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The Ethiopian Tribal Political Conundrum and Development  

Aklog Birara (Dr)

A close friend whose wedding my wife and I attended in the State of Washington in 1973 reminded me over lunch on February 21, 2022, how troubled I was concerning the distorted characterization and sweeping conclusions on “the national question” in Ethiopia. Leftists at Ethiopia’s higher institution of learning copied the Stalinist version of the “right of nations to self-determination” and propagated it across the globe. Ethno-nationalist elites and secessionists adopted the “national question “as the most compelling organizing principle in Ethiopian politics. Ethiopia’s current ethnicity and language-based constitution emanates from this world view.

The ethnicization of politics in Ethiopia is a huge barrier to sustainable and equitable development.

I reminded my friend that outlooks and world views among Ethiopia’s intellectuals, scholars and political elites are more fractious and vitriolic than they were even before. In those days at least a diverse set of academics and political activists in Europe and the USA met and debated Ethiopia’s country policy issues. Participants discussed contentious policy issues, including the “national question, land to the tiller” with civility and cordiality. They often agreed to disagree without being obstinate and disagreeable. It is this approach that lends itself to innovation.

The most contentious issue then was the “national question.” Propagators of its application in Ethiopia singled out the Amhara nationality as the culprit of Ethiopia’s myriad of problems. The false and dangerous narrative articulated and inherited from that period is deep rooted in Ethiopia’s political culture. Ethiopia’s current political and social culture perpetuates and embeds demeaning remarks of the Amhara: “neftegna, colonizer, oppressor, chauvinist.” In turn, this culture exposes the Amhara to recurring atrocities, displacements, and marginalization.

I reiterate my relentless thesis that Ethiopian intellectuals and scholars have a special role in injecting fresh thinking targeting Ethiopia’s youth with the sole intent of creating or bolstering national consensus on the importance of Ethiopia as one geopolitical entity and the acceptance of the term Ethiopian as a defining national identity. Its zeal for fundamental institutional and structural changes notwithstanding, there is no contest that my generation failed to strengthen Ethiopia’s commonalities.

For almost half a century since, the EPLF, TPLF, OLA/Shane and other fronts degraded severely and deliberately Ethiopia’s status as a geopolitical entity with access to the Red Sea as well our collective identity as Ethiopians. Eritrea is no longer part of Ethiopia. Ethiopia lost its access to the Red Sea. The TPLF declared Tigray as “de facto” independent. Tribalism and tribal thinking are costly.

The raging, unfinished and hugely costly war initiated by the TPLF, and recurrent massacres and economic destructions based on ethnic affiliation perpetrated by the OLA/Shine are tribal in all their attributes. The costs in human lives and the destructions inflicted on ordinary folks who have nothing to do with power politics are immense. They are multigenerational. Yet, they have not received the domestic and international media coverage they deserve. Equally distressing is the fact that, as a group, Ethiopian scholars and intellectuals are reluctant to call targeted ethnic atrocities genocide; and have failed to pinpoint that tribalism is a barrier to stability that in turn affects development.

So, what should Ethiopian scholars and intellectuals do to mitigate future risks for Ethiopia and all Ethiopians?

On February 23, 2022, the Zewdu Television Show in London hosted Dr. Wondimu Mekonen, Financial Scholar and Lecturer in the United Kingdom and I to discuss the pros and cons concerning the roles and responsibilities of Ethiopia’s scholars and intellectuals at this challenging time in Ethiopian history. In large part, the discussion was civil and cordial. The audience raised constructive comments and questions. I commend the Zewdu show for framing the issues and for empowering us to air our views.

We first identified four categories of Ethiopian scholars and intellectuals.

  1. Those who love and are committed to Ethiopia.


  1. Those who are inimical to Ethiopia and do not wish it well.


  1. Those motivated by self-interest and show affinity to Ethiopia in search of financial, economic, or other personal or family gains, fame, or glory.


