Thursday, May 23, 2024
HomeOpinionA call to national consensus to end ethnic-identity politics in Ethiopia

A call to national consensus to end ethnic-identity politics in Ethiopia

Now that TPLF and its attempt to use violence to return to the helm of state power is put out effectively, a unique opportunity to transform Ethiopia’s politics is laid bare. In this article, I attempt to propose an all-inclusive national consensus to end ethnic-identity politics one for all. The article revisits the political developments of modern Ethiopia in the light of larger global political context to debunk ethnic federalism. It proposes short term and long-term plans within the larger framework of the philosophy of Medemer.

Ethiopia _ Ethnic Politics _ national consensus
Ethnic Map of Ethiopia (source : QZ). Note that there are changes to the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region due to two referendums since Abiy Ahmed took power in 2018.

By Lemma Desta 

Strange federalism in Ethiopia 

Federalism, as a form of nation-state organization, is neither new nor problematic. However, the federalism practiced in Ethiopia is not only rare, but also highly problematic.  Federalism in Ethiopia is based on ethnic identity and thus it is often deservedly called “ethnic federalism.” Its proponents argue this version of federalism was born out of the Ethiopian context of ethnic oppression and the struggle for liberation. The claim of ethnic oppression suggests some ethnic groups were held captive and colonized in the Ethiopian empire. The blame encompasses the whole people group on the account of the supposed ethnic origin of the emperors of the feudal monarchies of Ethiopia.  A prime example is the Amhara people viewed as oppressors because the territorial expansion and exploitation of the feudalist imperial rule emanated outward from its origin in Amhara areas.  Another example is that some people erroneously conflate the Tigrayan people with the Tigrayan people’s liberation front (TPLF). Leader’s ascent to and their stay in power in modern Ethiopia did not come through democratic means. Nor was the process of national unity and establishing territorial sovereignty of contemporary Ethiopia. A more functional reason for federalism relies on the fact that such a system helps decentralization and self-governance as means to ensure justice and development to various people groups in Ethiopia. This school of thought assumes ethnically homogenous rule is good for egalitarian unity, development and resistance to maladministration. However, self-governance does not necessarily guarantee equality, democracy, and development of all individuals within the given community. On the contrary, it could easily pave a way for despotism and tyranny by sacrificing the rights of individuals for the honor of the group, in whose name some benefit more than others.  

Patriotism and cry for justice 

Ethiopians take pride in their patriotic past; defeating fascist Italy and resisting foreign aggressions that spared its sovereignty, rarest and historical in the continent. Nevertheless, the formation of modern Ethiopia took place under an agrarian feudalist monarchy with sparsely settled chiefdoms in the peripheries. Both pre-war unification that ended the lawlessness of the era of princes and post-war reconstruction did not solve widespread inequalities, underdevelopment and injustices overnight. Even though each regime achieved some progress in modernization of Ethiopia with prominent focus in health and education, but realization of social development, a fair and inclusive governance that could administer justice for all, without discrimination and favoritism, remained unrealized dream for most Ethiopians.  Despite their efforts to develop the country, the needs and demands of better livelihood challenged Ethiopian administrations of varying ideological persuasion.  The uprising in Eritrea, Tigray and Bale in the 50’s, the attempts of reform and revolt by the Neway brothers in the early 60’s, the popular revolution of 1974, coup d’état attempts against Mengistu Hailemariam regime, the ethnic liberation wars, the overthrowing of Derg, relentless resistance against TPLF led EPRDF rule with the mass protests leading to reform in 2018, all of these struggles had one thing in common, a  cry for justice and good governance. 

But there are others who suggest the core problem of Ethiopia goes beyond good governance. They claim the origin of the problem lies in the way modern Ethiopia was constructed. They attribute the Ethiopian problem to the imperial monarchies more specifically to the process of territorial expansion and consolidation around the turn of the 20th century. There are fiercely contested discourses with claims and counterclaims, the blame on monarchs, warriors as well as mass migration. Like many other countries, Ethiopians inherited unhealed wounds, unpleasant memories of mistreatment of people and misuse of power. Today we struggle to construct an inclusive national history. Nevertheless, the claims of widespread grudges against each other among the diverse ethnic groups in the county are unfounded. There is hardly any evidence to suggest any collective or mass suppression of one people group by the other(s). Part of the narratives of interethnic suppression were crafted by colonial academia with scant contextual knowledge coupled with ideological interest of planting mistrust to weaken the communal bond as strategy to conquer. Obviously inter-communal conflict and competition over resources and power were always part of Ethiopian society towards building a modern nation state. 

