The ‘Bantustanization’ of Ethiopia and Its Looming Dangers 

Dawit W Giorgis

By Dawit W Giorgis

The term Balkanization has frequently been used in reference to Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism, which has been codified in the country’s dysfunctional constitution that curiously defines politics, citizenship, rights and privileges on ethnic grounds.  However, the use of the term Balkanization in reference to the current situation in Ethiopia is inaccurate, since it does not fully capture the toxic agenda of the architects of the country’s constitution or the misguided policies of the current government.

Strictly speaking, there are no political or administrative terms in history that can fully and adequately explain the bizarre experiment that we see unraveling in Ethiopia. Nonetheless, a term, which comes close to describing the policies of the current government and the unfolding ethnic violence and repression, is ‘bantustanization,’ which has its origin in apartheid South Africa.

“The 1959 Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act relabeled the reserves as “homelands,” or Bantustans, in which only specific ethnic groups were to have residence rights. Later, the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act of 1970 defined blacks living throughout South Africa as legal citizens of the homelands designated for their particular ethnic groups—thereby stripping them of their South African citizenship and their few remaining civil and political rights. Between the 1960s and 1980s, the white-dominated South African government continuously removed black people still living in “white areas”—even those settled on property that had been in their families for generations—and forcibly relocated them relocated them to the Bantustans.”

Bantustanization dehumanizes a population and makes one race superior to others. It confines people to homelands with restricted access to other parts of the country, as was the case in apartheid South Africa. The Bantustans were administrative regions designed to exclude blacks from the South African political system, which was dominated by the white minority under the policy of apartheid — an institutionalized form of segregation and racism.

The idea behind the apartheid ideology was to allow the whites to own the larger proportion of the country with enormous natural resources and to establish  small and weak enclaves, separated and dependent on the racist government. The ultimate objective was to convert these Bantustans into independent satellite states, with full recognition by the international community. However, the apartheid ideology was completely rejected by the international community and the apartheid regime and its cruel policy eventually collapsed. Bantustans were subsequently incorporated with South Africa.

Bantustanization in Ethiopia 

As the Ethiopian leaders responsible for the chaos in the country very well know, it is virtually impossible to carve out any part or region of the country and create a viable state.  Ethiopian ethnic groups can only exist within a united Ethiopia, and the existence of Ethiopia is sine qua non to the survival of allThe history, the geography, the demographic distribution and the shared culture and heritage of the people are so intertwined, they do not allow for either ‘bantustanization’ or complete secession. Despite this fact, the ruling regime seems to be determined to create Bantustans under the subjugation of the dominant and ruling ethnic group.

Tragically, the US did not take firm actions on apartheid or the policy of Bantustans in racist South Africa at the time. Instead, it stood by the segregationist nation, and even allied with it in declaring a costly war on the legitimate government of Angola and in delaying the independence of Namibia. President Reagan, who served as US President from 1981 to 1989, used the phrase “constructive engagement” as a euphemism for dialogue with South Africa:

“His rhetoric of constructive engagement was a cover for doing nothing, actually doing more than doing nothing, really providing American support for a retrograde regime” (1). Reagan staunchly opposed economic sanctions around 1985, while stating publicly that he condemned the inequity in South Africa, revealing “the historical US tendency to rhetorically denounce South Africa’s racial policies while simultaneously doing little to change the established status quo”

It was the civil rights movement that eventually forced the administration to take a stand against apartheid.  The anti apartheid movement:  “culminated in congressional passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid of 1986, which mandated a variety of sanctions designed to force the dismantling of apartheid” (IBID) overriding President Reagan’s veto.

“When Nelson Mandela was freed from jail in 1988, Republicans tried to sweep their support for his erstwhile jailers under the rug. President George H.W. Bush hosted Mandela at the White House and praised him as  “a man who embodies the hopes of millions.” Mandela gave a speech to Congress at which the assembled legislators, including many who had once voted against economic sanctions, interrupted him with three standing ovations and 12 rounds of applause. Today, leaders of both parties have once again cheered for Mandela. What he really could have used was their help when he was imprisoned on Robben Island, trying to end apartheid.”

However the liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC), and its leader, Nelson Mandela, remained to be listed as terrorists until 2008.

