By Daniel Teferra (PhD)*

It is common to hear the term democracy being easily thrown about by everyone. But democracy is a difficult and endless task. The British took six hundred years to learn it. The French tried to do it all at once in the French Revolution and lost everything, ending with a dictator. America’s democratic institutions were shaped by messy compromises, such as, central versus local power, for example. The big fights in America are over, but one can still see the lingering federal-local debate between the Republican and Democratic parties. On the other hand, in Ethiopia, political compromise is unknown. But, compromise is necessary if the political elites want to democratize the Ethiopian State and achieve economic development.

One can see Ethiopia’s politicians divided into two broad camps. One group (the unity group), centered on the Tigray/Amhara elite, stresses national unity, based on Ethiopia’s past. The other (ethnic nationalist group), centered on the non-Tigray/Amhara elite, stresses self-determination and a more centrifugal tendency. Both camps are needed equally for democratization of the Ethiopian State. There are three fundamental issues that require compromises for this to happen.

First is the issue of ethnic-based administrative system (kilil).  This is of major concern to the unity camp because it fears rightly that kilil will breakup Ethiopia into isolated peoples who will eventually fight among themselves. On the other hand, the ethnic nationalist group realizes that the Tigray/Amhara elite do not want to embrace democracy because they are accustomed to benefiting monopolistically from the institutions, constituted by the Ethiopian State. Consequently, this camp finds its only hope for justice in national self-determination.

However, the principle of self-determination cannot be an answer to this problem. It is a simplistic argument. For instance, the early Russian Communists, Lenin included, agitated for the right of nationalities to self-determination and secession in Czarist Russia. But immediately after the October Revolution, the urgent need to reconsolidate the Russian Empire outweighed all other considerations. Consequently, ethnic nationalism in Communist Russia was suppressed including genuine nationalisms in the Muslim borderlands. The TPLF applied the self-determination principle in the same fashion.   It agitated for the right to self-determination and secession in Mengistu Hailemariam’s Ethiopia, but rejected it in Woyane’s Ethiopia. Instead, it introduced the kilil system—a cruel formula for more sorrow and civil war.

The ethnic nationalist camp views kilil as the right step in the direction of self-determination and secession. Therefore, it supports the system. But kilil has a problem of its own. In the first place, kilil does not have past history in Ethiopia. For example, there is no an Amhara state-nation. There are only Amhara states (regions), such as, Gondar, Gojjam, Shoa and Wallo (an Oromo/Amhara fusion). Likewise, there is no an Oromo state-nation. There are only Oromo states, such as, Wellega, Illubabor Arsi and Bale. There is no a Sidama state-nation, but only Sidama states such as Sidamo, Gamu Goffa and Kaffa. There is no a Muslim-state nation, but Muslim Sultanates such as Harar (Adare/Oromo/Somali fusion) and Ausa. None of these regions is a single-ethnic state; not even Tigray.  Tigray includes, for instance, the Raya or Azebo—which is an Oromo/ Tigray fusion.

Prior to the Italian occupation in 1936, Ethiopia’s administrative regions were based on an independent historical formation (see map 1 below).

Map 1


Ethnic-based division was first introduced by the Italians in 1936 when they created Italian East Africa (see map 2).  Upon independence in 1941, Ethiopia returned to its own historical formation (see map 3).  In 1991, the ethnic-based administrative division was reintroduced by the Woyane regime (see map 4).

Historically, ethnic and religious disparities as well as regional rivalries have existed in Ethiopia. These problems can be avoided, in the first place, if the rights of the individual are guaranteed and strengthened. Secondly, a federal structure of government, with a check and balance system at all levels, can address the urgent need for regional autonomy. A federal structure of government can make government accountable to the people.

The second issue is a collective identity for a united Ethiopian nation. This is a legitimate concern raised by the ethnic nationalist group. Ethiopia is a state-nation, in which national consciousness developed, primarily, within the Christian, Tigray/Amhara culture. There is a general feeling of unity and national pride in Ethiopia, unknown to the rest of Africa. However, Ethiopian national unity can be broadened and popularized. Ethiopia is endowed with many cultures and languages. If treated equally, they can strengthen national unity.

Map 2


For instance, Amharinya is spoken throughout Ethiopia. It is as such a unifying force.  It is the language of commercial and public life.  The other languages, such as, Orominya (afan-Oromo), Sidaminya, Wolaminya, Kaffinya, Somalinya, Tigrinya, Guraginya, Afarinya and so and so forth can be guaranteed equal status by the State as official languages of Ethiopia. South Africa, for example, has 11 official languages. With no common language of its own, South Africa has to borrow the English language as the language of commercial and public life. Ethiopia, on the other hand, has its own common language, Amharinya, which has long served well as the official language of commercial and public life.

The issue of collective identity is not just diversity, but equal treatment of all languages, cultures and religions in Ethiopia.  In other words, the goal has to be the full development of all individuals, groups and interests of the society rather than just one person, group or religion.

The third important issue is land and economy. The unity group sees the land question as an economic issue, and more or less supports land privatization. The ethnic nationalist group, on the other hand, sees the land question both as an economic and political issue. It is a sensitive issue for the ethnic nationalist camp because of the bad experience of land alienation that took place in the south following the Shoan expansion in the late nineteenth century. As a result, this group argues that land privatization will bring back landlessness to the region because people from the north will buy all the land. It asserts that kilil will prevent such a problem from happening again.

Map 3


But Kilil cannot prevent landlessness; it could, in fact, worsen it. It cannot stop local governments from withdrawing use-rights from the peasantry and leasing the land to domestic and foreign entrepreneurs. Only land privatization can provide the peasantry security of tenure and political power.

Most of Ethiopia’s fertile, agricultural lands are located in the south, but they are not developed. The north has surplus labor, but land is limited. The far northern region of the country is susceptible to adverse climatic conditions and recurrent famines. Ethiopia is a food deficit country and lives off outside assistance.  The threat of famine is therefore always there.

Map 4


It is essential for the country to transform its agricultural sector first.  The land question is at the heart of all this. Thus, it is necessary to privatize land to the peasantry through a genuine land reform program, and thereby liquidate the subsistence system and create owner farmers. The government can sell the land on credit to the peasantry giving priority to those who are already farming the land. The government should make interest-free loans available, with sufficient time to pay back the mortgages, to buy land and build homes. To ward off landlessness and profiteering, the government should impose term limits on resale of land, especially, by new owners. All past and current grievances pertaining to illegal land expropriation should be addressed properly.

None of these will be possible unless the State is democratized and the people are united. Ethiopia’s politicians have two choices. One is that they can continue to capitalize on divisive internecine struggles for state power and destroy the country further. But there is a more sensible route than that. They can democratize the State by compromises on the three fundamental issues of ethnic division (kilil), collective national unity and land privatization. Such a struggle will undoubtedly unite the people and bring about lasting peace and development for all.

After the end of the Cold War, incentives have emerged that could force compromises among Ethiopia’s politicians.  In the first place, no single party can win by itself.  Secondly, a one-party rule (dictatorship) is no longer acceptable in Ethiopia given the bad experiences of the last 40 years. Dictatorship is facing serious challenges in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa. Thirdly, globalization, in all its forms, has raised the level of awareness for freedom and democracy, especially, among the younger generation in Ethiopia. Fourthly, new pro-democracy parties are for the first time making their presence felt in Ethiopian politics. All these are positive developments. As these forces continue to get a wider segment of the population behind them, the State could be democratized and the country will finally be on the path to peace and prosperity.

*Emeritus Professor of Economics at FSU. Professor Teferra is still active. He lectures and writes on development issues at UW-Whitewater,