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Minority rights dilemma exemplifies Ethiopia’s brutal identity crisis

This article is part of the Analytical Reporting to Improve the Federation (ARIF) project.

Ethiopia’s ethnofederal system was designed to counter coercive homogenization, but, as in the former Yugoslavia, it left minorities tragically exposed in dominant groups’ homelands.For Hassan, an Amhara farmer who called Oromia home for a quarter of a century, last year’s rainy season came pouring with tears and blood.

On 18 June 2022, a string of villages in Tole, which is largely populated by Amharas, a minority in Oromia region, saw one of the deadliest identity-based attacks in recent years. Gunmen set houses ablaze, looted properties, and killed hundreds. 

The federal government and several survivors blamed the attack in West Wollega Zone on the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA)—Oromo nationalist insurgents at war with the authorities since 2018—accusations the group denied.

Among those slain were four of Hassan’s family: two sons, a daughter-in-law, and a granddaughter. The attacks went on for hours and regional security forces didn’t arrive until much later despite being stationed less than 20 kilometers away.1

“It was indescribable. Too many people were lost,” Hassan recalled to Ethiopia Insight about the violence. International rights groups called it a “callous massacre” carried out with “unmitigated cruelty”.

The Tole atrocity occurred in a wider context of growing insurgency and deteriorating insecurity in many areas in Oromia, which has intensified and spread in recent months.2 Violence also recently flared again in an Oromo enclave in Amhara region. Much like other conflicts across Ethiopia, civilians have been caught in the crossfire. 

These conflicts among dominant and minority groups are part of a general increase in violence across Ethiopia. In recent years, there has been a surge in clashes between various formal and informal groups, and more consistent fighting between groups from neighboring regions in bordering areas.

Worryingly, these dynamics mirror the Yugoslav federation prior to its violent ‘Balkanization’ during the 1990s. For example, Slobodan Milošević, from the dominant Serbian republic, rose to power in the late 1980s by highlighting the alleged oppression of minority Serbs by the Albanian majority in Kosovo and, from 1992 to 1999, launched successive campaigns of ethnic cleansing.3

Increasingly, in Ethiopia, political violence is taking a brutal form in which appalling acts targeting civilians are not only committed but also filmed. Social media is inundated with footage of people being burned alivevillages set ablaze, and heads on spikes.

Such instability has exposed the failure of the country’s political system to protect minorities. Some minority communities report a lack of confidence in regional government structures that, as in the case of Tole, almost entirely comprise members of the region’s dominant group.

Hassan fled Tole with his four surviving children and spent weeks in a nearby makeshift camp. His and hundreds of other families returned to their villages only following federal assurances.

But, in October, when federal soldiers left the area, Hassan felt he couldn’t stay in the region any longer. Oromia security forces lack the appetite to protect “others” and sometimes they even condone violence against Amharas, he argued. 

One morning “we got up at 3am and started traveling,” he told Ethiopia Insight. “We left everything behind.” He’s now in Worebabo in Northern Wollo Zone of Amhara region, hundreds of kilometers to the northeast, where his family faces an uncertain future. 

Two weeks after the Tole tragedy, at least 150 Amharas were killed during similar attacks in neighboring Kellem Wollega Zone. 

Such incidents are, unfortunately, all too common in today’s Ethiopia. 

The past four years have seen an unprecedented surge of violence against minorities, sometimes in the form of targeted attacks and on other occasions during clashes with dominant groups.4

As such, it’s imperative to explore the structural fault lines created by the federal constitution—or, arguably, by its lack of implementation—that have become increasingly apparent amid the recent violence.

Federalism Rationale

Ethiopia has historically been a unitary state characterized by centralization of power and homogenization of identity, efforts that many believe were inconsiderate of the country’s diverse people, languages, religions, and ways of life. 5

Consequently, the unitarist approach led to pervasive feelings of marginalization. It began to face challenges in the 1960s from left-leaning movements, many of which were mobilized around ethno-national identities.6 They gradually picked up momentum and, in 1974, contributed to overthrowing Ethiopia’s imperial dynasty. 

Upon taking power, a committee of military officers known as the Derg also failed to address the national question and imposed another unitarist system. Its leaders visited unspeakable violence on their opponents, causing armed ethno-national liberation movements to proliferate.7

In the early 1990s, the centralizing military regime collapsed as allied rebels closed in. The Derg’s successor, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), ushered in a radical shift in managing the country’s diversity.8

Formalized under Ethiopia’s 1995 federal constitution, internal boundaries were redrawn according to ethno-linguistic settlement patterns in an attempt to address the legacies of marginalization and subjugation.9

This constitution grants “nations, nationalities, and peoples” an all-encompassing right to self-determination, including the right to secede from the federation through a constitutionally prescribed process.10In theory, these group rights complement the constitution’s liberal protection of individual rights that are granted to all citizens.

Other core components of the right to self-determination are territorial self-rule for these nations, nationalities, and peoples, and protection of their cultural and linguistic rights. Regional states and sub-regional administrative units (nationality zones and special weredas) have been established to ensure that groups can exercise these rights.11

The federal constitution states that all ethnic groups enjoy equal status and rights regardless of population sizes and settlement patterns, including the right to self-determination.12


This disregard for population size was mirrored in the party-state system created by the EPRDF which could be seen as anti-majoritarianpartly because it gave an equal vote in the party’s decision-making organs to all parties, including the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) even though the population of Tigray, which the TPLF represented, was only six to eight percent of Ethiopia’s.13

The EPRDF preferred consensus-based governance in which unanimity was sought among members and elites from the four regional member parties and everyone was expected to get on board once decisions were made.

With its replacement by the Prosperity Party in 2019, that approach seems to have been abandoned by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, although there is a lack of clarity about regional representation within the executive bodies.14

At the national level, fears of creeping majoritarianism, meaning the dominance in the political sphere of the two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and the Amhara, contributed to tensions that led to civil war in Tigray. Politically salient narratives of minority rule under the EPRDF have been used to justify persecution of Tigrayans orchestrated by the Prosperity Party-led state.15

At the regional level, as in Oromia, Amhara, and Benishangul-Gumuz, some dominant groups appear emboldened to assert themselves even further over minority communities, leading to worsening violations. 

Internal Minorities

Ethiopia is a country constructed of minorities in the sense that none of its communities constitute a numerical majority.16 Given this context, the federal system aimed to protect the rights of identity-based groups by empowering them through the granting of territorial autonomy.17

Yet, while there are over eighty ethno-linguistic communities, there are only eleven regional states and around thirty sub-regional administrative units in which specific identity-based groups are granted territorial and political autonomy.18

Given that no community lives exclusively in their homeland, all regional states are, to varying degrees, heterogenous and thus include internal minority groups.


While the federal constitution doesn’t distinguish between indigenous and non-indigenous minorities, and treats all groups identically under the law, this distinction is either explicitly or implicitly made in all of the regional constitutions.19

Some of the regional constitutions, such as those of Gambella andBenishangul-Gumuz, specifically distinguish between indigenous or “owner” ethnic groups and others.20

The federal constitution focuses closely on group rights, but individual rights are also protected and can be claimed by all Ethiopian citizens. 

The key distinction is that indigenous minorities are territorially empowered and guaranteed the right to self-determination under the regional constitutions, whereas non-indigenous minorities can only claim individual rights as Ethiopian citizens under the federal constitution.21

One aspect of this dichotomy with perilous ramifications is a narrative of “settlers” built around non-indigenous minorities, most often Amharas, linking them with past imperial aggressions in which “indigenous” people were violently subdued, dispossessed of their land, and discouraged from practicing their culture in the interest of state-led assimilation.22

While it’s true that Ethiopian history is rife with attempts of forceful homogenization, these types of anti-imperial narratives are used by some as carte blanche to attack and forcibly displace non-indigenous minorities during bouts of violence. 

Although people with non-indigenous identities are not legally excluded from the right to land, government jobs, or political representation, some Ethiopiansbelieve the regional constitutions facilitate discriminatory outcomes.23

In practice, non-indigenous minorities—such as Amharas and Gurages in Harari, Amharas in Oromia, Oromos in Amhara living outside of the Oromo Zone, and Amharas and Oromos in Benishangul-Gumuz—struggle to have their human rights protected. 

Certain ethno-national groups are empowered over a given territory largely because they are demographically dominant, enjoy self-administration, and thus maintain control over political institutions while non-indigenous minorities within that territory are often excluded. 

Other factors, like the operating language of the regional government and various informal practices that foster discrimination, assure that certain groups within a region enjoy political dominance.24

For non-indigenous minorities in a given territory, these principles could mean exclusion from political participation and a lack of protective mechanisms.25

Adem K. Abebe, an Ethiopian constitutional scholar based in the Netherlands, told Ethiopia Insight that, due in part to the first-past-the-post electoral systems, non-indigenous minorities “lack political representation in regional councils and local administrations,” which reinforces their subordination. As a result, “accessing public services can also be complicated for them.”

Owing to this set-up, minority communities often report administrative challenges posed by various informal practices.

For instance, Amharas in Oromia maintain that members of their community, especially those who don’t speak Afaan Oromoo, must rely on bribery in police departments and courts to get basic services easily granted to someone from the dominant group.26

Meanwhile, Oromos and Amharas living under Harari region’s unique system claim the bureaucracy favors ethnic Hararis over others. Some small business owners also complain of the difficulties to get loans from government-linked microfinance institutions.

These challenges stem partly from the federal and regional constitutions’ failure to fully anticipate the issues faced by intra-regional or internal minorities.27

So, ethno-territorial federalism has—in theory, if not always in practice—solved certain inequalities and minority rights issues at the national level, but it has also created new ones, owing to the presence of sizable minorities within each regional state. 