  1. Those who prefer to remain silent… because “politics is like and an electric shock.”

We estimated that there are at least 40,000 Ethiopian scholars scattered around the globe outside Ethiopia. It is not my intent to convince you to agree or disagree with the above categories or number. Neither is it my intent to place anyone in any category. You have the option of placing yourself wherever you wish.

The reality on the ground is that not all Ethiopian scholars and or intellectuals share similar worldviews concerning Ethiopia as a country or Ethiopiawinet as a shared or common national identity. Categories one and two may as well be from different countries. It is rare that the two clusters of scholars and intellectuals would hold an Ethiopian forum together and discuss policy or structural or program issues that affect all Ethiopians. Nor is there asymmetry among those who profess to be in the first category. The tug of war among this group is frightening. Suspicion as to who belongs or supports this, and that party or ethnic group or government is rampant. This surfaced during our conversation on the Zewdu show.

When I diagnose attitudes of the first and second groups, their world views concerning Ethiopia as a country and Ethiopiawinet as national identity are planets apart. Differences seem hopelessly irreconcilable. Rather than focusing on commonalities including common humanity and human worth, the two sides are often ready and willing to chastise and criticize one another in vitriolic terms.

I often wonder if there might be light at the end of the tunnel. My answer is yes. The best and most heartwarming example of this is the commissioning of electric generation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). This Dam demonstrated to the entire world that, united and guided by a unity of purpose, Ethiopians can mobilize domestic resources and harness their natural resources for the betterment of Ethiopians. I commend all those who contributed to this monumental achievement.

The importance of critical mass in our paradigm of thinking

The dichotomy that began to take roots in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Ethiopian political culture makes it difficult for Ethiopia to take advantage of its huge human capital asset abroad as the country’s interlocuters and Ambassadors. This decapitalization reduces Ethiopia’s effectiveness in international public diplomacy.

My focus is on category one. It is this category of learned folks who are amenable to provide Ethiopia with the knowledge, expertise, best practices, and finance that the country needs and deserves on a sustainable basis. The social, political, and economic impact depends entirely on whether policy and decision-makers in Ethiopia are willing and ready to entertain inputs.

This is not to say that the other categories are not important. Rather, it is to say that I cannot change the mindsets of those who are inimical to Ethiopia regardless how loud I may shout. They have made up their minds. Their world view is “black and white.” TPLF’s continued mobilization to wage war illustrates this point.

The third category is intriguing. I do not dismiss the value added from those driven primarily by self-interest as a motivator. I suggest that they can do more to accelerate social progress in at least two ways:

  • Join the first group and create a critical mass of scholarly and intellectual horsepower; and,


  • Refrain from transferring the wrong values: propagate alien values, bribe officials at any level or deal with foreign exchange in the illegal market.

The fourth group is not new in Ethiopian society. I do not blame this group for being silent contributors. Ethiopian politics is deadly and costly. It has become more toxic due to the ethnicization of politics. The political environment in Ethiopia is suffocating leaving no room for mistakes. Ethiopian scholars and intellectuals are prone to elevating you one day and bringing you down the next day. So, why would you subject yourself to personal injuries and indignities?

Detachment does not mean that you do not care for Ethiopia and the Ethiopian people. But it is important that you participate in constructive activities; and that you guard against those who try to divide and manipulate you.

The positive side of this category of scholars and intellectuals outweighs the negative side. Members in this group contribute hugely to Ethiopia’s progress through the transfer of skills and expertise, the provisions of finance, medical and school equipment, construction of institutions such as pumped water, schools and clinics in rural areas, churches and mosques, remittances, and visits to Ethiopia regularly.

