The crisis of ethnic identity and democracy in Ethiopia “ Sudan Tribune”

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By Deng Yiech Bachech
After the fall of Mengistu’s Derg regime in May 1991, people of Ethiopia had great hopes that the peace will ultimately prevail. The bloody and torturous days experienced by the people of Ethiopia in the hands of Mengistu and his cronies were now gone; and the new government had to solve political, economic and social crises created by past regimes. In essence, the new regime had to come up with a new form of democratic political system that would accommodate the conflicting needs and interests of the people of Ethiopia in general. In doing so, the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), embraced “Ethnic federalism” as a viable political experiment to accommodate ethnic differences.
This essay attempts to describe and analyze political events in Ethiopia since the coming of EPRDF to power in 1991 until present time. The major focus of this analysis will however examine and investigate the problems and prospects of EPRDF’s ethnicized politics of federalism. In the process, the fundamental ideas of ‘identity, history, and nation’ will highlight the present ethnic dimensions of state formation, ethnic leadership, party design and competition, and governance in Ethiopia.
The history of Ethiopia as a state is almost two hundred years old. Unlike other African states which were colonized by European powers, Ethiopia was never formally colonized, but it was ruled by successive emperors (1855-1974). The nature of the state was imperialistic and autocratic, whereby past emperors brought together various ethnic groups to form the existing Ethiopian state through conquest and domination of other less powerful ethnic groups by the major two ethnic groups: the Amhara and Tigre. This expansion policy had not been without resistance. In fact, according to Peter Woodward who has done extensive works on the Horn of Africa, wars of expansion had been the classical methods of state formation in Ethiopia. In the late 18th century emperor Menelik II, an Amhara, brought all regions in Ethiopia under his rule, and exerted a traditionally autocratic political system that gave little autonomy over his subjects, basically the ethnic groups that constitute southern Ethiopia today. Among these groups were the Oromo and other ethnic groups in the southwestern Ethiopia. Since then the dominance of the Amhara and Tigre in all aspects of life had prevailed at best and had been resented at worst.
Therefore the concept of Ethiopia as a unifying nationality identity has been in big question because other ethnic groups, especially the Oromo, felt that the current Ethiopia belongs to only Amhara and Tigre. They claimed that the Ethiopia has never been a unified country with common history, culture, and language, except the 19th century wars, which were fought against the colonist powers such as Turks, Italians, Egyptians and Sudanese. Conversely, various ethnic groups were fighting against an internal war of colonialism and imperialism which they considered as ‘Ethiopian imperialism” perpetuated by the Amhara and Tigre with the help of Europeans. Because of the Amhara’s pre-eminence in military, political and economic spheres in the country, Amharic history, language, and cultures have been imposed upon others through either peaceful or assimilation means.
That being said, since 1960s scholars from the Oromo ethnic group that constitutes about half of the Ethiopian population have tried to redefine and re-conceptualize their national identity and reject an all-embracing Ethiopian national identity. In this sense, “Ethiopians had a national consciousness, [that] was the consciousness of subjects united under the emperor, not that of citizens with a voice in the government of the country.” Asafa Jalata, an Oromo, claims that there has not been a commonly held identity as “Ethiopia” or “Ethiopian”. Historically, the people who are called today, as Ethiopians were the native people of Abyssinia referred to as “Habasha,” (Amhara and Tigre). The Habasha lived in the northern Ethiopian highlands of Gondar, Gojjam, Tigray, Wollo, and Shoa. Due to their proximity to the Red Sea, Abyssinians (or Ethiopians) had enormous contacts with European forces, mainly the Greek, and that enabled them to build their empire by colonizing and subduing their traditional enemies. When they became militarily and economically powerful, they maintained their power by collecting taxes from the conquered ethnic groups to build their Christian kingdoms. Because of a popular perception that Ethiopia was a ‘Christian island in an Islamic Sea,” Europeans helped Ethiopian Christians to resist Muslim invaders, infiltrating into Ethiopia heartland through the lowlands of Ethiopia from the Red Sea.
