Challenges of the Ethnic Landscape and the future of the Ethiopian State

EPC | 31 Jan 2021

Many recent developments revealed a real crisis in the relationship between the centre and the periphery in Ethiopia. In the last two months of 2020, the federal government in Addis Ababa was forced to engage in a number of armed confrontations in the regions of Tigray, Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz, in addition to the outbreak of a wave of violent clashes between the Afar and Somali regions, and within the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR).

The turbulent conditions in many Ethiopian regions constitute a major source of threat to the stability of the political system and the unity and cohesion of the state, which makes it useful to monitor the current situation in the various Ethiopian regions through a number of indicators, mainly the relationship between the regional government and the federal government, and the extent of the presence of the ruling Prosperity Party in each of those regions as a representative of Abiy Ahmed’s unionist project, in addition to the security situation and the state of conflicts in the various regions, and subsequently anticipate the different prospects of the Ethiopian state in the future, between the option of launching a process of radical change to the country's constitution to reformulate the relationship of the capital with the regions, or the option of continuing with the formula of ethnic federalism with the enhanced powers it offers to the regional governments.


1. The clash between the federal government and the regional government

Abiy Ahmed's policies towards the Tigrayan group was characterised by a great deal of toughness. Although he paid an early visit to the region immediately after he came to office, during which he was keen to emphasise the continuation of the alliance that existed within the framework of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), his policies aimed to weaken the group significantly, both through the anti-corruption campaign launched against the Metals and Engineering Corporation (METEC), which resulted in the start of a series of dismissals of Tigrayan leaders in the military establishment, and the withdrawal of all Tigrayan ministers from the federal government as a result of the escalation of the disagreement in an unprecedented sign of growing animosity between the two sides.

On 4 November 2020, the clash reached its climax between the two sides after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) sought to control the headquarters of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian Armed Forces in the city of Mekele (also Mekelle), the capital of the region, a measure that prompted launching a campaign to restore security and law enforcement in the region with the participation of the Ethiopian armed forces and the special forces of a number of regions, mainly the Amhara region, which is adjacent to the Tigray Region, where the armed forces and special forces succeeded in taking control of the capital Mekele.

2. The federal government's actions to launch a new regional government

With the flight of a number of TPLF leaders to the mountainous and remote areas of the region, the Ethiopian federal authorities took swift action to restore aspects of normal life in the region. On 7 November 2020, the Ethiopian Parliament took a decision to dissolve the local government in the Tigray Region and appoint a new local government based on a constitutional provision that allows the federal government to intervene in regions that pose a threat to the constitutional order in the country.[1] On 13 December 2020, Abiy Ahmed visited the city of Mekele for the first time since the start of the military operations, which served to confirm the control of the federal government over the situation in the region. Soon after, namely on 24 December 2020, he took the decision to form an interim government for the Tigray Region headed by Gebremskel Kassa, the Secretary-General of the Interim Administration appointed by the Federal Parliament, and made up of sixteen ministers.[2] The ruling Prosperity Party also established its regional branch in Tigray on 29 December 2020, headed by Nebiyou ShulMichael, a measure that would provide a measure of support for the Tigray Interim Administration and pave the way for the Prosperity Party to dominate the regional government after its formation in the future.[3]

3. The continued security threats in the Tigray Region

There are many security and political challenges facing the federal government in tightening control over the Tigray Region, the first being the continued security threats resulting from the activities of the TPLF fighters who are still capable of carrying out some specific operations such as setting up ambushes on the main roads between the cities of the region, and even controlling some villages in remote areas.[4] The second challenge concerns the integration of the Tigray Region into the national political process. While the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) announced its proposal of 5 June 2021 as a new date for holding the general elections at the national and regional levels, the NEBE declared that no date could be set for the regional elections in Tigray in the light of the continuing state of emergency at the regional level, which portends the continuing turbulent situation in Tigray.[5]


1. Consolidating the alliance between the federal government and the Amhara Regional Government

Abiy Ahmed's political alliances with Amhara were reflected in the form of policies that sought to empower the leaders of the group to assume various sovereign and sensitive positions in the country. For instance, the former Prime Minister of the Amhara region Gedu Andargachew was appointed as Minister of Foreign Affairs, before he assumed the position of the Prime Minister’s Advisor for Security Affairs, to be succeeded by Demehe Mekonnen in the position of Foreign Minister, thus combining the new position with his original position as Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs. Temesgen Tiruneh, Head of the Amhara Regional Government, was also chosen as Head of the Ethiopian National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) in the midst of the conflict in the Tigray Region.[6]

