News analysis

Splitting Southern Nations region into four can promote peace

Placing similar groups into multiple states could be the most promising way forward for the troubled Southern Nations region.

For more than two decades, the question of statehood formation has been raised by identiy-based zones in the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State (SNNPRS).

In particular, the issue proliferated after the collapse of the authority of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the arrival of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018. Consequently, the question has been raised by the Wolayta, Keffa, Gurage, Gamo, Gofa, and Sidama ethnic groups.

Given this political context and the House of Federation’s approval this week of the zonal councils of Dawro, Bench Sheko, Sheka, West Omo and Keffa’s request to form a single region, it is important to assess this new approach to regional statehood in Ethiopia.

Fresh thinking

During Ethiopia’s last transition, Southern Nations Nationalities and People’s Regional State (SNNPRS) was formed by merging five districts following regional council elections in 1992. Furthermore, as a region of more than 56 ‘nationalities, it is one of the largest in Ethiopia, accounting for more than 10 percent of the country’s area and almost a fifth of the population.

Until Sidama established its own region, SNNPRS was divided into 13 zones, 133 and 3,512 kebeles. While the Sidama are the largest ethnic group in the region, each ethnicity is the majority in its administrative zone in terms of number and there are also minorities.

Given the prevalence of statehood requests, a team was established by the now-defunct Southern Ethiopian People Democratic Movement (SEPDM) to conduct a “scientific study” on how to handle several claims for regional statehood. After seven months, the team presented its findings and the following options to the SEPDM Executive Committee:

  • Proceed with the existing region without any change, or;
  • Except for the Sidama, organize the remaining “nations, nationalities and peoples” into one region, or;
  • Not entertain questions of region formation for some time.

Nevertheless, there was not widespread acceptance of any of the above recommended solutions. Given this lack of consensus, another option is actively being considered.

The idea is to re-organize the SNNPRS into four regions, including Sidama, and one Special Zone. This option emerged after the December 2019 establishment of Prosperity Party and is mainly propagated by the national peace ambassadors or Yeselam Ambasaderoch Committee (a committee established under the Office of the Prime Minster to investigate the autonomy demands).

The Committee, the Prime Minister, and the House of Federation (HoF) have subsequently held discussions with representatives from SNNPRS zones and weredas on the issue. As a result, the Committee indicated that there is an agreement to re-organize SNNPRS into four regions and one Special Zone.

Based on the settlement patterns and the consent of the people concerned, this agreement is ready to be submitted to the HoF. The upper house of parliament is expected to reply within 30 days of its acceptance. The suggested regions, one of which has been accepted already, are:

  1. Damotic/Omotic Region: Gamo, Gofa, Konso, South Omo, Derashe, Burji, Amaro, Wolayta, Basketo.
  2. Northern and Central Region: Hadiya, Kembata, Tembaro, Silte, Gurage, Yem, Alaba.
  3. South West Region: Keffa, Sheka, Bench Sheko, Dawro, West Omo and Konta.
  4. Sidama Region: Sidama, Gedeo.

While Gedeo is to become a Special Zone, it has not been not decided which region it will be part of. Gedeo Special Zone would then have the rights to use its language and approve budgets, while still being governed by regional laws. Alternatively, the Committee recommended the formation of a new region that encompasses Gedeo Special Zone, and the Burji and Amaro people’s administrative districts. Nonetheless, such an option does not appear to be accepted by the people.

So far the Wolayta members of SNNPRS State Council have strongly opposed the organization of the Wolayta under the Omotic Region as they want their own region like the Sidama. Equally, other members of the Omotic Region like the Gamo, Gofa have shown dissatisfaction. As a result, the Prime Minister and members of the Peace Ambassadors Committee have recently gone to the area to discuss and seek solutions.

On the other hand, on 30 September, the zonal councils of Keffa, Sheka, Bench Sheko, Dawro, West Omo including with Konta Special Woreda have unanimously agreed to integrate in to a single region. With the HoF recently approving this approach and requesting the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia to conduct a referendum, this new region will probably be called the South West Region.

The promise

The Ethiopian federation contains constitutional provisions that grant autonomy upon request. While the regional states of Amhara, Oromia, Tigray, Afar and Somalia have dominant nationality groups, the others are multi-ethnic. For example, Benishangul-Gumuz has Berta, Shinasha, Gumuz, Mao and Komo nationalities. Gambella has Nuer, Anuak and Mezenger, and Harari has Oromo, Amhara and Gurage. However, the case of the SNNPRS is peculiar, as the region contains so many groups.

