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Regionalization of Ethiopia

Regionalization of Ethiopia

Assefa A. Lemu 3-7-19

Introduction: Regionalization can be defined as “the politico-administrative process …by which regions emerge as relevant units of analysis for economic and political activity and welfare and service provision”1. In most cases, regionalization comes from top to down as devolution of power like it was the case in Ethiopia during the Transitional Period of 1991-1995 where fourteen regions were created by EPRDF as a part of governmental reforms. In some cases, the push for regionalization may come from bottom to up when the group or area that became aware of its new opportunities and constraints in the face of national and international trends and policies claim to be a region like the case of Sidama Zone of Ethiopia that is demanding to be a region/ state member of the FDRE.

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Regionalism is an ideology and motivation which seeks to promote regions as the unit for identity-building aspects. For example, under the current regionalization in Ethiopia, the Amhara identity, Tigrawai identity, Oromo identity, Somali identity, etc have been either built or strengthened. By changing the current regionalization, it may be possible to either change or weaken these identities. By changing the regional space/territorial space, it may be possible to change the political space (who will be the political actors in that region and on what topics they may focus) and functional space (how the society in the region functions and which language they use for their interaction).  For example, imagine a creation of a new region by the central/federal government in which half of the inhabitants of the region will be Amhara and half of them will be Afar and imagine about the political actors and the language to be used in that region.

Regionalization is different from regionalism because regionalization is the process in which the central government or other authoritative entity seeking to alter the regional administrative structure pursues its own goals.  Whereas regionalism is the process in which regional actors and their representatives are in the center of the decision of making a region to enhance their administrative and regional/political autonomy.  In a simplified expression, this difference could be seen as a difference between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ initiatives. In both cases,  the objective is to create a region which is considered as “a cohesive area that is homogeneous in selected defining criteria and is distinguished from neighboring areas or regions by those criteria” (Nordregio Report 2004:Page 23).  These defining criteria could be cultural features, linguistic features, geographical features or other features relevant to a particular area. For example, the current regionalization in Ethiopia is based on ethnic, cultural, and linguistic features. For its aid provision program purpose, USAID/Ethiopia divides Ethiopia based on Economic features in to three regions-Productive Ethiopia, Hungry Ethiopia, and Pastoral Ethiopia 2

In general, regionalization is the process of dividing a country or an area into segments called regions based on common traits for administration or management or other purposes.  It is the process of breaking large area into relatively smaller areas. Even though businesses also use regionalization as a management tool to make sure that certain needs unique to particular areas are met, in this article regionalization will be discussed from political (governance) and administrative point of view.

Italian East Africa (1938–1941).svgRegionalization of Ethiopia in the Past and Present: Under Italian occupation (1936-1941), Ethiopia was divided into the following six regions (governorate):

  1. Eritrea, with its capital in Asmara;
  2. Amhara, with its capital in Gonder;
  3. Shewa, with its capital in Addis Ababa;
  4. Oromo-Sidama (Galla-Sidamo), with its capital in Jimma;
  5. Harar, with its capital in Harar; and
  6. Somalia added to other Somalia regions of Italian East Africa with its capital in Mogadishu.






Under Hailesellassie’s Government, Ethiopia was divided into 14 regions called provinces.











Under Derg, Ethiopia was divided into thirty regions (five autonomous regions and twenty-five administrative regions).











Under EPRDF Government, Ethiopia has been divided into 11 regions (nine States and two city administrations).

The Future of Regionalization of Ethiopia: Even though the regionalization during Hailesellasie and Derg regimes didn’t bring peace and stability, some groups blame the current regionalization of Ethiopia for being the cause for conflicts and instability in Ethiopia. Therefore, the issue of regionalization became one of the contentious topics in Ethiopian politics with some individuals already started proposing alternative regionalization. For example, EngidashetBunare and Shiferaw Lulu circulated a proposal titled “Proposed New Ethiopian Government Administrative Boundary System for Unified Nation Building 3” in 2018.  In their proposal, they said:

“We concluded that the current ethnic based states administrative boundaries and inequitable and unsecure political system will not bring long lasting sustainable development, enabling environment for investment and free social movement in the country. …

The modern history before the ethno-language federalism indicates that the administrative regions combined historical events, physical and geographical boundaries. Ethno-language has never been criteria…

Therefore, for avoiding mistrust ethnic conflict and for enhancing development and integration of the Ethiopian people we believe the best model would be the one based on hydrological physical region”(EngidashetBunare  and Shiferaw Lulu,Page 70).

Bunare  and Lulu proposed the following eight river basin states which they claim brings “better development/ civilization, and greatness of the nation as to better facilitate national cohesion” (Page 74):


  1. Abay basin state;
  2. Awash, Denakil and Ayisha basins state;
  3. Baro-Akobo basin state;
  4. Genele-Dawa basin state;
  5. Omo-Ghibe basin state; and
  6. Rift valley Lakes basin state;
  7. Tekeze and Mereb basins state;
  8. Wabi-Shebele and Ogaden basins state;


Their proposal more or less keeps Tigrawai together in Tekeze and Mereb Basin State, Amhara together in Abay Basin state, Afar together in Awash, Denakil, and Aysha basin state, and Somali in Wabi-Shebele and Ogaden basins state but divides Oromo into seven different states.  Whether it is done intentionally or unintentionally, their proposal divides Oromo to destroy their notion of Oromumma. Bunare and Lulu wish to take Ethiopia to the pre-1991 era’s regionalization ideology which tried to create one dominant identity based on Amhara culture and values by weakening other cultures and values but tested and failed.

