Author Identifiers

Tesfa Bihonegn Emirru

Date of Award


Degree Type

Thesis - ECU Access Only

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Arts and Humanities

First Advisor

Dr David Robinson

Second Advisor

Dr Kwadwo Adusei-Asante


After a protracted civil war that ended in a regime change in 1991, the state of Ethiopia adopted multinational federalism as a means of managing its ethno-linguistic diversity. The federalization process which had begun following the military triumph of the EPRDF in May 1991 culminated with the inauguration of the country as the “Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia” in August 1995. Consequently, Ethiopia has become a multinational federation (or “ethnic federalism” as it is usually referred to) comprised of nine regional states and two autonomous city-administrations. Under the new federal order, constituent groups are made to exercise different forms of self-rule in territories they are concentrated. In doing so, the state of Ethiopia has introduced a new approach to the ubiquitous problem of ethnicity in Africa. Despite the prevalence of the problem of ethnicity in the continent, often in its violent form, no other African state has dared to approach the “ethnic challenge” as boldly and squarely as the state of Ethiopia has done under the leadership of the EPRDF. In fact, Ethiopia is currently the only multinational federation in the African continent.

However, the new federal order in Ethiopia has been criticized for increasing authoritarianism. Thus, despite a constitutional guarantee of groups not only to self-determination but also to secession, the actual practice of federalism in Ethiopia has been hampered by the hegemony of the ruling coalition both at federal and regional governments. On the contrary, “ethnic federalism” is criticized for emphasizing ethnic differences and putting the survival and territorial integrity of the country apprehensively in danger. On the other hand, after two decades of authoritarian federalism, the Ethiopian federation is currently undergoing a series of unprecedented political reforms. The reforms were preceded or rather caused by mass anti-government protests that have lasted for almost two years between 2015 and 2017, and engulfed the two most populous regions in the federation ─ Oromia and Amhara regions. On 15 February 2018, Prime Minister Haile-Mariam Desalegn resigned and on 2 April a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, was elected. Under Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian federation is undergoing a series of political reforms and democratic undertakings. At the same time, however, the Ethiopian federation is also in the midst of a political crisis as a result of, for instance, renewed ethnic and regional conflicts, increasing displacement of people, and internal dispute within the ruling coalition.

This research examines multinational federalism and secessionism in two of the nine member states in the Ethiopian federation ─ Oromia and Somali regions. It investigates (1) the features and limitations of the actual exercise of federal autonomy in Oromia and Somali regions under an authoritarian political system (1995-2015); (2) the trajectories of the OLF and ONLF armed movements for the secession of respectively Oromia and Somali regions following the introduction of multinational federalism (1995-2015); and (3) the mass antigovernment protests that have disrupted the Ethiopian federation between 2015 and 2017 and subsequent developments relevant to issues of federalism and secessionism in Oromia and Somali regions. The study was first designed to be based on both documentary sources and interviews. However, the outbreak of protests and the states of emergency subsequently declared in the country have made the collection of data through interviews difficult and risky as well. Consequently, the plan to conduct interviews with government officials, opposition leaders and members of civil society organizations in Oromia and Somali regions is dropped. Thus, the data used in the study are entirely derived from different documentary sources.

The study uncovers that the exercise of federal autonomy in Oromia and Somali regions, which are associated with active secessionist movements, shared remarkable similarities including frequent changes in regional governments, widespread human rights violations, and resentments over limited influences at the federal government. On the other hand, the study identifies a crisis of legitimacy as the major factor behind the limitations of multinational federalism in successfully addressing Oromo nationalism in Ethiopia. Doing so, the study explains the problems of legitimacy which the OPDO, the Oromo wing of the ruling coalition, and the federal order have encountered in Oromia. As far as the Somali region is concerned, the study discusses how the exercise of federal autonomy has been hampered by internal conflicts within the Somali society, and the need for the ruling coalition to have an allied, subordinate party capable of governing the region. In addition, the study demonstrates how internal power struggle and ongoing insurgency by the ONLF have led to widespread federal intervention in Somali regional politics, particularly through the agency of the Ministry of Federal Affairs and the federal army.

As far as secessionist movements in Oromia and Somali regions are concerned, the study shows that it is only the ONLF which was able to pose serious military challenges to the Ethiopian government. The OLF, despite its popularity particularly among the intelligentsia and the diaspora, has never posed significant military threats. In this regard, the study shows the role which regional politics has played in the military decline of the ONLF (since 2010) and the ever-present military weakness of the OLF. Though the introduction of multinational federalism in Ethiopia has little to do with the military decline or weakness of secessionist movements, the study shows that the provision of constitutional autonomy to the Oromo and the Somali has contributed towards the political decline of both the OLF and the ONLF. Lastly, the study shows the recent convergence of mass anti-government protests in Oromia and Amhara regions with internal friction among member parties of the ruling coalition and the subsequent rise to power of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in April 2018, which has led to the return of both the OLF and the ONLF to pursue peaceful political struggle in the country.


Paper Location