Ethiopia: ethnicity, federalism and antiquity

by Roza Ismagilova


More than twenty years passed since the introduction of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia. The main change was that the country was divided into nine ethnically-based states and ethnicity became the main ideology. The necessity of adopting such system was dictated by the complexity of so called nationality question. However, the ethnic factor continues to play a major role in the political life of the country. In most states, the situation remain conflict-prone: Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz, Oromia, Somali, Afar. Amhara, embittered by the loss of their dominant position, strive to return to a unitary state, while a part of the Oromo political elite has long been fighting for an independent Oromia. Ordinary people protests against the discrimination, land grabbing, corruption and bad governance. The Somali of Ogaden support the idea of ​​Greater Somalia and are in favor of secceding from Ethiopia and joining their compatriots in neighbouring Somalia. There has also been an idea of expanding Ethiopia’s Tigray State by incorporating Eritrea’s territory inhabited by the Tigray people. Afar want to incorporate their kinsmen living in Eritrea and Djibouti. The vast majority of the ethnic groups are greatly dissatisfied with the leading position of the Tigray people, an excessive centralization of power, and the dominant role of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Ethnic federalism has contributed to increased ethnic awareness and confrontation. The situation in Ethiopia nowadays is extremely tense. Ethiopia is plunging into serious crisis. The protests are intensified since the summer 2016 and now includes almost all Oromiya state and some parts of Amhara state.There is one more important thing which aggravate the ethno-political situation in the country : some traditional institutions and structures. And one of the aims of this article is to draw attention to such institutions as ethnic stratification, ethnic stereotypes, vestiges of domestic slavery, hierarchy of clans, etc. which continue to exist nowadays in Ethiopia. The future of Ethiopia as federation and its political stability heavily depends not only on the state of relations between the Amhara, Tigray and Oromo, but also on the effectiveness of the government’s attempts to involve numerous ethnic minorities in the federalization process but on the implementation and realize the constitutional principle of equality of all peoples. Unfortunately there is no real policy shift over Oromo and Amhara protests.


In accordance with the Constitution that came into force in August 1995, Ethiopia introduced a new form of government – a federation (The Constitution). The main change was that the country was divided into nine ethnically-based states. The necessity of adopting such a model was dictated by the complexity of the ethnic composition and ethnic relations.

For the first time ever all ethnic groups obtained equal rights, including the rights to participate in government at all levels, to use their own languages​​, and to develop their traditional cultures.

However, the ethnic factor continues to play a major role in the political life of the country. In most states, the situation remains conflict-prone: Gambella, Oromia, Somali, Afar. Amhara, embittered by the loss of their dominant position, strive to return to a unitary state, while a part of the Oromo political elite has long been fighting for an independent Oromia. The Somali of Ogaden support the idea of ​​Greater Somalia and are in favor of secceding from Ethiopia and joining their compatriots in neighbouring Somalia. There has also been an idea of expanding Ethiopia’s Tigray State by incorporating Eritrea’s territory inhabited by the Tigray people. Afar want to incorporate their kinsmen living in Eritrea and Djibouti.

In Ethiopia in the past, the Amharization policy was a major reason for dissatisfaction, ethnic tension and conflicts. The political domination of the Tigray after the fall of Mengistu’s regime is a reason for discontent of other ethnic groups, namely, the Amhara, who lost their dominant position, Oromo, Afar, etc.

The vast majority of the ethnic groups are greatly dissatisfied with the leading position of the Tigray people, an excessive centralization of power, and the dominant role of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.

According to the 2007 census, the population of Ethiopia was recorded at 73,751 thousand people (Summary and Statistical Report); the 2015 estimate stands at 104 022 thousand people ( The country’s ethno-linguistic structure is very complex. The 2007 census identified 85 peoples living in Ethiopia. In addition, the census registered: other Ethiopian groups; people of mixed origin; and people from other African countries and other foreigners.

The most numerous peoples (%) are Oromo (34.5), Amhara (26.9), Somali (6.2), Tigray (6.1), Sidama (4), Gurage (2.5), Wolaita (2.3), Hadiya (1.7), Afar (1.7), Gamo (1.5), Gedeo (1.3), and others (11.3).

