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Ethnic Politics vs. Citizenship Politics in Ethiopia

 Ethnic Politics vs. Citizenship Politics in Ethiopia

Assefa A. Lemu 3-29-19

Introduction:  Ethnicity is a socially constructed category that has a shared cultural heritage, language, history. As defined by OkwudibaNnoli (1978:5), Ethnicity is “Social phenomenon associated with the identity of members of the largest possible competing communal groups (ethnic groups) seeking to protect and advance their interest in a political system. The relevant communal factor may be language, culture, race, religion, and/or common history. Ethnicity is only one of the phenomena associated with interactions among communal groups (ethnic groups)”1.

Ethnic politics is not a new phenomenon. As recorded in the Holy Bible, there has been long standing competition and struggle among Jewish and Palestinians. Even the holy man Abraham Terah who moved from his country to Land of Canaanites preferred his ethnic group over the others. Genesis 24:2-4 tells us that "Abraham said to his servant, the senior one in his household who was in charge of everything he had,‘put your hand under my thigh so that I may make you solemnly promise by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth: You must not acquire a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living. You must go instead to my country and to my relatives to find a wife for my son Isaac’ ”. I hope some of those who opened propaganda war against Mr. Bekele Gerba for mentioning inter-ethnic group marriage in Addis Ababa as one of the factors weakening the development of Afan Oromo read this part of the bible.

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Regardless of the denial of facts by some of the Ethiopian politicians who wish to rewrite Ethiopian history, most of the wars and power struggles in Ethiopia were rooted in ethnic politics. Even before Emperor Menelik II established the present day Ethiopia as a country, there were ethnic rivalries in the region mainly among Tigray, Amhara, Oromo,Agew and the like. To legitimize one’s power, claiming to be a member of certain ethnic group or claiming to have linkage to certain group has been common in Ethiopia. The reason why Habesha kings used to change their names when they come to power was part of such linkage creation exercise.

The other salient feature of ethnic politics in Ethiopia is expanding territorial control.  For example, when Emperor Tewodros II set his feet in Shewa in October 1856, the instruction he gave was either to submit or leave the land to him and go. He declared “if you have a country and a father, go back to your country and father; if you don’t have one, I will be your father”2. He had also the ambition to control the land of Jerusalem and had a motto which says “the husband of Ethiopia and the fiancée of Jerusalem”. Because of that ambition, the Azmaris said “የታጠቅ ፈረሶች ንዴት ያሽካካሉ: ባሕር ማዶ ጨፌ መልቀም ያስባሉ”. The main reason why Tewodros chopped the hands and legs of Wallo Oromo, why he threw them off the cliff of Meqdella, and massacred them was mainly for the control of their land. 

One of the reasons why DejachKassa Mircha  (later called Emperor Yohannes IV) of Tigray  revolted against Emperor Tewodros II and decided to work with General Napier who led British army from India to set free the English hostages under Tewodros was ethnic politics.  The appointment of Sahlemariam (later called Emperor Menelik II) of North Shewa who was eleven years younger than Kassa Mircha as Dejazmach, the title only two levels below Negus (king), and appointing Kassa Mircha of Tigray simply as Balambaras, the lowest rank in the Ethiopian feudal aristocratic power structure, was considered as ethnic bias and discrimination and dissatisfied Kassa Mircha who then started working against Tewodros until Tewodros’ death in April 1868 3..

Ethnic politics is not what EPRDF created as some individuals and groups argue. It was there before the coming to power of EPRDF and it will continue to be there after EPRDF.  “The question of ethnic groups/nationalities has always been a problem for Ethiopian leaders as Ethiopia is deeply divided along ethnic lines (…). It is an issue that helped to being down the Derg and remains an important issue in Ethiopian politics. This is not the most important aspect of Ethiopian politics but it is a significant one”4. The only thing EPRDF did was acknowledging the existence of ethnic politics and institutionalizing it.

