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Diversity in Ethiopia: A historical overview of political challenges

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Abebaw Y. Adamu
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The International Journal of

Community Diversity


Diversity in Ethiopia
A Historical Overview of Political Challenges

First published in 2013 in Champaign, Illinois, USA

by Common Ground Publishing
University of Illinois Research Park
2001 South First St, Suite 202
Champaign, IL 61820 USA

ISSN: 2327-0004

© 2013 (individual papers), the author(s)

© 2013 (selection and editorial matter) Common Ground

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The International Journal of Community Diversity is a peer-reviewed scholarly journal.

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Diversity in Ethiopia: A Historical Overview of
Political Challenges
Abebaw Y. Adamu, Tampere University, Tampere, Finland

Abstract: The focus of this paper is on the political challenges of diversity in Ethiopia. It discusses the ethnic, linguistic
and religious diversity, which are significant distinguishing features of the country. In Ethiopia, for decades, diversity-
related issues such as the right and equality of ethnic and religious groups have been the historic and prevalent questions
of Ethiopian society. With the intention of better understanding the political challenges of diversity in Ethiopia, the
discussion focuses on issues of diversity in the course of the history of modern Ethiopia. In relation to issues of diversity,
to date, Ethiopia has exercised two broad ideologies of state policy. The first state policy was a unitary system of
government which was used until the downfall of the Derg regime in 1991. There were two phases of this system. In the
first phase (until the overthrown of the imperial regime), the policy attempted to bring unity without due recognition of
diversity, and resulted in hegemony and suppression. In the second phase (during the Derg regime), the policy
recognized ethnic and religious equality and linguistic diversity but failed to succeed. The second state policy is a federal
system of government that has been used since 1991. It emphasizes and promotes diversity without balancing with unity,
and this potentially threatens national unity and leads to tension, conflict and disintegration. So far, Ethiopia has failed
to properly deal with issues of diversity but is striving to address by maintaining a delicate balance between unity and

Keywords: Diversity, Ethiopia, Ethnicity, Language, Religion, Political Challenge


H uman diversity is a salient and challenging issue in most countries. The term “diversity”
has become one of the most frequently used words in social sciences. However, there is
no single way to define diversity. Finding an agreed upon definition of diversity is rather
challenging. Literally, diversity is a state of being diverse. In some studies diversity refers to
“differences between individuals on any attribute that may lead to the perception that another
person is different from the self” (Van Knippenberg, De Dreu, & Homan, 2004, p. 1008), or as a
variation that exists within and across groups on the basis of race, ethnicity, language, religion,
gender, sexual orientation, and social status (Banks et al., 2005). In general terms, diversity can
be broadly conceived as all the ways in which people are different. This includes both visible and
invisible differences that exist between people both at individual and group level.
Ethnic and linguistic diversity were common features of most African countries even before
the arrival of European colonizers. Nevertheless, European colonization influenced the ethnic,
religious and linguistic diversity of most African countries. Many African countries have culture,
identity, and ethnic boundaries that resulted from European colonialism and their ‘divide and
rule’ policy (Van der Beken, 2008). Many of Africa’s colonial boundaries were drawn at the
infamous Berlin Conference, 1884-85. In this conference, European colonizers agreed to avoid a
potential armed conflict in their struggle for compelling motives for conquest which includes
natural resource, strategic advantage, market, and national glory (Keim, 1995). Most political
boundaries, which were drawn between and within the European colonial claims, became the
border of African countries at the time of their independence.
The politically and economically motivated conquest (Sheldon, 1995) and border
demarcation by European colonizers divided ethnic groups that had lived together, merged ethnic
groups that had never lived together, and even created new ethnic groups that had never existed.
European colonizers imposed their languages on their colonies in Africa, despite the fact that
Africans have several indigenous languages. Consequently, European languages such as English,
French, and Portuguese became official or national languages of former European colonies.