While territorial self-rule is an empowering affirmation for the group or groups that are demographically dominant within a given territory, the rights of minority groups are frequently overlooked in decision-making processes, even on issues that directly impact them. 

Unique Harari

Among Ethiopia’s eleven regional states, Harari is unique not just for its minuteness—the last census in 2007 put its population around 180,000—but also because the titular Harari nation assumes political dominance despite making up less than ten percent of the population.28

This makes it an outlier region in which a minority population is empowered over other groups, including the Oromo who account for more than half of the population. 

The political dominance of Hararis is expressed in the representation of their interests in the executive.29Additionally, one of the two regional parliamentary chambers, the Harari National Council, is exclusively reserved for delegates from this group and the council recommends a candidate to serve as regional president.30

Ordin Bedri, Harari’s current president, spoke glowingly of the federal arrangement and the need to realize that “diversity is the source of our strength” during the observation in late November of Nations and Nationalities Day, a day set to mark the advent of the current federal dispensation.

A group of women stand together in Harer, Harari, Ethiopia; 13 September 2012; Rod Waddington

Nevertheless, tensions remain in the region, which is surrounded by Oromia’s East Hararghe Zone. Political haggling in the historic city of Harar mainly takes place between Hararis and Oromos.

Despite some accommodations, such as both Harari and Afaan Oromoo being regional working languages, some Oromos in the region feel they deserve a greater say in Harari politics to reflect their majority status. 

A mid-level member of the ruling Prosperity Party’s regional branch expressed a concern among some Hararis that with Oromo politicians playing a more prominent and assertive role in national politics, Harari’s distinctive arrangement could be under threat. 

Tsegaye, an ethnic Gurage shopkeeper who has lived in Harar for the past twelve years, believes members of other communities are relegated to third-class citizens. “It’s only a dream to imagine you can be treated equally” by local administrators, he told Ethiopia Insight

For Amharas, who are the second largest group in the region, the existing arrangement is also seen as exclusionary and puts them in the unenviable position of having little to no political representation.

Despite this controversial set-up, Harar has been mostly spared from large-scale violence, although tensions between Hararis, Oromos, Amharas, and other communities do exist.31

However, nearby Dire Dawa, a multi-ethnic self-administering city administration claimed by two neighboring regions, Oromia and Somali, has seen clashes in recent years. Dire Dawa’s own peculiar system, in which Oromos and Somalis each control 40 percent of the city’s administrative positions and others are allotted 20 percent, has been a point of contention.32

Amhara’s Minorities

In Amhara region, in addition to the Oromo, two other minority communities are recognized by the regional constitution and administer their own nationality zones: the Agew Awi and the Agew Himra.33Additionally, the Qemant and Argoba are granted the right to self-rule within their own Nationality Wereda. 

Idris, a 28-year-old civil servant in Bati, a town in the Oromo Zone of Amhara region, generally feels at ease when he is in his hometown or its surroundings within the zone. 

In the zone, regional minorities belonging to the Oromo nation like him are empowered, giving them the right to self-rule. They also have a relatively higher level of freedom to develop their language and other cultural practices.

For Idris, the right provided by the Oromo Zone to use one’s language in schools, courts, and administrative affairs is irreplaceable. He says other Oromos living in neighboring South Wollo, which is outside of the Oromo Zone, “do not have that privilege” and are forced to either assimilate with the dominant Amhara group or risk being treated differently.


Such recognition grants these minority communities the right to set up local governments but has not resolved lingering issues—and there has also been plenty of violence.

Most notably, the question of Qemant identity is caught in a political struggle between the Amhara and Tigray regions that has led to the persecution of Qemant people in Amhara, protests over their rising demands for autonomy, and deadly inter-communal clashes.34

Many Qemant refugees reportedlysupport the Qemant Liberation Army (QLA), an insurgent group fighting for more autonomy for the Qemant.35

Also, the Oromo Zone, together with weredas in neighboring North Shoa Zone, has been a hotbed of violencethat has occurred sporadically involving local armed forces and civilians, as well as interventions by federal police and defense forces.36

As this shows, the option of granting special administrative status to minority groups at the sub-state level resolves some minority rights issues for those living in those units but leaves similar concerns unaddressed for co-ethnics living outside of these special areas.

Qemant people; Ethiopia

It’s also notable that security concerns exist for Oromos living both within and outside of the Oromo Zone.

Idris recounted that, before the outbreak of civil war two years ago in the adjacent Tigray region, there used to be recurrent violent incidents, particularly around the month of Ramadan. The zone is inhabited predominantly by Muslim Oromos and, according to Idris, skirmishes happened with Amhara Orthodox Christians. 

While non-Amhara groups in the region contribute to Amhara’s security apparatus, the demographic dominance of Amharas in the rank-and-file and in senior leadership has often meant, according to Idris, that during clashes between members of the Oromo and Amhara groups, the former feel security forces sided with the latter instead of being impartial arbiters. 

Amharas in Oromia

Oromia is home to sizable minority populations, most notably Amharas, who, according to one estimate, represent up to ten percent of the region’s approximately 40 million people. 

Since 2018, Oromia has been embroiled in violence between the OLA and federal and regional authorities, as well as between the Oromo and Amhara communities.37

In early December, amid intensified fighting between government forces and the OLA, fresh rounds of attacks against civilians were reported in East Wollega Zone. What’s different this time around is the involvement of the Fano, armed Amhara militiamen, in attacking security and administrative figures.38

This follows calls by Amhara activists for armed men from the group to offer protection to the minority population within the region, something they argue is not being provided by the region’s forces.39

This spell of violence, however, has again seen minority Amharas being targeted.40

Two Amhara men who fled their homes in Kiremu district in East Wollega Zone and were hiding in a place called Haro told Ethiopia Insightthat regional police forces were actively involved in forcing people out and looting properties.41

All three warring forces, Ethiopian authorities, Oromo insurgents, and Amhara militias, have been accused of attacking civilians, leading to thousands of deaths.42

Regional authorities have allowed a perfect storm to brew by seemingly turning a blind eye—or worse—to escalating security emergencies and vulnerability of minorities.43

The familiar pattern of these attacks involves security forces withdrawing from the area before militants attack and then two diametrically opposed narratives emerge as to who is responsible.44

The OLA insurgency and communal violence in Oromia reflect the deep fissures in Ethiopian society that, since 1995, are articulated based on the multinational federal set-up.45

Relations between the Oromo and Amhara communities are fraught owing to the legacies of the Neftegna-Gabbar feudal system. After its nineteenth century expansion, the Ethiopian empire used this system to control southern lands and resettled many Amharic-speaking people there.46

A woman and her two children sit on the floor after being displaced by violence in Nekemte, East Wollega Zone

Based on this history, Oromo nationalists see Amharas as settlers in indigenous Oromo land and view their presence in the region as a legacy of that brutal and exploitative system. This “neo-neftegna” narrative has been used to justify attacks on Amhara civilians living in Oromia.47

Oromo nationalists typically support multinational federalism but claim the TPLF-led EPRDF never effectively implemented it. The prevailing opinion of Amhara and Ethiopian nationalists, meanwhile, is that the federal and Oromia region’s constitutions are primarily responsible for the bloodshed.48

Amhara advocates claim Oromia’s constitution doesn’t provide equal standing to minority groups in relation to Oromo inhabitants, who are exclusively empowered over the region. The document places other groups in secondary status next to “people of the Oromo nation”.

For Adem K. Abebe, the recurrence of violence in the region against minorities is partly driven by a “monolithic” vision of Oromia in which some groups envision a homogenous region.49

Amhara politicians and activists claim this neo-neftegna moniker is a dog whistle used to stoke the ethnic cleansing of Amhara “settlers” in Oromia. They also fear “Oromo supremacy” and constantlydownplay narratives of oppression and exploitation put forward by Oromos. 

For many Oromos, Abiy’s attempts to forge a single national identity and criticism of ethnic politics are seen as a battlecry against Oromia’s autonomy and self-determination.50They accuse Fano of waging an expansionist campaign aimed at annexing parts of Oromia into Amhara.51

In his critique of Medemer (Amharic for ‘coming together’), the governance philosophy championed by Abiy, Awol Allo, lecturer in law at Keele University, called the term “a new vocabulary to resurrect and operationalise the old assimilationist Amhara-centric model of state.” 

He argues that Abiy “and his Amhara supporters” see Ethiopianization as inclusive and thus good while “ethno-national politics is bad because [it is] exclusionary.” The war in Tigray and violence in other parts of the country exhibit the ruins of this Ethiopianist vision, Awol adds, and, as a result, the “stench of disintegration is in the air.

