Abiy Ahmed must draw lessons from the failed Ethio-Eritrean federation

Encroaching on Tigray’s autonomy could lead to the loss of another northern province

It appears that our political elites have forgotten that once upon a time there was the Ethio-Eritrean federation. A decade-long arrangement that culminated in Emperor Haile Selassie’s November 1962 annexation of Eritrea.

History teaches us that the federation failed because the emperor extended Addis Ababa’s power beyond what the federation charter prescribed. Eritreans did not sit and watch the development. Instead, they fought hard and long against two regimes to achieve self-determination, which finally produced the independent state of Eritrea in 1993.

The Eritrean case offers a vital lesson and one that must be heeded now more than ever by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government.

The escalating confrontation between Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the governing party in Tigray, and the federal government is worrisome. The confrontation has gone beyond being entertaining political discourse. Nowadays, the TPLF leadership is routinely disregarding federal decisions. The resignation of Keria Ibrahim, a member of TPLF’s politburo, as speaker of the House of Federation is just the latest indication of the widening gap. The speaker resigned mentioning that ‘‘the constitutional interpretation option pursued to salvaging constitutional crisis was not constitutional’’.

The TPLF has been doing almost everything in its domain, including using regional state-controlled media and sponsored political parties known as the “federalist forces”, to accuse the federal government of all the problems in the country; problems partly created by TPLF itself. The party accuses the federal government of purging them from shared rule by dissolving the former ruling coalition against its wishes. The central government, in turn, uses government-controlled media for propaganda purposes against TPLF.

The central government is disregarding TPLF’s complaints that its officials were unfairly removed from federal government posts and that Tigrayan businesses and individuals are being targeted. Above all, TPLF officials complain that Abiy’s administration is threatening the constitution. And the electoral board’s statement yesterday that Tigray has no legal right to run a regional election will only have strengthened that belief. In these times, TPLF is acting as a guardian of multinational federalism, although critics argue that TPLF highly centralized power—thus restricting regional government’s actual room to maneuver—in pursuit of ‘revolutionary democracy’ while it was the pre-eminent political power from 1991 to 2018.

Despite those critics, TPLF’s complaints, whether justified or not, deserve to be heard. Recent developments contradict the spirit of federalism in general and the Ethiopian constitution in particular. The contradiction is that federalism involves the coordination and cooperation of two-tier governments in the formulation and execution of policy. Similarly, the creation of one economic community envisioned in the preamble of the constitution requires a compromise between the competing demands of self-rule and shared rule. Confrontation and lack of cooperation will generate policy deadlock, resulting in further conflicts and problems.

Full plate

And right now, Abiy’s administration already has enough political problems in other regions. Parts of Oromia are almost a war zone. Amhara has been unstable since the demonstrations that erupted in the region following Oromo protest and particularly after the alleged ‘‘attempted regional coup’’.  The demands of dozens of ethnic zones for regional statehood in the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR) are yet to be addressed, and are likely to become louder now that power has finally been handed over to the new Sidama region. The Somali region, as ever, is volatile. Dormant Sheger’s problem waits to erupt.

The general election has been suspended  and the consequence of the federal government’s attempt to legitimize it through constitutional interpretation is yet to be seen.  The outcome of the House of Federation’s decision has not been accepted by opposition parties such as Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). Although, the actual impact of the house’s decision and the final stand of the opposition is yet to be seen.

On top of this, COVID-19 is negatively affecting an already troubled country. The state of emergency declared to mitigate the pandemic has restricted political activities. Prime Minister Abiy should not use it to consolidate power at the centre. He should instead use the opportunity to capitalize on it to conduct a genuine dialog with stakeholders.

Political dialog is particularly important with federalist groups that have a legitimate concern about regional autonomy and the future of multinational federalism. These entities’ claims are legitimate when we consider the rhetoric and action of Abiy’s administration. For instance, the premier has been under fire for his repeated statements were a blessing for the ‘‘Pan-Ethiopianist’’ that are known for demonizing the current federal structure, and for building imperial monuments in the national palace.

