As Southern Nations break free, pressure mounts on EPRDF

  • Sidama progress towards statehood triggers copycat moves
  • SNNP break-up is potential problem for SEPDM and EPRDF
  • Splits and reforms leave federal system’s future in question 
For almost a quarter of a century, despite all of the Ethiopian federation’s problems, its architecture has remained intact, including the nine regional states etched into the constitution.

That now looks set to change, dramatically.

Following the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ (SNNP) State Council’s decision last month to approve a request for a referendum on Sidama statehood, copycat moves are gathering pace across the multi-ethnic region.

On Nov. 26, Gurage Zone Council voted to proceed with the process. Two weeks prior, Wolayta Zone affirmed a statehood request, which will now be sent to the SNNP council for approval. Kaffa Zone also approved a demand on Nov. 15, shortly after locals protested over a suggestion that coffee originated from Jimma.

Legal expert Merhawi Kebede, based in SNNP and Sidama Zone capital Hawassa, welcomed the recognition of Sidama’s right to self-determination. “It is a landmark achievement and must be celebrated as a model decision across the South,” he said.

But a big danger is that the moves increase identity-, border- and resource-related conflicts that have plagued the 21-million strong Southern Nations, which has around 50 recognized indigenous groups. There has historically been plenty of jostling for more administrative autonomy in SNNP as that generally gives local elites greater control over spending and appointments.

While the statehood ambitions are legitimate “the South is a fragile region of interwoven ethnic groups with unclear territorial borders which have been the prime cause of inter-ethnic conflicts,” said Gemechu Geligeleo, a lawyer originally from Konso.

The South is a fragile region

He therefore instead wants governance improvements to keep the nations, nationalities and peoples together: “It is difficult to demarcate inter-ethnic borders and this difficulty may give rise to tensions if the Sidama model is adopted by other Southern nations.”

Both lawyers said Hawassa’s status was an important issue, as it’s benefited economically from being the regional capital, so other groups’ contributions would need to be recognized by a new Sidama state. The electoral board is supposed to organize a referendum in Sidama Zone before August.

The tendency of SNNP communities to seek greater autonomy was seen again recently when 44 new woredas were created by the SNNP Council. That was in the same meeting it paved the way for a referendum in Sidama Zone, which had a population of 2.9 million people in 2007. In another example, there have been protests and violence in Konso over the last three years as that community campaigned to split from the Segen Area People’s Zone its territory was amalgamated into in 2011. The Konso now have their own zone.

In June, Wolayta people were killed in Hawassa and violence flared between the Gurage and Kebena groups around Welkite. In three other locations in SNNP, 16 people were killed in July and August, according to the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (HRCO). August violence in Tepi that killed five people stems from the Sheko people’s desire for autonomy, HRCO said. There was more fatal violence in Gurage this month.

Threshing in the Konso area; Aug. 19, 2017; William Davison

In addition to potentially stimulating conflict, it is not clear what impact Sidama’s independence, and the other campaigns, will have on the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM), which runs the SNNP government and represents the region at the federal level. The ruling coalition has frequently discouraged such assertive postures by criticizing “narrow nationalism”.

The current dangers seem to be apparent to the SEPDM, which said yesterday that statehood demands did not follow from decisions at its Congress this year. That is an unsurprising stance, according to Ethiopia Insight political analyst Alemayehu Weldemariam, as the move threatens SEPDM and the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (ERPDF).

“SEPDM’s dismemberment flows from SNNP fragmentation, and what emerges out of SEPDM is probably going to break an already fragile EPRDF,” he said. (See full analysis below)

Demonstrating SEPDM’s dilemma, the Wolayta Committee for Human Rights (WCHR) said today that its “illegal” rejection of Gurage’s demand will cause more humanitarian crises in the region, and that the party should quickly approve Wolayta and Gurage requests for statehood and “special interests” in Hawassa and Addis Ababa.

If the moves are blocked “then all current regional states in Ethiopia must be disbanded immediately until a new form of federalism is established,” WCHR said. The committee headed by Admasu Ashango was formed in June due to widespread violations against Wolayta and has members and supporters in Ethiopia and abroad, it said.