The International Journal of Community Diversity

Volume 12, 2013,, ISSN: 2327-0004
© Common Ground, Abebaw Y. Adamu, All Rights Reserved

Although there was Christianity in some African countries such as Ethiopia and Egypt, it was
introduced and spread out in most African countries during the European colonial period through
European Christian missionaries who had converted millions of native Africans to Christianity.
Unlike most African countries, the diversity in Ethiopia is not influenced by the colonial
imperialist design (Van der Beken, 2008), because Ethiopia is one of the two African countries
(the other is Liberia) that retain their sovereignty during the colonial era. Unlike most western
countries, the diversity in Ethiopia is not also influenced by international migration, because
Ethiopia is one of the poorest African countries that hardly attract international immigrants. The
arrival of Europeans to Ethiopia, however, had contributed to increased religious diversity.
Christianity was introduced in Ethiopia in the early fourth century, while Islam was in the
seventh. Orthodox Christianity was the only Christian faith that existed in Ethiopia before the
arrival of Europeans. Later, in the 16th century, when the strong Muslim army from Eastern
Ethiopia led by Imam Ahmed (also known as Gragn Ahmed) destroyed many churches and
threatened the complete destruction of Ethiopian Christendom, Emperor Lebna Dengel requested
help from Portuguese to combat with Gragn Ahmed. Following the arrival of Portuguese fleet
that helped the Ethiopian Christians in the fight against Gragn Ahmed, the King and Church of
Portugal sent their own bishops and patriarchs to Ethiopia (Sundkler & Steed, 2000). This
opened the door for the introduction of Catholic religion in Ethiopia which was first accepted by
King Susinyos in 1622. Afterward, many European Catholic missionaries came to Ethiopia in the
name of other missions and taught the Roman faith.
The present paper looks at the political challenges of diversity in Ethiopia. Ethiopia has a
population of more than 85 million which makes it the second most populous country in Africa.
It has more than 80 ethnic groups which have distinct cultural traditions and languages. The two
numerical majority ethnic groups are the Oromo (34.5%) and the Amhara (26.9%). Although the
Tigre ethnic group comprises about 6% of the total population, it is political majority in the
government since 1991 (Gashaw, 1993; Joseph, 1998; Mengisteab, 2001; Tronvoll, 2000).
Hence, discussions that focus on ‘minority/majority’ ethnic groups in Ethiopia have to be seen
from two points of view - political (power relation) and numerical (population).
In Ethiopia, there are different religions and more than 80 languages. The religions include
Christianity (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant), Islam, Judaism and Paganism. The two largest
religious faiths are Orthodox Christianity (40.5%) and Islam (35.4%). Amharic is the working
language of the federal government and English is the de facto second language of the federal
state. Six languages are being used as a working language of different regional states. More than
20 languages are also being used as medium of instruction in the primary education. English is
given as a subject starting from grade one and is used as a medium of instruction for secondary
and higher education.
Diversity-related issues in Ethiopia are rooted in the social and political history of the
country. However, since early 1990s diversity has become a topic of discussion among
Ethiopians both at government and societal levels. Though other forms of diversity do exist,
Ethiopia has been described as “a museum of peoples” (Beshir, 1979; Wagaw, 1999) whose
population is characterized by a “complex pattern of ethnic, linguistic and religious groups”
(Tronvoll, 2000, p. 6). These aspects of diversity are considered as significant distinguishing
features of the country. Therefore, with the intention of better understanding of the political
challenges of diversity in Ethiopia, this paper focuses on overview of ethnic, linguistic and
religious diversity in the course of the history of modern Ethiopia.
The next four sections of this paper present and discuss diversity during (1) the early modern
Ethiopia; (2) the imperial regime; (3) the Derg regime; and (4) the federal democratic republic of
Ethiopia. In the discussion, emphasis is given to issues of diversity during the current and the
previous two regimes because they constitutionally declared diversity-related issues. The final
section of the paper presents the conclusion.


