Ethno-linguistic federalism and ethnic tension in Ethiopia

Ethnic-federalism as governing system had been implemented and tested in the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. But it has lead all of them to violent disintegration. The real reason for the failure ethnic federalism in those countries was not economic or lack of democracy. It was simply because of the manipulation of ethnic relations by the regional, ethnic elites and/or external forces. This shows how ethnic-federalism is destined to fail. Lack of democracy and unfair share of resources among ethnic groups are the other main factors that fuel ethnicization, ethnic conflicts and eventual disintegration of a country.

One of the core principles instituted by the post-1991 government in Ethiopia that took power after a successful armed struggle was ethnic-based federalism. In this model, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF, with its core the Tigray People’s Liberation Front or TPLF) implemented in Ethiopia a federal system based on ethno-linguistically defined regions and a strict “ethnicization” policy. Since then, Ethiopia is the only country in the world that uses ethnicity as the fundamental organizing principle of a federal system of government. There are around 20 countries in the world that implement federal system of government but none of them use ethnicity as the fundamental organizing principle of their federal system. Many African countries are not willing to implement ethnic federalism fearing that it reinforces tribalism. In contrast to Ethiopia, the federalism system that is implemented in some western countries such as Canada, Switzerland and Belgium usually categorised as multinational which don’t promote ethnicity as the chief instrument of state organization and mobilization. However, in Ethiopia not only the territorial boundaries are drawn in a way that maximizes ethnic homogeneity but also ethno-linguistic identity has been considered as the key instrument in social mobilization and political party formation in the country.

Ethiopia’s adoption in 1991 of the ethno-linguistic identity as the basis of the politics in the new federal state is explained by the need for the ethno-regional insurgent movements, present among an important number of Ethiopian population groups in 1991, to come to shared political agenda to address the perceived or real ‘’ ethnic grievances’’. For the last 25 years, the ethno-regional minority from Tigray has ruled the large, diverse country without any secure ethnic allies. This has been accompanied by a tortuous and to many people painful rhetoric of ethnicization that declared Ethiopians first and for most a member of ‘’their ethnic group’’ and only second as Ethiopian citizens.

As a result of the strict “ethnicization” policy coupled with utterly undemocratic nature of the EPRDF government, ‘ethnicization’ of socio-economic disputes are increasing exponentially all over Ethiopia. The ramifications of this misguided ethnic policy have already claimed thousands of human lives in the last two decades. There have been several massacres, and ethnic cleansing that have taken place throughout the country. In 1991, thousands of innocent Amhara massacred in Bedeno, Arba gugu, Dedessa, Harrar and Wollega. In December 2003, hundreds of Anuak civilians massacred in Gambella and many others raped, beaten, tortured and harassed. In 2012 and 2013, hundreds of thousands of poor farmers of Amhara ethnic group were forcefully evicted from the Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambela and the southern part of Ethiopia. In 2015 and 2016, more than 500 Oromo people massacred. People in Ogaden have been constantly killed, terrorized, abducted and detained. The ethnic tension is growing in Wolkite and Tegede areas. There is a frequent ethnic conflict between the Konso and Derashe people of Southern Ethiopia.

Today, Ethiopia is the most ethnically divided country in the world. Ethnic hatred, propaganda and tensions are the highest ever in history. Just like the 1990s Rwanda, tribalism has destroyed Ethiopian nationalism and humanity. No single Ethiopian, whether rich or poor, educated or not, feel that he has a country to live together in peace and harmony with others. There is serious rivalry among the ethnic groups over issues such as fair share of the nation’s resources and political power. Of course, no one is to be blamed for all of this except the EPRDF government.

Instead of learning from the ex-Yugoslavia to foresee the future and work on political reforms, EPRDF as a party has kept persuading Ethiopians that its ethno-linguistic federalism system will empower tribes without dividing Ethiopians. However, the fact on the ground is different. The misguided ethnicization policy and EPRDF’s failure to promote political reform is further fuelling the ‘’growing discontent with the TPLF’s ethnically defined state and rigid grip on power and fears of continued inter-ethnic conflict. Unless the political elites in the country start working on political reform to diffuse ethnicization in the country, the possibility of a violent ethnic conflict and the eventual disintegration of the country is about to happen.