Today: July 14, 2024

Ethiopia’s Toxic and Nauseating Ethnic Politics

April 1, 2024

Aklog Birara, PhD

–The construction of political culture, Entorotus’ (destiny to nowhere) journey and the question of the sea gate: two core hurdles facing Ethiopia—-

Professor Hussien Adal Muhammed (Ethiopia) and Dr. Aklog Birara (USA)

Ethiopia is facing two huge hurdles: ethnic politics and polarization that breed violence and a land locked economy that makes Ethiopia insecure and dependent.  These stifling problems are linked to one another and are bolstered by an ethnicity based institutional arrangement and structure of deliberate political, social, and economic engineering, design, and construction of the country’s political culture,

Currently, these revolve around the Entorotus (destiny to nowhere) journey embedded in ethnic politics, political capture, hegemony, divide and rule as well as the illusive search for a sea gate.  These persist amid horrendous state and non-state sponsored human atrocities, insecurity, and instability.

We offer below our diagnosis of the genesis of these two bottlenecks.

  1. Ethnic politics Entorotus (destiny to nowhere) journey in Ethiopia

Tribal/ethnic politics; demeans and diminishes. It can be logically explained that it is futile politics for people who have never confirmed their tribe. If 25 years is considered as the age of a generation, the current generation will cross the influence of political tribal isolation and create mixed races through marriage and various interaction processes. If we think that the past 200-240 generations are characterized by movements of people and intertribal marriages; then this interbreeding of the ages has removed the generation from homogeneous tribal life to that of the fusion of many tribes, The genes of many tribes are found in the blood of any Ethiopian at the tribal level, Ethnic purity is a myth.

“I am only a descendant of this or that tribe” no longer holds. One cannot separate himself or herself from others. This logic conforms to the thinking of people who claim that more than 90 percent of the country’s citizens are Ethiopians. This is why the commonality of Ethiopian identity is far superior to tribal identity regardless of tribe. The sooner people recognize this core principle and accept one another as human beings and as Ethiopians, the better for them and for Ethiopia.

Today’s generation continues to retain the language of their ancestors after centuries of movements of people and interaction and adopt another language. Mixed languages are normalized despite the adoption of a new language or languages. This is a good thing.

But, for the commonality preposition to materialize, Ethiopians have an obligation to agree on a common or national language that facilitates commerce, trade, knowledge transfer and the like.

Why is land a source of tribal warfare?

In terms of land settlement, the land where today’s generation lives is a wasteland from ancient times. The indigenous population speaks another language. Although there is no scientific study and thus certainty, lands in Ethiopia are inhabited by linguistically varied ethnic groups living side by side in relative harmony. Most of the country’s land is uninhabited.

The declaration of interest of “our tribe’s language” and “our tribe’s land” that nationalist politicians present as evidence is thus simply political rhetoric. Because of this bitter fact, Ethiopia’s demography is not a suitable environment for tribal politics in the long-term.

Tragically, selfish, greedy, corrupt, and power hungry ultra nationalist politicians try to gain undue advantage with the false narrative that “A fish swallows a dragon.” Their rhetoric has nothing to do with the welfare of their own citizens. They remain poor and disenfranchised. It has more to do with elite interest. They thrive on the misery of the poor.

The selfishness and greed of ethno-nationalist politicians, their slanders, their divide and rule strategy, their evil deeds, their betrayal of public trust are threats to our people and to Ethiopia as a country.

Ethnic politics in Ethiopia amounts to capture of state power and hegemony over the national economy.

Ethiopia’s palace entrance (elevator) politics is make-believe politics. On the other hand, real politics today is the determination on the part of most Ethiopians to overthrow the oppressive and repressive government system that keeps them in chains and poor. The former political rhetoric is fake based on the shortcomings, reconstruction and misrepresentation of the history of the formation of previous governments on the one hand; and the evolution of a new government (new Ethiopia) on the other. The latter is in line with the gospel of the newly minted Prosperity Party led by Abiy Ahmed Ali. This gospel is pushing Ethiopia towards the cliff.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) said that the purpose of politics is to increase the “happiness of the people”.  When we consider national politics in Ethiopia today, the opposite is true. People are suffering and crying each day. Tens of millions are hungry. Children are stunted because of malnutrition.

