Ethnic Politics: The Ethiopian Babel Tower

By Mengistu D. Assefa, (Dr.)

“The hut built by the skin of a donkey [is] trampled by the [the day it hears] the scream of hyena”

(Rough Translation of an Oromo Proverb (“Manni gogaa harreetiin ijaarame gaafa waraabessi yuuse jiga”)).

AFTER ousting Mengistu Hailemariam’s dictatorship in 1991, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) not only radically restructured the state form into ethnic based Federalism but also robustly embarked on a national project of redefining politics, citizenship and most importantly, identity. The Federal Constitution granted the constituent regions of the Federation the unconditional right to self determination including secession. The argument for and against whether Ethnic Federalism is the suitable and plausible form of government in contemporary Ethiopia or otherwise is a controversy in the academic circle and also beyond the scope of this article. It will be addressed in the future article(s). But it is a vivid usual phenomenon that ethnic federalism and/or identity politics has created a huge political discord, contention and the emerging of mistrust and hatred psyche among various ethnic groups in the Country. It has also been a new normal to see and hear the constituent regional states seeing each other with mistrust and even as antagonistic political entities. This is pronounced in the latest seemingly dissent developments within EPRDF ‘sister parties’ particularly the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM). The popular speculation is that the two parties grew apart from EPRDF due to their longstanding dissatisfaction with the old fashion monopoly of economic, political and security affairs by one party (TPLF) in disguise under the the nominal coalition. Activists and political analysts of various interest groups also animously contracted the ethnic filter for every incident and consequently divided the people along ethnic lines. This has played a huge role in deepening the already wide cleft among the peoples and almost everything has lost its broader national implications other than serving as a kit of further ethnicization. Political discord and nationwide popular discontent with the federal government’s handling of economic and political affairs, absence of freedom of expression and free press, the regime’s intolerance towards alternative political opinions and severe stage of identity (ethnic) profiling of individuals and growing mistrust and hatred against each other among the Country’s peoples, absence of national consensus on prescription of political solutions among the political elites for the Country’s redemption out of the current national turmoil, and above all the inherently limited loyalty of nationalism (ethnic or national) renders the Ethiopian ethnic politics to be the Country’s Tower of Babel. The system we adopted and (engineered into the Ethiopian context) had gone out of our grips and became the source of our ever increasing misunderstanding. The system we hoped would bring our civilization, scholarship and social wellbeing to the highest stage of self-determination with unreserved Ethiopian national pride has become the reason of loss of lives and limbs, exploitation of our social energy for fraternity and solidarity, abortion of dreams and ambitions of young men and women and consequent breakage of our social ties and cultural bonds. Worse again, it has become the Babel Tower of this Country as it is bringing our national consensus into a compromised state of confusion and chaos. The project we hoped would bring our patriotic fantasy into reality and increase our connectedness in the face of historical impossibility has become the source of fabricated identities and irreconcilable notions of our understanding of what being human means after all.

So, is ethnic federalism/ethnic politics of Ethiopia a fool’s prescription for a subtle sociopolitical anomaly or the Wiseman’s remedy turned poison or the decent but plausible national project turned Babel Tower in the hands of its bad power actors?

Federalism is far from being a perfect form of government and more so is the ethnic federalism. The inherent fragility (and success) of federalism hinges upon and emanates from the balance between over-decentralization and over-centralization. When over-centralized, the system negates its central tenet of empowering the constituent [regional] entities and makes them devoid of major economic and political decision regarding the interest of the people they represent. Wildavsky elaborates, “Federalism requires mutuality, not command, multiple rather than single causation, a sharing instead of a monopoly of power”1. When over-decentralized, federalism gives the constituent [regional] not only major role and decision regarding political and economic interests of the particular people but also creates wide and arguably unbridgeable gap among the regional entities as to their interests, [power and resources, both of which have been bones of contention] and renders the central government weak and incapable of making major political and economic decision and even in extreme cases diplomatic policies. Ethnic federalism has additional risks of being easily turn volatile as it is naturally prone to manipulation by power-hungry politicians and myopic and divisive individuals. In this article I will elaborate on the actors, the rationale of adoption and the consequences of Ethiopian ethnic politics which has dominated the Country’s politique for the last 26 years.


