Territorial Autonomy as a Constitutional Mechanism to Address Diversity-Driven Conflicts

An Ethiopian Case Study


  • Tesfaye Ayalew Mekonen College of Law, Debre Berhan University


Ethnolinguistic community, Federalism, Polity, Territorial autonomy


Ethiopia is the oldest independent, and the second most populous, country in Africa. It is the home of over eighty ethnolinguistic communities, also known as ‘nations, nationalities and peoples’. None of them represents 50 percent of the total population. The constitution adopted following the regime change in 1991 has introduced a federal state structure that bestows territorial autonomy, including the unconditional right to secession, to all the ethnolinguistic communities equally and irrespective of their demographic size
and settlement pattern. The framers and advocates of the constitution consider this model of territorial autonomy as an approach to deal with diversity and respond to identity-related questions. Others contend that the constitution is an instrument for the ethnicization of administrative provinces that heightens and proliferates intercommunal conflicts in the country, rather than resolving the longstanding political turmoil associated with identity-related questions. I analyze the historical discourse that led to the formation
of the federation, the interplay between the central/federal government and sub-state governments, the protection of diffused minorities, the issue of boundary demarcation between sub-states, and the status and role of the sub-states` security apparatuses. Though much was token about its successes, I argue that the constitution is defective in its design, and if it has not aggravated the underlying causes of persistent political crisis across the country it has certainly not addressed them. After about three decades of the inauguration of the federation, the unsettled identity-related questions that have manifested in outspread interethnic clashes and tension between sub-states due to land claims and/or identity questions prove the deficiency of the constitutional mechanism, notably the multi-level territorial autonomy model, to resolve such protracted and complex issues which have unprecedentedly riddled the country. Thus, reconsideration of the constitution through a stable and comprehensive transitional justice process is necessary to address outstanding issues and re-legitimize and consolidate the Ethiopian polity.

Author Biography

Tesfaye Ayalew Mekonen, College of Law, Debre Berhan University

Tesfaye Ayalew Mekonen is a lecturer in law at the College of Law, Debre Berhan University. Currently, he is on study leave. He holds bachelor’s degree in Laws (LL. B), Master of Law (LL.M), and Master of Peace and Conflict Studies (MPCS).




How to Cite

Mekonen, T. A. (2021). Territorial Autonomy as a Constitutional Mechanism to Address Diversity-Driven Conflicts: An Ethiopian Case Study. Journal of Autonomy and Security Studies, 5(2), 52–77. Retrieved from https://jass.ax/index.php/jass/article/view/57