What happened in Ethiopia? Simplistic narrative

My previous posts were deep dives for readers already familiar with the basic facts. Today, I just want to respond to this request: It's not very simple, sorry Matt, but the following is about as simple as it can be made:
  • In 1991, the communist regime of Ethiopia was overthrown by a coalition of rebel groups led by the TPLF and the EPLF, and joined by OLF and others.  This alliance masked a contradiction, EPLF was a multi-ethnic party fighting for independence of the then-province of Eritrea from Ethiopia, and TPLF was an ethnic party, while the two were led by members of the same ethnic group.
  • OLF sooned fell out with TPLF and became an armed opposition group and its leaders went into exile.
  • In 1993, under EPLF (renamed PFJD), Eritrea became an independent country.
  • The TPLF became the dominant party in Ethiopia and instituted a system of ethnic apartheid where different ethnic groups had separate regions and parties.
  • In 1998 the former allies had a falling out and war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia. After 2 years the massive war ended in a stalemate and the two governments remained enemies for the next 18 years.
  • Economically, the formerly Marxist TPLF adopted a "developmental state" model, where the government had tight controls on many areas, but was much freer than the fully communist system that preceded it. GDP growth was very high in the 2000s. However, party affiliated businesses dominated the economy,  cronyism and corruption were high and resentment of the TPLF elite grew.
  • The TPLF ruled until 2018 with an iron fist, within a coalition called EPRDF. In the 2005 elections, opposition parties made significant gains for the first time and TPLF responded with a massive crackdown, opposition leaders were imprisoned many receiving death sentences. In the following elections, the ruling party "won" 545 out of 547 seats in 2010, and 100% of the seats in the  2015 elections. Ethiopia often topped the world charts of number of journalists and opponents imprisoned.
  • Discontent grew to a boiling point and after several years of massive protests TPLF lost power in 2018. Abiy Ahmed a member of a junior party in the coalition called OPDO was chosen to lead EPRDF. Abiy dissolved the coalition and formed a new party called PP. All the constituent parties of EPRDF merged into PP, except TPLF which refused and retreated to its home province of Tigray where it continued to dominate.
  • From 2018 to 2020, Abiy started a series of reforms, liberalizing key economic sectors, freeing political prisoners, inviting exiled opposition politicians to return, legalizing banned opposition parties, and making a peace treaty with Eritrea, which earned him a Nobel peace prize.  
  • Meanwhile, TPLF repeatedly defied the federal government, harboring individuals indicted for assassination attempts, corruption, etc. During this period TPLF still dominated the top ranks of the federal armed forces and the economy, and its regional militia was widely believed be larger than the federal army. TPLF used its considerable resources to instigate ethnic conflicts throughout the country.  From the OLF, which was now a legal political party, a more radical group called the OLA split off and launched an armed struggle.  For 2 years the federal government bent over backwards to avoid direct conflict with TPLF, attempted negotiations,  sent groups of "elders" to mediate, etc. At the same time Abiy was working to reduce the TPLF's grip on the military. 
  • In 2020, the independent Electoral Commission, led by a former opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa, postponed federal elections because of Covid-19. All major parties except TPLF agreed to the postponement. In September, TPLF held its own elections in Tigray where it "won" 100% of the seats, and declared that it no longer recognized the federal government.  In October, when the government appointed new leaders for the federal military bases in the Tigray region, the TPLF rejected and turned back the appointees. 
  • Finally on the night of November 3-4 2020, the TPLF launched what it called a "pre-emptive" attack and seized 5 federal military bases in Tigray (the Northern Command) which held an estimated 80% of the country's military hardware.  As part of it, TPLF loyal soldiers in the federal army attacked their colleagues from within the barracks, murdering hundreds in their sleep, a move which was seen as a deep betrayal in the Ethiopian military.
  • In response, the federal government launched what it called a "law enforcement operation" to bring those responsible for the attack to justice.
  • On November 9-10, as fighting raged throughout Tigray, a TPLF group called Samri killed hundreds of civilians in a place called Mai Kadra. Mai Kadra is in a region which was annexed to Tigray in the early 1990s, but was previously part of Begemder (aka Gonder) province, which is now in the Amhara region. On November 29, following battles where control of the city of Axum changed hands from TPLF to the Eritrean army,  Eritrean soldiers conducted house to house raids and killed hundreds of men they claimed were part of the fighting. 
  • The federal army, with the help of Amhara region forces and Eritrean military, managed to regain control of the main cities and towns in Tigray region and declared the "law enforcement operation" finished  by the end of November 2020
  • However the war continued, with accusations of war crimes being made by TPLF against Eritrean and Ethiopian military and echoed by mainstream media in the West. The Ethiopian government prosecuted a number of individuals for war crimes,  but denied systematic war crimes.  The Ethiopian government also said that it was supplying the overwhelming majority of the aid to civilians in Tigray affected by the war, while outside forces were using aid as a cover to provide military support to TPLF.
  • In June 2021, the postponed federal elections were held and the PP won a large majority. A few parties including OLF boycotted, and the elections were delayed to September in about 20% of the country.  But overall it was the freest vote ever held in the country. In terms of popular mandate, PM Abiy is by far the most legitimate head of government the country has had in our lifetimes.  
  • Meanwhile, the TPLF had regrouped and by June 2021, with diplomatic (and possibly covert military) support from the US, regained the military initiative in an operation it called "Operation Alula" throughout Tigray
  • The federal government declared a unilateral ceasefire on June 28 and withdrew from Tigray. 
  • From July to November 2021, having regained control of most of Tigray, the TPLF went on the offensive outside of Tigray on three fronts going deep into neighboring regions: east into the Afar region, south into Wollo and south-west into Gonder in the Amhara region. The offensive was defeated on the eastern and south-western fronts, but successful in the southern direction, capturing the key city of Dessie and, with help from the OLA, advanced to less than 300km from Addis Abeba.
I've tried to be as objective as possible, and left out speculation on motives and other analysis, in favor of just relaying facts. But it's probably obvious that my answer to Matt's question is the same as what the overwhelming  majority of Ethiopians would say: the Bad Guys are TPLF.  


