By Zerihun Kinate
Ethiopia, long a significant player in international relations and diplomacy, serves as the headquarters of the African Union. Despite its importance on a global scale, this country, home to over 110 million people, has a fraught domestic history marked by poverty, authoritarian rule, and repeated conflicts, resulting in immense loss and suffering. Historically, Ethiopia has been a strong state, capable of maintaining control and order. It is famously the only African nation that escaped colonial rule, defeating Italy in 1896 and serving as a symbol of black consciousness and solidarity internationally.
During the 1960s and 70s, the long-standing Imperial Regime faced protests from Ethiopian students, sparking a significant political movement. The regime struggled to respond to demands for change, ultimately leading to widespread social movements, including peasant rebellions in response to maladministration. The Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM) galvanized the country, growing in strength as urban dwellers, farmers, and workers joined the cause, ultimately leading to the fall of the Imperial Regime. This movement laid the foundation for new political forces that have shaped the country since.
Following the revolution, the Derg, a military regime, came to power. Their Marxist-Leninist socialist policy fundamentally altered Ethiopia’s foreign policy and development partnerships. However, their command economy failed to drive economic growth, and the country continued to be plagued by conflict and civil war. This led to the rise of various ethnonationalist liberation movements, determined to overthrow the Derg through guerrilla warfare, ultimately causing its downfall after seventeen years of rule.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), led by the Tigrayan People Liberation Front (TPLF), came to power in 1991.
Despite their Marxist origins, they adapted their policies to align with capitalist ideologies. The TPLF played a leading role in drafting the 1995 constitution, which placed ethnicity and nationalism at the core of the state’s political organization.
The constitution introduced a new political order that aimed to address the asymmetrical relations among the nations of the country, establishing an 1995 constitution placed ethnicity and nationalism at the core of the state’s political organization ethnocentric and multinational federation. However, the former rebel group turned government leaders struggled to adapt to civilian and institutional party politics, which requires compromise and the protection of basic human rights and liberties. The TPLF, an ethnic-based party representing the Tigray region, faced challenges in forging a broader political base across the country, limiting its capacity and legitimacy.
Furthermore, the ethnic federalism introduced in 1995 failed to effectively unify various ethnic demands and create a shared common identity. Instead, it emphasized regional and ethnonational demands, exacerbating tensions between centripetal and centrifugal forces.
The political settlement brought about significant changes in the nation-building theory and practice, establishing ethnicity as the fundamental unit of analysis and political organization of the state and society. This redefined notions of nationhood, statehood. citizenship, and state-society relationships, resulting in a federal republic with regional states based on ethnic lines. Under the new constitution, regional states were granted significant powers to create their own constitutions, anthems, flags, languages, and even the right to self-determination up to secession.
However, many non-ethnic allegiant Ethiopians, who emphasize individual autonomy, view the ethnic federal arrangement as the “original sin.” They argue that it has led to their marginalization, exclusion, and diminished sense of belonging within the current Ethiopian state. The constitution fails to recognize individual rights based on civic citizenship, denying Ethiopians their inherent rights, including self-rule and shared rule within a federal polity. This deepens the legitimacy crisis of the current constitution, as it fails to treat all Ethiopians equally.
The consequences of these shortcomings are evident in the horrifying accounts of conflicts resulting in mass killings, displacements, growing ethnic division and polarization, violence, and the discouragement of cross-regional investment and free economic enterprises across the country. The surge in ethnic violence can be attributed, in part, to the lack of constitutionalism and the rule of law. Additionally, the rights of minorities pose a critical challenge, further exacerbating a sense of division between hosts and guests or “others.” These factors undermine national cohesion and collective action, hindering progress in a country where millions live in poverty and an authoritarian culture perpetuates political violence.
In 2018, following massive protests in Oromia and Amhara regions, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed assumed power. He quickly undertook major changes and was heralded as a political reformer. Euphoria filled millions of Ethiopians with hope and optimism for political reform and brought support from global leaders. He ended the hostility between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea, which had been at war between May 1998 and June 2000. For this he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
However, shortly afterward, Ahmed’s government began to be criticized for its inability to stabilize the country, with violence and lack of law-and-order persisting. The government failed to hold a reconciliation and transitional justice process to overcome the polarization of society. This failure is most evident in the war between the federal government and the TPLF, which began in November 2020 and lasted two years, causing a severe humanitarian crisis. Though TPLF started the war, it was partly the result of the mismanaged transition. An estimated 5.6 million population needed food aid as of March 2022, in addition to 2.8 million returnees, who had been internally displaced due largely to the armed conflict. This period of hunger was followed by droughts and natural hazards. A peace treaty was signed but there was no accountability, and dissidents met with authoritarian measures. As post-2018 Ethiopia spirals into sporadic conflicts, many have lost hope in the government and are protesting.
Ethiopia’s recent history underscores the challenges inherent in transitions from authoritarian rule, including the risk of an authoritarian backlash and the potential for increased ethnic and nationalistic conflicts. The ruling party, the Prosperity Party (PP), has failed to strike a balance among the competing interests of the population, resulting in the state becoming an instrument of oppression and violence.
To achieve peaceful coexistence and good governance, the incumbent Prosperity Party must embark on a democratic path that respects citizenship rights and addresses identity questions through a new social contract. There are new and gravely concerning reports of extrajudicial killings, detainment of journalists and human rights advocates,
staggering number of displaced people, and lack of alternative opposition voices. Though the concepts of reconciliation, transitional justice, national dialogue, and democracy may seem
overused, they remain crucial for genuine peacebuilding. Durable peace can only be achieved when the challenges of an illegitimate social contract, authoritarianism, and rampant conflicts are addressed, and a process begins that brings every Ethiopian to the table.
Zerihun Kinate is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. He completed his masters in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Waterloo. Zerihun frequently writes on peace and security, political economy, foreign policy and development issues in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. Zerihun focuses on strategic policy analysis and social justice which gives him the opportunity to serve in various Board governance and community leadership capacities in Kitchener Waterloo area and the GTA.