Minority Groups and the Quest for Socio-Political Inclusion in Ethiopia


By Tsegaye Dejene Daba* 

The term ‘Minority’ is among the contested terminology in social sciences that has multi-faceted connotations across different contexts and content. In most cases, it is linked with a grouping that comprises membership with relatively few population sizes. However, the political essence of the term entails more of how socio-political space is occupied by the supposed group. Moreover, the concept of minority embeds deep-rooted ingredients like concerns of ‘underrepresentation’, ‘marginalization’, and ‘subordination’ in the socio-economic and political setting

The minority groups in Ethiopia could be grouped into three broader categories namely endogenous, exogenous and marginalized minorities. Endogenous minorities comprise ethnic minority groups who reside in their ‘native’ land but assume a marginal role in the regional political realm due to their population size. Exogenous minorities are groups who migrated to the regional states that are not designated to their respective ethnic groups and became minority groups as a result of their dislocation from their ethnic fellows that are in most cases a majority in their place of origin. Marginalized minorities are those engaged in occupations that are socially marginalized occupations and livelihoods like potters, tanners, smiths, weavers, woodworkers, hunters, and pastoralists. 

The three facades of minority groups in Ethiopia: 

At first, regarding the endogenous minorities, the House of Federation (HoF) is known as the primary organ with the constitutional mandate to promote equality and unity among peoples; however, this cannot be fully realized due to the unbalanced representation of ethnic groups in the HoF or owing to its majoritarian make-up. This deviates from international practices such as the USA, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, and so forth. There are more than eighty ethnolinguistic groups in Ethiopia, but due to its unbalanced representation, minorities are easily outnumbered in the decision-making process as they hold insignificant voices and because there is no special law that protects them in the HoF. The minorities have no strong influence on the legislation, policy formulation, and implementation processes of the federal government. All decisions of the HoF, in general, are decided by the simple majority votes. 

Therefore, it is hardly possible to imagine that the interest of minorities is prevailed or protected unless and otherwise other special laws or practices are promulgated. Since the HoF is not immune from the politics of the ruling party (members are selected by state councils, in turn, councils are representatives from the pattern of party membership), it lacks complete independence and impartiality to get the heart and mind of the minority, thus, it is not in a right track to promote and protect the minority rights. Unless the constitutional adjudicators are independent and impartial, the constitutional adjudication would not meet or attain the objectives of promoting and protecting minority rights

Secondly, regarding the exogenous minority groups [intra-unit minorities], the territorial autonomy of ethnonational groups in a federal context in which the constituent units themselves are diverse, imposes a rigid conception of territory. The constituent unit or local government empowers a specific ethnonational group. Exclusive control over territory and dominance over public institutions within the constituent unit is the salient feature. The ethnonational group that enjoys autonomy in the form of self-rule strongly identifies itself with the territory over which it claims to control. As such, the regional state is often perceived as an ethnonational homeland. In this regard, territorial self-rule reinforces a sense of empowerment for the dominant ethnonational group but it has an exclusive meaning for intra-unit minorities living in the regional state. 

The exclusivist conception of territory and the transformation of an ethnonational group into a political majority in the constituent unit or at the local level pose political exclusion to intra-unit minorities, as the units are diverse in themselves. Indeed, over the period tensions and conflicts have become common in Ethiopia between the titular ethnonational groups and intra-state minorities which are ingrained in the historic-political contradictions of the country. 

In some cases, intra-unit minorities in Ethiopia face legal discrimination (e.g. in jobs, investment opportunities and bid competition, limited access to land – for example in Benishangul-Gumuz regional state – the state law restricts economic migrants from having access to land stating that land belongs to the indigenous communities), political discrimination (they are not necessarily represented in the executive and legislative bodies of the regional state or local government, and are often facing challenges from running for election and holding public office like civil service because it is perceived as belonging to the titular groups alone) and administrative discrimination

Moreover, across almost all regions intra-unit minorities live being interconnected to the ethnonational groups in all aspects of life despite multi-faceted diversity. Yet political inclusion for these minorities remains to be a source of debate, and it demands having a revisit to the way Ethiopian ethnic federation is operating so as to accommodate intra-unit minorities. All regions have both constitutional and institutional limitations to have their intra-unit minorities politically accommodated. As a result, the case of intra-unit minorities vis-à-vis political inclusion invites an inquiry to have a deep look into the structural and operational arrangement of the country’s ethnic federation. 

