The Reasons and Means for Maintaining Ethiopia’s Unity


A unified Ethiopia would remain a stronger sovereign state and capable of being in a better negotiating position with friendly or adversarial nations. With disunity, as the saying goes, comes weakness and fragility.

Ethiopia and Sudan map

by Addissu Admas

The main purpose of this paper is to reiterate the point that it is necessary and beneficial for Ethiopia to remain united in order to achieve stability, peace and economic viability. By the same token, it argues firmly that the current tendency towards fragmentation and separatism is not only disruptive, but may eventually lead Ethiopia to join the ranks of failed states. Thus two are the points it wants to explore: first, what would be the best reasons for Ethiopia to remain a unified state whether she adopts or not any kind of federal system? And secondly, what would be the most effective means to achieving such goal in the short and long term?

The reasons for remaining a unified state.

The first reason that Ethiopia must remain one and united is that her peoples coexist in a historic, geographic and social space that they have shared for centuries and, truth be told, has fostered more cooperation than hostility, contrary to what separatists and irredentists would like us to believe. I am not here trying to provide a revisionist history of our communal history, but it is a historical fact that, apart from the limited and circumscribed conflicts that have dotted and continue to dot our entire history, and the inevitable ethnic animus that these have engendered and continue to engender, most of Ethiopia’s ethnicities have led their lives unmolested, living their particular cultures and speaking their own languages without anyone forcing them to do otherwise. What separatists have sought to magnify disproportionately and tried to turn into a cause of contention and conflict are rather issues that could be overcome through dialogue without ever making recourse to armed struggle. My fear is that most liberation fronts have sprung more out of an exaggerated sense of lèse Majesté felt by its ambitious founders than because of the demand expressed by the people they claim to fight for and defend. What one gathers from experience is that most of humanity desires peace, to go about one’s business unmolested and enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. What good is stirring up old rancor if what it achieves is only more ill-will leading to a frenzied state of mind? I think all Ethiopians need to sober up and reflect on what unites them than what divides them since what is at stake is too high to leave it in the hands of separatists and irredentists.

The second reason is rather a corollary to the first one. None of the current Killils has the economic viability “to go it alone”. Everyone knows this; but our diehard separatists continue to beat the drum of war. This is not only beyond irresponsible, but clearly borders on the criminal! It is no different than going to war knowing full well that no one will come out the better for it, except perhaps lining the pockets of weapon manufacturing nations and their rogue arms dealers. All ethnic parties know that, as much as many of them would like to deny it, the economic benefits of Ethiopia remaining unified are undeniable. It is sadly ironic that when most of the world is trending towards more cooperation and unity, Ethiopia is being hustled towards the opposite direction by unscrupulous separatists!

Finally, a unified Ethiopia would remain a stronger sovereign state and capable of being in a better negotiating position with friendly or adversarial nations. With disunity, as the saying goes, comes weakness and fragility. Separate smaller states are more exposed to the strategic play of more powerful states, near or far. And how long do separatists reckon to go it alone if such a situation came to pass? We need not look further than our neighbor to the East!

These are but some of the more important reasons why Ethiopia must remain a unified stated in one form or another. But before I offer my ideas on how to preserve and enhance Ethiopia’s unity, I would like to opine a bit on why the separatists are louder than ever.

Separatism, i.e. the desire for self-determination, whatever one understands by this, is already more than half a century old in Ethiopia. I would have no problem with it if it limited itself to vindicating the rights of particular peoples to be respected, provided with equal opportunities, equal protection under the law, not to mention the ability to pursue their cultural heritage and languages. What I have a problem with is the presumption that all these things require the establishment of independent and separate states. They really don’t! As I mentioned earlier, the desire to create independent states stems more from the desire of the separatist fronts’ leaders than from the wish of the people they claim to represent. If we learned any lesson from TPLF’s rule is not only that this armed political party strayed vastly from its stated goals for the people it represented, but engaged throughout its existence in a Machiavellian pursuit to maintain power for its own sake at any cost and by any means necessary. Thus not only the “other peoples of Ethiopia”, but the very people of Tigray became part of its political manipulations. What has it achieved other than fomenting enmity between the peoples of Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia? This should be a lesson to us, and that is that those clamoring today for “self-determination” of one’s particular ethnic group would inevitably follow the road map laid out by the TPLF.

The means for maintaining Ethiopia’s unity

Let’s come now to the more pressing point of this paper: what are the means by which Ethiopia can become a more united, stable, peaceful, and even economically more successful country? I contend that there are four of these means or devices that would most likely help Ethiopia achieve the aforementioned qualities as a nation: the complete overhaul, or perhaps better, removal of the Killil or ethno-federalism system, the elimination of ethnic parties, the complete restructuring of the National Defense System, and the creation of institutions fostering national unity.