Thus, the 11 peoples make up almost 88%. The remaining 74 peoples account for 12%.

The population speaks languages of different language groups: Semitic – Amhara, Tigray, Gurage, Harari, Argobba; Cushitic – Oromo, Sidama, Afar, Somali, Gimirra, Agau (Agaw), Konso, Beja, Keficho (Kaffa, Keffa), Wolaita; Chari-Nile – Nuer, Anya (Anywa, Anuak), Berta, Kunama, etc.; Koma – Koma, etc.

In terms of religion, the following groups were identified: Ethiopian Orthodox (43.5%), Muslims (33.9%), Protestants (18.6%), Roman Catholics (0.7%); 2.6% of the population follow traditional beliefs and cults. The first include the Amhara and Tigray peoples in the states of Amhara, Tigray, and partly Oromia, as well as in the cities. Muslims predominate in the states of Afar, Somali, Oromia, and Harari. Protestants form the majority in Gambella, the Southern Region, and Addis Ababa.

The study of the ethnic composition of the Ethiopian states showed that none of them is homogenous. In additional to the title nationality, which gave the name to a state, there are other ethnic groups who permanently live in the state. In some states ethnic minorities form 3 to 8 per cent of the population.

The grassunit of the regional governance system is the kebele. Then come the woreda, zone and state’ administration. Kebele is very important level of local power: it is through kebele than all decisions of the administration are fulfilled.

In each state there are a huge bulck of ethnic problems: inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic relations and conflicts; representation of ethnic groups (especially ethnic minorities) in the executive and legislative bodies at the level of state, zones and woredas; working languages and usage of local languages in education; the communal land tenure and necessity of the land alienation for modern development projects; traditional authorities, whose role is still very important, and incorporation them in new system; customary law and civil judicial system – to mention some. All these problems have great impact on the process of federalization and deserve attention of the regional governments.

Undoubtedly, the principles of equality of peoples proclaimed in the Ethiopian Constitution are very important, but much work is called for to eliminate the real inequality of the ethnic groups.

Ethnicity and ethnic conflicts

Ethnicity in Ethiopia, as in other African states, is observed in various spheres of life, such as activity of parties, functioning of the government bodies, army, social and economic relations, culture, etc. To most of the peoples their ethnic belonging is much more important than their national (state) identity.

The problem of interethnic relations always will be among the most difficult issues in multiethnic states. The reason not existence of primordial antagonisms among ethnic communities, as it is explained sometimes, but such socioeconomic and political factors as competition for resources, inadequate state set up, inappropriate governance and deliberate mobilization of ethnicity to political ends in order to win a conflict.

Ethnicity and ethnic feelings are used by politicians to various ends. The social differentiation along the ethnic lines, unequal access to government structures, legal and cultural discrimination, persisting ethnic hierarchy and negative ethnic stereotypes and prejudices give rise to ethnic tension; at the same time, they are the necessary conditions for the ethnic mobilization. Ethnic nationalism, which often acquires aggressive forms, is a tool of political mobilization, of ensuring priority access to power and resources for the so-called title nationality.

The introduction of the system of ethnic federalism has, for various reasons, exacerbated contradictions between ethnic groups. Conflicts occur both at the regional and local levels – in zones, woredas and kebeles.

Since 1991, ethnic conflicts have taken place throughout Ethiopia: between the Bertha (Benishangul) and the Gumuz, the Oromo and the Somali, the Oromo and the Harari, the Garre and the Borana, the Somali and the Afar, the Amhara and the Oromo, the Afar and the Issa, the Oromo and the Gumuz, the Guji and the Gedeo, the Anya and the Nuer, the Sidama and the Guji, the Kereyu and the Afar, etc. The struggle for power and resources also results in intra-ethnic clashes between individual clans and extended families.

For instance, the decentralization has accentuated tribal differences among the Arsi, a sub-ethnic group of the Oromo. Struggles take place not only between clans, but also between their subdivisions (Ethiopia. Ethnic Federalism and its Discontent, 25). The same applies to the Nuer in Gambella and to the Wolaita and Sidama in the Southern Region, which has the most complex ethnic composition.

