Ethiopia’s multinational federalism ruins Isaias’ assimilationist scheme

Tigrayan nationalism is a barrier to the creation of an Eritrean identity.

In an interview with the Eritrean state-owned television network on 8 January, President Isaias Afwerki critiqued the Ethiopian constitution by saying it was designed to institutionalize ethnic identity, and that the federal system it prescribed is the source of all problems in Ethiopia.

These opinions are not new. In many of his interviews, Isaias has passionately reiterated that Ethiopia should engage in a centralized nation-building project and abandon ethnic federalism.

However, he is not saying this out of concern for the welfare of Ethiopia. Rather, the reason for his obsession with this topic is that Eritrean nation-building is hampered by the presence of a Tigrayan identity that transcends the current state boundaries.


All of the countries in the Horn of Africa were created during European colonialism in the 19th century and have cross-boundary ethnic groups. For instance, Oromos live in Ethiopia and Kenya; Afar in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti; Somalis in Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia; and Nuer in Ethiopia and South Sudan.

Similarly, Tigrayan people live in Ethiopia’s Tigray region as well as in Eritrea. In the late 19th century, Tigrinya speakers were divided and incorporated into the Italian colony of Eritrea and the Shewan-led kingdom of Ethiopia. They are an overwhelming majority in Eritrea, mainly occupying the country’s highland areas.

Isaias has been trying to construct a singular, Eritrean national identity from the nine ethnic groups in Eritrea. His nation-building project thus requires that the identity of the Tigrinya-speaking people of Eritrea be eliminated and that a new, Eritrean identity is cultivated.

However, the Tigray nation is relatively homogenous, with no clan structures and with deep social trust. The people on both sides of the border share the same language, religion, history, and territory.

Even many of the current leaders of the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) party, including Isaias, are either from Tigray or have parents from Tigray.

Conversely, many top Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leaders, including the late Meles Zenawi, have parents from present-day Eritrea.

It is thus almost impossible to separate the Tigray nation into Eritrean and Ethiopian camps. Accordingly, Isaias is of the opinion that his nation-building project can’t easily be finalized without Ethiopia adopting the same approach.

Assimilationist need

Isaias has long understood that without Tigray’s complete assimilation into Ethiopia, Tigrayans in Eritrea would not give up their identity, and this would stymie the project of constructing a common Eritrean identity.

Accordingly, for his project to be successful, the Ethiopian federal arrangement that protects and promotes group identities should be abolished and the assimilationist nation-building project needs to be revitalized.

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Once Tigray is sufficiently assimilated into Ethiopia, his hope is that the national consciousness of Tigrinya speakers in Eritrea will weaken, which will help in realizing his project.

This demonstrates that the core reason for the rivalry between Isaias and the TPLF was the fact that the latter defended ethnic federalism.

TPLF accommodation

TPLF’s original objective was to establish Tigray as an independent nation-state. But, these ambitions evolved over time.

The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) was by far the most powerful rebel group fighting the Derg regime. TPLF thus sought support from EPLF and compromised its original objective of securing Tigray’s independence.

According to Isaias, the alliance made TPLF shift its goals. TPLF half-heartedly changed its program from establishing a republic of Tigray into staying in a federated Ethiopia.

Isaias’ expectation during the immediate post-Derg era was that TPLF would rule Ethiopia as a unitary state, or at least not as an ethnic federation.

But, to his displeasure, the 1995 constitution not only adopted a multi-national federal system but even gave the nations, nationalities, and peoples of Ethiopia a self-determination right that included a constitutional right to secede.

In an interview, he said, “Not just Article 39, but the whole spirit [of the constitution] is not one that you would crave for nation-building….In my reading, it is not good for the people of Ethiopia or any other people.”

Eritrean meddling

Isaias also thinks that Eritrea is justified in meddling in Ethiopia’s affairs for national security reasons.

In the same interview, he said, “We can’t say [Ethiopia’s domestic] affairs are their own. What we saw during the past sixty or eighty years over three generations is that [our affairs] are directly related to the situation in Ethiopia. We can live in peace, brotherhood, collaboration, and respect [with Ethiopians]. But, first, the stability of Ethiopia needs to be determined.”