Ethnic politics do not protect the human and civil rights of Ethiopian citizens. It is cancerous. It is debilitating. It is conflict prone. It is corrupt. It is destabilizing.

We subscribe to the adage “A wise man eath, and a fool wipes his mouth.”

In this instance, “The fool” refers to a large segment of the population that continues to bear or tolerate the burden imposed on it by party, state, and government thieves. The “smart” refers to the ethnic political, Mafia-like group that lives a life of luxury; while treating the masses of people as objects, pretending that they too are beneficiaries of the system.

Censorship and media

Government media reinforces this misleading and false narrative that the Ethiopian people have improved their lives and livelihoods under Abiy Ahmed’s regime. Just look at the latest Human Development Index for Ethiopia, 175th out of 191 countries.   But this reality is not reported because of censorship.

In short, Ethiopia’s cancerous political culture has evolved over the past half century towards ethnic elite capture, the degradation of Ethiopian national institutions and Ethiopian national identity. In the process, the Ethiopian state and government have collapsed. Ethiopia is more conflict-ridden, more fragile, more corrupt, weaker today than it was when Abiy Ahmed took power in 2018.

Killing innocent civilians degrades human development and stunts growth.

In its latest assessment of countries that rely on development assistance to eliminate poverty, the World Bank placed Ethiopia in the Fragility, Conflict and Violence (FCV) category. We shall use the Bank’s definition to explain this sad phenomenon.

Fragility: Fragility is defined as a systemic condition or situation characterized by an extremely low level of institutional and governance capacity which significantly impedes the state’s ability to function effectively, maintain peace and foster economic and social development.

Conflict: Conflict is defined as a situation of acute insecurity driven by the use of deadly force by a group — including state forces, organized non-state groups, or other irregular entities — with a political purpose or motivation. Such force can be two-sided — involving engagement between multiple organized, armed sides, at times resulting in collateral civilian harm — or one-sided, in which a group specifically targets civilians.”

The World Bank defines countries in conflict this way. “Countries/territories in Conflict are identified by the combination of the following indicators: 1) Countries in ongoing conflict, as measured by (a) an absolute number of conflict deaths above 250 according to ACLED and 150 according to UCDP; and (b) above 2 per 100,000 population according to ACLED and above 1 according to UCDP; or  2) Countries with a rapid deterioration of the security situation, as measured by (a) an absolute number of conflict deaths above 250 according to ACLED and 150 according to UCDP; (b) between 1 and 2 (ACLED) and 0.5 and 1 (UCDP) per 100,000 population; and (c) more than a doubling of the number of casualties in the last year.”

State and non-state sponsored deaths of civilians in Ethiopia exceed these numbers and are recurring. Ethiopia’s tragedy is this. The Abiy Ahmed Ali regime dismisses the fundamental premise that when you slaughter innocent farmers, day laborers, girls, women, and the rest, you deplete productive human social capital. You deepen hunger, disease, unemployment, and hyperinflation. You push society and the county towards the cliff.

Accordingly, we agree with the World Bank’s classification of Ethiopia as fragile, conflict-ridden and subjected to indiscriminate violence. These occur throughout the country; and are more pronounced in the Amhara region where state sponsored violence and deaths continue unabetted.

  1. Ethiopian national Government

We examine three chapters in the evolution of Ethiopian political history and offer contrasts in governance.

  1. The royal system,“God anointed” the emperor as the “shepherd of the people” with divine powers, granted by the Creator. The story goes that Menelik the First, born from the wise King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba established the royal dynasty system of Ethiopia. It was common to crown Emperors with generation after generation of successors representing Amhara, Gurage, Oromo, Tigre, and mixed ethnic groups This representation in genealogy that spans thousands of years is undeniable.

