Ethiopia: Beyond ethnic federalism
The system designed to fuse an unwieldy nation together is now tearing it apart.
When the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ruling coalition established the system of ethnic federalism after coming to power in 1991, it served a clear purpose. Following the end of the war, the post-conflict government led by Meles Zenawi needed to balance the demands of over 90 ethnic groups, many of which were organised into armed nationalist movements. Ethnic federalism, which divided Ethiopia into nine semi-autonomous states (and eventually two multi-ethnic cities), granted larger ethnic groups a greater degree of self-governance and offered recognition and reduced levels of autonomy to many smaller groups.
Over two decades on, however, the system once designed to fuse together an unwieldy nation is now tearing it apart. It has sown political dysfunction as ordinary tasks of governance have turned into sites of ethnic competition and conflict. The delineation of administrative boundaries, the allocation of state resources, the organisation of a now twice-postponed census, and plans for a general election in May 2020 are all fraught with tension. Even the use of Amharic, Ethiopia’s lingua franca and the language of the federal government, which has allowed the vast and diverse country to communicate, is contested.
These tensions have intensified under the liberalising reforms of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed since he took office in April 2018. With the press enjoying greater protections, political prisoners being released, and civil society able to organise more freely, several ethnic grievances have come to the fore. Relations have also become further strained among Ethiopia’s three most dominant groups: the Amhara, Oromo, and Tigray. As the EPRDF has loosened its tight control, new opportunities have emerged for regional political leaders to fan the flames of ethnic strife.
It was the widespread protests that began in 2015 among the Oromo people — who have long complained of political exclusion — that culminated in Abiy becoming prime minister. And since his ascension to power, there have been harbingers of national disintegration. This is most notable in the surge of interethnic violence and the vote to become a regional state by Sidama Zone — the administrative territory of a large group in the multi-ethnic Southern Nationalities, Nations, and People’s Region (SNNPR). There was an alleged attempted regional coup in June 2019, while there have been widespread evictions and expulsions, with more than half a million people from West Guji and Gedeo zones fleeing their homes in Oromia and SNNPR in 2018 alone. In Abiy’s home state of Oromia, there has been a resumption of deadly protests recently.
These are not isolated and unexpected crises. Rather, they are logical outcomes of a system based on competing ethno-nationalisms that rewards regional homogeneity and increases the salience of ethnic identity.
The end of ethnic federalism
It is therefore time to begin a process of incremental reform with the long-term aim of dismantling the entire system of ethnic federalism.
At the moment, most people are governed as members of ethnic groups first and foremost, rather than as Ethiopians. This is because the country’s regional states (known as kilils in Amharic) were designed to contain populations based on their ethnicity and language. Five regions are dominated by just one group: 91% of the population in Amhara Region are Amhara; 90% in Afar Region are Afar; 97% in Tigray are Tigrayan; 96% in Somali region are Somali; and 88% in Oromia are Oromo, according to the 2007 census. The other four contain many minorities. In Harari Region, less than 10% are Harari; the populations of Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz and SNNPR are all more diverse.
If the constitutional order was reconfigured so that Ethiopia’s regions were instead defined according to geographic features or other administrative criteria, the hope is that citizens’ sense of belonging as Ethiopians would be foregrounded. By delinking ethnicity and territory, state boundaries could allow for the formation of regional identities that cut across — rather than reinforce — ethnic divides. It would also require local and national politicians to represent multi-ethnic constituents.
One critical task in this ambitious endeavour is to amend the constitution. Article 47, which allows any ethnic groups to form its own regional state subject to a request and referendum, should be changed to put in greater barriers to demands for autonomy. Article 39, which asserts that “Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession”, needs to be removed entirely. More broadly, Ethiopia’s constitution would have to be rebalanced to centre civil and human rights over ethnic self-determination and prioritise individual over group rights.
A shift to a territorial system would not require the creation of a new map overnight. Instead, it could involve a process of examination into how existing states could be broken up, redrawn, or even renamed based on criteria that is not exclusively ethnic. This would not solve all the country’s problems. Ethnic rivalries would persist among the Tigray (who have strong ties to the military), the Amhara (who ruled Ethiopia for much of its history) and the Oromo (the country’s most populous group).
