Rarely has Ethiopia been confronted with the perfect storm it has been facing since the advent to power of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) in April 2018. After the premiere stepped into the hot seat following the unexpected resignation of his predecessor on the back of widespread protests, his administration introduced a series of reforms that expanded the democratic space. Chief among the measures his government took were to release all jailed political prisoners and journalists; facilitate the return of long-exiled opposition figures; repeal a host of legislations that had constricted the unfettered exercise of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. However, during the bulk of his rule Ethiopia has been racked by a seemingly unending cycle of violence as well as the devastating 21-month civil war in the northern part of the country that has led to the death of thousands of innocent civilians, the displacement of millions more from their homes, and the destruction of both private and property worth billions. Aside from the mind-numbing acts of violence, perhaps the other singular challenge that has had profound political implications is the demand for statehood of various ethnic groups living in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region State (SNNPR).
A few months into PM Abiy’s tenure ten of the thirteen ethnic groups in SNNPR having their own zonal and woreda (district) administrations flooded the SNNPR Council with requests for recognition of their right to become a regional state. The endeavor to achieve statehood saw the participation of a cross-section of the communities concerned ranging from community representatives to political leaders. As the prime minister made a whistle-stop tour to the region in 2020 to drum up support to disband the then ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and establish the Prosperity Party, his administration’s stance on their request was the main topic that dominated the debates at the zones. Though he underscored that their desire for statehood was legitimate and that his administration was committed to respond to it duly, it has been a case of easier said than done.
Cognizant of the perils of ignoring statehood questions, the then ruling party of SNNPR formed a team comprised of experts and senior government officials two years ago to undertake a study aimed at addressing the demands in a constructive manner. After an eight-month research the team came up with four recommendations. The first option was to maintain the SNNPR in its configuration while adopting laws and procedures that addressed injustices and issues of equitable used by the residents of the region. The second suggestion was to allow the Sidama, which had long sought statehood, form their own region while keeping the other 55 ethnic groups as part of the SNNPR. The third alternative was to divide the region into three to five clusters if no agreement was reached on the first two options. The fourth course of proposed action was to shelve the demands for the time being.
Apparently the third option is being implemented with the Sidama first holding a referendum that led to their independence from the SNNPR. Later on the Kaffa, Sheka, Bench, Sheko, Dawuro and West Omo zones as well as the Konta Special Woreda joined to form the South West Region through a referendum. Recently two more sets of requests for statehood were submitted to the SNNPR Council. On the one hand the local council members of five special woredas — Amaro, Ale, Basketo, Burji, and Derashe — plus the Konso, Gedeo, Gamo, Gofa, South Omo, and Wolayta zones voted last week to restructure their administrative units into a new region. Separately, members of the Hadiya, Halaba, Kembata, Tmbaro, Silte, and Yem Special Woreda local councils have embarked on the process of creating a new regional state. However, activists and political organizations active in some of these zones and the Guraghe zone, for whom there are plans to cluster it along the Hadiya, Halaba, Kembata, Tmbaro, Silte, and Yem, have opposed the move.
Opponents of clustering several zones into a single region argue the proposed arrangement goes against the will of the ethnic groups which had earlier voted to form their own region. They contend that members of these ethnicities were not consulted about joining a cluster and that this is something that the ruling party cadres, not the people, are pushing. At the same time though they need to respect the decision of the local councils in the realization that there is always a chance to reverse it through a peaceful struggle. Although the SNNPR says the respective zonal and special woreda councils had democratically passed a decision to be incorporated under a cluster, there can be no denying that the constitutionally enshrined right of any Nation, Nationality or People to form its own state must not be abrogated under any circumstance. Failure to uphold the fundamental right to self-govern is bound to have dire consequences. This is a prospect that needs to be averted at all costs.