Tragically for Ethiopia, Oromo and Tigrayan ethno-nationalist political elites lend a blind eye to this evolution. Their intent today is to single out generations of Amhara as the sole rulers of the imperial dynasty. This distorted narrative serves the political and economic objectives of ethno-nationalist groups to capture and wield power perpetually.

We suggest that neither Amhara political elites nor the Amhara people ever deny the notion that they shared power with other ethnic elites and ethnic groups. Had this not been the case, Ethiopia would not have survived for thousands of years.

For example, Amhara defended Ethiopia’s independence in alliance with other ethnic groups at the Battle of Adwa 128 years ago. At the helm of fierce resistance against colonialism that led to victory are patriotic leaders representing the country’s ethnic groups. Amhara have established a track record for inclusion and patriotism.

The reasons for the distorted information paraded by ethno-nationalist political groups are lack of information, deficiency in the teaching of history to children and adults and or willful and deliberate misrepresentation of facts as part of ethnic elite strategy of divide and rule.

One illustrative example that differentiates the Imperial Dynasty led by Emperor Menelik and Emperor Haile Selassie is that Ethiopia was highly respected by members of the international community. It defeated Italian colonial conquest. It served as an important and contributing member in the formation of the United Nations.  It pioneered the formation of the Organization of African Unity (AU) and still hosts its headquarters.

  1. The Overthrow of the Crown and the Formation of the Military Council.

Fifty years ago, the Ethiopian military staged a coup d’etat, took power, established a Military Council, summarily executed the country’s entire top leadership, and exercised a dictatorial form of government. It crushed civil society, opposition parties and applied censorship. Governance through the barrel of the gun under the Derg resulted in the gradual collapse of the state and government. Popular resentment against the Socialist Military Dictatorship exploded.

Is there a redeeming feature to the Derg rule?

An illustrative example of Socialist rule under the military is land reform. The Ethiopian left and youth had fought hard and long under the banner “Land to the Tille.” The military regime responded to this call and changed land ownership. While state ownership of land is not a viable and sustainable model for sustainable and equitable development; it is nevertheless a major contribution to the Ethiopian people, especially those who suffered under feudal and semi-capitalist serfdom.

  1. The Evolution of the Ethnic Federal System

Ethnicity based national liberation fronts, including the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF and several others emerged in the process of Socialist Dictatorship. The most consequential political force that emerged from the political oppression, conflict and ashes under the Derg is the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), minted and led by the TPLF. Ethiopia entered the unchartered territory of ethnic politics and ethnic polarization. This is the genesis of Ethiopia’s fragility, conflict and violence.

Because of the ethnicization of politics in Ethiopia, the social, political, cultural, spiritual, genealogical, economic, and other bonds that bound the Ethiopian people together for centuries unraveled. In effect, the supremacy of identify as Ethiopian citizen gave way to the supremacy of identity as a member of a tribe: Afar, Amhara, Gurage, Oromo, Tigre and others.

A common denominator that also emerged is the misleading narrative paraded by ethno-nationalist fronts and elites, including the Prosperity Party that replaced the EPRDF that the Amhara people are inimical to the rest of Ethiopians. This was identified as truth in TPLF’s Manifesto. Hate for Amhara spread like wildfire and infected society. Amhara became a target for ethnic genocide.

This is the reason why the Abiy regime is waging war against the Amhara people and the Amhara region. By denying, in fact, by deconstructing the bonds cemented over centuries of intermarriages, intermingling, exchanges of ideas and cultures and movements of peoples and culture, Ethiopia diminished its social fabric and capital as a country. The TPLF and OLF sponsored ethnicity and language-based constitution, legalized fragmentation and allowed secession as a right. Ethnic federalism is prone to conflict and violence.


We can critique both the Imperial system and the Derg for several weaknesses in governance. They were both undemocratic. However, both regimes and systems avoided ethnicity and language-based ideology, rhetoric, narratives, references, and structures. Principles, concepts, ideas, visions, meritocracy and the like governed their thinking.


