The Consequences of Ethnic Federalism in Ethiopia

by Abel A. Asfaw | Toronto | November, 2015  
Ethiopia is an ancient country with unique cultural heritage and history that dates back at least 3000 years as agreed by several historians. It is a highly diverse country with numerous ethnic groups speaking more than eighty languages. Modern day ethno nationalists tend to politicize the country’s history to favor their political agenda.
Ethnic Federalism
Since the birth of the nation, Ethiopia has been ruled by emperors until the last monarch, Haile Selassie I, was deposed by the Derg in 1974. This long tradition of governance was characterized by a centralized administration in which the emperor has the absolute power over any major political decision while regional kings used to govern their respective provinces under the watch of the emperor. Although the Derg radically changed the political system of the country, it decided to continue with a centralized administration.
The student movement that eventually led to the downfall of the imperial regime was divided in two camps. There were those that believe the fundamental problem of the country emanates from class inequality, represented by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (MEISON), while the other group that includes the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Oromo People’s Liberation Front (OLF); held the view that equality among the various ethnic groups and the right for self determination is the crucial question that should be addressed in order to bring about a stable and unified country. Despite these contradictions, all of them advocated communism as their ideology.
In 1991, the military junta was overthrown by the TPLF that originally waged a war to separate Tigray from the rest of Ethiopia as indicated in its 1976 manifesto. The new regime under the TPLF/EPRDF introduced a new constitution which became the basis to divide the country into nine ethnic based regions or “kilils” as it is known in Amharic. According to the ruling party, the idea behind this system is that each ethnic group has the right to administer its region, develop its language and culture and have the right to self determination.
However, ethnic federalism has proved to be a venomous project designed to disintegrate the country gradually into smaller states as it has been witnessed over the past quarter of a century. Article 39 of the constitution states that, “every nation, nationality or people in Ethiopia shall have the unrestricted right to self determination up to secession.” This means that if any of these ethnic based regions choose to separate from Ethiopia, the constitution provides them the legal basis to do so. It is probably the only constitution in the world that promotes the disintegration of the country deliberately. Since the TPLF/EPRDF took control of Ethiopia and implemented ethnic federalism, the country’s unity and territorial integrity has been seriously threatened and hatred and mistrust among various ethnics groups has grown. The ruling party encourages ethnic based opposition while eliminating parties that advocate Ethiopian nationalism. This has been its strategy to continue its divide and rule policy.
Various studies show that ethnic federalism is an obstacle to equitable growth and development. This is because it restricts the movement labor, capital and knowledge. A practical example would be a person from the capital Addis Ababa who wants to start up a business in Oromia is expected to speak Oromiffa, otherwise the regional government may not allow them to run their business in the region even though Amharic is the national language of the country. This clearly has adverse effects on the country’s economy as a whole since citizens are unable to share their knowledge or invest their capital without any restriction. Likewise, if a person wants to have a government position in a region that he/she does not speak the local language, then they are barred from holding that position. This means that citizens are not evaluated based on their merits but on their ethnic identities which is not only wrong and detrimental but embarrassingly backward as well. In addition to this, ethnic federalism creates inconvenience for citizens regarding some administrative or legal issues. For instance, a person living in Debre Birhan has to travel all the way to Bahir Dar (more than eight hours) to attend a hearing at the Supreme Court because regional Supreme Courts sit at the capitals of the respective regions.
Regional governments do not have real power in administering their regions contrary to the constitution. It is clear that members of the TPLF are the ones behind the throne of these puppet governments making major political decisions.
Ethnic cleaning is another product of this system. Over the past several years, Amharas living in various parts of the country have been the victim of ethnic cleaning. Thousands of people were forced leave from some regions such as Benishangul-Gumuz and Gambela although most of these people were born and raised in these regions. Similarly, residents of the Wolkait-Tegede region have also been a victim of ethnic cleaning as the TPLF dominated government has gradually evicted them out of their land to expand the region of Tigray. All this indicates that ethnic federalism has miserably failed in Ethiopia.
In general, ethnic federalism is a dangerous system that threatens the unity of the country that has been built over the past three millennia. Moreover, the country’s very existence is in question the longer this disastrous system stays in place.


  1. The worst option. Some many factual mistakes I wonder how the admin published this rubbish. Amharic the official language, not national language. Where do you get that ethnic federalism inhibits labor and capital movement? Do you have any idea of what you talk about? What an idiotic opinion

  2. The main point of this short article is, clear. The author is just telling us “we the old guards” know for you. BTW Amharic is not a “National” language. It is an official working language of the Federal state similar to what the Derg used to claim. The “3000 years” history of “Ethiopia” doesn’t include the Southern Part at all. The current Ethiopia is 24.5 years old, and the old Ethiopia is around 127 years. swallow the fact my brother. We are tired of ahh these ancecdotes or teret-terets. You cannot fool us anymore. It looks like you ran out of lies and keep repeating the same fake history again and again.

  3. “A practical example would be a person from the capital Addis Ababa who wants to start up a business in Oromia is expected to speak Oromiffa, otherwise the regional government may not allow them to run their business in the region even though Amharic is the national language of the country”
    why do not you reverse this statement like:
    A person from Oromia who wants to start up a business in Addis Ababa is expected to speak only Amharic, otherwise the regional government may not allow them to run their business in the region even though Afan Oromo is the widely spoken language in the country.
    Which one practical example?

  4. So M R phd you suggest to go to war to bring back the old system.
    The lesson of ERTRA and the consequences after canceling the federation and replacing the official language which was Arabic by Amharic is not enough.
    Most of the nations and nationalities support the federation of nations.
    Mr PHD Abel you have to come to the reality and accept that Ethiopia is a multinational state and each state has the right to exist.
    The right to work in their own language.

  5. “It is natural that Amhara elite prefer a unitary State because that was the system that allowed them to appoint provincial governors and all other representatives of the Central Government from Addis . Almost all the Amhara intellectuals I have discussed politics with, in the last 20 years, opposed federalism based on ethnic organizations in Ethiopia. Some are willing to accept federalism if it is not based on nationality or ethnicity. “
    Ethnic Federalism is a compromise between those who want to secede and those who insist on a unitary government that was or claimed to be single country at a point in history. When there are two or more historically and culturally identifiable peoples, and none wishes to be under the domination of the other, what is the solution? Force can never unite peoples permanently. It may mean war, death, suffering and above all, irreconcilable hatred for a long time.”

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