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Abiy Ahmed and Ethiopia's ethno-natonalism

Ludger Schadomsky
November 23, 2019

As more and more ethnic groups in Ethiopia want regional autonomy, DW’s Ludger Schadomsky questions whether Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed will be able hold the country together.

Sidama men queuing to vote on an own federal state in a 20 November 2019 referendum in Ethiopia
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Tewelde

The Sidama referendum's preliminary results don't come as as a surprise. The overwhelming majority of the 2.3 million registered voters have backed autonomy for the ethnic Sidama people — a first step towards establishing Ethiopia's 10th semi-autonomous state.

This will give the Sidamas an important voice in Ethiopian politics when it comes to matters like taxes, education, security and legislation. But it will also have a domino effect. Out of Ethiopia's 80 ethnic groups, over 10 other groups have already indicated their intention to follow the Sidama example and demand their own state, as is their constitutional right. 


The referendum is only one of two historical events that occurred in Ethiopia in the past week. Last weekend, coalition members of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), that has ruled Ethiopia since 1991, renamed it the Ethiopian Prosperity Party (EPP), turning the heterogenous coalition into a national unity party. 

Ludger Schadomsky
Ludger Schadomsky is head of DW's Amharic desk

Whether the EPP will be able to bring the prosperity that its name suggests to the 105 million Ethiopian people, remains to be seen. What is beyond any doubt, is that the merger, spurred on by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed indicates a turning point: the revolutionary democracy, which has its roots in Cold War era Albanian-Marxism and has been propagated by Ethiopia's government for over a quarter of a century, will be discarded once and for all.

Ethiopia's new way ahead is laid out in the "Medemer" which translates to synergy – a political, economic and social roadmap. The booklet printed over one million times and available for the equivalent of €9 ($9.95) at kiosks. 

Symptoms of Balkanization

The two developments almost seem contrary. While centrifugal forces are pulling at the seams of the federal state, the reform eager premier is trying to redefine the delicately developed and tested balance of power of the multiethnic state. The outcome of this experiment is uncertain and murmurs of a possible Balkanization are making the rounds.

Sidama people celebrating Fichee-Chambalaalla, a new year festival
The Sidama make up around four percent of Ethiopia's population of some 100 millionImage: DW/S. Wegayehu

For Ethiopia this is the litmus test ahead of the May 2020 elections, during which Abiy hopes to garner the needed support for his reforms. In the light of the ugly side of the ethno nationalism, which has shown itself repeatedly in the past months and taken 80 lives over the past weekend, observers of the developments are worried. While Abiy is preaching "Synergy," his adversaries are appealing to lowly, ethno-nationalistic interests.

Forwarning to Africa

While Ethiopia is trying to redraw its political landscape, the matter goes beyond its borders. The African Union, which has its seat in Ethiopia's captial Addis Ababa, is also debating matters of ethno-centrism, nationalism and whether the continental unity should be the ultimate goal. Similarly to Ethiopia's developments, the outcome of the discourse remains to be seen.