2. The continued border problems of the Amhara region

The reliance by the federal government on Amhara comes at a great cost at more than one level, the most important of these being the negative role of the group’s militia in fuelling tension with Sudan, given that thousands of Amhara farmers have settled in the Sudanese Fashaqa region for decades. While the participation of the special forces of the Amhara region is a decisive factor in controlling the Tigray Region, this situation continues to bear the threat of continuing tension in the northern regions of Ethiopia if Amhara insists on regaining a number of the disputed border areas with Tigray, which may reopen the file of border demarcation between the Ethiopian regions, with the great complications that this entails.

3. Challenges of the extreme nationalist Amharic currents

Apart from the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), which controls the regional government and is allied with Abiy Ahmed, and which has become a component of the Prosperity Party, the Amhara region hosts extremist nationalist currents that played a prominent role in the attempted coup against the regional government in June 2019, most notably the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA), which enjoys wide popularity and is one of the most prominent opponents of Abiy Ahmed, after accusing him in a statement on 27 October 2020 of "turning to the totalitarian approach to governance".[7]


1. The political division between the Oromia elites

Since he came to power, Abiy Ahmed's political alliances have provided strong indications of the above perception. While his rise to power came mainly as a result of a protest movement led by the Oromo Youth Liberation Movement (Qeerroo) led by Jawar Mohammad, Abiy Ahmed got engaged in an early enmity with the Oromo, which resulted in the outbreak of two violent waves of protests in the region in October 2019 and then in July of 2020, which resulted in the arrest of all the political figures of the Oromo Movement and their standing trial on terrorism charges, headed by Jawar Mohammad.[8]

The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) is clearly divided as a result of the support of the leaders of the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), which forms the regional government, for Abiy Ahmed, as one of the coalition parties in the Prosperity Party which he leads, against a strong opposition to Abiy Ahmed as a result of his alliance with the Amhara, especially after the wave of violence that swept the region in early July 2020 leading to the arrest of the leaders of the two largest opposition organisations, namely the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and the OLF.[9]

2. The emergence of an epicentre of security tensions in the western Oromia region

At the security level, the Oromia region has been witnessing rapid developments in recent months after the defection of an armed group from the OLF led by Jaal Marroo, the field commander, which operate in the western regions of the state, especially in the vicinity of the city of Nekemte, the capital of the Welega region. This significant challenge required that the Ethiopian federal government launch a security campaign in the Oromia region in November 2020, which resulted in the death of hundreds of rebel fighters. However, the government was not able to completely eliminate this security threat.[10]


1. The political alliance between the regional government and the federal government

Politically, the regional government is dominated by the Benishangul-Gumuz People's Democratic Front (BGPDUF), which is the party that was founded in 1996 and has been allied since its foundation with the ruling EPRDF. In December 2019, it was announced that the party was dissolving and joining the components of the Prosperity Party, which was established by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, which gave his new party control over the regional government in Benishangul-Gumuz.

2. Growing security threats in the region due to ethnic clashes

At the security level, the Benishangul-Gumuz region has been witnessing repeated security disturbances since the beginning of 2020, which are likely the result of a tactical alliance that arose between the Benishangul People’s Liberation Front (BPLM), which is opposed to Abiy Ahmed, and dissident elements of the OLF.[11] Those operations began in early January 2020, before escalating between April and September 2020 before the authorities launched a security crackdown that resulted in the arrest of 504 persons accused of involvement in the violence in October 2020, culminating in the incident that occurred on 14 November 2020, in which the perpetrators exploited the security vacuum as a result of the war in Tigray to kill 34 civilians. The operations in Benishangul target officials of the regional government allied with the federal government, as well as the region's Amhara population, who are seen as "occupiers".[12]

However, the most dangerous development occurred on 22 December 2020 when armed men belonging to the Gumuz ethnic group launched an armed attack on a poulation of the Amhara group in Metekel Zone, killing 207 residents. According to the report of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the attacks also resulted in the displacement of more than ten thousand Amharas from the Metekel Zone towards the city of Bulen. It is worth noting that this incident came on the heels of a visit by Abiy Ahmed to the region in response to the escalation of violence.[13]

