Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism and Its Discontents
Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism and Its Discontents
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Ethiopia: Governing 
the Faithful
Ethiopia: Governing 
the Faithful
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Report 153 / Africa

Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism and Its Discontents

The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), led by its chairman and prime minister, Meles Zenawi, has radically reformed Ethiopia’s political system. The regime transformed the hitherto centralised state into the Federal Democratic Republic and also redefined citizenship, politics and identity on ethnic grounds.

Executive Summary

The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), led by its chairman and prime minister, Meles Zenawi, has radically reformed Ethiopia’s political system. The regime transformed the hitherto centralised state into the Federal Democratic Republic and also redefined citizenship, politics and identity on ethnic grounds. The intent was to create a more prosperous, just and representative state for all its people. Yet, despite continued economic growth and promised democratisation, there is growing discontent with the EPRDF’s ethnically defined state and rigid grip on power and fears of continued inter-ethnic conflict. The international community should take Ethiopia’s governance problems much more seriously and adopt a more principled position towards the government. Without genuine multi-party democracy, the tensions and pressures in Ethiopia’s polities will only grow, greatly increasing the possibility of a violent eruption that would destabilise the country and region.

The endeavour to transform Ethiopia into a federal state is led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which has dominated the coalition of ethno-nationalist parties that is the EPRDF since the removal in 1991 of the Derg, the security services committee that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. The EPRDF quickly institutionalised the TPLF’s policy of people’s rights to self-determination and self-rule. The federal constitution ratified in 1994 defined the country’s structure as a multicultural federation based on ethno-national representation.

The government has created nine ethnic-based regional states and two federally administered city-states. The result is an asymmetrical federation that combines populous regional states like Oromiya and Amhara in the central highlands with sparsely populated and underdeveloped ones like Gambella and Somali. Although the constitution vests all powers not attributed to the federal government in them, the regional states are in fact weak.

The constitution was applauded for its commitment to liberal democracy and respect for political freedoms and human rights. But while the EPRDF promises democracy, it has not accepted that the opposition is qualified to take power via the ballot box and tends to regard the expression of differing views and interests as a form of betrayal. Before 2005, its electoral superiority was ensured by the limited national appeal and outreach of the predominantly ethnically based opposition parties. Divided and disorganised, the reach of those parties rarely went beyond Addis Ababa. When the opposition was able to challenge at local, regional or federal levels, it faced threats, harassment and arrest. With the opportunity in 2005 to take over the Addis Ababa city council in what would have been the first democratic change of a major administration in the country’s history, the opposition withdrew from the political process to protest flaws in the overall election.

The EPRDF did not feel threatened until the 2005 federal and regional elections. The crackdown that year on the opposition demonstrated the extent to which the regime is willing to ignore popular protest and foreign criticism to hold on to power. The 2008 local and by-elections went much more smoothly, in large part because the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) was absorbed with internal and legal squabbles, and several other parties withdrew after their candidates experienced severe registration problems. The next federal and regional elections, scheduled for June 2010, most probably will be much more contentious, as numerous opposition parties are preparing to challenge the EPRDF, which is likely to continue to use its political machine to retain its position.

Despite the EPRDF’s authoritarianism and reluctance to accept genuine multi-party competition, political positions and parties have proliferated in recent years. This process, however, is not driven by democratisation or the inclusion of opposition parties in representative institutions. Rather it is the result of a continuous polarisation of national politics that has sharpened tensions between and within parties and ethnic groups since the mid-1990s. The EPRDF’s ethnic federalism has not dampened conflict, but rather increased competition among groups that vie over land and natural resources, as well as administrative boundaries and government budgets.

Furthermore, ethnic federalism has failed to resolve the “national question”. The EPRDF’s ethnic policy has empowered some groups but has not been accompanied by dialogue and reconciliation. For Amhara and national elites, ethnic federalism impedes a strong, unitary nation-state. For ethno-national rebel groups like the ONLF (Ogaden National Liberation Front; Somalis in the Oga­den) and OLF (Oromo Liberation Front; the Oromo), ethnic federalism remains artificial. While the concept has failed to accommodate grievances, it has powerfully promoted ethnic self-awareness among all groups. The international community has ignored or downplayed all these problems. Some donors appear to consider food security more important than democracy in Ethiopia, but they neglect the increased ethnic awareness and tensions created by the regionalisation policy and their potentially explosive consequences. 

Nairobi/Brussels, 4 September 2009

Men sing after taking part in morning prayers to celebrate the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Fitr, in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, 17 July 2015. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
Briefing 117 / Africa

Ethiopia: Governing 
the Faithful

Ethiopia’s struggle with domestic religious radicalisation has shifted toward top-down intervention, a policy that has contained violence but is generating new risks. Political accommodation and compromise are vital to defuse faith-based radicals’ opposition to what they perceive as overly secular rule by the dominant party.

I. Overview

Ethiopia provides a significant example of the struggle governments are undertaking to find and implement effective policy responses to faith-based violent extremism and sectarian conflict. Given both demographic shifts and greater religious freedoms, the management of religious conflict and practice has of necessity been a complex and sometimes fraught task. A changed context has seen the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government shift from mediating conflict between faith groups to regulating religious practice, especially where there are political or extremist overtones. Local actors have used the state’s interventionist inclinations in the confessional realm to gain advantage in wider leadership struggles within Ethiopia’s ethnically based regional states. Opposition groups, not always within formal parties, have also used religious issues to score political points. The Ethiopian experience shows not only how faith is an increasing political resource, especially at local levels, but also lessons that can be learned from top-down interventions in the religious sphere.

Although often regarded as a predominantly Christian country, the confessional landscape is diverse and evolving, and religion is increasingly politicised by a range of domestic actors, including the state. Faith runs deep, and its religions (particularly the Orthodox Church) have at various times in history been intimately connected to the Ethiopian state and its administration. Always a significant but institutionally disadvantaged minority, the Muslim population has grown in relative terms in recent decades and is at least as numerous as that in Sudan, Ethiopia’s predominantly Islamic neighbour. Previously discriminated against (including by the state), Muslims and Protestants have embraced and capitalised on the lifting of religious restrictions by the 1994 secular constitution. 

Faith-based communal conflicts have, in modern times at least, been rare though deadly, bringing prompt community and government responses. Sporadic confessional violence over the last decades has not translated into a real threat to a long tradition of religious (though often unequal) co-existence. While inter-confessional tensions remain, they appear to have been largely superseded in recent years by tensions between the government and faith communities. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and Muslims alike have accused the former of undue interference in their internal religious affairs, whereas the government sees itself as holding the secular line against politicisation and extremism. 

Ethiopia, like its immediate neighbours, is faced with difficult policy choices involved in guarding against internal radicalisation through systematic (at times constitutionally questionable) interventions that have tended to favour established religious authorities. The government, and donors keen to support global efforts against violent extremism, should always consider first, the risk of such interventions to the state’s neutrality as mediator, and secondly, that taking sides in intra-religious debates could exacerbate communal faith-based conflicts. Above all, those backing interventions should always seek better understanding of what faith means to multi-ethnic, religiously diverse societies like (but not limited to) Ethiopia, in which the distinction between group and individual identity is often not well defined, and rival local actors are apt to make use of religious disputes where social and governmental constraints inhibit open political competition.

Nairobi/Brussels, 22 February 2016