The Rise of Ethnic Consciousness and its Implication on Contemporary Ethiopian Politics

The rise of ethnic consciousness has become a global phenomenon as many anthropological investigations confirm. People who organize themselves on the basis of ethnic identity have been striving to keep their socio-economic as well as political demands. This occurrence is further reinforced by the rise of communication technology that eases flow of information and contact among members of a certain group.

Ethiopia, home for more than 80 ethnic groups, has been also passing through this global phenomenon. Following the coming to power of the current regime, the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front here after EPRDF, in 1991 Ethiopia has introduced an ethnic-based federal arrangement. This ethnic-based federal system was comprised of 9 regional states and 2 city administrations. Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Oromia, Somali, Benishangul-Gumuz, Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples, Gambella and Harari made regional states while Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa formed the federal city administrations. Regarding numerical representations, the first four dominant ethnic groups Oromo, Amhara, Somali and Tigray comprise 34.4, 27, 6.2 and 6.1% respectively, while the remaining represent 22.3% of the total population.

The federal system recognizes autonomy of the ethnically-arranged territorial units. Framers of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia asserted the potential of the system in addressing the age-old problem of ethnic-based marginalization. In their views, ethnic federalism can mitigate economic and political crises which were caused by un equal access to opportunities during the past several decades. Constitution of the EPRDF, promulgated in 1995, argue for fair distribution of economic as well as political benefits among the various ethnic groups. The document also postulates to respect different socio-linguistic as well as ethnic identities. Furthermore, the various ethnic groups in Ethiopia are also constitutionally entitled to keep, promote and consolidate their identities.  These constitutional provisions, first in its kind in the country’s political culture, play significant role in nurturing ethnic consciousness.

Together with the above noted constitutional provisions, there were also massive practical engagements which contribute to the rise of ethnic identities in Ethiopia. Among these works, the provision of civic and ethical education at school and university level, the use of native languages as a medium of instruction at primary and junior schools and propagation of TV and Radio programs using local languages are worth to mention.

The 2016 unrest, which is unparalleled in its longevity and geographical spread, is a clear manifestation of the level of ethnic consciousness in Ethiopia. The protests, which were continued for several months, started in November 2015. A master plan that aims to expand the boundaries of Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, into a region inhabited by Oromo ethnic group was the immediate cause. Nevertheless, however, underlying dissatisfactions caused by lack of good governance, corruption, political and economic marginalization are the fundamental causes. In fact, these discontents are not only unique for the Oromo’s. Other ethnic groups are also expressing their anger due to unfair representations on the country’s political economy. Persistent protests on the various areas of the Amhara regional state were good manifestations for this. The request of the Wolkite Amhara identity, which is currently under the Tigray Regional state, was the immediate cause. They claimed themselves as ethnic Amhara’s and refused to be ruled by the Tigray ethnic groups. However, like that of the Oromo’s the Amhara’s are also highly dissatisfied with the prevailing economic as well as political failures.

The rise in ethnic consciousness in the one hand and the political and economic crises on the other push people to move to the street and demand their constitutional rights. Protestors have complained the inconsistency between constitutional provisions and the actual economic as well as political arrangements. And they called for real political representations.

Although the protests started peacefully, they later turned fierce. As many international right organizations commented, there were possibilities to take remedies and control the protest before getting violent.  A recent report presented by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission stated that more than 669 people, both civilian and police, lost their lives.

Government officials alleged that some radical groups in collaboration with external forces hijacked peaceful demonstrators. In many instances of the protest, security forces were attacked by organized ‘gangs’ that led to death of more than 60 polices as the above mentioned report highlighted. Activists and opposition groups, however, have rejected government allegation of ‘gangs’ and external powers involvement. For them, the protests have stemmed from accumulated grievances of people at the grass root level.

In any case, the widespread protests which continued until the late 2016 and subsequent government responses have multiple implications on the country’s political economy. Although the government could control the protest by declaring a 6-month emergency law, soon renewed for another 4 months, similar demands of the various ethnic groups in Ethiopia will persist. Political analysts argue that complaints of the economic and political dominance of the Tigray ethnic group, who makes up 6% of the estimated 100 million Ethiopia’s population, will further aggravate ethnic tensions. In the absence of timely and adequate responses, such tensions may escalate in to ethnic conflicts which may endanger the survival of the country.

The spread of ethnic consciousness among the various groups in Ethiopia creates pressure on the ruling government to keep its constitutional promises. As it is noted by prime minister Hailemariyam Desalegn, government should aggressively work to address problems of youth unemployment. The spread of unemployment among youths has regarded as one of the fundamental causes for the current discontent in Ethiopia.  Hand in hand with this, government need to take also necessary measures that can improve grass root level administrative incompetency. Here it is essential to remind how the lack of consulting local communities in adopting the master plan of Addis Ababa escalated grievances.  Development planners should have to discuss local people in formulating and implementing policies.

Together with these, the protests in Ethiopia also have considerable impact against the country’s image among regional as well as international communities. During the last two decades, Ethiopia is known for its remarkable economic as well as political stability. In many of its reports World Bank has regarded Ethiopia as one of the fastest growing non-oil exporting economies in Africa. The Global Competitiveness Report, 2013-2014, ranked Ethiopia 55th out of 148 countries in terms of security.  This is above many of its regional peers such as South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria. This fertile economic as well as political environment enables Ethiopia to be one of the major destinations of foreign direct investment. A report presented by Ethiopian Investment Commission (EIC) pointed that the country’s annual foreign direct investment (FDI) has reached 2.2 billion USD. In spite of this, however, Ethiopia may lose its positive images unless otherwise government takes careful measures towards the rising ethnic tensions. The ruling government has to consider the diverse ethnic groups in Ethiopia as an asset for sustainable socio-economic as well as political developments. This can be achieved in a best manner by granting real representations of the various ethnic groups in the country’s economic and political structures.

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Dr. Muzeyen Hawas SEBSEBE
Muzeyen Hawas Sebsebe was born in 1977, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He attended his primary, junior and highschool education at Addis Ababa. In 1999 he has joined Bahir Dar University, History Department. In July 2002 he has defended his thesis entitled the Biography of Aklilu Habtewold and grduated İn BED degree. In 2008 he has obtained his MA degree in Social Anthropology from Addis Ababa University. He wrote His MA thesis on the Provision of Household Food Security and Womens Pivotal Role. From 2009-2011 he has worked as lecturer at Dilla University, School of Social Science and Humanities, Department of Anthropology. During his stay at Dilla University, he has provided various Anthropological courses. Currently, he is writing his PhD dissertation entitled Diversification of Ethiopia’s Foreign Policy: Post-Cold War era Ethio-Turkish Relation as a case Analysis. His research interest areas includes foreign policy, regional integration, regional and international organizations. Together with his academic activities, he is also active on various Ethiopian students activities in Turkey. He actively engages in founding organizations such as Habeshistan Development and Cooperation Association and Horn of Africa Strategic Study Center