Say my name: The effects of ethnofederalism on communal violence

Ethnofederalism relies on autonomous regions that are provided as ‘homelands’ to specific ethnic groups. It has frequently been adopted in attempts to reduce the risks of civil war and secessionism. For instance, it underpins the constitutional orders of contemporary Ethiopia and Nigeria; more recently, it has been advocated in Ukraine as well. Prior research has (controversially) discussed how ethnofederalism affects the risks of national-level conflict. However, we know less about its relationship with local-level communal violence that pits different ethnic groups against each other. Yet, investigating this relationship is crucial, as communal violence is often linked to territorial issues, such as conflicts over regional boundaries and local government composition. Moreover, it makes up a mounting share of political violence in many world regions. In this article, we find that ethnofederalism may increase communal tensions between regional majorities and minorities – which may violently escalate at the local level.

Between October 2017 and April 2018, Ethiopia’s Benishangul Gumuz region was the site of deadly communal violence. Ethnic Gumuz and Berta militias, reportedly supported by local authorities, killed dozens and displaced thousands of ethnic Amhara citizens. Although the Amhara settled in Benishangul Gumuz decades ago, they are often cast as ‘outsiders’ and remain politically marginalized in the region, which is designated the ‘homeland’ of its titular Gumuz and Berta ethnicities. This violent escalation of communal tensions mirrors similar local-level conflicts in other Ethiopian regions and multi-ethnic states, including India, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda. Thereby, they highlight an often neglected risk of adopting ethnofederalism as a conflict management tool: while it may alleviate national-level conflict, ethnofederalism may inadvertently increase communal conflict at the local level.

Building on this intuition, we argue that ethnofederalism may increase the risks of communal violence between regional majorities and minorities for two reasons. First, it may foster discontent among regional minorities who find themselves politically and economically marginalized in the designated ‘homeland’ of other groups, such as the ethnic Amhara in Ethiopia’s Benishangul Gumuz region. Owing to their exclusion from local political office and important economic resources connected to it, ethnofederalism also creates incentives for regional minority elites to mobilize for regional government inclusion, regional boundary changes, or new ethnic ‘homelands’ of their own. Communal violence is a viable strategy to achieve these aims, as it increases pressure on national and regional governments to accommodate such demands. Second, ethnofederalism also increases incentives for regional majority elites to aggressively monopolize control over their ethnic ‘homelands‘ to maintain regional political and economic dominance. To do so, they may employ communal violence as a tool of intimidation – to deter local minorities from challenging the status quo – or as a tool of local ‘ethnic cleansing’ – to remove other groups from their ‘homelands’ altogether.

We investigate the expectation that ethnofederalism increases the risk of communal violence between regional majorities and minorities for the case of Ethiopia. Ethiopia has adopted an ethnofederal system in 1994 consisting of regions and zones, most of which are explicitly designated as the ‘homeland’ of specific groups. In Ethiopia, control of local government office is often closely connected to socio-economic resources, such as government jobs, land rights, and resource rents. Thereby, Ethiopian ethnofederalism has fostered tensions between regional majorities (who are titular ethnic groups in their zones and regions) and regional minorities, who often remain politically, economically, and culturally marginalized. Similar to our opening example, tensions between regional majorities and minorities have escalated into communal violence in many of Ethiopia’s regions and zones (see figure 1).

Figure 1. Communal violence in Ethiopia’s zones between 1994 and 2018, by type of actors involved. Most zones are declared the homeland of one or multiple ‘titular’ ethnic groups. As our argument predicts, most incidents of communal violence occur between titular and non-titular groups, whereas communal violence between multiple non-titular groups is comparably rare.

We examine our hypotheses using new quantitative, geographic information on ethnofederalism and the incidence of communal violence in Ethiopia. We compile a list of 118 ethnic groups in Ethiopia, including their settlement patterns, and assess whether they are designated as the titular group in each of Ethiopia’s 80 zones. Next, we collect yearly information on the involvement of these ethnic groups in communal violence in each zone since 1994, using data from the UCDP non-state violence dataset. Our unit of analysis is the ethnic dyad in each Ethiopian zone in each year since 1994. In other words, we investigate whether communal violence erupted between two ethnic groups in each zone and each year since 1994, depending on whether one of these groups held titular status in a given zone.

Using these data, we find that:

  • Communal violence is far more likely to break out between two groups in a zone, if one of these groups is titular, whereas the other is not. This mirrors our argument that ethnofederalism fosters tensions between regional majorities and minorities that may escalate into communal violence (figure 2, panel a, line 1).
  • Second, we find that these risks are higher where non-titular groups are demographically larger compared to the titular group(s), which fosters even higher discontent over their political marginalization (figure 2, panel b). An example is Ethiopia’s Harar region, where the titular Harari form a small, but politically dominant, minority. This has generated regular, at times violent, confrontations with ethnic Oromo who remain politically, culturally, and economically disadvantaged in Harar region.
  • Third, we find that communal violence risks are particularly high where non-titular groups are not only excluded from local political office, but simultaneously economically disadvantaged (in our set up, where they have lower stable nightlights emissions; see figure 2, panel c). An example are ethnic Amhara settlers in Metekel zone that engaged in violence with the titular Gumuz over their combined political and economic marginalization.
  • Finally, the risks of communal violence are also higher where non-titular groups are titular in other zone closeby. Such situations may foster mutual distrust, give rise to commitment problems, and thereby prevent peaceful solutions to local tensions. Simultaneously, they may generate conflict over local boundaries. An example is the conflict between ethnic Guji and Gedeo, each of which has its own designated ‘homeland’. However, substantial proportions of each group settle on the ‘wrong’ side of the border in the other group’s adjoining ‘homeland’, leading to tensions in both zones and between them over zonal boundaries.
Figure 2. Marginal effects of our main terms. Dependent variable: communal violence between two ethnic groups in one year.

To further probe our findings, we also offer numerous robustness checks and two further analyses. First, using Afrobarometer data, we show that members of non-titular groups in Ethiopia are more likely to voice negative attitudes towards the local government, accuse local government of mismanaging land allocation, and to state that they have been physically attacked. This suggestive evidence is in line with the step-wise observable implications of our argument. Second, based on elite interviews conducted in 2018 in Addis Ababa and Hawassa, we also provide qualitative information that further underlines these implications. Specifically, these interviews further highlight how Ethiopia’s ethnofederal system has increased incentives of titular groups to monopolize local government power and discriminate against regional minorities, which has fostered local tensions and violence.

For detailed findings and methodology, please check out the article here.

Say my name: The effects of ethnofederalism on communal violence
Juon, Andreas & Rohrbach, Livia (2023). Journal of Peace Research 60 (3): 428-443.
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