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Ethnicity and Democratization in Ethiopia
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“Nation-ness” remains to be one of the most universally legitimate values in the political life of our time. The concept of the “nation” is a manifestation of modernity; it first emerged in England and gained prominence from the fatal interplay of capitalism and the printing press. It spread across the globe imperceptibly until it came to be regarded as natural and inevitable rather than the human construction that it is. Nationalism, a powerful and complex force, upon its rise has generated a substantial conglomerate of literature. Benedict Anderson defines the nation as a socially constructed community, imagined by those who perceive themselves to be part of that group, and sovereign and limited in nature. Liah Greenfield builds on his contentions, further proposing that national identity granted average people dignity, something once enjoyed merely by elites, and argues that democracy was born with this growing sense of nationalism (the interrelatedness of these two modern systems will prove to be pertinent). However, with the rise of nationalism, the struggles of nation-building was also born. Although all generalizations about as large and varied a continent as Africa are dangerous, generally post-colonial African states especially have been confronted with the formidable problems of the polities of nation-building and they have yet to successfully undertake this challenging process in its entirety. On the other hand, the growing movement towards more democratic forms of governance in Africa over the past decade has been one of the most encouraging developments in the continent. Ethiopia, a landlocked country in the horn of Africa, provides an interesting take on this new disposition toward democratization coupled with the struggles of nation-building. Therefore, this paper explores the challenges of nation-building due to the politicization of ethnic identities in Ethiopia and how it has hindered the democratization process.

Political History

Ethiopia, widely considered the cradle of mankind, remains to be one of the few regions

in the world that encompasses a history that can be traced back to antiquity. The country has deep historical roots, thus understanding its remote past is fundamental to successfully analyze it’s intricate present. For much of its history Ethiopia was governed by a monarchy under the rule of various dynasties from the Solomonic dynasty to the Zagwe dynasty. However, the foundations of the modern Ethiopian state was predominantly established in the mid-nineteenth century by the Kingdom of Abyssinia under emperors Yohannes IV, Tewodros II, and Menelik II. Under the rule of this empire, the Ethiopian state resisted external threats of capture by the Egyptians, and more notably defeated Italy’s colonization efforts making it one of two African states that retained their independence during colonialism. Nonetheless, while the rest of the continent fell to the European scramble for Africa, Ethiopia, as we know it today, was subject to the empire-expansionist project launched by the Abyssanian emperor Menelik II. During the reign of the Abyssinian Empire, emperor Menelik II began a perpetual southwards expansion; through this conquest the autonomous states of the south were subdued and incorporated into the Empire giving it its current geographical, cultural, linguistic, and ethnic composition. This expansion of territory as reunification of the empire provided the impetus and space for institutionalized exploitation, further conquest of land, and the imposition of the language, culture, and religion of the ruling hegemonic class. In 1974, the long-reigning monarchy came crashing down when a popular revolution spearheaded by the Ethiopian Student Movement overthrew the last emperor of Ethiopia, Haileselassie I, from power. The Ethiopian government was then run by the military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam who employed Marxist-Leninist-inspired policies such as nationalization and land redistribution. Mengistu Haile Mariam’s one party communist state was characterized by internal rebellion, a pernicious famine, and most notably a violent political repression known as the “Red Terror”. However the days of communism were over when the Ethiopian People's Democratic Front (EPDF), a coalition of ethnically based opposition groups, organized an insurgency and successfully drove Mengistu into exile and finally gained control of state power. In 1991, the Ethiopian government changed for both better and for worse. The EPDF adopted a new constitution and established the Transitional Government of Ethiopia, a new political regime that brought fundamental transformation to the long-held political philosophy of the Ethiopian state (further discussed later); at the forefront of this new government was the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF dominated the political and economic scene in Ethiopia for nearly three decades through authoritarianism and a dominant-party state; their dictatorship was characterized by astounding state-led economic growth, fraudulent elections, and human rights abuses. On April 2, 2018 pertinacious discontent amongst the Ethiopian people led to the demise of TPLF leadership and paved the way for a new prime minister by the name of Abiy Ahmed and the formation of the Prosperity Party (successor of the EPDF).

