Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism and Its Discontents

The following is a 45-page report that is issued today by International Crisis Group on ethnic politics in Ethiopia


The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) [a cover organization for tribalist Tigrean People Liberation Front ({www:Woyanne})], led by its chairman and prime minister, Meles Zenawi, has radically reformed Ethiopia’s political system. The regime transformed the hitherto centralised state into the Federal Democratic Republic and also redefined citizenship, politics and identity on ethnic grounds. The intent was to create a more prosperous, just and representative state for all its people. Yet, despite continued economic growth and promised democratization, there is growing discontent with the EPRDF’s ethnically defined state and rigid grip on power and fears of continued inter-ethnic conflict. The international community should take Ethiopia’s governance problems much more seriously and adopt a more principled position towards the government. Without genuine multi-party democracy, the tensions and pressures in Ethiopia’s polities will only grow, greatly increasing the possibility of a violent eruption that would destabilise the country and region.

The endeavour to transform Ethiopia into a federal state is led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which has dominated the coalition of ethno-nationalist parties that is the EPRDF since the removal in 1991 of the Derg, the security services committee that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. The EPRDF quickly institutionalised the TPLF’s policy of people’s rights to self-determination and self-rule. The federal constitution ratified in 1994 defined the country’s structure as a multicultural federation based on ethno-national representation.

The government has created nine ethnic-based regional states and two federally administered city-states. The result is an asymmetrical federation that combines populous regional states like Oromiya and Amhara in the central highlands with sparsely populated and underdeveloped ones like Gambella and Somali. Although the constitution vests all powers not attributed to the federal government in them, the regional states are in fact weak.

The constitution was applauded for its commitment to liberal democracy and respect for political freedoms and human rights. But while the EPRDF promises democracy, it has not accepted that the opposition is qualified to take power via the ballot box and tends to regard the expression of differing views and interests as a form of betrayal. Before 2005, its electoral superiority was ensured by the limited national appeal and outreach of the predominantly ethnically based opposition parties. Divided and disorganised, the reach of those parties rarely went beyond Addis Ababa. When the opposition was able to challenge at local, regional or federal levels, it faced threats, harassment and arrest. With the opportunity in 2005 to take over the Addis Ababa city council in what would have been the first democratic change of a major administration in the country’s history, the opposition withdrew from the political process to protest flaws in the overall election.

The EPRDF did not feel threatened until the 2005 federal and regional elections. The crackdown that year on the opposition demonstrated the extent to which the regime is willing to ignore popular protest and foreign criticism to hold on to power. The 2008 local and by-elections went much more smoothly, in large part because the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) was absorbed with internal and legal squabbles, and several other parties withdrew after their candidates experienced severe registration problems. The next federal and regional elections, scheduled for June 2010, most probably will be much more contentious, as numerous opposition parties are preparing to challenge the EPRDF, which is likely to continue to use its political machine to retain its position.

Despite the EPRDF’s authoritarianism and reluctance to accept genuine multi-party competition, political positions and parties have proliferated in recent years. This process, however, is not driven by democratisation or the inclusion of opposition parties in representative institutions. Rather it is the result of a continuous polarisation of national politics that has sharpened tensions between and within parties and ethnic groups since the mid-1990s. The EPRDF’s ethnic federalism has not dampened conflict, but rather increased competition among groups that vie over land and natural resources, as well as administrative boundaries and government budgets.

Furthermore, ethnic federalism has failed to resolve the “national question”. The EPRDF’s ethnic policy has empowered some groups but has not been accompanied by dialogue and reconciliation. For Amhara and national elites, ethnic federalism impedes a strong, unitary nation-state. For ethno-national rebel groups like the ONLF (Ogaden National Liberation Front; Somalis in the Oga den) and OLF (Oromo Liberation Front; the Oromo), ethnic federalism remains artificial. While the concept has failed to accommodate grievances, it has powerfully promoted ethnic self-awareness among all groups. The international community has ignored or downplayed all these problems. Some donors appear to consider food security more important than democracy in Ethiopia, but they neglect the increased ethnic awareness and tensions created by the regionalisation policy and their potentially explosive consequences. [… click here to read the full report]

18 thoughts on “Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism and Its Discontents

  1. Minale on

    Thank You Elias for posting the report. I enjoyed it like Demise Damitie’s Foot Boll Report. It is a good record and analysis of events and views. The bottom Line of the analysis of the report is:

    “…..But overall it has powerfully promoted ethnic self-awareness among all groups. Although the current federal system may need to be modified, it is unlikely Ethiopia can return to the old unitary state system.”

