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Sidama’s quest for statehood

Sidama’s quest for statehood

Since the coming to power of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) in April, the news cycle in Ethiopia has surely gone three or four times faster than it was. Way too many things happen and the both commentators and the public barely had the time to wrap their head around what is unfolding before their eyes. And it is all happening at a distracting speed. 

The decision passed by the ordinary session of the Council of the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State (SNNPRS) last week was certainly a monumental political development which did not receive the attention it deserves on the public forums. The regional council’s daring decision to accept and process the longstanding quest of the Sidama people for an independent (regional) statehood is perhaps one of the most significant decisions of this decade for the federalist state of Ethiopia.

Initiated by a two-third majority vote at the Zonal level, the Council has accepted the motion presented to it regarding Sidama people’s quest for a separate regional administration, leaving the SNNPRS. Since the motion had already fulfilled the needed majority at the Zonal Council level, the State Council’s role is indeed to go ahead and facilitate a referendum to ascertain popular support for the motion.

According to Article 47 of the FDRE Constitution, any nation, nationality or people can form its own regional state given the council of the concerned society has approved the same by a two third majority. Then that concerned nation, nationality or people present its decision along with a request for the regional council it is found in to organize a referendum. The regional council, on its part, is expected to organize a referendum within one year time starting from the time the request was tabled at the regional council.

If the outcome of the referendum conforms that the majority of the concerned society support the motion, the regional council would then kick start the process of transferring administrative power and resources to the newly formed region which eventually becomes member of the federation.

Despite such provision in the Constitution, no nation, nationality or people have so far attained a self-administrative regional state status since the formation of Ethiopian federation some three decades ago. But, this is not for the lack of demand, according to commentators, but a strong political engagement at party and government levels effectively squashing or delaying such requests.

And the Sidama people are frontrunners in terms of pushing for self-determination and independent statehood. Accordingly, the Zonal Council which congregated in August had unanimously voted for the statehood of Sidama separated from SNNPRS which eventually went to the regional council in line with the provisions of the Constitution. When implemented, Sidama will be the first to form a separate state since the formation of the federation. Despite almost nonexistent reservations regarding the rights of the Sidama people to form a separate region, many comment on the implications this could have on future of the federation. Furthermore, it has also brought back the debate on the drawbacks of the kind of federalism exercised in Ethiopia.

Criticisms on the federalism

The federal system in Ethiopia is peculiar in its very nature that the member states of the federation are formed based on ethnic lines which is underlined by language and culture among other things. This chosen model of federalist arrangement has been and continues to be one of the most contested issues in Ethiopian politics. While there are strong arguments for ethnic based federalist arrangement, on the grounds that the current system has afforded various ethnic groups in Ethiopia the right to self-govern and decided on their own destiny, there are some who are convinced that this form of federalism leads to ethnic conflict and eventual disintegration of the nation.

Apart from these generalized criticisms on the form of the federation established by the 1995 constitution, particularly the rationale behind the concentration of more than 56 nations, nationalities and peoples under the South regional state administration has gone under severe scrutiny over the years; especially in comparison to the Harari Regional State which is the smallest region in the federation in terms of population. In fact, Harari significantly smaller compared to most of the zones in SNNPRS. While most of the regional states in the country are named after the majority of the nationality that dwells in the region, the SNNPRS is named after a direction which has also been a point of contention among political elites and scholars.

Assefa Fiseha (PhD), renowned federalism expert at Addis Ababa University Law Faculty, comments in his teaching material that since regional administrations are formed based on ethnic lines, Ethiopia could have as many as 80 and more regional states if the Constitution provisions are implemented strictly. He also observes that, political elites who believe to have been marginalized from political power have the tendency to push for the establishment of separate regional state.

In addition, Assefa foresees in his 2009 teaching material that, “The fear is that there is continuous rivalry among some of the political elites for controlling regional power at the expense of others; and that seems to be fueling those who feels marginalized at regional levels to raise issues of further redrawing of new zonal administrations, Weredas and even new states. Thus, carrying with it the threat of opening up the so called the "Pandora's Box". Once restructuring is started at the regional levels with more than 56 ethno-linguistic groups; it is difficult to tell where it could end.”

The Sidama Cause

The acceptance by the Regional Council of Sidama’s question to form a separate region did not come as a surprise to many as it has been there for the past more than 20 years. The question remained unanswered largely and it has been a cause for ethnically charged conflicts in Hawassa and its surrounding.

But, the question has not been brought to the tables of the regional council until last week.  For the question to remain unanswered until now, the strong hand of Southern Ethiopian People Democratic Movement (SEPDM), the regional governing party and one of the four members of EPRDF, is said to have played a big role. As it is customary with EPRDF, any decision is made within the party before going public, i.e. the zonal council commentators say, shelving the question for decades.

Despite this, frustrated by the growing ethnic conflicts in the region, the regional party in its 10th congress decided that all public demands should be addressed following the Constitution, and this has given green light to the question of Sidama people to get voted on by the  Zonal Council.

Although the Sidama Zonal Council had presented its request for a referendum to the regional state council in August, the security situation in the region at the time had played a role in delaying it until last week. According to regional president Million Matewos, the regional constitution provides for the regional council to hold meetings at least twice a year.