The last king of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie (1930-1974) formally introduced the modern form of centralization policy of which Amhara minority group dominated all state institutions. Not only the Amhara dominated state institutions, but Haile Selassie also dismantled trade unions, political parties, the press, and the elected parliament, which were deemed “anathema to his own highly centralized structure of control.” This system of governance provoked enormous oppositions among non-amhara nationalities mainly in Tigray (1943), Oromo (1963) and Eritrea (1961) regions. Furthermore, lack of development, crisis in agricultural sector, inequitable land distribution, political repression, popular uprisings in Eritrea and Tigray provinces, drought and famine in Wollo (Amhara district) had weakened Haile Selassie’s regime.
After Ethiopians suffered a lot from Amhara’s monopoly of power, unprecedented political crises revisited Ethiopia when army officers ousted Haile Selassie’s autocratic regime, and replaced it with socialist democratic dictatorship—or a Marxist-Leninist state of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1974. While Mengistu and his cronies envisioned to revolutionize the government structure and to make it accountable for the people of Ethiopia, in the process they failed to fulfill people’s aspirations and hopes. The Derg regime, Military Junta, (or simply Committee in Amharic), introduced a massive nationalization of private sectors, one-party system, forced resettlement of highlanders into lowland regions. His aim was to establish a strong modern state using a Soviet model where the state required a centralized economy state with a sturdy bureaucratic system to keep Ethiopia united. However, the collectivization policy and peasant resettlement did not work because Ethiopian economy was virtually primitive based on agricultural economy. So the military regime rather embarked on consolidating its power through repression that fueled discontent and increased support for guerrillas.
Urban intellectuals, mainly students, launched the first wave of opposition against Mengistu’s military regime and wanted to transform the Ethiopian empire into a democratically modern, centralized and bureaucratic state. Although those rival groups favoured socialist ideology, and they rejected a military regime government. Later on the Derg destroyed their movements. Thereafter another Ethnic groups who now threatened the state, not the regime, led the second wave. They were separatists whose political objectives were to attain ethnic regional autonomy and rights to self-determination. In response to the widespread opposition, Mengistu launched a brutal witch-hunt campaign against groups who were threats to his regime. In 1976, this campaign, known as a Red Terror, took five bloody months for arrests, tortures and killings of dissident officials, students, young children, and women alike. The Derg regime justified their act of terror as a defence of the revolution: “We are ready to unleash red terror on the EPRP fascists. Their blood shall serve as the water with which we (will) put out the fire of counter revolution.” Asked by Amnesty International, the Voice of Masses radio, a mouthpiece for Derg regime, responded that “if they [human rights groups] say we don’t have to kill people, aren’t they saying that we can quit the Revolution? The cry to stop the killing is a bourgeois cry.”
The Red Terror campaign instead emboldened ethnic liberation movements and their supporters to wage war against the military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. The irony was that, each faction had different goals to achieve. First, for example, Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) aimed to establish an independent “Democratic Republic of Tigray, ” and also to challenge the Amhara domination in the central government. Initially, the TPLF defined the geographic boundary of Tigray with ethnic language and identity. Whoever spoke Tigrigna (Tigrean language) definitely qualified to be a member of Tigray. Besides, Tigray would have been better off than the rest of Ethiopia because it had access to the Assab port. However, when the Derg collapsed, the TPLF expanded its goals and proceeded to militarily occupy the rest of Ethiopia. Second, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) was predominately a separatist group whose political objection was to fight for the liberation of the Oromo people in every part of the country and to establish their own state. While the third major groups, the Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU) and Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (EPDRM)—an Amhara dominated party—wanted a representative, united Ethiopia; but these groups were weak because their ideological and political orientations were diverse. Some accused the Amhara ethnic group of conspiring to maintain their ethnic hegemony over others if unity was to be achieved. The only faction that had a unique goal was the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which firmly sought to secede from Ethiopia given its past history. However, in 1989, all factions merged to form the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) under the leadership of TPLF to overthrow the Derg regime. Therefore, before Mengistu government fell in May 1991 the United States sponsored a national conference in London for all oppositions to work together and ‘restore public order and prevent further bloodshed’16 in the country. In the Conference, EPLF was granted a de facto self-government in Eritrea while awaiting referendum and the US convinced the EPRDF to abandon its secessionist goal to maintain the unity of the country, although in a different political outlook.
