What Ethiopians can learn from Sidama’s thorny statehood journey

The upcoming Sidama referendum should trigger a much-needed nationwide conversation on ethnic and Ethiopian identity.

Sidama protest Reuters
Sidama youths chat slogans as they gather for a meeting to declare their own region in Hawassa, Ethiopia July, 17, 2019. [File:Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]

By the end of November 2019, Ethiopia may have one more autonomous regional state within its borders. Late last month, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia has announced that a referendum to decide on the Sidama ethnic group’s request for statehood will be held on November 13. The announcement came on the back of deadly clashes between Ethiopian security forces and activists seeking to unilaterally proclaim a Sidama regional state.

The Sidama are hoping to become the 10th member state of the Ethiopian Federation and they are almost certain to get their wish following the referendum. Nevertheless, giving the Sidama the autonomy they seek within the Ethiopian Federation is going to take a lot more than just a referendum, and delays and frustrations on the way may be unavoidable.

Formal decentralisation and de facto centralisation

Ethnicity has been central to Ethiopia‘s political discourse since the emergence of the “nationality” question in the 1960s. The attempts of the former communist Derg regime to forge a common national identity around “scientific socialism” failed spectacularly and the regime was forced to allocate a great deal of human and material resources to battle rebel groups formed around ethnic identities throughout its reign.

Despite its repeated attempts to suppress many ethnic identities of the peoples of Ethiopia, in May 1991 forces loyal to various ethnic groups within the country took over control and formed a democratic republic based on ethnic federalism. 

The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four ethnic-based parties led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, formed a transitional government and started governing the country. The biggest opposition force at the time, the Oromo Liberation Front, was similarly an ethnonationalist entity. The Ethiopianist/nationalist voices were in disarray and systematically excluded.

The transitional government constituted 14 regions, principally along ethnic lines. The 1995 constitution continued the ethnic-based federal arrangement, with a critical adjustment. The five regions that occupied the southern part of the country, including Sidama region, were merged into a single multi-ethnic Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State (SNNPR).

The Sidama resisted the merger to no avail. The discontent was exacerbated by the fact that two ethnic groups with significantly lower population sizes, the Afar and Harari, were granted their own regional states.

The formation of SNNPR against the wishes of the Sidama was not the end of the story. Ethiopia’s ethnicity-based constitution allows for ethnic groups without their own regional states to form regional states, and those with a regional state to secede from the country.

Most audaciously, these guarantees are demand-based, requiring nothing more than overcoming remarkably flexible procedural hurdles. So for the Sidama, at least on paper, getting autonomy was a done deal.

However, there was one major catch. The highly decentralised formal constitutional framework was designed to function in a context where a ruling party founded on “democratic centralism” – the same governing concept that the Derg enamoured – is in power.

This centralist reflex within the governing coalition was antithetical to the decentralised nature of the constitution and took no time to replace it. In the long term, the de facto supreme authority of the EPRDF was used to persuade and at times outright suppress demands for new statehood, including notably from the Sidama.

The on-demand secession provision (both internal and external) of the constitution, therefore, was crafted with a certain political context in mind. This meant that no systematic effort was made to deliberate upon and establish detailed legislative and administrative procedures to give effect to the constitutional provisions for secession. It was assumed the EPRDF would nip these demands in the bud anyway.

Ethiopia never adopted a law to regulate the division of assets and debts between an old state and a new one. Nor was a referendum law formulated. There is even no clarity on who pays for referendums to decide on statehood demands. Until now, the party structure rather than the law mediated ethnic and other demands.

The serious popular protest movement that began in 2015 precipitated an internal party struggle and birthed the April 2018 transition and the emergence of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister. The internal rupture and consequent breakdown of party discipline and Abiy’s respect for the “federal spirit” of the country have seen the re-emergence of old demands. The party structure can no longer mediate or address these demands.

