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Sidama under the spotlight: what’s next?

Sidama under the spotlight: what’s next?

One of the biggest tests of the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) since coming to power in April last year was the question of Sidama, a zonal administration under the Southern Regional State which is opting for establishing itself separate regional state.

Having proceeded with the proper legal procedure – first getting the question approved by the zonal council, exactly about a year ago, and submitting a formal request for the regional council to conduct a referendum – the question of Sidama seceding from the Southern Regional State and forming a self-administrative region has reached the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) for a referendum.

But the NEBE is excusing itself from conducting the referendum mentioning various reasons. These reasons can be summed up by institutional reform, creating the needed legal framework for the independence of the Board as well as ensure a free and fair election in 2020 and fulfilling the Board’s human resource needs.

While the constitution of the Federation states that referendums of such nature shall be conducted within one year and while the one-year ultimatum on the constitution has lapsed by unnoticed and with the silence either from the federal government and the NEBE, things have been reaching a boiling point in Sidama as well as other constituencies under the Southern Regional State.

Despite their enthusiasm about the fast-paced process until it reached and stalled at the NEBE, the people of Sidama staged two major rallies asking for a quickened response from the Board. The first rally called in all Sidamas and supporters of the cause from all walks of life and the second only involved the women who propagated the same kind of message – quickened response to their constitutional question. The heads of the zonal administration, Sidama cause activists residing both in Ethiopia and abroad and high-level officials from the regional administration backed these rallies and called for the same.

The quick movement of the question from Sidama which reached the NEBE with a letter signed by the regional council speaker a year ago triggered questions from almost a dozen zonal administrations that have approved the question of forming a separate regional state out of the Southern Regional State. Their approvals have now reached the regional council which has to accept the question and write a letter for the NEBE for a referendum in the requesting nation, nationality or people.

This, which experts say would be difficult to manage if allowed, seems to have concerned both the regional and the federal government. The regional government commissioned a study conducted by academics including professors from Addis Ababa University. Although the study was concluded recommending a cluster of states for what is currently known as the Southern Regional State, this comes to the distaste of many in the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM). But this is not something to shun off for those from the South West and South Center zones as they were to some level implying this.

To the assurance of the concern from the government, during his address to the House of People’s Representatives (HPR), Prime Minister Abiy said, recognizing the constitutional right of forming own state for nations, nationalities or peoples, any such question should follow the due process of law and any move against this will be faced with the federal government’s intervention as was in the Somali Regional State.

“We will not tolerate mob commotions; all will be done according to the procedure. But if there is any attempt to go against that, we will fix it the way we are used to,” he asserted.

Following this warning by PM Abiy, the Eejjeto of Sidama, the youth, met in Hawassa city and issued a statement saying that they will never back down because of illegal and unconstitutional warnings from anyone.

Abiy also called for patience from the requesting people from the Southern Regional State reasoning the NEBE’s efforts of reforming the institution and legal frameworks. And, he said, to answer such questions, the nation needs a strong institution to ensure that “answering a region’s questions won’t create another wound and infection apart from curing the intended disease.”

Abiy further went to say that the current request is analogous to a woman who could not bear a child but got to have one after one year.

“If she wants to have her baby by the third month because of her waiting for 10 years, it won’t work. One can’t change the course of nature because of their yearning,” Abiy said to the giggling of members of the HPR.

The intensification of the question and discussions surrounding the questions of forming a separate region in the Southern Regional State, especially that of Sidama, is finishing the one-year frame put by article 47 of the constitution. There are discussions that the Sidama could announce their statehood on July 18, 2019 (11/11/11 in the Ethiopian Calendar).

A discussion organized by NEBE on Wednesday at Ghion Hotel, Addis Ababa on the question of Sidama saw none from the invitees of Sidama including the opposition. Even a specific discussion paper dealing with the question of Sidama was not presented because of the tensions and the gathering only discussed international experiences of dealing with such questions, the legal context of such questions and how Ethiopia could deal with it.

Disgruntled by this discussion organized by the NEBE, three opposition groups from Sidama issued a statement on the same day calling for the halting of the discussion because “the Sidama did not raise any question to be answered by discussion and studies by scholars; it is rather a constitutional question one.” They even urged the NEBE to announce the date of the referendum within five days from the issuance of the statement.

A prominent scholar, who has studied the Ethiopian political sphere for about two decades, seems to be concerned by such heating and polarized opinions and thoughts around the question of statehood, especially those around the question of Sidama. For such questions to get answered, there needs to be fulfillment of three conditions: the right of the questioning nation, nationality or people, members of the society whose rights could be affected because of the decision like the residents of Hawassa city and the question of Hawassa in which the region as the whole invested to its development.

“Although the question of Sidama has been overdue for the past 20 plus years, it needs to be carried out in a manner of respect to the rights of other interest groups and the multi-identity society of the city of Hawassa,” he recommends.

He is also concerned that issues of border demarcation with the Oromia Regional State and the bordering Wolaita Zone should be dealt with seriously.

