Viewpoint

To achieve sustainable peace in Ethiopia, ethnic federalism must be replaced 

An enduring political solution to the Amhara-Tigray land dispute does not exist in the system that created it.

Despite the indefinite humanitarian truce extended by the Ethiopian government to allow the flow of aid into Tigray and the subsequent public commitment by Tigray’s regional authorities to observe the ceasefire, it is unlikely that the truce will turn into an enduring peace accord between the warring parties.

This is because any sustainable deal requires an agreement on the fate of the contested areas between Amhara and Tigray regions. These territories—which include Welkait, Tegede (Tsegede), Telemt (Tselemti), and Humera districts—were incorporated into Tigray from Gonder (Begemeder), a predominantly Amhara province, without a referendum, following the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) 1991 state capture and the adoption of ethnic federalism in 1995.

The TPLF lost control of these fertile, sesame-growing areas to federal and Amhara forces soon after the Ethiopian civil war broke out in November 2020, after Tigray regional forces launched an attack against the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces in Tigray and took control of the bases and weapons.

The disputed territories are currently under the de facto administration of the Amhara regional government, although the federal government has not formally approved the incorporation of the areas into the region.

While this land dispute is not the underlying cause of the conflict, resolving it is an absolute necessity for ending the Ethiopian civil war. Nevertheless, the political, military, and geopolitical significance of the area make it very hard to strike a compromise.

There are, of course, other obstacles in the way of a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

These include the designation of  TPLF as a terrorist organization by the Ethiopian parliament, the criminal charges filed against Tigray’s leadership, the resumption of basic services to Tigray, the limited aid flow to the region, the conditions under which the TPLF will be allowed to participate in the planned national dialogue, the scope and extent of cooperation with an independent investigation into alleged atrocities, and Tigray forces’ military operations in neighboring Afar and Amhara regions.

However, none of these are close to the challenge posed by the decades-old dispute between the Amhara and Tigray regions.

Military significance  

For Tigray forces, regaining control of the disputed territories, which border Sudan, is critical as they offer the only currently viable passage to import weapons and other supplies, without which they will struggle to sustain a protracted war with the federal government and thus faces the prospect of a total, irredeemable military defeat.

For Abiy’s administration, the TPLF administration gaining an external supply of weapons poses a mortal danger since it has no guarantee that they won’t make another attempt to march to the capital and remove it.

After all, the disputed territories were under their control when Tigray forces attacked federal army bases in the region. Hence, recovering the territories does not eliminate the possibility of another attempt by Tigray forces and their allies to remove Abiy’s government once reliable access to weapons is secured.

Geopolitical realities

In light of such worries, even if the federal government agrees to restore administrative control of the disputed territories to the TPLF administration, it will demand full control of the international border with Sudan.

As Sudan is at loggerheads with Ethiopia as a result of the Al Fashaga border dispute—which the Sudanese military has been occupying after the Ethiopian civil war broke out—and over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, it may have the incentive to help Tigray forces.

In addition, there is the threat posed by Egypt.

As a protracted conflict would force Ethiopia to allocate significant resources to its war efforts, ensuring further delay in the completion of the Blue Nile dam, the Ethiopian government is plausibly fearful that Egypt may provide weapons and other supplies to Tigray via the Sudanese border.

Unfettered access to weapons and supplies for the TPLF via the Sudanese border also poses an existential threat to the Eritrean government, as the latter has publicly vowed to chase their arch-enemy to the capital, Asmara.

Internal politics

However, the strongest opposition to any peace deal that saw the return of the strategic area to Tigray will come from Amhara’s government.

Amhara authorities view the area as historically Amhara land, where the Tekeze river has long served as a natural boundary between the two regions. In addition, they recognize that the Ethiopian constitution allows Tigray to secede from the federation, which, if pursued, means that the disputed areas will be controlled by a sovereign national government.

The federal approach to resolving the issue, as well as other similar disputes in the country, was to set up a border commission tasked to make recommendations to the Prime Minister’s Office and the House of Federation, the parliament’s upper chamber vested with the authority to adjudicate disputes between regional states.

This approach, however, is unlikely to resolve the discord.

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First, the border commission will very likely recommend a referendum to be held to determine the fate of the areas. But both regional states accuse each other of systemic cleansing of their main ethnic group and are unlikely to agree on the terms of the referendum, including the thorny issue of resettling those expelled and whether the resettled will participate in the referendum—and not only those expelled during the current conflict, but also during the nearly three decades of TPLF administration.

There is, for instance, no consensus between the two regions on the ethnic composition of the area before the TPLF entered the area in the early 1980s and the number of civilians killed and displaced since then.

