Originally published in 2007 in the Federations,
Multiethnic Ethiopia has miraculously remained intact despite a dizzying 30 years that has seen it go from a monarchy to communism to a transition to democracy all while having to endure several droughts, famines and oppressive poverty.
Its strength and its capacity to endure seem to lie in Ethiopia’s diversity. It has more than 85 ethnic communities with different languages or dialects. It is the second-most populous sub-Saharan African country after Nigeria. Ethiopia has religious diversity as well. Christianity and Islam are the largest religions, and Judaism and a number of other religions are also found there.
To govern this nation of 78 million inhabitants, one of the most diverse and conflict-prone in the world, the government introduced “ethnic federalism” which was constitutionally enshrined in 1995. Ethiopia places a high priority on issues related to its ethnic groups, one of the many compelling facets to the country’s form of federalism.
From the fourth century AD to 1974, Ethiopia was ruled as several forms of a Christian monarchy. The last emperor, Haile Selassie, was overthrown in 1974 by a Marxist-Leninist military group called the Derg, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. His group set up a single-party communist state. This regime was overthrown in 1991 by a coalition of largely ethnic-based rebel movements, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
Constitution recognizes communities
The Constitution that came into effect in 1995 established a federation made up of nine ethno-linguistically divided regional states and two chartered federal cities – Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa. The nine regional states are Afar, Amhara, Benis-hangul/ Gumuz, Gambella, Harari, Oromia, Somali, Tigray and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region.
However, the Constitution also grants self-government to all ethno-linguistic communities, including, if they so desire, the right to form a regional state or even to secede and form an independent country. The Constitution explicitly states that “all sovereign power resides in the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia.” It defines ethno-linguistic communities as a “Nation, Nationality or People … a group of people who have or share a large measure of a common culture or similar customs, mutual intelligibility of language, belief in a common or related identities, a common psychological make-up, and who inhabit an identifiable, predominantly contiguous territory.”
The federal Constitution explicitly gives all ethno-linguistic communities the right to protect and promote their culture, language and historical heritage through self-government. It assumes that every community has its own territory and confers the right to “a full measure of self-government which includes the right to establish institutions of government in the territory that it inhabits….”
The diversity of the regional states may be measured according to:
• ethnic diversity (multiethnic or homogeneous)
• religious diversity (as it overlaps with other factors)
• way of life (settled or nomadic)
• urban or rural setting
Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Oromia and Somali regional states all are named after their dominant native inhabitants. These states have one dominant indigenous ethnicity and language. The other states – the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples; Gambella; Benis-hangul/Gumuz; and Harari – are multiethnic regional states with no single dominant ethnic community.
While the federal Constitution has conferred an unlimited right to self-determination to ethno-cultural communities, the regional states are also expected, as some already have, to grant special administrative status to minority ethno-cultural communities by creating special zones called Liyu Zones or special districts known as Liyu Woreda.
The purpose of this federal arrangement is to promote “unity in diversity” by guaranteeing preservation of the cultural, linguistic and religious distinctiveness of the ethno-linguistic communities, as well as their distinct lifestyles. Thus, in the Ethiopian federal system, diverse identities are not merely tolerated but are constitutionally protected, and public expression of these diverse identities is politically promoted.
Upper house arbitrates
Another institutional expression of “unity in diversity” is the House of Federation. The upper houses in most federations have an equal number of representatives for each constituent unit or else are weighted somewhat for population. The House of Federation, however, is composed of one representative per ethnic group plus an additional representative for each one million population of that group.
This formulation means that, for example, the ethnically very diverse Southern region has a larger voting block than more populous but relatively homogeneous regions like Oromia and Amhara. In all cases the representatives are either appointed by the state legislatures or each state may organize direct elections. The roles of the House are less in the general legislative areas and more specifically in settling conflicts between regions, acting as final arbitrator of the Constitution and determining the revenue sharing formula.
The following cities and regions, which are home to various groups of differing identities, serve as good examples of both the diversity and unity of Ethiopia.
Religious tensions plague Somali state
The Somali regional state has three overlapping identities and a secessionist movement. About 96 per cent of the population of the Somali regional state is Somali and about the same proportion is Muslim, while 85 per cent of the population is nomadic. The nomadic way of life has a culture of bearing arms as a birthright. All these identities are also commonly shared with the population of Somalia, a country with a 1,600-km long border with Ethiopia. The border areas have long served as bases for several Ethiopian secessionist movements and as a safe haven for armed separatist groups fighting in Ethiopia.
There are overlapping identities of ethnic groups along Ethiopia’s borders with other countries, including Somalia. Indeed, movements such as the Western Somalia Liberation Front, which has renamed itself the Ogaden National Liberation Front, are mainly quasi-ethnic and quasi-religious movements, fused with ethnic ties to Somalia. The spillover effects of such movements who claim homelands in Ethiopia and neighboring countries pose a difficult question for Ethiopia. How do you determine whether a particular movement is a legitimate Ethiopian ethnic group pressing for its legal right to secede or a group of foreign intruders when both share the same language, ethnicity and politics? Some Ethiopians along the border also fear that religious radicalism from Somalia may cross the border into Ethiopia. Recently, there have been sporadic tensions and outbreaks of violence in several parts of Ethiopia between Orthodox Christians and Muslims, heretofore known for their generally peaceful coexistence and mutual respect.
UN body recognizes ancient city
In July 2007, the city of Harar, a UNESCO-designated world heritage site, celebrated its 1,000th anniversary. Guarded by its medieval walls, the ancient city has been an important centre of Islamic culture and commerce since the thirteenth century. Home to more than 100 mosques, some of which are older than those in Saudi Arabia, Harar is generally considered the fourth holiest city of Islam.
Even though non-indigenous Oromo and Amharas constitute a majority, Harari state is mainly designated to be territorially administered by and for the Harari. The power of the regional state is, therefore, divided mainly between the Harari and Oromo ethno-linguistic communities. Compared to regional states such as Oromia, with a population of 27.3 million, and Amhara regional state’s 19.6 million, Harari, with 131,000 residents, would normally be considered too small to enjoy the privileges of a regional state. Nonetheless, Harari’s special place in Ethiopian history as a centre of Islamic faith, along with its cultural and religious diversity, has justified this status.
Capital city draws rural folks
Ethiopia’s two largest cities are urban oases in an overwhelmingly rural country, melting pots amid ethnically-based states and regions. With a combined population of nearly 3.4 million, Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa are two chartered regional city states of huge diversity. These cities are the exception in Ethiopia: overall, nearly 85 per cent of Ethiopia’s population is rural. Members of almost all of Ethiopia’s ethno-linguistic communities live in these two cities, and for this reason, the cities are answerable to the federal government, not to a specific ethno-linguistic group. Although the numerical majority in Dire Dawa is Oromo, Amharic is the official language of the city.