec, the only reason it hasn’t seceded is demographics – it let in too many immigrants who’ve now permanently tilted the scales against secession.

      • As the writer put, Ethiopia is, for better or worse, a multinational state, which means we all people are not sharing the same values. Furthermore, this means there is no such identity called Ethiopian identity. Using a numerical concept, the Ethiopian identity is the function of multinational identities.

        The problem still lies within the corrupted and dishonest political culture of the Amhara-Tigre ruling elite and the neo-Neftenya or neo-feudal system. Contrary to Ethiopianists rhetorics, Ethiopia belongs to nations and nationalities and they have no aspiration to dismember their country. As far as I understand, they want justice, equality, democratic state federalism where the right of self-rule is respected and guaranteed by the constitution. They just want recognition and autonomy on issues that affect their various interests.

        Finally, whether one likes it or not, the reality on the ground dictates that there will never be a peaceful, enlightened, and prosperous Ethiopia until Ethiopia comes to recognize the oppressed nations and nationalities’ demands for self-determination, democratic federalism.

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