    This is what I have been trying to let those who are dreaming of unconditional unity. In my email to Prof. Messay, in response to his recent article posted on ER and EMF, I said the following:

    “The challenge to us is that unity has been imposed so far, resulting in mistrust, anger and rebellion. Those who stood against forced unity have paid their wealth, lives and opportunities at least for decades. Moreover, we must realise that the balance of power is continuously shifting and situations are changing. I only recently came out of Ethiopia after more than 20 years of experience through out the country. I have firsthand knowledge of the sentiment of the ordinary Oromos (eastern, southern, central and western part of Ethiopia ) and Ogadenees of today. That is what concerns me more than what OLF or ONLF could do as an armed group. I can say that the hearts of these people are already separated from the rest of the country.

    The challenge is: how can these people trust us if we try to preach unconditional unity with promises of democratic rights? What makes us different from the previous regimes; that imposed unity in the name of modernization? Can we win the confidence of the people? I think that those who are questioning unity have some genuine reasons. However, the fact that they are questioning doesn’t mean that they are against unity. At times it seems that they are talking about strong foundation for genuine unity, like foundations of equality, respect, love, etc.

    Therefore, it would be unwise to be unwilling to negotiate with these people. Confidence building requires time and interaction. We can not build confidence by making strong arguments. We only need to plan for a process (road map) where we can build confidence across ethnic groups and among political groups.”

    Having same view is not a requirement for unity. The requirement for unity is respecting differences. Unity of Ethiopia is questioned by its own citizens for some reasons, reflected in the views of Millions of Ethiopians. It would be unwise to undermine these views by labelling them as the views of few elites or the Western Educated or EPRP educated or other.

    We do not need any condition to work with OLF and ONLF. We do not have time to waste. We are at quarter to five. Even though the report has an advisory to the international community, what can we expect the international community to do without us? The whole problem as well as the solution is in the hearts of all Ethiopians, not in the hands of the international community. The international community could not achieve unity in Somalia, because the Somalis have no respect for each others view and they have been divided in their heart. We can not expect a different thing for Ethiopia. Darkness is coming over Ethiopia as we are promoting hate and disrespect. If things continue for the next few years the way they are today, we will see….

    My disappointment is that people whom I have been expecting to play a role of intermediary, to bring everybody together, keep on building their own different idea and philosophy. What Ethiopia needs is not the best idea. What it needs is the role of wise men (respected Shimagles) able to respect everybody’s view (regardless of ethnicity, ideology, or any other identity) and are able to preach respect to each other.

    May God Save Ethiopia

  2. Oromboona on

    No surprise, Only European colonizers and Abyssinians villify the question of nations in Africa as some thing “ethnic”. None of them dare to call European nations as such. Any ways, we can persuade Abeshas, but we will wait till the Europeans change their negative attitude on nations in Africa. Can they tell me why Germans can be called as a nation and Oromos be an ethny? Enjoy here:

    “Persuading Amhara elites to accept and respect Self-determination

    It is clear that only Amhara elites and few Amharanized elites from other nations are against “ethnic” federalism and self-determination of nations. Genuine “ethnic” federalism is the compromise solution for all nations in the region to live together – achieving both national independence and regional integration. The position of Amhara elites regarding the federalism and self-determination made them to be not suitable to cooperate with the elites of other nations against TPLF regime. Amhara elites do prefer unconditional Ethiopian unity rather than self-determination as a precondition for the possible alliance to be forged between Amhara democratic forces and Oromo freedom fighters. Oromos tend to accept this precondition, only if Amhara elites also accept Oromos’ precondition aka making Afaan Oromo the only working language of the federation instead of Amharinya. Oromo elites make such a demand to make Amhara elites to notice how wrong is their cry for unity with Amharinya as the only federal language. Then, in a common house aka “NEW Ethiopia” they suggest to build, the working language must be only Afaan Oromo. Will they then stay to be pro Ethiopian unity and anti ethnicity, even if Amharinya will be demoted to only local language of Amhara region and if Afaan Oromo will be promoted to be the only working language of the Ethiopian federation? I am sure they will not! In case they will stay further to be pro-Ethiopianity and pro-unity as they seem to believe now, let’s then try this NEW version of Ethiopianity with Afaan Oromo instead of with Amharinya.

    Read more:

    In short, the best instrument to compel Amhara elites so that they accept and respect the compromise solution aka genuine “ethnic” federalism and to make them recognize the right of nations to self-determination is to demote Amharinya to be the local language and promote Afaan Oromo to be the federal language, i.e a transformation of the empire to a NEW Ethiopia with Afaan Oromo as the National Language!”