Referendum risks and challenges

The absence of a proper legal framework to regulate secession demands has immersed the newly constituted Electoral Board into an unenviable political volcano. As any responsible institution, the Board has taken it upon itself to create some order out of the constitutional and legal chaos in relation to secession.

Accordingly, while confirming a date for the Sidama referendum, the board required the SNNPR to produce a legal, administrative and institutional framework before October 13 to regulate key issues, notably the protection of ethnic minorities in a future Sidama state, division of assets and debts, as well as the status of Hawassa city, the centre of the Sidama demand and capital of SNNPR.

The board also requested the SNNPR, rather than the federal government or even the Sidama Zone, which is seeking statehood, to disburse the needed budget (close to three million dollars) to organise the referendum.

Subsequently, the board announced that all citizens residing in Sidama Zone, rather than just those of Sidama origin, would vote in the planned referendum. While this will not affect the outcome of the referendum, it sets precedence and has proved very controversial.

Unfortunately, while the efforts of the board to clarify the applicable rules are commendable, its decisions have provoked the ire of critics and political activists for exceeding its constitutional mandate or misinterpreting constitutional provisions. While the referendum has provided the newly minted board with a critical opportunity to test its capabilities in advance of the much larger and complicated 2020 elections, it could also potentially damage its reputation.

Fortunately, the SNNPR government, as well as the Sidama Zone, has so far cooperated with the board. To contain any long-term damage to its reputation, the relevant federal institutions should publicly express their support for its work. In the long term, relevant laws should be adopted to regulate, based on the lessons from the Sidama referendum, the process of addressing demands for statehood and the consequences arising from it.

While the Electoral Board has addressed some of the preliminary issues, it cannot decide on the consequences of the referendum. Under the constitution, a positive referendum outcome would automatically make Sidama the 10th regional state. Nevertheless, this needs the SNNPR to formally transfer its powers to the new Sidama state.

As the SNNPR has already supported the Sidama statehood aspiration, this support could be expected. Nevertheless, discussion over the status of Hawassa, division of assets and debts and the rights of ethnic minorities may prove controversial. Already, the SNNPR has requested two extensions from the board to finalise the framework. It is not clear if such an agreement would be achieved before October 13.

Moreover, the SNNPR remains under military command, which may create further hiccups.

Delay in agreement on these issues would also delay the referendum. As the 2020 elections are fast approaching, a pragmatic decision may be taken to hold the Sidama referendum alongside the elections.

Crucially, the prime minister has indicated that the formation of a Sidama state would require a constitutional amendment, which requires two-thirds approval in a joint sitting of the two federal legislative houses, and by six of the current nine regional states. This raises a massive procedural hurdle and even higher risk for Sidama aspirations.

The prime minister has on earlier occasions precluded the possibility of amending the constitution before the elections, as that could open pandora’s box. If Sidama statehood is not achieved before the 2020 elections, the expected emergence of new political forces would further complicate the process, with higher risks of instability.

The issues related to demands for Sidama statehood have been complicated by the passage of time. Notably, as the capital of the SNNPR, Hawassa has been the preferred destination for regional and federal investment, and place of residence for people from across the country. Had a Sidama state been formed in 1995, any secession would have been less fractious.

This provides a key lesson in addressing existing and emerging demands of other ethnic groups. If the current ethnic setup continues, as it is likely to, the earlier the demands are addressed the better. Attempts to discourage pursuits of statehood, as the prime minister has recently made in relation to the Kaffa ethnic group, may only create further disenchantment and complications.

A systematic response to budding statehood demands could perhaps be achieved through the recently established Administrative Boundaries and Identity Issues Commission. Alternatively, a new consensus may be forged.

While Ethiopia’s ethnic structure is likely to stay, the changed political context has unravelled the constitutional dispensation and ethnic competition has at times led to deadly skirmishes. The time may have come to deliberate the need for a countrywide conversation on the lessons learned so far and the adjustments needed to reimagine the ethnic and broader constitutional framework and forge a new consensus towards a complementary, rather than competitive, ethnic and Ethiopian identity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.