The constitution provides for Oromia’s special interest in Addis Ababa, which it surrounds. Ethiopia’s political transformation this year was triggered primarily by protests in Oromia since 2015 as members of the federation’s most-populous group campaigned for an end to alleged economic exploitation and political subservience, and objected to the growth of Addis Ababa at the expense of Oromo farmers. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government is now taking steps to facilitate competitive elections after rejecting past authoritarian tactics.

Our country is politically standing at the crossroads

“Our country is politically standing at the crossroads. The big question at this moment is if we can use the golden opportunity we have got now, or if we will squander this opportunity as well and make our journey slide back like we have done many times in the past,” Abiy said at a meeting with political parties this week.

Some hope that enhanced democracy could deal with the federation’s strains by ensuring that disputes are resolved peacefully. But the Oromo campaign and the consequent weakening of the EPRDF and the security apparatus has also encouraged groups to demand their rights, as seen in SNNP, and there has been violence in a number of locations.

Conflict raged in West Guji Zone of Oromia and Gedeo Zone of SNNP earlier this year, leading to over a million people being displaced, in unrest that matched violence over the past two years around the Oromo-Somali border. More recently, dozens have died as Oromo and Gumuz have fought, mostly in border areas near Kamashi Zone of Benishangul-Gumuz region. Early this month, Qemant activists claimed intensified attacks from Amhara groups that reject their identity claim, while tensions have risen between Tigray and Amhara over the disputed Wolkait and Raya areas.

As part of a radical shake-up, Prime Minister Abiy has proposed a commission to look at identity and boundary issues, while a once-a-decade census is planned after being postponed last year. Ethiopia’s upper chamber, the House of Federation, which has representatives elected by state councils from each ethnic community, with a member added for each one million people, normally rules on identity and constitutional disputes.

A family in northern SNNP; Aug. 27, 2017; William Davison

Dereje Feyissa Dori, an expert on Ethiopia’s federal system from Addis Ababa University, stressed that Ethiopia needs time and a spirit of compromise to work out complex constitutional issues as it transitions out of authoritarian rule.  “The SNNPR disintegration as an indicator of the future disintegration of Ethiopia’s federation is an overstretch. After all, there were many former provinces bundled into present-day SNNPR, whose creation was imposed by the EPRDF. I also do not think that all the zones will become regional states overnight. I expect Abiy and allied forces to mediate for a more orderly reconfiguration of the region,” said the associate professor, who’s also a Senior Research Advisor at the Life & Peace Institute.

Ethiopia’s federation offers autonomy for states in areas like fiscal, investment, and education policy, although most funding come from federal transfers and the central government sets overarching policies, such as the public ownership of land. The constitution also provides “unconditional” self-determination including secession for communities that share a “large measure” of language, culture or other traits and inhabit the same territory.

This radical federalism, or confederalism, has hitherto been counterbalanced primarily by the EPRDF. It formally shares decision-making between Amhara, Oromia, SNNP and Tigray and controls almost every single one of millions of elected seats in the country, including through allied parties in the non-EPRDF regions. Its dominance and democratic centralism means in practice there is not that much regional differentiation.

Abiy’s encouragement of the opposition, the salvo of democratic reforms, and the SNNP developments are now casting doubt on the EPRDF’s future, even though the powerful PM chairs the front.

The shit is going to hit the fan

“The structure of EPRDF is a four-party coalition with four equal shares. If SNNP splits into, say, seven regions, will the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), or the Amhara Democratic Party, be OK with going down to a one-tenth proportion within the EPRDF? Can the coalition continue to resolve the demographic dissonance?” said Jason Mosley, Research Associate at the African Studies Centre at Oxford University.

After Sidama, according to the last census in 2007 when the regional population was 13.9 million, the next largest SNNP unit was the Wolayta Zone with 1.5 million people, while Gurage Zone was 1.3 million, and Kaffa 874,000. Currently, Harari Regional State, which is encircled by Oromia, is by far the smallest in the federation, with a population of less than 300,000 people.