Ethnicity and the State

In accordance with much of the vast literature on the concept and likewise to Andersons understanding of the nation, ethnicity is the shared perception of belonging based on a common language, culture, history; it “fosters a feeling of cultural identity and existential solidarity” (Kandeh, 1992). Ethnic heterogeneity has been widely considered to have various inimical effects on economic prosperity and the stability of democracy. Economically, for instance, the diversity of languages under one polity impedes communication in both the public & private sector and hence stagnates long-term economic growth (increase in costs of production, decrease in standard of living, etc). Politically, ethnic diversity can foster violent conflict, low state effectiveness, and increased instability. However, recently scholars have developed their thinking to ascribe this effect to the politicization of ethnic identities rather than the diversity of them; rightfully so. The birth of the nation state, as mentioned above, allowed for the rise of ethnicity as a politically relevant category. Thus, ethnicity in and of itself is not relevant per se, rather it is the emergence of ethnicity as a politically salient identity and the entanglement of ethnicity with the political process that has proved to be fundamental in the discourse surrounding countries like Ethiopia.

Ethiopia currently holds the title for the second largest population in Africa, after Nigeria. This population is incredibly diverse, a mosaic of more than eighty different ethnic groups and about one-hundred languages. According to the Ethiopian Census, the Oromo constitute 34.6% of the population, the Amhara 27.1%, the Tigray 6.1%, the Somali 6.1%, and the remaining quarter is made up of a plethora of smaller ethnic groups. However, in Ethiopia ethnicity is not merely a classification or a box to check, it has a consequential role within the political sphere and serves as an instrument to consolidate the social and political structure, past and present. In order to understand identity politics post-1991 in its entirety, it’s imperative to recognize it’s close ties with the historical trajectories that shaped the relationship between ethnicity and the state.

During the monarchical period of Ethiopia's political history, the empire-state was entirely dominated by Amhara nobility; the origins of the Amhara ruling elite is traced back to the legendary union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Under the empires feudal system, the northern Tigrayan province was increasingly marginalised by Amhara imperial rule although the ethnic groups were two branches of the same Semitic tree and their languages derivations of the Aksumite tongue Ge'ez (now the language of the Ethiopian/Eritrean Orthodx Church). Towards the end of the nineteenth-century, Menelik II embarked on his campaign of expansion and in the process dismantled indigenous states, wiping them off the face of the earth along with their history. The conquered land belonged predominantly to the Oromo, as well as other Southern ethnic groups. Due to the southern lands fertility and the disposition of its indigenous people, much of it was distributed amongst the Amhara nobility (church & court officials, soldiers, etc) through patronage networks. “Accordingly, control of land became the organizing principle of imperial rule, translating into the sujucation and exploitation of the rural producer, the conquered Oromo & Southern peoples'' (Marakis, 2011). Moreover, with the goal of national integration (“one nation out of many'') in mind, the imperial regime also promoted a forced cultural assimilation policy titled “Amharisation” which served to increase the power of the imperial autocrat and solidified Amhara supremacy in the state, economic, and social sector for many years. This in turn fed into a rhetoric with culturally arrogant overtones that regarded the Oromo as primitive, backward and inferior to the Amhara.

The 1960s was a pivotal period for Ethiopia as student led rebellions took aim at this dominant social and political order. The youthful urban intelligentsia demanded the eradication of a land system that impoverished the predominant farming population and for the first time introduced the “national question” and the rhetoric of ethnic nationalism into Ethiopia. A ruling class dominated exclusively by the wealthy Amhara contingent triggered the subjected Ethiopian peoples (primarily the Tigray & Oromo) to articulate their grievances drawing on the ideas of pluralism and self-determination (rights of nations, Nationalities and Peoples). Although the Ethiopian Student Revolution of 1974 hurried the demise of an obsolete means of governance it failed to construct a new order reflective of its initial vision and the military took advantage of the power vacuum.

