On Nov. 28, 2020, Ethiopia’s military took control of Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, after a monthlong fight with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Before the conflict, the Tigray region under TPLF rule was edging toward de facto independence. After the TPLF lost its hegemonic position in Addis Ababa in 2015—where it had dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition for decades—it relocated political and bureaucratic personnel to Mekele. When national elections were postponed due to COVID-19, the TPLF rejected the constitutionality of the decision and went ahead with its own regional election, which it won handily.
Then, it declared that it no longer recognized the federal government as legitimate, and it successfully thwarted the appointment of a new head to the Ethiopian army’s Northern Command, effectively apportioning to itself the most heavily armed section of the National Defense Force. This was followed by a coordinated, preemptive attack on the Ethiopian army’s Northern Command in the early hours of Nov. 4 that enabled the TPLF to take control of the army headquarters in Mekele and several other bases. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed quickly appeared on TV to launch a military operation to dislodge the TPLF from Tigray.
The conflict in Tigray is not merely a political squabble between the TPLF and Abiy’s Prosperity Party, but a struggle for sovereignty between the federal government and a regional state. This is also not the first time the federal government went to war to reclaim control of an intransigent regional state. In August 2018, the federal government undertook an armed operation to dislodge Abdi Mohamoud Omar (also known as Abdi Ilay), the then-president of the Somali regional state—leading to many deaths and the displacement of civilians, especially ethnic minorities.
Ethiopia’s constitution, which was ratified in 1994 under the auspices of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which was dominated by the TPLF, is unique in endowing sovereignty upon the country’s nations and nationalities. Its position is also radical because it allows an unqualified right for self-determination, up to secession, to Ethiopia’s more than 80 ethnic groups. This has raised the stakes in federal-regional disagreements, and potentially increased the risk of conflict by allowing secession to be a bargaining chip in political disputes.
For its supporters, the ethnic-based federal system represents a triumph for the age-old quest of Ethiopia’s disenfranchised ethnic groups for autonomy and self-rule. The federal system is seen as the answer to the “question of nations and nationalities”—a school of political thought that critiqued and rejected sociopolitical domination by Ethiopia’s northern Christian elites, mainly ethnic Amharas and, to a lesser degree, Tigrayans. Ethnic federalism was intended to create a new dispensation that ensured that the political, cultural, and economic rights of all ethnic and religious groups are equally respected.
But the turmoil of the past few years has also exposed the limits of Ethiopia’s experimentation in ethnic federalism. Even its ardent supporters cannot conceivably deny that ethnic federalism has raised as many questions as it has answered, and that it has made Ethiopia a more fragmented, polarized, and conflict-plagued country.
The TPLF and other architects of Ethiopia’s constitution could not have missed the ominous signs on open display; They most likely considered their own country’s eventual breakdown as an acceptable, perhaps even desirable, outcome. The bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia, which was attended by bitter interethnic wars, was also a red flag for what self-determination could entail in a multiethnic mosaic like Ethiopia. It was already clear from the 1984 national census that only 30 of Ethiopia’s 580 woredas (districts) at the time were actually monolingual ethnic islands.
The constitution’s endorsement of the right to self-determination is based on the contentious supposition that ethnic groups can be neatly subdivided into mutually exclusive categories, each with a claim to a distinct territorial homeland. In reality ethnic identities are fluid and overlaid, and ethnic territorial jurisdictions are often overlapping and contested.
Even in Tigray, the only regional state that nominally existed before the current constitution, regional boundaries were entirely redrawn upon the creation of new administrative units in 1994. Much of the current West Tigray and North West Tigray zones (Welkait, Humera, Tsegede, and Tselemte) and some parts of South Tigray (Raya Azebo) were apportioned from the former provinces of Gondar and Wollo, which were mainly inhabited by Amharas.
These territories, which roughly make up one-third of present-day Tigray, are vigorously contested by Amhara nationalists as their own—a dispute that contributed to the involvement of the region’s special forces in the recent war in Tigray. Had Tigray under the TPLF proceeded with secession, it would have only been a matter of time before it descended into an intractable border war with the rest of Ethiopia, just as Eritrea did after winning its own de facto independence in 1991, which was formalized through a referendum in 1993.
The 1998-2000 Eritrean-Ethiopian border war, which led to the death of more than 100,000 people from both sides, helped entrench the TPLF’s rule in Ethiopia, but it also severely weakened Eritrea, sowing the seeds of a deep-seated animosity between the TPLF and Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s authoritarian president. At the peak of the Tigray conflict in November 2020, the TPLF fired a series of rockets at the capital of Eritrea, accusing it of sending in its army to Tigray, an allegation that Eritrea denies but is supported by recent independent reports.
One of the most devastating effects of Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism is its utter failure to protect minorities. For instance, the 1994 constitution created a new region called Benishangul-Gumuz as one of Ethiopia’s nine (now 10) administrative regional states, as a homeland to the Benishangul and Gumuz ethnic groups. The region’s constitution affirms that the region “belongs” to five native ethnic groups: the Berta, Gumuz, Shinasha, Mao, and Komo. Other important minorities like Amharas, Oromos, and Agaws, who make up at least 40 percent of the region’s population, are treated as second-class citizens without a right to create their own (ethnic) parties for legitimate political representation.
The failure to safeguard minorities extends to all regional states, leaving minorities in a precarious situation where they live with a constant fear of eviction. A narrative of “natives” versus “outsiders” and a political discourse grounded in ethnic grievances inevitably feeds into cycles of violence. In times of political change and instability, such as the period since 2015, ethnic tensions have boiled over, making minorities victims of brutal killing, eviction, and displacement.
