The underlying tension behind Ethiopia’s flawed federal system and its risks

By Yohannes Gedamu

Editor’s note: Ethiopia was hit with a coup attempt over the weekend in its Amhara region in which the country’s army chief of staff, the governor of the northern Amhara region and his advisor were all killed. It has significant implications for the near future of Ethiopia’s federal system and peace in the country.

For almost three decades Ethiopia’s federal structure – enshrined in the country’s 1994 constitution – has been defended by the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front.

It’s not surprising that the front has been the system’s prime advocate and defender. It oversaw the creation and implementation of the federal structure. Some of the country’s opposition elites also support the system. They believe it helps promote group rights, granting Ethiopians the right of self-administration.

But the federal structure has caused lots of problems for the country. This is primarily because it is constituted along ethnic lines. This is problematic because Ethiopia has a population of more than 108mand more than 90 ethnic groups. The biggest groups are the Amhara and Oromo. Together they comprise more than 65% of the population.

Before 1991, groups that took up arms against Ethiopia’s central government and its elites alleged rampant ethnic oppression and discrimination. But their claims were debunked for lack of concrete evidence. So when they had the fortune of leading a government and designing its structure they chose unique ethno-linguistic classifications for its creation.

Sadly, in a nation of more than 90 ethnic groups, the system created more animosity and competition for power and influence.

Now, Ethiopia’s government structure is a federation of nine regions.

Debates about the system have resurfaced since prime minister Abiy Ahmed took office in April last year. And the country’s parliament has set up commissions to look into some of the pressing issues facing the federal system. These include the need for national reconciliation and where domestic administrative borders should be drawn.

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But the creation of regions as ethnic boxes resulted in fierce inter-ethnic competition. This has affected the safety of citizens as well as the freedom of movement.

Despite the willingness in debating it afresh, reaching a political consensus remains challenging.

There are also those who are deeply opposed to renegotiating the arrangement. Others believe the federal structure was imposed via a constitution that they weren’t consulted about in the first place.

The difficulty is that the federal design has created winners and losers. For instance, the Amhara elites believe that the design has negatively affected them because they were never consulted on its structure.

In my view, continued tension over the issue shows that the federal design never took into account the popular will when it was introduced. On top of this, it’s been used to protect the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front.

Ethiopia isn’t alone in facing the conundrum of federalism. Even where it’s considered a success, as in the US, the system faces constant challenge. But disagreements about federal arrangements rarely result in political turmoil that could potentially threaten the national union. This is because of the relative strength and independence of the judicial system and a functioning system of checks and balances.

But the challenges Ethiopia faces due to its federal arrangement are substantial. Nor does the country have strong enough institutions such as independent judiciary and agreed conflict resolution mechanisms.

Dysfunction in Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s federal system was flawed from the beginning because it didn’t foresee potential sources of conflict or that regional states would make claims against one another.

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Trust among regional states was never high, and has deteriorated over the last three decades. On top of this, the federal government’s ability and readiness to mitigate or solve domestic conflict has been open to question.

Currently, there are regions and regional leadership that are having difficulty working together. The federal government at the centre is too weak to impose its will on the regional administrations. The result is that there aren’t common political and economic national standards across the country.

This has led to a dysfunctional system that’s been the major cause of internal displacements. Ethiopia now has more internally displaced people than any other country in the world.

But possibly the biggest problem is the effect that the federal system has had on minorities. Ethiopia has nine regional states and two cities that fall under the administrative mandate of the federal government. Each region is administered by an ethnic political party. Thus, territorial and demographically larger regions such as Amhara, Oromia, Tigray and the southern region are administered by parties that are members of the ruling coalition.

The other five regions are made up mostly of minorities and are economically undeveloped. They are administered by ethnic parties that aren’t part of the ruling coalition. Yet they’re known as “partners”. Their ceremonial allegiance guarantees a false promise of national consensus.

These regions are referred to as “developing”, giving the impression that they aren’t quite up to scratch. At the same time the ruling coalition constantly interfere in their local affairs. This is justified on the grounds that its part of a fight against corruption, correcting administrative incompetence or as punishment for failure to comply with federal government’s regulations.

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As a result, Ethiopia’s federal design has relegated most minority regions that aren’t directly administered by the ruling coalition into second class regions. In turn this meant that the citizens are second class.

All of this shows that there isn’t a level playing field when it comes to the constitutional rights of all Ethiopians.

Recently, the ruling coalition announced the possibility of including partner parties from five regions into the coalition. But, as long as the federal design isn’t rectified, the reality won’t change.

There are dangerous indications that regions want to secede. For example, groups in the southern region – once considered as little Ethiopia – such as ethnic Sidamas and Wolaytas, are demanding statehood. Two recent demonstrations show that even those traditionally considered supporters of Ethiopian unity are preferring to establish their own ethnic regions.

The inter-ethnic violence across Sidama and Wolayta areas suggest that ensuring peace and stability across these areas is going to be challenging.

Solving the dilemma

Ahmed’s government faces a difficult dilemma trying to reconcile the voices in support of the country’s federal arrangement versus those who perceive it as a threat to their group, and the nation.

Crucially, pushing through the necessary debates and emerging with corrective measures that both empower all groups while also strengthening weakened national unity is tied to Ethiopia’s survival.

Finding common ground remains a matter of urgency.

Yohannes Gedamu, Lecturer of Political Science, Georgia Gwinnett College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.



