Main minority and religious community: Oromo, 34.4 per cent; Amhara 27 per cent, Somali 6.2 per cent, Tigray 6.1 per cent, Sidama 4 per cent, Gurage 2.5 per cent, Welaita 2.3 per cent, Hadiya 1.7 per cent, Afar 1.7 per cent, Gamo 1.5 per cent, Gedeo 1.3 per cent, Siite 1.3 per cent, Kefficho 1.2 per cent, Kunama, Irob and others 8.8 per cent (based on the 2007 census)
Main religions: Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, Protestant Christianity, Islam, indigenous beliefs
Main languages: Amharic (official), Tigrinya, Oromo, Afar, Somali
The total population of Ethiopia in 2017 is approximately 102.37 million. In terms of minority and indigenous representation, Ethiopia is a diverse country made up of a federation of minority groups including ethnic, language, religious, and regional minorities. The Ethiopian census lists more than 90 distinct ethnic groups in the country.
More than 80 languages are spoken, with the greatest diversity found in the south-west. Amharic (a Semitic language), Oromo, Tigrinya and Somali are spoken by two-thirds of the population. About 43.5 per cent of the population adheres to Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and 33.9 per cent to Islam. The remainder are Protestant, Roman Catholic or followers of traditional religions. Historically the Semitic, Amhara and Tigray peoples of the northern highlands have dominated political life in the region. They are largely Orthodox Christians, while most Muslims and followers of indigenous beliefs tend to live in lowland areas in the country’s south and east.
Ethiopia is a diverse country made up of a federation of groups including ethnic, linguistic, religious, and regional minorities. The Ethiopian census lists more than 90 distinct ethnic groups in the country. The largest ethnic community, the Oromo, constitute just over a third of the population. Approximately 43 per cent of the population is considered to be Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, with a significant Muslim minority making up another 34 per cent of the population. Like many African countries, Ethiopia has a large youth bulge with more than 60 per cent of the population under the age of 24. Its diversity has defined its federalist political structure and its minority rights-friendly Constitution, but lack of effective implementation of Ethiopia’s federalist structure and ongoing marginalization of minorities and indigenous peoples has generated a powder-keg in the country of more than 100 million people.
Years of unrest culminated in demonstrations in February 2018 demanding the release of Bekele Gerba, secretary general of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) who had been in prison since December 2015, and other opposition leaders. While the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn as Prime Minister and the arrival in April 2018 of reformist Abiy Ahmed in his place has given rise to optimism, Ethiopia faces dire challenges. Ahmed has released thousands of political prisoners, invited former rebel groups to dialogue, and lifted severe restrictions on the country’s television and online media landscape. Yet freeing up political space has energized power struggles between dominant ethnic groups who stand to benefit or lose from wide-ranging reforms. With little constraint on expression of grievances, proliferation of extreme views on social media risks inflaming ethnic violence. In the south, deadly conflict between ethnic Oromo and Somalis has intensified, along with clashes between armed groups and the army in the west. Some opposition groups returning from Eritrea have failed to disarm, attacking military and civilian targets and triggering intercommunal violence, notably among Guji and Gedeo. More people were internally displaced in Ethiopia in 2018 than in any other country, totalling nearly 3 million according to some estimates.
Much of the unrest in recent years has been driven by government plans to annex lands held by Oromo farmers to expand the urban areas of the capital. The proposal resonated with a long history of struggle by the Oromo people in Ethiopia, in which they have consistently been marginalized by a government dominated by the minority ethnic Tigray community. Though the government had announced it would cancel the controversial expansion plans, the protests had continued and intensified. In October 2016, the government declared a nationwide state of emergency, with more than 11,000 people reportedly arrested in the first month of the crackdown, and more than 1,000 protestors killed during 2017.