Gambella and Benishangul-Gumuz in the west of Ethiopia are the most conflict-prone states. Gambella is one of the poorest states with a population of 307,000. Ethnic conflicts over scarce resources, especially over fertile river lands, had happened here before, but since 2002 they have assumed the nature of open armed conflict, accompanied by the killing of civilians and burning of hundreds of houses. The Anya (approximately 65,000 people, or 21% of the state’s population) were the most influential ethnic group in the area and, of course, traditionally dominated the local government bodies. However, since the early 1980s, a large number of Nuer refugees have come to Gambella from Sudan. In addition, in the 1980s, 50,000 Amhara, Tigray and Oromo – the highland peoples originating from Ethiopia’s central regions, who have become minorities under the new circumstances and whom local lowland dwellers called “highlanders”, were relocated to Gambella within the framework of a large-scale resettlement program undertaken by the previous Ethiopian regime in the fight against drought. The quickly changed ethno-territorial situation led to the loss of the dominant position by the Anya and to conflicts both between the Anya and the Nuer (143,000, or 46.6% of the state’s population) and between the Anya and the settlers. As a result, according to some estimates, over six months – from December 2003 to May 2004 – more than a thousand people were killed. According to Human Rights Watch, in December 2003 alone 424 people were killed in Gambella, mostly Anya (htpp://

In Benishangul-Gumuz State, which neighbours Gambella and has a population of 671,000 (2007), the main actors in inter-ethnic conflicts are the “indigenous” ethnic groups Bertha and Gumuz, as well as “non-indigenous” ones ­– the Amhara, Oromo, and Tigray. There are 174,000 Bertha (26% of the state’s population), 142,000 Gumuz (21.1%), as well as the highlanders (35.4%), the latter including Amhara (21.2%) and Oromo (13.3%).

The conflicts that began in the 1990s still continuing. The main cause thereof was the struggle for power in the regional government.

The ethno-political situation in the state is exacerbated by the struggle of parties along ethnic lines. The subjects of the dispute include representation in the government, territorial demarcation, and access to resources and federal subsidies. Moreover, none of the ethnic groups constitutes the majority. Each of them demands an independent administrative-territorial unit.

Initially, the state administration consisted primarily of persons of “indigenous” ethnic groups and was dominated by the Benishangul political elite. This was due to their close relations with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the Ethiopian People’s Liberation Front, and their joint struggle against the Derg.

The Benishangul People’s Liberation Movement became the single dominant party in the state. In 1995, the Benishangul got five seats instead of one in the country’s first national parliament (htpp://

However, since 1996, due to a disagreement with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the power in the state has passed to the Gumuz and, partly, the Shinasha, which has caused great dissatisfaction on part of other ethnic groups. All members of the Bertha ethnic group in official positions in the state government were dismissed and declared “narrow nationalists”. 120 of them were arrested on charges of anti-peace and antidevelopment activities and ties with South Sudan (Human Rights Watch. 1977, 21). As a result, the Bertha were greatly embittered and their relations with the Gumuz have deteriorated.

Non-indigenous population (more than 35% of the total population, according to the 2007 census) has no legislative or executive representation in the state and thus is deprived of its political rights. This primarily concerns the settlers from other states, who were brought to the area by the Derg regime due to the major 1984 famine in Ethiopia. All of this effects inter-ethnic tensions. The settlers protest against the discrimination and insist on providing them with the political rights that would allow them to participate in the state government at the regional, zonal and woreda administration levels. However, their language – Amharic – is still an official language in the state.

Nonetheless, the settlers’ demands are rejected by officials, sometimes on the grounds that they do not know an indigenous language. Some of the political elites of the indigenous peoples oppose the settlers because they fear that in time the settlers can gain equal rights, so they will have to give up their dominant position. The relations between the settlers and the Benishangul and the Gumuz are tense and explosive.