In response to this sharp deterioration in the situation in the region, the central government announced a series of rapid responses, the first of which was the announcement of the arrest of a number of officials in the region who were involved in fuelling tensions in the region, namely the former Deputy Governor of the region, the director of the region’s science and technology agency, and the head of the Prosperity Party office in the Metekel region and Minister of State at the Ministry of Social Affairs.[14] On 24 December 2020, the Ethiopian armed forces responded with a large-scale military operation, killing forty-two militants who had participated in the attack.[15]

The Somali region

1. The alliance between the Somali regional government and the federal government

Abiy Ahmed secured early on his relationship with the Somali region by controlling the regional government after its president Abdi Mohammed Omar (Abdi Illey) was overthrown in August 2018 and put on trial, and one of the allied figures, namely Mustafa Mohammad Omer, was designated to take over the presidency of the region, where he rapidly announced his support for the military operation in the Tigray Region.[16]

In August 2018, a few months after Abiy Ahmed assumed power in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian armed forces carried out a security operation in Jigiga, the capital of the Somali region, which resulted in control of the region and the arrest of its prime minister, who was brought to trial on charges of committing grave human rights violations and incitement of ethnic and religious violence during his tenure in power, in alliance with the TPLF, before Abiy Ahmed came to power.[17]

Since the new regional government loyal to Abiy Ahmed came to power, the manifestations of the Ethiopian federal government's control over the Somali region have strengthened, including the decision by the Somali Democratic Party (SDP) that controls the regional government to join the Prosperity Party after its establishment was announced in December 2019.

2. The danger posed by the return of the Ogaden Liberation Front

As a result of the peace agreements concluded by Abiy Ahmed with the armed movements in exile, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) returned once again to legitimate work and its members returned to the Somali region.[18] On 4 November 2020, the ONLF issued a statement declaring its rejection of the war option as a solution to any of Ethiopia's problems. It also expressed its concern about the military operations, calling for the start of direct negotiations.[19] This position is broadly in line with the tendencies of a large proportion of the region’s population who support the option of secession from Ethiopia as a first step that may precede the reunification of "Greater Somalia".[20] As such, the ONLF, with its great credit in the Somali region, may constitute a major source of competition for the Prosperity Party in the Somali region in the upcoming elections, which may reduce the federal government's control over the Somali region in the future. In addition, the ONLF has the capability to head towards armed action, in which it has long experience, should the situation warrant it.


1. The federal government's association with the regional government and its traditional authority

Abiy Ahmed enjoys explicit support from the government of the Afar region, especially after his initiative in August 2018 resulted in the return of Sultan Hanfare Alimirah from his exile in the US, where he stayed for nearly two decades. This was considered by Afar a positive initiative by the government given the great symbolic value of the man for members of the group.[21] Furthermore, the decision by the Afar National Democratic Party (ANDP) to join the Prosperity Party in 2019 gave Abiy Ahmed direct control over the regional government.

2. The vulnerability of the Afar region to regional changes

The Afar issue is one of the most volatile files in the whole of the Horn of Africa, in the light of the division of the group into three non-ruling minorities in each of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, at a time when many voices seek to establish an independent Afar state with an important strategic location on the Red Sea coast.[22] Some Afar factions also maintain old relations with the TPLF, given that the TPLF supported the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organisation (RSADO) as a tool to pressure Eritrea during the border war that has extended since 1998, which may constitute a source of instability in the region.

3. The escalating border conflict between the Afar region and the Somali region

The borders separating the Afar region and the Somali region are experiencing repeated tensions that necessitated the intervention of the Ethiopian federal government to deploy its forces between the two regions in 2014, in addition to supporting the signing of an agreement between the two regional governments in the same year to define their common borders. However, the changing political context in Ethiopia allowed the two regional governments to renew the conflict in May 2019 when the Somali Regional Government announced its withdrawal from the 2014 agreement and the redeployment of its forces in the disputed areas of Candhayto, Candhufto and Garbo-Ciise.[23]

Since that time, the border region between the Afar region and the Somali region has been witnessing sporadic clashes, one of which resulted in the death of 16 civilians in October 2019,[24] before a new attack on 29 October 2020 resulted in the killing of 27 people, most of them Somalis.[25] This attack was followed by a continuation of the mutual escalation, taking advantage of the federal government's preoccupation with the war in the Tigray Region. This escalation took place through the introduction of elements of the Afar special forces into some of the disputed areas with the Somali region, and the issuance of statements in which the two sides exchanged accusations of escalation.[26]