A move to a territorial system risks being highly destabilising and threatens to spark greater intercommunal conflict in the short term. However, there are few good alternatives. Sticking with the current ethnic arrangement could have even more disastrous consequences. Elections have little chance of being more than an ethnic head count, which from political scientist Donald Horowitz’s well-known work, is a recipe for ethnic conflict. More importantly, ethnic subdivision has no natural end point as revealed by Ethiopia’s neighbours South Sudan and Somalia.
Another danger is that limiting ethnicity-based rights could increase feelings of marginalisation among the many smaller groups who flourished under ethnic federalism. This could be mitigated as the replacement of ethnicity with geography as the organising principle of national politics could still allow space for multi-culturalist policies locally. Measures could be taken to preserve the rights of ethnic groups to conduct local politics and education in regional languages.
Nonetheless, along with reconceptualising states as multi-ethnic entities, it will also be necessary to embark on other strategies to strengthen social and political bonds that cross groups. There is an opportunity with the ongoing merger of the three participating regional parties in the EPRDF coalition with the five other regional ruling parties. The result is to be a single encompassing party, called Prosperity Party, centred on Abiy’s new vision of Ethiopian politics. This step opens up a possibility to move away from the EPRDF’s history of ethnic patronage and exclusion.
There is also a need to forge a national identity that is distinctly Ethiopian. Abiy, along with regional leaders, could shift national dialogue away from particularistic histories and demands. This process of historical synthesis could also be done in schools and by the media, whereby ethnic groups’ diverse contributions would be reframed as part of an inclusive national heritage. There are many places to start. Ethiopia is rich in history and culture: it is the only African nation never to be colonised, possesses unique scripts and literature, indigenous practices of democracy, and a long tradition of religious pluralism. These could be the building blocks for a shared story.
A long-term vision
Leaving behind ethnic federalism and its problems will not be easy. Since the system was put in place, it has hardened group identities and nurtured an ethnic mobilisation set in motion by student movements in late-1960s. The process for changing the constitution is also complicated and requires near consensus. It therefore is inevitable that ethnicity will continue to be a major force in Ethiopian society and politics for years to come. To cultivate change in the long-term may even require many steps backwards and concessions to groups already mobilised — such as in the addition of a new Sidama state and elevation of Afaan Oromoo to a working language of the federal government — with a view towards diminishing the grounds for future claims.
Still, there is cause for hope. While Prime Minister Abiy is unlikely to completely abolish the system that brought him to power and therefore alienate his largely pro-ethnic federalism Oromo political base, he is committed to reinforcing national unity. His new book, Medemer, expounds this political mission of “togetherness” or “synergy” explicitly. In it, he argues that the values of integration and unity should be added to, without undermining, ethnic sovereignty. His recently awarded Nobel Peace Prize may also lend him the legitimacy he needs to transform Ethiopian politics.
Most importantly, Abiy’s background makes him particularly well-placed to drive change. He has multiculturalist and progressive leanings, while his own background as the son of an Orthodox Christian Amhara and Muslim Oromo serves as a symbol of cross-ethnic identity. As his personal biography shows, Ethiopia has always been a mixed country and its regions have never — even today — been mono-ethnic.
While moving away from ethnic federalism will be a long process, the government can start by targeting low-hanging fruit. The first step may be the merger of EPRDF into one inclusive party. Then, the recently established Administrative Boundaries and Identity Issues Commission Establishment could make recommendations on where to begin reform away from ethnicity-based federal units.
Political leaders can start shaping political dialogue by extolling the civic values of liberty, tolerance and transparency over ethnic identity. Meanwhile, the strengthening political opposition, social media figures and activists, and the diaspora who influential in media could use their respective platforms to expand the citizenry’s imagination as to what an inclusive Ethiopian polity could look like.
Ethiopia deserves a better political system. Ethnic federalism is inherently flawed and incompatible with democracy as it drags most political and economic debates down to the level of ethnicity. Ethiopians, like all people, have concerns and values that reach far beyond this limited category. It will not be easy or quick, and it will yet require much more debate and vision, but there is an urgent need for progress towards a new cosmopolitan Ethiopian identity and politics.
This article is published in collaboration with Ethiopia Insight.