The pre-1991 ethnic tensions in Benishangul-Gumuz were limited to conflicts over cattle raiding and other social facets. Insignificant clashes used to occur between Gumuz and settlers in Metekele area and between Gumuz and Oromo in the south part of the region. Now the situation has changed. With the escalating ethnic rivalries, the conflicts between the indigenous peoples and the settlers, as well as within these groups, have been deftly used by the authorities and the elites to political ends.

In 2008, there were serious clashes between Gumuz and Oromo settlers in Wollega area. As a result, more than 130 people were killed.

The tense situation in the state and the ongoing ethnic conflicts demanded an intervention of the House of Federation. It developed a quota of ethnic representation in the local government and established a new woreda especially for the Amhara. However, these measures do not guarantee long-term stability in the state.

Since the early 1990s, with the creation of the new states, relations between the Oromo and non-Oromo groups have markedly deteriorated. The tensions were fueled by the elites of some ethnic groups that protested against the distinction between the “indigenous” and “non-indigenous” ethnic groups. In this they appealed to the federal Constitution, which guarantees equal rights to all peoples. Meanwhile, the Constitution of Oromia stated: “Sovereign power in the region resides in the people of the Oromo Nation”. The discontent led to numerous ethnic conflicts in 1991, 1992, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2008 and later, especially in Hararge and Wollega areas. Oromo peasants opposed Amhara and other “alien” farmers, accusing them of land expropriation and demanding its return. The clashes resulted in deaths, evictions of settlers, destruction and burning of entire villages.

The situation became extremely tense last two-three years. In 2015 the Government proclaimed the territorial extention of the Addis Ababa Master Plan, which would increase the capital city’s boundaries at the cost of surrounding Oromiya region. This measure combined with the ongoing appropriation of local farm lands for the benefit of foreign and domestic investment

projects led to the protest of the Oromo students. Later this expanded to mass protest in rural areas. Many farms were burned down, official buildings, prisons, police stations etc. were destroyed. Although the ruling party of the Oromiya state the Oromo Peope’s Democratic Organisation abandoned the Master Plan in January 2016 the situation only worsened. Protest continues up to- day at a larger scale and now includes the general population and almost the whole of Oromiya. There has been a shift from peaceful demonstrations to the riots. The protests are directed against the lack of political and civic freedoms, land grabbing and social injustice.

According to Human Watch more than 600 have been killed by security forces, thousands injured, and tens of thousands arrested.

In mid-July 2016 the protest affected The Amhara state. They want to redraw the state boundary and return land to Amhara from the Tigray Region. In August and September renewed protests erupted in several places includind Gondar and Bahir Dar.

Oromo complain of having remained second-class citizens in a system dominated by a minority and Amhara – of being become second class.

The current conflicts in Somali State can be divided into three categories: inter-clan/inter-ethnic; intra-clan; and the government’s struggle against the rebels.

In July 2012, clashes over land took place between Borana and Garri in areas bordering Kenya. As a result, several villages were burned, over 20 people were killed. According to the Kenya Red Cross, more than 20,000 people fled to Kenya. The unrest engulfed Arsi, Harare, Barli, etc. Non-Amhara residents of some states did not want Amharic to be an official language in their states, zones, or woredas. According to some opposition representatives, in April 2013 in Ethiopia under Meles Zenawi there were ethnic cleansings when Amhara settlers were expelled from many states, including Gambella, Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz, and the Southern Region.

Conflicts in different parts of the country still continue.

Most states are located at the periphery and border neighbouring countries: Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, Somaliland, Djibouti and Eritrea, and hence are of geopolitical significance for Ethiopia. The presence in border areas of armed ethnic rebel groups and refugees creates tension and often results in clashes with the local population.

The increased role of ethnicity leads to the fact that centuries-old disputes between farmers and pastoralists over land or pastures are now classified as inter-ethnic conflicts if they involve representatives of different ethnic groups. The reason is that land ownership enables an ethnic group (in fact, its elite) to demand recognition of its right to self-determination, which means having its own administrative unit and all that it implies: political power, resources, etc.

The main cause of ethnic conflicts remains the politicization of ethnicity and the competition for ownership of natural resources, especially land; the struggle of political elites for power; border disputes between states, zones, and woredas; poor governance; social inequality; oppression of minorities; the continuing ethnic stereotypes and prejudices, including discriminatory treatment of artisans and slave descendants; blood feuds.