The number of these incidents is despairingly too great to count but includes recent episodes where Amharas were displaced by the thousands in Oromia, Oromos were displaced from Somali region, Tigrayans were violently evicted from Amhara region, as well as a perpetual violence in Benishangul-Gumuz region that has brought death and destruction to hundreds from all ethnic groups. These tragic events have not only traumatized millions but also frayed the tender threads of trust and social capital that have held communities together for centuries.
Moreover, in its fixation on ethnic autonomy, the current constitution has severely impaired, perhaps intentionally, the political power of urban centers—which are ethnic melting pots and thus do not fit the ideological straitjacket of ethnic purity. Since the constitution defines land as a property of ethnic groups, cities without a specific ethnic identity have been left without land, and hence without a right to statehood.
The capital, Addis Ababa—despite being the economic and political hub of the country with far greater population that four of the original nine regional states—is constituted as a federally administered enclave that, according to the constitution, is located “within the State of Oromia.” In a country where ethnic identity has become the most fundamental variable of political and economic organization, multiethnic urban centers like Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa are reduced to being staging grounds of political influence among competing ethnic parties rather than being able to administer themselves.
Boundary disputes between ethnic regions are hard to resolve, because almost all ethnic boundaries are artificial concoctions that lack historical precedents. Prior to the creation of these boundaries in 1994, Ethiopia’s many dozens of ethnic groups seldom had administrative boundaries entirely based on ethnic affiliation. Administrative boundaries were typically porous as people freely moved across geographies, especially in the lowlands, where people followed a mobile, nomadic lifestyle. None of the regional states of the federation existed in their current form and many, such as Amhara and Oromia regions, ever historically existed as separate, independent entities, within Ethiopia or outside. The top-down manufacturing of ethnic nations, complete with sovereign territorial boundaries, has begotten simmering border disputes that threaten to plunge the country into a civil war.
Even from the perspective of ethnic rights, the current system has not enabled the majority of the country’s ethnic groups to exercise the right to self-rule. An arbitrary nomenclature of ethnic classes has been used to allow certain ethnic groups to be organized as autonomous regional states, while denying the same right to other groups of similar population size.
The constitution, for example, lumped together around 20 million people of no less than 50 ethnic groups within a region called Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNP), while allowing the creation of a Harari regional state in Harar City, with a population of less than 300,000. Hararis were accorded statehood despite making up only 9 percent of the population, purportedly in recognition of the unique historical and religious significance of the city of Harar, which is fully encircled by Oromia, a massive region with close to 40 million inhabitants. These size differences create asymmetric power relations among competing administrative polities and the associated political entities that administer them, leading to political, administrative, and economic imbalances.
A highly exclusionary ethnonationalism will create persistent risks of volatility and violence, which could undermine democracy by making authoritarian positions more palatable on the grounds of peace and security. It also creates the risk of major ethnic groups—the Amhara and the Oromo—forming alliances that co-opt smaller ethnic groups, leading to a political settlement that is neither inclusive nor progressive.
It is clear that Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism needs a major overhaul in order to sustain a peaceful electoral democracy. Without a reform, the system remains a risk to itself and the country, as ethnic rivalries could easily descend into cycles of violence that will endlessly repeat the traumatic experience of the past five years.
The elevation of zones to state-level members of the federation can ensure ethnic self-administration, which would be in keeping with the constitutional emphasis on autonomy and self-rule. At the same time, it would significantly reduce the likelihood of major military or political clashes between neighboring regions, and between regions and the federal government. It would also lead to zonal states that are relatively uniform in size, facilitating a more fair and equitable sharing of political and other forms of power across them.
More importantly, having zonal states as main administrative units would be a significant step toward ensuring self-rule among dozens of nations and nationalities. This solution would, for example, automatically resolve the contention in SNNP, where Wolayta Zone and 10 other ethnic zones are demanding the right to statehood. It will also put to rest many territorial disputes including the ones over Welkait, Humera, Tsegede, Tselemte, and Raya, in which the Amhara and Tigray regional states are pitted against each other.
Ethiopia has more than 60 zones, and having so many first-tier administrative units can introduce many administrative challenges. This, however, is a technicality that can be resolved through procedural mechanisms. Kenya, for example, has adopted 47 counties as its major administrative units after a constitutional change that was enacted following the 2007 post-election violence. The devolution of administrative power to county governments has improved governance quality and given more voice and power to citizens. A Council of Governors, comprising the administrative heads of the 47 counties, coordinates collective action over issues that cut across counties.
This political devolution does not have to lead to the dissolution of the current regional states. The regions, which can be seen as collective associations of major ethnic groups, can be reformed to serve as traditional, cultural entities charged with cultural stewardship and the pursuit of interethnic harmony.
Many African nations have similar traditional structures parallel to formal political structures. For example, Nigeria and Ghana each have dozens of traditional chiefdoms and kingdoms that do not have official political power but wield considerable influence as stewards of traditional ethnic cultures. If supported by proper governance mechanisms, the presence of parallel administrative structures could enrich and promote cultural interaction, reducing the risk of interethnic political conflict. It can also help redefine the meaning of ethnic “territorial homeland” to its cultural rather than political connotation, reducing the risk of border friction between ethnic groups as well as the disenfranchisement of minorities.
The violent end of the TPLF-dominated era has demonstrated the perils of organizing political power along ethnic lines. The episode also presents an opportunity to rethink Ethiopia’s political system and remake it to accommodate competitive politics. Without reform, Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism holds the seeds of endless conflict that will undermine the country’s very existence.
Devolution of political power to zonal states could offer a path out of the current conundrum and reduce the risk of a catastrophic conflict among militarized ethnic regional states. If approved at the ballot box and executed effectively, such a change can help usher in a democratic system in which the rights of individuals and ethnicities are balanced. It could also lead to a more sober, secular, and constructive political discourse that focuses on building communities rather than tearing them apart.