Ethiopia’s social divisions masked by ethnicity

While ethnic conflict is salient in Ethiopia, there are many under-discussed societal divisions that are causing and fueling it.

Ethnic resentments and outright conflict have come to dominate Ethiopian politics and society. These confrontations, which have been part of Ethiopia since time immemorial, have escalated significantly in recent years.

Under these circumstances, the recent uptick in interest among Ethiopians in learning and discussing the nation’s history has rendered the subject controversial. Various groups instrumentalize that history to construct narratives that support their group’s claim of victimhood in order to call for retribution.

Contrary to popular belief, this is not just happening in Ethiopia but pretty much everywhere in the world.

In Ethiopia, identity divisions are mainly based on ethnicity and, to a lesser extent, religion. However, the situation is much more complex, and this complexity has remained obscure by the current obsession over ethnicity. But, it must be addressed, since the complexity is what is masked by and at the heart of ethnicity and ethnic conflicts.

Flux of ideologies

The first among the causes of disagreement is ideological. The current government, in its initial efforts at opening the country through what is now called “structural reform and by pursuing privatization of various sectors, marked an abrupt shift.

The previous regime had worked alongside Western countries in their more urgent geopolitical battles, in particular in the military intervention in Somalia. They did so, partly, in order to placate the West while resisting total absorption into what is often called the liberal international order.

This was an effective strategy, as the state maintained cohesion and pursued the model of Asian nations such as South Korea and Taiwan to establish a developmental state.

The argument could be made that the recent shift to the right was necessary in order to compete in the current climate, that state intervention hinders private investment, and that the strongest economies in Africa, including Kenya and South Africa, achieved their level of wealth, in part, by adopting neoliberal policies.

And yet few, if any, voters considered economic programs or the underlying Left-Right ideological debates that inform economic policy as they cast their ballots.

Of course, discussions around these topics are currently taking place among experts and decision-makers. They have been supplanted, however, by the ethnic confrontations in many public discussions.

Many people support ethnic-based movements and often believe that they have been absorbed into conflicts by those on the other side whose provocations they are resisting.

The narrative, somehow, is consistent across groups. The sudden interest among the public in discussing Ethiopia’s history is often aimed at justifying one ethnicity’s account over another’s.

Here again, there are clear and obvious parallels with racial and ethnic tensions in other parts of the world.

Typically, the historically dominant group, in the U.S., for instance, finds itself making defensive arguments decrying the historically marginalized group’s obsession with identity, while ignoring their own increasingly active participation in the very same confrontation. It is a luxury to be able to ignore systemic injustice when one is not affected by it—or might even, without knowing, benefit from it.

There are obvious parallels to Ethiopian society as well, but here the discussion shifts to the history of identity conflict.

Meanwhile, the very real impact on political programs created by the shift away from a leftist viewpoint to the absorption into the liberal world order (free-market democracy) has been widely ignored.

On the other hand, the ideological fervor that initiated and guided EPRDF’s ascent to power—’revolutionary democracy’— created a contradiction at the heart of the state, as it attempted to maintain some semblance of its original project within a capitalist economy.

Very few discussions regarding that aspect of the country’s history are taking place.

          Generational rift

Beyond the ideological divisions, there is a clear generational rift, which is mirrored in the ideological transformation between those who were raised and lived their adult lives under Emperor Haile Selassie I’s Ethiopia and then under the Derg regime, and those for whom the aftermath of the socialist era represents the only Ethiopia that they have ever truly known.

The older generation is principled, perhaps to a fault. It maintains its fidelity to service and hard work, geared towards the advancement of the nation’s interests. It is exposed both to the West and to the East, and never fully submits to either.

While some from that generation who participated in the student movement of the 60s and 70 and other forms of active participation are deeply devoted to Ethiopian nationalism others committed themselves to a particular ethnic nationalist movement.

What they all, generally, hold in common is devotion to something outside of themselves, which sometimes lends itself to self-righteousness, stubbornness, and naïveté, but rarely to grift or immorality.

The newer generation, perhaps out of a more flexible mindset, a different kind of idealism, or just guided by opportunism and the possibility for self-advancement in a world where material wealth is essential, turned against the previous generation’s principles and began looking to the US  and the West for everything.

This, too, did not happen in isolation. The collapse of the Soviet Eastern Bloc sent many societies hurtling towards Western ideology and values.

This is, still, part of the significance of the recent political and social transformations that are playing out everywhere in the country, including on the battlefield, but that are masked by the ethnic tensions which dominate the popular consciousness.

The irony emerging from the current situation involving civil war and the looming threat of US sanctions is that ideological and economic alignment to foreign powers are at odds.

It is those that preach of prosperity and structural reform, not the side that sought to resist neoliberalism, who are brazenly refusing to kneel to those same Western powers promoting that ideology. So much for economic determinism.

After all, it seems that Ethiopian voters are not the only ones throwing aside ideological concerns.


There is also a major class division that truly defines Ethiopian society.

