Ethiopia’s inability to protect its ethnic minorities is the biggest obstacle to peace

7 mins read

By Yoseph Y. Getachew

Ethiopia is currently unenviably leading the world on internally displaced persons. Africa’s second most populous nation is undergoing a massive and under-reported humanitarian crisis, with three million of its people internally displaced as conflicts flare along ethnic lines.

Oromo youth chant slogans during a protest in-front of Jawar Mohammed’s house, an Oromo activist and leader of the Oromo protest in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, October 24, 2019.

At the center of this crisis is the country’s unique federal system that makes ethnicity as the fundamental organizing principle. Ethnic federalism was formally introduced in Ethiopia in 1995 by the Ethiopian People Democratic Front (EPRDF), after toppling the Derg military junta that ruled the country between 1974 and 1991. The main rationale for ethnic federalism is the promotion of cultural and political status of the nations that were historically marginalized through the introduction of self-government. EPRDF, established a federal system of nine regions (ethnic homelands) based on ethnic identity (unlike any other federations) and two city administrations.

Ethiopia ethnic map

Article 39 of the 1995 Constitution bases key political and economic rights on being ethnically indigenous in these ethnic homelands but not in Ethiopian citizenship. It essentially passes rights to land, jobs in public offices and representation at regional and federal levels to the dominant ethnic group inhabiting a region—”the majority of whom live within a common territory“.

As the regions are not entirely ethnically homogeneous, this provides motives for competition over the regions’ resources and ethnic-based group mobilization. Ethiopia’s population is highly diversified with over 80 different ethnic groups, and nonnative ethnic minorities are found continuously nested inside every of the nine ethnic homelands. Therefore, altogether ethnic federalism and the country’s Constitution put millions of nonnative ethnic minorities in a precarious situation.

Why now?

As ironic as it may sound, the EPRDF has long kept ethnic trouble at bay by hardly practicing the flawed federal system that it introduced. By holding power at the center through autocratic means, it had effectively neutralized the pressure on the ethnic elites to pander to their interest group who have no privilege of electing them. Ethiopia’s strongman prime minister Meles Zenawi had always kept the de facto right of appointing and unseating leadership in each regional state for himself until his death in 2012.

When a three-year long protest weakened the EPRDF leadership in Addis Ababa, it eventually led to the rise of the reformist prime minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018. Abiy, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize-winner, went the extra mile to transform the politics but his opening up of the political space and loosening of state controls has also abolished the state’s temporary protective mechanism—its autocratic rule—against the danger of tribal politics.

Unleashing Elite Competition

At first sight of the possibility of forming a real, autonomous regional state, the fight for the big share of the (small) pie has already kicked off among the Big Two—the Amhara and the Oromo. To whom the capital city Addis Ababa belongs has never been an issue until a significant united Oromo opposition group puts a serious claim of the city that it should be part of its ethnic homeland. As unlikely as this might sound (for many of its residents), this could easily escalate to a serious redistribution problem and become a recipe for disaster.

For many Ethiopians, the prospect of getting a job in areas different from their ethnic homeland is harder than ever.

Since it was founded in 1886, Addis Ababa has kept its unique mixed identity, as a home of almost all ethnic groups and a destination of economically hopeful immigrants from all parts of the country. The city of 7 million people is welcoming to Africa’s wealthy and has a fast–growing middle class. As the headquarters of many international organizations, including the African Union and the internationally competitive Ethiopian Airlines, it is a locus of lucrative investment opportunities and high paying jobs. Ethnic federalism in Ethiopia mixes politics with demography. Regional ethnic elites often compete over the population size of their constituency—the only thing that matter for political power. Consequently, population growth remains high in the country and the demographic transition is slowed. Not only does this make fighting poverty harder but also further instigates instability.

This year, the Ethiopian government decided to postpone population census for a third time as a preemptive measure to avoid exacerbating tensions in the troubled country. In October 2018, two PhD students were stoned to death in the Amhara region of the country, due to false rumor of administering injections and vaccinations as population control measures.

Ethiopia today is a country of soaring youth unemployment where more than one in every four young people in the labor force does not have a job. For many Ethiopians, the prospect of getting a job in areas different from their ethnic homeland is harder than ever. Internal resource movements are severely affected by the political system that incentivizes regional officials to set up and enforce barriers that exclude non indigenous groups from accessing resources in the regions.

