MEIG Highlights 12 mai 2021

Highlight 17/2021 – The Fallout of Ethnic Federalism

Luc Willis, 12 May 2021

In the past few years, Ethiopia experienced an economic boom while emerging as one of the rising powers of Africa. Since the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1970’s, Ethiopians had become mired with instability, war, drought and famine. Despite this adversity, Ethiopia still managed to register over 10% growth from 2004 to 2009 as well as having the fastest growing non-oil-dependent economy in Africa. Yet all this progress may crumble due to a highly contentious and multi-faceted conflict that has broken out in November 2020.

The ethnic conflict in Ethiopia is currently being fought between the forces of the Ethiopian government, headed by Abiy Ahmed, versus the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) led by Debretsion Gebremichael. The TPLF hails from the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia and were the dominant faction from 1995 to 2012 under Meles Zenawi, after overthrowing the Derg. Under Zenawi’s government, the concept of ethnic federalism was used to maintain a balance between Ethiopia’s 80 ethno-linguistic groups. The reasoning behind this policy was to break the Amhara dominance that presided over other groups during the days of the Emperor and bring autonomy to ethnic governments. While some praised Zenawi’s policy as having achieved its aim of equality and prosperity, others concluded that the policy simply hardened regional identities over a united one as political parties were drawn along ethnic lines in the federal government as well.

This infrastructure that the Tigray built came to halt when Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018. Born into the Oromo ethnic group, Ahmed sought to reform the dominant Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). This party was once a coalition between the four major groups in the country; the Oromo, the Amhara, the Tigray and the Southern Nations. To distance the country from ethnic federalism, Ahmed dissolved the EPRDF in 2019 and merged the constituent parties into the Prosperity Party. The goal was to create a pan-ethnic party to overcome ethnic divisions. The TPLF however, having enjoyed privileges under the power structure it created, refused to join the party, and accused Ahmed’s government of being illegitimate. Elections were later held in Tigray by Chairman Debretsion Gebremichael in September 2020 in defiance to the government. Although sporadic skirmishes between the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) and the TPLF have occurred prior to November 2020, a formal conflict was declared when forces loyal to the TPLF attacked an ENDF base November 4th. Since then, multiple atrocities have been reported coming from both sides while the Federal government claims victory over the rebels, accusations of genocide upon the Tigrayans have been made the local populace.

Despite Prime Minister Ahmed’s attempts at unification, Ethiopia is at its most divided state since the end of the civil war. His government faces tough decisions ahead; must it return to the decentralized approach of governance which maintained peace but only harbored division or alter a political system in order homogenize governance.

Luc WILLIS, The Fallout of Ethnic Federalism, Highlight 17/2021, available at

The views expressed in the MEIG Highlights are personal to the author and neither reflect the positions of the MEIG Programme nor those of the University of Geneva.


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