Oromo protests over human rights violations also inspired and spread to other disenfranchised groups, such as the Amhara and Muslim populations, both of which have staged protests demanding respect for their rights. The Muslim community has long accused the government of interfering with their religious practices and recent attempts to use anti-terrorist legislation to prosecute prominent Muslim leaders in the country have exacerbated these grievances. Amhara have been fighting for increased self-determination in their autonomous region. Protests in Gondar in August 2016 saw thousands of people in the Amhara region demonstrate against the government.
Many of Ethiopia’s indigenous peoples residing in the Gambella and Lower Omo regions also have been objecting to the government’s development activities on their traditional lands, particularly the controversial Gibe III dam, officially inaugurated in December 2016. Communities who have lived along the Lower Omo River for centuries – along with environmental and indigenous rights activists from across the region – have long objected to the dam project because of its potentially devastating impacts on the ecosystem and the livelihoods of communities in the region. The dam is designed to more than double Ethiopia’s hydropower output and to support the vast commercial agricultural plantations that the government has been developing.
Creation of these plantations has led to forced displacement of thousands of indigenous people in the region, through a ‘villagization’ process that resulted in well-documented human rights violations. Indigenous communities have lost their homes, their grazing territories and their agricultural lands, and have experienced significant disruption of their cultural traditions as a result of the displacement. Moreover, the dam has already had significant impacts on the flow of water through the Lower Omo region, which depends on an annual cycle of flooding. Official data from Turkana’s fisheries department shows that the volume of fish stock caught in the waters has declined from around 17,000 tonnes in 1979 to less than 7,500 tonnes in 2017. The dam also is likely to have significant environmental impacts on indigenous communities and the environment in neighboring Kenya, where water levels in Lake Turkana have dropped by 1.5 meters since the dam reservoir began to fill. Environmentalists have long predicted that Lake Turkana may disappear entirely as a result of the dam, but the Kenyan government has signed up to buy electricity generated by the Ethiopia’s newest hydroelectric plant. In June 2018, UNESCO added Lake Turkana to its World Heritage Site Endangered List, signalling concerns that its survival could be under threat. Despite a decade of protest and attempts to mitigate the impact on local communities, the dam is now fully functional and the Ethiopian government is reportedly planning additional development in the region.
Ethiopia is located in the north-eastern extension of Africa known as the Horn. It is bordered by Eritrea, Somalia , Djibouti, Kenya and Sudan. Ethiopia features geographic diversity: from highland plateaus and mountains, to the Great Rift Valley and arid lowland steppes. The area’s susceptibility to drought and soil erosion has been worsened by widespread deforestation over the past century.
The earliest humans evolved in parts of what is today Ethiopia. Ethiopians are proud of their history of empire – in the ninth century BC, the Kingdom of Axum (centred in present-day northern Ethiopia) dominated the region stretching into Yemen and Somalia – and of resistance to domination by others. Ethiopia was never colonized. In 1896, it defeated Italy in war, six years after the Italians had established a colony in neighbouring Eritrea. In 1936, the Italians tried again, capturing Addis Ababa and ruled Ethiopia as part of Italian East Africa, together with Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. But their rule was short-lived, and in 1941 Ethiopian resistance fighters joined British and Commonwealth forces to restore Emperor Haile Selassie to the throne.
Britain recognized Ethiopia’s full sovereignty in 1944, and in the following year Eritrea became a protectorate of the United Nations. In 1950 the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling for Eritrean autonomy and legislative, executive and judicial authority over its own domestic affairs with all other matters falling under federal, Ethiopian jurisdiction. In September 1952, after a two-year interim period, Eritrea became a semi-autonomous self-governing territory in confederation with Ethiopia. The Haile Selassie regime gradually encroached on Eritrean rule, however, and in 1962 rendered it an Ethiopian province like any other.
From his restoration in 1941 until his fall in 1974, Haile Selassie strove to undermine the identities of non-Amhara nations and nationalities in the name of Ethiopian unity, continuing the subjugation of the south established by his predecessors’ imperial conquest. The Amharic language and Amhara culture became the essential attributes of being Ethiopian. As a result, peoples of the south in particular suffered comprehensive domination – economically, politically and culturally. From 1969, the Ethiopian government also faced a strong armed separatist movement in Eritrea. For much of the population, a sense of Ethiopian identity may never have been stronger, but Selassie’s methods were sowing the seeds for ethnic discord.