That Ethiopia’s ethnic troubles continue after the 2020 election with the current federal system is more than a rare possibility. In the current political environment, it is not moderation but polarization that maximizes support. Hate speech, appealing to bigotry and entitlement—”Ethnic X First”—are not the exception but the rule on social media. Radical ethnic elites are far more popular in their ethnic homeland than any other parties, to the horror of millions of nonnative minorities in their regions.


  1. I am very happy to hear that several ethnic based groups are starting to recognize one indisputable fact. There is nothing, nothing that makes an Oromo peasant’s needs different from that of an Amhara. This applies to any other peasant/pastoral nomad in the country. In my book there is nothing that justifies one’s freedom from improprieties over the demise of the other. All of them are in want of good governance the lack of which has left them wretched for decades now. They all want to live in a stable, peaceful and fair society where no one is above the law. They all know very well that unstable society is bound to live in a vicious cycle feeding itself with unabated violence. They all know that violence will disrupt work intended for the good of the people turning off investors. In violence existing businesses will fail or fall victim and new ones will never come to replace them. That Oromo family man dreams of peace and harmonious living with his neighbors so he does not have to worry if he is gonna make it safe back home to his wife and children. He dreams about sending his children to any school anywhere in the country without worrying about them falling victims to deadly violence by bigots. The same goes to that Amhara counterpart and any other citizen in that country. Moaning and mumbling about an atrocity that took place more than a century ago will never bring the dough home for that farmer who is having problem feeding and clothing his family every day. Just as an insult to injury, he may have now been chased out of his raggedy thatched home by ruffians who want to see him dead just because he is not one of their own or worse yet, he might have been fallen victim and dead already. That is not living at all. It has been totally nightmarish for him/her since 2018. That is because it has been the ambitious punk rocking bigots not the regime running the country. For that farmer and small town resident there has not seen the government since 2018, not in sight when he/she needed it most. The punk rocking bigots have successfully yanked away his teenage children and sees them being used by these wicked individuals as cannon fodder. He/she has been totally disrespected by own children as never seen in the society. They have stopped tending to the assigned chores at home and the farms. The children are now deemed cult followers availing themselves to commit gory crimes against other humans just because the victims are Amharas, Oromos, Tigrayans and others. This is not living, folks. It ain’t easy for that Oromo, Amhara, Tigre or any other small town and rural dweller. Who said wretchedness is a bigot!!! Who would dare to accuse poverty is discriminatory!!! Who would even think about charging an entire ethnic group and every individual in it is supremacist!!! If I tell you every Afar brother and sister is a bigot, it is I who the real bigot because I told you that!!! Such an environment has become the predicament that Amhara, Oromo, Tigre or every other citizen has to live with everyday.

    But these ambitious grunge rocking bigots will not tell you that. They would rather go back in archived history and deafen you with what bad incidences had happened more than a century ago. That has been very lucrative for them. They had earned masters and PHD’s writing about them. That has secured much sought after college professorship at renowned institutions for them!!! That has gained them citizenships in the industrialized nations. That have been where they were giving their poisonous sermons for decades now. Now we should be united in calling upon these western nations and ask them to restrain their citizens. You all know who I am alluding to. This so-called professor has been demonizing an entire ethnic group for quite some time now. I believe he must be restrained by his country’s government. His comments and writing have been very incendiary and provocative. He acts as if he has a bug in his pants. He’s gone rabid. It seems he is working in tandem with the incarnated Sheik Sayeed Abiyo in his demonizing effort. I am quite sure who Dear Professor Merera is referring to when he said “Activists should take it upon themselves not to over step the red line”.

    Such good news is always music to my ears. I hope all other parties follow suit and strengthen such sacred effort. Now I am starting to calm down. My prayers have been bestowed Our Creator’s audience!!! I have never lost faith in His Power to Make Miracles!!! For the old country? Why not? That is because it was its children Negash(Nejashi), Bilal and Mary Magdalene who saved the two major religions of peace, compassion and harmony for Humanity. All Glory To Him!!!

  2. If ever there is such a thing as “rocket science”, this is it – namely: how to create a nation! In my incurably misinformed psyche, the creation of the so called: “state” is only the paper side of things! This which we are seeing here, have we not seen it elsewhere?

  3. Only solution is to let Senay Meles Zenawi lead the country by implementing the correct version of the Zenawism system.

  4. Going by the map alone, one gets the impression that there are only ten to fifteen tribes in this great country! Where are the eighty?

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