Ethiopia and the ethnicity rat race - part 2: history

Part 1 looked at ethnic federalism in Ethiopia through a geographic lens, and showed it has a bug: that it's not feasible to geographically separate ethnic groups.  

In this post, let's take the historical perspective. The philosophical foundation of ethnic federalism emerged in the early 1970s, as a solution to the problem called "Ethiopia as a prison of nations". Here's one summary:

So, the Ethiopian Student Movement, along with the ethnic nationalists it spawned, referred to Ethiopia as a "prison of nations". 

This idea produced a number of ethnic political parties, often named X Liberation Front, where X is an ethnicity. The most successful of these is of course the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF)  founded in 1975. I guess they had to add the P because there was another group called the Tigray Liberation Front (TLF), the two apparently fought each other and TPLF eliminated TLF in the late 70s. The history of the XLFs is very complicated, full of isms and schisms, featuring different flavors of Marxism-Leninism and extremely violent struggles. The Marxist aspect is not very relevant to our discussion, however the Leninist strategy of "sharpening contradictions" has some bearing. I won't try to summarize that history here, for that see e.g. the excellent History of Modern Ethiopia by Bahru Zewde. Instead let's just focus on one basic assumption of this "prison of nations" concept, namely that ethnicity comes first and the country comes after. Does this assumption have any historical basis?

Ethiopia is 1,700 years old. (The specific number  doesn't change the point I am making here so I put discussion of it in a different post). What about the 80+ ethnic groups that exist in the country?  Consider the Amharic language. During the Axumite period, Ge'ez was a living language.  Many people believe that Amharic is a descendant of Ge'ez, which is not wrong but is an oversimplification:
"As early as the middle of the fourth century, military expeditions may have reached the area later known as Amhara. By the mid-ninth century, four centuries later, a distinctive Amhara region was recognized. The conquering Semitic-speakers spoke a language which was perhaps only four to seven centuries removed from the common origin with Giiz" 
Source:  The origin of Amharic, Ethiopian Journal of Language and Literature, Vol. 1 No. 1 (1983)
The oldest surviving written Amharic documents are 14th century praise songs in honor of the kings.  In biology, there is no precise moment when one species evolved into another. Similarly, as cultures and languages evolve, it is hard to pinpoint a specific date when a new language or ethnicity is born.  The consensus among the linguists seems to be that Amharic gradually evolved, not directly from Ge'ez but from a Semitic language related to Ge'ez, which got mixed on top of a Cushitic "substratum" (or base) which was a member of the Agew family.  The Agew family includes the Qimant and Bilen languages, which are still spoken in the region today.  But whether you consider the earliest or the latest time frame, it's clear that Amharic did not exist before Ethiopia. Certainly it doesn't make sense to think of the Amhara ethnic group as  being "imprisoned" in Ethiopia. 