Benishangul Violence

In Benishangul-Gumuz, five groups are recognized by the region’s constitution as being indigenous: the Benishangul, Gumuz, Shinasha, Mao, and Komo.52 According to the last census, these groups collectively make up close to 57 percent of the region’s 784,000 residents.53

The largest non-indigenous communities, the Amhara and the Oromo, are the second- and fourth-most populous groups in the region, respectively. They, along with the region’s Tigrayan and Agew communities, are deemed residents, not citizens, who can vote but—although they are legally permitted to do so—in practice are inhibited from running for office.54

The regional constitution’s designation of five ethnic groups as “owners” makes an explicit divisionbetween natives and outsiders whose rights, notably access to land, are unequal.55

An overarching struggle takes place between the Gumuz and Benishangul, two historically oppressed and sidelined communities who cherish their special privileges under the regional constitution, and others, notably Amharas, who view the measures instituted under the federal system to rectify this dark legacy as being discriminatory in their own right.56

Since 2018, tensions among some of the indigenous and non-indigenous peoples have led to recurrent bloodshed.57 The entire region has seen ethnic-based violence, but Metekel in particular, followed by Kamashi and Assosa, has been the site of a stream of attacks.58

While clashes over resources have long been common, the recent violence has been more unambiguous in its ethnic character. Thousands have been killed over the past four years amid clashes in which the Gumuz fight non-indigenous groups, mainly the Amhara, Agew, and Oromo, prompting the deployment of ill-disciplined government forces in the area.59

Operations have also reportedlyinvolved Amhara regional security forces crossing over the border into Metekel.60 Further complicating matters, elements of Benishangul-Gumuz’s security apparatus have reportedly sided with Gumuz militiamen against the federal army.61

At times, fighting takes place between the indigenous groups, particularly among Gumuz and Shinashacommunities. The latter are often labeled by the former as Qëy (light skinned), a designation the Gumuz also bestow on Amharas, Agews, Tigrayans, and Oromos.62

By referring to indigenous groups as the region’s “owners”, critics argue, Benishangul-Gumuz’s constitution has institutionalized the relegation of others as “settlers” who do not belong to these areas.63 Non-indigenous groups have been subject to violent attacks motivated by concerns that outsiders are violating the rights of indigenous communities, specifically land rights.64

In response, Demeke Mekonnen, the Deputy Prime Minister, called for Amhara civilians to be trained as community defense forces when he visited the region in October 2020. The regional government adoptedthis strategy of civilian defense and recruited over 10,000 militia members composed of non-indigenous groups who received government-sponsored military training in all weredas of the Metekel Zone. 

At the same time, the region’s indigenous groups are engaged in a struggle to preserve their territorial autonomy and protections under the federal and regional constitutions.65

The three empowered groups have also been subject to attacks at the hands of the non-indigenous groups because they are asserting their constitutional land rights.66

Irredentist claims on parts of Benishangul-Gumuz, specifically Metekel Zone, by some ethno-nationalists in neighboring Amhara contribute to violence in the northeastern part of the region.

According to these ownership claims, the zone, which used to be in Gojjam Province before the federal arrangement, should be part of Amhara.67 Viewed more cynically, Amhara regional officials want to administer Metekel to control the zone’s mineral deposits and arable land.68

Gumuz residents of Metekel fear a potential Amhara occupation and feel threatened by an influx of “outsiders”—namely, Amharas, Oromos, and Tigrayans—acquiring fertile land.69

In the region’s south-west, meanwhile, there are spillover effects of the insurgency in Oromia.70

OLA insurgents operating in neighboring East Wollega have been accused of launching attacks in bordering areas and fighting against groups like the Benishangul-Gumuz People’s Liberation Movement (BPLM).71

A young Amhara girl; Wikimedia Commons
Debating Solutions

The policy options to manage diversity in divided societies like Ethiopia include empowering ethnic communities through the grant of either territorial or non-territorial autonomy, devising a territorial or residency-based federalism, and strengthening national protections of minority groups while emphasizing the rights of Ethiopian citizens regardless of their ethnic background. 

The primary solution offered by the 1995 constitution to protect minority rights is territorial, the ability to self-administer in response to issues of marginalization. In practice, desires to create new regional states or to secede under Article 39 were not permitted by the EPRDF, despite the party’s claim of zealous loyalty to the constitutional rights of identity-based groups.

In recent years, there has been increased motivation among groups, particularly in southern and south-western Ethiopia, to obtain more territorial autonomy.72

However, a political dispensation focusing predominantly on territorial autonomy reinforces a system in which dominant groups continue to control political institutions and activities while perpetuating the marginalization of internal or sub-regional minorities.73

Given the problems associated with both a unitarist system, as practiced during imperial times and by the Derg, and the EPRDF’s multinational federalism since 1995, renowned Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani has called for Ethiopia to embrace territorial federalism whereby the boundaries of constituent units are not aligned with ethnicity.

The limitations of the territorial approach in addressing the pressing issue of minority rights speaks to a need in Ethiopia to provide more effective protections of individual rights.74

Non-territorial autonomy is an alternative or supplementary mechanism that could be used in Ethiopia. In a non-territorial system, members of each group living throughout the country elect representatives who then autonomously manage clearly defined areas of their national life, such as schools and cultural practices.75


Ethno-territorial federations do not allow violations of individual rights like freedom of movement, association, and speech, but, in practice, such violations do take place in Ethiopia.

Human rights violations in Ethiopia are often related to the universal individual rights that are protected by the federal constitution but are not always enforced. The regional constitutions, arguably, facilitate a variety of informal discriminatory practices.

The deficiencies of the current mechanisms in tackling issues of minority participation and protections warrant supplementing them with additional approaches.

One solution would be to draft a minority protection law. The federal government has the mandate to do so and such amendments would be binding to the regional states, but would only make a difference if implemented.76

This raises the perennial debate over whether the constitution itself is the problem or rather the lack of constitutionalism, meaning the lack of proper implementation of this written document.77

What’s clear is that, despite some potential flaws in Ethiopia’s constitutional design, particularly at the regional level, there is also a lack of enforcement.

In and around Tole, no significant measures have been taken since the massacre last June to ensure minorities are protected and lives shattered by the violence are rebuilt. 

Calls for an independent investigation remain unanswered. Humanitarian needs remain unmetand survivors like Hassan say their feeling of security is attached to the presence of federal troops. In some cases, though, federal soldiers have been the ones committing atrocities.

Over the past five years, as Ethiopia continues to grapple with pervasive communal violence, the authorities’ preferred remedy has been to returnpeople who fled their homes to their places of origin

However, Hassan, who is now left to depend on aid, told Ethiopia Insight he wouldn’t “dream of” returning to western Oromia and living as a minority. 

With so many lives at stake, the issue of minority protection is far too important and urgent for Ethiopia to ignore.

Query or correction? Email us


Main photo: Berak IDP Site, Delo Mena Woreda, Bale Zone, Oromia; 15 January 2019; Mersha, UNICEF.

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.