  3. I agree with Oromboona about the idea of making Oromifaa a national language instead of Amharigna. Any language is as good as another. But it must be preceded by a national dialogue free of unfair pressure. All nations big and small should have a say in this because the change in national medium has a far reaching ramification be it good or bad. Each participating nation must have an equal vote. No more or less than one another. Then a workable plan should be worked out with critical paths identified and well planned for. With a good plan a national can be successfully switched in a matter of 10 years or less. The question is: Can this be achieved under the current politico-economic environment? The answer is resoundingly – No !!!!! There should be peace and genuine trust in the government by the people and participants. These two don’t exist at the moment.

  4. Anonymous on

    The protestant Church, especially the Mekane Yesus Church in Ethiopia, should better mind its own business – preaching the Gospel to the believers and the unbelievers – rather than muddling in the Ethiopian politics.

    For example, Pastor Itefa Gobena was one of those politicians assigned to mediate between Meles Seitanawi (Zenawi) and the OLF (the Oromo Liberation Front). What does he know about the Ethiopian politics, even if he knows, is it his business to preach politics rather than to preach the word of God to his members?

    It is now clear that the main purpose of the Protestant Church in Africa, particularly in Ethiopia, includes politics of the devil plus the Gospels of Jesus Christ even though St. Paul says: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (2nd Corinthians 5:20) In this case, it seems to me that Pastor Itefa has preferred to be the ambassador of Meles Seitanawi or the ambassador of OLF to the ambassador or messenger of Jesus Christ.

    One cannot be a mediator for the devil – Meles Zenawi, who has stolen the Ethiopian money and has not yet paid the Ethiopians a single penny, and the admonition of the prophet Habakkuk is upon him: “Woe to him who piles up stolen goods and makes himself wealthy by extortions.” (2:6)

    Has Pastor Itefa preached to Meles to turn back to God and leave his office or has he told him the blood shed he has been committing for 18 years? If he were the true messenger of God like that courageous prophet Elijah, he would have said something to Meles. The prophet Elijah stood in front of King Ahab, and when Ahab saw Elijah standing in front him, “Ahab said to Elijah, ‘So you have found me, my enemy!’” Elijah answered without fear: ‘I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord’. Ahab had murdered Naboth the Jezreelite and taken Naboth’s vineyard by force. (1st Kings 21:1-27)

    The Mekane Yesus Church has been in Ethiopia for almost more than a century and has helped many Ethiopian Oromo children in educating them here in Ethiopia and sending them abroad for higher education, but it is sad to see this great Church involving itself in pure politics instead of encouraging the Oromo Muslims to have Christ in their lives.

    Pastor Itefa Gobena has missed the opportunity as a mediator to tell Meles Seitanawi the following words according to second Chronicles: “Judge carefully, for with the Lord our God there is no injustice or partiality or bribery.” (19:7) With Meles Zenawi and his wife Azeb Mesfin, we have seen the two evils: injustice or partiality and bribery, and more than these two, we have also seen lies and killings with these two Ethiopian individuals. Therefore, as Ethiopians, we want every clergy, pastor, rabbi, and Imam to be the ambassador of God, not the messenger of evil – Meles Seitanawi.

  5. Assta B. Gettu on


    You can declare self-determination if you want too under a united Ethiopia; however, you cannot demote the Amharic language and promote your own mother tongue on the expense of the national language – the Amharic language that has become almost every Ethiopian’s mother tongue.

    What is wrong with the Amharic language, and what is its defect that it cannot be the language of the federal government? Is there any magic in Orominga that would easily translate Ethiopia into paradise? What makes you believe Orominga is superior to Amharic language? Is Orominga the language of the heavenly hosts? Why don’t you work hard for something tangible, useful, and productive for Ethiopia rather than wasting your time on some thing abstract like language? Is it because of the Amharic language that the Oromos are poor? Fortunately, there are many rich Oromos in Ethiopia, and that is not because they speak the Amharic language that they have become rich; rather they focus on what they do instead of complaining about the language barrier.

    I am tired of you; I am sick of you, and go away with your-self determination and declare Oromia an independent nation and build you Kalifate for your prophet Muhammad in one of your region and be sure to invite all the Arab Muslims to witness your independence.

