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Ethiopia: A New Start? 

Book Review

Ethiopia: A New Start? Minority Rights Group International Report by Kjetil Tronvoll

by Seyoum Hameso and Tilahun Ayano Nebo

The problem

The notion of minority is sometimes misleading. It is used to refer to ethnic, national, religious and social groups or other collective entities embraced within a larger entity. Quite often the term ‘minority group’ refers to numerical insignificance of population groups. But this has problems in some contexts. Numerical majority can be a minority in terms of political representation whereas numerical minority can be a political majority. This is particularly true of Ethiopia. The author takes the case of ‘the largest ethnic group in the country, the Oromo,’ as being ‘politically and socially marginalized and thus might be regarded, politically speaking as a ‘minority’ group; while representatives from a numerical minority group constituting c. 6 per cent of the population, the Tigreans, currently hold the central power, and Tigreans are thus not classified as a ‘minority’ in this context’. (p.5)

This Minority Rights Group International (MRG) report by Kjetil Tronvoll introduces Ethiopia as a country of ‘multiple of ethnic groups’ (p.6). Even after consulting the 1994 Ethiopian census, he joins many others in saying ‘nobody knows exactly how many ethnic groups and minorities there are in Ethiopia’ (p.7). Such a statement is not surprising since doubts about peoples, their numbers and their cultures are all too common in situations as Ethiopia where subsequent polities have a problem of promoting a single ethnie while suppressing others. The result is an all too common misrepresentation and misinformation about people. The author too fails into this trap when he states that Sidama is characterised by a ‘caste system’ (p. 9) which is of course far from truth. As a matter of fact Sidama prizes itself of its egalitarian Luwa age-set system, very similar to the Gada system of the Oromo, which had been undermined by the Abyssinian conquest which replaced it with hierarchically ranked ethnic and power relations. The problem of misrepresentation, however, is not confined to Sidama. There has never been enough understanding of many other cultures and traditions. Even then this report is different from many other works by western scholars about the peoples and the polity in Ethiopia. Humanitarian concerns are visible throughout the report. 

The author is the director of the Horn of Africa Programme at the Norwegian Institute of Human Rights, University of Oslo. In this report, he provides a brief historical account of the Abyssinian conquest (p.12) which had formed the basis of the modern Ethiopia. The report does not hide the similarity between the Abyssinian conquest and European colonisation of Africa and the problems associated with historical inequities. The author makes reference to methods common to most Ethiopian regimes: the coercive nature of the state, the promotion of the process of acculturation, assimilation, and Amharanisation. Thus ‘the establishment of the Ethiopian borders at the start of the twentieth century is at the core of the today’s political controversy in the Horn of Africa.’ (p.13). This colonial polity necessarily contains a multitude of centrifugal forces; the empire was sustained largely by force of domineering centre controlled by Amharic and which is now partly challenged by the ascendance of the TPLF to power.

The transitional charter & the constitution

It is true that the Abyssinian political system’s traditional governorship of centre-periphery remained of the key problems of the country. With the growing awareness the issue came to public debate in the last four decades starting with the issue of land, languages and ‘nations and nationalities’. Both the Haile Selassie autocracy and the derg’s military rule were not in a position to solve the key problems that have their root in the colonial venture of the Ethiopian emperor, Menelik. It is with this background that the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) led by the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front came to power in 1991.

A chapter on the transition from unitary state to ethnic federation is controversial. Here the author looks into the initial years of the transition (1991-95), the transitional charter itself, Eritrean independence, the constitution and the elections. Two aspects stand out: the constitution and the federal dimension. In what looks like a ‘constitution for a Nation of Nations’, the EPRDF placed on paper so many grand ideals to encompass individual and collective rights. In idealism of all untold proportions, the TPLF/ERPRDF regime raised, through the constitutional formation which it meticulously controlled, various issues which had remained taboos in Ethiopian and Ethiopianist discourse.