  • 1The federal and regional governments accused the OLA exclusively, saying that Oromo insurgents committed the Tole massacre when they retreated after engaging with government security forces in the area. Many Amhara activists say federal and Oromia regional government forces were either incompetent, complicit, or somehow worked with the OLA on the attack. The incredibly slow reaction by regional security forces in the vicinity of the attack lends credence to such accusations. Another theory is that ill-disciplined OLA-affiliated troops committed the massacre in retaliation after Amhara villagers fired on them. The OLA, for its part, accuses a local militia formed by the Oromia government called Gachana Sirna. The OLA’s denial is contrary to several witness testimonies and reports from Tole. The federal government’s refusal to allow independent investigations of such events contributes to the murkiness. 
  • 2Conflict in Oromia predates the much more visible civil war in Ethiopia’s north by more than a year. Initially, in late 2018 and early 2019, the insurgency was limited to western and southern Oromia. With burgeoning resentment among Qeerroo (Oromo youth) over the ruling Prosperity Party’s failure to address the political and economic woes that triggered protests from 2014 to 2018 that ultimately brought down the EPRDF, the main opposition armed group operating in the area, the OLA, grew in prominence. In response, authorities launched ground military offensives and aerial attacks, including with drones. With little reporting on the violence, it’s not clear how many people have been killed, but many civilians are among the victims. Attempts to clamp down on the OLA’s support base have sometimes taken brutal forms, contributing to hostility towards the authorities. Senior government and military figures have repeatedly downplayedthe OLA and claimed victory. Nonetheless, in recent months, the violence has spread to central and northern Oromia. OLA attacks have included raiding the regional capital of Gambella last June.
  • 3Later, as the federation’s bloody fragmentation gathered pace, Croatian nationalists fought militants from the Serb minority in what was to become Croatia. Bosnia-Herzegovina, populated by Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats, declared its independence following a referendum in 1992, and was recognized by the US and European governments. The Bosnian Serb population boycotted the referendum. Bosnian Serb forces, backed by the Serbian government, attacked the newly formed country and began removing Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) from the territory as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing designed to create a Greater Serbia. The Srebrenica massacre occurred during two weeks in July 1995 when Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Ratko Mladić targeted and killed an estimated 8,000 Bosniaks. The Kosovo war started in February 1998 and lasted until June 1999, pitting forces from Serbia and Montenegro, representing the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which controlled Kosovo prior to the war, against a rebel group composed of Kosovo Albanians. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was formed in 1995 to fight against Serbian persecution of Albanians and aimed to unite Kosovo into a Greater Albania. KLA attacks led to retribution by Serb paramilitaries and regular forces in a systematic campaign of terror that saw thousands of Albanians killed and over a million forced to flee. The conflict only ended after NATO troops intervened militarily, which resulted in the Yugoslav forces retreating. Kosovo today remains a self-declared independent country that is recognized by the US and EU but not by Serbia and Russia. 
  • 4In each case, the death toll and culpability for the attacks are hard to ascertain, and hundreds of thousands if not more are routinely forced out of their homes.
  • 5After the late nineteenth century, when the Ethiopian empire expanded southward, Emperors Menelik II and Haile Selassie I aimed to create an assimilated nation-state, often through force, in which efforts were made to transcend sub-national distinctions by creating a single Ethiopian identity. State institutions were built in line with that policy and tools like the Amharic language were used to try and foster unity.
  • 6The Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) initiated the Eritrean war of independence in 1961 but was defeated in combat and superseded by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). Both Eritrean liberation movements were explicitly not ethno-nationalistic, given that Eritrea is inhabited by nine ethnic groups and the goal was to either federate Eritrea with Ethiopia or secede. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) was founded in 1973, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in 1976, and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in 1984. These three movements were all explicitly ethno-nationalist. Meanwhile, the Derg was also fighting the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), a rival socialist movement that argued against ethno-nationalism, in Addis Abeba and elsewhere. 
  • 7The Derg was a military dictatorship that co-opted the Marxist-Leninist student movement and ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991, partly owing to its alliance with the Soviet Union and Cuba. It was infamous for unleashing a Red Terror campaign in which hundreds of thousands of people, many of them socialist dissidents deemed “reactionary” or “anti-revolutionary”, were killed. This era was marked by raging civil war and famine, which was most acute in Tigray, Eritrea, and Wollo from 1983 to 1985. A lack of rainfall combined with government policiesto resettle those affected and isolate insurgent groups led to an estimated700,000 excess deaths. At the heart of the Derg’s ideology was a pan-Ethiopianist nationalism which made it hostile to movements organized around ethno-national identity. 
  • 8The contours of the federal system of governance were first devised during the 1991 to 1994 transitional period with the explicit goal to rectify the marginalization and subjugation of Ethiopian peoples by providing rights to self-determination. The 1995 constitution then formally recastEthiopia from a centrally unified republic to a federation of nine, now eleven, regions and two federally administered city-states. 
  • 9Multi-ethnic federalism, according to John McGarry and Brendan O’Leary, who delineated a taxonomy of state practices in dealing with ethnic diversity, is one of the political instruments suitable to balance unity and diversity in countries characterized by social cleavages and frictions. These systems “seek to express, institutionalize and protect” multiple ethnic cultures in a durable fashion. Boundaries of the internal units are usually drawn in a way that at least some of them are controlled by national/ethnic minorities. But there’s “considerable evidence” for the system’s terrible track record in which a number of such federations have broken down or failed to be democratic. However, genuinely democratic multi-ethnic federations allow for different communities to engage in dialogue, implement a system of bargaining, preclude systemic transgressions against rights, and thus have a greater likelihood of succeeding. 
  • 10The constitution defines nations, nationalities, and peoples as “a group of people who share a large measure of a common culture or similar customs, mutual intelligibility of language, belief in a common or related identities, a common psychological make up, and who inhabit an identifiable, predominantly contiguous territory.” Beyond providing this definition, the constitution doesn’t contain a list of ethnic groups in Ethiopia. All groups that fulfill the criteria can be recognized as nations, nationalities, and peoples and represented in the House of Federation. One can infer the officially recognized ethnic groups from the list of members of the House of Federation, which grewfrom 56 in 1995 to 76 in 2021. Indeed, all ethnic groups are entitled to be represented in the House of Federation. The number is open-ended and many such identity claims are currently pending. The ethnic groups are only listed explicitly in the 2007 population and housing census. Groups or communities can also come together and demand the statusof an ethno-national group. This is done within the framework of the constitution’s Article 39 that lists the rights of nations, nationalities, and peoples as well as Proclamation 251/2001, the law that details the power and functions of the House of Federation. The Silte and Qemant are examples of this. 
  • 11Each region is tasked with regulating local government, which is not stipulated in the federal constitution. Nationality zones and special weredas, such as those established for the Nuer in Gambella and Argoba in Afar, respectively, are formed to allow intra-regional minorities to exercise some form of self-rule. A given weredais special—as opposed to a regular wereda, an administrative unit of about a 100,000 inhabitants—because it has boundaries demarcated along ethnic lines for a certain intra-regional minority group to enjoy self-rule and have political dominance. A Nationality Zone is simply a larger area of two or more such weredas.
  • 12The constitution does not make a distinction between these three terms or clearly define what a nation, nationality, and people is. Ambiguities in the constitutional text in terms of distinguishing among the three terms, especially as the expression ‘nations, nationalities and peoples’ is at the core of the constitution, has been a source of criticism
  • 13While Tigrayan elites dominated the EPRDF through the TPLF from 1991 to 2018, Amhara elites were dominant before 1991, and the Oromo, the most populous ethnic group, have historically been marginalized, despite the presence of some Oromo among the ruling elite. Abiy, as Ethiopia’s first self-identified Oromo leader, initially enjoyed support among Oromos after coming to power in 2018. This has since eroded given his regime’s brutal crackdownin Oromia and the solidification of his ties with Ethiopian and Amhara nationalists. 
  • 14Unlike the EPRDF era, frictions among political elites within the ruling party are very much public and it’s not uncommon for senior figures to express dissenting opinions about government policy, suggesting a shift from the consensus-based approach. 
  • 15Given that the TPLF was the dominant player in national politics from 1991 to 2018, Tigrayan elites were overrepresented at all levels of state power—including the EPRDF’s central committee, the military, and the economy, by controlling lucrativepara-statal companies—giving rise to narratives of minority rule that, at times, involved demonizing the Tigrayan people as a whole. For the most part, however, Tigray as a region was privy to few special privileges in comparison to other regions, as Tigray experienced progress but remained underdeveloped. After Meles Zenawi’s death in 2012, Hailemariam Desalegn, a Wolayita, became Prime Minister and, despite its continued dominant role within the EPRDF, the TPLF’s power gradually eroded. Abiy came to power off the back of popular protests from 2014 to 2018 in Oromia and Amhara against the TPLF’s role in Ethiopian politics. After relations between Abiy and the TPLF deteriorated when the Prosperity Party was formed in 2019, federal authorities engaged in thinly veiledhate speech against Tigrayans and TPLF leaders rejected the federal government’s legitimacy, a dynamic that made confrontation inevitable. Amid the civil war since November 2020, Tigrayans have been subjected to innumerable atrocities, including rape as a weapon of war, ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray, and mass arrests based on ethnicity in Addis Abeba and elsewhere, countlessmassacres of civilians, a government imposed siege that produced excess death from famine conditions, widespread looting, and the purposeful destruction of the region’s economy, food systems, and health infrastructure. In their totality, these abuses likely amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and, according to some commentators andhuman rights organizationsgenocide. Tigray forces also stand accused of committing war crimesand crimes against humanity, including in Amhara and Afar during their 2021 incursion, such as indiscriminate shelling, destruction of health care facilities, rape, and massacres of civilians
  • 16According to the last census, conducted a decade and a half ago, the largest ethnic community, the Oromo, make up 34 percent of the population. 
  • 17In seven regional states—Afar, Amhara, Harari, Oromia, Sidama, Somali, and Tigray—a single identity-based group is politically dominant. In each of these regions, save Harari, the titular group, after which the regional state is named, constitutes an overwhelming numerical majority as well. In the other four regions—Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz, Southern Nations, and South West—no single ethnic group is numerically or politically dominant, meaning that all groups in these regions are minority populations. 
