Federations of ethnonational states can become explosive during moments of political liberalization. Abiy Ahmed must tread carefully to avoid a Balkan nightmare.
This unprecedented and rapid change comes against a more disconcerting backdrop of unrest. Ethiopia is a multiethnic giant with around 100 million people (belonging to more than 80 ethnic groups and speaking many languages), giving its transformation greater regional significance.
These conflicts might in turn precipitate ill-conceived moves, including secession, which could have deadly consequences in communities where violence has been the principal means of settling communal disputes.
Indeed, Ethiopia’s political system today has strong parallels with that of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Similar to the former Yugoslavia, Ethiopia is a federal state with nine units organized along ethnic lines: The Tigray, Somali, Amhara, and Oromia regions (around 80 percent of Ethiopia) take their names from the dominant ethnic groups.
Empowering ethnic groups through territorial autonomy has been a double-edged sword: While allowing self-government has reduced tensions stemming from the dominance of a particular group, it places ethnic belonging at the center of politics, links it to territory, and therefore risks an eventual increase in ethnic tensions.
Yugoslavia was dominated by the multinational League of Communists, which had become a de facto confederation of republican parties by 1990. Likewise, Ethiopia has been ruled for decades by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of mostly ethnoregional political parties, dominated by the socialist Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Both combined nondemocratic traits with ethnofederalism.
Yugoslavia experienced political transformation in the late 1980s, just as Ethiopia is today. Now, as then, questions about the future political and economic system have come to the fore, and power struggles are being overlaid with ethnic politics.
Conservative groups—whether the military and its allies among the Serb leadership in the old Yugoslavia or the long-dominant TPLF and its military and intelligence allies in Ethiopia—stand to lose the most from democratic transformation.
While it may appear that there is little reason for fear at the moment, secessionist claims of small groups in the Ethiopian Somali region have been around for decades, making the area a conflict zone until recently. The Tigray region could spark a crisis, too.