Intra-Unit Minorities in the Context of Ethno-National Federation in Ethiopia



After years of centralized rule emphasizing unity and territorial integrity, Ethiopia in 1991 adopted a federal system that aimed at accommodating its diversity. The system is designed to empower hitherto marginalized ethno-national groups by ensuring self-government in nine constituent units and redrawing boundaries to match with ethno-national boundaries. By designing constituent units, and, in some cases, local governments that ensure self-rule to major ethno-national groups, the constitution transforms these groups into majorities within the territories they control at constituent and local level. This article argues that while conferring territorial autonomy and self-rule to mobilized, territorially grouped ethno-national groups may be a step in the right direction to address the age-old ‘nationality question’, the design establishes a titular ethno-national group that claims exclusive control over territory, dominates public institutions, perpetuates majority rule and replicates the problems of the ‘nation-state’ at constituent-unit level. The combination of majority rule by titular ethno-national group and exclusive control over territory at constituent-unit level in a context of heterogeneous constituent units and increased inter-regional state mobility has therefore had grave consequences for intra-unit minorities. What the design provides is autonomy for a particular titular ethno-national group, not autonomy for all inhabitants in the constituent unit. Hence, the question arises: What institutional and policy options do we have to address the rights of intra-unit minorities in the states? It is argued that the process of empowering ethno-nationalist group at regional-state level was conducted without putting relevant institutional and policy mechanisms in place to minimize the marginalization of intra-unit minorities. The article therefore examines the institutional, political, legal and policy safeguards that exist for intra-unit minorities. It proposes four mechanisms that aim to address the concerns of intra-unit minorities: power-sharing as well as non-territorial autonomy; external checks by the federal government to monitor constituent units’ compliance with intra-unit minorities; and strict enforcement of human rights throughout the country. Enforcement of these packages of supplementary measures would mitigate the situation of intra-unit minorities and recast the conception of political power and territory in such a way that they are understood not as the exclusive property of a particular ethno-national group but a shared common good for all inhabitants of the constituent units.


ethno-national federationsrights of minoritiesterritorial autonomynon-territorial autonomyEthiopia
  • Page/Article: 170-189
  • DOI: 10.18352/ulr.402
  • Published on 27 Oct 2017
  • Peer Reviewed