The Citizen Politics (YezeginetPolitika) which is considered by some as a political fashion in Ethiopia is also not a new phenomenon. Successive Ethiopian regimes before EPRDF exercised it and in response got armed resistance. Like the current promoters of YezeginetPolitika they also accused individuals and groups who openly spoke for the rights of ethnic groups as narrow nationalists (gosegna,zewugegna,gotegna, tebab, etc). In this article, I will briefly discuss the competition of citizenship politics and ethnic politics in Ethiopia from the era of Menelik II to present and evaluate if the citizenship politics could bring democracy, unifies Ethiopia and hold the peoples in Ethiopia together and if the ethnic politics is anti- democracy and pulls Ethiopia and its peoples apart.

Ethnic Politics from Menelik II to Hailesellasie I (1889-1973):The Ethnic politics and relationships in Ethiopia under emperors Menelik II and Hailesellassie I have been summarized by Walelegn Mekonnen as follows:

“What are the Ethiopian people composed of? I stress on the word peoples because sociologically speaking at this stage Ethiopia is not really one nation. It is made up of a dozen nationalities with their own languages, ways of dressing, history, social organization and territorial entity. And what else is a nation? It is not made of a people with a particular tongue, particular ways of dressing, particular history, and particular social and economic organization? Then may I conclude that in Ethiopia there is the Oromo Nation, the Tigrai Nation, the Amhara Nation, the Gurage Nation, the Sidama Nation, the Wolayta Nation, the Harari Nation, and however much you may not like it the Somali Nation.

This is the true picture of Ethiopia. There is of course the fake Ethiopian Nationalism advanced by the ruling class and unwillingly accepted and even propagated by innocent fellow travellers.

What is this fake Nationalism? Is it not simply Amhara and to a certain extent Amhara-Tigre supremacy? Ask anybody what Ethiopian culture is? Ask anybody what Ethiopian language is? Ask anybody what Ethiopian music is? Ask anybody what the "national dress" is? It is either Amhara or Amhara-Tigre!!

To be a "genuine Ethiopian" one has to speak Amharic, to listen to Amharic music, to accept the Amhara-Tigre religion, Orthodox Christianity and to wear the Amhara-Tigre Shamma in international conferences. In some cases to be an "Ethiopian", you will even have to change your name. In short to be an Ethiopian, you will have to wear an Amhara mask (to use Fanon's expression). Start asserting your national identity and you are automatically a tribalist that is if you are not blessed to be born an Amhara. According to the constitution you will need Amharic to go to school, to get a job, to read books (however few) and even to listen to the news on Radio "Ethiopia" unless you are a Somali or an Eritrean in Asmara for obvious reasons.5

From 1889 to 1973, Ethiopia was a country where discussing about ethnic politics other than that of Habesha, specifically Amhara, was a crime.  Much could be said about the competition between citizenship and ethnic politics during this period but the objective of this article is to focus on the current situation rather than on historical events.

Ethnic Politics under Derg (1974-1991): Even though a dozen of political organizations were emerged during Derg era, the influential ones were the three political organizations (Working Party of Ethiopia (WPE)/Derg, Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP), and All Ethiopian Socialist Movement (AESM)/ME’ISONE) and the liberation fighter groups such as OLF, TPLF, ONLF, and ALF.  As their names indicate, the liberation fighter organizations have been openly conducted ethnic politics and there is no need to spend time discussing their positions on ethnic politics.  However, the positions of WPE/Derg, EPRP, and AESM on ethnic politics warrant some discussion.

Derg is the first Ethiopian government that acknowledged Ethiopia as a home of various ethnic groups and that legalized the equality of ethnic groups in Ethiopia.  The 1987 constitution of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (also known as Derg’s Constitution) affirmed the equality of nationalities/ethnic groups and their right to self-determination. The preamble of the constitution says “… the equality of nationalities, based on the right to self-determination, is ensured”.