Southern nationalities

1. Growing trend towards dismantling the region

By virtue of the geographical location, the southern nationalities are the least associated with what is happening in the Tigray Region in the far north of the country. However, this does not mean that they are not affected by the raging conflict between the federal government and the TPLF. The region is witnessing a clear trend towards disintegration as a major political demand by a number of its groups. This was reflected in a referendum held on the secession of the Sidama group in an independent region in November 2019 which was approved by more than 2.25 million voters, who made up nearly 98 percent of the total participants.[27] In February 2020, the process of the split of a new region began within the southern region, called Damot Province, to include a number of small groups after this step won initial approval from the Prosperity Party headed by Abiy Ahmed.[28] In addition, the Welayta (also Wolayta) group in turn has demanded secession from the region and the establishment of a separate federal region of its own.[29]

2. The outbreak of armed clashes in the Konso region

The conflict in the Tigray Region provided an opportunity to take advantage of the federal army's preoccupation with the battles, in order to renew armed clashes within the southern region. Many armed movements took advantage of the conflict in Tigray to turn the Konso region into an arena for violent conflict that in less than two weeks resulted in the killing of dozens, the displacement of more than 94,000 residents and the burning of more than a thousand homes, in a new wave of conflict that began in November 2018 and resulted in the division of the administrative unit between the Konso and Segen groups, although it is still standing today due to the dispute over some of the disputed areas.[30]

The impact of the conflict in the Tigray Region on the future of the state in Ethiopia

The current political and security situation in the Ethiopian regions can have its effects on the future of the country according to one of three tracks, namely:

1. Maintaining the ethnic federalism formula

This is a situation which means that the institutions of government in Ethiopia would continue to be divided between the federal government and the regional governments, so that whoever comes to power in Addis Ababa would be forced to strike difficult balances with the regional governments because of their special armed forces, police forces and intelligence services whose capabilities vary from one region to another. However, eventually, all have extended powers, but this situation provides an opportunity to restore the fragile stability in Ethiopia.

While the continuation of the ethnic federalism formula would mean the failure of Abiy Ahmed to turn Ethiopia into a centralised state, this solution is considered realistically appropriate in the near term in particular, given that it would prevent the involvement of the federal government in new conflicts, especially in the Oromia region where the continuation of the principle of ethnic federalism is considered by the opposition a non-negotiable condition for continuing within the Ethiopian state.

Initial indications have emerged that reflect a tendency on the part of Abiy Ahmed not to spark this issue at the present time after a Tigray regional government was appointed to replace the government of the TPLF. Abiy Ahmed was also keen to coordinate with the governments of the Amhara, Afar and Somali regions to a large extent. This scenario also favours the announcement of the date for the general elections on 5 June 2021, which means the postponement of consideration of the Ethiopian Constitution, at least until after the elections.

2. Transition to a central state

This is the preferable scenario for Abiy Ahmed, although it is the most difficult in terms of implementation, given that it may require the extension of the military operation from the Tigray Region to the whole of the Ethiopian provinces. This path includes exploiting the existing regional and international circumstance and getting rid of all opponents in order to quickly initiate procedures for amending the Constitution, then putting it to a referendum, and then administratively redistributing the country on a non-ethnic basis in preparation for holding general elections that are expected to grant Abiy Ahmed almost absolute powers.

This path collides with the fact that since the era of Mengistu Haile Mariam, no central government in Ethiopia has exercised full-fledged "effective sovereignty" over all regions of the country, which is due to the growth of primary affiliations on the one hand and the weak capabilities of the central government on the other hand. Besides, Abiy Ahmed cannot ignore the clear warnings of the symbols of the US Democratic Party regarding the continuation of the war.

3. The disintegration of the Ethiopian state

This path is the worst, incurring direct losses for all parties inside Ethiopia and posing serious threats to many of its direct and indirect neighbours. The path of disintegration could develop through two mechanisms, one of which is the constitutional mechanism whereby Article 39 of the 1994 Constitution allows any of the Ethiopian regions to initiate separation procedures through complicated although not practically impossible steps. The second mechanism is the conflictual mechanism, which was recently manifested in the conflict in the Tigray Region and has strong roots that reinforce its occurrence in other regions, most notably Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz, and the Somali region if favourable regional conditions emerge. The continuation of armed confrontations with the elements of the TPLF that fled to the mountainous areas, as well as the outbreak of some circles of violence in the west in the regions of Benishangul-Gumuz and Oromia, are a major source of the escalation of the risks of the dissolution of the federation between the Ethiopian regions. However, the current situation does not favour this path in the light of international concern for the unity of Ethiopia as a guarantor of the stability of the Horn of Africa.