The dissolution of EPRDF and other regional parties to create Prosperity Party (PP), which effectively means appointments of key regional posts are made by Abiy, weakens the autonomy of state governments. This has created a legitimate concern of relapse into a de facto unitary state by undermining federalism. Forming a unified party may not disturb the system in pluralistic federations, but in Ethiopia, party and the state have never been separated. The party structure overshadows the constitution to direct the day-to-day functions of the government.

On the other hand, the formation of PP coincided with deep-rooted ethnic cleavages, and key demands of ethnonational groups for genuine federalism are unresolved. This was the main reason Lemma Megerssa mentioned when he announced that he doesn’t support the dissolution of regional parties. Indeed, it was a popular demand for democratic federalism that brought Abiy to power, not for a shift to centralised federalism.

Dismissing these groups displays an ignorance of the history of Ethiopian state-building that has been largely shaped by the struggle between centralist and federalist forces that believe in the multinational federal arrangement, including TPLF. The ongoing confrontation between Tigray and the federal government should be seen in the context of the constitution.

It is not “only the federal government that is sovereign” as Abiy said on 10 April, addressing members of the parliament during the endorsement of the five-month state of emergency declared to curb COVID-19. Regional states also have sovereign power over residual matters as stipulated under Article 52(1) of the constitution. According to Article 50, both tiers of government should respect each other’s power and avoid interference in the jurisdiction of the other.

The two pillars of federalism, self-rule and shared-rule, should guide the day-to-day functions of the two-tier governing system. On the other hand, secession is not as easy as Debretsion Gebremichael, acting president of the Tigray, vowed in the speech he made to the TPLF supporters gathered to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the party’s establishment.

Both the federal government and TPLF are engaged in destructive politics. It is important to remember that the Derg regime similarly dismissed the claims of Eritrea while the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front refused to recognize Derg’s authority. A huge price was paid due to the resulting protracted civil war. There is no guarantee that we are not heading in the same direction as a result of the confrontation between Tigray and federal authorities.

PP, through its Tigray branch, is trying to mobilise the Tigray youth to mount sustained protests, so-called ‘‘Fenqil’’, in Tigray.  The protest have been given generous coverage by the federal government-controlled media and encouraged by the Tigray branch of PP that vowed TPLF will not have power in the region after October 2020.   This could be a precursor to using the protest as an excuse to bring the region under the federal control by use of the federal intervention proclamation. However, considering the history of the TPLF, a party formed to realise an independent state of Tigray with a great passion for self-rule, and the relatively strong bond between the TPLF and the Tigray people, not to mention the region’s relative strength in the security sphere, this tactic may not work, at least for the time being, as Tigray would be likely to forcefully resist federal intervention.

As an alternative, it seems Abiy’s administration is possibly waiting for the right time to carry out an operation similar to the one in Somali region to remove Abdi Mohamoud Omar (aka ‘Abdi Iley’). But it will be much harder to execute such an operation in Tigray. Even if it is possible, that would not be the end of the story because a change imposed externally has a little chance of success. If change has to come in Tigray, Tigray’s population must be the main agent, not the federal government.

Same act, different actors

In the 1950s, Emperor Haile Selassie and his supporters worked hard to eliminate any traces of demands for self-rule in Eritrea and, to that end, they harassed the leaders of the independence movement, a similar act to what Ethiopia’s federal government is currently doing. Furthermore, the Emperor forged a collaboration with unionist allies in Eritrea and suppressed attempts to form autonomous Eritrean organizations, which is analogous with the current encouragement Tigray opposition parties are getting.

Haile Selassie’s administration put pressure on the Eritreans to renounce autonomy. Besides, when the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) started the armed struggle, the central authorities described the movement as an Arab tool. The Eritrean nationalist forces and the Ethiopian government believed strongly in the justness of their causes. Tigray and federal government officials hold the same views. Finally, on 14 November 1962, Ethiopian troops forced the Eritrean parliament to dissolve.