In contrast, ethnic-nationalist elites under the TPLF and under Abiy’s Property Party have mastered the art of extracting and collecting rent using recurrent crisis of ethnic differences and ethnic conflicts they themselves create pitting one ethnic group against another. They do this on behalf of their “people.” By this definition of “my people,” Ethiopia is not one country: but more than 86 countries.

“Peoples” or “people” is a simple word that is commonly used by ethno-nationalist elites to feed the political beast of divide and rule. If you continue to assert the notion that Ethiopia consists of tribes or of
“peoples or people” who have nothing in common; then, what constitutes Ethiopia as one country and Ethiopians as citizens?

For this reason, we argue first and foremost, that the worst form of government imposed on the Ethiopian people is the divide and rule ethnic federal system. We further argue that the primary purpose of ethnic politics is to deconstruct and destroy the nation by dividing the people of Ethiopia, who have lived together for centuries. Divide and rule operates through ethnic differentiation and ethnic identity. This is a deviation from the norm. It is abnormal. It degrades our heritage of common humanity and diminishes our common national purpose.

First, the norm in governance is this. A government is established and passed on from one generation to another, with improvements and changes in between, to bring people together, strengthen bonds, create a favorable policy and institutional environment that enhances public welfare by strengthening core national institutions. Ethiopia’s fragility today shows weak and almost non-existent national institutions.

Second, Ethiopia has a long and remarkable heritage, history diverse cultures, values and indigenous institutions, faiths that coexist with one another peacefully and amicably. Reforms that improve on these core heritages for the better strengthen the society and bolster the country’s foundation as one sovereign country in which the rights of all citizens are respected.

While we accept the inevitability of change, deconstructing the past for the sake of political superiority does the opposite.  It is a zero-sum game of one ethnic elite hegemony over the rest.

Ethiopian national institutions are gutted because of the ethnicization of politics by ethnic political elites. They and their allies have “turned the wheel of history backwards” with the sole intent of redressing the past and the sole intent of deconstructing Ethiopia in a new image. This model is a form of homogenization; a direct opposite of diversity from which all Ethiopians gain.

Today, it is incontestable that the governing party is deconstructing Ethiopia’s written history and reconstructing history through the lens of ethnic politics. The Prosperity Party has elevated the EPRDF model of ethnic divide and rule to the highest level. This occurrence is pushing Ethiopian society and the country into the abyss.

Sickening ethnic politics and a sick economy.

In our assessment, most intellectuals have chosen to live close to the system or watch it undo Ethiopia from the sidelines. In the process, a handful of chaotic, erratic, and self-serving ethnic political merchants do what they want on the country and its 120 million people, the majority rural. They work hard each day; but suffer from constant ethnicity-based conflict and violence.

A large segment of Ethiopia’s urban population is in disarray because of the astronomical cost of living.; because of cruel and punishing displacement of millions; because of massive unemployment among youth; because of drought and politically induced hunger and famine affecting millions; and because of poor and inept administrative services.

In utter despair someone often shouts out “Stop tribal politics!! Stop this madness!! Stop genocide!! Stop theft, graft and corruption!!  Stop the use of drone to kill innocent civilians!! Release all political prisoners!! Stop Censorship” and so on. If you are caught expressing these, you go to jail.

Our third assessment is the tendency on the part of ethnic elites and their allies to undermine national ties that allowed people to live together for centuries with a common sense of “ourselves as human beings, as Ethiopians and as citizens” that emanate largely from the ingredients of national politics.

The “us and them” phenomenon promoted and injected into Ethiopia’s body politics by ethnic political elites under the EPRDF spread like a virus and dwarfed Ethiopian national identity.

Bye all measurements, today, Ethiopia is almost a failed state. It certainly is a failed government.

Divided we fall.

Ethnic elites succeeded in persuading members of their own ethnic group to come together and defend their rights by any means necessary. The best examples are the TPLF and OLF. You may consider this geographically and linguistically organized development of “US” versus “THEM” as sub-Ethiopian-Ness. This is established mostly through geographic settlement. Ownership and use of the land by excluding “THEM” became the norm under the EPRDF and got worse under Abiy Ahmed’s regime.