The fall of the military regime in 1991 and the coming to power of the EPRDF formally reconigurated the Ethiopian state along ethnic lines, further intensifying the dynamics of ethnic nationalism through the ethnicization of the country’s politics. This new regimes attempt at the century-old nation state-building project has proved to be the most ambitious as it strived to address the long ignored issue of “the [exploitative] relationship between a Christan-dominated and Amhara-speaking centre and the various peripheral peoples and regions'' through the implementation of a decentralised ethnic-based federal system (Clapham, 1995 ). The periphery initially welcomed the decentralization as it allowed for their once suppressed cultures and languages to be recognized and their regions administered by people of their own ethnic group. Such sentiments did not last long as the masses realized the locus of real power was concentrated amongst the Tigray elite and the regimes initiatives did not intend to fulfill their promise of ending the centres historical monopoly of ruling power; rather they mimicked this exact phenomenon in ways subtler than their predecessors. Federalism continued the historical hegemony of the centre and did not by any means cultivate an equitable sharing of power; the elite in the centre ruled, while the elite in the periphery administered (Marakiks, 2011). The TPLF’s unwillingness to share power, let alone surrender it , attested by government killings of civilians, mass arrests, government land seizures, and extensive detainment of opposition groups, coupled with their extraction of the country’s wealth for personal enrichment through a rental system & inequitable distribution of state resources gave rise to widespread discontent, especially amongst the Oromo and Amhara. “It is clear that patterns of development that have favoured some groups and regions at the expense of others have made the state, as the arbitrator over the distribution of scarce resources, the focus of endemic political conflict between competing ethnic groups'' (Markakis, 2011). This discontent was most transformative in 2016, when the Oromo youth followed by the Amhara took the streets of nearly every locales in Ethiopia chanting “down, down woyane” and demanding an end to the political & economic marginalisation and oppression of their people at the hands of the powerful and wealthy Tigryan hegemony. The civil unrest was sparked by the governments “Master Plan” to expand the capital into the surrounding Oromia region consequently displacing farmers off their land.

The election of Abiy Ahmed into office sparked unprecedented optimism amongst the Ethiopian public and more notably amongst ethnic-based opposition groups as he promised political reform and unity. Initially, the newly elected prime minister worked to fulfill his promise by releasing thousands of political prisoners, welcoming home previously exiled opposition groups & media outlets, and successfully negotiating an end to the Ethiopian-Eritrean border dispute. However, rather than putting an end to the identity politics that has plagued Ethiopia's political history, under Abiy Ahmed's tenure the politicization of ethnic identities & inter-ethnic conflict has heightened for numerous factors, even to the point of civil war. Though exploring in detail said factors is beyond the scope of this paper, generally they include: Abiy’s indefinite postponement of elections & thus his illegitimate stay on power, the killing of a renowned ethnic Oromo singer & civil rights activist, recent violence targeted at ethnic Amhara, Guragye, & some Chiristan Oromo civilians that show “disturbing hallmarks of ethnic cleansing”, and the mistreatment & terrorization of Tigray civilians due to the ethnic underpinnings of the current conflict between federal & regional forces. Furthermore, though Abiy Ahmed is an ethnic Oromo he enjoys fragmented and steadily declining support from both his home region of Oromia and the rest of Ethiopia; contenstations to his authority grew amongst the Oromo public after his imprisonment of several Oromo activists and his exclusion of opposition groups from formal political involvement in the transition period. Nevertheless, it’s critical to note that the implications of ethnic-based conflict in the political arena are not as pervasive outside that arena and not reflective of the inter-ethnic relations amongst most of the country's people (evinced by widespread inter-ethnic marriages, families etc)