Even before the adoption of the 1987 constitution, Derg launched the National Literacy Campaign on July 8, 1979 which is commonly known as  meseretetimhirt  Program to teach basic literacy in about 15 languages in Ethiopia.  Even though some groups brag about the introduction of  modern formal education to Ethiopia in 1908, when Derg took power in 1974, only about 7% of the population were reported to be literate and about 93 % of the population were illiterate 6.  Using 15 languages as media of literacy for the first time in Ethiopian education system was a major departure from the Ethiopia’s one language policy.  The equality and respectability of all languages of nationalities in Ethiopia also enshrined under Article 2(5) of the 1987 constitution which says “The People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia shall ensure the equality, development, and respectability of the languages of the nationalities”.

Regarding the equality of ethnic groups/nationalities in Ethiopia, the positions of EPRP and AESM were not different from that of Derg.  In its August 1975 political program, EPRP denounced the discrimination and ethnic oppression in Ethiopia including the policy of forcible Amharnization. As a solution to the problem, it proposed to respect the equalities of all nationalities/ethnic groups,  to develop all the languages of the various nationalities and to make education available in the languages of the various nationalities; to recognize the right of nationalities for self-administration and their unrestricted right for self-determination. EPRP called for the establishment of ethnic governments called National Peoples’ Congress:

“To protect the rights of all the various nationalities in the country; nationalities who have common economic, geographical, historical origin; cultural and psychological makeup and other common factors shall have full right of internal administration and shall establish their own National Congresses empowered to promulgate laws and carry out similar activities necessary to ensure this right.”7

EPRP also acknowledged the right of ethnic groups/nationalities for unrestricted self-determination which in my opinion includes secession. Section IV of EPRP’s program which is titled “To Declare and Safeguard the Unrestricted Right of Nations to Self-Determination” says “To give full rights to the peoples' of the various Ethiopian nationalities to determine their own destiny, and at the same time carry out a peaceful political struggle for a voluntary union of the type they choose on the basis of equality and feeling of brotherhood.”

The assessment of AESM about ethnic oppression in Ethiopia and proposed solution was not different from that of EPRP. In its political program, under the section titled “Rights and Freedoms of Nationalities” AESM said:

  1. The right of all nationalities to self-determination up to and including secession is to be recognized. The unity of nationalities in Ethiopia shall be based on their voluntary will to live together in equality, fraternity, and mutual respect, and on the benefit accruing from mutual assistance.


  1. Every nationality to enjoy the right to use and develop its language, to enrich its culture and enjoy the benefits of its historical heritage 8.

The evaluations of ethnic politics under the regimes of Menelik II, Hailesellasie I, and Derg show that ethnic politics in Ethiopia is not something what politicians can turn blind eyes and deaf ears to it. It has been an armament that removed Derg from power and a vehicle which brought EPRDF to power. Therefore, ethnic politics plays crucial role in Ethiopian politics.

Ethnic Politics under EPRDF (1991-Present):  As discussed above, Ethiopia has been a multiethnic country. When EPRDF took power in Ethiopia, it acknowledged this fact. As I said above, EPRDF didn’t bring ethnic politics into Ethiopia as some individuals and groups claim. If EPRDF is to be blamed in this regard, it may be blamed for exploiting the negative side of ethnic politics to cling to power, not for introducing it to Ethiopian politics.  EPRDF is also not the first Ethiopian regime to constitutionalize the equality of ethnic groups/nationalities and their right to self- determination because, as discussed above, the equality of nationalities and their right to self-determination were ensured in the 1987 constitution.

The study done by British Home Office summarized the ethnic politics in Ethiopia as follows: “Ethiopia has over 80 ethnic groups, or `nationalities'. Historically the Amharas and Tigrayans from the northern highlands have played major roles in the country's life. Some ethnic groups, including the Oromos, the largest single ethnic group, claim to have been subjugated during the nineteenth century by the dominant Amharas and Tigrayans. The present Government's policy of regionalization attempts to address ethnic concerns. The new federal structure, with regional states based largely on major ethnic boundaries, has granted local populations much greater control over their own affairs, and due to this ethnicity and politics is almost synonymous with each other. The Constitution provides for equal recognition for all Ethiopian languages although Amharic is the working language of the Federal Government”(Home Office p.46).