We question the viability of those who believe that the sub-national structure, which is the basis of existing ethno- nationalism in each “defined” area in a hierarchical manner, can support national unity and Ethiopia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

A weak social, cultural, economic, and political center is not a viable proposition for Ethiopia.  We are convinced that the greater genre (Ethiopianism/Ethiopiawinnet) that most Ethiopians embrace, namely, one Ethiopian nationalism is destroyed, weakened and the spirit of Ethiopian nationalism degraded. It must be restored.

The movers and shakers of ethnic liberation fronts and their foreign allies are primarily responsible and accountable for this degeneration of Ethiopian solidarity and commonality.  The current regime has deepened the tragedy.

More tragic is this. The ethnic group within the circle called Killil feels entitled to demean, expel, or even kill members of other nationalities who are identified as “THEM,” or as the other.

Depending on the political clout ethnic elites in power are wielding, minorities in specific regional states are designated as special zones, for example, Oromo in the Amhara region.

At the same time, minority Amhara in Beni-Shangul Gumuz and Oromia are not allowed such status. This is because Amhara are defined as “enemies” regardless of where they live and work. Their human and civil rights are not recognized as legitimate.

For Ethiopia and for those who believe in national identity as Ethiopians, exclusionary administrative structures operate like a caste system and erode Ethiopian nationalism further. Exclusionary policies and programs such as unfair federal budget allocation create tensions and lead to conflicts, violence, and deaths ad-infinitum. Inequality among regions is pronounced and might get even worse.

As we write this commentary, Ethiopia appears to be poised for an all-out civil war, with TPLF, OLA Army, OLF-Shine, Fano and the rest determined to settle their differences through the barrel of the gun.  Ethiopia’s military is ethnically and politically oriented; and takes sides.

Sadly, for Ethiopia and the Ethiopian people, there are no Pan-Ethiopian national civil society, professional, faith or political institutions, no national institutions strong enough and bold enough to say “Stop the madness!! Negotiate for Peace, Human Security, Stability and Justice!!”

Simply put, Ethiopia’s center is gutted. Commonality is degraded.

In the newly established administrative structures formed under the new Constitution, the entire population in each ethnic enclave gradually forgets how Ethiopia evolved over time and how much its population is bonded through intergenerational marriages and movements of people.

We suggest that ethnic elites in power reoriented its new generation of adherents to believe that its ethnic group is a victim; that its caste was oppressed, repressed, and exploited by the other. The core argument is that redressing the past is legitimate. Revengeful actions, including killings of innocent civilians, are justified and so on.

This unfortunate transformation and backward-looking mentality required years of planning and political indoctrination by national liberation fronts. Fronts identified the Amhara nationality as the culprit for their predicament and for the predicament of the entire country.

Tribal or ethnic nationalism stimulates emotions. It is toxic, spreads like a virus and thrives among the population when there is a specific enemy to demean and attack.

Studies show that Ethiopia’s ethnic fence (region, special ethnic zone) is first implanted in the minds of ethnic politicians and the parties they organize. Fronts like TPLF and OLF conceive, craft and release Manifestos strategically especially among youth.

When in power, they design curriculum and teaching materials and use them craftily equipping cadres and the population to believe in the authenticity and supremacy of their ethnic ideology of exclusion and dominance. They justify violence against the other, the enemy, the oppressor.

This new ideology and political culture permeate throughout public life, including religious institutions. This is the reason why Ethiopia is reaching a point of no return on all fronts.

Ironically, the current regime argues that it is defending the constitutional order; while at the same time violating its own laws and procedures; while replacing one ethnic elite tyranny, hegemony, theft, graft, corruption, and the like by another, while conducting state and government terrorism, violences and killings with impunity.

Lashing out at “THEM/the OTHER” with Impunity

Those who control the levers of state and government power in Ethiopia today operate above the law, and with unprecedented impunity. The mantra is this. “If you are not with us; you are against us!!”