He also revealed his disappointment with the Ethiopian government pulling out its armed forces from most of Tigray last June, while also implying that Eritrea could continue its military intervention in Ethiopia with greater intensity.

Autonomy struggle

Although Isaias accuses TPLF of introducing a toxic and divisive system by institutionalizing multinationalism and self-determination, TPLF was partly dethroned in 2018 because it violated the constitution and installed a de facto centralized party-state system that undermined groups’ self-determination rights.

The main reason behind historic strife in Ethiopia has been the question of self-determination, as ethnic groups struggled to achieve self-governance and socio-economic justice.

Since Ethiopia’s formation as a modern state, there have been recurrent conflicts between two camps: those who have wanted to dominate and assimilate others, and those who have resisted that and struggled for independence.

Nationality and self-determination questions have been at the heart of every war and rebellion since Ethiopia’s expansion in the late 19th century. The social forces behind the movements that removed the imperial, military, and TPLF-led regimes centered on such questions.

At the heart of the Qeerroo movement that helped bring down the EPRDF, for instance, were the historical and modern-day cultural suppression, economic exploitation, and political oppression of the Oromo that included the denial of genuine self-administration.

Failed unity

A nation-building project via centralization has repeatedly failed in Ethiopia.

The imperial era centralization project failed when the Derg took power in 1974. The Derg continued the project through massive militarization and villagization programs. But this, too, had proven to be a failure by 1991.

The EPRDF’s policies of a centrally managed, highly monopolized economy that trumped regional states’ autonomy proved to be a continuation of the same centralization project.

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Abiy’s similar attempts have led to the current crisis and the failure of the much-anticipated democratization process.

What Ethiopia now needs is a radical devolution where power is given to regional states and lower constituent units. Accordingly, nation-building of the type President Isaias demands is practically impossible in Ethiopia. His prescriptions for Ethiopia are destructive, and, if implemented, the backlash could lead to the federation’s complete disintegration.

Exporting disaster

Although its present-day borders were created by Italian colonialism, Eritrea was one of the oldest and most powerful civilizations in the world during the Aksumite Empire.

It was the cradle of the Ge’ez civilization and the Axumite trading empire across the Red Sea, while Adulis was the trading hub for global merchants.

Despite being an independent Italian colony, Eritrea was denied sovereignty by the United Nations after World War II. At the time, it was in the interest of the US and allied powers that Eritrea was yoked in the name of federation with Ethiopia. The invasions and encroachments made Eritrea’s history full of agony and resilience.

Finally, Eritrea secured independence in 1993 and restored its dignity.

Even after going through a destructive war of independence from Ethiopia between 1961 and 1991, Eritrea had a solid potential for industrialization, in part due to the infrastructure built by the Italians.

Yet, thanks to Isaias’ authoritarianism and nation-building effort that he embarked on a few years after independence, Eritrea has been experiencing a post-independence stagnation. His brutal nation-building scheme has isolated the country from the international community and put its potential to waste. His disastrous policies have created an all-around socio-economic debacle.

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Furthermore, he imposed his totalitarian vision via the inhuman national service program. He underdeveloped Eritrea, seemingly intentionally, and is now trying to export his disastrous policy to Ethiopia.

Sadly, some Ethiopian politicians want to do what Isaias has done and engage in a unitarist, assimilationist program.

But, Eritrea can’t be a role model for diverse Ethiopia, as Eritrea is a de facto nation-state with an overwhelming majority of Tigrinya speakers.

Isaias’ brutal and repressive tactics such as forced conscription have led to an exodus of Eritrean youth, which then, paradoxically, created internal stability. This gives Isaias the upper hand over Eritrea’s unstable neighbors.

Unholy trinity

There are three powers that strive to dominate the Ethiopian center and impose their preferred systems: Isaias, TPLF, and unitarist Ethiopian forces. This trinity poses a threat to the self-determination rights of the nations, nationalities, and peoples of Ethiopia.

Therefore, a balance of power should be put in place to prevent the hegemonic ambitions of Isaias or any one of these three political forces.

The force that can defeat Isaias’ ambition is Tigrayan nationalism. Freedom fighter veterans who served during the armed struggle for independence under the EPLF are now forging such a movement. They are also mobilizing the youth in the diaspora. This movement is already delegitimizing Isaias in the diaspora.