Diversity during the Early Modern Ethiopia (1855 - 1930)

The history of modern Ethiopia begins in mid-19th century when Emperor Tewodros initiated the
first efforts to unify and modernize the country during his regime from 1855 to 1868
(Mengisteab, 1997; 2001; Van der Beken, 2007; Zewde, 2001). Emperor Tewodros, who was
Orthodox Christian and Amhara, came to power as emperor of Ethiopia in 1855 by ending the
decentralized ‘Zemene Mesafint’ (era of the princes) (Tronvoll, 2000; Van der Beken, 2007;
Zewde, 2001). During his empire, Orthodox Christianity continued to be the dominant religion.
Amharic, which was the official language of the Ethiopian state since 1270 (Haile, 1986;
Wagaw, 1999), also continued to be the official written as well as spoken language of the country
(Pankhurst, 1992; Zewde, 2001). After the suicide of Emperor Tewodros, who chose a proud
death over the humiliation of captivity by British Soldier, Emperor Teklegiorgis II (1868-1872)
from the Amhara and then Emperor Yohannes IV (1872-1889) from the Tigre ethnic groups
came to power. Yohannes was a committed Orthodox Christian (Haile, 1986) and a nationalist
who continued in unifying Ethiopia. However, his ambition failed due to profound internal and
external confrontations. Islam has no place in Yohannes’s ideology, and his unyielding policy
forced Muslims to convert and baptize; or else they were obliged to give their land and property
to his administration (Zewide, 2001). For instance, Mohamed Ali was converted to Christianity,
took Christian name and became Ras (Head), later King Michael of Wollo. Emperor Yohannes
stood as his godfather at his baptism. The emperor was believed to be cruel toward Muslims who
refused to convert their religion.
Following the death of Yohannes in 1889, Menelik II (1889-1913) from the Amhara ethnic
group became emperor of Ethiopia. In the late 19th century, Menelik expanded his empire to
(some historians argue that he rather conquered) the southern part of Ethiopia (Tronvoll, 2000;
Zewde, 2001) to integrate and create the modern state of Ethiopia. This incorporation had a
significant contribution to the diversity in Ethiopia, because the most ethnically and linguistically
diverse region that comprises more than half of the languages and ethnic groups of the country
was incorporated as a result of this expansion. Along with this powerful expansion, Orthodox
Christianity, Amharic language and the Amhara cultural values dominated the diverse ethnic
groups of southern part of the current Ethiopia (Gudina, 2007; Van der Beken, 2008). The ethnic
groups incorporated into the empire were believed to be treated as subjects, and predominantly,
their culture, language and identity were suppressed (Mengisteab, 1997).
After the death of Menelik, Lij Iyasu (1913-1916) - Menelik’s grandson, Empress Zewditu
(1916-1930) - Menelik’s eldest daughter, and Haileselassie (1930-1974) - Menelik’s cousin came
to power. All these rulers were also from the Amhara ethnic group and they were Orthodox
Christians who claimed lineage to the Solomonic dynasty. The Solomonic dynasty is the
traditional ruling class of Ethiopia that claims descent from King Solomon of Jerusalem and the
Queen of Sheba of Ethiopia who is said to have given birth to Menelik I of Ethiopia.

Diversity during the Imperial (Haileselassie’s) Regime (1930 - 1974)

The Haileselassie regime claimed its descent from the Solomonic dynasty, and this is clearly
stated in the 1955 constitution of Ethiopia - “the Imperial dignity shall remain perpetually
attached to the line of Haileselassie I, descendant of King Sahle Selassie, whose line descends
without interruption from the dynasty of Menelik I, son of the Queen of Ethiopia, the Queen of
Sheba, and King Solomon of Jerusalem”. Succession to the throne and crown of the empire was
not by election, merit or other criteria that invite potential successors. It rather constitutionally
reserved to the line of Haileselassie (Turner, 1991) which requires a lineage of the Axumite
Kings and the perceived Solomonic dynasty. This implies that, as a principle, people from every
ethnic group have a chance to become Head of State if he/she claims a royal blood attached to