  • 18The Council of Representatives, a legislative body formed during the 1991-1994 transitional period that followed the collapse of the Derg, identified 63 concentrated nations, nationalities, and peoples, 47 of which it recognized as capable—given their numerical size—of forming administrative governments at regional, zonal, or wereda levels. These administrative units formed during that period were entrenched by the adoption of the constitution in 1995. Article 39/3 of the constitution maintains that every nation, nationality, and people has the right to self-rule “in the territory it inhabits.” The Transitional Period Charter, a document that served as a foundation for the constitution, stated that geographical settlement patterns of communities would be the basis for demarcating boundaries. 
  • 19Regional states have constitutional autonomy, meaning they can enact and amend their constitution without the federal government’s approval. Each regional constitution is different, but they all regulate the institutional structure of the regional state and have provisions related to local government. As of now, it’s up to the regions to define which groups are indigenous to a given area. Indigenous minorities are entitled to the right of self-determination and thus have territorial autonomy at the sub-regional or local level, while non-indigenous minorities do not. As an example, all indigenous minorities in the Amhara region have an ethnic-based territorial local government, either a Nationality Zone or Special Wereda. These local administrations have important powers to protect the identity of the concerned minority group, such as the power to determine the local working language. For instance, Afaan Oromo is the local working language of the Oromo Zone in the Amhara region. Indigenous minorities are also entitled to guaranteed representation in the regional political institutions. Despite charges that regional security forces are composed exclusively of persons with indigenous identities, there is no statistical information about the ethnic identity of the regional security forces. 
  • 20There is no definition or criteria to differentiate between indigenous and non-indigenous groups provided in either the federal or regional constitutions. It is at the discretion of the regional states to designate groups as such. In practice, indigenous groups are generally considered to be those that are endogenous to an area, meaning those that are believed to have traditional territory within the regional state and are recognized as such, while non-indigenous groups are believed to have migrated to a given territory from a different area in relatively recent times. In September 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted the non-binding Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Some important criteria in the UN definition include cultural distinctiveness, political marginalization, and self-identification. As Michaela Pelican shows using the case of the Mbororo in Cameroon—who are considered indigenous under international but not local definitions—the concept of indigenous people is highly politicized, is subject to local and national peculiarities, and its application has ambivalent outcomes. Claims of indigeneity are further complicated by climate and warrelated displacement. Determining indigeneity or autochthony (first occupancy of the land) is more complicated in Africa given long and ongoing histories of migration, assimilation, and conquest. Because African societies continuously create and re-create a dichotomy between original inhabitants and latecomers according to political prerogatives, clear-cut distinctions of first nations versus dominant societies as implied in the universal definition of indigenous peoples are not possible. Anthropologists disagree on whether the concept of indigeneity is even applicable in the African context. It appears no single legal definition can account for the complexity and local variation of the concept. Some African governments fear that haggling over definitions of indigeneity could create tensions among ethnic groups and instability within sovereign states, could be used to justify secession, thus threatening territorial integrity and state sovereignty, and that indigenous peoples’ rights to lands, territories, and resources contradict constitutional provisions of African countries whereby such matters are controlled by the state. As Pelican notes, there are potentially socially disruptive elements of discourses of indigeneity and autochthony when directed against others, meaning non-indigenes. For instance, in countries like the Ivory Coast, Congo-Brazzaville, and Cameroon, the majority population or dominant groups claim to be autochthonous to exclude more recent immigrants. Still, indigenous identities are commonly used as a political and legal tool in the struggle against discrimination and dispossession of historically marginalized groups. From this perspective, it’s important to recognize the aspirations of indigenous peoples to exercise control over their own institutions, ways of life, and economic development, and to maintain and develop their identities, languages, and religions within the framework of the states in which they live. 
  • 21There is an important distinction between territorially empowered or “indigenous” minorities and non-indigenous ones. Indigenous minorities are recognized as such by the regional states and their constitutions. Examples of indigenous minorities are Agew Himra, Qemant, Oromo, and Argoba in Amhara or Irob and Kunama in Tigray. Examples of non-indigenous minorities include Amhara, Gedeo, and Gurage in Oromia and Oromo in Somali. The main legal difference between the two is that indigenous minorities are entitled to the right to self-determination on the basis of the regional constitution whereas the non-indigenous minorities can only claim individual rights as Ethiopian citizens under the federal constitution. This is why indigenous minorities have territorial autonomy, language and cultural rights, and are guaranteed political participation on the basis of the regional constitutions. It is the non-indigenous minorities in particular who are most often the victims of human rights violations. 
  • 22Mahmood Mamdani argues that Ethiopia’s ethno-territorial federation creates “endless minorities” because the system runs against the reality that groups do not merely reside in distinct homeland territories. He claims this system is prone to ethnic mobilization by and tensions among dominant groups within their homeland, communities without a homeland, and non-indigenous minorities whose homeland is elsewhere in the country. In conflicts between indigenous and non-indigenous groups, regional security forces (special or “Liyu” police) and ethnic militias are often drawn into violent incidents, notably in the Somali region. Mamdani says that, in emulating the Soviet system of ethnic homelands, the EPRDF’s multinational federalism effectively reproduced the British colonial system of indirect rule. He also believes, rather ahistorically, that it was ethnic federalism that unleashed a struggle for supremacy among the “Big Three” ethnic groups in Ethiopia: the Oromo, Amhara, and Tigrayans. He concludes that, “Ethiopians used to think of themselves as Africans of a special kind, who were not colonized, but the country today resembles a quintessential African system, marked by ethnic mobilization for ethnic gains.” Mamdani was criticized by his fellow countryman, Kalundi Serumaga, who posited that ethnic mobilization and politicization predated the 1995 constitution in Ethiopia and the arrival of European colonizers elsewhere in Africa. Serumaga refers to Ethiopia’s constituent groups as “nations” and believes Mamdani unjustly prioritizes national identity over sub-national identities. He refutes the implication that ethnicity is the main problem that bedevils African politics, and Ethiopia specifically, rather than a succession of centralized and unitarist governments dominated by certain ethnic groups. 
  • 23There’s an important distinction between the legal provisions written into the federal and regional constitutions and the prevailing informal practices. People with non-indigenous identities are not legally excluded from the right to land, government jobs, or political representation. Such legal exclusion would amount to discrimination and would, therefore, violate the federal constitution, which is binding in the regional states. Yet, in practice, the indigenous versus settler dichotomy has led to such outcomes. For instance, although persons with non-indigenous identities can be a candidate for regional council elections, the EPRDF usually selected indigenous candidates for these positions and, due to the EPRDF’s political dominance, this simultaneously ensured the dominance of indigenous candidates in the regional council. Hence; the exclusion of non-indigenous candidates was more of a political than legal problem. Although the regional constitutions do not permit discriminatory practices, they may encourage them. 
  • 24Political control of nations, nationalities, and peoples over a given region mostly comes down to politics, and thus demographics. For example, while it doesn’t say anywhere that Somalis must rule the Somali region, their demographic dominance combined with the fact that Somali is the language of the regional government makes it very likely they will have solid political control. Many discriminatory issues relate to informal practices that favor dominant groups in employment, political representation, and elsewhere. Still, there are some elements in some regional constitutions that are arguably discriminatory. Harari is a unique case in which a minority population is empowered over the majority. However, it’s important to note that such aspects of the regional constitution are not the primary let alone the sole reason for political dominance of certain groups at the regional level. 
  • 25Minorities often report being left unprotected during violent incidents. Some allege this is because regional security forces are formed primarily by individuals from dominant groups. Thus, in the wake of clashes or targeted attacks, minorities call for the deployment of federal forces. In violence prone areas in Benishangul-Gumuz, the government has tried forming local militia composed of non-indigenous groups and arming them as one solution. Similar moves were suggested in western Oromia by some opposition figures. 
  • 26While the need to bribe officials is not specific to non-indigenous minorities, what’s different is that such groups must rely on it to get basic services that a member of the dominant group would take for granted. 
  • 27One notable exception is that minority “nationalities and peoples” are granted at least 20 of the 550 seats in the lower house of parliament, the House of Peoples’ Representatives, to ensure groups that do not constitute a majority in a single electoral district get representation. 
  • 28Until the late nineteenth century, the Harari had a history of self-administration in which a succession of 72 Emirs reigned over the city. Harari’s current unique arrangement is rooted in the post-Derg Transitional Government. A committee of experts was formed by members of the group who sought regional statehood in the federal structure that would be put in place. They proposed a solution to the perceived issue that Hararis were massively outnumbered in Harar other than in the Jugol, the city’s walled section. The Transitional Government’s Council of Representatives adopted the proposal, which provided a legal guarantee for Hararis to have political dominance. As per the arrangement, a Harari person would be considered a resident of the region even if they live elsewhere in the country.
  • 29Under the EPRDF, political power in Harar was shared between the Oromia and Harari regional parties, which, in the 2015 general elections, each won 18 seats in the Harari Regional State. The Harari Regional State Council contains 36 seats and is composed of two bodies: the Harari National Assembly, a 14-member body reserved for Hararis, and the Harari People’s Representatives, a 22-member body open to all in Harari. The Assembly nominates the regional president who in turn appoints the Cabinet with the approval of the Council. Both the Oromia and Harari regional parties merged with other ruling parties to form the Prosperity Party in December 2019. Two months prior to this, the two parties signed a “50-50” power-sharing agreement between the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and Harari National League (HLN). The merger had no bearing on this deal. Some Hararis fear it is a prelude to the complete takeover of Harari by Oromos and believe preserving Harari governance is important to prevent a “tyranny of the majority” and to protect Hararis’ indigenous rights. Historically, the Oromo, Amhara, and Somali leaders went to war over Harar and, in recent times, expressed claims over the city. Non-Harari groups view the existing system that empowers an indigenous minority as being discriminatory. Oromo activists are calling for equitable representation, the right to develop their own language, culture, and economy, and protections from being evicted from their “ancestral lands”. Many Amharas and other groups also view this set-up as discriminatory and anti-democratic. In practice, while Hararis have benefitted from the political arrangements since 1991, those rights do not include privileges over budget allocation and Hararis claim to have consistently lost land disputes in rural areas adjudicated by ODP officials. 