On 13 June the head of the Prime Minister’s Office Press Secretariat, Nigusu Tilahun, stated that the federal government would enforce the decision made by the National Electoral Board  to postpone elections. The spokesman implies that the federal government would take military measure to stop the Tigray elections. Time will reveal if the Abiy administration tries to dissolve the Tigray State Council and so repeats the same mistake as Haile Selassie.

Still, it is by no means all one-way traffic. TPLF is currently antagonizing the central power by making decisions, such as vowing to conduct elections at the regional level that disregard Abiy administration’s decision to postpone polls due to the pandemic.  There is no clearcut justification to conduct elections in Tigray if they are not going to be conducted in other Ethiopian regions. Though election at the regional level can be defensible in light of the rights to self-rule, such a move is problematic as it can worsen the existing hostility. The Tigrayan people have a constitutional right to exercise self-rule by electing its government, but elections should not be used for political confrontation. Furthermore, it can also put people’s health at risk due to the increased chances of COVID-19 transmission.

It would neither resolve the inherent problem between TPLF and Abiy’s administration nor will it make TPLF a legitimate government in Tigray—especially in the eyes of the central government and other actors in the federation. The Tigray people, particularly the youth, at some point will get tired of TPLF’s egotistical actions. Abiy may also reach the limit of seeing his authority disregarded by TPLF. Both ways only lead to violent conflict, which the Ethiopian people cannot afford.

Dialog, compromise, cooperation

A civilised way of resolving power struggles should emerge sooner rather than later in order to avoid the escalation of rhetorical hostilities into armed confrontation. Similar, but smaller magnitude rhetoric hostility existed preceding the era of conflict between Eritrea’s administration and Ethiopia.

TPLF needs to reconsider its stand of shielding suspects and cooperate with the center to hand over its top officials, such as Getachew Assefa. However, prosecutions should not be used to try and defeat opponents. If Abiy is serious about ensuring accountability, his eyes should look beyond Tigray.

There are some demands, such as assigning the TPLF officials to top federal posts, that the Abiy administration is not willing to concede to. However, this does not mean that the two parties cannot negotiate and compromise. TPLF can rule the region it still dominates and at the same time cooperate with the centre as per the spirit of the federal system.

The Ethiopian federation can cater for such a situation. Disputes between regional and federal ruling parties are common in other federations, but do not commonly result in violence. Unlike democracies like the U.S. or Germany, the Ethiopian federal experiment has never been democratic and constitutionalism is not a norm. Ethiopia also lacks a neutral federal umpire to resolve conflicts between states and the federal government, and there is no impartial and empowered judiciary to hold officials accountable.

The current trajectory offers fertile ground for conflict between the federal government and Tigray. Ethiopia should learn critical lessons from other federations, or at least from the failed Ethio-Eritrea federation. One important lesson the federal government should learn is that a forced union through unilateral action of the centre cannot be sustained. Overall, basic interventions in the administration of Eritrea destroyed the constitutional division of powers and the federal spirit. The upshot is that federalism requires negotiation and cooperation of the federal and constituent units rather than destructive unilateral actions. Above all, respect for the constitutional division of powers is the glue that holds a federation together.

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Main photo: TPLF 45th anniversary celebration

Editors: Bona Geshe, William Davison

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About the author

Bizuneh Getachew Yimenu

Bizuneh is a former lecturer at Dilla University, Ambo University and Ethiopian Civil Service University. Currently, he is a Doctoral Researcher in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, U.K.. Email him at


  • Dear Bizuneh
    I am from Eritrea and i really agree w your assessment.
    Haileslasse made big mistake by demolishing the federation and closed the possibility of some of the proEthiopian once to pursued the other groups.
    His actions put on more fuel to already tensioned situation and resulted in to more pro military struggle rather than peaceful means.
    I see same situation in Tgray now, after they paid huge sacrifice these people instead of appreciated they are cornered.
    Abi is doing not for the benefit of long-term Ethiopia rather his own power.
    This reckless handling of the delicate situation can shift the people to align themselves in to sense of not belonging to Ethiopia anymore.

