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Ethiopia - Ethnic Groups

Ethiopia's population is highly diverse. The government is largely led by ethnic Tigreans. This is in contrast to the Imperial regime, and the Derg which replaced it, which were both dominated by the Amhara.

Under Ethiopia's federal system, the country's regions enjoy considerable autonomy, such as having their own security forces, their own parliaments, and the right to a referendum for self-rule. The TPLF and other parties that favor ethnic federalism saw Abiy Ahmed's decision to dissolve the former ruling EPRDF coalition as an attempt to monopolize and concentrate power with his Ethiopia's Prosperity Party.

Abiy's pursuit of a unitary political party and a strong central government was a trigger for the TPLF army. The TPLF overthrew the former communist PDRE government for the same reasons. Tigray's conflict in November 2020 risked fracturing Ethiopia's delicate federalism by creating a domino effect on other volatile regions such as the Oromia and Amhara. Protests in Oromia killed 167 people in July 2020. An attack by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) killed at least 54 ethnic Amhara people. The attack happened a day after the sudden withdrawal of Ethiopian Defense Forces from the Gawa Qanqa village.

The TPLF refused to join Abiy Ahmed's Prosperity Party, accusing him of modifying the constitution, which guarantees autonomy to the various ethnic regions. The TPLF also alleged that Abiy purged many Tigrayan leaders from federal institutions. The last straw came when Addis Ababa said that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it would postpone elections that were scheduled to take place in August 2020. Tigray's regional government defiantly held its election in September, prompting the central government to sever all ties and later suspend its monthly funding to Tigray.

The root causes of the Gonder protests of 2016 and the Oromia protests of 2015 can be found partly in the Ethiopian government’s ethnic-based federalism policy. The first one is ethnic-based federalism that has created a dichotomy situation let’s say between Amaras and the Oromos, the Oromos and the Tigray. The second is the expansion of the territory of the Tigray people to include an area called Wolgait-Tegede in the Gonder region where the uprising is taking place right now. The people in Welkait-Tegede say that they are Amaras and not Tigrays. So they should not be incorporated in the Tigray region.

The Amhara and Tigre who participated with Menelik in the conquest of the southern and western areas came to govern a number of different peoples, the most important and extensive of which are the Galla. What happened in the process of territorial expansion is that they became at the same time a minority group in the empire and holders of suzerainty over a vast collection of peoples who did not share their historical tradition ane who were not Christians but pagans.

When the Italians began to encounter fierce resistance from northern Tigrean forces, they embarked on a program to exacerbate and intensify the latent cleavages between the Amhara and Tigrean kingdoms.

When the Derg replaced Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime, Tigrai attitudes crystallized against Amhara chauvinism and the centralized government. Insurrection in the Tigray province was further stimulated by the lack of economic development, the imposition of Amharigna as the dominant language of administration, commerce and education, and the general resentment concerning Amhara political hegemony over Tigray.

The nationalist ideology of "Ethiopian socialism" could not serve as a basis for the activity of the Derg because separatist influence caused many of the ethnic groups living in the country to regard Ethiopia as a colonial empire, the central government (in which the Amhara dominated) as a government of colonizers, and the military leadership as merely the continuators of Haile Selassie's policies.

Under the Derg, Ethiopia was subject to numerous separatist national liberation movements on the part of its constituent ethnic groups. In addition to the Eritreans, the largest and most important separatist group, the Tigreans, Oromos, Somalis and others were battling the Amhara-dominated regime in Addis Ababa.

By 1983 the government was, very cautiously, laying the groundwork necessary to try and satisfy some of the legitimate aspirations of the nationalities for a greater share in government. However, the criticism levelled against, the central government of being too Amhara-dominated remained true. COPWE's own central committee was 75% Amhara. A similar imbalance (Amhara made up some 23% of the population of Ethiopia) can be seen in the senior ranks of the army and administration.

In May 1991, the brutal Mengistu Haile Mariam government was overthrown. The new government formed by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of ethnic armies which had been largely formed to fight against the Mengistu government, came to power.