Abiy Ahmed’s regime operates with a level of unprecedented impunity. The right to inflict pain and suffering on innocent civilians, especially Amhara, has become the norm. There is no institutional safeguard at all.

For example, the two-year war with the TPLF cost the lives of more than one million innocent civilians. To this day, no one has been held accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes of genocide and economic crimes.

Impunity is a license to kill or incarcerate any person who dissents or opposes the regime or expresses a contrary opinion.

This sense of impunity led to another civil war. This time, the Abiy regime crafted excuses in the name of preserving or restoring law and order. His army attacked the Amhara region with drones, tanks, and other heavy weapons. The regime continues to do so.

No one knows the number of innocent civilians slaughtered or the amount of social and economic infrastructure lost. This cycle of conflict and violence instigated by state and non-state actors is a travesty. It must no longer be allowed. Else, Ethiopia will not survive.

Ethiopia’s Commissions with no teeth

Although there is no consensus, a few academics and activists expect that Ethiopia’s government sanctioned national consultation/dialogue forum, will have the courage and stamina to address the toxicity and harm that Ethiopia’s ethnic polarization and politics entail.

While we agree with the core principles of peace, reconciliation, restorative justice and the like, we too are skeptical because of government interference and heavy handedness.

We further believe strongly that the Ethiopian people deserve a new citizenship-based constitution. They deserve a legal regime that bans the formation of political parties based on ethnicity or religion. Sub-Saharan African states can serve as models.

It is only when Ethiopian society extricates itself from the trappings of ethnic politics that Ethiopia will rejoin acceptance of the rest of Africa as well as the international community. Today, Ethiopia’s status is diminished.

In the next and final section, we shall discuss Ethiopia’s legitimate quest for an access to the sea.

  1. Ethiopia’s sea gate question

Ethiopia’s long-standing, internationally recognized and legitimate access to the Red Sea came under attack during the height of European Colonialism, more specifically, after The Berlin Conference of 1884–1885– a meeting between European leaders and the United States to discuss the colonization, distribution, and trade of Africa. The conference was also known as the Congo Conference or West Africa Conference. This conference of colonial powers and for colonial powers divided the entire Sub-Saharan Africa into colonies with far-reaching consequences that persist to this day.

History tells us that the three dominant European colonial powers, namely, Great Britain, France and Italy were reluctant to expand their colonies in East Africa to the Indian Ocean. They could not agree on who owns what. Instead, they focused on a highly prized annexation and territorial possession encompassing Ethiopia’s coastlines including Eritrea and control of the entire River Nile and its basins.

This strategy offered colonial powers control of a huge and strategic land mass from the eastern end of the Indian Ocean to the northern end close to the Red Sea.

Ethiopia was not able to defend its seacoast. This is because of internal civil wars, conflicts, intense rivalries among the country’s princes and more important accession to the coveted Imperial throne. During chaos, Ethiopia was literally encircled, weak and vulnerable.

This is reminiscent of what is happening today under the watch of Premier Abiy Ahmed Ali and his Prosperity Party.

Inevitably, weakened Ethiopia lost its Red Sea ports. It regained access when Eritrea was liberated from Italian colonialists and rejoined Ethiopia in 1952. It then lost its seaports and access to the Red Sea when Eritrea seceded and gained its independence. Meles Zenawi, leader of TPLF and ruler of Ethiopia at the time facilitated this treasonous loss.

We believe Ethiopia has a well-established track record for claiming access to the sea. Before Italian colonial aggression and occupation of Eritrea, the Ethiopian state included the land mass called “Merb Reza” or Bahir Earth.

On Ethiopia’s eastern side, three European colonial powers, Great Britain, France, and Italy balkanized the entire Somalia coast and distributed this strategic land mass among themselves: France colonized Djibouti and called It French Somaliland, the British share was called British Somaliland, and the Italian share, Italian Somaliland. This legacy of divide and rule lingers to this day. Somalia is a failed state. It is a broken state. It is a target of Al-Shabab extremism and terrorism.