The Unique Case of Ethiopian Democracy

“The early 1990s became the age of instant democracy in Africa in the same way as the mid-1970s were the age of instant socialist transformation” (Ottaway, 1995). Ethiopia was no exception to this newfound ‘wave of democratisation’ that swept across the African continent as a consequence of both internal and external pressures. In 1990, the Soviet Union ended their support for Mengistu’s communist state; likewise most of the world also had very little sympathy for socialists movements and certainly no political or economic support for it. Aware of this global phenomenon, when the TPLF seized control of the government they dropped all Marxist references in their political oratory and rather appeared to have committed themselves to the language of democracy, consequently securing the support of the new global hegemon, the United States. This marked the formal beginning of what looked like an Ethiopia dedicated to instant democratic transformation. Superficially, the beginning was promising. A Constitution that went to great lengths to address the iniquity inherent in the division of power between the centre & periphery was drafted and ratified, a two-year “legitimate,broad-based” transitional government that included local/regional elections as well as general elections for a national assembly was established; Ethiopia was supposed to come out at the other side of these reforms a full-fledged democracy. That’s not exactly what transpired as the process was deeply flawed from its inception. Firstly, the Democratic and Peaceful Transational Conference held in July 1991 was entirely controlled by the TPLF/EPRDF as they strategically delegated what political groups could attend and which ones couldn't. Essentially, this allowed for every item of the proposed Transitional Charter to be endorsed by the Conference attendees with objections nonexistent at best and futile at worst. Generally, during the reign of this regime the elections held were “ill-conceived, dubious, and counter-productive in their contribution to the democratization of Ethiopia”(Gudina, 2012). There existed no real opposition, no real possibility that the incumbent would be voted out of power, and hence no effective check of the ruling party’s power and no accountability; any groups that presented challenges to the power domination held by the TPLF/EPRDF were expelled from functioning in the political arena and the political process entirely. However, in 2005, Ethiopia took part in competitive national and regional elections the likes of which has never been seen before in the country’s history. Due to the extent of opposition support amongst the Ethiopian public, the ruling incumbent party (TPLF/EPRDF) engaged in extensive voter suppression and intimidation of opposition candidates to the point of withdrawal prior to election day. The election results profoundly shocked the ruling party; in Addis Ababa alone the opposition gained complete control of the city’s government. Consequently, the ruling party responded by “using hand-picked partisan election managers throughout the country, tampering with vote-counting in many constituencies, and essentially seeking to rig the count to their advantage through whatever means available” (Gudina, 2012). As opposition groups challenged the TPLF/EPRDF’s declared victory and the public began to accuse them of electoral fraud, a gruesome chain of events was triggered. The government leaders sought to resolve this challenge of their authority through force, using the state security apparatus as a means to carry out widespread imprisonment, killing, and repression of opposition leaders and their supporters. This signaled an informal end to any remaining hope of democratic governance in Ethiopia under the rule of the TPLF as they made it clear they had no tolerance for competition and ensured contestations to their authority will not be repeated , thus consolidating their monopoly of power; the nationalists of yesterday became the ruthless dictators of today.