The first one can also be understood as the redesigning of the federal system. The current Killil system is not working, and I am not even sure that it was meant to work, precisely because it was not created in good faith. Its criteria for assigning the status of Killil to one ethnic group and not to another, and the extent of each Killil’s powers vis a vis the federal government remain sketchy at best, if not outright muddy. In truth, rather than overhauling this form of ethno-federalism, it would be perhaps easier and more efficient to design one from the ground up.

No one is opposed to the principle of self-determination as defined above. But there is no rule or injunction that prescribes that only ethnic federalism fulfills the requisites of self-determination. In point of fact, there could exist many types of federalism or even non-federalist systems that could satisfy the intentions of self-determination. With this in mind, it is not against  the spirit of self-determination to dismantle the present confederation of nations and nationalities as it is the case now in Ethiopia, and to opt for much smaller territorial entities, such as the zone (or Awrajja) or districts (Wereda), as the building units of the federal system. Consequently, each of these units would then be entitled to be represented directly both in the upper and lower chambers of a bicameral parliament that eventually needs to be configured anew.

The reality is that Ethiopia has gone through several types of subdivisions of her territory in the past hundred years. It is time to devise one with the care and attention that this task deserves and requires so that it could withstand the vagaries of politics and economics that will inevitably be taking place in the coming decades. It goes without saying that it should also respond equally to the deep aspirations of the people concerned.

In regards to the second point, nothing has created more instability, rancor, and hostility these days than ethnic based parties. And yet their objectives were none other than the defense and cultivation of the rights of the people they had vowed to defend and protect. The legitimacy of their struggles, use of violence, relentless effort to make known the plight of their people was unquestioned under a government that continued to ignore and dismiss their demands. However, once a political system has been designed to meet their concerns and demands, the very justification of their continuance in the political arena is not only untenable and hallow, but has become a constant liability.

My presupposition is that if Ethiopia manages, through a well-thought out and designed constitution to fill the core aspirations of self-determination, there would not be a role for ethnic-based parties. If in fact these want to maintain their relevance politically, they should transform themselves into ideological parties; and that means grappling with new ideas and not recycling old ones. As we are very well aware, it is the ethnic politics of the previous regime that has made ethnic parties the centerpiece of its governing principles and its permanence in power. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that should we continue on the same path led out by the TPLF, we will only accelerate the demise of Ethiopia as a nation.

As to the third instrument of unity, it has been often reported that Ethiopia possessed a truly national armed defense system until it was disbanded by the TPLF upon the demise of the Derg. It was, for all practical purposes, a national institution embracing in principle, if not de facto, all the major Ethiopian ethnicities in every one of its branches, at every level and rank. This changed overnight, when the TPLF decided to effectively turn the national defense system into its own armed wing of the party. As everyone knows, at one point 98% of its top military brass hailed from Tigray, and nearly 96% of these from a couple of towns of the same region! Only with the advent to power of PM Abiy has this situation changed substantially, and hopefully permanently. We know, of course, that a similar trend has characterized TPLF’s practice in the federal bureaucracy and diplomacy.

I say that it is vital for Ethiopia and her stability that the military be made up by all constituent ethnicities of the country. This will have the effect of bringing the most diverse peoples in Ethiopia to work together, and in the process know and perhaps even appreciate each other. If designed and implemented with impartiality and equanimity, the national defense system can become an invaluable instrument for rapprochement and cohesion of all the peoples of the country. It is also important that it be well trained and well-equipped, and strong enough to withstand the divisive forces that would undermine the country’s unity from within as well as from without. It is also very important that the status, necessity and function of regional militias, if indeed they continue to exist, need to be revised thoroughly. As we have observed recently, they could become a very big challenge to the national government in times of crisis.

Finally, national institutions, and that is institutions transcending particular national or ethnic enclaves, are among the best amalgamating forces that can ensure the stability, cohesion and loyalty of a country. Ethiopia, more than any nation in Africa, needs such institutions moving forward. These national institutions can assume various manifestations: the idea is that they should be universally appealing, embraced and valued by the greatest majority, but never intended for ephemeral political gain. What I have in mind is something akin to the national campaign to eradicate illiteracy like the one we had during the Derg regime, creating a basic national health program, devising a full proof method and network that would ensure accessibility to voting for every citizen, etc…Perhaps even establish a national military service alongside the regular defense force, so as to bring Ethiopia’s youth to come to know each other’s cultures and traditions. Even re-introducing the old “service year” created under Emperor Haile Selassie I’s reign, whereby university students were sent all over the country to teach for a year in underserved high schools, before completing their fourth and final year. These and similar “national projects” not only provide an occasion for knowing one another, but can effectively re-enforce the bonds that tie our peoples.


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