Ethiopia’s Forgotten Census
Amidst Ethiopia's political transition beginning in 2018 along with the ongoing war, the completion of Ethiopia's fourth decennial national census has slipped through the cracks. Now five years past its originally scheduled date in 2017, the government postponed the census a third time in June 2020. Initially delayed over domestic security concerns, the 2020 rescheduling was in response to COVID-19 hindering the preparation and implementation of the count. As a result, the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) released its first electoral constituencies map in March 2020 using census data from 2007. The electoral map demarcation used census data from 1994 — when Ethiopia's population was roughly half of what it is today. When asked in 2019 about the census, NEBE Chairwoman Birtukan Mideksa said it had no bearing on the then-upcoming election because the NEBE only needed the number of registered voters to structure polling stations and hold elections.
Early hopes of a more inclusive Ethiopian government after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's 2018 ascension have dimmed since the outbreak of conflict between the Federal Government and the regional government of Tigray. As an opportunity to either build confidence or weaken national unity, the census poses significant political challenges.
Past censuses in Ethiopia have faced claims of politicization and under-representation and/or exclusion of some ethnic groups. Given the persistent contestation of the country's federal system, the pending census leaves the door open to continuing questions about power, legitimacy, and representation in government and future elections. While Ethiopia's constitution does not explicitly address census sequencing in relation to elections, the count nonetheless has significant political implications.
First: changes in population — both amount, location, or Nation — will impact the balance of national political representation. Representation at both levels of Ethiopia's national government is apportioned based on population. Seats in the House of Peoples' Representatives (the lower house) are allotted by direct vote in single-member constituencies demarcated using census data. Single-member constituencies are determined per 100,000 people. In the upper House of the Federation, each Nation is allowed one member plus an additional representative for each one million of its population. An increase, for example, in the population of a given state would garner increased representation and could shift balances of power among traditionally ethnically-formed political parties in parliament.
Second: Population affects the amounts of funding the Federal Government allocates sub-nationally. Ethiopia's system of fiscal federalism devolves significant funding to the lower levels of government through block grants. The House of the Federation determines the amount of federal subsidies to the states, accounting for population (among other variables). This makes the census' population count financially significant since it helps determine the level of income each state receives to fund operations and provide services. Not only will the block grant disbursements change based on updated census figures, political influence in the grant making process will also likely change, particularly following an election as the central government may redistribute grant amounts among the states in order to build or maintain power relationships at lower government levels.
Third: Population shifts could be a contributing or mobilizing factor to secessionist calls — a contentious issue that the federal government has actively sought to avoid. The Federal Constitution allows any Nationality the right to secede internally and become a state. At the subnational level, the various governance entities (Woreda, cities, and Liyu Woreda) are not established along clear-cut population lines; thus census figures depicting a significantly increased population among Nationalities could bolster current and potential secession demands by providing further grounds for a separate state based on size of population.
Holding the census presents immense challenges. The deadline has long passed to conduct the count before the much-anticipated 2021 elections. While the war in Tigray and conflicts in other regions pose challenges, there are lingering procedural questions as well.
One issue involves how the Census Commission will approach the question of ethnic identification. In the past, citizens were asked to self-identify, and any person who chose to identify as "Ethiopian" or "Mixed Ethnicity" was categorized under "Other." It is not clear if this ethnic identity question will be included in the next census. Another challenge involves the question of place of birth — a key data point for determining internal migration figures. This question was not included in the 2007 census, yet it is a particularly salient one given that UNHCR reported more than 5.5 million internally displaced persons as of March 2022.
A related issue will be how to include the cross-border refugees who have fled the conflict in Tigray. Finally, Ethiopia's census is intended to be conducted using improved technologies. The rollout for which needs to include training census enumerators, providing them with needed resources, and ensuring their safety and their access to remote areas or areas not currently in government's control. Ethiopia's fraught 2021 national elections did not advance peace. Additionally, another nationwide effort, the National Dialogue Commission, while just beginning its 3-year mandate, already faces concerns regarding inclusivity and feasibility of its implementation.
Due to the election and the big task ahead for the Dialogue Commission, it is critical for the census to have a proper and successful procedure to avoid worsening matters. Should Ethiopia fail to address the challenges to the census implementation, lay out a transparent and timely census roadmap, and ensure an independent count, the country risks more than undermining the census' credibility but weakening efforts to build peace and national unity.
 The Ethiopian Constitution defines "ethno-linguistic communities as a "Nation, Nationality or People…a group of people who have or share a large measure of a common culture or similar customs, mutual intelligibility of language, belief in a common or related identities, a common psychological make-up, and who inhabit an identifiable, predominantly contiguous territory."
Hannah Akuiyibo was the Senior Program Associate with the Wilson Center Africa Program, where she manages the Africa Program's daily activities, grants, and projects.
The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center's Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.
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The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations. Read more