While Haile Selassie and his court lived lavishly, his autocratic rule brought only economic ruin to Ethiopia. In the drought of 1973 and 1974, some 250,000 Ethiopians perished in the northern province of Wallo. Many of the victims were Wolloyea Amharas, Tigrayans, Afars and Oromo. During these Cold War years, Haile Selassie enjoyed the strong support of the United States and its western allies. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, domestic opposition to Selassie took the form of pro-Soviet Marxism-Leninism.
Students and the military revolted in 1974; a military junta – the Derg – came to power, led by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. Mengistu consolidated his control to become Ethiopian head of state in 1977. He launched a brutal offensive – known as the ‘Red Terror’ – against government opponents, including rival Marxists, as well as a catastrophic programme of forced collectivization and resettlement.
The military dictatorship sought to maintain the imperial state and to modernize and secularize the country by first breaking down the social and economic power of the Church and landed aristocracy. But the breakdown of authority and erosion of the social institutions on which it had rested encouraged the proliferation of regional nationalism directed against the central government in Addis Ababa. The Derg sought to purge all members suspected of harbouring ethnic loyalties, mainly Eritreans. It recognized the right of all nationalities to a form of self-determination, defined not as a right to secession but as regional autonomy. A Somali invasion in 1977 put a quick end to even this concession.
After the Ogaden war against the Somalis in 1978, Mengistu exploited clan differences between the two largest dissident pastoralist communities, Somalis and Afars. A third, smaller group, the Boran in Sidamo, were driven into the arms of the Derg by opposition to Somali expansion. The largest ethnic group, the Oromo, also failed to create an effective national movement despite a history of ethnically based rebellion and the existence of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Other local peoples of the south, such as Gurage and Sidama, also wanted to create separate states, but the complicated patterns of residence would make the drawing of boundaries an insoluble problem.
Like Haile Selassie before him, Mengistu proved uninterested in acting to mitigate drought-induced famine. In 1984-5, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians perished as the government instead focused energy and resources on the military campaign against the growing Tigrayan and Eritrean separatist movements. In 1989 a shift occurred in the power balance due to the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front’s (EPLF) defeat of the Derg army at Afabet, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) capture of Mekelle, the low morale of a largely conscript and increasingly teenage Ethiopian army, and an abortive military coup. These factors coincided with the end of the Cold War and, in 1991, the end of Soviet arms shipments to the Mengistu regime. In May 1991 the EPLF took control of Eritrea and, one day after Asmara’s fall, the TPLF entered Addis Ababa with the assistance of Eritrean tanks and soldiers. Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe.
TPLF in power
Meles Zenawi, the TPLF leader, set about organizing the state as an ethnic federation. This was done by ensuring that parties dominated by the TPLF and their allies controlled the political life of each nationality. These co-opted representatives of other ethnicities were organized under a single-party umbrella: the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). This proved a particularly difficult undertaking as Tigrayans comprised only around 6 per cent of the Ethiopian population.
After 1991, EPRDF government forces took control in all rural areas, with few exceptions, putting EPRDF parties in positions of administrative power. Initially offering cooperation with the other liberation movements, the issues of nationality and landownership remained contested and gradually groups other than the TPLF were eased out of the transitional government. There was considerable opposition to EPRDF policies. The government countered with administrative techniques as a weapon of regulation and discipline. In the 1992 elections the EPRDF controlled the electoral commission and allegedly prevented the registration of opposition candidates. That same year, the EPRDF used military force to subdue an uprising by the secessionist OLF, which had been shut out of the political process.