Second, a significant percentage of the population in Amhara rejects the current constitution that the TPLF-dominated government introduced in 1995. Their view is that the constitution is TPLF’s political program imposed against their will.

Third, even if a consensus is reached on the legitimacy of the constitution, there will not be an agreement on the mechanism to adjudicate the border dispute. For instance, there is no clarity on whether current demography or historical demographic patterns are legally relevant in the adjudicating process.

Another complicating factor is the lack of clarity regarding the overriding organizing principle of the Ethiopian federation. Although the prevailing ethno-linguistic settlement pattern is said to be the main principle, that’s not always the case in practice.

For instance, despite the Harari region being majority Oromo, it was not incorporated into the Oromia region, which underscores the fact that historical territorial claims by an ethnic group could, at times, trump existing ethnic composition of a territory as organizing principle of the federation.

Therefore, although the dominant principle by which states are organized in the Ethiopian federation is ethnicity, it is not clear if current demography supersedes historical territorial claim by an ethnic group in determining the administrative boundaries of a given territory or state.

Ethnic federalism

A peculiar feature of the Ethiopia constitution is that sovereignty lies entirely with the ethnic groups, which the constitution calls “nations, nationalities, and people”, and not the federal state formed by the Ethiopian people. The Ethiopian constitution, which refers to itself as an expression of the sovereignty of ethnic groups, presupposes the existence of sovereign groups who came together to form the Ethiopian federation.

But, neither Tigray nor Amhara existed as sovereign entities prior to the federal era.

In fact, prior to 1991, Ethiopia was a unitary state, Tigray being one of the provinces—a province that did not include the currently disputed areas.

By the same token, there was no Amhara region prior to 1991 either. There were the provinces of Gonder (Begemder)—which included the disputed areas—Wello, Gojjam, and Shewa.

It is then not clear if the constitution can resolve the dispute between the supposedly “sovereign nations” who theoretically predate it but historically never existed in their current form.

Hence, it is hard to derive a lasting political solution to the dispute, and the civil war, from the very system that created it by organizing Ethiopia along ethnic lines, inevitably pitting groups against each other for resources and power and allowing secession for regions that have no mutually agreed borders.

Therefore, ending the civil war and preventing the occurrence of similar conflicts in the future requires bold leadership to move the country away from ethnic federalism in order to create a federal system where minority rights are protected and citizens enjoy the same rights in all regional states they reside in.

Such measures would effectively render the administrative borders irrelevant in determining the economic and political rights Ethiopian citizens enjoy.

The establishment of the National Dialogue Commission—which the government announced earlier this year with the stated goal of resolving differences on “the most fundamental national issues” among Ethiopians—offers an ideal opportunity to reach a consensus on such a system and build the foundation to set Ethiopia on a trajectory towards sustainable peace, democracy, and prosperity.

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Main photo: Members of Amhara Special Force in Humera; 1 July 2021; REUTERS.

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About the author

Kassahun Melesse

Kassahun is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Economics at Oregon State University. Some of his writings on the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia were published in Foreign Policy and Al Jazeera.

14 Comments

  • “ …there is no clarity on whether current demography or historical demographic patterns are legally relevant in the adjudicating process.”

  • Ethnic federalism was a political solution of necessity, it was put in place in response to a widespread uprising of identity politics. At that time Eritrea opted for secession, while the others in the struggle accepted a federal order that acknowledges regional identity and self-rule within a national framework. This was the overall political settlement that made ethnic federalism both genuine and pragmatic. Now for example, it is very unlikely that Oromos would give up the name Oromia region and change the name to Central region. Or, that Somalis would renounce the name Somali region and change the name to Eastern region.

  • Hello Mr Kassahun
    You raised interesting idea.Thank you
    I need consultations.please write me.Thanks

  • Hello Mr Laurence
    You raised interesting idea.Thank you
    I need consultations.please write me.Thanks

  • The question should be who imposed the current regions? The answer two regional ethnic parties TPLF/OLF backed by Western Powers, who had ulterior motif. No studies conducted, no referendum just a committe created by the victors led by Abiyu Galataa, deputy Lencho Lataa of OLF & Meles/Tewelde etc of TPLF imposed whatever they pleased. Had they conducted referendum then the majority would reject it, the idea was we impose what we like preach and raise another generation that believes it as the truth.