the Solomonic dynasty (Haile, 1986). However, this excludes Muslims as the royal blood
essentially requires Christianity.
The imperial regime was a strong centralized state (Mengisteab, 1997; Tronvoll, 2000) that
designed homogenization as a nation building strategy that gives the best guarantee for the state
integration (Van der Beken, 2008). In pursuance of this policy of national integration, the regime
wanted to create a national culture, language, and religion for all Ethiopians (Alemu &
Tekleselassie, 2006). As a result of this policy, Amharic was the only language used for media,
court, education, and other publication purposes. It was not legal to teach, publish and broadcast
languages other than Amharic and English (Boothe & Walker, 1997; Keller, 1988; Markakis,
1989). In practice, Amharic served as “the language of administration as well as the language and
culture of integration” (Tronvoll, 2000, p. 13).
The spread of the dominant Amharic language and Amhara culture through administration
and education had a negative impact on other languages and cultures (Van der Beken, 2007). The
Amharic language hegemony was at the center of the “Amharization” process, and as part of the
process, Amharic language proficiency was considered for political positions and economic
resources of many kinds (Smith, 2008). It is believed that several people who joined the imperial
army and bureaucracy had passed through the process of acculturation. As Marcus (1995) points
out, “politically and socially ambitious people became Christian, took appropriate names [typical
Amhara names], learnt Amharic, and began to dress and even to eat like Shoans [Amhara]”
(p.194). This is apparently a process of acculturation that imposed the culture, language and
religion of one ethnic group on all other ethnic groups (Keller, 1988; Levine, 2000).
Although Orthodox, Muslim, Catholic and other religions existed, due to the policy of
national integration, the constitution declared Orthodox Christianity as the empire religion - “the
Ethiopian Orthodox Church, founded in the fourth century, on the doctrines of St. Mark, is the
Established Church of the Empire and is, as such, supported by the State. The Emperor shall
always profess the Ethiopian Orthodox Faith”. Since the restored Solomonic dynasty, Amharic
and Christianity were confirmed as integral parts of the imperial tradition dominating the
government (Marcus, 1994). Due to the Orthodox Church supremacy, “the concepts of the
Ethiopian state and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church had been almost synonymous - both locally
and internationally” (Friedman, 1989, p. 249).
The constitution did not mention the status of ethnic groups, languages other than Amharic,
and religions other than Orthodox Christianity. However, presumably the imperial regime had an
assimilationist political system toward other ethnic groups, religions and languages. Although the
regime seems tolerant toward Muslims by allowing Islamic courts to settle family disputes and
Islamic schools, it discouraged and alienated them in several ways. For instance, there were no
official Muslim holidays, and the teaching of Arabic, which was related with Islam, was banned
through time (Abate, 1991). The imperial regime did not officially impose Orthodox Christianity
on other religion followers, but nurturing Ethiopian’s identity with Christianity had negatively
affected Muslims and others. As a result of the regime’s discriminatory state policy and nation
building strategy, arguably Muslims “had no role in public life” (Markakis, 1989, p. 119).
During this period, the Amhara and Tigre, especially the Amharas, were considered as ‘true
Ethiopians’ (World Bank, 1948). The ‘true Ethiopian’ allegedly was one “who spoke Amharic,
listened to Amharic music, believed in the Amhara-Tigray religion [Orthodox Christianity], and
wore Amhara dress; to be ‘authentic,’ Ethiopians sometimes had to alter their names and hide
their true identities” (The Struggle, 1969 cited in Wagaw, 1999, p. 79). The Ethiopian national
identity was also equated with the Amhara ethnic identity (Van der Beken, 2008), and “being
Ethiopian has often been synonymous with being Amhara” (Mains, 2004, p. 342).
Dissatisfaction with the cultural assimilation and traditional political dominance of the
monarchy resulted in the creation of several rebellion groups (Habtu, 2004; Van der Beken,
2007). There were nationalist, ethno-nationalist and peasant oppositions across the country. The
Eritrean liberation movement in 1960s, the Woyane rebellion of Tigray in 1943 and the peasant


rebellion in Bale in 1964 (Lakew 1992), among others are groups that challenged the monarchy.
Equally, even more importantly, the movement of students and intellectuals worried the imperial
regime. The students’ movement raised substantial issues such as the land tenure system,
poverty, cultural imperialism, education for the poor, class and problems of ethnicity (Tegegn,
2008). Finally, after 45 years in power, in 1974, the Haileselassie’s regime was overthrown by
the Provisional Military Administrative Council which was well known as the ‘Derg’.

