The incessant rise of ethnic demands

At the turn of the 1990s, the weakening of the CPSU in the Soviet Union was accompanied by increasing ethnic demands and heated grassroots discussions about the relationship between the federal center and the federation’s constituent units (republics) (Brubaker 1994: 61). Ethnoterritorial

From Soviet Union to federalism 51 federalism was implemented in the interwar Soviet Union to accommodate pre-existing ethnic demands (McGarry 2018: 536). In effect, the previously fluid and negotiable identities of ethnic groups (nationalities) were acknowledged, legitimized, bureaucratically standardized and politically reinforced (Kaiser 1994: 191-249). Marxism-leninism predicted the withering of both state and ethnicity (nationalism) on the way to a classless and ethnic-less communist ‘people.’ But contrary to theoretical expectations, ethnoterritorial federalism did not create such a new, ideologically novel and homogeneous Soviet people (Kaiser 1994: 325-377), which was also impatiently anticipated by the 1977 Soviet Constitution (Suny 1989: 507). As long as the CPSU was in full control, the party was able to mitigate and manage ethnic demands and tensions through intraparty procedures and heavy-handed impositions from above. Yet the withering away of centralized party control at the turn of the 1990s revealed that ethnic divisions were deepened by the ongoing tension between the constitutional acknowledgment of ethnic rights and political limitations on their actual exercise. In the context of weak constitutionalism and the dearth of effective institutions and mechanisms for conflict management (Suny 1989: 504), the disintegration of the Soviet Union was almost a foregone conclusion. Although at the time of these events not a single renowned sovietologist predicted the breakup of the USSR, now, with the privilege of hindsight, it is often qualified as ‘inevitable.’

Nowadays, the similar risk of an ethnically induced breakup of the country faces the Ethiopian government. Some see the recent weakening of party discipline in Ethiopia as a welcome transition from ‘democratic centralism' to genuine democracy. But it is the increasing assertiveness of ethnic parties that brought about this change. In turn, this assertiveness was exacerbated by the federal government, who recently embarked on a raft of democratic and economic reforms. These ethnic parties had no choice but to find new footing in the changing situation. Their legitimacy and support are drawn from these parties’ respective ethnic groups (nations, nationalities and peoples), which serve as loyal electorates. The old status quo established in the mid 1990s is over, and now the parties appeal to ethnic arguments and grievances for the sake of improving their waning popularity and legitimacy.

As a result, the EPRDF’s ability to manage ethnic tensions and suppress demands for new ethnically defined autonomous territories dwindled. For instance, at the time of writing (2020), the disintegration of the State of Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) is an imminent possibility. In 2018, the Konsos, whose homeland had been part of Segen Zone, were endowed with their own ethnic zone, that is, Konso Zone. In the same year the biethnic Gamo-Gofa Zone was split in two ethnic zones, namely Gamo Zone and Gofa Zone. What is more, in November 2019, a referendum was held on the question whether to exclude Sidama Zone from the SNNP and elevate it to the status of a brand-new regional state. The overwhelming majority of the eligible voters decided in favor of this solution (Ephream Sileshi 2019). This forthcoming new regional State of Sidama will advance the administrative and political position of the Sidamas in the country, thus bringing the number of Ethiopia’s regional states to ten. Moreover, in emulation of the Sidamas, at the turn of 2020, about ten other ethnically based zones in the SNNP have submitted demands for separate regional states to the SNNP Regional Council. The extent to which the newly established Prosperity Party will be able to reign in these centrifugal trends will depend on whether the party can uphold internal discipline. Another factor which is going to influence this situation is the outcome of the planned parliamentary elections. These elections might as well bring to power staunchly ethnonationalist parties.

Many of Ethiopia’s ethnically based parties now wish to avail themselves of the right to national self-determination, which the Ethiopian Constitution entitles them to. Due to the character of ethnoterritorial federalism, most of collective rights are couched in ethnic (ethnolinguistic) terms. In turn, this fact entails that at times exercising the aforesaid rights may lead to the deepening of existing ethnic cleavages and to opening new ones. The conflictual potential in the unhindered democratic use of the Ethiopian Constitution exposes two problems. First, many of the ethnically underpinned rights in this document are excessively idealistic in character. Second, when these rights were included in the Constitution, perhaps the drafters of the document did not fully predict potential implications, which the exercise of these rights may bring about. Third, the Constitution does not really provide effective constitutional institutions and mechanisms for managing ethnic conflicts. This may endanger the unity of Ethiopia as a state and its citizenry as a whole. The sustainability of the Ethiopian Federation as a state requires stronger constitutionalism, meaning a type of constitutionalism that would rebalance collective (ethnic) rights with individual rights.14 Such a rebalancing could be achieved, for instance, by stronger respect for the constitutionally protected human rights, including their actual enforcement. At the same time, there is a growing need for developing and bolstering institutions and mechanisms that would at long last ensure the effective management of interethnic relations. Otherwise, if ethnic tensions cannot be addressed, managed and contained in accordance with the law and in an entailed consensual and deliberative manner, a potential for violent conflict will continue to grow.