The coming to power of Abiy Ahmed in 2018 began Ethiopia's second attempt at democratization. It is both difficult and too early to concretely deduce the prospects of democratisation under this new government as the process is still underway. Much like the initial stages of what seemed like democratisation under the TPLF government, Abiy Ahmed’s leadership began in a manner that also appeared promising. The peaceful transition of power, an unprecedented phenomena in Ethiopia, coupled with the comprehensive set of reforms implemented within Abiy’s first few months in office was enough to believe that perhaps this time around the government had the potential to stiffen the Ethiopian state and deliver effective progress on democracy. Although these reforms were ambitious, their long-term impact was stifled by their shock-therapy nature and their attempts to speed up a naturally intricate & extensive process. Democracy, however, can not succeed if the foundations for it are not present and if the country attempting to undergo such rapid democratic transformation is unwilling to enact the underlying changes needed. Despite initial hopes, one can argue the state has weakened under Abiy’s leadership as it was met with several challenges (disputes over access to land, complex questions of identity and administrative boundaries, and inter-ethnic tensions), none of which have been adequately addressed. Two-years in, Abiy’s administration has so far failed to deliver not only democracy but peace and his government actions seem to suggest a reversal of his initial democric reforms. Furthermore, the state under his leadership has not shown distinctive autonomy, credibility, effectiveness, or stability. Nothing attests to this more than the prime ministers focus on “amassing power by sidelining rivals, locking up & withdrawing the political freedoms of key opposition figures, orchestrating routine internet shut-downs and monopolising decision-making instead of working with the opposition to lessen tension peacefully” (The Economist, 2020). Moreover, the constitutional crisis presented by Abiy’s postponement of elections raises considerable questions on the authenticity of the democratic transformation and the possibilities of a constitutional coup. All in all, for the sake of Ethiopia and it’s democracy-deprived people Abiy Ahmed must undergo democratic change not only in rhetoric, like his predecessors, but in substance as many experts believe that it is still not too late for the new administration to build on the seeds of democracy they nurtured in their first few months in office.

Analysis: The Undesirable Affair Between Nation-building, Ethnicity, and Democracy

Universally regarded as the political hallmark of modernisation, nation building has brought with it heightened ethnic consciousness. In Ethiopia, nation-building has been strategically used as a moral cloak for intensified and consolidated domination; “...nationalist project entails the suppression and eradication of rival identities and cultures...the imperative of nation-building then means the imposition of the core culture upon the periphery” (Connor, 1972). Even more pertinent in Ethiopia's case are the words of John Breuilly in his distinguished book, Nationalism and the State, where he brilliantly draws attention to the usage of a nationalistic idelogy by those engaging in the struggle for state power stating “Nationalism is, above all else, about politics and politics is about power. Power is principally about the control of the state. The central task, therefore, is to relate nationalism to the objective of obtaining and using state power” (Breuilly, 1993). By this logic, the goal of ethnic-based political movements is nothing more than gaining state power within an already existing state or in a newly formed one. Nowhere is this more alive and true than in Ethiopia, where even the opposition political class, ethnic in character, doesn’t work to challenge the structure of the repressive state but rather focuses on capturing raw political power and where their calls for a democrtic process are opportunistic in nature. The challenges of nation-building in Ethiopia are rooted in this politicization of ethnic identities, (as seen throughout the paper) along with the lack of legitimate & meritocratic institutions and competent leadership. By the same token, these factors, particularly the emergence of ethnicity in the political sphere, has been a considerable impediment to the success of the democratization process in the country. Firstly, the illegitimacy and irrelevance of the state to the average citizen engenders their withdrawal into ethnic-based organizations. These organizations, often taking the form of opposition parties in the ‘legal’ realm and rebel groups in the ‘illegal’ realm, appeal to the average citizen as the champion of their interests and simultaneously the exclusion of the interests of others, mobilizing on the basis of ethnicity. The leaders and elites of these organizations deliberately exploit, manipulate, and politicize primordial differences and loyalties of the ordinary people and portray their purely private-individual interests as the collective interests of ethnic groups as a route to power and control. This unfolds as a threat to the survival of legitimate democratic governance because the language of democracy is used as an instrument to exacerbate ethnic conflicts. Due to the entanglement of ethnicity with the political process, authoritarian leaders who feel threatened by a growing demand for democracy amongst their constituents are incentivized to “play the ethnic card” and thereby obtain popular legitimacy. Hence why the corrupt Ethiopian elite are able to achieve vertical accountability much easily, as they have the ethnic base they mobilized by aforementioned exploitation, manipulation, and politicization. In this manner, Ethiopia is unable to foster an environment conducive to democatic maturation because of the political power they have delineated to ethnicity, allowing it to thereby fragment resistance to bad governance and rather reproduce it; how can it be expected of uneducated, economically disenfranchised and politically marginalized civilians to hold leaders accountable if they’ve been manipulated to believe they owe these self-seeking leaders ethnic loyalty and communal solidarity. Furthermore, political scientists have attempted to explain why democratization happens and whether or not nations that engage in it will be able to sustain it in the long run using three various approaches. In accordance with the cultural and belief approach, ethnic fragmentation, particularly the inequitable division of wealth amongst various groups, induces the lack of a strong sense of national identity that often results in bitter political competition. In fact, Ethiopia must prioritize economic integration and the considerable material improvement of the lives of the average people, 80% of whom are farmers and more than 50% below the age of 29, in order to entrench democracy and dissolve prevailing ethno-political conflict; economic development unleashes the forces that allow for democratization to take place and propels the primacy of individualism over communalism. 