Diversity during the Derg Regime (1974-1991)

The Derg, which advocated the Marxist-Leninist ideology, wanted to demolish the issue of land,
ethnicity and religion which were criticized by the majority of the population for several decades
and considered as a threat for the nation’s unity. At the beginning of its regime, in 1975, the Derg
came with land reform proclamation, which mostly addressed the main historical criticism raised
by several ethnic groups. Later, in 1976, as part of building socialism in Ethiopia, and alleged
response to the demands of ethnic nationalism, the Derg came with the declaration of the
National Democratic Revolution (NDR). NDR declared that “the right to self-determination of all
nationalities will be recognized and fully respected. No nationality will dominate another one
since the history, culture, language and religion of each nationality will have equal recognition in
accordance with the spirit of socialism” (PMAC, 1976). The pronouncements on land reform,
ethnic, religion, language and cultural equality seems positively responded to many inequalities
perpetuated under the previous regimes. However, their implementation was far beyond the
expectation of the society.
In the 1987 Constitution, the military government declared that its political system is a
unitary state in which all nationalities (ethnic groups) live in equality. The constitution also
ensured the equality of Ethiopians before the law, irrespective of ethnic, religion, sex,
occupation, social or other status, and the equality, development and respectability of the
language of ethnic groups. It also declared that state and religion are separate. Despite these
efforts, opposition based on ethnic, religion, and class interests continued because traits based on
religion and ethnicity are deeply embedded and are not susceptible to elimination by ideology
alone (Abate, 1991). It requires practical implementation of constitutional rights and positive
ideologies which the Derg regime failed to succeed.
There are people who argue that in addition to socialist ideology and centralized authority,
the military government was also characterized by Amhara cultural and political domination
(Clapham, 2002; Van der Beken, 2007). The Derg itself constitutionally affirmed its centralized
political system. However, there is no foundation for the accusation that the Amhara dominated
the Derg like its predecessor because the ruling group of the Derg was composed of Amhara,
Oromo, Tigre and other ethnic groups (Clapham, 1990; Haile, 1986). This indicates that “the
system is not ethnically exclusive” (Clapham, 1990, p. 222); rather, regardless of its
successfulness, attempted to dismantle the Amhara aristocracy and ethnic operation and broaden
popular participation.
The separation of state and religion had ended the official status of Orthodox Christianity as
religion of the State. Islam was granted official standing, and Muslim holidays became official
holidays in Ethiopia (Abate 1991). Although the regime declared freedom of religion, in practical
terms, it portrayed religion as antinational constituent. The regime took extreme measures against
religion in general and separate religious groups in particular (Friedman, 1989). Christians and
their institutions were highly repressed by the Derg (Brown, 1981). For example, Christians had
been accused of corresponding with their “imperialist West” counterpart and of being CIA
agents. Churches were also adversely affected by the nationalization of land. In general, the
military regime was considered as repressive by all religious groups.
During the Derg regime, Amharic remained as the official language of the state. On the other
hand, the ban on printing and broadcasting languages other than Amharic and English was lifted.


As a result, Oromiffa and Tigrigna languages were used for print media. Afar, Somali, Oromiffa
and Tigrigna languages were also used for radio broadcasting. In addition to Amharic and
English, Oromiffa, Tigrigna, Afar, and Somali languages were used in the campaign called
‘Development through Cooperation Campaign’ (Smith, 2008). Fifteen indigenous languages,
including Amharic were also used in the National Literacy Campaign (Gashaw, 1993; McNab,
1990). However, Amharic continued as the only medium of instruction in the primary education.
The Derg came to power under the slogan of “Ethiopia First” and “Land to the Tillers”, and
it was initially popular following the overthrow of Haileselassie. However, it sooner became
deeply unpopular because of its centralized policies and mass executions. Thus, several ethnic-
based rebellion groups such as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), Tigrian People’s
Liberation Front (TPLF), Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Western Somali Liberation Front
(WSLF) intensified their assault on the military government. In 1991, the coalition effort of the
ethnonationalist movement mainly led by TPLF overthrew the military regime. In 1995, the
Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) was formed by Ethiopian People’s
Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