The three colonial powers implemented their shared or common understanding and strategy of hegemony over the major shipping and trade artery of the Red Sea coast from Ras Kassar to Ras Dumera, more than 1000 km all the way to the Indian Ocean in Somalia and Djibouti.

In our evaluation and assessment, Ethiopia’s continued national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, national boundaries, national interest and security and access to the sea are a result of fierce patriotic struggle marshalled by important national and patriotic leaders from different ethnic groups.

In 1875 and 1886 Emperor Yohannes IV fought and defeated the Egypt invading army at Gundet and Gura in the north. This forced the invader to shift gear to the eastern part of the country. It occupied Hararge for a short time before it was forced to evacuate the area after appointing the puppet local chief by the name of Emir Abdulahi.

In December 1886 Emperor Menelik marched into Harar, defeated the Emir at Jalenko, secured and recaptured the kingdom of Hararge, a core part of ancient Ethiopia and, appointed Ras Mekonnen as the governor of the region.

  1. In 1897, Queen Victoria sent an envoy led by Rennel Rudd representing the British government to deal with issues of protectorate agreements over British Somalia land with Ethiopia at which time Emperor Menelik remarked to the British envoy that the area now called Mogadishu was part of the kingdom of Ethiopia called Benadir. In a letter that he wrote to the Queen conveyed through Rennel Rudd, the Emperor was quoted saying “If there is God and I get the age and strength, I will definitely restore the boundaries of ancient Ethiopia from the Indian Ocean to Khartoum.”

Ethiopia had expansive reaches from the Red Sea in the North, the Indian Ocean in the East, the Sudanese border in the West, South Sudan in the south-west and the Kenyan border and perhaps beyond in Eastern Africa. It is not surprising that Somali have affinity with Ethiopians.

In this connection, references abound affirming that ethnic Somali tribes such as the Haber Awol, Dulberhati, Ishak and numerous others believe that their ancestry is from Ethiopia. They are an integral part of Ethiopia.

It is against this historical fact that Siad Barre decided to establish greater Somalia by going to war against Ethiopia and by annexing the entire Ogaden region. Barre’s army was defeated by a unified force of Ethiopians. Following this defeat, Somalia became a broken and a failed state.  Northern Somalia broke away from Somaliland and established a de facto state that is trying to gain international recognition.

The agenda of “Greater Somalia.

Ethiopia is home to more than 80 ethnic groups. We have tried to show these ethnic groups are tied together almost irrevocably through intermarriages, internal migrations, movements of people, commerce, and trade spanning thousands of years. It is this strong glue that ethnic elites and their foreign allies wish to break apart. Sadly, they are succeeding.

Given the strong bonds Ethiopians share, we believe Ethiopians representing all ethnic groups must reach out to one another and give Ethiopia a more compelling and durable post-ethnicity and language political and socioeconomic alternative.

The concept of Greater Somalia is driven by ultranationalist Somali politicians as well as foreign powers including Egypt. They always try to find gaps and opportunity in Ethiopian governance and politics and exploit it from time to time. One example is Somali aggression in 1960, days after the attempted coup d’état to overthrow Haile Selassie’s government.

in the same vein, days after the 1974 revolution broke out, in 1976 Somali leaders organized a series of formal wars against Ethiopia by aligning with internal political opposition groups as well as foreign powers.

Among these internal strategic allies was Shabia whose goal was to weaken Ethiopia and gain independence for Eritrea. The Shabia leadership with huge material, intelligence and diplomatic support from Arab countries deployed the well-tested strategy of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”.

History tells us that the TPLF, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and other opposition groups aligned with the government of Somalia against the Ethiopian state and government.

The government of Somalia was successful in luring Ethiopia’s elites including those who felt they lost from regime change. Like Egypt, Somalia served as a hub and availed radio services to Ethiopia’s adversaries to propagate propaganda campaigns.

It is important to remember that the British were pushed by Somali Ethiopians of Ogaden who urged Emperor Haile Selassie’s government to designate and incorporate the Ogaden into the Ethiopian state.