  • 30The Harari National Council’s recommendation for regional president needs to be approved with a two-thirds majority by the bicameral State Council, giving a veto power to the Oromo. Hence, although the regional president will be a Harari, he/she needs the approval of at least some of the Oromo representatives in the State Council. That is why the Harar institutional arrangement is often characterized as a consociational or power-sharing system. Until the last general elections, held in 2021, representatives in the Harari National Council were elected by Hararis living across the country and not only those in Harari region. This was a rare example of non-territorial elections in Ethiopia. However, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) deemed the system unconstitutional in April 2021. This decision by the NEBE was subsequently rejected by the Federal Supreme Court. The members of the other chamber, the People’s Representatives Assembly, are elected from constituencies within the region only. Active and passive voting rights are given to all Ethiopian citizens, irrespective of their ethnic identity. This implies that, for instance, Amharas could be elected to the Harar State Council. However, the regional political constellation—meaning the hegemony of Oromo and Harari EPRDF and now Prosperity Party politicians, as well as the first-past-the-post electoral system—have generally prevented this from being the case in practice. 
  • 31Although there has been relatively less violence in Harar compared to other nearby areas, such as Dire Dawa and Jigjiga, some Hararis claimthat a serious crisis has been taking place in Harar in recent years. Abuses in Harar since 2019 have included ethnically motivated mobs marching the streets of Harar chanting racist and incendiary slogans, the occupation of historical mosques and chasing out of religious leaders, the looting and destruction of Harari properties and lands, and the purposeful disruption of essential services such as water and garbage removal. Harari property owners have also been intimidated by groups of Oromos, allegedly in an attempt to control the region’s administration. Also, in January 2020, Amhara celebrants of the Orthodox Christian celebration of Timket and Oromo residents of Harar fought over the draping of the former Ethiopian imperial flag. Thereafter, some Ethiopian Christians attacked Muslims, mosques, and other properties in Harar and Dire Dawa. Such incidents are evidence of rising tensions in the region which could inflame in the future and are in part motivated by disputes over the region’s peculiar structure. 
  • 32The last census listed the Oromo, with 46 percent of the population, as the largest group in the city-state followed by the Somali and the Amhara, with 24 and 20 percent, respectively. A power-sharing arrangement orchestrated during the EPRDF era between the ruling Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) and its partner in Somali, the Somali People’s Democratic Party (SPDP), meant the two controlled 40 percent each of the city’s administrative positions while the remaining 20 percent went to others. Though the two parties are now defunct as they were absorbed by the Prosperity Party in 2019, the system, commonly referred to as the 40:40:20, continues to function. Some groups outside the two claim they are sidelined, even calling the system “apartheid”.
  • 33The Amhara, together with cosmopolitan urbanites of all backgrounds, are generally seen as being suspicious of the ethno-territorial federal arrangement. However, some political and cultural elites present the Amhara region as a beacon of accommodating diversityon the basis that there are more minority administrations. Still, attempts by members of the Qemant community to be granted a special zone have often led to violent confrontations and it’s not uncommon to hear regional authorities vilifying activists from the community. Some Amharas see the minority administrations as a legacy of the Transitional Council of Representatives in which the EPRDF sought to weaken the Amharas’ power. Such perceptions have led to frequent calls during protests to break up the zones.
  • 34In the mid-2000s, a cultural committee was formed that sought to restore the Qemant language and religion which had been weakened by assimilationist policies and a lack of official recognition. Since at least the mid-2000s, the Qemant have been agitating for self-administration rights. The Qemant’s self-rule requests were rejected by the Amhara region after raising the issue in 2009 with the House of Federation. After the Amhara government granted the Qemant an initial 42 kebeles in 2015, 74 Qemant and 23 Amhara were killed and properties were burned. In December 2015, Amhara Special Police and locals carried out killings in Chilga, Metema, and Lay Armachiho weredas. A 2017 referendum on the question of creating an autonomous zone for Amhara’s Qemant minority sparkedincreasingly frequent clashes between the two groups. From 2018 to 2020, state security forces were complicit in violence against Qemant. Amid the northern war, many Qemant were forced to flee to neighboring Sudan. Qemant leaders accuse Amharas of attacking them to get them off the land. These events led to Qemant protests demanding more districts and counter demonstrations by Amharas. Thousands of civilians have been displaced amid military operations and mob violence in the northwest of Amhara. Some Qemant claim federal and Amhara authorities are working together to cleanse Amhara of Qemant and take control of their land.
  • 35Qemant demands for self-determination are caught up in the boundary dispute between Tigray and Amhara. For years, Amhara officials accused the TPLF-led government of stoking a “manufactured” Qemant identity to capture Amhara lands. Qemant are physically and linguistically indistinguishable from Amharas. Because of this, Amhara elites claim the Qemant people are the same as Amharas. TPLF leaders, in response, accused Amhara “revanchists” of orchestrating unrest in ethnically mixed Raya and Wolkait areas of Tigray. Amhara elites claim these territories were unjustly incorporated into Tigray when the federal system was created because they used to be part of the Wollo and Gondar provinces that are now Amhara. However, the federal dispensation involves drawing internal boundaries according to ethno-linguistic settlement patterns, and Tigrayans have long been the majority in these lands. These areas were captured by Amhara forces and ethnically cleansed of Tigrayans during the civil war that broke out in November 2020. Amid the Tigray war, Qemant political leaders were labeled as pro-TPLF for refusing to support the government’s war effort. Such claims were used to justify attacks in civilian areas by government security forces and Fano which were most severe from April to late September 2021. Amhara civilians were also killed and displaced.
  • 36Officials from Oromia and Amhara regions exchange blame for the incidents, indicating the increasingly volatile relations between the two regions’ security forces. In late January, violence in the two zones claimed the lives of more than a hundred people, including dozens of farmers. An official from North Shoa blamed OLA attacks against Amhara special and federal police forces for the violence, while the head of the Oromo Zone said Amhara forces began killing people they claimed to be OLA members.
  • 37The conflict in Oromia ismultifaceted, taking place both between the Oromo and Amhara communities and between supporters of the ruling party and its enemies. These two struggles are interlinked but also somewhat distinct. The OLA was previously the armed wing of the OLF until a split occurred when it signed a peace deal with Addis Abeba and agreed to disarm in May 2019. Since then, there has been active fighting, primarily in southern and western Oromia. The war in northern Ethiopia pitting the federal government, Amhara special forces and militias, and the Eritrean army against the TPLF has diverted focus away from instability in Oromia. Since a peace deal was signed on 2 November between federal and Tigray authorities, the war in Oromia has intensified. OLA rebels were previously confined to the fringes of western and southern Oromia, but the Tigray war diverted the federal government’s focus. This left a power vacuum that allowed OLA insurgents to expand their reach. Until recently, the OLA mostly conducted hit-and-run operations like kidnappings and raiding banks to raise funds, assassinating government officials and police officers, and targeting local prisons with the objective of capturing weapons and releasing their imprisoned comrades. OLA forces now control territory in western Oromia and conduct more sophisticated attacks. The government’s response has involved all sorts of abuses against communities believed to be harboring OLA rebels, including mass arrestcampaigns of Oromos, repression of legal opposition parties, extrajudicial killings of dissidents, and drone strikes in civilian areas. Federal authorities have refused to enter into negotiations with the OLA, which they have labeled as a terrorist organization. Further complicating matters, Amhara militias are now operating in Oromia with the stated objective to protect the region’s Amhara residents and have also reportedly attacked Oromo civilians. Thousands of civilians have perished at the hands of federal authorities, Oromo insurgents, and Amhara militias.
  • 38In recent months, the OLA has expanded its reach and held massive graduation ceremonies for new recruits, while the government has responded with troop reinforcements and drone strikes, and Amhara militias are widely believed to have crossed into Oromia to fight the Oromo insurgents. Amharas deny that Fano has crossed into Oromia, instead claiming their militias were trained by the Oromia government to defend their communities. The government-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reported in December 2022 that hundreds of people had been killed over the previous four months in ten of Oromia’s zones. It claimed these were deliberate attacks on civilians based on their ethnicity and political views, and confirmed that government forces, OLA, and Amhara militia were in the vicinity of the attacks. Jawar Mohammed, a prominent Oromo opposition member, asserted on 3 December that over 350 people were killed and 400,000 displaced over the course of two days in the Kiramu, Horo Guduru, Kuyu, and Wara Jarso areas of Oromia. A gruesome video began circulating on social media on 5 December showing Fano militiamen hoisting the severed heads of Oromo militants on pikes in the town of Jardega Jarte in Horo Guduru Wollega Zone.
  • 39In conducting his war against the TPLF, Prime Minister Abiy entered into an alliance with Amhara special forces and militias. Federal authorities armed these Amhara hardliners, who have since conducted attacks in Oromia. Both the Abiy regime’s alliance with Amhara extremists and their attacks against Oromos have driven up support for the OLA. Abiy’s relationship with Fano has frayed, however, since his May 2022 crackdown on their activities in Amhara.
  • 40Among the many attacks targeting Amharas, the 18 June 2022 massacre of hundreds of civilians in a village called Tole is perhaps most notable. Other prominent incidents include the murder of dozens in Guliso weredain early November 2020 and over a dozen more in a March 2021 attack in Babo Gembel wereda.
  • 41Oromia’s East Wollega Zone has been the site of intense communal violence. In October 2021, for example, Oromia’s government reported that OLA and Amhara combatants killed dozens in Haro Town of East Wollega’s Kiremu Wereda after security forces withdrew. As is always the case, the two sides accused each other while the government and national human rights commission blamed both OLA and Amhara militias for the attack in Haro. The Oromo narrative holds that Amhara militias and Fano forces are responsible for the bloodshed with assistance from the government. Oromo residents commonly believe that Amharas want to incorporate the area into Amhara in an effort to reclaim what they view as Amharas’ “ancestral lands”. Amhara forces mobilized and launched incursions into Oromia following the call by Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen for local residents of Benishangul-Gumuz’s Metekel Zone to organize and arm themselves. The National Movement of Amhara (NaMA), an Amhara nationalist opposition party, says that over the last three years thousands of Amharas have been killed and hundreds of thousands have been displaced in East Wollega. In one instance, the EHRC reported that, on 18 August 2021, OLA-affiliated gunmen killed 150 people and residents from the area subsequently killed more than 60 people in ethnic-based reprisal attacks.