  • Good read! However, you have ignored one critical piece in your analysis, the people. You have set the stage as TPLF Vs. Abiy/PP, and I think this clearly shows the paternalistic political philosophy of our country. Both TPLF and Abiy/PP are telling the people “they know what is best for the country”. Your article reads the same way. However, the point of politics is not to do us good but it is to respect the freedom to select our own goods. I agree the elite are on the steering wheel for addressing the issue, but as a journalist(or someone publishing an article) it should be your duty to stand by the principle of democracy and freedom for the people.

  • The irony is the author frames his view on and talks of federalism in Ethiopia as if there was such thing in last 30 years. There wasn’t any and has never been. It was a phony system put in place and designed by Tigrain TPLF guarilla-turned-regime to benefit them exclusively and sysyem tacked up against the rest. Also, if his actions to goby,, I’m am afraid that Abye’s regime is wrong-headed by committing the same ominous mistake and straying toward centralism rule and thus pitting potentially the already existing rift between centrifugal and centripetal forces with serious destructive consequences. We should start talking from now on about how to overhaul/rehabilitate the old status quo and turn into equitable genuine federalism system for all. As per grandstanding of the TPLF over elections amid coronovirus and other short-term stability related issues , I don’t know what to make of and it doesn’t make sense .The only thing one can think of is they want to get across a desperate message of staying in relevance at regional and federal level at all cost, politically and ideologically speaking.

    • It seems as if centrifuge might be used in mashing up peoples of color (oops i mean people of ethnicity) together. This joke of utter nuissance that hinders effort unison and unleashing potential will be mutual disparagment at the end. Institution can be placed to forlook social assets, period. Politicizing and genociding federalism will be theatrical of sheakspearean magnitude to the amusement of the rest of the world. Lets not squable of whats left of this poor nation and people. Its for own good and only ours. Federalism my foot, now or ever. Just a joke of oligarchs of ethnic spirit.

  • Refreshingly balanced and sober assessment of the current situation. It would be wise for the ultra-nationalist groups, behind Abiy, currently pushing for severe measures on Tigray to heed to its words of caution. The confrontation between Prosperity Party and TPLF, if handled correctly, could still be used to foster true democracy where opposing parties which legitimately represent different sections of the population learn to compromise and coexist. Instead, if the nasty tradition of outflanking opposition by de-legitimizing propaganda and presenting oneself as the sole voice of the people continues, TPLF-PP war could be the country’s undoing.

  • A very poor article. It shows how shallow the knowledge of the writer is regarding the Eri-Ethio federation.
    1-The nominal federation was imposed by force on Eritrea without the will of Eritreans.
    2- Eritrea was with internationally recognized boundaries, which Weyane tried to redraw it for “Abay Tigray ( Big Tigray)”.
    3- The issue in Tigray is directly related with those who consider themselves as elite. It is no issues for the Tigray people. TPLF has no popularity on the young generation. But on Eritrea it was on the opposite.
    So please don’t try to relate unrelated senarios.

    • Abdat Salah,
      Can you backup your claim on #3 with evidence? Do you have study or survey to share with us? If it is your opinion then try to indicate that way. I frequently visit Mekelle however my observation doesn’t seem to correspond with your claim. To me based on my observation TPLF has the majority support.

  • Dismemberment of the country can only mean one thing to every one of us, and its Suicide. Fragmented, emotions aside, every state is a worthless joke. Just take a look at the world around you. We are a poor man’s joke as we are, let alone dismemberer. I say we are small enough currently and should work together to the idea of gaining port outlet and economic integration with others. Rather, we will all be a laughing stock of the wider world if we persist with stupidity. Lets not learn afterwards of a dramatic wrongdoing, like yugoslavia and rwanda did. Lets be smart. The federal government should stop the childish and redundent media campaign as also holds true for the anti-federal government coalitions. The region will be awashed with small, resource constrained, over populated, ethnically and tribaly charged, stone age republics. It will be an ingredient for a triller action packed apocalyptic hollywood movie. If the film makers give a shit about us or africa, anyways. Time to grow up.

