Ethnic-based federalism and ethnicity in Ethiopia : reassessing the experiment after 20 years

TitleEthnic-based federalism and ethnicity in Ethiopia : reassessing the experiment after 20 years
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsG.J. Abbink
Secondary TitleJournal of Eastern African Studies
Pagination596 - 618
Date Published2011///
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Publication Languageeng
KeywordsEthiopia, ethnic relations, ethnicity, federalism

One of the core principles instituted by the post-1991 government in Ethiopia that took power after a successful armed struggle was ethnic-based federalism, informed by a neo-Leninist political model called revolutionary democracy. In this model, devised by the reigning Tigray People's Liberation Front (later EPRDF), ethnic identity was to be the basis of politics. Identities of previously non-dominant groups were constitutionally recognized and the idea of pan-Ethiopian identity de-emphasized. This article examines the general features and effects of this new political model, often dubbed an ''experiment'', with regard to ideas of federal democracy, socio-economic inclusiveness, and ethno-cultural and political rights. After 20 years of TPLF/EPRDF rule, the dominant rhetorical figure in Ethiopian politics is that of ethnicity, which has permeated daily life and overtaken democratic decision-making and shared issue-politics. The federal state, despite according nominal decentralized power to regional and local authorities, is stronger than any previous Ethiopian state and has developed structures of central control and top-down rule that preclude local initiative and autonomy. Ethnic and cultural rights were indeed accorded, and a new economic dynamics is visible. Political liberties, respect for human rights and economic equality are however neglected, and ethnic divisions are on the increase, although repressed. Ethiopia's recent political record thus shows mixed results, with positive elements but also an increasingly authoritarian governance model recalling the features of the country's traditional hierarchical and autocratic political culture. This may produce more debate on the need for ''adjusting the experiment''.

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