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Ethiopia’s Faces Dire Consequences of Ethnic Federalism

Twenty-six years ago, Ethiopia defied warnings about the dangers of tribal politics and embraced wholeheartedly a political system based on ethnic federalism that now threatens to tear it apart. The country was divided into nine regions, each named after its main ethnic group (aside one) and given the status of self-ruling-states, opening up a fierce competition among primarily the three largest groups for national primacy.

Whether the choice of ethnic federalism was driven by an excess of faith in Marxism-Leninism ideology or sober realpolitik is a question American political scientists still debate today. Those responsible were fervent Marxist-Leninists who embraced Soviet Communist thinking in calling different ethnic groups “nations” and “nationalities” endowed with the right to self-determination. But Ethiopia’s unsettled political situation in the mid-1990s when the present constitution was adopted—there were already “liberation fronts” in several regions– favored federalism of some kind to keep the country’s main feuding ethnic groups together in one country.

Since the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, Ethiopia has been wracked by almost constant civil wars plus a socialist revolution, two coups, and numerous droughts, famines, and pandemics. Along the way, however, it miraculously also achieved Africa’s highest GDP growth rate, averaging between 8 and 11 percent annually in the decade before 2016. The United States has been a major source of foreign aid, pouring $13 billion into various health, education, humanitarian, and economic programs over the past 20 years, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

I was based in Addis Ababa as the Washington Post’s Africa correspondent at the time of Haile Selassie’s downfall and reported on the subsequent political turmoil there for three years (1974-1977).  I then returned in 2010 and 2019 on visits during which I witnessed ethnic federalism’s malign centrifugal forces at work on trips to the Amhara, Oromo, and Tigrayan “nations.” All were working feverishly to attract foreign investors, particularly Ethiopians living in the United States, and to consolidate ethnic control over their regions, often at the expense of local minorities.

Finally, in 2015, ethnic strife broke out openly around the capital, Addis Ababa, as its authorities sought to annex surrounding Oromo lands to make way for its booming population.  By the time of my last trip, ethnic clashes had become all too common, often involving the cleansing of minority ethnic groups living in regions ruled by the dominant one. Read the full article here.

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