Thirdly, regarding the marginalized minority groups because of their occupation, the marginalization takes place mainly in social activities, for instance, according to Susanne Epple (2018, p.173), ‘eating and drinking taboos resulting in separation within these spheres are among the most obvious... another taboo is intermarriage between the members of groups of low and high statuses’. The FDRE Constitution lacks an apparent post to directly address the rights of ethnic and occupational minorities in the ethnic-based regional states it established. The federal constitution envisages ethnicity as the sole organizing principle, but it overlooked constitutional guarantees to minorities who are hardly labeled as ethnic groups per the regional or federal parameters of classifying groups as ethnic groups or not. 

Accordingly, many people are discriminated against, alienated, abused, and marginalized based on their work, and set to decent status in contemporary Ethiopia. For instance, communities living in southern Amhara called Enewari Woreda, Beta Israel, and the Wayto – Amhara region, the Hadicho, Mana, and Manja and ‘Fuga’-‘Wood Workers’ minority group in Gurage Zone living in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR). 

The way forward 

Regarding the endogenous minority groups, the Ethiopian constitution has certainly provided for some rights related to minorities. Each ethnonational group recognized at the federal or state level has at least one representative in the second chamber (the House of Federation). Smaller ethnic groups, though not absolute all-inclusive, which have less than 100,000 people have 20 seats reserved in the HoF. Spacing up more reservations should be sought, when it comes to considering non-represented groups and other minorities for the more meaningful roles. Thus, the power of constitutional interpretation of the HoF should be revisited and a more independent and impartial body, that is, the judiciary organ should be sought with judicial reforms, which are being practiced in other federations. 

Looking at the exogenous minority groups’ inclusion problem; the most common two institutional arrangements for addressing concerns of intra-unit minorities are optionally either power-sharing or non-territorial autonomy (NTA). In some federations, the federal government is also provided with constitutional powers to monitor the constituent unit’s compliance with the rights of intra-unit minorities. Constitutionally entrenched rights and strong enforcement mechanisms can also mitigate the risks of majority tyranny and address intra-unit minority rights. There should be complementary measures in the sense that they do not oppose the right of ethnonational groups to self-rule but rather aim to mitigate its adverse effects on intra-unit minorities from lack of representation. 

The first key feature of the power-sharing arrangement is the inclusion of the main political actors that represent the main segments of society (including intra-unit minorities) into the political process and decision-making bodies at the federal, constituent-unit, or local-government level depending on where the locus of the demand is. Another important component of Non-Territorial Autonomy is cultural and linguistic autonomy conferred on dispersed ethnonational diversity. Besides, empowering the federal government to serve as guardians for intra-unit minorities against possible repression and discrimination by the titular ethnonational majority can be sought too. At last, the widely used measure to ensure intra-unit minorities’ rights and rights of individual citizens is the inclusion of a comprehensive catalog of fundamental rights in the federal constitution (also in state constitutions) and subsequent enforcement through institutional mechanisms including strong courts. This mandate remains principally that of the federal government but states can also enrich rights protection by providing better rights, not less than the standard, set by the federal constitution. 

Finally, while addressing the complexes of marginalized minority groups because of their occupation, the concerned bodies in the government structure, the community, and other international stakeholders should take systematic measures such as comprehensive training and human rights education to these particular peoples and the community at large. Meanwhile, intensive socio-political and other packages of empowerment should also be sought when reaching these marginalized minority groups, along with curiously carved out geographic and cultural elements of the deprived. 

Overall, the key point here is the search for solutions on the issue at stake should lie in democratizing every aspect of the country’s socio-political system; and it should be complemented by practical measures to address the real problem of minority groups in relation to their quest for socio-political inclusion.


 --- * Tsegaye Dejene Daba is lecturer at Ambo University and he is currently working on his Ph.D. at the Haramay University.


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