THE struggle for democratic government system and the right to self-determination fueled fueled by (ethnic) nationalism started long before the Dergue regime. It was started as an antidote to the state-sponsored already politicized ethnic identity by the previous aristocratic government. This state-driven politicization of ethnicity/language goes as far back as 1933 when the then Minister of Education, Sahlu Tsedalu, proposed the following policy:

ያገር ጉልበት ኣንድነት ነው ኣንድነትንም የሚወልደዉ ቋንቋ ልማድና ሃይማኖት ነዉ . . .በመላ ኢትዮዽያ ግዛት ለሥጋዊና ለመንፈሳዊ ሥራ ያማሪኛና የግዕዝ ቋንቋ ብቻ በሕግ ጸንተዉ እንዲኖሩ ሌላዉ ማናቸውም የአረማዉያን ቋንቋ ሁሉ እንዲደመሰስ ማድረግ ያስፈልጋል. . .

The rough translation of which is: “Unity is the strength of a country, and the sources of unity are language, custom and religion . . . [It is thus necessary] to legally preserve in the whole of Ethiopia only Amharic and Ge’ez for spiritual and earthly use [while] the language of every pagan must be erased.”

The case for self-determination and (re)gaining dignity and pride they wanted to celebrate in their languages, cultures and sociopolitical and moral codes (such as Gadaa System of the Oromo people) started as a response to the already existing situation of politicized ethnic identity. The peoples of Oromo, Sidama, Sidama Tigrai and other nationalities struggled against this state-sponsored politicized ethnic identity by celebrating ones’ identity and/ or languages which were on the verge of systematic erasure by this racist policy. The struggle was a natural antidote rather than an orchestrated political instrument to restructure the state system and at the same time exploit the difference of identity elements (languages, culture and ethnicity etc.).The radical Ethiopian Students Movement of the 1960s also birthed an unquenchable threat to the established and racist state policy. The result of this longstanding struggle created (ethnic)nationalist political parties as a remedy to liberate their respective nations from the central undemocratic rule which declared their identity/languages a recipe of systematic erasure and create self administering (and relatively autonomous states). These nationalist political parties include but not limited to Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Tigrayan People Liberation Front (TPLF), Sidama Liberation Front ( SLM) and other parties in Afar, Ogaden and Gambella. The armed struggle against the military junta also has got its final battle won by these nationalist political parties. After assuming the national power in 1991 the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, EPRDF embarked on the national project of radically restructuring the state form into ethnic based Federal Democratic Republic. It also robustly redefined politics, citizenship and most importantly identity. Some argue that this project was birthed from an ignoble intention of divide and rule rather than the genuine intention of forming a democracy based on democratic principles of equality, equity and human and democratic rights and granting an unconditional right to self-determination its promised in the Federal Constitution. Others give huge credit to the EPRDF for crafting the politics of self-determination in the face of impossible to realize our long awaited yearning for ethnic liberty and while at the same time we maintain our national (Ethiopian) patriotism .

I WOULD rather argue that the actors of the Ethiopian ethnic politics have no other plausible options of ‘democratizing’ the country given the simultaneous emerging of nationalist political parties from all corners of the country roaring in demand of the right to self determination and celebration of their identities. The natural response to the racist state policy cultivated the sense of resistance and culture of yearn for pride in ones’ identity laid the foundation for the formation of ethnic based federal system in the country. Trying to reestablish another unitary government system under one language, culture and identity would have just resulted in another bloodshed and civil war. The ACTORS of this project finally remain to be the ethno-nationalist TPLF and I attribute the major damage done by and through this system (ethnic based federalism) to their post-1991 handling of the situation. These major bad choices and miscalculations include but not limited to the way they dealt with the OLF before and during the Transitional Government of Ethiopia ( even the formation of Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, OPDO before that), The over-manipulation of ethnic identity for mere political gain, pitting groups of peoples against each other to buy some time to remain in power, cultivating the sentiment of communal disharmony among ethnic groups. The people of Ethiopia in general and Oromo in particular developed chronic discontent with the the monopoly of the TPLF on almost all key political, economic and diplomatic positions and decisions. The popular Oromo Protest grew to a nationwide resistance against the repressive federal government and puppet and powerless regional administration of Oromia in November 2015. The Ethiopian Government employed its usual heavy handed military crackdown on the mostly peaceful protesters. The Protest was almost uncontainable by the old tactic and worse again the Amhara Resistance took stage with an unprecedented solidarity with Oromo people. This actually posed an existential threat to the system whose politicians are masterminders of ethnic divisions and pitting against each other of different ethnic groups.