The open manifestation of prioritising collective national rights such as linguistic, and associated political demarcations gave an image of a government truly committed to reform the empire. Within this framework, the adoption of ‘ethnic federalism’ seemed to give power to the hitherto oppressed and suppressed political minorities. To many outside observers, this remains the most intriguing part of the discussion of the Ethiopia of EPRDF.

A new start or a slow trek into the past?

The author of the report contrasts the new constitution with the Ethiopian recent past. Much of the appraisal of the constitution is grounded on this fundamental comparison of the new experiment with Ethiopia’s political past. It then restructured the state through ethnic federalism and drafted the 1994 Constitution. The constitution is regarded as radical in so far as ‘granting every ethnic group … the right to self-determination up to and including secession’. (p.5) Credit is offered to the government for these measures and hence the title with a question mark: Ethiopia: A New Start? Arguably, the very issues which the government is given credit are, as we see below, problematic, controversial and mere window dressing.

As to the constitution, it is correct to quote a scholar who told the author that ‘[it] is only meant for foreign consumption, and not for internal implementation’. Thus the EPRDF venture has more to do with image building than true reform in substance. While the image of the constitution appears to be ‘minority friendly’, its implementation is skewed towards the ruling minority which became a political majority.

The report has other doubts about the constitution that it may legitimise ethnic conflicts. We would argue that the constitution does not in itself legitimise ethnic conflict, but the lack of its implementation necessarily breeds conflict. An entrenched oppression by the ruling TPLF is likely to legitimise and extend the seeds of more conflicts.

The quest for self-determination of national groups was already there long before the constitution. It will also be there whatever forms the oppressive empire politics may take. Indeed, in a political culture of Ethiopia where Abyssinians claim that they are the only ‘chosen people’ to rule, ethno-national political and cultural demands are the only way to air the grievances and the plight of ethnic or national groups. As long as the politics of domination and control exists in the name of unity or democracy, the struggle of oppressed ethnic groups there will be the possibility of conflicts. It is only the end of oppression and domination that will create a ground for peaceful co-existence of different groups. In this sense, TPLF’s start is neither a good start nor new. All it is doing it to buy time in its long trek into the past. Ethiopian politics under the TPLF is not new but a false start.


The other misused term in Ethiopia of today is what is termed as ‘ethnic federalism’. It is often imposed from Ethiopianist discourse which is at loggers with the presumed policies of collective empowerment for ethnic and national groups.

For the formerly advantaged groups, the transitional government’s policy of demarcating the ‘regional’ and ‘state’ boundaries on the basis of what they say ethnic ‘killils’, an Amharic term, on top of making several languages the languages of office and education was unpalatable. Hence the ‘ethnic’ connotation to the arrangement which has its own drawbacks from the perspective of the oppressed nations and peoples.  In a sense, the opposition of the former ruling circles is not only to the TPLF/EPRDF and its policies per se, it is to the legitimising aspect of the problems that haunted Ethiopia since the conquest. That is, its subsequent regimes have been extensively centrist, oppressive and coercive. These groups are posed to oppose any idea of federation that takes power from a unitary state, be it ethnic, national or international.

Neither is the TPLF/EPRDF sincere in its policy of federalism and federal states. This can be seen in the manners the polity runs, how the federal states were formed and run. While we don’t delve into the deep discussion of this aspect, it is sufficient to indicate some and only some of the centrist aspects of the TPLF despite its pronouncements. For example, at the beginning of the Transitional Government, there were 14 regions. Sidama was one of them. In terms of population numbers, economic or any criteria this nation is no position to be prevented from having the status given to Harar, Benshangul, Tigray or even to the Amhara ‘states’. But in a few years of experimentation, the EPRDF government merged Sidama into what became the mouthful Southern Nations Nationalities and People’s Regional State whose capital and president are nonetheless Sidama.