Generation of Ethiopians have paid and continue to pay the heavy price for misgovernment, which at the heart of it is rooted in the monopoly of power held by irresponsible, domineering, and corrupt elites and the disconnect they have instigated amongst society from the state, a disparity breeding political, economic, and social turmoil. It’s absolutely integral to the long-term prosperity of the Ethiopian state to engage in an inclusive and transparent national democratic dialogue rather than resorting to fighting one another based on differing interpretations of what the future of Ethiopia should look like. Perhaps, it would be in their best-interest to adopt a Truth and Reconciliation Commission,the likes of which we saw in Rwanda and South Africa, to provide the opportunity for Ethiopians to vigorously discuss and reach a consensus on their history and move forward. Moreover, there is a serious and potentially dangerous mis-understanding of priorities in Ethiopia; strategies must be articulated to help shift the countries priorities towards reducing poverty, bettering the quality of education and health care, improving internet access, the list goes on. All in all, Ethiopia should use their cultural pluralism to work for, rather than against, the consolidation of democracy and the generation of economic development; it work tirelessly to form a strong multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic state where the liberties, emancipative values, and political rights of all people are guaranteed and protected equally. This paper merely scratched the surface of an incredibly complex and multi-layered discourse that is equally, if not more, ubiquitous today as it was fifteen, thirty, fifty years ago. Ethiopia is not alone in its pursuit of nation-building, democratization and healthy identity relations, and it has made appreciable progress, yet it is nowhere near done. 

Melale Hailu is a second year student at the University of Richmond majoring in Global Studies with a concentration in International Economics and double minoring in Economics and Law.


Work Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. Distributed by Cornerhouse Publications, 1995.

Greenfeld, Liah. Nationalism. Five Roads to Modernity. Harvard University Press, 2003.

Aalen, Lovise. “The Politics of Ethnicity in Ethiopia.” 2011

John Young (1996) Ethnicity and power in Ethiopia, Review of African Political Economy, 23:70, 531-542,

“Ethiopia's Democratic Transition Is in Peril.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, Sept. 2020,

Breuilly, John. Nationalism and the State. Manchester University Press, 1995.

Markakis, John. Ethiopia: the Last Two Frontiers. James Currey, 2013.

Faleg, Giovanni. RESETTING ETHIOPIA: Will the State Heal or Fail? European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), 2019,

Merera Gudina (2011) Elections and democratization in Ethiopia, 1991–2010, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 5:4, 664-680,

Ottaway, M. (1995). The Ethiopian Transition: Democratization or New Authoritarianism? Northeast African Studies, 2(3), new series, 67-84

Aaron, T. (2005). Identity Politics, Citizenship, and Democratization in Ethiopia. International Journal of Ethiopian Studies, 2(1/2), 55-75.

Keller, Edmond J. Making and Remaking State and Nation in Ethiopia.

Mengisteab, Kidane. “New Approaches to State Building in Africa: The Case of Ethiopia's Ethnic-Based Federalism.” African Studies Review, vol. 40, no. 3, 1997, pp. 111–132.

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