    Lencho admitted it was all done by some ethnic studies left by Derg, nothing more. Small zones/Awurajas like Benishangul, Gambella, Harar became regions while huge regions where millions live at that existed for centuries like Gojjam, Gondar, Wallaga, Arsi, Sidama, Kefa etc became zones. Also what was done to Wolkait by military conquest and all that happened after did unspeakable damage to the relations between Gondar & Tigrae, which married lived side by side for centuries. Ras Sehul Mikael ruled Gondar, Dej Wubae ruled Tigrae. Also Shewa, a region a thousand years old mostly multiethnic 20 million living in it was deliberately cut into four pieces wiped off the map, deep hatred of TPLF, a cultural genocide.

    All one should ask, if we create an Afar, Amhara, Somali, Harari etc Regions, where is Tigrae/Tegaru Region, where is Oromo Region? But TPLF worshipped the word Tigray, so the provincial name remained. OLF wanted Oromia, that’s why we have Oromia, not Amharia or Afaria.

    Thirty years ago Ethiopians did not butcher, evict, & torment each other by ethnic/religion. They did not burn Mosques and Churches, this is all a direct result of the bantustan imposed by these two regional parties. No wonder today they are also the most vocal when it comes, forget removing, even adjusting or improving the evil system they imposed.

    • You absolutely right. The last 30 years, our country breeds tens of millions of
      young people who badly hate their own country. This makes me to believe that the suffering of Ethiopia no where to stop in the near future.

  • This is an example of a conclusion looking for an argument. Check out this author’s previous articles and you will see he is not a neutral observer.

  • With all due respect for the effort, I beg to differ. I believe that the federal constitution has little or nothing to do in resolving the Welkait-Tsegede ethnic identity conflict issue and the likes . Also , reversing federal constitution single-handedly by few bureaucrats hand picked and appointed by regime from single party without nation-wide referendum and consensus would be tantamount to an illegal act and constitutional travesty at minimum. First, the federal constitution has quasi-ethnic appearance on surface based on wide linguistic and geographic settlement pattern of few major and politically assertive groups . but not purely on ethnic identity dimension perse as some portray it. Ethiopia has more than 80 ethnic groups and if it was a simple ethnic scheme, everone of them would have its own state, which is impossibity at best . Secondly, there is no single phrase or clause in the constitution that refers to existence of Ethnic Federslism in Ethiopia. It is pure assumption and negative propanda concocted by centeralists forces and old-timers to give and convey bad name. Third, it was born out of the dismal failure of centralization systems, protracted struggle and with participation of many opposition groups that saw it as the only way out of decentralization morass and to better democratizatin process. If the former EPRDF/EPLF negated or abused those intentions for myopic sighted and selfish political interest , the mere existence of federal constitution name, or its lack, thereof, is not at fault. Fourth, the remedy to the weakness of the federalism system
    is not to dismantle it on the fly, The remedy to it such as the protection of individual and groups rights , to curb the intra- and inter-group violence within or without regions lies with the responsibility of the regions to enforce the existing laws in the book, on the one hand, and lack of enforcing mechanism in place and/or other improvements of the federal government on the existing federal laws and rules, on the other hand. Finally, to solve the issue of contested Walkeit territory issue, why it has to go side or the other ? Sure, both Amhars and Tigaru groups claim to has historical of ethnic and territory ownership and there is an amble evidence that both groups coexstisted there for centuries. Why not the region and its inhabitants, including both groups who follow similar faith, mixed in marriage wise and has close culture, make up separate and inclusive region of their own? Why not the federal government take the initiave and make it happen ? After all, the said territory is still under the federal jurisdiction

  • With all due respect for the effort, I beg to differ. I believe that the federal constitution has little or nothing to do in resolving the Welkait-Tsegede ethnic identity conflict issue the likes . Also , reversing federal constitution single-handedly by few bureaucrats hand picked and appointed by regime from single party without nation-wide referendum and consensus would be tantamount to an illegal act and constitutional travesty at minimum. First, the federal constitution is quasi-ethnic appearance based on wide linguistic and geographic settlement pattern of few major and politically assertive groups . but not purely on ethnic identity dimension perse as some portray it. Ethiopia has more than 80 ethnic groups and if it was simple ethnic scheme, everone of them would have its own state, which is impossibity at best . Secondly, there is no single phrase or clause in the constitution that refers to existence of Ethnic Federslism in Ethiopia .It is pure assumption and negative propanda concocted by centeralists forces and old-timers to convey bad name. Third, it was born out of the dismal failure of centralization systems, protracted struggle and with participatin of many opposition groups that saw it as the only way out of decentralization morass and to better democratizatin process. If the former EPRDF/EPLF negated or abused those intentions for myopic sighted and selfish political interest , the mere existence of federal constitution or its lack, thereof, is not at fault. Fourth, the remedy to the weakness of the federalism system
    is not to dismantle it on the fly, The remedy to it such as the protection of individual and groups rights , curb the intra- and inter-group violence within or without regions lies with the responsibility of the regions to enforce the existing laws in the book, on the one hand, and lack of enforcing mechanism in place and/or other improvements of the federal government the existing federal laws and rules, on the other hand. Finally, to solve the contestes Walkeit issue, why it has to go side or the other ? Sure, both Amhars and Tigaru groups claim to historical of ethnic and territory ownership and there is an amble evidence that both groups coexstisted there for centuries. Why not the region and its inhabitants, including both groups who follow similar faith and close culture, make up separate and inclusive region of their own? Why the feligideral government take the initiave and make it happen ? After all, the said territory is still under federal jurisdiction.