In spite of the efforts of the 1974 Ethiopian evolution to dismantle landlordism and a feudal class system that was always overt in its exploitation, many of the same landed and educated strata of Ethiopian society remain in positions of power and wealth.

Those advantages are now expressed through various forms such as access to education, positions within bureaucratic institutions, and property.

More than anything else, affluence, influence, and status are a matter of an individual’s birthright, just as it was before 1974. While there are opportunities for social mobility, capitalism recognizes various institutional mechanisms that allow most wealth—despite public idealization of hard work and talent— to be inherited from one generation to another.

The issue is not just privilege, however. As material advantages are handed down from generation to generation, so too are material disadvantages.

Those who remain socially and economically marginalized find little recourse or representation in electoral campaigns centered exclusively on unifying the various ethnic groups into one Ethiopia, while ignoring the vast distances in the experience of the rich and the poor.

Unity and reconciliation between various ethnic groups is necessary, no doubt. However, there is no unified Ethiopia so long as that massive gap persists, regardless of whether ethnic reconciliation ever occurs.

The role that ethnicity plays in masking the fundamental class divisions, even as upwardly mobile communities offer some challenge to the traditional landed classes, is to convince entire populations that ethnic solidarity ought to supersede any kind of class solidarity. Accordingly, the interests of those with power who share one’s ethnolinguistic origin are the same as one’s own and should provide solace for the fact that one has not attained that amount of wealth.

Of course, this too is common in other societies, including America, where people support politicians just based on racial or ethnic identity.

In Ethiopia, there is additional irony in the fact that some of those currently engaged in the most radical fringes of the ethnic struggle used to critique the Ethiopian ruling classes for using ethnicity to divide their subjects.

But that is probably because they once belonged to the previous generation and have now joined forces with the current one, abandoning ideology in favor of ethnicity and participating in the very manipulation they once decried.

Rural-urban divide

There may be one thing dividing society even more deeply than the above-mentioned class division. Everywhere one goes in Africa, one finds the same strange and obvious phenomenon, so strange and obvious that it almost goes unnoticed—the giant rift between the exposure and living conditions in urban and rural areas.

It goes without saying that communities in capital and major cities have more in common with communities in the industrialized world than they do with their own people in rural regions, sometimes living within a few hundred kilometers outside of the city.

As a result, people in some of these urban areas remain unaffected and even bolster their position by supporting conflicts in rural areas that affect people who have little agency or power over their situation.

Urban areas are connected to and often serve as outposts to diaspora and foreign communities in the West. The ethnic confrontations are often backed by those operating in the diaspora, in foreign communities, as well as in these urban outposts whose power to make and implement decisions affecting the rural area commensurate with the lack of accountability and consequence for making those decisions.

The divide between the urban and the rural, the buffer that separates the agent of action from its consequences, and forces those with no agency to bear their brunt overlaps with class divisions, just as the ideological differences overlap with generational differences.

Unless these underlying divisions are addressed, the ethnic clashes will always remain and the rhetoric surrounding ethnicity, which has been torn out of these contexts and exclusively constitutes the platforms of each faction vying for power at the ballot box, will always ring hollow.

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

Main photo: Displaced people in Gedeb Wereda, Gedio Zone, registering for shelter materials and blankets distributions by UKAID; July 2018; International Organization for Migration (IOM)

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About the author

Zewde Yeraswork

Zewde is an Ethiopian who has spent most of his life in the United States and West Africa. He has a background in African history, literature, development, and communications.


  • Adill, exactly! If you go back to the era of Emperor Haile Selassie, the quality of education, the quality of the health care services, the quality of the civil service were by far superior to the ones that came later on both in the Derg and Melese era. However, the number of such facilities and their distribution in the entire country was severely limited and uneven. Instead of addressing these enormous challenges and inequality through careful planning, the derg misdiagnosed the problem as Feudal vs peasant and destroyed nearly 4 decades (1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s) of work. For example, to increase student enrollment, it created a three shift condensed education program (the derg failed to build enough schools to meet the population needs), destroying the public school system. Who lost from that policy error? The poor, because the rich (feudals, capitalists etc.) kept sending their kids to private schools because they could afford the tuition. Land the tiller. Great slogan, but it did not liberate the farmer who averages to this day around 1.2 acres/ family, hence just a subsistent farmer still. All nationalized residential properties, probably to the tune of over 90% have not seen any repair in 40 years, all dilapidated. All nationalized commercial properties all left in ruins. Then came Melese, a die hard Marxist Leninist, hater of everything Ethiopian, misdiagnosed the problem and also perhaps intentionally divided the already fragile nation along ethnic lines. The end result of that madness engulfed the very innocent people Meles thought could benefit at the expense of others. Then comes Mr. Abiy, on whom the hope and rebirth of a nation was entrusted and given. Hours and hours of non stop talk, evasions, three years of turmoil, deaths, war, displacements in the millions, a mere rearrangement of pawns for power grab, then boom 95% – 100% of local and regional seats hegemony by one PP. Abiy, the man who mocked EPRDF for claiming to have won 97% of seats, has “brilliantly and courageously” democratized the nation by allowing 11 seats in parliament for the opposition. And hey at the local level, that is not even necessary, they don’t need a seat at all. They can hear about it from PP. One thing his excellency needs in the new parliament is binoculars so he can see the 11 in the sea of 426, just another day, just another rubber stamp parliament.