  • This is a classic example of comparison between apple and orange as Eritrea and Tigray have nothing in common except shared language and cultural ties, albeit in restricted sense! The list of TPLF complaints, enumerated by the writer, clearly demonstrates the lack of depth about the profound causes of divergence between the administration and TPLF!

    While the article logically argues about the critical importance of cooperation for federation to be effective, the writer masquerading under researcher Capacity loses neutrality and disproportionately attacks the Abiy’s administration! The writer further overtly bestows TPLF the title of champion and guardian of the federal arrangement! This is an utter disregard both to the records of TPLF and public knowledge since TPLF has effectively utilize the constitution to preserve a dominant control over the Ethiopian power structure ! The constitution was designed based on the Marxist contrarian approach and aimed at benefiting some and to punishing others which suggests that TPLF did have an iota of intent to promote genuine federalism!

    Credible intellectuals should First decipher the profound causes of conflict before prescribing convergence!
    Resolving Ethiopian Chronic political problem needs a much more deep understanding of the country’s history and the corresponding predicaments and an optimum strike between the interests of centripetal and centrifugal forces! The writer doesn’t seem to have learned from past experience that partisanship never brought the much desired stability and development!

    • You claim Tigray’s case is unrelated to what happened to Eritrea like ‘apples’ and ‘oranges’. But does this mean you believe the way Eritrea was handled by Haile Selassie was wrong. If you have any sincere concern for the future of Ethiopia, start of by admitting this. Then lets go on and examine what the policy was: well wasn’t it the refusal by the emperor to recognize the autonomy of the federation and subsequently moving forward to dessolve it? Had the emperor permitted the Eritrean federation to remain autonomous, would Eritreans (especially Kebessa highlanders) have bought into cessation? Basing their religous and cultural ties with Ethiopia, they were behind that brought about the federated unity with Ethiopia. So wasnt the emperor’s politically insane decision to abolish the parliament, force Amharic by outlawing Tigrigna, etc that empowered the independence movement? Lets fast forward to Tigray. Isn’t Abiy working to undermine regional autonomy esp of Tigray? Isn’t he preparing to wage war to abolish legally elected regional government? Who gives him the right to do that. If the people of Tigray think TPLF is oppressive let them rebel like the qerro and fano movements. But if not, attempting to subdue TPLF (again Tigray’s governing party legally representing the people) is directly parallel to what emperor did to Eritrean federal administration. Instead of using fancy words to mumble incoherent criticism, please provide clear counter arguments.

  • This is a classic example of comparison between apple and orange as Eritrea and Tigray have nothing in common except shared language and cultural ties, albeit in restricted sense! The list of TPLF complaints, enumerated by the writer, clearly demonstrates the lack of depth about the profound causes of divergence between the administration and TPLF!

    While the article logically argues about the critical importance of cooperation for federation to be effective, the writer masquerading under researcher Capacity loses neutrality and disproportionately attacks the Abiy’s administration! The writer further overtly bestows TPLF the title of champion and guardian of the federal arrangement! This is an utter disregard both to the records of TPLF and public knowledge since TPLF has effectively utilize the constitution to preserve a dominant control over the Ethiopian power structure ! The constitution was designed based on the Marxist contrarian approach and aimed at benefiting some and to punishing others suggesting TPLF did have the intent to promote genuine federalism!

    Credible intellectual should First decipher the profound causes of
    conflict before prescribing convergence!
    Resolving Ethiopian problems needs a much more deep understanding of the country’s history with all features of its predicaments and an optimism Strike between the interest of centripetal and centrifugal forces! The writer doesn’t seem to have learned that partisanship never brought the much desire stability and development!