  • The Federal System addressed old rights related grievances and it is only the Amara who are opposed to it. Federal system is a linguistic based groupings of a people. Yes, it is not a perfect system as it fails to account the rights of 80 plus tribal peoples. It also assumes a clear cut boundaries based on language when there are millions of mixed linguistic heritage. The Oromo, the majority group have appreciated the system for example for their self Determination right. Much room exists to improve the system but there is no going back to a centralized age old system

  • Good read. Worth mentioning however that the TPLF unconstitutionally and without a doubt illegally annexed Welkait-Tegede-Telimt-Humera regions as well as other areas in N. Wollo. So a constitutionally recognized or border commission led solution is somehow unrealistic. Next, you mentioned that the populate demographic is contested by both sides (Tigray & Amhara I suppose). There is nothing to contest when the land itself is finally available to get exact and actual data. We don’t have to leave it to he said, she said when the population and demographic count can be directly investigated right now. There is without a doubt a majority (by far) Amhara population, piling evidence of Amharas who have been killed and disappeared over the years, witnesses and survivors of TPLF brutality and attempts to wipe out the Amhara ethnic group as well as cultural ties by enforcing Tigrinya and removing people who maintain Amharic as a language, or in any way encouraged Amhara culture. The fact that the Welkait-Tegede area is Amhara land is not a hypothetical question, it’s in the music, the stories, the testimonies, the history, the law records, the census data, buried under the soil, and in visible sight. There are people in Welkait-Tegede who were around in 1991 who are still here today. In some instances, both victim and villain are alive. This is not a dispute of historical facts it’s a matter of willingness to accept truth or engage in bureaucratic gymnastics.

  • There will be no peace in Ethiopia and the region as long as TPLF keeps crying like a baby to get what they does not deserve. The boundary of Tigray is Tekezie river and the boundary of Gojjam is Abay river. The constitution imposed by TPLF and OLF should be torn down like the Berlin wall since it is meant to systematically harm the Amharas who are considered as enemy both by TPLF and OLF and systematically benefit TPLF and OLF realize their dream of independent Tigray and Oromia respectively and this is only possible when the Amharas are weakend and Ethiopia disintegrated like Yugoslavia. Say NO to ethnic federalism/ethnic cleansing and tear down the constitution. Those who committed genocide on Wolqaitis and other criminals should face justice and all looted money and property should be nationalized/privatized and be used to finish national projects for the benefit of all Ethiopians.

  • Good read and well detailed, but i feel to complement and maybe share a slightly different view on some of the points raised.

    1. The Amhara-Tigray land-related issues have nothing to do with Ethnical staged Constitution, it is purely the result of bullying by tplf while in power, it is the tplf belligerence
    2. The lands you mentioned are under the Ethiopian hands right now, even in the wildest assumption the tplf force Tigray to independence, there is zero chance for any international body to come. Only if again in the wildest assumptions having liberated Tigray then tplf wages war as independent Tigray with Ethiopia to capture the land and end up in some sort of treaty (Like once was in Bademe).
    3. Where the staged ethnic/tribal federalism is responsible is where the millions of IDPs in their own land they call home and those savagely murdered by savage gangs, the economic paralysis, inability to utilize talent and resource, loss of national identity and responsibility, abuse by few opportunist elites to distort history as if no one owns or protects the pride historical legacies of Ethiopia that every Ethiopian paid in blood
    4. And finally, you treated tplf and their constitution as an American constitution that has checks and balances and originated from collective consensus as a fair rule of the game that everyone abides by. No, the constitution and all that was done was a gimmick, staged to fool the outside onlookers. The fact is these people are incapable of being normal citizen let alone policymakers, these are shameless savage criminals who has no value or respect, they are cone artists who go to a distance murdering, lying, and destroying inhumanly to get what they want. They are incapable of living under the rule of law let alone set one and all your assumptions are based on such criminals hence don’t hold your breath expecting them to live by any form of rules or agreement.

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