Afar, Oromo, Sidama and Somalis supported secessionism, while the All Amhara People’s Organization and other groups opposed the break-up of the nation state. Many Ethiopians disliked the idea of splitting the country along ethnic lines, and yearned for the kind of unity that had been established under the Amharic emperors Menelik and Selassie. Eritrea’s move towards independence in 1993 increased the burden on Meles and his government to square demands for greater ethnic and regional autonomy with the resentment that Eritrea’s departure caused those favouring unity. The EPRDF was poorly equipped to handle this challenge, both due to its base in the small ethnic Tigrayan community and its rigidity in governing style. Meles had abandoned Marxist-Leninist ideology, but maintained the authoritarianism with which he had espoused it.
After Eritrean independence, a new Ethiopian Constitution was adopted in 1994 with negligible public consultation. It replaced the country’s 14 regions with nine ethnically based states in addition to multi-ethnic Addis Ababa. In theory, these were permitted secession from the federation, but there were no provisions for the protection of minorities and ethnic groups dwelling outside their own administrative regions. A federal council was created to ensure ‘equality’ in the states. In practice, government remained highly centralized, dominated by the EPRDF and Meles.
Ethnic tensions were heightened by government restrictions on political competition. Under the provisions of the new Constitution, multi-party elections were held in 1995. The EPRDF took 548 seats in the Council of Representatives and seven regional state councils, either directly or through EPRDF-sponsored parties. In three out of ten regions where a genuinely ethnically based opposition existed, elections were postponed for security reasons. Despite a façade of multi-ethnicity, most Ethiopians continued to regard the government as being dominated by Tigrayans – a view bolstered by Tigrayan predominance in Ethiopia’s security forces.
Eritrean-Ethiopian border war
Meles quickly fell out with erstwhile EPLF ally and Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki. Clashing personalities sharpened disputes over Ethiopian access to Eritrean ports, the price of Eritrean refined oil to the Ethiopian market, and Ethiopia’s refusal to conduct trade in Eritrea’s new currency. Facing resentment over Tigrayan dominance in Ethiopia, Meles took a hard line against Eritrea, rallying Amhara and other peoples within Ethiopia who were bitter over its loss.
Border tensions developed in late 1997, and in May 1998, Eritrean and Ethiopian border patrols clashed in the desert, at the disputed town of Badme. To the surprise of many in the international community, the conflict rapidly escalated into mutual bombing campaigns and trench warfare. Ethiopia expelled 77,000 Eritreans from its territory, and the fighting displaced hundreds of thousands more at various points during the conflict. By the time Ethiopian forces broke through the Eritrean lines and the conflict ended in 2000 with the Algiers Agreement, some 100,000 Ethiopians and Eritreans had been killed. The agreement led to the deployment of UN peacekeepers and the establishment of a border demarcation commission. The commission ruled in 2003 that Badme lies in Eritrea, but Ethiopia refused to accept that ruling and later called for a dialogue – which Eritrea rejected. As the stand-off continued, Meles remained in power until his death in office in 2012, despite, or perhaps because of the desert border dispute with Eritrea that cost tens of thousands of lives. Occasional clashes have continued to occur, for instance in June 2016, with both sides blaming the other.
The war devastated the economies of both countries, primarily by cutting off cross-border trade and by diverting resources to massive military purchases. It also provided Meles with ample pretext for domestic human rights violations and delays in the implementation of democratic government.
Parliamentary elections in May 2000 exhibited significant flaws. The independent monitoring group Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) reported election-related incidents of abuse of opposition candidates and supporters, including killings, the arbitrary detention of opposition candidates and their transfer or dismissal from employment, and incidents involving the wounding of opposition supporters by gunshot. Opposition supporters faced harassment and detention, particularly in rural areas, and the media showed heavy bias in favour of the government. The EPRDF won overwhelmingly and elected Meles to a second term as prime minister.
2005 elections: violence, arrests and human rights abuses
Ethiopians returned to the polls on 15 May 2005 to elect a new parliament, but EU observers concluded that, in light of intimidation of opposition officials, as well as irregularities with regard to voter-registration lists and election administration, the elections failed to meet international standards. When preliminary official results were released in June 2005 that indicated significant opposition gains in parliament, but another EPRDF victory, violent protests erupted in Addis Ababa. The opposition felt they had won outright, and were supported particularly by the Amhara diaspora, some of whom sought to turn the protests into a general uprising against Meles.