Administrative regions and zones of Ethiopia in 2000 (UN Emergencies 2000)

Figure 2.1 Administrative regions and zones of Ethiopia in 2000 (UN Emergencies 2000)


  • 1 The ADP is a new name, given to the ANDM (Amhara National Democratic Movement) in 2018. The same is true of the ODP (Oromo Democratic Party), whose name changed from OPDO (Oromo People Democratic Organization) in the same year.
  • 2 Influenced by marxist-leninist terminology, the Ethiopian terms nations, nationalities and peoples (often employed as a tripartite collocation) are used to talk about Ethiopia’s over 80 recognized ethnic groups. No legal distinction is made between the three terms. Nations, nationalities and peoples are defined as identical in their status in Article 39(5) of the Federal Constitution. All these nations, nationalities and peoples are entitled to the same right to national self-determination (Ethiopia - Constitution 1994).
  • 3 The new ethnicity-based decentralized structure of the state was promulgated in Proclamation No. 7/1992, published in the Negarit Gazeta (or the official gazette of Ethiopia) on 14 January 1992 (Proclamation No. 7/1992 1992).
  • 4 After the wrapping up of the policy of korenizatsiia (nativization, indigeniza-tion) at the turn of the 1930s, but especially during World War II, tire Kremlin preferred to speak of the ‘Soviet natsiia (nation)’ rather than the Soviet narod (people, nation) (cf Sinitsin 2018).

In April 1994, the Constitutional Commission (established in 1992 by the Transitional Parliament) submitted a Draft Constitution to the Transitional Parliament and the Council of Representatives (or the Parliament’s lower chamber). Following the approval of the Draft Constitution by the Council of Representatives, direct popular elections for a constituent assembly were held in June 1994. The Constituent Assembly approved the final version of the Constitution on 8 December 1994. Finally, the new Constitution came into force after the general parliamentary elections were carried out in May-June 1995.

The wording is intentionally euphemistic, to avoid the ideologically unacceptable term to secede (отделяться otdeliat’sia).

Article 49 of the Ethiopian Constitution of 1995 provides the special status of capital city for Addis Ababa, which in practice is equal to that of any of federal Ethiopia’s states (Ethiopia - Constitution 1994). Furthermore, in 2004, Dire Dawa became a ‘chartered city’ (Pfi'Z.'S'P Xfi+-4££ ?■£+£ A'PE' yedirëdawa asitedader chariter âwaj ‘Charter of Dire Dawa Administration’), answerable directly to the federal government (Asnake Kefale 2014).

The Amharic term wereda means ‘district.’

Ethiopia conquered the Kingdom of Kaf(f)a in 1897. Wild coffee abounded in this area, from where coffee beans were taken across the Red Sea to the Ottoman Empire. The term coffee may stem from this kingdom’s name (cf McCann 1995: 174; Shinn and Ofcansky 2013: 245).

In 2018, Gamo-Gofa Zone was split into two, that is, Gamo Zone and Gofa Zone.

All the nine regional states of the Ethiopian Federation adopted their own regional (state) constitutions. As a result, Ethiopia’s current constitutional architecture is composed of one Federal Constitution and the nine regional (state) constitutions. Under the provisions of the 1977 Soviet Constitution, all the country’s union republics and autonomous republics were similarly entitled to their own constitutions.

However, the EPRDF was dissolved in December 2019. Three out of the four constitutive member parties of the EPRDF (with the notable exception of the TPLF) and all five of the EPRDF’s affiliated parties formed the current ruling Prosperity Party. The Prosperity Party is designed as an all-Ethiopian party with regional (not ethnic) branches.

Since the dissolution of the EPRDF in December 2019, all regions - with the sole exception of Tigray - have been administered by the newly established Prosperity Party. Tigray remains the TPLF’s stronghold.

During the 1980s and 1990s, this type of‘rebalancing’was an existential need for Belgium, to prevent a looming breakup of this country into two ethno-linguistic nation-states, one for the Flemish and the other for the French-speaking Walloons. The Belgians learned a good lesson from the breakup of federal Czechoslovakia. The conclusion was that dual (dyadic, bipartite) federations are inherently unstable. In light of this diagnosis, politicians decided to transform Belgium into a multidimensional federation of three ethnolinguistic communities (Flemish, French and German) and of three regions, namely the two ethnoterritorial regions of Flanders and Wallonia, alongside the non-ethnoterritorial (capital) and bilingual region of Brussels.

Importantly, the borders of these three regions do not overlap with the borders of the three communities. Hence, ethnoterritorial and ethnolinguistic cleavages do not fortify each other, because otherwise they would have, if the borders of the communities and regions had overlapped (Third 2020; Wagstaff 1999).