Speaking of Agew (also spelled Agaw), a few months ago, in August 2021, something called the Agew Liberation Front popped up in a Facebook post and a Twitter post.  The first thing that comes to mind regarding Agew history is the Zagwe dynasty (1137-1270AD) and the amazing churches they build around Lalibela. Tradition has it that the first Zagwe Emperor, Mara Takla Haymanot, married the daughter of the last king of Axum.  One of the most fascinating characters in Ethiopian history is the insurgent Queen Yodit Gudit (940-80AD).  The information about her is from oral tradition, so it should be taken with a grain of salt, but apparently she was Agew, her religion was Jewish, when she reached Shewa  she encountered Oromo resistance (more on that below), and according to one source, the Zagwe founder Mara Talka Haymanot was her relative.  Though these details are far from  proven, even if they are completely legendary, they show that the Agew are glorified and viewed as part of the continuum with Axum in Ethiopian history, hardly what you would expect if the ethnic group was a "prisoner".  In short, you could say no one is more Ethiopian than the Agew. Back to the present... The first strange thing about the ALF is that the social media posts announcing its existence and alliance with TPLF were by people whose social media activities consist almost entirely of advocating for TPLF. Second, I did a thorough web search, and found no web page, no news article, no press release, nothing referring to this group before that week. Even after the announcement, no member or leader of the group could be identified. Now that a couple of months have elapsed, perhaps there's more info, I would love to hear who these individuals are, and their actions or thoughts before this year.  But so far,  it really looks like ALF was just manufactured by TPLF in 2021! A move straight out of the Leninist playbook. 

Speaking of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), there's a puzzle there too. The Tigrinya language is Semitic intermixed with Cushitic, it emerged in the middle ages, and the earliest known written examples date from the 13th century -- parallel with Amharic. And just like Amharic, Tigrinya didn't exist before Ethiopia.  The people are found in a number of historical provinces: AgameAkele Guzai, Enderta, Hamasien, Serae, etc. But today we are told that there's an ethnic group called Tigrinya people in Eritrea, and a different ethnic group called Tigrayans  (also known as Tegaru) in Tigray. Nobody seems to be able to explain the actual difference between them! Of course there are different accents, families, etc.  But the distance from, say, Senafe in Eritrea to Adigrat in Tigray is less than the distance from Senafe to Asmara, physically, and even in the blood relations. The separation is political: they ended up on different sides of a border from 1889 to 1936, when Eritrea was Italian but Ethiopia remained independent.  Other groups were also split by this border like the Afar, but nobody says Afars on either side of the border are different ethnic groups. Forty seven years is like the blink of an eye on the timescale of ethnic groups and language evolution. Yet, if you read the news today, you would think the Tigrinya speakers of Eritrea, and those who are in Tigray are different people, capable of committing "genocide" against each other. It's a category error.  Eritrea is multi-ethnic like Ethiopia, and the majority ethnic group happens to be the same one as in Tigray. A naive outsider who has only been following the news of the past year would be surprised to hear that Isaias Afewerki (President of Eritrea) and the late  Meles Zenawi (long-time leader of TPLF and Prime Minister of Ethiopia) were cousins. Another example is Yemane Kidane. The history of EPLF and TPLF is way more complicated than we can describe here (again I refer you to the book by Bahru Zewde as a starting point), but the bottom line for us here is that framing their current enmity as ethnic makes no sense. You can call it intense, brutal, horrifying, many things, but not ethnic, it's political.

Yohannes IV, Emperor of Ethiopia from 1871 to 1889 was from Tigray. Yet he chose Amharic as the official language of his government.  Haile Selassie I, who today is cast by XLFs as the ultimate symbol of Amhara domination, was half Oromo through his mother.  His wife, Etege Menen, was also part-Oromo. Her grandfather was Ras Mikael Ali of Wollo, who famously played a huge role in the battle of Adwa. The Yejju Oromo, from the area around  Weldiya (a city which has been very much in the news in the last few months!), are well known as having dominated the politics of the empire during the Zemene Mesafint era (1769-1855). The picture that emerges when examining the last 300 years is of power alliances and rivalries as frequently within ethnic groups as across ethnic groups. In other words, the exact opposite of  the idea of a "prison of nationalities". 

