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Ethiopian nation-building is haunted by its troubled history

Sunday January 22, 2023
by Muktar Ismail

Discriminatory and exclusionary policies continue to disenfranchise ethnic groups in the state’s periphery.

Column of ONLF rebels

Since the1960s university student movement, native and foreign intellectuals have been debating over the positive and negative outcomes of the process of state formation and nation-building in Ethiopia.Ethiopia gained its current geographic shape in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, primarily through forcible conquest and threats thereof. Northern rulers from the relatively culturally homogeneous political unit historically called Abyssinia incorporated into their empire a plethora of self-governing southern indigenous groups such as the Oromo, Somali, Afar, Sidama, Wolaita, and many others.

In order to consolidate their control over the newly acquired territories, Emperors Menelik II and Haile Selassie I launched a three-pronged assimilation process structured around an exploitative land-tenure system, the choice of Amharic as state language, and the growth of the Orthodox Christian Church.

The conquered peoples had their cultures and traditions relegated to a second-class status. Their only way to participate in the political and social life of the newly established Ethiopian state was to adopt the conquerors’ customs.

Successive Abyssinian monarchs justified the colonization and dehumanization of indigenous nations using narratives of racial, cultural, and religious superiority.

In the beginning, Abyssinian elites mobilized international support for their endeavors from western countries and the Middle East by appealing to a common Semitic heritage. After World War II, they cleverly leveraged the symbolism behind Ethiopia’s successful resistance to western colonization to influence other African leaders and the African diaspora into ignoring the country’s own legacy of subjugation.

The choice by elites at the center to establish Ethiopia as an empire based on premises of ethnic superiority—in an era in which both this form of state organization and these racist premises were being repudiated internationally—should be blamed for the failure to create a functional, modern nation.

As a result of this state design and orientation, internal conflicts that arose over a century ago continue to this day. The wars in Tigray and Oromia are only the latest examples of this tendency.

Imperial System

It was during Menelik II’s reign that Ethiopia grew in size and attained international recognition after foiling an Italian attempt to colonize the country.

In fact, the first Italo-Ethiopian war, which culminated with the Battle of Adwa (1895-1896), was a watershed moment in continental history, resulting in the Treaty of Addis Abeba (1896), which recognized Ethiopia’s independence.

The burst of expansionist zeal which characterized this period resulted in Ethiopia doubling its territory and population. The country became a participant in the imperialist scramble for the region and the manner in which northern rulers administered their newly acquired territories were largely comparable to those of other colonial empires.

Haile Selassie I, who ascended to the throne in 1930, ushered in a period of modernity that was only briefly interrupted by the second Italo-Ethiopian war. After returning from exile in 1941, Selassie promulgated military and political reforms that fueled social and economic development, without revising the principles which had underpinned his predecessor’s conquest or tempering his strong commitment to royal absolutism.

Indeed, the emperor consolidated his authority by redoubling his centralization efforts, which consisted of replacing customary administrations, evicting local nobles, and further pulling power towards Addis Abeba.

As Selassie’s social policies largely ignored his people’s diversity and failed to address their grievances, these changes spurred resistance. With the exception of a few select groups, namely the local nobles and their kin, there was no deliberate program to build national unity. And it is exactly this policy of centralization without an accompanying inclusive policy that gave rise to the “national question”.

Onerous taxation was imposed to meet the growing budgetary needs and an extractive economic system was promoted. To enforce these policies and administer the southern territories, a large number of people were relocated from the Abyssinian homeland in the north. Their fidelity to the crown was assured by granting them fertile land and allowing them to exploit native labor under quasi-serfdom conditions.

As the emperor aged, disagreements over this extractive and oppressive system emerged that sparked various anti-imperial uprisings for emancipation and equality by oppressed groups. The most impactful of these rebellions were the war for independence in Eritrea (1961-1991) and the Bale peasant revolt (1963-1970).

Such violent challenges to the status quo, along with the 1960s student movement, were major contributors to Ethiopia’s 1974 revolution that saw Selassie deposed and the imperial system overthrown.

Terror Reign

The popular Marxist revolution that overthrew the previous order resulted in the rise of a military dictatorship rather than producing true socialism or a democratic revolution.

While, in principle, recognizing all group’s equal rights, Mengistu Hailemariam—head of the Derg regime from 1977 to 1991—set out to stifle any dissenting voices under the guise of socialism.

This was the case whether they sprang from adherents of the old administration, members of radical Marxist-Leninists cliques who opposed the military regime, or factions prioritizing ethnic self-determination over national unity. During this period, known as the “Red Terror”, hundreds of thousands of dissidents were murdered.