Distinguishable ethnolinguistic entities, some speaking the same language, are estimated at more than 100; at least seventy languages spoken as mother tongues. The largest group is the Oromo, with about 40 percent of total population. Roughly 30 percent of total population consists of the Amhara, whose native language — Amharic — is also spoken by additional 20 percent of population as second tongue. Amharic is Ethiopia's official language. The Tigray, speaking Tigrinya, constitute 12 to 15 percent of total population.

Most of its people speak a Semitic or Cushitic language. The Oromo, Amhara, and Tigreans make up more than three-fourths of the population, but there are more than 77 other ethnic groups. Some of these have as few as 10,000 members. In general, most of the Christians live in the highlands, while Muslims and adherents of traditional African religions tend to inhabit lowland regions. English is the most widely spoken foreign language and is taught in all secondary schools. Amharic is the official language and was the language of primary school instruction but has been replaced in many areas by local languages such as Oromifa and Tigrinya.

A simple ethnic classification of Ethiopia's population is not feasible. People categorized on the basis of one criterion, such as language, may be divided on the basis of another. Moreover, ethnicity — a people's insistence that it is distinctive and its behavior on the basis of that, insistence—is a subjective response to both historical experience and current situations. A group thus distinguished may not be the same as that established on the basis of objective criteria.

Historically, entities defining themselves in ethnic terms reacted or adapted to Amhara domination in various ways. Affecting their adaptation was the degree of Amhara domination—in some areas Amhara were present in force, while in others they established a minimal administrative presence—and the extent of ethnic mixing. In some areas, historical differences and external conditions led to disaffection and attempts at secession, as in multiethnic Eritrea and in the Ogaden. In others, individuals adapted to the Amhara. Often they understood the change not so much as a process of becoming Amhara as one of taking on an Ethiopian (and urban) identity.

One way of segmenting Ethiopia's population is on the basis of language. However, the numbers in each category are uncertain, and estimates are often in conflict. At present, at least seventy languages are spoken as mother tongues, a few by many millions, others by only a few hundred persons. The number of distinct social units exceeds the number of languages because separate communities sometimes speak the same language. More than fifty of these languages—and certainly those spoken by the vast majority of Ethiopia's people — are grouped within three families of the Afro-Asiatic super-language family: Semitic (represented by the branch called Ethio-Semitic and by Arabic), Cushitic, and Omotic. In addition, about 2 percent of the population speak the languages of four families—East Sudanic, Koman, Berta, and Kunema—of the Nilo-Saharan super-language family.

Most speakers of Ethio-Semitic languages live in the highlands of the center and north. Speakers of East Cushitic languages are found in the highlands and lowlands of the center and south, and other Cushitic speakers live in the center and north; Omotic speakers live in the south; and Nilo-Saharan speakers live in the southwest and west along the border with Sudan. Of the four main ethno-linguistic groups of Ethiopia, three — the Amhara, Tigray, and Oromo—generally live in the highlands; the fourth — the Somali live in the lowlands to the southeast.

The term Amhara encompasses not just the Amhara ethnic group, but also a broader category of Ethiopians who speak Amharic and who identify with the concept of a unified, centralized Ethiopian state. The peasants of the northern regions speak the Amharic language and have a cluster of cultural traits in common, including adherence to Orthodox Christianity, certain traditions of land tenure and social organization, and the use of certain agricultural technologies.

The north was characterized by kinship and village tenures which had many similarities to communal patterns, and the southern and western areas are typified by private holdings and frequently high percentages of tenancy, absentee landownership and concentrated land holdings.

The Amhara are not a cohesive group, politically or otherwise. From the perspective of many Amhara in the core area of Gonder, Gojam, and western Welo, the Amhara of Shewa (who constituted the basic ruling group under Menelik II and Haile Selassie) are not true descendants of the northern Amhara and the Tigray and heirs to the ancient kingdom of Aksum. Regional variations notwithstanding, the Amhara do not exhibit the differences of religion and mode of livelihood characteristic of the Oromo, for example, who constitute Ethiopia's largest linguistic category. With a few exceptions, the Amhara are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and are highland plow agriculturists.