The common explanation of ethnic conflicts is usually a struggle for resources. While this holds true, in post-1991 Ethiopia there have been certain peculiarities. The conflicts here have become multifaceted, and although they are related to resources, they are brought about either by the unequal distribution of economic and political power or by demands for political and economic benefits. At the heart of some of them lie not ethnic tensions, rivalries or confrontation. Yet they appear to be inter-ethnic clashes. Indeed, they have often really turned into bloody clashes.

The territorial disputes between ethnic minorities that are accompanied by conflicts force the federal government to create “Special zones” or “special woredas” within existing zones or between them to provide autonomy to these peoples. In 2000, there were five special woredas: five in the Southern Region, two – in Benishangul-Gumuz, one – in Afar State, and three special zones – in Amhara State (Tronvoll, 20).

The 2004 referendum gave 500 kebeles to Oromia and 100 kebeles to Somali, but their borders still have not been fully defined.

The ongoing ethnic conflicts indicate that the introduction of self-government by itself is not sufficient to ease tensions and improve cooperation between ethnic groups in a particular state, zone, woreda or kebele. As before, the main cementing factor remains kinship and ethnicity. Hence, traditional social institutions are strengthening against the backdrop of the lack of trust in public institutions.

A consequence of conflict and tension in almost all states is the intensification of disintegration processes even among multi-million ethnic groups. The reason is that ethnicity has become the main ideology. Belonging to even the smallest ethnic group gives grounds for the claim of the right to self-determination and establishment of an own administrative and territorial unit, which implies power and resources.

The disintegration takes on new forms, “descending” to the level of not just sub-ethnic groups or sub-clans, but also affecting social communities of a lower order (including extended families).

Another major cause of ethnic conflicts is the separation of the peoples in the states into “indigenous” and “non-indigenous” categories (“titular” and “non-titular” nations). All states are extremely heterogeneous in their ethnic composition. Even such states as Amhara, Tigray and Oromia, where multi-million peoples form the majority, have a large number of ethnic minorities. For example, according to the 2007 census, there are 85 peoples living in the Southern Region. However, only 45 of them are recognized as “indigenous” by the state. All of them are represented in the House of Federation and the Council of Nationalities of the state. Others are referred to as “non-indigenous peoples”.

In accordance with the new system of ethnic federalism, all power in a state, district, woreda, or kebele belongs to “indigenous” peoples. All newcomers, including Amhara, Oromo, and Tigray, are discriminated against outside their states and cannot participate in any legislative or executive bodies in corresponding administrative units, from state to kebele. Naturally, this situation leads to discontent and serves as an important reason of ethnic tensions. All of them are represented in the House of Federation and the Council of Nationalities of the state. Others are referred to as “non-indigenous peoples”.

Ethnic federalism and traditional institutions

To understand modern processes it is important to study not only inter-ethnic but also intra-ethnic relations.

Ethnic groups are not always united internally: some ethnic groups (such as the Oromo) have many sub-ethnic groups, which differ not only in terms of development but also in their economic activity (pastoralists – farmers) and cultural peculiarities. Other ethnic groups have retained social stratification: besides clan hierarchy there are artisan castes and slave descendants (e.g. Sidama, Wolaita, Gurage). Moreover, over the last 20-25 years there has been a significant increase in such stratification.

Attitudes to some peoples and their subgroups have formed over the course of history. For example, some Oromo sub-ethnic groups who long time ago adopted Christianity and some elements of the Amharic culture were accepted in Amhara society. They could hold high positions in government, possessed land, received noble titles, and had no problems marrying Amhara. Some Ethiopian rulers were Oromo. At the same time, such Oromo sub-ethnic groups as the Borana, Raya, or Azebu were despised and had no chance to be accepted by Amhara society.