A close observer dismissed the coalition’s survival prospects: “The EPRDF is doomed. A four-party coalition doesn’t make sense.”

At its recent Congress, the EPDRF failed to agree on incorporating allied parties, who were instead offered formal representation. This is partly indicative of a power struggle within the EPRDF, as the TPLF has lost federal influence at the expense of Abiy’s ODP. Oromo activists and others have long-argued that the TPLF has outsized voting power as Tigray has only seven million people compared to Oromia’s 37 million and Amhara’s 29 million.

Such majoritarian arguments make redistributing power within the EPRDF to accommodate southern newcomers—assuming they want to join—an even trickier business. And this potential challenge comes as some formerly banned groups that oppose the current federal system, such as Ginbot 7, have returned, while others such as the Oromo Liberation Front mount a challenge to the ODP in Oromia.

It all amounts to a considerable challenge for Ethiopia’s political elites. When asked what the plan is, one activist simply replied: “The shit is going to hit the fan.”


Ethiopia Insight Southern Nations reporter Kulle Kursha believes SEPDM’s statement shows it is out of touch with the people and the country’s political dynamics

The essence of a federal system is its ability to accommodate differences while promoting a unity of purpose from shared interests. Ethiopia, since 1995, has had a federal structure to fit its ethnic diversity.

The nations, nationalities and peoples (NNP), the possessors of sovereign power, have unconditional right to self-determination (SD) which is mainly concerned with the right to exercise, conserve and develop self-identity manifestations (language, culture, history, etc); meaningfully participate and be equitably represented at various levels of government; establish self-governance institutions; and exercise external SD, up to secession, from the federation.

The revised SNNPRS constitution of 2001 states that NNPs can exercise their right to their own State, Region, Zone, and (Special) Woreda, and provides for flexible restructuring. Art. 45 (2) reads, “The nations, nationalities or peoples in the region shall have their own Zonal, Special Woreda administrations, delimited on the basis of the settlement patter, language, identities and consent of the people concerned.” It is up to the NNPs either to maintain the community within that sub-federal system or leave the community.

SEPDM is on the verge of demise

This delicate compromise calls for prudent design of any given federal sub-system to ensure the community is maintained. Any design fault may have a heavy cost. The SNNPRS seems to be moving towards granting institutional SD to each NNP that wants their own Region, Zone, or (Special) Woreda. Is it now simply a matter of time?

SEPDM is on the verge of demise. It cannot really claim to be an effective ruling party of the NNPs and its inconsistent decisions may well hasten its rupture. Yesterday’s statement regarding the various moves in the footsteps of the Sidama nation means SEPDM could face dangerous reactions. Why does SEPDM consider the moves for statehood as not according to its recent congress resolution? What prevails between an exercise of constitutional right and party congress resolution?

SEPDM and SNNPRS Council have a track record of contradictory decisions. For example, the same Council that rejected Konso people’s request for a zone as “untimely and against constitutional objectives” in June 2016 reasoned this month that the Konso quest for zonal administration is “legitimate and according to the constitution”.

If the State Council approved the Sidama request, how can SEPDM reject other similar moves? Does this not repeat the inconsistency? SEPDM has eroded its legitimacy across the south and failed to keep pace with political dynamics in the country and in the region it has administered for quarter of a century.

One further point is that nationhood states have to be made on the demand of the concerned people without any intervention. The Council’s role must therefore be limited to approving the statehood request.

Ethiopia Insight political analyst Alemayehu Weldemariam argues that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has his eyes on a bigger prize as he oversees the dissolution of SNNP and the ruling coalition

The Sidama went first and the Wolayta and Kaffa followed suit. Now it is the Gurage, tomorrow the Gamo. Where will this end?

SEPDM’s dismemberment flows from SNNP fragmentation, and what emerges out of SEPDM is probably going to break an already fragile EPRDF. What would then happen to the multinational federation?

The upcoming election and census are being touted as what’s going to make or break Ethiopia. That’s wrong. What’s going to make or break Ethiopia is Abiy’s vision, or lack of it. Who mans the census commission or electoral board isn’t as important as whether he has a clear sense of the direction he’s heading, and that his chosen destination is a desirable one.