  • To my understanding, rightly or wrongly, the kernel of this article could be put to the second last paragraph: ….. the buffer that separates the agent of action from its consequences,…… There are flux of ideologies, generation rifts, classes, and urban-rural divide, in every part of our planet;they are not endemic to us Ethiopians alone. The 1970th Derg era,the transfer of land to the peasantry,had not changed the lives of peasants, nor the confiscation of urban housing brought much relief to the poverty of the urbanites. The intelligentsia and the elites by extension the youth and others were caught up in madness of a fantasy world.The result was more poverty, misery, and execution of youth in hundred of thousands.Then came Melesse with his comrades with the fervour of new dawn of justice, equality and prosperity.In a few years time they became absolute dictators pillaging massively the country’s resources.Now is the time of Abiy and his cronies with myriads of problems and ethnic strifes;the trajectory is not any better than the previous governments perhaps worse. The underlying factor with all these governments was and is and will be:” only Me, to hell with you.” Now the country as a whole is afflicted with ethnic madness brought into existence mainly by the intelligentsia, activists and the political party elites. And the cure for this madness is time and experience.It could be said that Education could be destructive if you don’t know how to handle it.

  • Great article, finally the urban vs rural gulf in infrastructure, living amenities and basic public services that has been the root cause of inequalities among many peoples in many nations in the world, and in particular in Ethiopia has been highlighted. The 1974 Ethiopian revolution was framed as landowners vs tillers, feudal vs peasants, ruling class vs lower class, capitalist vs proletariat etc. What was the glaring inequality misdiagnosed by that generation of revolutionary Marxist’s and Leninist’s was the uneven development of rural Ethiopia when compared to metropolitan Ethiopia. It was not by coincidence that Dire Dawa was relatively more developed than Debre Markos or Debre Brehan. In Addis, there were quite many affluent people of various ethnic classification swhether Eritrean, Amhara, Oromo, Gurage and so on. What would have been the course of Ethiopia if the misdiagnosis had been redirected to address the urban vs rural structural dilemma of then Ethiopia? Would the derg have even surfaced under those volatile and violent circumstances? Would the following three decades of ethnic federalism that burgeoned after the demise of the derg i.e. the Meles era have ensued? Now the much talked about election is over and the results from a purely statistics perspective look so lope sided with something like 90-95% capture of local and regional seats by the ruling party, how will it be possible for Mr. Abiy Ahmed and his party, and followers, and opponents to justify three years of mass displacement, regional wars, extra judicial killings and flames of ethnic divisions as progress in the right direction? Once the fully tabulated results are analyzed, the credibility and statistical possibility of such an outcome will be an albatross that Mr.Abiy Ahmed wear 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every year he sits as PM, for he has been mocking and ridiculing the TPLF that has done the same in the last 30 years.

  • An elucidating insight worthy of EI’s stature, albeit the author’s caution to assume any position may have rendered the piece be a neuter.
    Contrary to the accusation of its “contradiction at heart”, revolutionary democracy (less an ideology and more an umbrella program) aimed to help a group of ethnically constituted parties, assembled as a front, transform societies they were supposed to lead ( not collectively rob, as they all equitably did) from an agrarian, rural, set of people trapped in poverty and ethnic strife, to an industrialized, urban, middle-income, unitary socio-economic political entity.
    Some thing like a nation-state with a place of significance in the world.
    Even the article, notwithstanding its cling to neutrality, could not help but shed some light on the undercurrents defining the struggle between the modernizers and the traditionalists. The former surreally unaware of their follies, the latter blatantly proud of them.
    In any case, it has been a while since EI posted a piece of such quality.

  • I understand the idea of removing Ethiopia and its history and forming a new narative is the brain child of politicians. Questioning the history of christianity and Geez and Amharic and even the very foundation of Ethiopia and its independence and struggle both during the Scramble for Africa and WWII occupation of the Italians. Unfortunately, indirectly a whole population is working to undo these history. The destruction of churches and bibles and the targeting of priests and monks in Tigray in the past 8 months is all tied to this agenda

  • So true. Besides the undercurrents of class, flued ideology, urban versus rural and generational gap factors that uunderlie the ethnic divisions, there are also regionalism and communal lifestyle issues such as mainly nomadic regions against farming communities or highland/central regions versus lowland /periphery regions in terms of inequitable resounces and power sharing and other developmental issues. Even within the intra-regional ethnicity entities there exists historic disagreements on many issues For example the amhara in Wolo versus the Showans or Welga Oroma versus Showans have this fundamentals disagreement even though they project a convient and transient ethnic solidity among.

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