This forced unionisation is not unique to TPLF, it is common in the beleaguered history of the empire state of Ethiopia. Even by taking the nominal federal regions by the word, they are now composed of nine ‘states’: the Amhara and Tigray ‘states’ in the northern highlands, Oromia ‘state’ in the central and south, Afar and Somali ‘states’ in the eastern lowlands, a mouthful of Southern NNPR ‘state’, in the south, Gambella and Benshangul ‘states’ in the west, and the city ‘state’ of Harar. Cities like Addis Ababa which houses the ruling elite have an undeclared state status.

Recently the seat of Oromia is transferred from Addis Ababa to a hundred kilometres south, to Adama (Nazareth). These and other more significant geographical gerrymandering are done by political decisions without involving the people via referendum or similar democratic mechanisms. Such actions and many others indicate that the ‘federal states’ do not have real powers commensurate with true decentralisation. Ethiopia is still very much controlled by central government, and that the constitutional devolution of power is inadequately implemented. It should also be said that the ethnic federal system is designed to perpetuate TPLF’s position in power by divide and rule tactics, and this argument has a solid foundation.

Human rights

The report has problems with the implementations of the constitutional rights and freedoms. It argues that the level of political, civil, and economic rights the minorities allowed to exercise is limited. At the same time the report is sympathetic to the current political rule by noting the daunting tasks the government faces to introduce political liberalisation amid the traditional violent political values and systems of the Ethiopian empire. It calls for moderation from all sides to facilitate the process of unity and at the same time enjoying diversity. It also warns that Ethiopia’s unity will be at stake unless constructive and pluralistic political climate develops.

Under a section ‘human rights under pressure’, the author argues that despite the promises by the EPRDF and Ethiopia’s accession to international human rights instruments, ‘human rights violations still occur throughout Ethiopia. Detentions without trial, torture, ‘disappearances’ and extra-judicial executions are regularly reported by international and national organisations … Of particular interest for this report is the increasing stigmatisation of certain ethnic groups which are labelled by the government as secessionist factions’. Accordingly many Oromo and Somali [people] are suspected of supporting [liberation] movements on the basis of their ethnic identity alone’ (pp.24-25). The author further argues that if the constitution that excels in providing human rights protection necessitates a sound and transparent system of governance is not implemented and defended in practice, its value is meagre. Thus the main criticism raised against the TPLF/EPRDF government is that it does not respect and uphold its own constitution.


The appalling human rights record of the government in power is underestimated by comparison to the challenges it faces from different directions. The report’s author is of the opinion that transforming a culture of violence in a short time is a daunting task. While it is true that the development of a political culture of human rights and democracy may take time, the TPLF/EPRDF proved itself for being authoritarian tolerating no political dissent. TPLF’s actions and inactions are the main contributors of the challenges it faces. TPLF shows a clear lack of political will and responsibility for a democratisation process and building political culture of human rights. It is up to the international community to put pressure on and condemn the TPLF.

The report indicates that international donor community relied on the regimes spoken intentions and proclamations that it will develop a political culture of human rights. The author acknowledges the presence of widespread human rights abuses in Ethiopia. He argues that people are allowed to exercise very limited political and civil rights. The regime is reluctant to admit responsibilities for human rights abuses, and its senior cadres usually blame the regional and local officials. This is a lame excuse since under the present day Ethiopia, drawing such a line between the federal government and states is wrong. TPLF has all the control to change things around in regions through its surrogate parties.

Among other key challenges are also the change of violent political culture and the need for economic development. Both challenges remain challenges, as the TPLF/EPRDF is inept to address them. There are several economic injustices being committed by the regime. The cronies of the regime and its affiliated companies control the key economic activities. The economic policies of the government are based on clearly demarcated discrimination, favouritism, cronyism, and unjust competition. The biased treatment of Tigray at the expense of others is one example. Another example is the government’s readiness to spend scarce resources on senseless and dubious wars while over 8 million people face starvation. Politically, the TPLF itself is an extension of violent political culture. Its pretensions otherwise are just to prolong its stay on power and they are not demonstrations of its commitment to stable and peaceful political development. The imprisonment of tens of thousands of civilian politicians and suspects and harassing many more are the cases in point. The future is bleak to look forward with the TPLF/EPRDF. One would only wonder if democratisation of the empire is possible at all?