Herman Cohen’s Sinister Ploy

Ironically, certain individuals in the US appear to be inclined to repeat the sad history of apartheid now in Ethiopia. A case in point is the recent diatribe by Mr. Herman Cohen, former Assistant Secretary of Sate in the US department of state, ambassador, senior diplomat and author, in which he insinuated the idea of taking Ethiopia back to those shameful years of apartheid and ‘bantustanization’ in South Africa.  Mr. Herman Cohen was an active member of the administration when the US refused to take a firm action on apartheid and ‘bantustanization.’

He tweeted on June 24:

“Failed coup in #Ethiopia’s state was an attempt by ethnic nationalists to restore Amhara hegemony over all of Ethiopia that existed for several centuries prior to 1991. That dream is now permanently dead.”

And on July 19:

“Violence in #Ethiopia‘s Sidama, after similar events in Oromia, Amhara and Somali states, tells us the Ethiopian people will never again allow return to all-powerful authoritarian central govts as under the Emperors, the Derg and the EPRDF/TPLF. The future is true federalism.”

Ethiopians to date do not know what really happened in Bahr Dar, the day of the so-called coup, which is by the way a misnomer. I am curious to know how Mr. Cohen came to know that the killings in Bahr Dar were: “an attempt by ethnic nationalist to restore Amhara hegemony over all of Ethiopia”? Mr. Cohen further asserts: “ that dream is now permanently dead”. Even those very close to power do not yet know what really happened in Bahr Dar. It leads one to assume that Mr. Cohen has exclusive access to the Prime Minister who is the only one that has the complete information regarding this ‘coup’ and the killings of so many people including top officials, information which the PM has yet to share with the Ethiopian People.

Mr. Herman Cohen is once again on the wrong side of history.  His assertion of Amhara’s hegemony in Ethiopia for centuries, which he took out from the propaganda leaflets of the TPLF, has shocked many. He exposed his utter ignorance. The responses to his twit have adequately addressed this.  It is however troubling to realize that it was this man with such ignorance of Ethiopian history, who   decided on the fate of Ethiopia in 1991, at the London conference, which he convened and chaired.  It was supposed to be a negotiation with the interested parties including the Ethiopian government. The Ethiopian government walked out because Mr. Cohen had already decided on the take over of Ethiopia by TPLF.  As a result of this ill-fated decision Ethiopians suffered for 28 years and the country is now near collapse.

The people of Ethiopia forgave Herman Cohen, but never forgot his crimes, when he eventually acknowledged his blunders and regretted his decision, after hundreds of thousands had perished, millions were subjected to Zenawi’s atrocious rule and the country was brought to the brink of disintegration.

Now Mr. Cohen reappears and once again meddles in the affairs of Ethiopia by advocating the break up of Ethiopia.  He suggests that “true federalism” is having   more ‘killils’  (ethnic homelands).  Ethiopia has 90 nationalities and establishing homelands for all is the ultimate definition of democracy for Mr. Cohen.  How does ‘bantustanization’ prevent “ the return to all-powerful authoritarian central governments as under the Emperors, the Derg and the EPRDF/TPLF.”?

The policy that he is irresponsibly propagating is one that would potentially lead to civil war and genocide within Ethiopia, cause considerably devastating instability in neighboring countries, and trigger proxy wars. In the scenario he is promoting, there is a high probability that the Horn of Africa would literally be on fire in the truest sense, with the Arab World and the US scrambling to secure their interests in the Red Sea and in the region. If a civil war starts in Ethiopia the world would also have to brace itself for an unprecedented flow of refugees in all directions, with most destined to Europe across the Sahara. North African coasts would be inundated with Ethiopian and other refugees from the affected neighboring countries in numbers that would pale the recent migrations from that part of Africa in comparison.

Regrettably, it is such senseless arguments as put forth by Mr. Cohen, with a narrow and myopic agenda, that have often put the US on the wrong side of history, as evidenced by recent events in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Egypt and Libya. The failure of the US to respond in the face of the unfolding genocide in Rwanda should have been a bitter lesson. President Clinton and the late United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, despite their belated apologies and acceptances of a degree of responsibility, failed humanity by not responding to the clear early warnings. As a consequence, a million people were massacred and 800,000 people fled the country. The tragedy did not need to happen, but it did; and the US and the international community today live with the indelible scar of guilt and infamy.


Looming Dangers

People have been warning the international community for the last decade about the build up in Ethiopia. We now see genocide unfolding in the country and the silence of the US and the international community is stunning.  It seems as if no lessons have been taken away from Rwanda’s experience. People can only hope that there are seasoned people within the State Department who can understand and mitigate the implications of the irresponsible statements and proposals of discredited individuals like Mr. Herman Cohen.