  1. “Before 1991, groups that took up arms against Ethiopia’s central government and its elites alleged rampant ethnic oppression and discrimination. But their claims were debunked for lack of concrete evidence.” How dishonest is this. In the first place the article says nothing about debunking the claim of ethnic oppression in Ethiopia. And even if it says it, how can that be conclusive. The Amara Chauvinists’ opinion whether there was oppression or not is irrelevant. They always try to paint a rosy picture of an Imperial Ethiopia. What a shallow article devoid of any substance

  2. The socalled ethnic federalism is not te source of the current violence rather ABiy and Amhara elites want to suceed in power regardless of the peopleés life . Amhara elites want to hold power by deceiving the innocent people telling them that they will topple their enemies , TPLF. One of the mechanisim is to attach themselves to religious beliefs and clamoring that enemiy of Amhara , TPLF ,is the follower of 666. That is what amhara was continouly narrating and sounding like a broken record.Abiy and other amhara elites were sining the same songsheet to weaken Tigray and topple TPLF.

    Ethnic fedralism is not the reason for these horrendous events , coup or internal displacement and other bloodsheds . However, It is because of vagabonds who want to become parvenu, get rich quickly , by robbing people. Besides, as many people come to terms to the fact that amhara elites want to take grip of power as they showed ahuge thirst of power by creating chaos persistenly. Appeasing westerners to help them accede to the throne like thier forefathers known in genocide like aste menilik etc

    I have still a grip of fear that this violence will continue as amhara is not getting what they are longing for up to death !

    Amhar esp Gojam has afake story like the first human being was created in Gojam, Gojam is where Adam was created . Perhaps they will tell us Jesus was born in Bahir dar and 12c Apostles and three kings who offer Gold to Jeus during his nativity are believed to be from Gojam according to perverted Historians from Amhara region , Gojam.
    If you think TPLF caused violnce and killed 10 million amhara please cover up what Amhara elites and emperors did for centuries throwing dust on generations . Amhara are even hostile and ferocious to their own ethnic members. It is amhara people from gojam who are the major robbers and killers in Merkato .
    Amhara has told us numerous untold stories by depising others and overstating and fabricating stories which are netxt to nothing.


  3. I am not in a position to choose one system of union over the other. If those who oppose the current system of a federation means that that child of my Itu clan must experience the shock of his tender life like I did on that horrifying day more that 65 years ago because the medium of communication and instruction suddenly changed, then I would find that be unfair and wrong. If that means that anyone from my clan must find a translator to present his case in courts then I will find that to be not fair and cruel.

    One the other side, if what those for federation say means a leeway to loot, jail and oppress everyone in their region(which proved to be the case in every region since 1991), then I will find that not to be any different from the way the demonic Mengistu ruled. If what they say and do means that they can egregiously violate the inalienable rights(Allah given rights) of minorities in their region at will, then I would not see that to be any different from John Vorster’s way arranging the way people must live but this time one nigger claiming to be superior over the other one. That makes me sick.

    In either system, the problem has always people the people who control them. That Amhara peasant in Oromia or that Oromia peasant in Amhara does not give a hoot about the system people mumble to him as long as his rights are not violated and feels assured that they are always protected. He does not care what other say about this system or the other as long as his surrounding is peaceful that he does not have to worry about his and his family’s safety. He does not care what this or that means if he keeps ownership of every red cent he toiled for. He does not see ruffian public officials bullying him every time they feel like it, then he is at home with that one!!!

    This reminds of the debate and insult hurling that went down in student associations in the 1960’s and early 70’s here, in Europe and the Middle East. One group was cracking its wind pipe calling for provisional people’s government and the other one? I really did not get what they wanted but they were adamant about their opposition to the other group’s demand. There were cringe-worthy insults coming and going from both sides. To be honest with you, I did not get a good grip of what they were talking about. They loved using very abstract terms and phrases to explain their stands. But the reality was and still is that our dirt poor people did not know how to deal with the scabby that had been ravaging his and his children’s bodies. And those ‘philosophers’ did not tell us how they would tackle that either. That is what elites always are. I don’t know, that is my take and leave me alone!!!

    In the meantime, you can call me a habitual skeptic but I am a little befuddled with this new appointment by PM Abiy to replace the deceased Chief of Staff of the Defense Forces. It shows a degree of desperation or confusion here. Is it an effort going by a quota system or just sorting thru the magic wands? The brief background of the new appointee tells that he was the chief of the intelligence outfit until yesterday, the intelligence that showed total failure in light of the recent bloodshed. But what do I know, right? In any case, I wish everyone nothing but success in the effort to save the country from unprecedented bloody mayhem still hovering over its head. Bigots are on the prowl emboldened by the weekend bloodshed than ever. They are lambasting everywhere on the media ‘It in now or never’. May The Almighty Our Creator Save Our Old Country & Its Glorious People!!!!!!

  4. Dear Abiy

    Please donot bury your head under in the sand about the death of our beloved Generals .

    We will not let the dead bury the dead!!!!!===== We will go to great lengths to expose the truth .
    We are the genuine lions strong enough to captivate general with a bare hand like David . Bedengola kolonel Makarki!!

  5. The people of Ethiopia are passive in the consultation; all narratives are from elite (individuals/ group). Are the people pro or against the current federal system? It is a progressive approach to run a referendum when ever such critical political question endanger the county.
    So my proposition will be let us run a referendum to have a baseline that will help us as a people to project a number of options

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