Ethiopia is adding four more official languages to Amharic as political instability mounts

Addis Ababa
Samuel Getachew
By Samuel Getachew
Quartz

Ethiopia has approved a policy to introduce four additional working languages alongside Amharic, which has been the working language of the nation. Going forward, Afan Oromo, the most widely spoken language in Ethiopia, Afar, Somali, and Tigrigna will all be adopted as official languages of government.

Oromo youth chant slogans in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Oct. 24, 2019.

The new policy is among a series of reforms being introduced by Ethiopia’s reformist prime minister Abiy Ahmed, who received the Nobel Peace Prize last year. It also comes just a month ahead of a national legislative election. Oromo-born Abiy, 43, who founded the Prosperity Party, is seeing his political honeymoon winding down, including in parts of Oromia and in the Tigray regions.

“Introducing additional working languages is a commendable action. In fact, it is long overdue,” says former political prisoner Befeqadu Z. Hailu, who now heads the Centre for Advancement of Rights and Democracy in Ethiopia.

According to the latest census, Afan Oromo speakers account for 34.4% of the population, while Somali and Tigre speakers account for 6%. The share of Afar people is just 1.7%, and the Sidama and Wolayita each have twice as many people.

“Amharic (has) played a big role in facilitating communications among Ethiopians. But in order to build a society that is integrated both politically and economically, introducing new working languages is very important,” said Abiy in a statement. “The new languages would play a big role in uniting the country and further improve cultural ties among Ethiopians.”

The language policy of Ethiopia adopted during the past two successive regimes of Ethiopia prioritized Amharic as the state’s sole official language. While there is no official reason for Amharic to be the dominant language of  the federal government, history shows it was reinforced during the era of emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974), who made it the lone working language under the “andinet” (unity) law.

Critics have pointed out that under the Prosperity Party (formerly the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), some regions have been allowed to make a local language their working language, but there has been little change to reflect the diversity of the population at the national level. This has become increasingly important because of the growing instability in the country along political and ethnic lines.

In the past year there have been numerous reports of people killed as a result of ethnic conflicts, resulting in the displacement of more than 1 million people, according to the International Organization for Migration’s Displacement Tracking Matrix, in a nation of approximately 110 million. Ethiopia is Africa’s second-most populous country, with ethnic groups spread across nine autonomous states.

While acknowledging the impact of the new development, some are doubtful Ethiopia has the budget to make it an instant reality.

“The addition of the new working languages is expected to reduce ethnic extremism and play a role in our state-building endeavor. However, I do not think it is possible to achieve it in the near future. It might take more time considering the financial obligation the commitment requires,” a prominent member of the Prosperity Party who wanted to remain anonymous told Quartz.

The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a political party that was once labeled as a terrorist group, had a wait-and-see reaction. “We still doubt the execution of the new policy and how is it going to be put into practice,” it said in a statement.

1 COMMENT

  1. That was the right decision by the government. I have been telling others about such additions to the national language roster for years. But I had one more which was Arabic. I think the schools there should give an emphasis in offering language classes in Arabic. I think that would an easy pick by the students because there are people in their multitudes who speak it already even though it is not the standardized one. But picking Afar, Somali and Tigre languages along with Oromifaa is very smart. For Oromifaa it is a longtime coming. These three languages cross boundaries and are national languages in Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya and Eritrea. The choice is very strategic smart. That country has a belly seen as very soft target from the Middle East vantage point and it should always stand vigilant and jealously guarding it. A fluent population will help that effort a lot. This choice should not be a topic for a linguistic ‘mine-too’ movement.

    Then again, this is my take and apparently nobody is perfect.

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