The 18th century, by the way, was not the beginning of the Oromo presence in what is now called the Amhara region: 
"According to one written source obtained from the Yajju Oromo inhabitants of the Amhara National Regional State, these peoples are mentioned as inhabitants of northern Ethiopia already before the 14th century. This document deals with the rise and fall of the Yajju dynasty. According to this source, the Bokoji clan was the first Oromo settler of Yajju. Later on, however, the Muslim Oromo of the Yajju known as Warra-Sheih family took the territory of the Bokoji clan. From the early settlers of Bokoji clan in Yajju, the same document cites the names of the founding fathers like Kumbi, Marso, Shekka and Abba Dimbar. Maliye, Gammada and Ilman Oromo. At present, this region is found in southern Waldiya. The man named Abba Dimbar Maliye occupied and settled in the present region of Gubbaa Laftoo."

Source: "History of the Oromo to the Sixteenth Century", Alemayehu Haile, Boshi Gonfa, Daniel Deressa, Senbeto Busha, Umer Nure (2004) 

According to the same source, this time frame  is corroborated by an Arabic account of the war of Ahmed Gragn entitled "Futuh al Habasha" which says that when he got there in 1533, the Yejju had been in the area for 6 generations, i.e 14th century, which also agrees with oral tradition from the region, and with the chronicle of King Amda Tsion (1314-44).  Going further, from the same book, we learn that Yekuno Amlak, the king who overthrew the aforementioned Zagwe dynasty in 1270 and established the Solomonic line that lasted until 1974, was from Sagarat, near Lake Hayq (another place that's been in the news a lot lately!) which was ruled by an Oromo Azaj named Challa. Still earlier, archeological evidence shows that in the Menz province of the Shewa region, the Oromo presence goes back to the 8th century, which, as we saw above, is right in the thick of the origins of Amharic. In other words, there has never been a time when Amhara and Oromo were not deeply intertwined.

Moving a bit further north, in the same book, we find this about Oromo presence in present-day Tigray:
"The present-day settlers of Wajirat named Dobba are difficult to identify whether or not they belong to Offla or Marawa Oromo, but they are known to have been old Oromo settlers of Northern Ethiopia. Igguy and Marawa Oromo are said to have been settled in Wajirat since ancient times and that they are prior settlers. This period preludes the reign of the renowned Christian King Amda Siyon (1314-44) and this king himself is said to have recruited Oromo into his army  [...]  At present Wajjirat is bounded by Afar in the east, Inderta in the west, and Rayya in the south. The settlement area of Rayya which begins from southern Wajirat extends southwards as far as Amba Alage or Endamehone. The southern part of Rayya territory is known as Rayya and Azebo whereas the southern territory is known as Rayya and Qobbo. The Dobba Oromo that settled over the mountainous highland territories is traditionally known by the name of Chittu-Ofa. There are several Oromo tribes known with the name Dobba that are living in Hararge, northern Shawa and other Oromo regions."

It might surprise some readers to find ancient Oromo presence so far from present day Oromia.  Further, how can you reconcile that with the common (mis)conception of Oromos as "invaders" who arrived in the 16th century? One possible explanation, from the same source, is:

"Oral tradition collected from the Macha Oromo elders tell us that there are two groups of Oromo settlers in Western Oromia. One group consists of pastoralist Oromo that came and settled in the region during the 16th century organizing itself under a military leadership of the Gada system. Another group consists of sedentary agriculturalists that lived in the region long years before the advent of the pastoralist Oromo. The earlier group called itself "Orom-Duro." It means the ancient or prior Oromo. They used this term to make a distinction with the pastoralist Oromo" 

Note that the word "d'ro" means "long time ago" in Amharic.  There are indeed many basic words in modern Amharic that are similar to Oromo words, which should not be surprising given all of the above. History shows that the Oromo culture is one of, if not the most successful in Ethiopia,  in the evolutionary sense. It has been expanding, assimilating, and influencing others for over a thousand years. (Another source is this book by Martial de Salviac, a fascinating read for modern readers with a thick skin, I will post a review when time permits).