While he believes that the NEBE should have held the referendum within the one year since the question reached its office, he advises that sitting and counting the dates cannot bring a lasting solution and the concerned bodies should discuss their issues and understand each other.

“But if the Sidama proceed with the self-declaration of the 11/11/11 date, what would happen is Armageddon; none will win but there will be an unparalleled destruction,” he warns.

A Constitutional Law professor from Mettu University, Muluken Kassahun, says that lack of any specific legal framework governing such processes coupled with the Constitution's lack of putting remedies if the referendum is not held within a year has created a problem in its part. One has to go to Proclamation 251/2001, Consolidation of the House of the Federation and the Definition of its Powers and Responsibilities Proclamation, to find the answer to the question ‘what if?’

The Proclamation in its article 19 (3) states that “any party claiming that the question of state formation has not been executed within the time specified [One-year period]. Or alleges to have dissatisfaction with the decision, may appeal to the House. The right [of state formation] shall be presented to the House in writing by the Council of the Nation, Nationality, or People that claimed for the formation of State [and] The House shall make a final decision within two years on issues presented to it in such a procedure.”

This is done when the claiming nation, nationality or people, in this case, Sidama, collect petitions from five percent of the population and appeal to the House of the Federation (HoF), Muluken says. But there is no further legally prescribed process if the HoF fails to answer their questions within the stipulated period. The solutions will only be political rather than a legal one.

“According to this, they cannot proclaim statehood by themselves,” he states. “And if they do so, other consequences might follow.”

Such kind of unilateral announcement of statehood is not a feature of a federal state but rather of a confederate state, Muluken adds. Hence, the unilateral announcement cannot be done in a federal state like Ethiopia in which both the federal and state governments have stakes.

The HoF, Muluken says, as is the congregation of representatives of nations, nationalities, and peoples, which are the highest body of power in the country, it will look into solutions for the questions but, this will involve a referendum, which might happen by an order to the NEBE.

But a referendum conducted does not mean an immediate secession, he observes. There needs to be clearance, the formation of the regional structure as well as asset division, the later again having no legal framework in the country.

“There will be a division of both movable and immovable assets, border demarcation issues, and adjustment of the federal government to fit the situation as a new state is being added to the federation,” Muluken observes. “The federal government needs to adjust itself because it is going to make budget allocations and get the newly formed region a representation at the central power.”

Hence, there needs to be negotiations on various issues both with the regional government and the federal government.

Although the NEBE is presenting viable reasons for not conducting the referendum, it is not legally accountable for doing so and those unsatisfied or affected by such inaction have the only alternative of appealing to the HoF.

But come 11/11/11 and there are attempts to self-proclaim statehood, Muluken says they are going against the constitutional provision of article 9 which provides, “all citizens, organs of state, political organizations, other institutions as well as their officials have the duty to ensure observance of the Constitution and to obey it.”

“As the secession of Hawassa also is set to determine the fate of the Southern Regional State, there are various interests including Hawassa as it is unlikely to think that it will continue to serve as the seat of the regional state,” he indicates. “Although they make formal declarations, they cannot continue to work with the region they seceding from as well as the federal government. Rather, it is better to think of how a referendum can be held.”

If the declaration happens, the federal government could intervene with force and there can happen further security issues as those who feel attacked by other forces could inflict attacks on other minorities living in the vicinity.

“It might also bring about criminal investigations as the criminal code’s 238 and 241 provide for criminal accountability of forces that stand against the constitutional provision and disrupt the regional structure,” Muluken says.

Muluken admits that there is a problem arising from lack of a legally bound procedure to govern such acts and advises the federal government too to open itself for discussions rather than wait for the time to take action. The nation should also take lessons out of it as this is the first request to form a separate state since the formation of the federation in 1993.

While experts take more of the sides of the legal perspective, the issue of statehood in the Southern Regional State has taken the interests of the politicians both in the ruling party and the opposition camp.

After holding a meeting on July 9, 2019, the Central Committee of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), one of the four-member parties of the incumbent Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), issued a statement calling for the constitutional solutions to the questions.

“Apart from this, any effort to quash public interests by use of force is not acceptable,” TPLF said in its statement.

The Central Committee of the SEPDM is holding a meeting for a week now mainly being haunted by the questions of statehood in the region it administers.

A newly formed party Wolaita National Movement (WNM) from Wolaita Zone, one of the regions that have approved statehood at their zonal council, issued a statement calling for any efforts to stop the process of a referendum for their zone’s question to for a separate state which they say is an act undermining the peoples’ rights to be equal before the law.

For Abiy, these questions coupled with the border demarcation issues arise from the love to the federalism system, not the other way around.

“There is no region that has not changed its zonal and woreda structures since formation,” Abiy says. “We do not have such practice at the national level and what is becoming more dangerous is linking and giving possession of regions to ethnic groups; there is a confusion between regional administration with belongingness.”

He further says that, if there is anything to improve and correct the current federalism, it is important to amend and improve whenever necessary.