Diversity during the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (1991-

EPRDF is a coalition of ethnic political movements, dominated by TPLF (Young, 1996), and the
ruling political organization of the FDRE. By understanding Ethiopia as ethnically diverse
country with a past political history of ethno-linguistic domination (Zewde, 2004), the EPRDF-
led government introduced an ethnic-based federal system that believed to promote diversity.
Consequently, ethnicity became the ideological basis of the EPRDF government’s political
organization and administration (Abbink, 1997), and Ethiopia has become a federal polity with
nine states and two chartered cities that constitute the federation. According to the state policy,
unity or Ethiopian national identity is based on the recognition of and respect for diversity (Van
der Beken, 2008). However, because of politicizing ethnicity, differences of ethnicity, language
and culture, became more significant than citizenship.
The 1995 constitution affirms that state and religion are separate, and there is no state
religion. The constitution also declared that everyone has the right to freedom of religion, and
believers can establish institutions of religious education and administration in order to propagate
and organize their religion. In Ethiopia, Christians and Muslims have long lived peacefully and
generally respecting each other's religious observances. However, in the last seven years there
have been a series of violent interreligious conflicts in the western part of the country that
threatened historic tolerance and stability (United States Department of state, 2007). There is also
an ongoing religious tension in which the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council blames the
“Wahhabist” groups for exacerbating tensions between Christians and Muslims (United States
Department of state, 2011).
The constitution also gives all ethnic groups the right to speak, write and develop their own
language; to express, develop and promote their culture; and to preserve their history. With
regard to language, all languages are declared equal, and Amharic retained the status of the
working language of the federal government. Regional states have been given the right to choose
their own working language which is applicable within their own territories. Ethnic groups have
the right to choose the language for primary education, but Amharic should be taught as a
language of countrywide communication. Consequently, more than 20 languages are being used
as medium of instruction in the primary education in different regions.
Although the constitution declared that all ethnic groups are equal, several groups argue that
politics in Ethiopia has been dominated by the TPLF-led EPRDF, which in turn, dominated by
numerical minority Tigre ethnic group (Gashaw, 1993; Habtu, 2004; Joseph, 1998; Tronvoll,
2000; Záhořík, 2011). It seems that the political domination of one ethnic group continued, and


therefore, “as the two previous regimes were largely identified with the Amhara, so the present
government is widely perceived to be Tigrean” (Mengisteab, 2001, p. 24).
The constitution gives every ethnic group an unconditional right to self-determination,
including the right to secession. This right is assumed to result in unity in diversity, and the
creation of an Ethiopian national identity through the respect for ethnic diversity (Van der Beken,
2008). There are people who consider the right to secession as a conclusion of centuries old
ethnic domination in Ethiopia (Nahum, 1997). However, other people argue that it is a signal of
disintegration of the historic and multiethnic state of Ethiopia, which endured various ups and
downs for three millennia (Haile, 1996). Proponents of ethnic federalism support the system even
at the expense of unity because they believe that it is the only means to promote freedom and
equality among ethnic groups and check tyranny. On the other hand, opponents argue that ethnic
federalism tends to divide people rather than unite them. They expressed their fears about the
potential threat of state disintegration because of the division of the country along ethnic lines
(Engedayehu, 1993; Gashaw, 1993). Although there may be a few cases where state
disintegration lead to relatively more peaceful small states (Shaw, 1994), “dividing states along
ethnic lines is not feasible since ethnic groups often cohabit” (Mengisteab, 1997, p. 116).
It is believed that the ethnic-based federal system and its embedded political strategy
reinforced ethnonational sentiments and segregation along ethnic lines. This, in general, has
facilitated and at times become cause for several conflicts across the country because of
controversies over ethnic boundaries and ethnic identities. Studies also show that there are
several conflicts caused by conceptualized ethnicity in many parts of the country, and the current
constitution somehow helped to stress instead of lessening the historically rooted divisive aspect
of ethnicity (Záhořík, 2011). These indicate that many years after the implementation of the
ethnic federalism, “Ethiopia remains mired in ethnic strife” (Mengisteab, 2001, P. 20), and
contrary to the very problem it was intended to address, the ethnic federalism in Ethiopia seems
to have created more problems than it set to solve (Gudina, 2007; Haile, 1996; Maru, 2010). This
leads to argue that the implementation of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia is problematic and
ineffective (Maru, 2010) and it seems “a fragile and perilous experiment” (Habtu, 2004, p. 91)
that puts a big challenge on the nation’s unity in diversity.