The government responded with a new crackdown that resulted in the killing of some 40 people by the security forces, the mass arrest of around 4,000 opposition supporters, and the banning of demonstrations. Ongoing protests over the disputed elections flared again in November 2005.
An independent report conducted by Ethiopian judge Wolde-Michael Meshesha later found that election violence in June and November had resulted in the killings of 193 people and the wounding of 763, mostly in the opposition strongholds of Addis Ababa and Oromia. Much of the violence was directed at Amhara and Oromo people, who are prevalent in the opposition. Meshesha termed the violence a government ‘massacre’; after refusing government pressure to amend his findings and receiving death threats, he fled to Europe in 2006. In July 2007, 30 opposition leaders were jailed for life over election protests – but released days afterwards, after being officially pardoned. The government denied the releases had been the result of US pressure.
Meles governed Ethiopia until his death in office in 2012, presiding over a process of continuing centralization and increasing disaffection amongst the diverse communities in the country. The protections of the progressive Constitution were never fully realized under Meles. Moreover, Ethiopia’s various communities continued to experience poverty, displacement and human rights abuses as a result of government development programs that required massive changes in traditional land use patterns. Pastoralists and other indigenous peoples were particularly negatively affected throughout the years, suffering cycles of forced displacement, food insecurity, and loss of cultural and livelihood continuity.
After Meles’ death in August 2012, his deputy, Hailemariam Desalegn, was quickly elevated to acting head of government; as Prime Minister, he has largely continued Meles’ policies of centralized decision-making. In 2012, discontent was reportedly growing amongst almost all communities, including religious minorities, marginalized ethnic groups such as the Oromo, and even amongst some members of the Tigray population.
Ethiopia under Hailemariam Desalegn
Despite the change in leadership, controversial villagization and other development schemes continued in many regions of Ethiopia. The villagization program, resulting in forced resettlement of tens of thousands of people, had serious negative impacts on minorities and indigenous peoples in Ethiopia. Although the asserted purpose of the villagization process was to provide enhanced public services, including healthcare, relocated Ethiopians reported that the promised services have not materialized.
The 2015 parliamentary elections further cemented the EPRDF’s hold on power. Together with its allies, it won all the seats in parliament. While the election commission concluded that the vote had been free and fair, opposition parties denounced attacks and intimidation against their supporters during the preceding months.
The years since Desalegn took power have been characterized by increasing unrest in the country, including protests commencing in November 2015 by Oromo students against proposed urban expansion plans for the capital city, Addis Ababa. The protestors objected to plans by the government to annex lands held by Oromo farmers to expand the urban areas of the capital. The plan to appropriate parts of Oromo territory resonated with a long history of struggle by the Oromo people in Ethiopia, in which they have consistently claimed to be marginalized by a government dominated by the minority ethnic Tigray community. In January 2016, in an apparent victory for protestors, the government announced it would cancel the controversial expansion plans. Despite this concession, the protests continued and intensified. Ethiopian Oromo marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa made international news when he expressed solidarity with the Oromo protesters at the Rio Olympics after winning a silver medal. The government crackdown has led to ongoing human rights violations against the protesters and dozens of deaths.
The protests over the capital city expansion plan also resonated with other disenfranchised groups, such as the minority Amhara and Muslim populations, both of which staged protests demanding respect for their legal and human rights. The Muslim community has long accused the government of interfering with their religious practices and recent attempts to use anti-terrorist legislation to crack down on prominent Muslim leaders in the country have exacerbated these grievances. The Amhara have been fighting for increased self-determination in their autonomous region.