Under the slogan “land to the tiller”, economic and social progress during this period boiled down to the policy of land nationalization and the abolition of feudal power structures, two policies which were strongly supported in the southern regions.

The benefits of these reforms were short-lived, though, as the government remained embattled on several fronts.

Opposition groups composed of Marxist nationalists, secessionists in Eritrea, and ethno-nationalist movements from Tigray, Oromia, and Somali stepped up their armed struggle against the government.

Famine and suffering remained prevalent throughout Mengistu’s rule as he employed a “drain the sea to catch the fish” policy to defeat the armed rebellions in Tigray and Eritrea, leading to an estimated one million deaths.

As the generous support from the Soviet Union dwindled, the ethno-nationalists and secessionists managed to overthrow the Derg regime in 1991. While the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition took power in Addis Abeba, Eritreans decided in a referendum to secede from Ethiopia in 1993.

Ethnic Federalism

In devising a new federal structure for Ethiopia based on ethno-linguistic settlement patterns, the EPRDF put individual and ethnic groups’ rights at the center of the political debate once again.

Many Ethiopians celebrated the end of the military regime and initially welcomed the EPRDF’s promulgation of the federal constitution in 1995. The text exhaustively codified a large set of individual rights and ethnic groups’ entitlements, thus fueling hopes for a more pluralistic Ethiopia.

Unfortunately, these did not materialize. In fact, while part one of the federal constitution guarantees a large number of liberal rights, their application in situations involving free speech, freedom of association, and democratic elections were extremely limited.

Although Ethiopia’s new federal dispensation recognized ethnic groups’ right to form separate administrative entities and granted them other fundamental rights—including the right to teach and interact with the public administration in their native language—it did not alter the patron-client relationship between the center and the periphery due to the EPRDF’s centralist nature.

The authoritarian nature of the ruling coalition manifested itself early on, when the EPRDF severed contacts with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), partners in the transitional government. Many ethno-nationalists, who initially supported the new government, began to realize that federalism was only implemented in theory and, in actuality, political control by the center and exclusionary mechanisms were still in place.

On the whole, the ruling EPRDF disregarded the constitution of its own making, imposed its surrogate constituent parties on the people of Oromia, Amhara, Southern Nations, Somali, and elsewhere, and unleashed an appalling amount of violence on the civilian population.

For example, between 2007 and 2014, Somalis experienced disproportionate discrimination, economic blockade, systemic rape, and displacement. Brutal crackdowns ensued in Oromia and Amhara during waves of protests from 2014 to 2018.

Moreover, the EPRDF’s promotion of free market principles resulted in the establishment of some TPLF-owned businesses and parastatal companies with monopolistic tendencies, casting doubt on the government’s genuine intentions regarding the economic development of the entirety of the country.

Regardless of its inclination for a federal political system, the ideological makeup of the state hardly changed. Tigray, whose representatives were at the helm of the ruling coalition, had been historically affiliated with Menelik II’s expansion and Tigrayans had been recognized for their contributions to Ethiopian history.

In line with previous exclusionary trends and narrow narratives, the region’s role in introducing Christianity to Ethiopia and the distinctive architecture emblematically represented by the Axum obelisks were continuously praised as universal symbols of Ethiopian culture.

Other ethno-nationalists who support federalism and decentralization did not identify with these narratives and saw the TPLF-led EPRDF’s time in power as another era of Abyssinian dominance, during which Tigrayan rulers simply replaced Amhara ones.

The different understandings of what it means to be Ethiopian, as well as the disillusionment towards the decentralization and democratization processes of this diverse nation, led to mass public disobedience against the ruling EPRDF.

After three years of struggles, protesters forced Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to resign in February 2018. Abiy Ahmed was then appointed as EPRDF party chairman and later Prime Minister by the House of People’s Representatives.

Contemporary Challenge

Despite the fact that the majority of Ethiopia’s peripheral communities are oppressed, Somalis are a particular case in point, having faced systemic repressionexclusion, and organized state violence under previous regimes.

Somalis in Ethiopia have long resisted labels such as “irredentists”. Instead, they fought for their liberation for many years and paid a high price to get to where they are today. Between the 1960s and 2018, millions of them fled to Somalia, Djibouti, and Kenya as refugees. Some eventually made their way to the Arab world, Europe, and North America, where they established thriving diaspora communities.

The people living in Ethiopia’s peripheral lowland regions no longer accept derogatory narratives espoused by northern highlanders about their land, which is still described by some as a semi-desert territory inhabited by lawless and unskilled tribes.

These southern peoples are more aware than ever of their regions’ abundance of natural resources such as water, arable land, and minerals. Moreover, they appreciate their lands’ strategic importance for the overall economic development of the country.