Finally in May 1991 the EPRDF took control of the country and it had to set things straight by introducing a political system that could either unite Ethiopia permanently or disintegrate into so many states. The problem that most experts cautioned against were that, each political faction believed that the best solution was what contained in its own programme that sought to redress the political and economic injustice the people have endured for long; but there was no consensus on how to achieve this common aim, whether it would mean secession or unity. Every thing was hanging in the air. Some argued that the only best solution might be ‘ethnic federalism’ if Ethiopia is to survive its existing political form. In essence, ethnic federalism accentuates the “rights of nations, nationalities, and peoples’ [which] is diametrically opposed to the ideology of nationalism and a ‘Greater Ethiopia.”
Critics viewed ethnic federalism as a system that could not guarantee national unity and survival because it is considered as a state-sanctioned political ideology that does not match people’s interests and inspirations. Moreover, nearly all political parties identify themselves with ethnic groups and territories, which in turn could reinforce ethnic prejudices and sentiments that are antithesis to nation building. However, the EPRDF opted for ethnic federalism as the best political alternative to resolve ethnic conflicts and political marginalization. On the contrary, the EPRDF faced two major challenges during its transition from the year it came to power in 1991 to 1995 when Ethiopia became a Federal Republic: to consolidate its power as a minority government and to achieve its ideological goal of establishing a ‘revolutionary democracy.’ In any way, the EPRDF has not succeeded in achieving both goals. It continues to consolidate its power at all costs at the expense of true democracy.
To form a coalition government during the transition period, the EPRDF convened a national conference in Addis Ababa in 1991 whereby over 20 ethnic political parties attended. Yet, only ethnic factions affiliated with the EPRDF were handsomely represented leaving other parties in the cold. Meles Zenawi, the Chairman of TPLF, chaired the conference. According to international observers, the conference was dominated by the EPRDF and its affiliates. Many political parties felt excluded or chose not to participate in the national conference. Then critics dubbed the conference as “The Conference of Nationalities’ with a ‘problem of inclusion and lack of a national consensus from the start of the transition.’ Most political parties based in exiles and rebel groups who refused full mergence with the EPRDF such as the Ethiopian people’s revolutionary party (EPRP); the all-Ethiopian socialist Movement (or MEISON in Amharic); OLF, and the Coalition of Ethiopian Democratic Forces (COEDF) were deliberately excluded.
Then the national conference adopted the Transition Period Charter and voted for the supreme law of the land during what was supposed to be a two-and-half year transitional period. The Charter established political institutions that could help create both political and economic transformations and reconstructions. Under the charter, a newly elected National Assembly or Council of Representatives composed of eighty seven members and a 547-member of Constituent Assembly, mostly dominated by the EPRDF and its affiliates, established the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE) to oversee, draft and ratify nation’s constitution.
However, the adopted charter that was believed to be democratic did not pass any democratic test. The charter did not include the separation of powers provision; and therefore the judiciary was part of the legislature and executive branches, which rendered it not independent. Second, Meles Zenawi was elected to be the president during the transitional period by the national conference that was dominated by the EPRDF and its affiliated ethnic parties. Third, the members of parliament (or Council of Representatives) were not democratically elected by their constituents but rather appointed by the political organizations they represented. And in the 87-member of parliament alone, the EPRDF had thirty-two seats. Fourth, the most problematic section in the Charter was its affirmation of the right to self-determination for ethnic groups to secede and regional autonomy. The country that had been for years linguistically homogenous now allowed every ethnic group to use its own language. The three main ethnic languages (Amharic, Tigrigna, and Oromo) were given the same recognition and time in state-owned radios, newspapers and television channels. Fifth, disarmament and reintegration of all armed forces were not carried out. Political wings of liberation fronts were simply required to register their forces and confine them to separate military barracks before 1992 elections, with the exception of EPRDF that would serve in the meantime as State Defence Army. “The encampment agreements were negotiated between EPRDF and OLF to resolve disputes over encampment and ensure free political competition.”
Because of major democratic deficits observed in the ethnic federalism model, some argue that giving all 80 ethnic languages rights would make people to abandon their common national identity. With the issue of the right to secede, various groups within Amhara and Oromo condemned this concept as a betrayal of national interest and integrity that would lead to a wholesale breakdown of Ethiopia into so many nation-states. On the other hand, they claimed that Tigre-dominated EPRDF used the secessionist approach as a ‘plan-B’ that would legitimize their case for separating from the rest of Ethiopia if their hold of power fails. Besides, the provinces of Eritrea and Tigray have economic and political significance. Although Tigray region has no sea outlet26, it is historically, ethnically and linguistically closer to Eritrea than the rest. It would also be noted that, Meles Zinawi’s mother hails from Eritrea, a point that makes most Ethiopians question his Ethiopianism.