One possibility is that Abiy’s eyes are set on a presidential system. And no prizes for guessing who the inaugural president would be. A first step would be the proposed Commission on Identities and Borders, which would remap political units. This sounds like a dangerous game. For example, would the TPLF accept constitutional changes based on a process that sidelined the institutions tasked by the constitution to deal with such issues?

Abiy’s eyes are set on a presidential system

And what exactly are Abiy’s thoughts on the constitutional settlement anyway? His big tent politics and pliable ideology means that he is supported, and to some extent surrounded, by conspiracy theorists who think that the current system that protects minority rights is some dastardly divide-and-rule scheme cooked up in the Tigrayan bush. Furthermore, there is little to suggest that Abiy cherishes the procedural limitations that come with a confederal set-up.

Some may think the prospect of Qeerroo marching on AddisFinne will deter Abiy from restructuring the federation to the Oromo’s detriment, let alone dissolving it. But Abiy needs a backup plan as the OLF is the party of the Oromo people. And Qeerroo cheerleaders such as Tsegaye Ararrsa have already turned against him. In light of today’s announcement of its deal with ODF, the fact is that nothing short of a merger with OLF is a remedy for the legitimacy crisis ODP suffers from.

Therefore, riding the populist wave, he may hope to get directly elected rather than rely on his unpopular party. At best, Abiy’s Ethiopia may become a more democratic, but more volatile, economically-liberal U.S. and Gulf client state. At worst, we’re looking at the next Yugoslavia.

Query or correction? Email us

Main photo: Mursi people in the South Omo Zone of SNNP; Aug. 21, 2017; William Davison

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished. 

Related Insight

Nov. 11, The EPRDF is dead, long live the EPRDF!

Nov. 3, Sidama take another step towards statehood

Sep. 19, Leenco Lata: ‘Ethiopia’s challenges are massive. Alternative to compromise is a total breakdown of order’

Sep. 18, Domestic despair shadows Abiy’s diplomatic waltz

July 18, Fugitive mediator clubbed by activists then charged with sedition as protests cleaved Konso

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About the author

William Davison

William is the owner and editor of Ethiopia Insight. He has been reporting on Ethiopia for almost a decade and was Bloomberg's correspondent in Addis Ababa from 2010 to 2017.

About the author

Kulle Kursha

Kulle is an Ethiopian Insight reporter and analyst focused primarily on the Southern Nations. He is a law lecturer at Hawassa University. Contact him at


  • Federalism is the only solution for Ethiopia and Ethiopians. The problems Ethiopia faces are not really behers, tribes or different ethnicity instead it is the hidden agendas of the so called educated Ethiopians to grab the power to govern Ethiopians and Ethiopia to enrich themselves. Ethiopia is a country which has not introduced a true democratic government as the world know it for several hundred years. However there are over seventy different parties in the country today with seventy different programs. How is it possible to have seventy parties with seventy different programs for Ethiopia and Ethiopians and yet Ethiopia never had a democratic form of government in the past hundred years. The countries in Europe who have democratic governments have at the most around two to five parties. The oldest democratic countries in Europe are United Kingdom and France. Both countries have two known parties who have governed for several hundred years. Ethiopian beher, or tribes lives in a very clearly agreed boarders for several hundred years. They also solved their agreed boarders problems through traditional ways. The beher, or tribes have their distinct languages and cultures. Yet they have lived in harmony for many hundred years. Why is it a problem for beher or tribes to live together today? Whose hidden agendas are causing the problems we see today? I assure you federalism is not the cause for the problems Ethiopia has today. I personally believe each and ever bedher or trib have the right to govern themselves. Furthermore the right to govern themselves is not a right to be given to them by any form of government instead it is their birth right.

    • Sure. We cannot blame federalism for the current adminstrative and political problems. Federalism is a system with insttitutional and process aspects. Its viability lies in prudent design along functioning institutions. Context matters! It can be said that Ethiopian federal system lacked both: proper design and functioning institutions despite federalism is ideal multiethnic countries like that of Ethiopia. The new ‘revolution’ across south may solve this problem. (See the up comming article on faults in design across south).