Liberation and imposition 

Starting from 1970 Marxist ideological thoughts inspired the Ethiopian student movement to dramatically transform feudalist society into a Marxist utopia on one side and ethno-liberationist radicalism on the other hand. Ethiopia’s journey from feudalism to Marxism did not end well. It led to ethno-liberationist struggle against a Marxist regime with resolute patriotism. The Eritrean liberation front (ELF), the Tigrayan people’s liberation front (TPLF), the Oromo liberation front (OLF), and the Ogden national liberation front (ONLF) claimed to have gone to war seeking secession from Ethiopia. It must be noted that secessionist claims were imposed on the people by the political elites that waged the armed struggle in the geopolitical context of the cold war. Some of the secessionist positions mostly abandoned during the transitional period including ELF that got what it wanted. Amongst the Oromo community, secessionist attitude continued to influence subsequent generations of Oromo youth. I am not sure how this applies to the situation in Ogden, but I suspect it could apply there too, although maybe to a lesser degree. The Sidama Liberation movement aligned its aspirations to regional statehood. 

During the war, (1976-1991) TPLF made effective use of ethnic identity for mobilization and material support. Once in power, the liberation front-turned-party dodged away from resolving ethnic nature of the struggle. Instead, it institutionalized ethnicity in federalism and enshrined the right to ethnic self-determination in the constitution. Over the last 27 years, TPLF became a party with two faces: acting as ethno-liberationists for Tigray, while wielding its influence over the federal state apparatus, in effect dividing and ruling over all other groups. TPLF surrogate parties and their cadres were appointed at many levels to watch, report and control supposedly autonomous regions. On the surface, ethnic federalism promises freedom and equality of all groups, but not all groups enjoy equal treatment.  The idea of ethnic federalism as a form of self-government offered a shortcut for the rebels-turned liberator political elites to wield power over the people. Had the citizenry been consulted, Ethiopians would have most likely turned down such a transition from Marxism to ethno-federalism.   By introducing ethnic federalism, the TPLF-EPRDF constitution took away the Ethiopian people’s legal rights of ownership in every part of their country. 

A national-state; not ethnic-states 

In a traditional society, ethnicity is the most natural form of human organization after family and kin. As society modernizes, the nation-state occupies a more prominent role in the lives of citizens. Even hardcore supporters of rehabilitating ethno-cultural heritage cannot deny the fact that a modern nation-state is the only legitimate form of organization to sustain human societies with ethnic and religious diversity in just ways and on an inclusive form.  It is only a well-functioning nation-state that guarantees the rights of each individual citizen. It is within the framework of the rights of the individual that the rights of culture, freedom of association, expression, and so on, should be granted as inputs of political organization.  In this regard, ethnic identity, just as religious identity or other forms of identities, could not serve as a basis of broader political organization because they are, by default, exclusive. It is with good reason that we should not have political parties based on such characteristics as race, religion, ethnicity elsewhere. In addition to universal human rights declaration, constitutions of many countries’ forbid discrimination and favoritism on the bases of race, religion, ethnicity etc. On the contrary, the constitution of our country promotes a federalism based on ethnic identity. 

Accommodate the Ethiopian mosaic 

Ethiopia is a mosaic of heterogeneous ethnicities and cultures.  Its people are intertwined by mixed settlement patterns, intermarriages, coexisting religious heritages, and other forms of socio-cultural and economic assimilations and accommodations.  Despite the efforts to use ethno-identity for political mobilization to grab power, I contend ethnic identification in our society is largely based on shallow linguistic differences and diversities.  Even though some might claim ethnic purity, if we dig deeper into generational history, we could discover more inter-ethnic heritage in many of us. Prior to the ethnic federalism, Ethiopians commonly identified and addressed each other with reference to their places of birth, rather than their ethnic group. They were Wolloye, not Amhara, for example. An Oromo would be identified from Bale or Wellega.  Even though a given ethnic group settled in one place predominantly, many of Ethiopia’s regions and towns were not perceived as places belonging to the dominant group. It is in this era of ethno-federalism that even land, and location became associated with ethnic identity. In earlier times, all towns and villages were assumed to belong to all Ethiopians. 