In its programs, policies, strategies, laws, and regulations, EPRDF fully acknowledged the rights of nations, nationalities, and peoples (ethnic groups). The current Ethiopian constitution fully acknowledges the equality of ethnic groups and their rights to self- determination up to secession and because of that it is called by some as “the constitution of ethnic groups”. The promoters of the citizenship politics re-emerged in opposition to this EPRDF policy and the current constitution. What triggered me to write this article is the campaign that these pro YezeginetPolitika (citizenship politics) groups opened against ethnic politics and the current constitution and the intent to shed some lights on YezeginetPolitika and YebudinPolitika (ethnic politics).

The Way Forward: Ethiopian history tells us that Derg and its predecessor Ethiopian regimes were not able to stop ethnic politics with massive propaganda and military power. Their YezeginetPolitika was defeated by YebudinPolitika in 1991. I don’t think the groups who are camouflaging themselves under the name of “Ethiopia” and “ZeginetPolitika” reverse the course of history to take the country back to the pre 1991 period. If they succeed to do that, it means the country is going back once again to ‘the era of liberation fighters”.

According to the facts on the ground, any group who wish to take political power in Ethiopia may not gain it by disregarding the issue of ethnicity in the country and, even if it got power, it may not stay in power by denying the fact that Ethiopia is the home of different ethnic groups and their rights. Ethnic politics is a reality that Ethiopian people and politicians must live with. The argument which says Ethiopian peoples are “one nation” is bogus. The reason why Walelign Mekonnen used the word “peoples” in his aforementioned article instead of “people”, why EPRP used the word “peoples” in its 1975 political program, and why the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution used “peoples” instead of “people” is to intentionally reflect this fact, not by oversight or spelling error. The fantasy and wish to get rid of the issues of ethnicity out of Ethiopian politics through new form of regionalization of the country based on geographic features and introduction of amorphous “YezeginetPolitika” will not become reality. The prescriptions which are prescribed for Ethiopian peoples by individuals who renounced Ethiopian citizenship and took the citizenship of foreign countries do not reflect the reality on the ground in Ethiopia. Peoples in Ethiopia need more rights and empowerment, not less rights and restraints.

I fully understand that unity of the Ethiopian peoples is necessary and ethnic politics has its own negative side.  However, unity must be made based on the values that unite us not on the predetermined values which exclude others. The attempt to impose one group’s values on another without their consent in the name of unity and condemning the value of others to eliminate and have one dominant value will push them to the extreme to reject that imposition and will not bring unity.

The pro YezeginetPolitika groups argue that the Ethiopian peoples have intermarried and lived together for centuries and they are one nation. Even individuals like FikreTolosa, who can’t correctly pronounce the name of their fathers, wrote a fiction book on the genealogy of Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups (the name Tolosareminded me a person who changed the name of his father from Jirata to Jiratam to make an Amharic name). However,  the argument of ethnic intermarriages doesn’t justify the rejection of ethnic politics (group politics) because like most of the countries in the world, peoples in Ethiopia follow the patrimonial linage counting system and associate themselves to the ethnic group of their fathers. This doesn’t mean that there are no individuals who sidetrack from this tradition. Perverts are always there in the society, but we are talking about the normal norm which is practiced by a majority.

The citizenship politics doesn’t give free ride to individuals as some groups claim. Human beings are social animals and they associate themselves to certain group in one way or another. That association may be based on language, religion, culture, color, or interest or something else. Individuals cannot live in vacuum. That was why the French Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseausaid in his famous Social Contract theory that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. Yezeginet politics will not set an individual free from society’s “chains” because an individual must consents to it to live within a given society in harmony, unless he/she is insane.  One of the chains/ social contract is accepting the membership of a give group, inthis case an ethnic group.