To resolve the disintegration of Ethiopia into pieces, prominent political activists representing the Oromo, Amhara, and Tigre ethnic groups united and formed the United Democratic Nationals party (UDN). The UDN party’s political objectives were aimed to challenge the EPRDF’s ethnic ideology and to ensure that human rights, equality and unity for the people of Ethiopia were protected. Most importantly, they rejected the division of Ethiopia along ethnic lines, Eritrea’s referendum, unelected parliament, and demanded the creation of independent judiciary and the protection of private property rights. Because the EPRDF had no viable, ethnically diverse opposition political party to oppose its policies before, it now faced ultimate challenges from the UND. In an attempt to save its face, the EPRDF used the state-owned radio and television to denigrate UDN as a ‘chauvinistic Amhara organization harboring many former members of Derg;” and similarly the English language newspaper, Ethiopia Herald, labeled UDN “a war-mongering, discord-sowing and violence-advocating sadistic group whose rank and file was comprised of disgruntled ex-servicemen, anarchists, and hooligans.” Then the EPRDF, in principle, showed its true colour of not abiding to the human rights, freedom of expression, and rights to assembly by blocking mass demonstration and harassing, intimidating and imprisoning individuals opposed to its policies. Three of the UDN leaders were imprisoned for two months, and later on 23 January 1992 they were charged for making ‘seditious statements’ by asking students of how could they “receive an education in a country whose map had been fragmented” by ethnic divisions and also saying ‘Eritrea was being sold to the Arabs;” and statement like “Ethiopia cannot be sold by individual whim.”
Since then the UDN party was torn apart by assassination threats and arrests. As situation deteriorated, most UDN leaders sought political asylum abroad, and thereafter the UDN was pronounced dead because of fear it was no longer interested to participate in the upcoming elections scheduled for June 1992. Worse still, for a party to be eligible to contest elections, the TGE demanded all political parties to register their members, but it was viewed as a gambit to expose them to torture, intimidation and coercion.
As June elections neared, the unelected Council of Representatives appointed a National Election Commission comprised of ten members representing different parties to organize and supervise the elections. However, the same electoral biases that often impair democratic exercises in many African states occurred in Ethiopia’s 1992 elections. First, the NEC was dominated by the EPRDF from federal down to Kebele polling stations (neighbourhoods); the general public and other parties were kept uninformed of electoral rules and processes till the expiration deadlines; voters did not either use secret ballots or they were being forced deliberately to vote for person shown to them; political parties had no free access to state-owned media, and resources; and the EPRDF had absolute control of the military and security apparatus. In light of this, the TGE and ruling party (EPRDF) failed to adhere to its stated goals of elections as prescribed in the Charter:
To empower Ethiopian national groups by decentralizing authority and by creating a federal structure of government;
To resolve armed conflicts among and within different contending ethnic groups;
To provide regional and local governments with a popular mandate and sanction the replacement of the non-elected administration designated by the TGE; and
To demonstrate the TGE’s commitment to pluralism.
To accomplish these goals, the TGE solicited material and technical assistance from the international community in support of the election process.30
During the elections campaign, which began in May, the EPRDF and its affiliated parties, the OLF and AAPO contested, all at various levels of government. Unfortunately, the OLF and AAPO campaigns were severed by massive harassment, intimidation, and coercion by the EPRDF’s secret security police. That led them (the OLF and AAPO) plus other minor parties like the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromia (IFLO), the Ethiopian Democratic Alliance Group (EDAG) and the Gedeo People’s Democratic Organization (GPDO) to boycott elections. Six days later the OLF opted out from the government (TGE) and the only political organization that represented the interests of Oromo people was an EPRDF-affiliate, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). By June 21, 1992 all political parties withdrew and that gave the EPRDF and its affiliates full advantage of garnering 96.6% of the vote, and secured 1,108 of the 1,145 regional seats. Consequently, although the TGE made unfounded claims that the elections were ‘free and fair’, international observers were concerned of the democratization process in Ethiopia. Some noticed irregularities were the lack of voter and civic education, unfair political competition, intimidation and campaigning, biased electoral process and administration, and violations of the secrecy.