Ethiopia’s major trade routes pass through the Somali, Afar, and Oromia regions, making these kilils crucial for the growth of trade in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia as a whole is one of the poorest countries in the world, with approximately 33 percent of the population living in poverty, but it is peripherical regions that have been disproportionally affected by skewed developmental policies.

Indeed, while climate change and conflict affect the entirety of the nation, exclusionary economic policies, like the discouragement of pastoralism as a means of earning a living, disproportionately affect communities in the peripheral lowlands such as the Somali, Afar, Borana, Bale, Gumuz, and Gambella.

In line with a longstanding economic policy revolving solely around agriculture, the exploitation of vast pastoralist market opportunities has never been properly prioritized.

As a consequence, intra-clan conflicts over natural resources such as grazing land and water never receive adequate attention by federal authorities and continue to negatively impact the development of these regions.

Droughts, overgrazing, and deforestation have thus degraded lowland regions over time, making it difficult for the people living in these areas to feed themselves and thus forcing them to rely on relief aid.

In addition, peripheral regions are underrepresented in terms of civil servants employed in federal institutions such as telecommunications, banking, power lighting, airports, and security institutions.

Finally, as a national priority, the Ethiopian government passed legislation to construct ten industrial parks across federal regions in 2014. These projects were supposed to help the government transform the economy from an agrarian to an industrial one, as well as create jobs and expand export opportunities.

As a matter of fairness, the massive investments implied by this strategy should have been distributed across the country. However, none of the parks were built in the country’s peripheral regions, further demonstrating the skewed nature of the government’s economic policies.

Positive Contributions

Recognizing the empire’s troubled colonial past, Ethiopia needs to launch a transitional justice and reconciliation process with the aim to end its culture of impunity around past and present abuses. Doing so would help lay a solid foundation for the rule of law in a democratic governance setting.

Transitional justice should also promote peace and reconciliation between individuals and communities within the state and restore citizens’ faith in government’s institutions and in the fairness of access to public services.

The other major challenge is a lack of autonomy for various nations within the country. The current implementation of the federal arrangement, which betrays the spirit of the 1995 constitution, has failed to realize people’s aspirations for autonomy and self-determination.

The Abiy-led transition has failed. It endangered the country and the entire Horn of Africa. The ideological conflict between the belligerent groups reached a climax in November 2020 and devolved into a full-scale conflict. The war in Tigray, Afar, Amhara, and Oromia is a manifestation of the conflict between those who want to cling to the oppressive system of the past and those who support the skewed version of federalism.

Ethiopians need to free themselves from the paradigms advocated by those nostalgic of the imperial setup, on the one hand, and the current skewed federalism, on the other. The fundamental question the Ethiopian people need to answer today is how to come up with new arrangements that avoid the pitfalls of the previous disastrous models.

Peripheral communities have experienced exclusion and discrimination under all previous forms of government. Therefore, they have the moral standing to lead, foster, and help in establishing a more inclusive political space.

While in the past their narratives have been ignored in the nation-building debate, it now falls upon them to contribute to a pluralist understanding of the Ethiopian national identity, which is the only way to prevent a collapse of the country.

Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s current regime continues to restrict freedom of expression, assembly, and association. As a result, independent media outlets, civil society organizations, and opposition parties are finding it difficult to operate in the country.

Moreover, Ethiopia’s leaders routinely change the rules of the political game—including revising electoral laws, limiting the political space, and relying on state’s coffers and non-transparent campaign financing—in ways that disadvantage opposition parties.

All of these tactics prevent constructive debate from taking place and silence grassroots proposals. Owing to structural inequalities within the country, these policies disproportionately affect peripheral communities.

To liberate the nation, Ethiopia requires competent, independent institutions that can guarantee accountability, sound administration, and effective application of the law. Given their historical experiences, peripheral regions are keen to spearhead efforts to ensure the separation of powers between governmental institutions, particularly the independence of the judiciary.

Being in their interest, Ethiopians should encourage and support them in these efforts.

Given how politically and economically costly war is, there’s a need to re-calibrate politicians’ mindsets and approaches to power consolidation. Rather than using force, it is preferable to develop a culture of political elite consensus building and bargaining.

The role of traditional and social media in cultivating harmful narratives that fuel violence has grown in recent years. Unfortunately, there is no critical mass of people, or an inter-ethnic and religious peace movement, committed to putting an end to the wars.

Regardless of how the wars affect people’s lives in Tigray, Oromia, Afar, Amhara, and elsewhere in Ethiopia, redirecting energy toward peaceful discourse would be a significant step toward ending the hostilities taking place in many parts of the country.


Muktar is a disaster prevention specialist, a former humanitarian and development advisor to Somali region's president, and a former UN staff member.


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