Another  individual who advocates for dissolving the current regionalization to restructure it based on geographical features, Dr. YohannesZeleke, who aired his opinion on ESAT television program posted on February 23,2019  argued that citizenship rights to be respected in Ethiopia, all State (Regional) governments in Ethiopia must use Amharic language for all official government businesses and  non-Amharic languages to be limited to non-government business ( ). This argument is based on the assumption that, in Ethiopia, to be considered as a citizen, to get services from the government, and to enjoy citizenship right, one has to speak Amharic language. However, the government systems which used Amharic language and culture as standards for being “true Ethiopian” and favored Amharic speakers had been tried in Ethiopia and failed. The “one language” policy and system which Dr. YonannesZeleke wishes to be re-established were tested in pre-1991 Ethiopia but didn’t bring unity, peace, and development but civil wars and destructions.

What makes the politics of regionalization of Ethiopia more interesting is that some of the leaders of EPRDF, the political organization that introduced the current regionalization of Ethiopia, now overtly or covertly condemn the current regionalization.   For Example, on the meeting  held  with about 3,000 community members, religious leaders, and elders  drawn from Harari, Gambella, BeninshangulGumuz, Afar, and Somali States on February 24, 2019,  EPRDF Chairperson and Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed said “ The change to create a system in which, after few months, there will be no the so called Somali party, the so called Afar party, the so called Beneshangul party, the so called Oromo and Amhara parties, but  to create one Ethiopian party in which we all equally participate, in which an Ethiopian from every direction who has the capacity will not be prohibited from taking any position is  moving fast” ( ).  It seems that this plan is based on Prime Minister Dr. Abiy’s “Medemer Philosophy” but the question is how does this ensure the right for self- administration of ethnic groups and states/regions?

This one Ethiopian party in which all Ethiopians who speak more than 80 languages will participate needs a common language for its operations but we didn’t hear which language that will be. At this point, we also do not know if this one Ethiopian party governs all peoples in Ethiopia from border to border with only one language selected by the party and if the current regionalization will be changed to fit the objective of having one Ethiopian party or not. If there are no parties that represent certain ethnic groups, how do they exercise their rights for self-administration? Furthermore, we are not clear how this one Ethiopian party’s structure may be different from the former Workers’ Party of Ethiopia (WPE) in which in theory all Ethiopians from every part of the country who accept the program of the party can be member and compete for any position but practically used to operate in the contrary. There is no conclusive evidence that confirms the capacities to compete for positions are even across all regions and ethnic groups in Ethiopia to make them all benefit from this nationwide competition.

The deduction of the proposals to change the current regionalization, to change the languages that state/regional governments use, and the effort to establish one Ethiopian party in which individuals be a member and compete for any political power leads us to the conclusion that the effort is to take Ethiopia back to the pre-1991 unitary system in which one language, one culture, and one value will be dominant and others will be diminished until they finally fade away or revolt to protect their identities and values. Basically, it is a call for another round of revolution in Ethiopia.

Regionalization based on language is not something atypical introduced to Ethiopia by EPRDF as some individuals claim. It has been implemented in Nigeria, India, and some other countries. For example, the regions of the Federal Republic of Nigeria grew in number from three (3) in early 1960s to 36 states and one territory (Federal Capital Territory in which Abuja, the capital city, is located and which is administered by a minister appointed by the President unlike the States which are governed by elected officials) mainly because of the push from ethnic/linguistic interest groups. In addition, the administrative divisions of the Republic of India which comprise 29 States which have their own governments and seven (7) Union Territories (including the National Capital Territory of Delhi) which are ruled by Union Government (Central Government) are mainly based on linguistics.  The State Reorganization Act of 1956 organized India’s states and territories mainly along linguistic lines. Even after the 1956’s State Reorganization Act, the demand for creation of state based on linguistic identity continued in India and Tamil Nadu (Tamil Country) was created in 1969 for Tamil speaking group with the official state language of Tamil. The establishment of Tamil Nadu (renaming of Madras State as Tamil Nadu State) was the result of the struggle of Tamil nationalists such as KumaraswamiKamaraj who was known for his linguistic politics and for introducing Tamil language as a medium of instruction in schools and colleges as well as in courts when he was Chief Minister of Madras State (now Tamil Nadu) during 1954-1963.

Conclusion: The experiences from India and Nigeria as well as Ethiopia show that regionalization based on language is viable solution to respond to the demands for self- administration of linguistic groups, to avoid unnecessary conflicts and to maintain the unity of the country under the federal system. The proposal to pack different linguistic groups in a region drawn based on river basin or other geographical feature with the objective of creating artificial identity by destroying natural identity will lead Ethiopia to continuous demands for self- administration and instability. 

Therefore, the attempt to change the current regionalization in violation of the guiding principles laid down in the constitution of the FDRE is not only unconstitutional, but also invites another unwanted political controversy. The changes in territorial space entail changes in political space and functional space and affect the rights for self- administrations, to develop one’s language, history and culture.  It will be the reversal of the rights achieved through a century old struggle in Ethiopia and going back to square one. The difference on the regionalization of Ethiopia is not simply the difference on how the country is going to be divided for administrative purposes, but also about what objectives to be achieved through that regionalization, mainly “unity in diversity” or “unity in uniformity”. Therefore, the proposals for revision of regionalization of Ethiopia must be seen seriously.


1.       Spatial Development Trends: Nordic Countries in a European Context. Editors Susan Brockett and Margareta Dahlström Stockholm: Nordregio 2004 (Nordregio Report 2004:6), Page 23. Retrieved from:

2.       USAID's Ethiopia Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS) 2011-2018, Approved on December 6, 2011 Page 4.

Retrieved from  OR

3.       EngidashetBunare and Shiferaw Lulu, “Proposed New Ethiopian Government Administrative Boundary System for Unified Nation Building”   November 2018.  Retrieved from: (

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