Is Federalism Ethiopia’s Path to Unity?

Ethiopia is trying different strategies on the way to a united nation.


Is Federalism Ethiopia’s Path to Unity?

Unity versus division: Ethiopia is trying different strategies on the way to a united nation. But is a unity party undermining ethnic differences? And does federalism not further divide the country?

November 22, 2019 (German wave) – 105 million people live in Ethiopia, 80 ethnic groups in nine states. It’s a variety of culture, language and religion. Ever since he became prime minister in 2018, Abiy Ahmed’s efforts have been to build a united nation – and this week, with the prospect of the upcoming parliamentary election in 2020, it’s been tested twice to see if this is actually possible in the ethnically diverse country.

A few days ago, the ruling Revolutionary Democratic Front of the Ethiopian People’s Republic (EPRDF), a coalition of four ethnic parties, announced the merger as a joint party. Four days later, the people of the Sidama region voted to become an independent region and thus the tenth state of the country. For this purpose, a part of the region of the southern nations, nationalities and peoples (SNNPR), i.e. the fourth largest administrative zone in the country, split off. Results of the referendum are expected for this Saturday.

Two opposing strategies

Both events are seen as a test of the country’s multinational federalism struggling with communal tensions. “The referendum in Sidama is an expression of the democratization path that Ethiopia has taken,” said Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. But the democratization path, as Ahmed calls it, is controversial, says Kjetil Tronvoll, professor of peace and conflict research at Bjørknes University College, Oslo.

On Wednesday, the Sidama voted on autonomy


“On the one hand, the EPRDF is in a process of merging, representing the Prime Minister’s desire to create a common Ethiopian identity, as many have expressed, but on the other hand, different ethnic groups want their own ethnic states.” four percent of Ethiopia’s fifth-largest ethnic group, were the first to express this in a referendum.

When does autonomy make sense?

Blogger and DW columnist Befekadu Hailu criticized the conduct of the referendum. “Ethnicity determines the political discourse in Ethiopia, Sidama has conducted a referendum, but do people really know the pros and cons of it? I doubt it.” To have a state of their own is to Hailu only conditionally a solution. “Autonomy brings something to people when it changes socially, politically and economically.”

Abyy’s reforms since taking office have encouraged politicians to work for more rights for their ethnic groups. “In regions like Amhara and many others, the political discourse is mainly about federal rights,” Tronvoll explains in a DW interview. This contradicts the course that Ahmed would have taken for the formation of a common nation.


Growing federalism?

“About ten other groups want to secede from the SNNPR and have already applied for a referendum,” confirms Hailu in the DW interview. If this happens, it could lead to the complete fragmentation of SNNPR and the regional government. For example, the Wolaita and Kaffa could make similar votes. Analysts fear that they could unleash further ethnic violence and disenfranchisement.

Ethiopia’s constitution grants ethnic groups the right to become autonomous in order to ensure far-reaching ethnic self-government. With autonomy comes control in certain policy areas such as local taxes, education, and police. However, ethnic minorities in Sidama fear that the secession will lead to institutional discrimination. “If a region bears the name of an ethnic group, it seems that only this group has access to rights, power and resources,” Hailu warns. However, Sidama activists emphasize that a new regional state should address the long-standing grievances and improve the lives of the natives.

Separation vs. unity

The opposite trend, namely Abiy’s incarnation, is the merger of the governing coalition EPRDF into a common, ethnic-diverse party, the Ethiopia Prosperity Party (EPP). This is seen as one of the Prime Minister’s internal reform efforts to streamline the coalition’s decision-making structure, which consists of four main parties: the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Oromo Democratic Party, the Democratic Party Amhara, and the South Ethiopian Democratic Popular Movement. In addition, five satellite parties are part of the coalition.

The EPRDF will be grouped in one party in the future – the EPP


Only the TPLF, the party of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died in office in 2012, is opposed to the merger plans. Ahmed is likely to face greater resistance in building this party, Tronvoll said. “The frontline has little support among the general population, so the question arises: is the new party able to position itself as fundamentally new with a new ideology, and if so, is this ideology popular among the population? EPRDF just a new packaging?”

Ethiopia after Pan African model

According to Tronvoll, the party reflects Abyy’s desire to bring together ethnic groups in pan-African fashion. “Although ethnicity, culture and religion separate us, we stand together as a single entity,” was the motto. But can an ethnically diverse party live up to the sensitivities of the different regions? Columnist Befekadu Hailu believes this is possible: “A united party and the preservation of diversity do not collide. The prime minister is trying to merge the ethnic group coalition, but that does not mean he is fusing ethnic groups or ethnic federalism.” Thus, a merger would further support diversity within the party.

A separation and a merger – both are an indication of the future, according to Hailu. “The referendum is a test of how the national elections will take place in the future, and we will see if the new EPP can prove itself against other parties.” Both experts say that a new, ethnic-based region and a large multi-ethnic party will affect Ethiopia’s coexistence.

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