The author also indicates another recent challenge. This involves the change in the nationalistic rhetoric of the regime due to the Ethiopian-Eritrean war. The war helped the government to stigmatise and persecute ethnic groups as anti-Ethiopian. Indeed the government is using the old slogan used by the derg to discredit the TPLF. The report fails to mention the negative impacts of the war on the economy as well as the loss of tens of thousands of human lives and the displacement of many more. The TPLF should be held internationally accountable for its actions in breach of its accession to international covenants and human rights instruments.

The author sums up the key challenges to include the development of the political culture of human rights, the solution to Ethiopia-Eritrea war, land rights, women’s rights, language and education, and economy. The report details the unfulfilled promises: broad based democratisation, as well as adversarial and defensive political positions rather than provision of constructive alternatives.


The recommendations of the report range from the dispensation of Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict, to international community’s response, the need for democratisation, pluralism, human rights, independence of the judiciary, and policies on education, health and housing to ‘ensure that the basic rights of the most marginalized and disadvantaged minorities are upheld’. Yet these are easier said than done.

It recommends to the government, the oppositions, and the international community to proceed on democratic path along the constitution. It mentions the presence of unfulfilled promises and that an inclusive and broad-based democratisation has failed to materialise. There is a political stalemate in Ethiopia due to mutual distrust between the government and opposition groups. It is yet to be seen if the TPLF government want to share power or give it to others. So far, there is no will on the part of the TPLF to build an all-inclusive democratisation process. The calls by different opposition parties for peaceful dialogue and peaceful political settlement have fallen on deaf ears. The issue is now changing the TPLF to tolerate opposition parties, respect democratic processes and observe rights, including the right for self-determination.

The other problem is changing the opposition political parties that echo old-fashioned Ethiopian polity in the name of unity to control and dominate political minorities. So far, there is no sign of change to accommodate new ways from these groups for a peaceful co-existence and mutual respect. The old notion of the ruling class versus subject is very much unwelcome nowadays and it will only prolong conflicts. The inclusion of the plights of oppressed groups and addressing their genuine problems are absent from the politics of the TPLF and old-style political groups. If this process of inclusion fails to materialise, peaceful co-existence and peaceful political development will not be possible. The ‘anti-peace’, ‘anti-Ethiopia’, ‘anti-democracy’, and ‘anti-unity’ Abyssinian political rhetoric to control and dominate others is more destructive than constructive as are international groups that support them.

So far the TPLF proved itself to be neither democratic nor building democratic process. The TPLF regime is not signalling a real and meaningful change; it is heralding more of the same. The political process has not evidently undergone fundamental changes. Even more so, TPLF is gradually creeping back to the old-style than openness for free political competition. The rhetoric of federation and a token of self-determination are more of pretence than a reality.

The report holds a ‘mediator’ perspective and therefore most of the recommendations emanate from impartial positions. It recognises the difficulty of such a stance where polarisation of polity and society is deep. While no one side of the problem will be satisfied with the analysis nor with the recommendations, the report will contribute to further international community’s understanding of Ethiopia. It makes a timely and informative reading. This is a superb report by a western scholar about the brief historical accounts of Ethiopian polity and the problems associated with democratising an empire state. The report is definitely a contribution towards our knowledge of the relations between people and the political rule in Ethiopia.

Seyoum Hameso and Tilahun Ayanou Nebo

This review article appears in The Sidama Concern Vol.5 No. 3, 2000 (pp.27-31)

Reference Style: The following is the suggested format for referencing this article:
Hameso, Seyoum and Tilahun Ayanou Nebo 2000. Ethiopia: A New Start? The Sidama Concern, 5, 3 [online] URL: http://www.sidamaconcern.com/books/ethiopia_a_new_start.html

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