But XLF doctrinaires of the last few decades, e.g. in the OLF, tend to cast the Oromo as victims. A very sad misconception. Unfortunately it's a very effective strategy for ambitious politicians to exploit. I am reminded of this comment by Tigist Gemeda on a previous post on this blog (see also her more recent tweet). Her grandfather was a Balambaras, a high ranking Ethiopian during the reign of Haile Selassie I, but some of his family in the present day are key OLFites who "manipulate" people and exploit a sense of "persecution" for political ambition. Very courageous and powerful stuff. 

My meandering through history is very incomplete, I only mentioned 7 out of the 80+ ethnic groups, focusing, not coincidentally, on the areas at the heart of the current war. The point is not to give a complete history. Nor is it to debate whether there has been ethnic discrimination and conflicts. The answer is obviously yes there has!  Nor is it an argument for centralization. I happen to believe in decentralization and localism, but not along artificial "procrustean" ethnic lines. Rather it is to show that the "prison of nationalities" concept of Ethiopian history is wrong. You can call it a melting pot, a chessboard, a game of thrones etc. But it's not a recently built "prison" of pre-existing ethnic groups yearning for separation.  

And ethnic political parties and ethnic regions, i.e. apartheid, as a solution to this "problem" is a very recent phenomenon. It's a bug, which was formally implemented in the constitution of 1994. It goes against history and it doesn't work. The concept was invented by some university students in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And hasn't improved with age. But they mastered armed struggle and perfected the ideological tactics of Leninism, they were successful in co-opting thousands of people to their way of thinking, and passed it on to another generation of ideologues and political opportunists...  Kudos to them I guess. They are still at it. Most recently with UFEFCF (I think it stands for United Front of Ethnic Free Cash Flow) a pathetic collection of XLF puppets manufactured by TPLF masterminds in 2021. How long will this trick work? How long is the country going to be hostage to the bankrupt ideas of a bunch of unwise 20-something year old undergrads from 50 years ago? 

I don't expect to convince any XLF true believers with this post. It's almost impossible to change someone's mind when their livelihood or public persona is deeply invested in an idea, no matter how wrong it is. But many well-intentioned people have fallen for this false solution. They think: "if only X group was free from Y ethnic group...", "X has always oppressed Y...",  etc.  So they buy into "solutions" based on the false conception, judging people by their ethnicity, ascribing collective ethnic guilt for political injustice, blaming present individuals for past sins committed by members of their group etc. They are like the poor old lady who, a few years ago, wanted to repair a deteriorated fresco in a Spanish church. She had the kindest intentions, and she thought it was a simple matter of applying a bit of paint here and there. But the more she did, the worse it got, and she tried to fix her mistakes with more of the same. The result was perhaps the "worst art restoration of all time":

Ethiopia is like that painting: old, damaged, but can only be understood as a beautiful whole.

In my previous post, I tried to show why geographically, ethnic politics lead to doom. Here I hope that I have shown the richness of our different languages and cultures is not fixed, it's a dynamic process. A country evolves. But a person can't change their ethnic identity. So if your politics are based on ethnicity, you are asking to be trapped in conflict. Reject ethnic apartheid! Don't support any political party that has an ethnic group in its name. Believe in politics as a process of learning from mistakes, of forgiveness, where good ideas rise and bad ideas sink. Be resolute in defense of an Ethiopia that transcends ethnicity, and magnanimous in victory. 


Ethiopia and the ethnicity rat race - part 1: geography

On the first anniversary of the start of this horrible war,  let's take a moment to examine the concept that bedevils the country.  Obviously, there are much more urgent things going on right now, but this is something that's been bothering me for more than half my life, and my cup runneth over.  For a simple minded engineer, if something is broken, you debug it. And like many many other Ethiopians, I think there's a bug in the operating system of the country, a bug which was introduced by a system update about 30 years ago.  And this bug made it vulnerable to infection by catastrophic viruses,  which are now threatening a system crash.  

I'm referring of course to the idea that the ethnic group, rather than the person, is the fundamental unit of society. In this design, the country is a collection of ethnic groups. The name of your administrative region, the name of your political party,  your ID card, everything is based on ethnicity. That's a bug. Whether you like it or not is irrelevant, it just doesn't work. To see why, let's look at just one aspect: geography. In a follow-up post I will look at it from historical perspective. (Update: part 2 focusing on history is posted)

A few months ago, I tried to answer a basic question: is it feasible to separate ethnic groups into different geographic regions in Ethiopia? I gave it the fancy title of ethnogeography and posted a snippet at the time. What follows is a more detailed explanation.
If you are not technically inclined, feel free to skip the next two paragraphs and go to Results.