The tragic experiences of Rwanda and Yugoslavia in recent decades, and scars of colonialism, fascism, racism, Nazism, and terrorism, clearly provide enough evidence to refrain from using ethno-religious-racial identity based political mobilization. The problem comes not from how one promotes oneself but how the problems and the pains of a group is justified and defined in relation to the other. The perceived opponent, the enemy, the threat, the colonizer, or the “other” becomes the object of hate and ridicule and the target of the struggle to defeat. Ethno-exclusivism can easily obstruct our sight of failing to see the humanity of others. It is an erroneous road for individuals, for society and for nations.  

Way forward 

Ethiopians have inherited a heroic legacy that preserved the sovereignty of their country through collective sacrifice. We also have inherited a country with deficit of good governance including hostile political culture. The opening of the political space under the Abiy Ahmed’s administration presents a new opportunity for national reconciliation and transition. I trust prime minister Abiy Ahmed with his project of forging national consensus or Medemer presents a momentous opportunity. But the reform and transition need further consolidation. Various commissions must deliver much-awaited results and solutions. The political discourses need an accommodative environment of mutual commitment, ethics and openness that unites the political elites especially as we prepare for the upcoming general election. There is an urgent need to re-engage the political elites across the dividing lines to chart the future of the country. Ethiopia needs national consultation that includes all registered political parties, leaders of the faith communities, elders, and notable personalities at home and in the diaspora, representatives from the academic community, various civil society organizations, trade unions, media and artistic communities and business leaders. Such a consultation should strive towards a consensus in transforming the current ethnic identity-based politics to a new political culture of inclusivity and mutuality.  We need to end using ethnic identity for political mobilization and organization. Humanity of each Ethiopian should precede ethnicity and other forms of identifications. The immediate implication of such approach is an agreement to transform the current ethnic federalism to a territorial federalism. Territorial federalism, a form of federalism emanating from reorganizing administrative structures in Ethiopia in to a territorial/geographic unit. Such reorganization could build on the territorial administrative structures of the last three regimes (the feudal monarchy, the Marxist Derg and EPRDF).  Territorial federalism will serve the dual purposes of decentralization, local representation and agency as well as shift the political focus from ethnic identity to meritocracy and legitimacy in governance.  The current language policy with necessary modifications could be accommodated towards multilingual policies. Such a deliberative process envisages long-term consequences that may well include among other: revisions of the constitution, redrawing of administrative structures, and rewriting laws for political organization and participation in Ethiopia.  An all-inclusive national consensus-seeking process should be open to the public for its educative, informative, trust building and participatory purposes. It should result in a binding national covenant signed by all political actors agreeing to refrain from relapsing into ethno-identity politics. It should also include a commitment to educate the public about the dangers of ethno-centric views. Such views should no longer be tolerated in Ethiopian political life. It should even be banned.  All actors should commit to take responsibility for raising awareness about the mutuality of various socio-cultural heritages and religious diversity, interdependence, and common destiny of the Ethiopian people.

Lemma Desta, from Hadiya Zone in SNNPR, studied theology and international education, currently residing in Norway, working as an advisor on migration for Norwegian churches. Engaged with social justice and human rights movements such as Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, member of the first board of directors for Council of Ethiopian diaspora action (CEDA) and currently engaged in Ethiopian advocacy mobilization in Norway and the larger European region.


To publish article on borkena, please send submission to

Join the conversation. Follow us on twitter @zborkenato get latestEthiopian News updates regularly.Like borkena on Facebook as well. To share information or send submission, use



  1. Unwittingly or knowingly, the map used in this article represents Amhara ancestral lands militarily annexed by the TPLF as part of Tigray. It makes northern Gondar – the Welkait and Humera region – “western Tigray.”

    Tigray proper dose not extend beyond the Tekezie River.

  2. Thanks bro for the well-thought piece. Personally, I think this process requires the input from.many stakeholders and payers including those who scribe the ethno-federalism camps. It will also a take time, beyond term of one particular regime and resources to be successful project. As to the position of ethnic Somali (you mentioned only Ogadens which is one group among many ) regarding administrative federalism versus ethnic federalism, it mixed bag . On the one hand , they believe they are still discriminated and don’t get a fair share in terms of resources, equity, employment, etc. at national government level whether the current system or the previous ones. On the other hand, there is serious discontent within their ethno Kilil administration that they feel there is inequality, lack of meritocracy and maladministration that favors few groups within the group itself. So some prefer a systems that respects their individual rights, competency and merits over and unjust and collective in the name of ethnic group if only the system at the federal level was fair, reliable. capable and just one.