“The regional council has accepted the question to be implemented according to the Constitution given that the question has been lingering and the party had decided that all questions by the public have to be given answers to,” Million said, adding that, “The decision is to organize a referendum in collaboration with the concerned institutions.”

The Sidama Ijeto, meaning the youth, matching the Qeero of Oromo, has been raising this question repeatedly and the question has been loudly echoed during conflicts in Hawassa and its surrounding. At a discussion Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) held with representatives of the community in Hawassa following the deadly conflict in the town and its vicinities, the question of forming a separate region has been a point of contention in Sidama and the regional capital. Abiy replied by advising that the pros and cons of such demands are very tricky.

The PM was also faced with the same questions from Wolaitta and Gurage Zones during his trip to visit and discuss conflict ridden parts of the region in consecutive days after Hawassa. He gave the same replies in the cases of Wolaitta Sodo, the seat of Wolaitta Zone and Wolkite, the seat of Gurage.

Domino’s effect

Even through it is only Sidama that formally requested the regional government to form a separate region following the Constitution this does not mean that there are no similar demands from other zones of the region. Some even observe that, the successful accomplishment of Sidama’s question might as well trigger a domino’s effect making the questions by other ethnic groups almost inevitable.

For instance, a lecturer at Wolaitta Sodo University, who talked to The Reporter with a condition of anonymity, said that there is a wide support for Wolaitta forming its own regional state, especially by the youth who go by the name Yelagaa. But, he wonders why the zonal administration has kept quite regarding an issue which has a wide support by the public.

According to sources, the Congress of SEPDM has also received multiple requests of forming a separate regional state including from Kaffa, Sheka, Bench Maji, Wolaitta, Guraghe and the like. One woman from Sidama has also raised the question of Sidama at the congress of EPRDF, sources added.

Reasoning that such questions emanate from demands for equal benefits from development and it would be difficult to administer if all are granted statehood, the regional president Million also noted that the regional government has commissioned a study to equally benefit from the developments observed.

“The required result might fail if disintegration happens,” Million added.

But, the constitution unequivocally provides that each and every nation and nationality in the country is entitled to form a separate regional state; even though it is difficult to benefit people from development. Even if the benefits are gained, not a thing stops a nation to establish its own region.

The Constitution does not say anything about the regional Council’s say regarding request for independent statehood apart from accepting the question and organizing a referendum. The federal government has no role in the process. Hence, commentators say that nothing can stop the nations from forming their own separate states.

The signs are already out there; widely observed during a demonstration in Bonga town of Kaffa Zone this week were popular demands for self-governance. Although the demonstrators went to the streets for two days in a row to denounce Coffee and Tea Development Authority’s recognition of Jimma as birthplace of Coffee, the final resting place had been the question of self-determination.

Hawassa and asset division

Another debate that comes up in connection to the Sidama quest for statehood is the fate of Hawassa—currently serving as both the regional and Zonal capital. “Will it go along with Sidama as it is found in Sidama Zone or will it take a different form” is a another fiercely debated matter. Commentators question if it is best for Hawassa to be a federal entity; and what will happen to the former and the newly found regions by way of finding a capital city. Both of these ideas have proponents. According to sources, Hawassa has been a point of debate given its exponential growth over the past 20 years with contributions from each zones of the region. The city is flourishing thanks mainly to the investment flocking to Hawassa with promotions it gained as the seat of the SNNPR.

However, the regional president rules out all these speculations saying that, Hawassa will remain part of Sidama as it is located in it.

“The question of Hawassa cannot be seen in separation with Sidama,” he asserted.

Asked if there are any candidates to serve as the next regional seat, Million said “not yet”.

While this is still in the air, the issue of asset division should Sidama become an independent region is another challenging area. Of course much of asset to be divided between the incumbent and the new region is definitely cultivated in Hawassa.

Although the federal constitution provides for asset division in article 39 and the regional constitution provides the same, the country has no legal framework that could govern such practices. Legal commentators who spoke to The Reporter predict that the issue could be the one thing that hinders the process of Sidama region formation.

Million does not seem concerned about the issue though. He says that, as the regional government has experiences in forming zonal and woreda restructurings which also require asset division, they will establish a commission and implement the said.

Nevertheless, a high-ranking lawyer who works in the region has reservations on this. He says that, the asset involved in restructuring woredas and zones are very small and won’t go beyond vehicles and some money to build offices. As they are also under one administrative region, it is easy to implement. But, this is across regions requiring the involvement of the federal government which could not do so without any legal framework. Hence, either the federal government makes a law hastily or the question of forming a regional government for Sidama might get stalled.

Fate of SEPDM

Another question here is also what the fate of SEPDM will be when its regional constituency gets disintegrated. Some say that, for now the Sidama will establish their own party to run the regional government and SEPDM will continue to lead the remaining part of the region.

But, what kind of format the party Sidama establishes could have, what kind of relationship will they have with EPRDF is also something we have to wait and see. 

Some also observe that, if all of the zonal administrations demand their constitutional rights to form a separate state, it would be the beginning of the end to SEPDM.