Still today there is ethnic stratification in the country. The highest position in society has always been occupied by Amhara. Non-Amharic peoples such as Tigray, Oromo, Gurage and others followed them in the hierarchy. The status of the Omotic and Nilotic peoples was yet lower. The lowest level on the social ladder was occupied by the Negroid peoples: Benishangul, Bareya, Kunama, and some Sidama subgroups. Kaffa, Yem, Agau, Kemant, Fallasha and some other groups also had a very low status. These peoples were enslaved since the 15th century. Their names “Shankella” and “Bareya” are synonymous with the word “slave”. These groups have traditionally been viewed as outcasts (Pankhurst, 41).

Probably the low status of Gurage is linked to their occupations. Until recently, the word “Gurage” in Addis Ababa was synonymous with the words “porter” and “laborer”.

The situation is also complicated by the remaining ethnic stereotypes and prejudices, the hierarchy of ethnic groups, social structures and institutions such as occupational castes, vestiges of domestic slavery, and clan hierarchy. Still now manual labor and crafts (smithery, weaving, dyeing, woodworking, etc.) are regarded as a humiliating occupation by some peoples and craftsmen are on the lowest level of social hierarchy.

Historically, the country’s most prestigious occupations were agriculture, management, church and military service. Muslims traditionally could not engage in the above-mentioned occupations and, consequently, became artisans (weavers, tailors, dyers, etc.), shopkeepers and traders. Still today the tradition scorns those engaged in manual labor.

In Ethiopia, representatives of some ethnic groups who engaged in physical labor, trade, and crafts at the beginning of their migration to the cities belonged to the very lowest strata of urban society. To avoid this, they concealed their ethnic identity and posed as Amhara, consciously undergoing acculturation.

During my fieldwork in Ethiopia in 1992, I specifically examined archaic traditional structures, including castes, vestiges of domestic slavery, ethnic stratification, ethnic stereotypes and their role in contemporary Ethiopian society. Many peoples have an intra-ethnic hierarchy: they still differentiate upper and lower clans (Wolaita, Surma, Bench, etc.). Members of the lower clans are discriminated against even today.

The Somali have a small subgroup of outcasts – the Sab. The latter have a Negroid substrate in their ethnogenesis. The Somali also have slaves – the Bon. Even after gaining their freedom, they cannot marry a purebred Somali, participate in community affairs, and even ride a horse.

In Gurage society the most respected part of the population are farmers – the Zera. They occupy the highest rung of the social ladder and look down upon the representatives of artisan castes: Nefure – smiths, Gize – dyers, Fuga – woodworkers.

Let us consider the Fuga. The Fuga are not allowed to own land and cultivate the main local staple crop – asat. My interviewers told me that tradition holds it that Fuga can harm soil fertility, negatively affect livestock productivity, and even turn the milk into blood or urine. Unwritten rules of conduct are still in place: Fuga and Zera never eat together and do not share any utensils. A Zera will never eat food cooked by a Fuga. If a Fuga accidentally enters a Zera’s house, he should put a leaf of asat on the floor and sit on it alone. If he failed to do so, the place where he sat is considered impure, and a rite of purification must be carried out. The Fuga are strictly segregated and cannot take part in community life. When I asked about the reason for such discrimination I received the following answer: it is a tradition, for such is the will of God. The origins of the Fuga are unknown. They have preserved their own tongue, which they use in certain rituals, but they have adopted the Gurage language. They adhere to traditional beliefs and practices, although some of them have converted to Islam and Christianity. However, this has not affected their status (Ismagilova, 1967, 131-132).

Those engaged in hunting also belong to despised minorities. They are considered “unclean” because they eat the meat of wild animals.

In the Southern Region, the Sidama and Wolaita peoples can be studied as examples of the role of traditional institutions in the multi-ethnic federation of modern Ethiopia.

The Sidama number 2,908,000 people, which constitutes 19% of the state’s population (2007). Most of them live in the Southern Region. The Sidama still have the caste of potters – the Hadicho. The Hadicho are considered “unclean” and occupy the lowest rung of the hierarchy. They cannot enter houses of their tribesmen or marry them. They can live only in particular parts of villages and are forbidden to use rural cemeteries, etc.

