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June 13, 2021
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Ethiopia: At a Crossroads Again – By Getachew Metaferia (PhD)

Dr. Getachew Metaferia
Dr. Getachew Metaferia

State and society seem to be at loggerheads and colliding in Ethiopia. On one hand the government is trying to suppress social uprising by force. On the other hand, the people are determined to challenge the status quo. It is imperative that short and long-term strategies be designed to address crucial issues as the country is once again at a crossroads.  

The current political unraveling is partially instigated by the government’s ill-fated master plan to change the boundary of Addis Ababa city under the Addis Ababa Integrated Regional Development Plan (AAIRDP). The plan extends the city’s authority to the surrounding Oromia region and threatens the livelihood of its residents.  The purported rationale behind the expansion of Addis Ababa city, according to the government, is the growth of the population and to bring about development that benefits the region.

The pertinent issue with the AAIRDP is that it usurps the authority of the adjoining region and uproots people from their land. The plan denies the regional authority its tax base and control the property and the political dynamics of the Oromia region surrounding Addis Ababa. To make the matter worse, the plan is apparently undertaken without proper consultation with the people who are directly affected. As Tsegaye Ararsa recently commented in Addis Standard, the plan is legally indefensible and challenges the letter and spirit of Ethiopia’s constitution.[1]  The land grabbing is not unique to the Oromia region as other regions face similar issues of land and power seizing and marginalization.

It is encouraging that Ethiopians within the country and in the diaspora are seriously discussing the current situation and the future of Ethiopia. Different ethnic groups are dialoguing on how to work together and overcome the government’s divisive policy. Moving forward, I propose that two pertinent issues, among others, should be openly and seriously discussed again. They are land ownership and ethnic federalism. These two issues are part of the reason for the current uprising.

In 1975, during the military regime, land was nationalized. The current government followed the same policy and land is still owned by the state.  Land ownership is culturally vital, especially to rural communities where it is part of one’s identity and heritage and not limited to economic benefit. Most importantly, local people are custodians of the environment as they are attached to the land and their life is closely entwined to their surroundings. Their protection of the natural ecosystem has regional and global environmental implications, especially now when protecting the environment is of a paramount concern for all. 

The Ethiopian government has uprooted local people in many regions, such as Gambella and Southern Omo, and handed their land to the ruling elites or leased their land to foreign investors without appropriate compensation or consultation with the affected people. Local farmers are, therefore, victims of the government’s development plan. As Kofi Annan and Sam Dryden stated in Foreign Affairs (November/December 2015), small-scale farmers produce more than 80 percent of agricultural production in Africa and they are vital to the economies of their countries.[2] In Ethiopia, land grabbing is not limited to rural areas. Some residents in Addis Ababa are uprooted without adequate compensation to make room for high rises. Hence, land ownership must be closely examined.

The second issue I would like to raise and discuss is ethnic federalism. The impact of the delineation of federal boundaries along ethnic lines as well as institutionalization of ethnic-based political parties should be assessed. Ethnic-based political parties challenge the principle of political parties to strive to build a broad-based constituency, unlike interest or pressure groups whose constituency is narrow-based and segmented. Ethiopia has established ethnic-based boundaries called Kilil. Kilil has made citizens prisoners of their geography and made it difficult for horizontal relationship between the regions. In this instance, the government has established a dangerous political culture of socialization. Ethiopian politics challenges the philosophy of federalism which is meant to integrate unity and equality with diversity.

The abuse of the federal power that increasingly centralizes and concentrates authority with the ruling party remains an issue. In a federal-state relationship the federal government and the states are expected to have certain authorities and responsibilities. They also share a concurrent authority and responsibility through a synchronized arrangement. In the Ethiopian ethnic-based federal system, the federal government, in many occasions, intrude on the duties of the regions and violates their authority. In short, the arrangement of checks and balances is lacking and regions are disadvantaged.  Furthermore, the government has created mistrust and a situation of “us” vs. “them” among the different ethnic as well as religious groups. This circumstance contradicts the philosophy of federalism which is supposed to help converge or bring together culturally diverse people and build trust among them. Genuine federalism reconciles the competing and diverse interests of ethnic and linguistic groups and helps bring “unity through diversity.” Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism, on the other hand, has created division between ethnic groups thus contradicting the essence of federalism and inclusiveness in a pluralist society.

In order to build a better Ethiopia and to help the nation move forward, it is essential that the ethnic-based federalism and polity be reexamined openly; though sensitive it could be.  This is not to reverse some of the gains made so far, but to establish acceptable federal system to all and enable the country to progress and manage its varied and complex problems. The government has concocted and exaggerated rift between different ethnic groups. Nevertheless, concerns of all Ethiopians must be addressed to build a lasting peace and bond between disparate groups.

The Addis Ababa Master Plan is the catalyst that has instigated political uprising and claimed more than 150 innocent lives. Lack of transparency, maladministration, widespread corruption and crony capitalism over the years have also contributed to the current unrest. People remain disempowered while few with connections have benefitted enormously.