  6. Bekelcha on

    I am an Oromo Amhara, guraghe and Keficho. I just could not bear the arrogance of some educated people from the largest ethnic groups who want to shamelessly define me and millions of other ethiopians from inter-ethnic marriage. The solution to our problems in ethiopia are the failure of individual rights protection and economic underdevelopment. In short abscence of democratic rule and continued underdevelopment, poverty, backwardness. Just like in America where an Oromo can open a 7-11 and an Amhara, Tigre and Guraghe, spanish and white american buy his cofee and snacks regardless ethnic differences and language variations, in Ethiopia also the expansion of business, free market economy, freedom of movement in any part of the country with strong Federal control of narrow minded provincial ethnic lords and corrupt authorities would give us a much brighter and harmonious future. I am decrying all hyphenated intellectual;s who fan ethnic violence, language politics, self-appointed ethnic chieftainship to stop freely dispensing inter ethnic ill-feelings, hate, bigotism, numerical size-based ethnic chasuvinism. I do not understand why some people campaign against Amharic when the language is used to advance their own personal gains and yes to be in the civilized world and to see how English has a global reach and domination due to economic advances of centuries of British commercial, military and social domination. Who hates English and Italian when we all know how both nations created havoc in Ethiopia for all Ethiopians be it Adere, Oromo, Amhara, Guraghe, Kefficho, Gamo, Somali, Sidama,Tigrean, Wolaita, Kambata, Janjero, Tinbaro, Omo, Shinasha, Shankila, Afar, Issa, etc, etc.

  7. Assta B. Gettu on

    The unanimous #4 comment is mine; I just forgot to write my name, and I’m sorry for that.

  8. Oromboona on

    Did I give a chance for a fly to jump on the dirty thing (conflict between Amhara and Oromo)? Here is one fly aka rabid dog aka Weyane cadre farting being camouflaged as conservative Amhara cursing Oromos! I know the moment I post such “conflict” situation between Amharas and Oromos, the flies jump on the dirty thing they are waiting for!! My intention of posting the above opinion was not to give the flies such chance, but to remind Amhara elites how wrong they are in refusing to accept and respect the right of nations to self-determination including the right of Amharas and Tegarus! Let the flies fart, shit and vomit, but there will never be a conflict between Amharas and Oromos! The time of instigating a conflict between these two BIG nations, so that the fascists rule further, is already over!!

  9. Assta B. Gettu on


    Your conflict-infected self-determination has created a fissure between the Amhara and the Oromo people; therefore, the Ethiopian people have the right to remain united, have the right to say “no” to self-determination, and have the right to recognize the Amharic language as the Ethiopian language.

    The Ethiopian people have never been enslaved as you propagate they have been so that they should be given the right to self-determination.

    To tell you the truth, they don’t need self-determination; what they need is a democratically-elected president that further unifies them and renders them feel they all are Ethiopians.

    You seem you have a moral obligation to tell the Ethiopian people that they need the right to self-determination, but how can an immature person like you, a person who uses words such as vomit, shit, fart, flies, dirty, ever be the advocate of self-determination?

    You must first learn the language of the Ethiopian people – decency, politeness, morality, and respect; I’m sure, Orominga is the language of decent people, and it may not allow you to use vulgar language as you have used such words before under your different screen name.

    After you have learned decency and the right words to use, then you can talk about self-determination and the advantage of it instead of forcing the Ethiopian people to accept your false ideology – to split Oromia from its mother land – Ethiopia. We don’t need a person who divides us; we need someone who unites us at this particular time.

  10. Oromoboona on

    I still sense a fly is feeding on the dirty thing (conflict between Amharas and Oromos). That is why the smart Oromo politicians now talk about unity of ALL against the fascists without the precondition. Nowadays the issue of self-determination vs unconditional unity has been the best food for the flies. Smart Oromos need to take away this food from the flies aka never to discuss such issue at their presense like in cyber world. Let’s kill the flies through making them hungry of such dirty things they need for survival!!

  11. Arbagugu on

    Asste b,its not you who are tired we are tired from ortodox juif,and 20millions of muslims will vote to meles,now we now you who are you ayhooda nefs geday.i maket clear time is over for your supremacy,hang your self.

  12. B Jaletta on

    I am in total confusion when some Oromo groups are singing self determination day in day out. What are they looking for? A power of majority government as they claim they are the largest tribes of Ethiopia. I do not understand why they insist in the so called self determination. From who and for what purpose? Did they look the Ethiopian people and how they are located in that big country? Who will be seceded from whom? We have witnessed the ugly pictures and results of secession. I do not think that the Ethiopian people including the majority Oromos will be happy to create 70 small governments and Countries called nation from one country. Instead we have to fight and concentrate on how we can create a strong democracy in united Ethiopia.
    No one in his reasonable mind is going to disintegrate a country just to get power while they can achieve their majority representation in a government if democracy is given a chance to implement power by the people to the people. However, those who are advocating self determination are afraid of this democracy because they know they will be rejected by the majority of the “Oromo that they want to liberate from slavery.”
    This people are greedy individuals who need to benefit at the expense of the Oromo people. We the people have to stop these ill advised power thirsty hate mongers.