In October 2016, the government declared a nationwide state of emergency. It was estimated that more than 500 people had been killed since the protests began in 2015. More than 11,000 people were reportedly arrested in the first month of the crackdown alone. The government sent many detainees to ‘rehabilitation camps’ to try to indoctrinate them through reeducation. The state of emergency was renewed after six months, until the parliament voted to lift it in August 2017.
Ethiopia has traditionally been governed from the centre – one of the reasons for the growth of the Eritrean nationalist movement, which led to the eventual independence of Eritrea. This centralization and dominance over different ethnic groups led to the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coming to power in 1991 with the promise that Ethiopia’s peoples would no longer live under a centralized system.
The new government went on to restructure the state, forming an ethnic federation with regional ethnically-based states, and to create a strikingly progressive Constitution that guarantees ethnic groups a wide range of rights – including secession from the ethnic federation. Yet the government has continuously faced claims from opposition parties, as well as national and international human rights organizations, of widespread human rights violations. Furthermore, many ordinary Ethiopians are sceptical of the government’s agenda, questioning its commitment to promoting the rights of all ethnic groups.
The Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, adopted in 1994, represents a clear divergence from the former Ethiopian Constitutions implemented during the reign of Haile Selassie and the Derg. First, it establishes Ethiopia as a federal state, contrary to the unitary principle of the two former regimes; second, the form of government is republican, rather than monarchical under an emperor; and third, it sanctions a democratic multi-party system, contrary to the Derg’s single-party regime. Moreover, the Constitution (Article 13.2) gives protection to wide ranging individual and collective human rights, guaranteeing the implementation of the international human rights Covenants and other instruments which Ethiopia has ratified.
The Constitution, however, combines presidential and parliamentary forms of government in a manner that minimizes the separation of powers and the checks and balances found in other federal arrangements. The main constitutional control on government is embedded in the federal provisions and the right to self-determination for ethnic groups. The principle that ‘every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession’, however, is clearly the most radical and controversial element found in the Constitution (Article 39.1). The Constitution establishes that the ‘nations, nationalities and peoples’ of Ethiopia are the minimum component parts of the country, as opposed to individuals. Thus, the preamble to the Constitution does not commence with the familiar ‘We, the people of …’ but ‘We, the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia …’ Furthermore, the Constitution states that ‘all sovereign power resides in the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia’ and that the Constitution ‘is an expression of their sovereignty’ (Article 8.1 and 8.2).
However, the constitutional system denies the existence of any ‘minorities’ in Ethiopia: that is, ethnic, religious or linguistic communities which are politically oppressed or marginalized. Since all are equal and enjoy equal rights, the logic goes, there is no need to define specific minority rights.
The federal government is controlled by two representative bodies, namely the House of Peoples’ Representatives and the House of Federation. The Ethiopian Parliament is not, however, bicameral in the conventional sense. The House of Representatives, which is the highest authority, has full legislative authority and oversight functions, while the House of Federation mainly functions as a constitutional court in case of disputes.
The nine member states within the Ethiopian federation operate on a unitary principle. These states do not have an internal federal structure and the two main administrative levels within the state (woreda and zone) do not have any separate legislative authority. The basic unit of administration within the state is the woreda. Within the multi-ethnic states usually one ethnic group is given a woreda or zone. Where this is not possible, all ethnic groups within the woreda, regardless of their size, are to be guaranteed representation in an elected woreda council. In certain areas special woreda/zone are designed to protect minorities which live within the territory of a dominating group.
- Action for Development
- Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA) (Ethiopia)
- Ethiopian Human Rights Council
- Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association
- Forum for Social Studies
- Gudina Tumsa Foundation
- Hope for the Horn
- Inter-Africa Group
- Panos Ethiopia
- Pastoralist Concern Association Ethiopia
- Pastoralist Forum Ethiopia
- Advocacy for Fundamental Rights of Oromo and Others (AFRO-O) (US)
- HUNDEE (Oromo Grassroots Development Initiative)
- Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA) (Ethiopia)
- Pastoralist Concern Association Ethiopia
- Pastoralist Forum Ethiopia
Updated June 2019
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