The government has responded to grievances by any group with legitimate demands as terrorist conspiracy under the Anti-Terrorist Proclamation. But standing for one’s right cannot be misconstrued as terrorism. Citizens must not be defined and labeled terrorists for demanding their rights, purported to be allowed by the constitution.

In international relations, the anti-terrorism agenda has closely aligned Ethiopia with the U.S., upon which the Ethiopian leadership has capitalized. For example, President Obama gave full support to the Ethiopian government during his visit to Ethiopia in June 2015 when he praised his hosts as democratically elected. This is an ill-advised accolade to a country where the past elections have been marred by violence. The government is guilty of human rights violations; journalists, leaders of opposition groups, human rights activists jailed and emerging civil societies stifled. At the time when President Obama was in Ethiopia to address the African Union, ethnic conflict was simmering, some were killed and thousands displaced. Obama criticized ethnic-based politics during his visit to Kenya but chose to be silent on similar issue in Ethiopia.

The government has established a repressive police state where by, one person is assigned to shadow and report on five persons deemed to be suspects for terrorism or support opposition groups. The spy network has even spread to schools, religious institutions, social organizations and overseas where many Ethiopians critical to the government reside. In addition the government has a special force, called Agazi, known for its brutality and is unleashed on peaceful demonstrators.

Given the above background, Ethiopia claims to maintain or promote peace, stability and economic growth, but it comes at the expense of human rights of citizens, democracy and a general well-being of Ethiopians. Economic growth, using China as an example, is taking place largely through corruption, cronyism, and party affiliation. Similar to China, it is the ruling party that controls the commanding height of the economy. The focus on economic growth down-plays the imperative need to promote quality life and human development for Ethiopians. In his recently published book, Steven Weisman questions the neoliberal economic theory, followed by countries such as Ethiopia and discusses its failure to create equal opportunity.[3] The so-called impressive economic performance in Ethiopia has not trickled down and benefitted the majority of Ethiopians. The situation is unsustainable and has failed to fight poverty in light of increasing capital flight from Ethiopia by the ruling elites.

It is hard to imagine that the current political unrest could be easily reversed. Ethiopians feel increasingly marginalized. Unemployment, 16.80 % in 2015,[4] is expected to escalate because of the global and the domestic economic and political situations. People are wallowing in poverty and more than 15 million are affected by drought, food insecurity and gripped by famine. According to Population Reference Bureau in Washington, DC, 30 percent of Ethiopians still live in extreme poverty.[5] To compound the problem, the current impact of El Niño, a complex weather pattern caused by global climate change, could result in natural disaster. In Ethiopia’s recent history, climatic vagaries have resulted in famine, human misery of biblical proportion, internal displacement, calamities, and resulted in imploding from within and forceful government changes with unpredictable consequences.  In regional politics, the ruling party has failed to act in the best interest of Ethiopia and is planning to cede Ethiopian land to Sudan. This endangers the sovereignty and the national interest of Ethiopia.

In light of the above narratives, Ethiopians must come together and challenge the regime’s policies. Opportunities have once again availed themselves for all Ethiopians to add a new chapter to the country’s long history.  Accordingly, I propose the following:

  • Political leaders must be careful not to repeat their past shortcomings and overcome their narrow differences to find permanent solutions to the political problem that beset the country;
  • Ethiopians of all ethnic back grounds must reconcile their differences to build an all-inclusive, vibrant, and a democratic country;
  • Civic and religious leaders must be independent and stand for social justice and hold the government accountable for its human rights violations; and
  • The Ethiopian diaspora must continue to be actively involved in advocacy efforts, better organized and united.

            It is undeniable that the seed of mistrust between the different ethnic groups has been planted. The current suspicious killing and disappearance of innocent people is leading to finger-pointing and witch-hunting. Before Ethiopia faces further calamity, all concerned people must take responsibility and challenge the government to end the violence peacefully.

            Ethiopia has been at several crossroads in the last half-century but we have failed to timely capture them and find permanent solutions to the country’s ills. It is undeniable that Ethiopia has benefitted from the support of friendly nations and international organizations. However, the most perplexing issues continue to call for our collective attention, leadership, and action. These include fighting poverty, promoting environmental protection, addressing social inequalities and concern for the better future of our younger generation — 60 percent of them are under 30 years old.

Ethiopia, once again, is at a crossroads and we cannot afford to squander the opportunity to build a peaceful and better future that benefits all Ethiopians despite the challenges we face.

The author is professor of political science at Morgan State University.


[1] Tsegaye R. Ararssa, “Ethiopia: Why Resist the Addis Ababa Master Plan? – a Constructional Legal Exploration,” Addis Standard, August 20, 2015.

[2] Kofi Annan and Sam Dryden, “Food and the Transformation of Africa —Getting Smallholders Connected”,Foreign Affairs, November/December, 2015, pp. 124-129.

[3] Steven R. Weisman, The Great Tradeoff: Confronting Moral Conflicts in the Era of Globalization.Washington, D.C.: Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2016.

[4] www.Tradingeconomics.com/Ethiopia/unemployment-rate

[5] Shelley Megquier and Kate Belohlav, “Ethiopia’s Key: Young People and the Demographic Dividend”,www.prb.org/publications/reports/2015/Ethiopia-demographic-dividend.aspx


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