Pro- Yezeginet politicians accuse ethnic politics as a mother of all conflicts in Ethiopia and demonize it. Conflicts have been there even before EPRDF took power and will be there in the future. The viable solution is to manage diversity and conflict not pointing figure to other. As Prime Minister Dr. Abiy clearly put it in his closing remark of Addis Weg on March 24, 2019, “in Ethiopia there is no politician who is not nationalist [who is not promoting ethnic politics]. All those who claim that they are Ethiopian politicians are all nationalists [conducting ethnic politics]. When he says he is not nationalist, he is glorifying his village and demonizing yours” (

The propaganda war opened against Mr. Bekele Gerba, Secretary of Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), by the so called promoters of citizenship politics including their propaganda machinery called ESAT TV (  for providing suggestion on how to develop Afan Oromo language shows that the promoters of YezeginetPolitika are conducting ethnic politics in the relatively concealed way. The same is true regarding a propaganda campaign recently opened against Prime Minister Dr. Abiy for denouncing a group which established illegal and parallel administration in Addis Ababa. They are trying to use the cover name “Ethiopia” as a mask to do their version of ethnic politics. 

The promoters of YezeginetPolitikawho are experts in wrapping their ethnic politics with the name of “Ethiopia” commended an attempt to make Amharic language one of the languages of African Union and criticized an attempt to make Afan Oromo one of the Federal languages of Ethiopia. When OLF resisted disarming, they cried day and night for the supremacy of law and continuously called up on the government to take military actions against OLF. When the Amhara group led by Eskinder Nega illegally formed parallel city government in Addis Ababa and the Federal government warned the group to stop their illegal activities, the pro-YezeginetPolitika, with the exception of individuals like Dr. Berhanu Nega who is not from Eskinder’s ethnic group, argued Ethiopian laws including the constitution must be violated because it was written by TPLF- led EPRDF.  These are few examples to show how they are conducted ethnic politics in clandestine way. Out of 108 political parties operating in Ethiopia as of the date of this article, there is no single party immune from ethnic politics.

It is obvious fact that, until April 2018, because of historical reasons, Ethiopian politics had been dominated by the northerners.“Although many ethnic groups influence the political and cultural life of the country, Amharas and Tigrayans from the northern highlands play the dominant role” (Home office p.46). The pain of losing this dominance and the hope to regain it through supremacy of propaganda made them to aggressively engage in propaganda campaign and create lots of hullabaloo. Oromo political organizations like OFC and OLF who are boasting of having millions of members but do not have even well managed website and Facebook page, leave alone having effective and competent media houses, became easy preys to the Amhara propaganda campaigns.  The Oromos who regret about the defeat of their grandfathers because of imbalance of armament in the 19th century are doing little or nothing to save themselves and their children from regretting about the second defeat in the 21st century because of the imbalance of media outlets and their usage.  The Tigrians at least recognized the power of media and propaganda and floating the idea of Digital Woyane.  However, we didn’t hear from the Oromos about Digital Qerro, Digital Folle, or Digital Gada. The patience of the supporters of Oromo political parties in waiting for these parties to improve their operations is amazing and reminds me the saying I heard sometimes ago “ትመጫለሽ ብዬ አሻግሬ ሳይ፣አንች ልጅ ማለፊያ መንገድ አጣሽ ወይ ?”Unless they wake up and engage in counter propaganda, the pro- group rights political parties will lose not only in the upcoming election but in the future elections and the gains of the last 28 years will be multiplied by zero. I don’t think man ethnic group want to see that happening, but unless they work to prevent it, it may happen if they like it or not.

Even though the opponents of ethnic politics argue that ethnic politics lead to the breakdown of democracy because of ethnic outbidding effect which inevitably gives rise to more ethnic parties and infects the political system, the proponents of ethnic politics disproved this assumption.  For example, Kanchan Chandra (2005: 3) argues that ethnic parties can sustain a democratic system rather than threatening it. He says institutions which encourage the politicization of multiple dimensions of ethnic identity are likely to sustain rather than endanger a democratic system. Institutions which artificially restrict ethnic politics to a single dimension are likely to threaten democratic stability 9. There are established and emerging democratic countries that have ethnic based political parties including UK, Canada, Spain, Ireland, Turkey, South Africa, Russia, Macedonia, India, and Sri Lanka. However, the examples that pro-YezeginetPolitika groups cite relating to ethnic based politics is countries where the negative effect of ethnic diversity took place such as the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.  They pump one side of the story to the people to create bias in the mind of the Ethiopian people.

