The Rise and Fall of Ethnic-Based Federalism and its Predicament for Humanity in Ethiopia

May 7, 2021

By  Chris Taylor, PhD

Read the entire article with citations at the following  PDF link: Ethiopia-The-Rise-and-Fall-of-Ethnic-Federalism.pdf (


The thinking and experimentation in social science can have huge, unrepairable and intergenerational human costs if not managed well. This is the case in Ethiopia, where political  entrepreneurs and ethnocentric nationalists have experimented and imposed a uniquely entrenched ethnic-based federalism in the country over the past three decades. These activities have made a significant impact, resulting in the production and reproduction of social  bankruptcy manifested in national disunity, lethargic development and human rights violations, including genocide in some parts of the country.  

This article examines the rise and fall of ethnic-based federalism in the Ethiopian state which  has over 83 ethnic groups with distinct languages, cultural practices and religious beliefs. It  presents the opportunities and challenges behind the imposition of the government’s organizing practice of constitutionally backing ethnic-based governing entities, using insider outsider views and taking into account testimonies and reports from several regions of the country.  

The article first begins by outlining the political and social contexts of Ethiopia since the cold  war and the imposition of the ethnic-federal government arrangement in 1991. This is followed  by an examination of the country’s political journey and key milestones from the lens of  national disunity, impoverishment, human rights violations and insecurity that the country has  been trapped with since the implementation of the ethnic-based federalism project. Finally, the article suggests possible solutions towards addressing the predicaments.  

The context 

Ethiopia, with around 108-million people (July 2020 est.), has the second-largest population in  Africa and is made up of over 83 ethnic groups, all with their own cultures, languages or  dialects. In terms of population size, the largest ethnic groups include: Oromo (34.4%), Amhara  (27%), Somali (6.2%), Tigray (6.1%), Sidama (4%), Gurage (2.5%), Welaita (2.3%), Hadiya (1.7%),  Afar (1.7%), Gamo (1.5%), Gedeo (1.3%), Silte (1.3%), Kefficho (1.2%) and other groups (8.8%). Unlike other African countries, state formation in Ethiopia was not the product of European  colonization. Instead, ‘modern’ Ethiopia has gone through centuries-long state formation,  which up until 1974 was ruled by a monarchical system. The Ethiopian Socialist Revolution erupted after a series of mass protests stirred by left-wing student movements and later joined  by people from all walks of life, including the military. This then led to the hijacking of political  power by the Derg, under Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, who ruled the country until the  regime had become defunct in 1991. The downfall of the Ethiopian Socialist regime was  propelled internally by civil war and the armed struggle of rebel groups. This was advantageous  for international efforts to end the cold war, which remarkably did occur by the collapse of the  Soviet socialist block.  

The political landscape in 1991 was dominated by the TPLF8/EPRDF and OLF parties as well as some ethnically-organized groups, which created the force to form a transitional government  fully backed by the Western world. The TPLF/EPRDF was the chief architect of ethnic-based  federalism and remained dominant, ruling the country for 27 years until the party was removed  in March 2018. The current government, dubbed as being a modified extension of EPRDF-I by some political opponents, came to power under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed following  widespread protests and an internal leadership rift against the TPLF, a dominant member of a coalition of four parties called EPRDF. 

The past three years of the political arena have been marred with more ethnic clashes, crimes against humanity and genocide among Amhara and non-Amhara orthodox Christians. On the  other extreme, many Oromo nationalists, especially the Qeerroo, place blame on Abiy for  squandering the Oromo revolution on the other ethnic group, ‘the Amhara’, who ruled Ethiopia  for centuries. There are still others who mistrust Abiy because of his Oromo ancestry. Rival  political forces active in the Oromia Regional State have also formed a joint front to deny  support to Abyi’s party in the Oromia region.

Overall, these last three decades for Ethiopia have been a hard route under a government  structured by the remits of ethnic-based federalism. The country has been divided into ten  national regional states, grouping the dominant ethnic group(s) within ill-demarcated ethnic  and physical boundaries, and subsuming smaller nationalities or ethnic groups in their  settings. 

Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self determination, including the right to secession, under Article 39.1 of the 1995 constitution of  the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The constitution thus accords official recognition  of Ethiopia’s ethnic communities, transforming them into political communities. This means  that the Ethiopian Constitution allows every ethnic group to form its own political state. These narratives accord the sovereignty of states in Ethiopia to what it generically refers to as Nations, Nationalities and Peoples, instead of to individual citizens who are born and live in the federation. Therefore, ethnic groups have the right to remain as a member of the ethnic based federalism or they can exercise their right to cession from the federal government  arrangement.  

Although these constitutional rights have been stipulated, there have not been official claims  for cession. This was partially due to the strategic move of the federal government to remain a  de facto one-party state, particularly during the dominant 27 years of the TPLF/EPRDF regime, in which ethnic organizations were mere satellites of one ethnic organization.

Nonetheless,  after the TPLF was removed from central power in 2018, Tigray had challenged the federal  government and even expressed their appetite to form a de facto state.  

Some political groups among the Oromo ethnic nationalists have also attempted to acquire  greater political power through securing control over key resources and decision-making roles  in critical political apparatuses of the federal government. Some argue that the new Prosperity  Party is internally controlled by its Oromia branch and this internal entity has continued to  replicate what its predecessor, the TPLF, had done against Amhara and other nationalities. That  is, to bring all other regional states under their satellite influence as they are the heirs of the  past ethnic political legacy. 

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