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Ethiopia’s Sidama choses greater autonomy in key statehood poll

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi
Posted on Monday, 25 November 2019 13:56

Sidama youths dance ahead of the Sidama region referendum vote in Hawassa, Ethiopia November 17, 2019. Picture taken November 17, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Ethiopia’s Sidama people will finally get their own regional state.

The region voted overwhelmingly for more independent decision-making in a crucial referendum on November 20th.

More than 98% of those who voted in last week’s poll chose a new state, the country’s electoral board announced on Saturday, November 22.

  • Ethiopia is currently made up of nine regional states. Sidama will be the tenth.

The turnout was 99.86 percent of the more than 2 million registered voters.

  • Only 1.48 percent voted to remain within the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Regional State (SNNPRS).

The official results are expected on November 27th.

The Ethiopian Humans Right Commission (EHRC) said the 20th November vote “was peaceful and no major critical incident reported on polling day.”

The Sidama campaign was split between the popular “Shaffetta” campaign, which campaigned for a new state, and the lackluster “Gojo” campaign, which pushed for them to remain.

  • “While there was no official restriction or any ban on the Gojo campaign, several interlocutors told EHRC observers that there was a degree of fear and apprehension to openly promote the alternative “remain” campaign in the political context of Sidama,” the EHRC noted in its statement.

Why it matters:

The results mean that the Sidama can now create their own semi-autonomous regional state, which will be the country’s tenth.

It also sets the stage for similar campaigns by other ethnic groups, which could eventually dilute the power held by a few of the country’s current regional states on national politics.

  • About 10 other zonal councils have approved similar campaigns.

The Wolayta, the second most populous ethnic group in SNNPR has already filed a similar request. By law, a referendum must be held within a year of such filings, which could complicate Ethiopia’s 2020 electoral calendar.

More than just being a referendum, the Sidama campaign was also a stress-test for Ethiopia’s new direction, and the institutions that will facilitate it. Ethiopia is scheduled to hold elections in May 2020, and has been working to build the country’s electoral laws and vital institutions.

The relatively new electoral board managed to deliver the referendum with only two postponements.

In July, tens of people died in protests against the government’s decision to delay the poll by five months. The board then pushed the poll by a week, from November 13th to November 20th.

  • In its wide-ranging statement, the EHRC noted a few gaps in the board’s work including understaffing, short supply of election materials, and lack of proper secret voting booths.
  • The electoral board deployed more than 6, 000 officials across 1, 692 polling stations.

One sticking point in the original phases of the campaign was the fate of Hawassa, which is currently the regional capital city of SNNPRS.

In October, the region’s council approved a framework that allows the SNNPRS and the new Sidama state to share the capital for two consecutive national elections as the SNNPRS finds its own capital city.

While there is still a lot to be done before the Sidama can have a state, including asset division and forming its own governance structures, the entire process will inform how other ethnic nationalities go about their own claims.

Bottom Line: The success of the Sidama vote itself is perhaps the biggest sign so far that Abiy Ahmed’s political reforms have a possibility of success.

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