  • The first parties, the nations of the Southwest Ethiopia, want it. The feds say ‘ok, its all legal if you want it’, But I wonder about what do third parties such journalists and pundits have to gain by the denial of the right to return to their former status of autonomy for distinct nations of Southwest Ethiopia, so called SNNPR?
    William Davis went as far stating in photos that the demand for right of autonomy by the southwest Ethiopian nations, now amalgamated into oppressive SNNPR bureaucracy without their consent, are driven by primitive farmers and and Muslims. It’s false narrative, obviously.

    • It’s Davison not Davis.

      You created your own narrative out of some photos and some assumptions. That is your own choice. But it has nothing to do with my narrative. The words in the story create our narrative, not the photos.

  • It looks Federalism in Ethiopia is not clearly understood by the people of the various nationalities. It is right and proper to organize people of the same languages and cultures are recognized as nationalities. However the nationalities need not mix their nationalities with that of feeling one Ethiopians. The lawlessness, killing people, and destroying properties are a result of not introducing federalism correctly from the get go in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government recognized the 300,000 Harari as a one state. By the same token the 2.9 million Sidamos, 1.5 million Wolaytas, 1.3 million Gurages, 2 million Siletes(used to be Gurage) 874,000 Kaffa including other nationalities not mentioned her are lumped together as Southern. Personally I feel if the nationality for Harari is good then it should be good for the others as well. It is not late to implement proper corrections by the government. Even if the government recognize all nationalities with in Ethiopia the problem will only be solved when the people of Ethiopia truly acknowledge that all of them are Ethiopians. Furthermore the right of any nationality to live and work anywhere he or she likes within Ethiopia. Educating the people of the various nationalities the relationship between Ethiopia as a country and the various states will assist most of the misunderstanding of the federalism. I do not believe for one minute that Ethiopia will be like the previous Yugoslavia.

      • The Harari number of 300,000 is mentioned in the original comment. The Selte population is my personal approximate number. If you know the correct Selte population number, please let me know.

        • Do not worry about it. I don’t. It’s not even an issue between you and I as both of us support the re-instatement of autonomy, allowed by the federal and SNNPR constitutions, to the Southwest Ethiopia nations.

          We should work together as those who hate us are also united and do not want us to be free, and rule ourselves without going watched the second big brother SNNP in addition to the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
          If Afar, Somali, Harari, Benishangul-Gumuz autonomous states did not cause the demise of EPRDF, autonomous Gurage, Kembata, Hadiya, Welaita, Sidama, Kafa states will not disintegrate EPRDF. They will only replace SNNP.
          The fearmongering is pathological.

          • I fully agree with you. People tend to forget that nationalities have the right to live within their agreed boarders. This right is not should not be given to them by any government. It is their born right. Therefore they can demand it.

    • The main problem serms not giving each ‘natio-ethnic group’ separate/independent region on numerical basis. It is rather problematice design. The architects have not understood what federal system is, it it will do and how it will do what it ought to do?
      With this regard south is rapture of initially proposed five regions. One then ask: why the five are agumented in one? And, then what is plan B if the five want to disintegrate in to more than five?

  • There is no region in the country that has more different ethnicities crammed together than Addis Ababa. By the tribalist logic every neighbourhood should be populated by a single ethnicity and raise an identity question. But all live in peace and harmony instead.

    Here are a few reasons why (with in brackets the lessons for the whole country) :

    – Knowing and mixing people from different background in the daily life or THE MELTING POT. (Encourage people to travel accross the country and settle regardless of tribal boundaries)
    – Efficient and des-ethnicized city administration, police and security services. (Make the civil service national, so that new graduates have to serve in different regions than their regions of origin).
    – Reasonable command of a common local language. (Make learning two local languages compulsory through the system, and trash English).
    – Economic opportunities. (Create rural employment by farming the undeveloped lands).
    – Sense of belonging to something bigger. (Have a narrative that appeals to all).
    – Administrative boundaries that are geographic and not ethnic or historic. (Geographic federalism)

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