Attempts by the authorities to resolve sensitive issues should only occur after elections and the emergence of a new national consensusIt was on Saturday January 19, 2018 when nine years old Yosef Eshetu was reported shot dead in Woldia, as the authorities cracked down on supporters of growing Amhara nationalism demanding the return of what they saw as territory annexed by Tigray.
On June 14, 2018, the best part of a thousand kilometers to the south, an unidentified man was said to have been burned alive in Hawassa, joining dozens of Wolayta civilians killed by a mob who backed a campaign to convert the multi-ethnic city into a single group’s capital. Three months later, vigilantes ruined the homecoming party for the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), as supporters attacked non-Oromos in Burayu town of Oromia, just outside the federal capital.
Amid brutal inter-communal conflict and mass displacement, critics blamed the constitutional system known as ethnic federalism for promoting such dangerous nativism nationwide.
And what all three deadly incidents have in common is that their underlying problems and demands have not yet been resolved. The Welkait-Tsegede Amhara question remains unsolved; just like that of Hawassa, Metekel, Raya, Moyale, Dera, Sitti as well as segregated Dire Dawa and the Finfinne boundary. Even the 420 disputed kebeles, along the contested frontier between Oromia and Somali regions have yet to be settled.
When asked by activists and journalists about such territorial disputes, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has suggested that his government does not have the mandate to make a decision now and “cannot contemplate” one until and unless it receives a popular mandate in elections scheduled for next year.
It appears sometimes that his administration views itself as a transitional entity with no authority. Therefore, Ethiopian groups that advocate for both the stricter implementation of or the reformation of ethnic federalism are both left in limbo.
Instead of allowing an independent referendum approved by parliament to rule on demarcation, identity and border cases, Abiy’s administration has appointed commissions to delay these controversial topics.
For instance, in April 2018, when Amhara politicians in Gondar asked the Prime Minister about the government’s belated response to the Welkait question, he first played it down as “a diaspora problem.” Then, Abiy diverted the question, and claimed Gondar people are mixed with other ethnicities. Eventually, he asked for more time and patience.
Even mandatory local elections in Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa (which should be easy wins for Berhanu Nega’s Ethiopian Citizenship and Social Justice opposition party) have all been indefinitely postponed; triggering public suspicion that the Oromia ruling party is buying time to alter the city’s diverse demography and for gerrymandering.
Sidama Zone seems to be a dictatorship
The official government justification for delaying local elections is lack of security. But other than some hooligans allegedly sent by the unelected deputy Mayor Takele Uma to harass popular Addis Ababa activist Eskinder Nega, the security problems witnessed in other regions do not really exist in the capital city, although petty crime has increased. The ruling party therefore has no legitimate excuse not to hold local elections, but they have nonetheless been postponed.
Similarly, Abiy has yet to address the Oromo question on the status of Addis Ababa (Finfinne), while he is ignoring calls to make Hawassa a federal chartered city like Addis Ababa. Therefore, the Sidama statehood question is very unlikely to be the only case lingering around unanswered from the last year or so.
The situation in Sidama raises another important question: Who are these politicians and zonal officials, now suspended, who have been pushing for Sidama statehood? If one talks with locals from Hawassa, the SEPDM officials are seen as among the most corrupt in the south, with some believed to be responsible for widespread corruption. Ermias Asale, an activist and one of the founders of Wolayta Media Network, says many SEPDM officials who incited Ejjetto (Sidama youth movement) during fatal violence in 2018 are still in office.
After Wolayta politicians were assaulted by Sidama activists in Hawassa during the previous SEPDM meeting, they decided to hold their latest Central Committee meeting in Addis Ababa this week. According to Ermias, Abiy’s proposal to give a shared joint custody of Hawassa between SNNPRS and a future Sidama state was opposed by most Wolayta officials; leading to threats of removal.
After no liability for past crimes, another bloodbath has now occurred, with Sidama attacks on other groups and security forces gunning down rampaging Sidama. For complicit officials, championing Sidama nationalism might be their ticket out of facing accountability. After all, just like TPLF in Tigray, ethnic elites in Sidama exploit the “us vs them” narrative to divert the local community’s attention from inequality and corruption.