  3. I believe this article touched the multifaceted issues Ethiopia has faced. However, Ethiopia still needs a clear roadmap that can bring the majority together regardless of their ethnic affiliation. As a country, we need to sit down and openly discuss some fundamental questions pertaining what country we want to have going forward. What type of government format? What type of democracy (whether it is representative or participant)? How can we change current system of Ethnic based regional governance apparatuses ? How can we address underlying issues related to language, culture and so on? There are a lot of mistrust and unhealthy competitive egos among power brokers. Remember that we have been wrestling with peculiar questions pertained to ethnicity, resource allocations particularly related to land policy, and self governance quests from the early stages of the 20th century. We never answered those questions in a timely manner till they got to the boiling point. Those lost opportunities gave us challenges and miserable outcomes as we always kick those pressing issues down the road.
    Truly speaking, the Ethiopian people have never been taken part of any national or any political dialogue. The elite has been the driving force who are determining the fate of the voiceless. How can we make sure this time is different at the time where political and ethnocentric ideologies are more popular than the centric approach?
    I believe diffusing political polarization and ethnic sentiments are the primary places to start the conversations- this time, the conversations and dialogues must be with the ordinary people while we keep the elites in the circle. Ethiopia and Ethiopians need honest and brutal conversations and dialogues for the future that they would like to have. Of course there are a lot of rich historical ties and togetherness that make all of us one. There is no argument that we had bad and ugly historical phenomenon that we need to candidly discuss and put them away for once and all. That is why we need to push for the people to people dialogue than the elite to elite. The Ethiopian political elites have nothing but taking an advantage of the situation to grab the power in a way that benefited them. When the dialogue is among the citizens, there won’t be piggybacking the good cause.

  4. This is a good start. A constitution that is drafted to protect the rights of the individual Ethiopian citizen in any and all parts of Ethiopia is fundamental for a peaceful and prosperous Ethiopia. It is very diligent of you, Mr Lemma, you reminded your readers of the former Ethiopia tradition of fondly identifying kin’s, relatives, friends, guests and strangers from any part of Ethiopia, ye Wollo sewoch nachew, KeGonder nachew, KeWollega naw yemetut, ye Harar sawoch nachew etc. Ethnic federalism the s a misnomer. The appropriate term probably should be Ethnic fascism. In describing the previous regimes, it is very prudent to point out some glaring exceptions. The so called feudal monarchy, was a partly agrarian but also a partly small scale industry, developing society in the 1970s. The leading premiers of Ethiopia then were the French educated and dedicated public servant PM Aklilu Habtewold, and the Oxford graduate PM Endalkachew Mekonen. The asymmetric growth between rural Ethiopia, and urban Ethiopia, the ancient land tenure system of the Imperial government not reformed in time led to the branding and politicization of the problems in Marxist-Leninist ideological dichotomies as feudal vs tenant, monarch vs subjects, revolutionary vs reactionary etc. The wrong surgeries were done in haste, the disease was never diagnosed and the problem continues. After the demise of the derby regime, the TPLF who also were die hard Marxist Leninist ideologues, rebranded themselves as ethno liberators. However, they never practiced any federalism. They had complete hegemonies of all sectors of the Ethiopian economy, military, diplomacy and spheres of politics. They destroyed what little Ethiopia had in social capital. TPLF destroyed meritocracy, ruled through ethnic chauvinism , and the myth of Tigrean superiority, while divulging a severe inferiority complex of deep magnitude. They corrupted the justice system, rotted all public foundations and the civil service sector with bribery, unaccountability, and embezzlement. They were intellectually dishonest and uninspired and uninspiring. These are hard lessons for all to learn and stampede out corruption, bribery and sheer mendacityfro Ethiopian discomforts good.

    An all inclusive discussion is way over due. However, that does not and should not mean that those who committed treason and insurrection against Ethiopia, the likes of Tsadkan, Getachew, Debretsion and the like should join. These individuals must be charged with treason and insurrection and face the consequences of their violent and criminal act.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here