Exceptions notwithstanding, the first group dedicated to Ethiopia as a country and Ethiopiawinet as a distinguishing identity bears the heaviest burden abroad in promoting Ethiopia’s progress. Fundamental principles—the inviolability of Ethiopia’s territorial integrity, justice, the rule of law, democratic governance–that the Ethiopian people and the international community recognize and understand as core values underpin this task. It is more open in a world that needs transparency and accountability. It has extricated itself from tribal thinking in a world that identifies with Pan-Africanism and embraces global competition. This same cohort committed to Ethiopia is bold enough to challenge the Apartheid system in Ethiopia that keeps Ethiopia conflict-ridden, income poor and in permanent suspense in a world in which countries prosper when they enjoy fair, just, peaceful, stable, and equitable governance.

In short, to the extent that it can create a critical mass of Ethiopian scholars and intellectuals, the first group possesses social and intellectual capital assets to be part of Ethiopia’s democratization and modernization process. It can achieve this goal by establishing organic links with Indigenous change activists and social actors in Ethiopia.

Thematic priorities that Ethiopian scholars and intellectuals can consider

Fragmentation of intellectual assets is a barrier to progress in Ethiopia. So is the tendency to look primarily outwards concerning and dealing with the root causes of Ethiopia’s formidable institutional and structural hurdles.

I urge us to create a critical mass of like-minded scholars and intellectuals and do more as Ethiopians for Ethiopia and all Ethiopians. The following eight areas are worth dedicating time, resources, commitment, and designing and implementing courses of action.

  1. Debunk the preposterous thesis of “Tigray genocide and famine” propagated by the TPLF and its Egyptian and Western allies by providing solid and reliable information on authenticated atrocities, destructions and locations perpetrated by the TPLF and OLA/Shane on Afar and Amhara in English, French and other UN languages. If we do not say NO MORE to atrocities within Ethiopia, we do not possess the moral high ground to criticize the outside world. Remember, African Americans used the term “NO MORE” during the early years of the civil rights movement during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. It is time to embrace the hashtag “All human lives matter.”


  1. Demand that all Ethiopian regional and federal leaders hold a facilitated retreat to discuss the institutional and structural barriersthat cause wars, instability, insecurity, pain, and suffering; declare to the Ethiopian people their unbridled commitment to defend Ethiopia’s continuity as a single geopolitical entity as well as express intent to institutionalize citizenship based Ethiopiawinet as a national or common identity.


  1. Propose quick closure to the costly war initiated by the TPLF; and suggest best practices across the globe where successful post conflict practices have occurred. Post conflict is inconceivable if the TPLF and OLF/Sane continue insurgency. Scholars and intellectuals must no longer be wishy washy. They must challenge the TPLF and OLF/Shane directly and demand accountability for keeping Ethiopia unstable and worn torn. They also need to demand that Western governments and institutions stop their direct and indirect support to the TPLF.


  1. Propose an integrated and comprehensive socio-economic developmentmodel for Ethiopia that harnesses its immense natural and human resources; and takes advantage of its geopolitical and strategic location in the Horn of Africa. Talking about prosperity is not enough. Why not designate a group of committed, independent, competent scholars and intellectuals to produce such a plan? A subset of the strategy may include a Common Market or what our distinguished development expert with a wealth of practical experience, Ato Kidane Alemayehu calls a Cooperative Council for the entire Horn of Africa.


  1. Diagnose the detrimental impacts of corruptionand offer alternatives. Ethiopia continues to suffer from deep-rooted corruption. Scholars and intellectuals ought to have the courage to expose and apply pressure on TPLF or OLA/Shane agents and agencies in Western countries that deal with foreign exchange trade in the illegal market. The illegal market is a major contributor to price inflation and to the squandering of precious capital in Ethiopia. This parallel market reduces Ethiopia’s foreign exchange earnings and induces inflation. I recommend that we assemble a group of experts to take a critical look at the dire consequences of bribery and corruption on the Ethiopian economy and empower the team to produce measurable alternatives to deal with this debilitating manufactured cancer.


  1. Ethiopia’s ethnicity and language-based Constitutionthat provides a specific provision for secession keeps Ethiopia on suspense. It induces ethnic conflict, targeted killings, corruption, and other barriers to peace, stability, sustainable and equitable development. It is time for competent scholars and intellectuals to get together and offer a better alternative that will support Ethiopia as a geopolitical entity and propel its development.