Metric: To make the point objective, let us introduce a precise definition of  "ethnic diversity".  For example, if region A has three ethnic groups each representing 1/3 of the population, and region B has 4  groups with 55%, 15%, 15%, 15%, which one is more "diverse"?  You could say B is more diverse since it has 4 groups and A has only 3. Or you could say B is less diverse because there's a clear majority group.  So what's a good metric of diversity? You could ask similar question about anything that is based on a probability distribution. For example for income inequality, they use the Gini-coefficient. Here, I decided to use the following metric: if you take two random people from a population, what's the probability that they belong to the same group? This captures the following intuitive idea:  how likely is it that your neighbor, or your classmate, or a person you meet on the street is from another group? This metric has a simple formula, which is 1 - Σipi2, where pi represents the fraction of the population that belongs to group i.

Data: For the data, we can use the Ethiopian census of 2007 which you can find on statsethiopia.gov.et. There are also copies on other websites run by the UN, World Bank and the US government.  This data is not ideal (more on that below) but at least it's consistent, I've cross-checked the different copies and archives and it is the real data. To be on the safe side, I've also saved a copy of the data here. Unfortunately the data is in PDF files! So I had to write a  custom parser (code at the link) to extract it into usable form.

Results:  Now we can look at ethnic diversity at each available administrative region level: country, province ("k'l'l") or district ("zone"). A diversity score of 0 means there's no diversity at all, everyone in the region is from one group.  A diversity score of 1.0 means every person belongs to a different ethnic group.  A score of 0.25 means there's a 25% chance that any two people chosen at random are from different ethnic groups. Here's what it looks like at the zone level. The darker regions are more diverse.

This gives us a sense of diversity spatially.  But of course, this doesn't tell the whole story. Some tiny regions have huge populations and vice versa. So to get a better sense we can view diversity and population size together as follows:

Keep in mind the colors represent the degree of diversity, not the ethnic groups themselves, of which there are more than 80.  So if the country could be neatly divided into ethnic regions, it would all be light yellow. If it was completely mixed everywhere, it would all be dark brown.  For details, including the code to generate these results, see this notebook on github.

Note we can assume this data understates the degree of diversity.  One hint is the number of people classified as "Ethiopian National of different parents".  For example, according to this data, there are only 20,724 such people in Addis Abeba, less than 1% of the population, which is absurdly low.  One explanation for this is that the census was done in 2007, when ethnicism was the governing philosophy, and the 2005-2007 period political repression and fear were at a peak. We can assume that most people who are mixed just chose one ethnicity, out of convenience or necessity.  I had a couple of personal experiences during that regime which corroborate this -- one before this period and one after this period.  Both times,  I was asked for my ethnicity when interacting with the government (one instance was local, the other was federal). When I said I am a mix of three different ethnicities, both times the officials refused to accept the answer, and demanded that I choose one. In the end, both times I just told them to choose for me.  To this day, I'm not sure what they filled in.  Of course my anecdotes don't  prove anything about the census data, but given the political environment of the last few decades, the real number of individuals with mixed parentage is most likely higher than the above shows.

What we see in the above pictures is a very very diverse country. Not just in the superficial sense of having 80 different ethnic groups. But in our precise sense that they are geographically deeply intertwined. Some highlights: In Addis Abeba, if you pick two random people, there's a 71% chance that they are of different ethnic groups! In Dire Dawa it's 69%. But it's not just the major cities that have a deep ethnic mix. In Mezhenger, it's 81%; Metekel -- 76%.   Looking more closely, the Awash river, the Rift Valley lakes, the Omo river, and the Nile valley are apparent in the pattern of colors, even though they are not drawn on the map.  If you think about the history of civilization, it kind of makes sense. People need water, so  rivers and lakes attract populations, and over hundreds of years, those areas will become more mixed, while desert and mountainous area populations remain relatively isolated. (I could be totally wrong about this explanation, happy to learn more!)

