Since the 1930s, under the law by emperor Haile Selassie, the official federal government language of Ethiopia has been Amharic, which is descended from the ancient Ethiopian language Ge’ez. However, the Amharic language is actually only spoken by approximately 29% of the entire Ethiopian population, with 22 millions Ethiopians speaking Amhraic as their first language. As a result, there is no practical or official reason for Amharic to be the sole official federal government language of Ethiopia.
Breakdown of Ethiopia’s rich linguistic diversity
Within Ethiopia, dozens of different languages and dialects are spoken. The Afaan Oromo language is spoken by Ethiopia’s large Oromo group, with 34% of Ethiopia’s total population speaking Afaan Oromo. This means that Afaan Oromo is the most widely spoken language in Ethiopia. The Somali language is spoken by 6% of Ethiopia’s population, with the large majority being part of the Somali region of Ethiopia, located in the east of the country. The Tigrinya language is used by the Tigray group, who mostly inhabit northern Ethiopia as well as the central and southern regions of Eritrea. Like Somali, Tigrinya-speaking Ethiopians account for around 6% of the Ethiopian population.
Council of Ministers’ decision
On 29th February 2020, Ethiopia’s Council of Ministers pronounced their decision to raise the status of Afaan Oromo, Tigrinya, Somali and Afar from regional languages to working federal government languages. The reason for this change was because there have been many tensions between the four main different ethnic groups in Ethiopia, with numerous instances of physical violence and murder, as well as large displacement of ethnic groups. The elevation of these four regional languages to the same level as Amharic will hopefully help to unify the large and hugely diverse country by giving equal recognition to these groups. In a statement, Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed said that “The new languages would play a big role in uniting the country and further improve cultural ties among Ethiopians.”
Reaction to the Council of Ministers’ decision
Although there have been many positive reactions to the Council of Ministers’ decision, others have expressed doubts as to whether Ethiopia has the sufficient budget to instantly put the decision into practice. Despite believing that the elevation of the four languages will ultimately help to defuse ethnic tensions and instead strengthen the Ethiopian state, many think that it will take a long time to realise this objective, in light of its financial cost. Nonetheless, the Council of Ministers’ decision still represents an important step forward in reducing ethnic tensions in Ethiopia.