Authorities in the western region of Benishangul-Gumuz forcibly evicted as many as 8,000 ethnic Amhara residents from their homes; in 2014 some of those evicted alleged that police beat and harassed them because of their ethnicity. The regional president publicly stated the evictions were a mistake and called on the evictees to return. Government officials also stated victims would be compensated for lost property and any injuries sustained. Authorities dismissed several local officials from their government positions because of their alleged involvement in the evictions and charged some of the officials with criminal offenses.

The Tigray (whose language is Tigrinya) constitute the second largest category of Ethio-Semitic speakers. They made up about 14 percent of the population in 1970. Like the Amhara, the Tigray are chiefly Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and most are plow agriculturists. Despite some differences in dialect, Tigray believe that they have a common tenuous kinship with other Tigray regardless of their place of residence.

The Oromo, called Galla by the Amhara, constitute the largest and most ubiquitous of the East Cushitic-speaking peoples. Oromo live in many regions as a result of expansion from their homeland in the central southern highlands beginning in the sixteenth century Although they share a common origin and a dialectically varied language, Oromo groups changed in a variety of ways with respect to economic base, social and political organization, and religion as they adapted to different physical and sociopolitical environments and economic opportunities. .

Even more uncertain than estimates of the Amhara population are estimates for the Oromo. The problem stems largely from the imperial government's attempts to downplay the country's ethnic diversity. Government estimates put the number of Oromo speakers at about 7 million in 1970—about 28 percent of the total population of Ethiopia. By contrast, the OLF claimed there were 18 million Oromo in 1978, well over half of a total population roughly estimated that year at 31 million..

The Oromo provide an example of the difficulties of specifying the boundaries and nature of an ethnic group. Some Oromo groups, such as the Borana, remain pastoralists. But others, the great majority of the people, have become plow cultivators or are engaged in mixed farming. A few groups, particularly the pastoralists, retain significant features of the traditional mode of social and political organization marked by generation and age-set systems.

Cutting across the range of economic and political patterns are variations in religious belief and practice. Again, the pastoralists usually adhere to the indigenous system. Other groups, particularly those in Shewa and Welega, have been influenced by Orthodox Christianity, and still others have been converted to Islam.

Three other Lowland East Cushitic groups — the Somali, Afar, and Saho — share a pastoral tradition (although some sections of each group have been cultivators for some time), commitments of varying intensity to Islam, and social structures composed of autonomous units defined as descent groups. In addition, all have a history of adverse relations with the empire's dominant Orthodox Christian groups and with Ethiopian governments in general.

The House of Federation on 10 October 2020 approved unanimously the request of five zonal administrations and one special Woreda (district) under the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR) to hold a referendum towards coming together to form a new regional state. Kaffa, Sheka, Bench Sheko, Dawuro, and West Omo zones as well as Konta special woreda will be establishing local entities of the new regional state that has the proposed name of ‘South West Ethiopia Nations Regional State,” it was indicated. The zonal administrations and special woreda have requested for a new regional state as they share similar language, culture, history, and geographical landscape. During the session, the house debated thoroughly on the stated agenda before members unanimously approved the proposal to hold a referendum.

In addition to Sidama that has already become a regional state following a 2019 referendum, another 12 zones in the SNNPR asked for a referendum on regional statehood. Some of the zones that have been permitted to come together and form a regional state were among those that put in a request. The 12 zones that put in a request are: Kaffa, Gurage, Bench-Maji, Hadiya, Dawuro, Wolayta, Gamo, Kembatta Tembaro, Silte, South Omo, Gofa and Gedeo.

In the same session, the house also passed a rare decision directing the federal government to halt all forms of relations with the news administration of the Tigray Regional State that has been accused by the former of holding illegal regional elections against the constitutional order. The decision has come following a resolution passed by the HoF on September 2020, declaring the regional election in Tigray null and void.

The HoF then passed a three-point decision, which entails: suspension of any form of relations with the Tigray regional council and higher executive bodies formed after the illegal election carried out in the region; maintaining working relations with the legal structure including city/town and kebele administrations that focus on development and the provision of basic services to the Tigray people; and monitoring the decision shall be carried out by the Speaker of the HoF and the relevant standing committee.

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Page last modified: 30-06-2021 11:40:05 ZULU