  13. Take it from this one on

    Bekelcha: You said it well. I hope these people who argue with empty words listen.

  14. Assta B. Gettu on

    Dear Jaletta,

    You have said it all, and I don’t have to repeat myself on this self-determination thing I hate and always try to avoid. I hope Oromboona will listen to you if he has ears to listen.

    Oromboona, I have repeatedly told you that “self-determination” is a foreign phrase; it doesn’t meet the needs of the Ethiopian people; it may satisfy your selfish desire but not the desires of the Ethiopian people. You must find some other words that describe the natures of the Ethiopian people, words such as andnet, hibret, tedegagfo mesrat, tekaflo menor, meredadat, abromenor and there are many other words.

  15. Oromboona on

    Dear all! except the rabid dogs aka flies aka Weyane cadres,

    I do sense that the flies are feeding on the dirty thing (conflict between Amharas and Oromos; between different Amhara groups and between different Oromo factions). That is why the smart Amhara and Oromo politicians nowadays talk about the unity of ALL opposition groups against the fascists without any precondition. Now the issue of self-determination vs unconditional unity has been the best food for the flies. Smart Amharas and Oromos need to take away this food from the flies aka never to discuss such issue at their presence like in cyber world. Let’s kill the flies through making them hungry of such dirty things they need for survival. Thanks!!

  16. Arbagugu on


  17. Assta B. Gettu on


    When it comes to Islam, the false religion, and to Muhammad, the false prophet, you are absolutely right I’m more hawkish, more devilish, and more rootless than Meles Seitanawi (Zenawi), or, for that matter, than Mussolini, Hitler, and Idi Amin of Uganda.

    Islam is a fake religion fabricated by a fortune-seeker, Muhammad, the false prophet, the illiterate, the rapist, the terrorist, and the messenger of Satan, the dark angel.

    His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, is right when he said: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

    The Pope admits what Muhammad brought to this world is evil, and that evil thing is Islam. To spread all over the world this evil thing – Islam – Muhammad slaughtered millions of Christians and Jews, and thousands of the citizens of Mecca who refused to accept the false religion – Islam.

    No doubt, Islam is evil, and that is why we have today so many Islamist Jihadists, terrorists with their evil Sharia law, and I don’t want this evil Islam to spread in Ethiopia, the land of Christianity.

    Islam in Oromia is the root cause for advocating secession and self-determination so that it could exercise freely its Jihadism and its Sharia law in Oromia and beyond. We Ethiopian Christians must root out Islam from our land, Oromia, before Oromia becomes the head quarters of the Arab-Muslim world.

    Islam teaches laziness, witchcraft, sorcery, violence, terrorism, rape, slavery, and mutilation of the human body, and we cannot allow such a religion of deception and immorality to go rampant in our country and in the whole world.

    Have you ever read in the Old and in the New Testament a child molester becomes a prophet or a messenger of God? Muhammad was such a person, who raped a nine-year old child and slept with many unclean women, and this pervert has now over a billion followers, and one may ask why so many followers, but the answer is simple: “Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.” (Matthew 24:28) The dead body or the carcass here is Muhammad, and the vultures are the over billion Muslims.

    I will try to prevent my fellow Ethiopians from becoming vultures and from feeding on a dead body or a carcass; I want them to eat the life-giving body and drink the life-giving blood of the living God – Jesus Christ every Sunday morning or any day (Matthew 26:26)

  18. Assta B. Gettu on


    Don’t complain: you are the one who created the flies and their food – the filthy thing – self-determination; when you have failed to feed the flies you created, you want now to abandon your two goals – secession and self-determination because you cannot stand the bites of the flies, and if you purposely remove their food – detestation for self-determination – they would still come and bite your tender flesh and make your life miserable, and because of the severe bites they gave you, you are now trying to be friendly to the Amhara people by calling them “smart.” The Amharas have always been smart and friendly to the Oromos, and they don’t want the Oromos to abandon the Amharas before they defeat the common enemy – Meles Seitanawi (Zenawi), and after this first stage is fulfilled, then every region will have the right for self-determination or for a federation.

    By the way, you are going to sense the sharp bites of the flies until you have completely removed the three issues from Oromia: secession, self-determination, and Islam.

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