In the wake of a fragile humanitarian ceasefire announced by the Ethiopian government in March of this year, the country’s 18-month conflict between federal forces and forces from the northern Tigray region has stalled, prompting Ethiopian citizens and international observers to speculate how the fragmented country can move forward united. Of the many factors impacting Ethiopia’s future, the role of the ethnic federalist system cannot be overstated. Under this system, the structure intended to grant increased autonomy to regional ethnic units and decrease conflict between them continues to exacerbate the divisions it originally sought to mend. In order to prevent the continuation of violence and fatal blockades of humanitarian aid in various regions, and to begin the long-term process of building national unity, the Ethiopian government must critically review, with substantive input from all its constituents, the sustainability and effectiveness of the ethnic federalist system.
Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism system was first created in 1991 under the supervision of then-President Meles Zenawi, a native Tigrayan, who sought to bring balance between what he and others saw as an unfair system of ethnic power imbalances that had long favored the Amhara ethnic region. In 1994, a new constitution established nine regional states along ethnic lines, granting these states self-governing status and autonomy to make a range of important governance decisions, including the right of secession. By granting this high level of autonomy under the umbrella of the central government’s institutions, the government sought to reduce conflict between the groups and bring them all to a more equal level of power. Despite these ambitious goals, the new system overlooked a number of key considerations, namely the diversity of ethnicities within any given region. Since the institution of this system, the inflammation of tensions in regions where ethnic groups overlap have proliferated, ultimately leading to the current level of dissent from regions such as Tigray and Oromia.
Prior to the March ceasefire announcement between the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Ethiopian lawmakers overwhelmingly voted in December 2021 to establish a commission to oversee a “national dialogue” which aims to tackle various questions about the future of Ethiopia’s governmental structure. While this sign of progress appears initially encouraging, close reading of the commission’s establishment quickly reveals a number of shortcomings that could undermine the effort entirely. Most notably, the TPLF and Oromo Liberation Army, two of the primary groups involved in the ongoing conflict, are excluded from the dialogue, due in part to their designation as terrorist groups by the federal government – a designation that highlights the structural power that the ethnic federal system can impose on groups that the ruling party does not agree with. Actors such as Mussa Adem, head of the Afar region’s Afar People’s party, have strongly criticized the decision to leave out these key parties, questioning who, if not their opposition, they would reconcile with in a dialogue that is inherently intended to encompass all groups and interests in the country. However, outcry from all sides has seemingly fallen on deaf ears in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government as there is no sign of marked changes to the dialogue’s structure or permitted participants, even after the ceasefire announcement.
This exclusionary decision, coupled with the government’s unwillingness to listen to criticisms of the dialogue, suggests that substantive discussions on critical reconciliatory issues will likely either not occur or will not be taken seriously by the government, especially if the discussions lead to policy suggestions that involve the excluded parties. If the government truly wants to hear its people through this effort, it ought to adjust the proposed dialogue guidelines to allow all groups to participate. Moreover, the government should be prepared and open to larger overarching reforms, not band-aid policy fixes that do not tackle the more structural issues that have led to ethnic conflicts inflamed under the ethnic federalist system.
With critical services such as electricity still in limbo in Tigray, and an estimated 5 million of the region’s people in need of both food and medicine after months of aid blockades, the Ethiopian government must critically consider the factors that led to – and continue to aggravate – the country’s afflictions. A national dialogue, if implemented in a manner that adequately allows for participation across ethnic groups, is ultimately only the beginning of a long road toward reconciliation and rebuilding. Without addressing the long-standing structural development dilemmas brought about by the ethnic federalist system with input from native Ethiopians, the cycle of violence along fractured ethnic lines will continue to plague Ethiopia’s society.
Elizabeth Linsenmayer is a rising senior at George Washington University studying International Affairs with concentrations in security policy and Africa, and minors in Peace Studies and Arabic.
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