  1. The formation of the National Dialogue Commission (NDC) is one of the timeliest announcements I have heard. If open, transparent, independent of party or government control and empowered to address major institutional and structural issues Ethiopia is facing, then it has significant potential. Clear criteria for selection, inclusivity, objective performance benchmarks, transparency of the entire process and ample disclosure to the public through the media at the outset are musts. The government, civil society, and opposition parties must be on the same page concerning the limitations and prospects of the NDC in addressing Ethiopia’s intractable problems, including items considered to be undoable by the Commission.

The Ethiopian public is the key client of the Commission. The public must therefore know in advance what is untouchable and why? The public must also know in advance that Ethiopia’s highly polarized ethnic conflicts might take years to heal. The governing party and the government must refrain from undue interference in the selection, process, and performance of the Commissioners.

  1. The “Big Elephant in the Room” that the Commission must address is the deep-rooted political narrative and culture of animosity against the Amhara. The costs of this animosity to Ethiopia and its diverse society are immense. While I recognize that there are no quick remedies; there must be a deliberate and systematic process of reeducation and reorientation among government leaders, political elites, opposition parties, civil society, and Ethiopia’s educational institutions.

Ethiopia has thus far failed to hold accountable the TPLF and OLF/Shane for committing atrocities of Amhara and Afar, and for the destructions of investment properties and places of worship. I find it inexcusable that Ethiopian authorities have not held TPLF criminals who massacred more than 1,600 Amhara civilians in the village of Mai Kadra in November 2020 accountable for crimes of genocide.

In the light of lofty expectations from the Ethiopian people and the international community concerning the Commission, Ethiopian scholars and intellectuals together must raise concerns if any now. They must suggest ways and means of making the NDC an Ethiopian success story. Political elites and the rest of us cannot afford to squander another huge opportunity for peaceful transformation of a post-conflict Ethiopia.

Lastly, Ethiopian scholars and intellectuals together must also approach Balderas, the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and urge them to reconsider their refusal or reluctance to accept the NDC. They should also have the courage to urge Ethiopian authorities to listen to and address concerns raised by these opposition political parties for the sake of Ethiopia and all the Ethiopian people.

February 26, 2022

Dr. Aklog Birara former Sr. Advisor at World Bank,, Commentator at Center for Inclusive Development (ABRAW) and a regular contributor to

1 thought on “The Ethiopian Tribal Political Conundrum and Development  ”