Wiping out ethnic groups from Ethiopia is not possible and as far as ethnic groups exist ethnic politics will exist. The viable option we have is managing diversity and working in multiethnic environment and building multiethnic democracy. If India that has two thousand ethnic groups and Nigeria that has 350 ethnic groups are ableto builddemocratic system,there is no reason that Ethiopia couldn’t build democracy which accommodates diversity. EPRDF started how to constructively handle ethnic politics in Ethiopia and we can build upon the experience we got in the last 28 years and better handle the issue.

As disclosed by the Chairman of EPRDF and Prime Minister of Ethiopia Dr. Abiy in his remark on the closing of Addis Weg on March 24, 2019, the book on Medemer, the political philosophy that he believes leads Ethiopia for the next 50 to 60 years, will be published within two to three months( I assume the Medemer political philosophy is about bridge building to bring different groups together andabout creating or renewing coalitions between different groups, not to squash them.

As democracy gets matured, the classic liberal approach which gives emphases to individual rights over collective rights has been challenged.  The theoretical argument which says the interests of groups can be better served by enforcement of individual rights is challenged by the group that produced cases where the guarantee of rights for individuals doesn’t necessarily lead to rights for groups. Rights do not always flow from the individual to the group. Because of that, today, protections for group rights have become a norm.

For example, according to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, family is considered as a fundamental group unit and entitled to group’s right protection. Article 16(3) of the Declaration says “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”. The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide in terms of group rights, not in terms of individual rights.Article II of the Convention says “… genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group…”. In addition, the 1966, UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights protects group rights. Article 27 of the convention says “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language”. The 1992 UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities also extended protection to group rights. Article 2(5) of the Declaration says “Persons belonging to minorities have the right to establish and maintain, without any discrimination, free and peaceful contacts with other members of their group and with persons belonging to other minorities, as well as contacts across frontiers with citizens of other States to whom they are related by national or ethnic, religious or linguistic ties”.

 If respecting individual rights alone fixes all the problems of the society related to rights, why do we need all these declarations, covenants, and conventions? Do the promoters of YezeginetPolitika think that the international community is less smart than them to understand that YezeginetPolitika which is based on the individual rights is a panacea for all the problems related to human and democratic rights? The peoples in Ethiopia need to carefully evaluate if the YezeginetPolitika is really a medicine that cures their problems as its promoters claim ( or a poison that exacerbates their problems.


1.        Nnoli, Okwudiba (1978:5) Quoted in Felicia H. Ayatse  and Isaac IorhenAkuva, The Origin and Development Of Ethnic Politics and Its Impacts on Post- Colonial Governance In Nigeria, Felicia H. AyatseAkuva, Isaac Iorhen Department Of Political Science, Federal University, Dutsin-Ma, Katsina State

2.        Araia,Ghelawdewos.2006.The Great Unifier: Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia. Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA), Inc.

3.        Araia, Ghelawdewos. July 3, 2006.The Martyred King of Kings: Emperor Yohannes IV of Ethiopia. Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA), Inc. p.1 ( ).

4.        Country Information and Policy Unit, Immigration and Nationality Directorate, Home Office, United Kingdom. April  2003.  Ethiopia Country Assessment

5.        Mekonnen, Walleligne. Nov. 17, 1969.On the Question of Nationalities.  Arts IV, HSIU

6.        Kenea, Ambissa.Adult basic literacy “initiatives” in Ethiopia: change and continuity. Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia, P 379 (

7.        EPRP. August 1975. The Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Party Program.

8.        AESM. Program of the All Ethiopian Socialist Movement.

9.        Chandra, Kanchan.  June 2005. Ethnic Parties and Democratic Stability. Perspectives on Politics, | Vol. 3/No. 2 p. 236


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