  • 42Local officials claim that Amhara militants killed 214 civilians and 244 members of Oromia’s regional security forces, burned 568 homes, and stole 25,000 cattle in Kiremu wereda between 15 October and 10 December amid violence that displaced some 80,000 people. In one incident, more than 60 Oromos were reportedly massacred in western Oromia. The Amhara Association of America, an Amhara nationalist advocacy group, estimates that over 1,566 Amharas were killed in Oromia last year by OLA rebels, Oromo youth, and regional security forces.
  • 43Accusations and theories abound on both sides that federal and/or regional authorities are aligned with either the Oromo or Amhara militants. Partially corroborating such theories, Hangassa Ibrahim, a Prosperity Party member of parliament from Oromia, said on 5 July 2022 that the OLA is not responsible for the massacres across Oromia but rather another group formed by actors in the regional government. Ibrahim didn’t implicate Abiy but rather specific officials within the Oromia government. The Amhara Association of America hascalled for Abiy and Oromia President Shimels Abdisa to resign given their negligence, and has even accused them of working alongside the OLA.
  • 44During the Tole massacre, in which hundreds of Amharas were killed on 18 June 2022, the killings went on for hours and security forces were stationed miles away but did not intervene.
  • 45Amhara activists hold the ethnofederal constitution responsible for the violence and claim that Amharas are fighting to protect their community members in Oromia against OLA atrocities. Some even implicate the federal government and Oromia branch of the Prosperity Party in the massacres of Amharas. Oromo nationalists support the ethnofederal system but claim it was not properly implemented by the EPRDF or the Prosperity Party. They argue that the OLA’s struggle is being waged to assert Oromia’s autonomy and self-determination in response to centuries of oppression and subjugation of the Oromo nation at the hands of the Ethiopian empire. They also claim the attacks are primarily against Oromos by federal security forces and Amhara militias, and accuse the federal army of funding militias that conduct these heinous acts in an effort to frame the OLA and thus weaken its legitimacy among Oromos. Some allege that such accusations are cover for the Amhara regional government’s aggressive, expansionist designs on Oromia.
  • 46Etana H. Dinka defines Neftegna-Gabbar as “a system of rule where regions that violently resisted Ethiopia’s territorial conquest in the south were placed under military commanders and soldiers who battered them into submission.” Oromo nationalists depict the late nineteenth century southern expansion of Ethiopia as a process ofinternal colonization. Most Oromos were reduced to serf-like conditions, providing free labor and tax revenue. Oromo lands were divided up between officials, soldiers, and Oromo collaborators. The OLF, formed in 1973, used grievances caused by this history of economic, political, and cultural marginalization of Oromos to garner support. Despite some violence between the two communities—including when Oromo people attacked Amhara “settlers” who were moved to the region by Menelik II and given land as part of his plan to consolidate power and by the Derg in the 1980s in response to the northern famine—the two communities nonetheless co-existed mostly peacefully until violence ramped up in recent years. The OLF fought the Derg regime until it was overthrown in 1991 and, soon after falling out with the TPLF-led EPRDF, was exiled from Ethiopia and continued engaging in a low-level insurgency. A wave of protests in Oromia began in 2014 that spread to Amhara and eventually took down the EPRDF regime. The OLA was the OLF’s armed wing until 2018 when a split emerged after the OLF’s political leaders signed a peace deal with the Abiy administration. Under the deal, the OLF would be repatriated into Ethiopian politics and the OLA would be disarmed. OLA leaders decided to continue fighting the Abiy regime, which they accuse of betraying Oromos, and have been accused of targeting Amhara civilians, charges their leaders deny. Civil unrest in the wake of the assassination of an influential Oromo musician, Hachalu Hundessa, was met by a brutal crackdown that only increased the OLA’s legitimacy as the champion of Oromo autonomy, causing its ranks to swell. The circumstances of each incident are murky and subject to polarized narratives, a situation that is worsened by the federal government’s blocking of communications systems in the region and refusal to allow independent investigations.
  • 47Oromos are the most populous ethnic group in Ethiopia but, throughout the country’s history, have been politically, economically, and culturally marginalized, while—prior to the period of EPRDF rule from 1991 to 2018 when Tigrayans maintained outsized power at all levels of the state—Amharas historically made up the majority of Ethiopia’s ruling class. Many Oromos rejoiced when Abiy became the first Oromo leader of the country, but were soon dismayed as, mirroring the EPRDF, he launched a brutal crackdown on the protesters. Grievances raised by Oromo protesters include a lack of political representation, economic marginalization, border disputes with Amhara, allegations of land grabs, and the status of Addis Abeba, a charter city situated within Oromia that, according to Oromo nationalists, is indigenous territory belonging exclusively to Oromos. Oromia borders nine of Ethiopia’s ten other regions and so is particularly subject to border disputes and related armed clashes. 
  • 48Some critics of the constitution, such as academic Messay Kebede, see it as enshrining a system of division that could, in the words of Prince Asfa-Wossen Asserate, prompt the country to descend “bit by bit into civil war.”
  • 49Some Amharas accuse regional authorities of devising a nefarious policy to lessen diversity within Oromia by using the OLA insurgency as a pretext to push other communities out and create a homogenized Oromia. They speculate that the reason behind the attacks in the region is a driving ideology of a homogenized Oroma in which many of the ‘others’ are pushed out. Though impossible to confirm or deny, such claims are ubiquitous among Amharas on social media.
  • 50Although Abiy came to power on the back of the alliance between Oromo and Amhara protesters, his support in Oromia soon eroded after he seemingly took a side against Oromo nationalism and in favor of pan-Ethiopianism. Tensions between Oromos and Amharas reflect this age-old ideological fissure within the Ethiopian body politic. With the opposition shut out of decision-making processes, a perception began to emerge among Oromos that Abiy planned to impose a centralizing, unitarist, and homogenizing governance system, in accordance with the desires of Amhara elites. A major fissure in Abiy’s support in Oromia opened up in the wake of the state crackdown amid the protestsfollowing the assassination of Hachalu Hundessa. Amid the northern war, the OLA formed a strategic alliance with the TPLF in its fight against the federal and regional governments. This conflict has taken place alongside and, at times, in conjunction with persistent and devastating intercommunal violence between Amharas and Oromos.
  • 51Many Oromos believe the goal of protecting Amharas in Oromia is used as a smokescreen by Fano militants to justify their desire to redraw Ethiopia’s internal boundaries, including by incorporating parts of Oromia into Amhara. Such fears grew after federal authorities aligned with Amhara militants in waging war in Tigray and allowed them to unconstitutionally annex parts of Tigray by force and proceed to ethnically cleanse these lands of Tigrayans. Justifying such fears among Oromos, Tewodrose Tirfe, Chairman of the Amhara Association of America, recently called for the annexation of parts of Oromia into Amhara as a solution to attacks against minority Amharas in Oromia.
  • 52The Benishangul nation used to be called the Berta until the regional council approved an official name change last March.
  • 53There are three administrative zones in the region: Assosa is largely home to the Benishangul, Metekel is inhabited mainly by the Gumuz and Shinasha, and Kamashi is mainly home to the Gumuz. Meanwhile, Mao and Komo communities mostly reside in the Togo special wereda.
  • 54Legally speaking, no Ethiopian citizen can be prevented from being a candidate in regional elections based on their ethnicity. If any regional law contained such a provision, it would be a direct violation of the federal constitution. In the past, the lack of persons with non-indigenous identities in regional political institutions was due to EPRDF hegemony and the selection of indigenous candidates by the regional EPRDF-affiliated ruling party, which did select a few non-indigenous candidates for representation in the regional parliament. As a result, non-indigenous candidates received token representation in the regional parliament. The same was true of the Gambella region. Further research is required to determine whether these practices are being perpetuated by the Prosperity Party. If political pluralism increased, it would be perfectly possible that non-indigenous communities would get more state councilors. However, the potential of being politically disempowered in “their” region worries the indigenous communities and induces them to engage in illegal practices targeting non-indigenous communities.
  • 55This distinction between “natives” and “settlers” is only implicit in the federal constitution, but is explicitly stated in some of the regional constitutions. Echoing the federal constitution, Benishangul-Gumuz’s constitution, adopted in 1996 and amended in 2002, begins with the preamble, “We, the nationalities and peoples of the region.”. This constitution is unique in how explicitly it distinguishes between indigenous groups and not citizen residents. The regional constitution’s second article explicitly names the five nations and nationalities as “owners” of the region, something that not even Gambella’s constitution does, although its Article 47 lists “founding members of the regional state.” The privileges enjoyed by the five indigenous groups mainly involve informal practices guided by ethnic-based local governments and an indigenous-led regional administration. By exerting self-rule at the local level, these groups dominate political affairs of the region without significant interference from opposing non-indigenous communities. This arrangement has bred dissatisfaction among non-indigenous residents pertaining to their lack of representation and perceived violations of their constitutional rights, leading to calls for proportional representation.
  • 56One driving force of the conflict in Benishangul-Gumuz has been greater Amhara assertiveness over territories in Benishangul-Gumuz and elsewhere. Amhara elites, intellectuals, and activists often portray the ethnofederal system as anti-Amhara by design by the TPLF. While claiming to be against this system, they nonetheless make ethno-nationalist claims to various territories. In response to such threats, and to protect their rights as indigenous inhabitants under the regional constitution, the Gumuz and other “owner” groups have carried out attacks on so-called outsiders.
  • 57Benishangul-Gumuz has been plagued by low-intensity conflict since the early 1990s which has worsened since 2018. At first, the fighting was primarily between Gumuz and Amhara, was disorganized, involved close-contact weapons like arrows and knives, and took place mainly in rural areas. Calls by Amhara nationalist parties to incorporate Metekel into Amhara inflamed the situation. By August 2020, a new phase of large-scale and organized violence with a wider reach had emerged, spearheaded by a powerful Gumuz militia that established cross-border links with Sudan. Whereas Amhara people were the primary target of attacks in 2019, organized Gumuz militia subsequently began engaging in large-scale violence and targeting all people in Metekel deemed to have light skin. This wider group of targets for indiscriminate attacks and displacement includes members of the indigenous Shinasha community.