Even the internal political dynamics of Tigray are being shaped by the explosion of Tigrayan nationalism that is challenging any hegemonic ambition that TPLF might have.

Abiy’s government should distance itself from Isaias and mend its relations with the international community. It should also build consensus with federalist political elites within the country, mainly those in Oromia, as this would help in curbing the assimilationist ambitions of the unitarist camp.

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About the author

Hagos Gebreamlak

Hagos is a journalist and political commentator based in Addis Abeba. You can follow him on Twitter @HagosGebreamlak.


  • This article is informative, but makes(at least in my opinion) several errors. One of them being, the belief that Tigrinya speakers in Eritrea A) are “tigrayans” and B) that “Eritrea nation building” is contradictory to the ethnic identity of Tigrinya speakers within Eritrea-wrong. When one argues that “menelik divided the Tigrinya speakers” the burden to confirm the existence of a common ethnic identity and shared polity, between them, prior to colonialism, is required, and I’ve yet to see any proof of it. Certainly, the overwhelming majority of Eritreans proudly identify with their country, as 3 decades of armed resistance and unanimous support for referendum makes this undeniable. But, the popularity of Tigrayan ethno nationalism seems to stop at the very same colonial borders that the EPLF/ELF fought to administer within an independent state. The ambitions of “abay Tigray” are rarely shared by Eritreans, and the early ideological tension between the TPLF and EPLF over what a tigrayan is, and it’s potential boundaries(which incorporated large swaths of Eritrean land) is a clear example of this. Sahos and irobs share a language, but not a common identity. Same goes for Austrians and Germans, or Hutu or Tutsis. It would be ridiculous to argue that an Iraqi, and a Moroccan are the same by virtue of a shared language,(with minimal historical tension amongst each other. Same can’t be said for Tigrinya vs Tigray) yet are unable to understand why Tigray, a region within Ethiopia, Isn’t a locality that Eritreans, even if they speak Tigrinya, identity with, why? The foundation for peace between Eritrea and Tigray is based in mutually respect, more important a respect for Eritreans hard fought borders(even if they were colonially created). Tigrayan insistence of irredentism and the unilateral declaration of the “Tigrayan” identity within Eritrea, even without the consent of most Tigrinya speakers in Eritrea, can at least partially explain the violent tension and current conflict between these 2 groups currently. Peace!

  • Tigreyan elites want split Ethiopia and Eritrea to create Greater Tigray, an Agazi nation in which they have complete ethnic supremacy.
    The movement tasked with this mission is called Agazian . They have offices in Mekele and Tel Aviv.
    Although neither Ethiopia nor Eritrea will allow this to happen, the group’s attempt to instigate ethnic and religious based conflict in the Horn should push Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan to work together to address shared security concerns.
    It’s particularly important to stop smuggling of small arms and terrorists crossing from Sudan into Tigray.
    Keeping tight control of Ethiopia-Sudanese border is very important.

  • In the earlier years Isaias himself was one of the first ethno-nationalists, who concluded that being Eritrean was incompatible with being Ethiopian. So, he joined the war for Eritrea’s secession. And now, for Isaias the secessionist, the original ethno-nationalist, to turn around and pontificate against ethno-federalism is both fraudulent and farcical.

  • Tplf is the worst of all three forces!

    Ethiopia was a an internationally respected power during the “unitary” rule.

    Eritrean tigray speakers are proud Eritreans.

  • This article clearly tells what is the real cause of Ethiopia civil war yesterday and today. Even though Ethiopia is a diverse country who incorporates many tribes and clans , the main conflict in the nation is created when the Tigrinya speakers divided into nation , Tigrinya Ethiopia and Tigrinya Eritrea. This political and socioeconomic turmoil seems continuing until Tigray and Eritrea will be unified as one nation and flourish peace and security to neighboring people.

    • Still it doesn’t make any sense. What about the border that divides other ethnic groups such as the one between ethnic Somali in Ethiopia and Somalia or the ones between Afars in Ethiopia and Afar in Jibouti or Eritrea ? What about the one between Benishagul or Gambela of in Ethiopian versus in Sudan? Or is it one more suggestion or version that smacks on an ethno-political exceptionalism theory from the North? One can’t just cherrpick one single problem and/or solution from a host of solutions and problems for his liking.

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