Those who know Ethiopia do understand that the country cannot break up and an attempt to do so will only introduce an endless civil war, with implications that go far beyond the region. To create a Bantustan, one only needs to apply brute force and military power; however, to dream of ruling over a nation of Bantustans and living in peace is an impossible proposition.

Sadly, the Ethiopian government is giving the finishing touch for the creation of a Bantu-style administrative structure with extremists monopolizing political and economic power. The process of ‘bantustanization’, which  is underway

will ensure that all the other ethnic regions (Kilils or Bantustans) become weak and incapable to challenge the dominant group at the helm of power. The Ethiopian constitution allows the ethnic-based regions (Bantustans) to secede if they wish to. The attempt by some Ethiopian ethnic groups to exercise their rights to secede will not be successful but will lead to conflicts. Like the Bantustans of South Arica they will not be able to get any recognition.

Since each ethnic group does not have a clearly defined boundary accepted by all parties, it will also be one more reason for conflict, as is evident now throughout the country. Unlike the Bantustans, the demography does not allow one region of Ethiopia to be exclusively of one ethnic group, since millions of people of different ethnic backgrounds live scattered in many parts of the country. Like the Bantustans they cannot be viable independent states.

The policy of this government is primitive and those elites who are behind these polices should be tried for crimes against humanity and for deliberately and intentionally creating the conditions for civil war and possible genocide. Bantustanzation is inhumane and should be recognized as a crime under international law.

The regime in Ethiopia is accelerating the fragmentation of Ethiopia into several more weak ‘killis’ to ensure that the regime would be unchallenged. There is even an attempt to further fragment some of the major ethnic groups, as is the case with the Amahras, which seem to pose the greatest challenge to the hegemony of one ethnic group. The shortsighted strategy of this regime is to divide the Amharas along regional lines. This exercise has been launched in subtle ways and there are signs of some cracks in the Amhara community. Currently there are nine ‘killis’; but with the recent movement in the south to create more ‘killils’, the door seems to be open now for more than 80 to claim their own ‘killis.’

Seriously concerned that it might be a prelude to genocide and civil war, the people of Ethiopia are resisting the government’s dangerous policy of ‘batustanization’. It also behooves the international community to condemn the unsound policy, as it did condemn decades ago the establishment  of the Bantustans in South Africa as an integral component of its apartheid policy. In particular, the people of Ethiopia once again call upon the international community to put pressure on the government so that the worst scenario can be prevented.

Statement like that of Mr. Cohen only enflame the already tense and charged political atmosphere. Responsible and eminent people should do everything possible to use their influence to deescalate the tense situation, advise and support the government to establish a national conference of genuinely elected representatives of the people to have an open  dialogue  amongst themselves and design a road map for the country.  Let such an internationally sponsored conference of the people determine the fate of this country, not a handful of extremists.

Dawit W Giorgis

Visiting Scholar, Boston University

African Studies Center



  1. An insightful contribution by the scholar and major Dawit Yohannes. But the soldiers of digital weyanne will jump on you using their many Oromo aliases. Do not mind their mudslinging.

  2. I found this article to be well written and loaded with material for further civil discussion. The most pressing and challenging issue is how that gem of the colored will not push itself into the abyss. Bigots have taken advantage of the reform since April 2018 to place themselves in every region. Many of them are still among us spewing their poison from their comfy homes. They attack every protesting Amhara as ‘hegemonic'(they are not seen using the word ‘neftegna’ quite as often as they used to) and every Oromo who cries foul as an ‘OLFite’. They have derogatory name for everyone. I see parallel and similarities with what it used to take place in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Then, it was who the perfect commie was even though their objective was the same which was overthrowing the late emperor and replace him with the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Both groups went back home responding to the call for return by the Derg but still hurling insults at each other. I was told that one group had managed to gain the preference of the Derg and was given the honor of educating the Derg members with the socialist scriptures. It did not take the insults too long to escalate into violent brawls. The ‘teaching’ group had the luxury of using the Derg’s resources to go after their rivals and had the upper hand. But it did not take too long before their commie sharp tongue got them in trouble with the ruthless and equally ambitious Mengistu. So when it was said and done they managed to take more than half a million cream puffs of the society to the grave with them. Those who survived were left with lifetime psychological scars that will remain with them until their last day on this good earth.