Similarly, the proposition by Ethiopian Somalis and farsighted Ethiopian leaders including the emperor that the Port City of Djibouti should be part of Ethiopia failed to materialize because of weak and timid Ethiopian government leadership.  In 1977 Djibouti held a referendum that ended in the country’s independence.

The EPRDF spearheaded by the TPLF defeated the Derg. In 1991, the EPRDF headed by Meles Zenawi of TPLF became the first government in the world to recognize the independence of Eritrea and to give up Ethiopia’s ports financed by the Ethiopian people.

The EPRDF affirmed its determination that Ethiopia’s political history spans only 100 years. In turn, this narrative provided more fodder to our country’s historical enemies and degraded Ethiopia.

Although the Mogadishu government made all these efforts, the tribes of northern Somalia said, “We don’t want to live with the Mogadishu government. We want to live together with our Ethiopian brothers under one banner.” The Mogadishu administration took forceful measures to cool down the situation. It can be said that the current trend of getting closer to Ethiopia in northern Somalia is an expression of the natural desire of the people who have been suppressed by the European colonialists and the ever-changing rent-collecting Somali leaders.

We earnestly believe that Ethiopia has the right to firmly fight for its sea gate by adhering to international law. Under the principle of give and take, there is a corresponding benefit. We also believe that a common market composed of all Horn of African countries is a viable alternative whose time has come.

International norms and protocols matter. Recognizing the hard and fast rule of the UN and AU irrespective of Ethiopia historical claims and track record, the Abiy regime has an obligation to adhere to the charters of the UN and AU that Ethiopia has signed.

We believe there are several acceptable international legal instruments and tools that Ethiopia may wish to consider. In as much as the question of the Ethiopia’s determination for a sea gate is a cross-cutting quest transcending generations and considering Ethiopia’s valid and legitimate historical ownership of its coastlines and the ancient ports imbedded therein, political parties of Ethiopia and citizens in concert or partnership have an obligation to start a new avenue of political bandwagon mainstreaming “legitimate access to sea gate” as a unifying agenda. They must do this despite deep-rooted ethnic-based political differences. This, we believe, is in the national interest regardless of the regime in power.

At the same time, we pose the following questions:

  • “Would Ethiopian citizens give unanimous consent to the agreement had the partnership (Ethiopia and Somaliland) been made before the current ethnic crisis exploded in Ethiopia?
  • Did the government of Ethiopia fail to do the preliminary political and diplomatic work required before staging the agreement as a done deal?
  • Are there opaque and or hidden double standards and consequences regarding the significance of the partnership that favors one ethnic group over another?
  • Was this the right time?
  • What other limitations and alternatives are there?

We conclude our commentary with an enduring guidance from the Great Chinese Philosopher, Confucius. He says,

 “If one wants to run, one must learn to walk. If one wants to teach, one must learn. To define the future, one must study the past.”

Confucius’s utterance for the ages might appear simple. It is not. We tend to run before learning to walk. I know it all and my turn to eat is normalized. Access to riches without working hard is common.

We try to teach others while suffering from ignorance. Listening with empathy is set aside.

We degrade the past and deconstruct all that—history, culture, tradition, icons, faith, language etc.—that defines Ethiopia and the Ethiopian people. We do this at our own peril.

Regardless of the contentions and pitfalls of past generations; our past is critical for appreciating the present and for shaping the future of Ethiopia.


March 31, 2024

Aklog Birara is an Ethiopian economist, writer, and former senior advisor at the World Bank. He has written extensively on Ethiopian politics, economics, and development issues. Birara has been known for his critical perspectives on Ethiopian governance and economic policies.

He has authored several articles and books, often advocating for reforms and addressing issues such as poverty alleviation, governance, and democratization in Ethiopia. Additionally, Birara has been vocal about the need for inclusive development and the importance of addressing the concerns of marginalized groups within Ethiopian society.

It’s worth noting that opinions about Aklog Birara’s viewpoints and contributions may vary, as is common with public intellectuals and commentators.

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