However, the Hadicho not only do not conceal their origin but actively struggle against discrimination, which has led to the fact that they have obtained their own territory in Dara, which in 1992-93 received woreda status. An administrative unit implies the creation of the legislative and executive branches of government. Thus, the Hadicho have gained political power. Moreover, they have formed their own political party – the Sidama Hadicho People’s Democratic Organization. All this has greatly contributed to their unity and the consequent disintegration of the Sidama ethnic group.

The party was established by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front to counterbalance the opposition Sidama Liberation Movement, which included the traditionally dominant Sidama clans – the Wollabicho. At first the ruling party had difficulty finding cadres in the Southern Region. Most of the politically literate people were associated with the previous regime. The choice fell on young uneducated or even illiterate people. Most remarkably, the first party cadres were recruited from the lowest strata of society – from the despised Hadicho artisans.

Another case is the neighboring Wolaita people (1,611,000 people, or 10.7% of the state’s population). In Wolaita society, there also exists an artisan caste – the Hillancha. There is also a large group of slave descendants – the Ayle. Both of these groups occupy the lowest rung of the social ladder. Unlike the Hadicho, these groups are ashamed of their status and try every way to conceal it.

The Wolaita historically have a clan hierarchy (according to some sources, it contains 150 clans). The dominant social position is occupied by clan elites, especially the descendants of the so-called royal clan and the aristocracy. Among the clans there is an intense rivalry for power at all levels. Nowadays clans represent the interests of their ethnic group and are very influential (especially such clan as Wolaita Malo, Tigre Malo, as well as Hizea, to which Ethiopia’s current Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn belongs). This was facilitated by political mobilization and an appeal to the historical past: the Wolaita had their own powerful state at the end of the 19th century. Social stratification leads to intra-ethnic tensions between the clan elites and the so-called lowest strata of society. Initially the elites refused to cooperate with the federal authorities and the ruling party.

In the case of the Wolaita, the ruling party and the federal government switched their attention to the caste of artisans and slave descendants – the Ayle. But unlike the Sidama, the Ayle were not organized and did not protest actively against discrimination. The attempts to engage the elites were unsuccessful because they refused to deal with the “unclean” Ayle. The success of the struggle of the traditional elites against the introduction of a single language called Wagagoda and the establishment in 2000 of a zone for the Wolaita reconciled them with the authorities.

In the past, the Wolaita held an arrogant attitude towards the Sidama, the Hadiya, etc. The Wolaita, who had a developed state, looked down on their neighbors. These stereotypes still persist today. In a July 2007 interview with Ethiopian Studies scholar Lovis Aalen from Norway, a Wolaita elder said: “We have never married Sidama. We have always treated the Sidama as our servants, and this continues today. When a Sidama woman comes to sell us milk, after her departure we throw out the leaves on which she sat. The Sidama smell and they are dirty” (Aalen, 176).

All these archaic structures and institutions have a significant impact on the implementation of the policy of ethnic federalism and on the ethno-political situation in the country in general.


It has been 25 years since the introduction of the system of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia. The unique Ethiopian experience is very important for all multiethnic states.

Federalism means wider power of the subjects of a federation and civil equality of all ethnic groups regardless of their numerical strength and development level. Federalism must be in conformity with a strong local self-government. It is on the regional (state, zones, woredas) that not only socioeconomic and other problems but those related to interethnic relations should be solved.

The federal character of the Ethiopia with its state structure is an important form of ethnoterritorial self-determination. At the same time in a multiethnic country, where it is impossible to form state for each ethnos, exterritorial ethnocultural autonomy acquires a great importance as a form of self-determination. Ethnocultural autonomy is not only a people’s right to preserve their ethnocultural values and the right of communal ownership (and this is very important) the right to special forms of political representation and to legislative initiative, the right to participate in state governance.

The disadvantages include the strengthening of the role of ethnicity in all spheres of life and its growing politicization. Among other things, this manifests itself in the fight among ethnic groups for self-government and power, which leads to the exacerbation of the ethno-political situation and ethnic conflicts. The policy of ethnic federalism, aimed at the promotion of different ethnic cultures, has led to the revival of institutions and traditions not always consistent with the objectives of the day. For example, this applies to the growing political prominence of such backward social structures as clan hierarchy, occupational castes, and domestic slavery (referring to slave descendants). Moreover, in some cases, these structures are legalized (e.g. the Hadicho – the caste of potters of the Sidama).