Most importantly, it's clear that in most areas,  separating ethnic groups geographically is practically impossible.  Behind our technical metric is a grim truth, almost too horrific to contemplate. When we say the diversity score is 0.71, what we are saying is that if your region had to become ethnically homogeneous, there's a 71% chance that either you or your neighbour are not gonna make it.  And homogeneity is the inexorable direction of ethnic political parties in ethnic regions. Now look at that map again, and think of the tens of millions of people in the brown parts.  For many people, the dividing lines would not be just between neighbours,  they would be inside the house, in the bedroom, inside my own body!

It's like the story of Procrustes from Greek mythology. Procrustes owned a hotel, and he was very proud of a key feature -- he had designed the perfect bed. Then, guests of different height  started showing up. Some too tall, some too short for his bed. But Procrustes was so convinced of the perfection of his bed that he decided the problem was the guests. So he insisted on making them fit by chopping or stretching their body to fit his design.
Ethnic federalism is the Procrustean bed of Ethiopia. 

And that's the bug.  It's even right there in the Amharic name for the administrative regions: ክልል (k'l'l) . I had never really thought about  until I heard it broken down by an erudite Ethiopian (not sure who it was, citation needed!) but the word is not neutral like province, state, etc.  The verb መከለል is to put a barrier, a shield, a fence etc.  It implies protection from the other, assumes hostility and need for separation, apart-ness. When combined with ethnicity,  the closest analogue we can find in another language is ... apartheid.  We must fix this bug. 

The changes that started in 2018, including (re)formation of some political parties on a non-ethnic basis, the removal in some regions of ethnicity from IDs etc.  Those were hopeful signs! But the bug is still there, and it has never been more threatening than today.

Oh what a rat race!
Some a gorgon-a, some a hooligan-a, some a guinea-gog-a
In this here rat race
Political violence fill your cities
When you think there's peace and safety,
A sudden destruction!
Collective security for surety? Yeah
Don't forget your history
Know your destiny
In the abundance of water
The fool is thirsty
Oh it's a disgrace
to see the human race
in a rat race.


How old is Ethiopia?

There are quite a few possible answers:  

  • At one extreme, you could argue Ethiopia is just 27 years old, since the current constitution of the federal republic was implemented in 1994. But that's obviously silly, no one argues for example that France is only 63 years old because the current system (their fifth republic) started in 1958.
  • Or you could say it's 28 years old since Eritrea separated in 1993. But no one argues the US is only 62 years old because the 50th state joined in 1959.  
  • How about the claim, fashionable since the 1970s, that it's 150 years old. This dates it to the reign of Menelik II during which many of the neighbors became European colonies, thus setting roughly the current shape of the map.  Or to Tewodros II (1855), the end of a few decades of "zemene mesafint" where the central government was weak, which many consider the start of the "modern" period.  But just the fact that II in the names is already a hint that this doesn't make sense. The people who were there at the time saw themselves as continuing something, not inventing a new country. 
  • A well established answer is that it started in 1270 AD, the end of the Zagwe period of Lalibela fame, and the start of the Solomonic dynasty's rule.  From that point forward, there's a huge amount of written history, both internal and external.
  • Another answer is to the reign of Ezana, when the name first started being used internally, around 330 AD.  
  • The word Ethiopia itself is of course older, and is believed to be of Greek origin. It can be found in Herodotus in the 5th century BC, and throughout antiquity. But this was an "exonym", and some say it applies to the entire continent which they didn't even know the shape of.   
  • Many Ethiopians say it's 3000 years, going back to Queen of Sheba and Solomon, who lived around 900 BC.  But, while this is the legendary foundation of Ethiopia, it's not exactly documented history. 
  • And some say the first Ethiopian was Lucy who lived about 3 million years ago.  But, while this archaeological find is monumental in the history of humanity, and a great source of pride for Ethiopians, it's a bit silly to call her Ethiopian, especially since she was just a random  Australopithecus whose bones we happened to find. Politics is hard enough even for us Homo Sapiens, let's not drag the poor little "girl" into this. 
So what's the right answer? The best definition -- one that is consistent with how we say how old is China, or Iran, or the USA ---  is not based on a specific shape on a map,  nor a particular political system. What counts is the entity, it's existence as a distinct polity with that name and in that region. And that is well documented as being around 330 AD:

So the most reasonable answer is: Ethiopia is 1,700 years old