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FOCUS - Africa

 Institutional recognition and accomodation of ethnic diversity: federalism in Ethiopia

Un museo di popoli. ‘Museum of peoples’. That was how Conti Rossini, the famous Italian scholar, described the Ethiopian Empire in his book Historia di Ethiopia in 1928. To date, that remains an accurate description of the multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-faith Ethiopia. A little less than eighty ethnic groups, speaking twice as many dialects, inhabit the country. Despite its numerous ethnic groups, however, two-thirds of the 76 million populations belong to three major ethnic groups (i.e. the Oromo (34.49%), the Amhara (26.89%) and the Somali (6.2%)). With no single ethnic group accounting for the majority of the population, however, Ethiopia, like most other African states, can be appropriately described as a country of minorities. On the other hand, as a country that has accepted Christianity, in its orthodox form, in the third century AD and practiced it as a state religion until 1974, Ethiopian is often portrayed as a Christian state. The description of Ethiopia as a Christian state could, however, be misleading as no less than half of the population are Muslims by faith.
Ethnicity constitutes one of the major features of the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Proclamation No. 1/1995 (hereafter Constitution) and the basis for the internal organisation of the federal state. The point of departure for self government as expressed in the federal arrangement is geographical areas based on ethnic criteria. This has not been without controversy. Critics take great pain to stress that the Ethiopian constitutional approach to claims of ethnic identity intensifies ethnic loyalty. They, as a result, fear that the risk of political disintegration is imminent. Yet others refer to the Ethiopian political history, and especially to the making of the present day Ethiopia, and argue that any constitution that aims to build a harmonious society cannot overlook the need to give due recognition to ‘ethnicity’, whatever form that recognition takes...

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