Such failings make a new crop of leaders necessary. Ethiopia’s current status as a de facto one-party state means that opposition voices are not heard either inside parliament nor during pivotal referendums. For example, in the case of the Sidama referendum, who will be there to critique, or present an alternative view against, statehood?
Just like Ethiopia, Sidama Zone seems to be a dictatorship, albeit one whose security is now under federal diktat following the recent chaos. There has been no critical thinking, nor questioning allowed during the statehood campaign. For example, is more ethnic segregation really good for Ethiopia? Does alienating non-Sidama in Hawassa and other towns benefit Sidama economically? Will changing the “zone” label to “regional state” magically solve the prevailing local poverty, corruption, and maladministration?
Is it morally appropriate to impose the Sidama language on the majority of residents born and living inside urban Sidama Zone that need to access government services? With none of the Sidama opposition parties campaigning against statehood, these important questions will not be thoroughly discussed before or during a referendum. With Ethiopia suffering the most internally displaced people in the world from conflict last year, the government must be advised to reduce narrow-minded activism, not empower it.
Those familiar with Hawassa politics know that the recent proliferation of referendum demands in the south are more proxy games rather than genuine interests of the majority of local people. Ironically, non-Sidama forces inside Abiy’s own EPRDF party are also pushing the Sidama statehood agenda behind the scenes. For example, TPLF, which was previously opposed to Sidama statehood, is suddenly passionately in favor of it. Hardliners inside TPLF, bitter about losing power, likely want to see a Sidama referendum leading to more conflict and chaos that overwhelms Abiy. Some Oromo hardliners from the diaspora and inside his own ODP base also support Sidama referendum for another reason. They view mono-ethnic ownership of Hawassa as a precedent for Finfinne‘s future status, and also see a new Sidama state a natural ally, given the two groups’ close historic ties.
Thus, for Abiy, it might actually be tougher dealing with these forces than stopping Sidama’s politicians. Therefore, while delaying these endless statehood requests until democratic elections are held in Ethiopia is the right move, it is still possible that Abiy will bow down to internal pressure from hardliners in his base.
This has happened before.
“What people need urgently are basic needs like school, water, homes and hospitals,” once declared Abiy, speaking to Amhara nationalists who asked him about Wolkait. But when thousands of poor urban Ethiopians, after saving their hard-earned money and waiting for years, finally received condominium apartments in Koye Feche and other suburban Oromia towns, Abiy suddenly did not care about their basic needs as he bowed down to the special interests of his Oromo hardliners. Suddenly, his party blocked the distribution of these condominiums.
Such inconsistency in transitional policy will likely breed more distrust and division between elites in Ethiopia. Not only was that controversial condominium decision indicative of whose political interests are a priority to Abiy, but it also exposed that his “medemer” concept is so much rejected by his own Oromo elites that they openly displayed xenophobia toward the urbanized children of those same “displaced Oromo farmers” they claimed to struggle for. Since many of the beneficiaries of the housing were working-class Oromo youth and families struggling to survive in the ever-expanding metropolitan city.
In the complex world of Ethiopian politics, alliances shift quickly, causes and convictions are lightly dispensed with for more tactical ones. Abiy will have to juggle the often-conflicting special interests of various forces in Ethiopia, while minimizing risks of further conflict.
Such dynamics can be seen among the ethnic blocs in the Southern region and residents of its capital Hawassa. For example, the Wolayta Committee on Human Rights (WCHR) recently recommended the Ethiopian government holds a “separate referendum in Hawassa” to protect the rights of “non-Sidama” in the city, who they claimed were a majority.
If Prime Minister Abiy remains consistent that his ruling party has no mandate to make major decisions before the 2020 election, such special issues must be left untouched until there is a freshly elected government and a reformed constitution is drafted to usher in a new era of consensus.
(Correction: first sentence corrected to reflect that Woldia is in Amhara and Tigray’s government was not responsible for the security operation)
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Main photo: An April 9 demonstration by Sidama in Hawassa; submitted
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