Ethnic federalism has contributed to increased ethnic awareness and confrontation. A struggle is taking place for resources, chiefly political control, because political power ensures access to natural resources and other benefits. However, for this it is necessary that one or another ethnic group has its own administrative unit. This explains the demands for new states, zones, and woredas.

The drawbacks of the system also include excessive centralization of power and the dominant role of the ruling party.

Although Ethiopia’s experience shows that the federal system had made little progress in improving the ethnopolitical situation and eliminating tension from the interehnic relations, there are some important positive changes: the expansion and legislative enshrinement of the states’ constitutional powers; the formation of local governments, which makes it possible to solve many problems both in the field of preservation of ethnic and cultural diversity and in the sphere of inter-ethnic relations; giving the federal center a multicultural character; granting the citizens the right to study their mother tongues and to apply them in education and in official documentation​​; the legislative enshrinement of the foundations of ethnocultural autonomy by creating zones and woredas on a narrow ethnic basis.

The main domestic challenge to the Ethiopian state is that the new model of governance strikes roots among the population especially in rural areas very slowly. The Ethiopians lack strong and universal civil identity. Separatist and isolationist trends are gaining momentum in some regions, leading to the strengthening of ethnic nationalism and disintegrating ethnocultural processes. In my opinion, the soundest nationality policy in this setting is to maintain cultural diversity of Ethiopians, simultaneously encouraging the process of ethnocultural integration in order to create an all Ethiopian identity.

I would like to highlight one more point. Studying many official documents of the Ethiopian government and talking with government officials in Addis Ababa, I noted a terminological confusion in this sphere.

The Ethiopian Constitution and other official documents divide ethnic categories into nations, nationalities and peoples (I think this is an influence of the Marxist-Leninist theory of the nationality question: the term “nation” was applied to capitalism and socialism, “narodnost” – to feudalism and “tribe” – to the clan-tribal society). These categories are entire different. “Nation” is a type of an ethnic community, “nationality” in Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union means ethnic origin, in Western countries it means citizenship, and “peoples” are all ethnic communities. This topsyturfy fixes the existing ethnic hierarchy and is fraught with conflicts, because all peoples, irrespective of their numerical strength and socioeconomic development level, enjoy the right to self-determination and development of their languages and cultures. It seems more proper to apply the neutral term “people” or “ethnic group” to all citizen of Ethiopia in official documents Small ethnic group may be denoted “minorities”, as it is done all over the world (Ismagilova, 2004, 197-198).

The ethnopolitical situation in Ethiopia become more and more tense. There is a wide spread opinion that Ethiopia is plunging into a serious crisis. The Ethiopian websites call the ongoing mass protests “turmoil”, “unrest”, “revolt”, “riot”. “the Ethiopin Spring” (Walta, Aiga Forum, Ethiomadia, HornAfrica, etc.).

While the protests started as a demonstration on a local basis, they have now taken on more universal issues of political freedom, respect o human rights and Constitution, they are against corruption, bad governance and unaccountability.

Ethiopian political system needs to respond to peoples’ grievances and demands. Force is not a solution. According to Africa Confidential, the ruling “Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) still believes the solution is to sack some officials and control the ‘street’ with an iron fist” (AC . vol. 57, № 19, 23 September 2016).

The future of Ethiopia as a federation and its political stability depend heavily not only on the state of relations between the Amhara, Tigray and Oromo but also on the effectiveness of the government’s attempts to involve numerous ethnic minorities in the federalization process.

In the general elections in May 2015 to the House of People’s Representatives and victory of the ruling party (it has won 500 seats of 546.) show that in spite of shortcomings of the ethnic federalism the EPRDF gained support of the majority of Ethiopians. This gives for the government a clear message to reconsider the existing policy and to pay more attention to the implementation the constitutional principals of equality of all ethnic groups.


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Roza N. Ismagilova. Dr. Sc., Professor, Institute for African Studies the Russian Academy of Sciences. Moscow.