After winning the lections, the EPRDF’s controlled government resorted to clean-up operations within its party and from without. Many Ministers and Members of Parliament were relieved from their positions. What befell Ethiopia was a reminiscent of politics of apartheid based on ethnicity and loyalty to the ruling party. On the economic fronts, the TFLF in the EPRDF’s clothing was accused of giving disproportionate share of government subsidies and loans to local investors and entrepreneurs of Tigre-origin and to Tigray Development Agency. The transitional government failed to redress ethnic conflicts, political and economic suffering of the nation as it professed, but it instead fueled the ethnic tensions and increased popular dissatisfactions in the government.
After ratification of the constitution on 21 August 1995, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) was set up. And 1995 elections were likewise flawed by abuse of power and lack of political liberalization. The EPRDF and its affiliates managed to constitute 90 percent of the seats in the Parliament, and Meles Zinawi under new federal constitution become Prime Minister with a 5-year term in office. The Parliament chose Nigasso Gidada of the OPDO as the head of state. While the new Council of People’s Representatives (CPR) were elected, still they had no power to veto Prime Minister’s decisions and policies. The Prime Minister had absolute power over executive and legislative branches. Still judiciary branch remained totally weak and lack independency. The obvious reason for weakening the judiciary system was that, most judges were experienced judges educated in the nation’s best-known University of Addis Ababa who served during past regime and ethnically-Amhara. And therefore their loyalty to the EPDRF was in question. For this reason, the FDRE opened Civil Service College to train new judges and prosecutors whose loyalty to the regime was unquestioned.
As Ethiopia underwent a difficult path to democracy in the 1990s, it was thought that in the 21st century the true democratic transformation would come out of the new political experiment: Ethnic Federalism. However, both 2000 and 2005 elections did not change much of Ethiopia’s political discourse for the better. The EPRDF is so adamant to consolidate its power what come may. Political parties are faced with irreversible challenges despite the pledge from the international community and the people of Ethiopia to give democracy a chance to flourish. Many opposition leaders now languish in Ethiopian jails; rebel movements, notably the old OLF, Coalition for Unity and Democracy Party (CUDP) that protested the 2005 elections and the new Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) region near Somalia continue to terrorize people and government establishments everyday demanding justice and right to self-determination. Cultural, religious, ethnic prejudice and intolerance against ‘other’ have been incited and misrepresented into denying others basic human, political and economic rights. “This ethnicity run wildly exaggerates differences, intensifies resentments and antagonisms, and sharply divides races and nationalities. Mutual suspicion and hostility are bound to emerge in a society bent on defining itself in terms of such jostling and competing groups.”
Ethnic officials use their political cards, economic exploitation, and mental degradation to ‘drive out members of other ethnic groups who may have lived in the regions for decades—or to make life miserable for those who remain. ‘ For example, during Mengistu’s regime, most highlanders were resettled in the lowland regions, and they considered those new places their homes. Intermarriage between ethnic groups was encouraged and people considered themselves as one people under the banner of an all-embracing national identity. Of late, ethnic politics has revived old myths of boundary markers such as ethnic language, history, territory and physical traits rendering the unified Ethiopian identity as unnatural. With all these, ethnic liberation movements and insurgencies are everywhere in Ethiopia demanding their rights to self-determination through bullets rather than ballots. The chance for the survival of a strong, united Ethiopia is far in sight. However, there is still a glimpse of hope that ethnic federalism experiment would fulfill people’s aspirations and end ethnic conflicts if the ruling party puts its doctrine of ethnic equality and political representation into practice. Paul Henze, a notable expert in the Horn of Africa, suggests that:
A whole new philosophy of governing [that] is new is needed and a new style of leadership; no need of more central government; need a less intrusive government; more directly responsive to peoples’ needs, understand the limitations of government…leaders to recognize and encourage Regional diversity. Understand the advantages of pluralism in all aspects of political and social life and above all in economic endeavor.
Therefore, the EPRDF has to revise its policies and to negotiate peacefully with all political oppositions and rebel groups to reach a conclusion that might save Ethiopia from sinking deep into abyss of political turmoil, as it appears now.
The author is a native of South Sudan and graduate student at the University of Calgary, Canada. He can be reached at
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