The Tale of Two Ideologies: Federalism and Unitarism in Ethiopia

Federalism and Unitarism in Ethiopia
  • Ethiopian politics is essentially a battleground between these two opposing political ideologies: ‘federalist’ vs. ‘unitarist’ regimes. Both ideologies are highly debated and often used to justify political biases and moral superiority. Typically, hegemonic groups(ethnic and cultural Amhara) support unitarist ideologies, while minorities and marginalized groups (Oromo, Tigrayan, Somali, etc.) support federalist ideologies.
  • Federalist forces are committed to the right to self-determination of nations and nationalities that make up Ethiopia. Unitarist forces envision an assimilationist and centralized system of government.
  • The war on Tigray and the ongoing genocidal campaign is greatly being justified, rationalized, and defended by those who want to impose unitarist ideologies on the country.
  • Federalism is a political system in which political power is divided between the central government (called the federal government) and the federating units (often called regions or states). Sovereignty is divided, often constitutionally, between the states and the federal government.
  • Both the national government and the states have political, economic and cultural autonomy. They have separate legislative, executive, and judicial bodies.
  • Supporters of the Ethiopian federal system view multinational federalism as the only plausible option to saving the Ethiopian state from the risk of disintegration. Given the extreme diversity of the Ethiopian state and its imperial history, they see multinational federalism as the only just and fair form of association between the various groups.
  • Multinational federalism is often a last resort for keeping together polarized regions.
  • Unitarism is a political theory that advocates for a unified and centralized system of government.
  • Supporters of this ideology claim that federalism creates unnecessary division among different groups in the country and undermines Ethiopia’s national identity and creates social disharmony. Thus, this group typically supports a unitary state with a centralized system of government that promotes a single Ethiopian identity. They use a seemingly innocent notion of ‘national unity’ to impose an assimilationist and homogenizing ideology on Ethiopia’s cultural diversity.
  • The unitary camp believes that the only way to save ‘unitarist’ ideologies are through the demolition of the current federal system. This requires the assimilation of other groups into the dominant “Ethiopian” culture and identity. In this case, the Amharic language and Amhara culture have been synonymous with “Ethiopian” identity.
Problems with supporting a ‘unitarist’ ideology in Ethiopia
  • Those who support a unitarist Ethiopian state ignore Ethiopia’s imperial origin and the historic marginalization and subordination of various nations and nationalities in Ethiopia based on their ethnic identity.
  • Prior to the federal system, Ethiopia was ruled by imperial governments and later a communist government.
  • The borders of Ethiopia have evolved over the years. Ethiopia’s present-day borders were formed by Emperor Menilik II (ethinic Amhara) during his rule (1889-1913) and consist of diverse groups that do not share language or culture with the Amhara group.
  • The unitarist ideology often defines “Ethiopianism” as an identity constituted of the Amharic language, Amhara culture, Orthodox Christianity, and allegiance to the Solomonic dynasty. As a result, minority/marginalized groups had endured forced assimilation into the dominant culture and identity throughout the years.
  • This clearly did not sit well with minority/marginalized groups in Ethiopia and triggered a wave of ethno-national liberation movements that fought previous imperial and centralist governments prior to 1991.
Federalism in Ethiopia Today
  • Current day Ethiopia has been haunted by die-hard fans of unitarist or centralist ideologies. The unelected Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, came to power in 2018. He was nominated by his party, the EPRDF, in order to help with the transition of power until the next election, which was scheduled for August 2020.
  • Instead, Ahmed took the role of an elected official who is working to implement unitarist political agendas. One major political agenda he has pushed forward is a new unitarist political party (Prosperity Party) that aims to dismantle the federal system in an exchange for a centralized government.
War on Tigray
  • Although some other factors are at play, the differences in ideologies between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)and Abiy Ahmed and his Amhara base are at the core of the conflict.
  • The TPLF rejected unelected PM Ahmed’s newly formed Prosperity Party to voice their condemnation for a centralist system.
  • The federal system is vital to the TPLF, an elected party from Tigray, and other minority or previously marginalized ethnic groups in Ethiopia. The TPLF helped organize the current federal system thathad been enforced since 1995.
  • Returning to a unitarist or centralist system denies the oppressive relationship that led to the wars of liberation and the formation of the 1994 Constitution. It ignores the complexity behind the foundation of the Ethiopian state.
  • Thus, the Tigray Government implemented the right to self-determination granted by the constitution in Tigray’s 2020 regional election, a decision that has been denounced by Abiy Ahmed Ali.
The Future of the Ethiopian Federal State
  • Ethiopia’s federal system is not without faults; however, it has brought a certain level of stability and development to Ethiopia in the past three decades. It is now being challenged by a unilateralist leader Abiy Ahmed who is willing to go to any length to dismantle the federal system.
  • To ensure the protection of each state’s sovereignty, Article 39of Ethiopia’s constitution states: “Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession.”
  • With a unilateralist leader who is willing to risk going to war to eliminate the federal system and with several marginalized and minority groups who are willing to fight forced assimilation and protect their rights to self determination, Ethiopia is at the cusp of disintegration.


  • resident-wants-change-ruling-coalition-whos-getting-left-out/