The Sidama crisis and escalating demands for statehood challenge Ethiopian constitution

By Morris Kiruga

Posted on Friday, 2 August 2019 14:54
Sidama youths chat slogans as they gather for a meeting to declare their own region in Hawassa, Ethiopia 17 July 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Ethiopia’s newly constituted election board says it will hold a referendum for the Sidama Zone in five months, more than a year after the community formally requested statehood. The referendum for what could be the Horn of Africa country’s tenth federal state will most likely accelerate similar demands by other ethnic groups.

Last week, the federal government took over security of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Regional State (SNNPRS) as Sidama activists protested in support of their right to statehood. The activists’ original plan was to unilaterally declare a Sidama state on 18 July, one year after officially requesting recognition.

  • The Sidama Liberation Movement (SLM), which is leading efforts to get the Sidama their own state, postponed the declaration days before.
  • Despite this, Sidama youth groups – known as Ejeto – went ahead and declared Sidama Zone a state, triggering waves of inter-ethnic violence across the southern state, which borders Kenya and South Sudan.

According to the SLM, 60 people were killed in the days following the 18 July clashes. The region’s deputy head of police called the figure “exaggerated”, but a BBC Amharic report said that hospital officials recorded at least 25 deaths.

  • The government, through police head Dagnachew Demissie, acknowledged that 53 people died and 54 others were wounded between 18 – 22 July. Dagnachew also said that security forces had arrested 935 people.
  • Property of undetermined value, including churches, businesses and homes, was also torched in the protests, and thousands of people were displaced.

While the violence has abated, the next four months will be a litmus test for whether Ethiopia can handle the conflicts occasioned by its political and administrative structure.

  • Sidama nationalists, for example, have laid claim to the SNNPRS capital of Hawassa. The capital is a multi-ethnic city that’s home to the Hawassa Industrial Park. Efforts to excise it to a new Sidama state could occasion new conflict.
  • The Sidama, who number between 3 to 5 million people, is the largest group in the SNNPRS.

Solving the Sidama question will be instructive for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, as it is only one of many ethnic groups demanding their own state. Ethiopia has nine states, of which only four are multi-ethnic but, within them, administration structures are designed along ethnic lines. In the original transitional period structure in the early 1990s, there were five multi-ethnic states in the south.

  • According to the International Crisis Group, the issue of Sidama statehood escalated in the early 2000s, until the then Prime Minister Meles Zenawi persuaded community’s leaders to suspend their pursuit of statehood.
  • The Sidama statehood question also shines a light on Ethiopia’s constitution, and the seemingly arbitrary way state borders were drawn. The Sidama and the Welayta, who are also demanding statehood, have populations above one million, while Harari state, the smallest of the nine states and which is surrounded by Oromia, has less than 250,000 people.

Today, SNNPRS has 21m people and 50 recognised groups. Its ruling party, the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), is part of the EPRDF ruling coalition.

  • The Welayta, the second-largest ethnic group in the state, are also demanding their own state. Prime Minister Abiy has been accused of patronising them on their decision to seek statehood.
  • In May, Welayta people held a demonstration demanding statehood after the Welayta Zone affirmed a statehood request in November last year.
  • Former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn is from the Welayta ethnic group and served as president of the SNNPRS between 2001 and 2006.

“The state and federal authorities have no choice but to allow the people of Sidama to have their day in a referendum, provided that is the only road to statehood,” wrote Yonatan Fessha, an associate professor of law at South Africa’s University of the Western Cape.

There are other possible complications, such as whether the constitution needs to be amended when new states are created, and whether the current political structures can accommodate the expansion of political power.

“The already extremely fragile political condition in the country does not afford the instability and chaos that might follow from the disorderly partitioning of an existing state and similar push by others,” notes Fessha.

While the Sidama referendum is now the big event, the months and days leading up to it will also be important. The electoral board outlined several key areas that need to be addressed beforehand, including a distribution of wealth agreement to come into effect should the referendum favour the Sidama, a security cooperation plan and an administrative arrangement to protect non-Sidama ethnic groups in the zone.

  • Many of these issues may lead to flare-ups, especially the distribution of wealth agreement, as Hawassa is not just the capital of the state, but its most important city, economically and politically.
  • Another is who may vote in the referendum, as other ethnic groups in the state, which collectively outnumber the Sidama, could vote to keep the state as it is.

The bottom line: The potential disintegration of the SNNPRS offers Abiy Ahmed’s government a chance to rethink Ethiopia’s federal structure. However, while the Sidama question may be resolved in November, the issues that the ethnic-based federal structure helps to create seem set to remain.

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