THE infamous phrase, “peoples known for their being fire and straw to each other” came of out the mouth the then minister of Government Communication Affairs Office Getachew Reda at the peak of Oromo Protest and Amhara Resistance and solidarity between the two largest ethnic groups in the Nation speaks volume regarding how these opportunistic beneficiaries of political prostitution severely manipulated the historical unfairness and cultural diversity to cultivate enmity among the peoples of Ethiopia. Severe ethnic segregation and the consequent discrimination and marginalization along ethnic line fomented the culture of resistance against the government. Social media politics (activism) has also created a new tool to communicate the cause and and means of resistance to the wide public. The government declared the six month long state of emergency in October 2016 to repress the boiling situation in the Country by crashing the protesters with state brutality. It was later extended by four more months. At the same time the EPRDF came up with reshuffling the government cabinet and the policy of deep reform from the federal level to the lowest administrative structures. This deep reform hasn’t been completed yet but the new leaders of OPDO and ANDM are showing signs of autonomy which as a result made them enjoy an unprecedented popular support and in some cases support from diaspora ‘opposition’ personalities. But the yet ongoing instability in some parts of Oromia region which the regional government says are done by “contrabandists”, ” rent seekers” and “enemies of the unity of Oromo”. This made OPDO the new challenge to the old culture in the EPRDF. In a rare move, two veteran politicians from these ‘sister parties’ (Abadula Gemeda of OPDO and Bereket Simon of ANDM) left their federal office post due to their longstanding dissatisfaction with the repressive and controlling culture of the TPLF. Some say that the country is on an unchartered road map as the ruling party is busy trying to fix its imminent political decomposition. Enablers of TPLF are doing day and night to tarnish the new color of hope seen in the new leaders of OPDO and ANDM. For instance, just a few days ago Daniel Berhane, a progovernment social media ‘activist’ and Founder and Editor in Chief of went even as far as comparing the new OPDO leaders to the ISS. The Tigrai public Relation Bureau just accused the state television Oromia Broadcasting Network of ‘propagating racism’ in its recent airings. TPLF enablers are clearly worried by the growing solidarity between the Amhara and Oromia and yet playing it down as ‘Emboch Politics’, a superficial politically motivated march with no deep and meaningful collaboration. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, it’s now clear more than ever that even political parties with little or no fundamental ideological difference are no more able to use the ‘language’ of ethnic federalism to unite the Country as they are ‘confused’ on what the other side of the same equation in the power play entails.


IN Ethiopian case, national project of state restructuring and redefining identity and politics fell into the hands of opportunistic political parasites and few power-hungry men which in turn rendered our historical vulnerability to politicizing (ethnic identity to ensue. Over manipulation of the business of romanticising ethnic identity which is an unorthodox ( in terms of the degree of our obsession with it) even to ethnic federalism proper (the true meaning of proper in this case is also problematic and disputable). The “confusing language” has caused chaos and strife among its creators. And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky. Let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered throughout the earth.”2 This is a statement made by the ancient men in Mesopotamia in the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel when they embarked on a project of building a unifying tower with its top in the sky. This ancient Biblical story is relevant to us today as we are aspiring to gain knowledge, wisdom and utopian security. We adopted ethnic federalism as a unifying project which we thought would absorb every ounce our passion and finally take our ambition to the level of topless success like ‘its top in the sky’ of Babel Tower. We also thought it would make a lasting name for us written on the pages of history. In turn it is manipulated from the core and shaken to its edge so that its discord is echoed in us . Rather than being the uniting project of enormous prospect of ‘its top in the sky’ and success story in the name we would make for ourselves, we are scattered throughout the face of the Earth and we speak but anything about our project of nation building, our ethnic identity politics has been our Babel Tower in the last 26 years. The damage has been done not by the inherent fragility of ethnic federalism as saying so in Ethiopian particular case would be judging the philosophy by its abuse. Rather the bad political entrepreneurs and our society’s young acquaintance with democracy rendered our current ‘Babel Tower project kind’ of nationwide discord and chaos gave the way.

  1. Wildavski (1998) 17

  2. This story is taken from the Biblical narration of the Babel Tower, the project when mankind grew astray from his maker, fully relied on his own capacity to reach to level of ‘top in the sky’ and unity in purpose and their names made for themselves, never to disappear. (Genesis 11:1-9).

NB. “Ethnic based federalism” and “Ethnic politics” are different concepts. However I at times used them interchangeably. I would like to urge readers to make out the message contextually rather than technically dissecting the term and/or concepts.

Dr. Mengistu Assefa is an intern in Dental Surgery at Mekelle University College of Health Sciences Ayder Comprehensive Specialized Hospital. He can be reached at

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