[1] “The Ethiopian Parliament dissolves the local government in the Tigray Region following a military operation”, BBC Arabic, 7 November 2020. Available at:

[2] “Tigrayan Interim Administration announces new board members”, Fana Broadcating Corporation, 25 December 2020. Available at:

[3] Tigray Prosperity Party Inaugurates Office in Mekelle, ENA, December 29, 2020.

[4] Michael Odour, War in Tigray ongoing – TPLF belies Ethiopia govt, Africanews, December 23, 2020.

[5] Ethiopia to hold elections in June 2021, DW, December 25, 2020.

[6] Ethiopia: PM Abiy Ahmed reshuffles cabinet amid Tigray fighting, DW, November 9, 2020.

[7] Abiy's Government Has Become Dictatorship and Partisan: NAMA, Ezega News, October 27, 2020.

[8] Ian Bremmer, As Ethiopians Take to the Streets to Protest a Musician's Murder, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Is Stuck in a Precarious Position, Time, July 9, 2020.

[9] Dawit W. Giorgis, Genocide and War in Ethiopia: How to Extinguish the Fire, BORKENA, November 7, 2020.

[10] “Ethiopia: 370 armed ABO Shane Group operatives killed in a month”, Al-Ain News, 10 December 2020. Available at:

[11] “The assassination of a senior official in Benishangul, western Ethiopia”, Al-Ain News, 10 December 2020. Available at:

[12] Ethiopia: Gunmen kill 34 in attack on bus—rights body.  DW, November 15, 2020.

[13] “The death toll from the Benishangul attack in Ethiopia rises to 207”, Shorouk New, 26 December 2020. Available at:

[14] “Among them a minister: Ethiopian officials arrested for their involvement in the Benishangul ‘violence’”, Al-Ain News, 24 December 2020. Available at:

[15] “The Ethiopian army kills 42 people in connection with the attack on ‘Benishangul-Gumuz”, Arabic Russia Today, 24 December 2020. Available at:

[16] Police Accuse Ex Somali Region President of Attempt to Escape Prison, Strangling Security Guard. Defendant Denies, Accuses The Police of Mistreatment, Addis Standard, October 19, 2018.

“The conflict in Ethiopia has deeper details: the secret of ‘the Somali region’”, Alarabiya, 14 November 2020. Available at:

[17] “Clashes between the Ethiopian army and local forces in the Somali region in Ethiopia”, Arabic Euronews, 4 August 2018. Available at:

“The former president of the Somali region in Ethiopia asks for pardon by the Ethiopian Prime Minister”, 29 September 2018. Available at:

[18] Aaron Maasho, Ethiopia signs peace deal with rebels from gas-rich region, Reuters, October 22, 2018.

[19] Ogaden National Liberation Front, Press Release, November 4, 2020.

[20] War Against Tigray Divides Somalis In Ethiopia, Taiwan Times, November 7, 2020.

[21] “Fruits of Abiy Ahmed's visit to the US: the return of the Afar nationalist leader to Ethiopia”, Al-Ain News, 14 August 2018. Available at:

[22] Yasin Mohammed Yasin, "Political History of the Afar in Ethiopia and Eritrea", Africa Spectrum (Sage Publications, Ltd., Vol. 43, No. 1, Horn of Africa, 2008); Kassim Shehim and James Searing, "Djibouti and the Question of Afar Nationalism", African Affairs (Oxford University Press, Vol. 79, No. 315 April, 1980).

[23] Ethiopia's Somali, Afar regions spar over 2014 agreement, Africanews. May 5, 2019.

[24] Armed attack in Ethiopia leaves 16 dead, including women and children, Nazret, October 14, 2019.


[27] Ethiopia’s Sidama vote overwhelmingly for autonomy, DW, November 23, 2020.

[28] Teshome Borago, Ethiopia plans new Damotic State to replace SNNPR, BORKENA, February 3, 2020.

[29] “’Sidama’ the latest. ‘Wilayta’ claims the 11th region in Ethiopia”, Al-Ain News, 16 December 2019. Available at:

[30] Dozens Of Civilians Killed In Sustained Konso Zone Violence, More Than 94, 000 Displaced, Addis Standard, November 23, 2020.


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