Diversity-related issues have been the historic and prevalent questions of the Ethiopian society.
The reality of ethnic domination during the imperial regime is beyond dispute as the regime was
led by the motto of one country, one religion, one people and one language. There was a clear
ethnocentrism, and linguistic and religious discrimination based on the perception that the
Amhara ethnic group, the Amharic language and the Orthodox Christianity are superior to all
other ethnic groups, languages and religions. The discrimination was not simply an individual
bias, rather an institutional, and above all a state practice that denied equality among the diverse
Ethiopian society.
During the Derg regime, the domination of the Amhara ethnic group was not as visible as it
was in the imperial regime but government’s high positions were filled by ‘Amharaized’ people,
not merely Amhara. Although the military government allowed using some other languages in
mass media and national literacy campaign, Amharic continued as a dominant language both in
administration and education sectors. The demise of Orthodox Christianity as state religion was
one of the positive measures taken by the regime. However, instead of establishing religious
equality, its socialist ideology severely repressed all forms of religious expressions. Compared to
the imperial and the Derg regimes, the EPRDF-led government has empowered ethnic groups in
many areas of linguistic, religious, and cultural aspects. Even though the ‘clear domination’ of
one ethnic group is vanished, and diversity and equality of ethnic groups are constitutionally
ensured, it is believed that there is still an implicit domination of one ethnic group - Tigre ethnic


group. What makes this domination different is that it doesn’t promote cultural assimilation
which was the typical features of the imperial regime. Its domination is more of political than
Since the establishment of modern Ethiopia, those who come to power have made an attempt
to address diversity-related issues in a way they thought is best to serve the interest of the country
or their political ideology. In relation to issues of diversity, to date, Ethiopia has exercised two
broad ideologies of state policy. The first state policy was a unitary system of government which
was used until the downfall of the Derg regime in 1991. There were two phases of this system. In
the first phase (until the overthrown of the imperial regime), the policy attempted to bring unity
without diversity, and resulted in hegemony and suppression. In the second phase (during the
Derg regime), the policy recognized diversity but the implementation was far beyond the policy,
and thus failed to succeed. The second state policy is a federal system of government that has
been used since 1991. It emphasizes and promotes diversity without balancing with unity, and
this potentially threatens national unity and leads to tension, conflict and disintegration.
So far, Ethiopia has failed to properly deal with issues of diversity but is striving to address
by maintaining a delicate balance between unity and diversity. It is very difficult to realize such
an effort unless the current government halts politicizing ethnicity including emphasizing
ethnicity at the risk of citizenship and national unity, and manipulating historical interethnic
grievances to evoke resentment, fear, and hatred toward the “other”.


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Abebaw Y. Adamu: Abebaw Yirga Adamu is a PhD student at the School of Education, Tampere
University, Finland. He has been working as a Lecturer at the Faculty of Education, Bahir Dar
University, Ethiopia since 2003. Currently, he is on study leave. He also worked as coordinator
of Bahir Dar University’s cultural center. Abebaw holds a B.Ed. in Amharic, M.Ed. in
Multicultural and Multilingual Education and M.A. in Lifelong Learning: Policy and
Management. His research interest includes higher education (diversity, quality
internationalization, and harmonization), lifelong learning and adult education.

The International Journal of Community Diversity
is one of four thematically focused journals in the
family of journals that support the Diversity knowledge
community—its journals, book series, conference and
online community. It is a section of The International
Journal of Diversity in Organizations, Communities and

This journal examines the processes of governance

and democracy in diverse communities. It explores
the consequences of global human movement (e.g.,
immigrants, refugees) on local communities, and, in
response, the development of multicultural policies
and practices. It also investigates community self-
governance and community capacity development.

As well as papers of a traditional scholarly type,

this journal invites case studies that take the form
of presentations of diversity practice—including
documentation of socially-engaged practices and
exegeses analyzing the effects of those practices.

The International Journal of Community Diversity is

a peer-reviewed scholarly journal.

ISSN: 2327-0004

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