23 July 2019
by ADDIS GETACHEW TADESSE
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia
On the verge of becoming the tenth state in federal Ethiopia, 10 ethnic groups in the Southern Ethiopian Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State (SNNPRS) continue on their controversial push.
The third most populous region after Oromia and Amhara, is home to 56 ethnic groups — was lumped as one regional state in spite of growing demands by the ethnic groups for statehood.
The Ethiopian constitution is unequivocal in granting ethnic groups the right to self-administration up to cessation. It also allows for breakaway states if such demand arises by a certain ethnic group.
As one of developments along this thorny line, the demand by Sidama, the largest of ethnic groups in the SNNPRS, for statehood has come to the fore after the Sidama zone submitted the demand to the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) in November last year.
“The federal experimentation we have for the past 25 years has its own wrongs, and is paying us back in a negative way,” constitutional lawyer Endalkachew Geremew told Anadolu Agency.
Endalkachew underlined that the design of the constitution was fundamentally flawed as it gave ethnic groups exaggerated rights with little consideration to shared values and common identities that cuts across ethnic lines.
“That was the original sin,” he said, adding that while this was difficult to undo, the current public debate may provide the opportunity to address the issue “once and for all.”
Endalkachew indicated the need to reform the country’s constitution so that it complements nationwide reforms launched in April 2018 under the current government of premier Abiy Ahmed.
“The reform will not be complete without constitutional reform,” he said, pointing to legal holes that gives little by way of implementing referendums in the event of demands for statehood.
“The constitution gave little by way of who are eligible to vote in such referenda,” Endalkachew said, arguing that the Sidama lived in an area that was itself a multi-ethnic zone, like many other parts of the country.
“If by implication only the members of the Sidama ethnic group will be eligible to vote in the referendum, what will be the future of members of other ethnic groups living in the zone, and particularly the many non-Sidama people who have lived in the zone including in Hawassa, a sprawling lakeside city claimed by Sidama people as their capital?,” he asked.
Hawassa is a city inhabited by people of ethnicities from across Ethiopia and is currently the capital city of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State.
While implementing the referendum would ignore many such considerations in the determination of the statehood of the Sidama zone, Geremew said: “The demand is perfectly legal and constitutional.”
Tensions in Hawassa
Hawassa woke up to empty streets as businesses closed last Thursday — when the Sidama zonal administration would announce a brand new regional state by themselves without having to undergo the necessary legal procedures including a referendum.
The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) responded to the demand of the Sidama for statehood earlier this week, deemed by Sidama activists and opposition politicians as a delayed response.
Young people were preparing to erect “Welcome to Sidama Regional State” billboards in the early hours while heavy security including Special Forces patrolled the much-deserted city streets, dispersing groups of young men and women, eye witnesses said.
Earlier in July, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said the question of Sidama had been accepted as a legitimate demand for statehood, but cautioned against rushing the process or the use of force, which he said would be met in kind from the federal government.
The much-anticipated response from the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia only came last Tuesday, saying that a referendum would be held in a period of five months.
The Sidama zonal administration was quick to okay the timetable; as were activists and opposition political figures — albeit requesting the NEBE apologize for the delay.
Announcing the general timetable for the referendum, the NEBE demanded the Sidama zone administration and the SNNPRS propose a modality of implementation, including plans for asset sharing within a would-be Sidama regional state as well as guarantees and safeguards for minorities that live within the Sidama zone.
This may open up a whole constitutional issue as such matters are seen to have not been adequately addressed in the Federal Constitution.
According to Endalkachew, it is high time this hole in the constitution was repaired.