  1. Well, as a matter of expressing one’s ideas and views in any way he or she believes and can, it is not difficult to give this descriptive (not analytical) piece of writing the credit it deserves. Needless to say, this piece does not deserve to be credited as something that does make a meaningful sense of the value and purpose of intellectualism or scholarism as far as the very huge and horrible political game being played by one faction of the deadly or mutually destructive political system of EPRDF (Prosperity) is concerned.
    I closely follow what the writer of the above piece writes and speaks, and I have to say that he sounds one of those very few genuinely concerned well-educated and experienced compatriots. I had opportunities to be one of the audiences of his speeches and discussions he had to deliver on various subjects of the situation in the country particularly during the regime led by TPLF for a quarter of a century. I read his book on the issues of development. And I had and still have due respect for what he contributed.
    What is severely painful is that the very political stupidity of many intellectuals and scholars is when they terribly fooled not only themselves but also the people by praising and advocating “change for good” whereas quite the opposite was and is true.
    They keep trying to terribly mislead the people believe that the politics of garbage out and garbage in was and is a democratically guided politics whereas a much more horrifying situation keeps revealing itself. Doesn’t this sound very frustrating political stupidity and moral bankruptcy? I wish the answer could be no, it doesn’t! Sadly enough, the reality on the ground does not support affirmative and confirmative answer at all!
    I have to say that as far as the real sense of the instrumentality of intellectualism and scholarism for the coming into being of real sense of a democratic change is concerned, the above piece sadly sounds very simplified and redundant decry as usual.
    Genuinely concerned compatriots, let’s try to go or read between the lines and try to comprehend the very content of the piece from the very meaning and practical value of intellectualism or scholarism, and the impact they should have on a very huge and horrible political situation the people (the country) had to face for a long period of time and continued to face. Is it not self-evidently true and clear that the very criminal political system of a quarter of a century is being carried out in a much more devastating manner with no meaningful end in sight because of the so-called Prosperity (the faction of EPRDF) that controls the vey bloody palace politics?
    Why so many intellectuals including the writer of the above piece are so shy of talking about the very politics of the continuation of EPRDF in a much more deeply and extensively devastating manner for the past three years and continued with no meaningful change of political mind and action?
    The piece does not tell us about this very vivid and painfully horrifying political reality at all. It rather tries to make its focus on just blaming and condemning TPLF as if it is a new phenomenon, and the faction in the palace was doing and is doing very holly things. Is this not a very disgusting political thinking? Absolutely it is!
    The writer as usual tires to blame the generation of the 1970s for making socialist ideology the means to bring about socialist revolution and system that was the very alternative way in the two highly competing political camps of the world. Yes, that generation had made mistakes that should be seen in the very context of what was available during that time of very hot and emotion-driven political ideology, not the other way round. For that matter, although that generation advocated and struggled for the very socialist political idea of self-determination of nations and nationalities, it had never killed each other by going after the identity of this or that ethnic or religious background like we have witnessed for a quarter of century and for the past most horrifying years of the faction of EPRDF (OPDO/OLF/ Prosperity). It is deeply disgraceful to witness our intellectuals and scholars blaming that generation whereas they themselves are not only better than that generation but also terribly failed the people in a much more horrifying manner or degree. Is this not true? I strongly argue that it is absolutely true as far as the very comparison between the very voracious and non-effective rhetoric of our many intellectuals (scholars) on the one hand and what has happened and is happening on the ground on the other hand is concerned.
    It is not only disappointing but also painfully disturbing to witness our intellectuals keep going with their voracious and terribly redundant rhetoric and theorization with no firm and longstanding principle and action-oriented objectives that could bring about a real sense of democratic change. They sadly keep dancing with so-called change agents and discrediting not only their own intellectual and political personalities but most disturbingly those compatriots who try to stay stand on their positions of bringing about a real sense of democratic change.
    I have to say that the writer unfortunately became one of the victims of the very hypocritical, conspiratorial, cynical, and of course deadly ruling circle of palace politics. Sadly enough, many of our intellectuals or scholars terribly failed by going to the extent of praising if not worshiping the highly cynical, mischievous, uncontrolled liar, rhetorically great but practically heatless and chronically narcissist prime minister (Abiy Ahmed). They terribly made themselves good for nothing when they went to the extent of calling him “the Mosses of our era who was sent to save the country and its people.” Was it not and is it not painfully disturbing and disgraceful? I strongly and quite reasonably argue that it is absolutely disturbing and disgraceful for our intellectuals who became victims of unsubstantiated and foolishly uncontrolled and nonsensical emotion of democratic change!
    The writer terribly failed to call a spade a spade. Yes, he miserably failed not only to be courageous enough to tell the truth about the EPRDF faction in the place that is not only terribly going wrong but also pushing the very existence of Ethiopia we know to the verge of disintegration. He foolishly or otherwise failed to critically argue that this faction cannot and should not escape or run away from the responsibility and accountability for what it did for the past four years of horrible and general crisis in the country. He rather tries to put the whole terrible blame on TPLF, EPLF and OLA which we used to read and hear about repeatedly and redundantly with no action attached to it on the ground. He sounds an intellectual who tries hard to distance himself from criticizing the very faction of EPRDF that has made and keep making things much more tragic. Sad and sad!

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