  • Inherent in the political chaos in Ethiopia is the endless animosity and hostility against TPLF before and after the formation of PP. It is understood that federalism is a firm political principle for TPLF, and as such there was no way Abiy could persuade TPLF to accept the erosion of federalism in one aspect – that Abiy would appoint PP administrator for Tigray region, as he would for the other regions….As for the elections, there is nothing for TPLF to gain by holding its own elections to uphold a right and a principle of regional autonomy in this matter, an idea of little interest and urgency for the rest of the country. I consider the idea of Tigray elections alone as pointless in that it would lead to a confrontation with Abiy who would most likely frame the issue as a matter of protecting Ethiopian unity, thus the absurdity of Tigray being accused as a threat to Ethiopian national unity. Such an accusation would be incomprehensible to the people of Tigray.
    I think TPLF ought to step back and wait for the time of national elections. In this way, TPLF can focus its attention on crucial matters and situations of explicit and implicit threats to Tigray, which would then require for TPLF to take a firm stand that the people of Tigray can grasp and support. All in all if things in Ethiopia continue to slide towards the abyss, it would not be because of TPLF / Tigray region doings; it would be because of this unrelenting animosity towards TPLF / Tigray region. It is a matter for Abiy, and perhaps some moderate members of PP, to reflect on this endless and bottomless drain on the political life of the country. To avoid national calamity and as the Prime Minister, Abiy has a higher burden, a higher responsibility, to show and convince Tigray people that he is not hostile to the region. One such matter would be for Abiy to explain to them why the “peace” at the Eritrea border does not feel like peace, that it feels exclusionary of Tigray.

    • Very well said. The major rift between the people of Tigray and the rest especially the Amhara is because of the continued campaign of hatred spread on Tegarus and the fact that the central government is silent about it confirming that it encourages the hate propaganda. I think that Ethiopia is facing serious economic, ethnic, covid19 challenges in addition to the simmering GERD problem.
      Ad far as the election in Tigray is concerned, some political analysts are telling us Tigray’s constitutional right to conduct same. The consequence after that is anybody’s guess.

  • Eritrea was an Italian colony for over 50 years (a defacto independent state) before being ‘reunited’ with Ethiopia. the federation agreement was a precondition to maintain ‘1 country 2 systems’ and for joining the 2 states. By resolving the Eritrean parliament the Emperor broke this pre-condition. Drawing this parallels to Tigrai (which is and has always been a region of Ethiopia) is shallow and need for attention. I truly question your credibility as ‘lecturer’ or PhD academic

  • I do not think that there is a parallel comparison between Tigrai and Eritrean case. To compare is regarded as a comparison between apple and orange. Tigri is the foundation of Ethiopia and the current situation is between a tiny greedy looters who are hiding in mekele for life and a Federal government who try to correct all the ills done by this minority looters.
    The Federal state in Ethiopia is a dogy one which was created by Meles Zenawi to subjugate the rest of Ethiopians. Don’t forget also that had it not been for Meles zenawi the Eritreans wouldn’t have separated from Ethiopia. They would have remained unrecognised states like Somali land and other European countries.

    • Classic example of de-legitmizing opposition. If TPLF is hiding in Mekelle, then there is a reason they are hiding there. It means the people does not repel them. Do you think they’ll last a day if the people rebels? (esp considering the PP’s vigilance to jump in at the first sign of trouble). So let us leave it to Tigray peple to decide whether TPLF is ‘tiny greedy looters’ or not and stand behind the decision of the people, i.e. if we truly are concerned for Tigraians as we claim.

    • Some 30 years ago, Ethiopia was a nation in distress – the Derg collapsed, Eritrea’s cession had become irreversible, and federalism was implemented as a pragmatic solution to the rise and surge of ethno-nationalism in Ethiopia. I believe the Oromos and Ogaden Somalis would agree. Regarding your other comment, Meles Zenawi willed Ethiopia to claim sovereignty over the Blue Nile – GERD is his legacy.

  • Buzineh’s article is well balanced and needs to be appreciated as it offers to the current political crisis in Ethiopia by recommending discourse and reaching a consensus rather than forceful settlements of differences.
    He cited goid examples of the unlawful dismantling of the Federal System during the reign of Haileselassie and later on the Dergue in which force had failed disastrously. We have to try notfor history to repeat itself and learn from past mistakes.

  • Dear writer, aren’t you aware that Eritrea and tigrai ‘s case is different. Eritrea was a colonial state that was not part of Ethiopia from the outset while tigrai is an integral part of ethiopia. Please read and search for some other alternatives
    Instead of suggesting such wrong conclusion.

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