    I hope these sparring groups of our day will take lesson from that ugly part of our history and cool it. Sit down and have civil discussion. Have a stomach to listen to each other. Stop being so sensitive to criticism. The way it is now, federalism has gone a long way over there and any effort to discard it may not be a clever idea. To me what it needs is stronger federal institutions that will have indisputable power over the regions where the rights of the individuals are inviolable irrespective of ethnicity or religion. The right of the individual to live, work and raise a family with protected freedom from fear are guaranteed and protected by the law of the land. And I want to propose this and hold on to your seats for that. Article 39 where the rights to self determination should remain guaranteed with the provision to secede stricken off(out). My long standing conviction is Amharas will not be able to live in peace in a stable society without their Oromo neighbors and vice versa. Without the decisive and heroic participation of my Bareentuma Oromos at Adwa in 1896, every current day Amhara and Tigre could have had Albertoni as his last name. Without the equally heroic and decisive feats by Amharas and Tigre warriors on that day, my last name could have been Vittorio by now.

    The alternative would be so destructive that we should all be ready to see the entire 100 plus citizens displaced and on the move rendering the entire country in ruins. There is no ‘3rd’ way.

    Again, I call upon these two groups (‘Hegemonic and OLFites’) to come to their senses, shake hands and have civil discussions. If you choose to continue spewing poison from your comfy homes and from a safe distance, you have to remember this. First of all, you must be ashamed of yourself and remember that sooner if not later you have to explain that to the Good Lord, The Almighty Our Creator, The Most Beneficent, The Most Merciful!!! Commies-turned-bigots notwithstanding!!!!!!

  3. The leaders of Apartheid South Africa and TPLF have one idealogy they share and promote supremacy and exclusion. Both are fascists with the exception of their colours. The visionaries of the would be great republic of Tigray implemented Bantustanization because they believe that their republic will only be safe and secure through controlling and dominating its Banthustanized and weak neigbours Now that the TPLF has lost power in Ethiopia and has retreated to its home base Tigray, its political project of realizing Banthustanization is in full gear. It has been rallying different non Tigrean activists and organizing alliances for its final goal of formalizing its Bantustanizaation or or what it calles nation states.

  4. The pied pipers are a continuation of infestation of the body politic by Tplf.
    What I don’t understand is why Abiy is not putting out his Administration’s
    position clearly and on a timely fashion.

  5. These are all you wish lists. Your prophesy is baseless, elitist, schouvenistic to call the least. Typical Amhara elites mentality…Ethiopian can never exist without our leadership. You were wrong before and you are wrong again. The past will NEVER COME BACK why not give up because you don’t get it.

  6. Sheealaqa Dawit W. Giorgis has no creative mind except compain about Dr. Abye Ahemd’s short-comings! Didn’t he go home to Ethiopia after the Qeerros/Qarrees/Fanoons liberated the country Waynnee thugs? Perhaps for a position in the new regime? For some benign reasons, he was not included in the emerging regime as part of Amhara group! Hence, he has an ax to grind by continuously bad-mouthing the ruling crowd? At any rate, he would be the last man standing from the genocidal Dergue hordes, shamelessly crying fowl forgetful of his crimes of yesteryears!

  7. I agree that this is an excellent article except the linking of Cohen’s comment to Abiy – pure speculation. Cohen’s assertion of the Amhara hegemony in our recent past history is rubbish. If you take the last two emperors before the 1970s, they were multi-ethnic, just like most Ethiopians. The ruling circle was also multiethnic. The majority of Emperor Menilik’s army were Oromos including military leaders. They could have turned against him if they were not beneficiaries. The emperor before him was a Tigrean but Ethiopian nationalist. I feel sorry for so-called experts who buy into a propaganda material intentionally designed to gain sympathy from the international community and to label an entire people for political ascendancy. In my opinion, the closest we had become to an ethnic hegemonic rule in the modern Ethiopian history is TPLF’s rule where the command in the military, security and the economy was controlled by a few Tigrean elites. That is gone now. The current debate is what type of federalism is good for Ethiopia – regional federation or an ethnic federation. An ethnic federation is by design racist/tribalist form of federation. When you tie in an Ethnic name to a territory based on the majority ethnic group, everybody else who doesn’t belong to that ethnic group becomes a second class citizen in his own homeland. Regional federation coupled with inalienable individual rights could at least provide minorities in the region some right of ownership and belongingness. Ethnic demagogues like the recent Sidama activists would be less inclined to attack innocent people whose ancestors are from other linguistic groups.

  8. What Major Dawit Woldegiorgis wrote here, as I read it several times, is the reflection of the objective reality on the ground in Ethiopia for the last 28 years, and upto now.


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