  • 58These tensions have produced an “endless string of gruesome, ethnically targeted massacres.” Brutal and recurrent attacks have taken place mostly in the Metekel and Kamashi zones, although Assosa has also been affected. In the most serious incident, more than 200 civilians—mostly Shinasha but also Amharas and Oromos—were slaughtered on 23 December 2020 by Gumuz gunmen in a village called Bakuji in Metekel Zone’s Bulen Wereda. Prime Minister Abiy responded the next day by deploying federal troops. The military subsequently killed 42 armed men accused of attacking the village. This was followed by the killing of over 80 people in a place called Daleti in Metekel Zone. The fighting caused over 100,000 mostly Amhara and Agew people to flee their homes. Government officials lobbed unsubstantiated accusations at the TPLF and foreign powers, meaning Egypt and Sudan, of orchestrating attacks by Gumuz rebels to undermine the Prosperity Party and disrupt GERD’s construction, respectively. Deadly violence thatflared up between Oromo and Gumuz elements in Kamashi Zone in late 2018 has continued sporadically ever since. This led to the closure of the government offices in the area for over six months. Kamashi Zone and Mao-Komo Special Wereda were also cut off from Assosa during that time. The government then began controlling the zone from a federal command post. Meanwhile, violence in Assosa Zone mainly pits the Benishangul against Amhara and Oromo who are competing over power, land, and resources. Indigenous elites in Assosa are concerned over the intensification of incursions by Amhara and Oromo militants including OLA fighters.
  • 59The indigenous groups see the region’s Amhara residents as a particular threat given the perception of their dominance within the economy, control of fertile land, and irredentist threats. They fear being politically, socially, and economically dominated by Amhara and Oromo communities which have strong influence at the national level. The sphere of influence exerted by indigenous groups is limited to their local land and community, and so their leaders cling to this set-up based on fears that the legacy of marginalization and oppression will return in earnest. Some frame it as a struggle to defend against the assimilating efforts of culturally dominant peoples. The region’s non-indigenous people, most vocal among them the Amhara, claim to be treated as second-class citizens under this system and argue that the status quo prevents them from living as equal citizens. Such beliefs are somewhat overblown, as the investment, service, trade, and agricultural sectors are dominated by non-indigenous people.
  • 60Abiy has relied extensively on Amhara special forces and Fano militias in the war in Tigray, and, to a lesser extent, in Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz as well. This largely explains why he’s been so lenient towards irredentist claims by Amhara elites on parts of Tigray, Oromia, and Benishangul-Gumuz. The first signs of this alliance fraying came when, in May 2022, federal authorities initiated a crackdown in Amhara during which some 4,000 people were arrested, including Fano militiamen and Amhara nationalist journalists.
  • 61It’s widely believed that some local officials have given logistical and intelligence support to Gumuz rebels. Regional special forces and police officers allegedly joined the rebel groups in some areas and provided them with weapons.
  • 62According to one study, the actors implicated in violating Amhara rights are titular nationalities, public officials, police, and agricultural investors in Benishangul-Gumuz. The violations include ethnic attacks and evictions.
  • 63The federal constitution protectsresident communities’ political rights and, much like the regional constitution, does not mandate discrimination in land allocation. However, Benishangul-Gumuz’s constitution does describe “indigenous” groups as “owners” (balabet) and promises them support, while still recognizing the presence of others. The 2010 regional land proclamation equally stated that any peasant residing in the region has the right to land. In practice, though, the regional government has considered “non-natives” who did not move to Benishangul-Gumuz through official resettlement programs as essentially illegal. These provisions have thus been used to justify the evictions of Amhara and other Ethiopians.
  • 64Benishangul activists claim that indigenous people have historically been denied access to ancestral land, which has been settled and farmed by outsiders, and that Ethiopia’s most powerful groups, the Amhara and Oromo, have always sought to control these lands. Many Tigrayans also acquired large agricultural investments over the years, especially in Metekel, based on their proximity to the TPLF and its dominant role within the EPRDF. Since the late 2000s, federal authorities haveidentified the lowlands of Benishangul-Gumuz as a suitable area for large-scale agricultural investment. Contradicting the land-use patterns of the Gumuz, authorities have tended to consider any non-farmed land as “free land”. While the Agriculture Ministry set a target to transfer 691,000 hectares to investors, without specifying a timeframe, figures from the regional land administration show that 330,000 hectares had been leased by 2018 but only 11,500 hectares were actually being cultivated. After Abiy came to power in 2018, the TPLF’s power in Benishangul-Gumuz declined greatly and many Tigrayan investors have been arrested or had their licenses taken away. Large-scale land acquisitions by both local and foreign investors have nonetheless continued to be authorized by federal authorities and have increasingly pushed Gumuz off the land.
  • 65Benishangul-Gumuz was only formally incorporated into the Ethiopian empire in the late nineteenth century under the terms of a 1902 treaty signed by Emperor Menelik II with Great Britain, which ruled Sudan at the time. For three centuries, its indigenous groups were prey to slave raiding by more powerful neighbors, notably the Sudanese to the west, highland Ethiopians to the northeast, and Oromos to the south. Many of these so-called outsiders arrived in the region after being resettled in the 1980s by the Derg regime in response to drought and famine in the northern highlands. It was only under the 1995 constitution that inhabitants of the region were, at least nominally, granted a degree of autonomy, had their leaders drawn from local elites, and had their languages and cultures protected. More recently, there has been an influx of migration from the densely populated highlands looking to acquire land for commercial plantations. This phenomenon has led to Gumuz being pushed out by Amharas and Agews in Metekel and Oromos of Wollega in southern Benishangul-Gumuz. The scramble to control land in the region is intensified by the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in Metekel close to the border with Sudan.
  • 66In 2018, massacres of Gumuz people in Metekel by Amhara gunmen claimed hundreds of lives. One notable attack in May 2019 saw over 200 Gumuz and Shinasha killed, reportedly by Amhara militias following clashes along the disputed border between Amhara and Benishangul-Gumuz. A number of horrific videos have also emerged online of mobs beating Gumuz civilians to death. Although the term ethnic cleansing is frequently invoked by Amharas, attacks are perpetrated by and against all sides, a reality that has fed into a cycle of retaliatory killings.
  • 67Although Metekel Zone was part of Gojjam Kifle Hager before the adoption of multinational federalism in the early 1990s, it was never part of Amhara as this region did not yet exist. Calls to incorporate Metekel into Amhara were spear-headed by the Yemetekel Asmelash Committee. Calls to bring Metekel ‘back’ to their region contributed to hundreds of Gumuz people being killed in Jawi and Dangur weredas by armed groups from Amhara in 2019.
  • 68Moves by the Amhara government are seemingly driven by such economic considerations and a notion of historical ownership. Farmers and businessmen from the Amhara region moving to the area in recent years have acquired fertile land, prompting some Gumuz to feel threatened that their constitutional rights are being eroded. Metekel Zone’s strategic and economic significance has increased given the construction of the GERD, which began in 2011. Even transport vehicles heading to the GERD construction site being escorted by military personnel have been subject to attacks by insurgents. Part of the security response to militia attacks has been to close major roads.
  • 69The Gumuz in particular feel threatened by the designs of Amhara elites on Metekel. Such grievances explain why Gumuz and other indigenous groups have mobilized and targeted all so-called light skinned people, meaning the Shinasha, Amhara, Oromo, and Agew. Amhara regional officials have, in turn, threatened to invade the area, ostensibly to protect Amhara civilians. The Amhara region’s involvement in the politics of Benishangul-Gumuz has further ignited inter-ethnic conflict. One could argue the federal government is also partly responsible for the violence because it has failed to maintain the constitutional order by allowing Benishangul-Gumuz’s territorial integrity to be questioned.
  • 70Violence erupted in 2018 between Oromos and Gumuz over land and resources in Kamashi, where there are gold deposits, causing more than 150,000 Oromos to flee their homes and 57,000 mostly indigenous Benishangul-Gumuz people to shelter in camps in Kamashi and Oda zones. Thereafter, security concerns prevented almost all Gumuz people from venturing into Oromia. The conflict occurred after the OLA was accused of kidnapping and killing Gumuz and Benishangul officials, actions that prompted retaliatory measures by Gumuz people. Previously, medium-scale conflicts erupted occasionally in Kamashi Zone, including in 2007, 2009, and 2011 between Gumuz and highland populations, mainly the Oromo. Causes of the unrest include tensions over land ownership and investment that began heating up in the early 2010s and were sparked by the allocation of large estates to investors. Mehdi Labzae has referred to the causes of violence as a “cocktail of disagreements over administrative power, land, ethnicity, resettlement, investment, development, federalism, and borders, all fueled by gossip and conjecture.”
  • 71Regional authorities have signeddeals with armed groups in the region, most notably the Gumuz People’s Democratic Movement (GPDM), but the agreements do not appear to have stopped the violence or the sense of mistrust among different communities that fuel the clashes. An agreement signed on 18 May 2021 between the regional government and the leaders of the militias was heavily criticized for trying to appease the militias by sharing power with them at the wereda, zonal, and regional levels, creating job opportunities, offeringaccess to financial support services, and giving urban and rural land to local militiamen.
  • 72The number of regional states recently increased from nine to eleven, with the creation of Sidama in 2020 and South West in 2021, and another referendum to carve a third state out of Southern Nations is in the pipeline.
  • 73As Mamdani writes, no matter the number of regions or nationality zones, “the fiction of an ethnic homeland creates endless minorities.” Ian Spears has made a similar argument about Rwanda, stating that any proposal to create separate Hutu and Tutsi states as a solution to ethnic conflict must confront the reality that these two populations live side-by-side and are inter-mixed. Attempts to redraw borders along ethnic lines would create new minorities within the majority Hutu and Tutsi states. Chaim Kaufmann has, rather controversially, argued that the solution to this problem is to separate the two populations and give them each a homeland. While Kaufmann is certainly not advocating for ethnic cleansing, one wonders how peoples can be separated peacefully if their constituents don’t agree to this plan.
  • 74Doing so might ultimately lead to fewer territorial claims, because the desire to create new regional state or sub-state units would be less pressing.
  • 75This would involve granting autonomous decision-making to ethnically, linguistically, or culturally defined national groups. Regardless of their place of residence, all members of an identity-based group would form a unified constituency. So, for instance, you could have an Afaan Oromoo speaking school without a surrounding Oromo administration.
  • 76A minority law has not yet been formally considered. The federal House of People’s Representatives has the mandate to enact such a law, which would then be binding across the country. Such a law would be particularly useful for non-territorially empowered or non-indigenous communities and could be based on international minority protection standards, some of which are legally binding for Ethiopia, and provide for guaranteed political representation and effective participation of minorities. The idea is that, through better representation and participation, non-indigenous minorities would be in a better position to defend their interests—at least in theory. The problem is that most minority rights issues in Ethiopia stem from unconstitutional practices that may be encouraged by the regional constitutions but mostly relate to informal political arrangements and practices.
  • 77One perspective holds that, if there were stronger rule of law, then minority communities—even those defined as being non-indigenous within a certain regional state—would be better protected.
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