Since the introduction of the federal system in 1995, there have been frequent questions for region-formation by SNNPRS groups and also regular and deadly conflicts in the region. There are several factors that brought this about. One is the failure to find an administrative structure that works for the multiple SNNPRS groups. The current re-structuring will create multicultural regions, even if there is no dominant group, which may reduce conflict, and the claim for independent regions, at least for a while, in most zones.

Another positive aspect of this new arrangement is that it will address some of the administrative problems that stem from the current arrangement. Given that federalism seeks to devolve public administration, if the geographical distance between the government and the people grows, the more difficult it is for the people to make their voices heard, and for rulers to understand their needs, aspirations, and priorities.

Federalism helps to resolve this problem, as it enables substantive powers to be exercised at the regional or sub-regional levels, giving people greater opportunities to exercise democratic control over public administration, resource utilization, policy adoption and law enforcement. For instance, it takes more than three days to go to the regional seat of Hawassa from the most peripheral weredas of Sheka and Bench Sheko zones.

Furthermore, by lumping all ethnic groups together, the existing arrangement does not adequately manage demographic factors, settlement patterns, languages and the consent of the population during region formation, as enshrined under article 46(2) of the federal constitution. In contrast, re-structuring the region into four regions (as recommended by the Committee) will create cluster of communities that have a similar way of life and settlement pattern.

For instance, if we look at the proposed South West Region, while the languages spoken by the Keffa and Sheka people are very similar  except for pronunciation, the two languages (Dawrigna) spoken by the Dawro/Konta people also share words with similar meanings.

The challenge

The federal constitution states that “All sovereign power resides in the Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples of Ethiopia.” In this light, Article 39 grants nations, nationalities and peoples the right to self-determination including secession. At the same time, it further entitles every group the right to establish their own region under Article 47(2). Hence we can imagine 56 regions springing out of the fragmenting SNNPRS. Such extreme fragmentation would further complicate the political, economic, and social state of the southern part of the federation.

Another challenge that the region could face is the issue of minorities. For instance, in the proposed South West Region, which encompasses the major ethnic groups of Keffa, Sheka, Bench, Sheko, and Dawro, there are the Menja people, a minority related to the Keffa.

While federalism can provide minorities a certain level of recognition and autonomy, it can also expose them to discrimination and oppression. This is particularly the case if these minority groups were not part of the deliberations that established new arrangements, as their interests may not be represented.

It is important to also note that, since the idea to restructure the SNNPRS was tabled, there has been competition for the capital city of regional states. This struggle could potentially become a major obstacle to the process.

Finally, the fact that there could be more than four regions could pose a challenge to effective public administration, as the new regional governments may lack the requisite human and financial resources. This risks overburdening weak newly established institutions with demands that they cannot meet and so could cause disappointment, mistrust, and discontent among the public.

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Main photo: The zonal and special wereda representatives voting for South West Region.

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About the author

Bereket Eshetu Messele

Bereket has an LL.B from Wollo University and LL.M from Bahir Dar University. He is a lecturer at Bahir Dar University’s School of Law and also a licensed lawyer who provides advocacy services as well as represents clients in federal and regional courts.

8 Comments

  • This proposal would point the country in the wrong direction. Ethnic identity is the curse that will eventually cause Ethiopia to splinter. Tigray has effectively left the federation. There will be other Tigrays in the future. Until eventually there is only rump Ethiopia composed of Oromia. Look at the former Yugoslavia for a lesson from recent history.
    Sadly the only way to keep the federation together is by dictatorship. Ethiopia is not ready for democracy. Maybe it never will be.

    • If coup de tat’s don’t take place as it did in the AMARA region ethnic identity based federalism will lead to greatness. But if the security system is weak then the region will end up being unable to govern itself . So if these Southern ethnicities security apparatus are confident on their muscles they should go for a referendum but if their security apparatus is not yet ready for it , then waiting longer is the best action to take now. No need to rush only to end up weak and broken as the Amara region currently is because they rushed to form an independent Amara regional security apparatus by defying the assistance the federal(TPLF) / Tigrayan regional security apparatus had been extending to the Amara regions security until 2018.

  • Four , fourteen or forty who is to decide ? The people of SNNP region want each ethnicity to have its own region, if
    each ethnicity can not have our own region then abolish the ethnic federalism to bring fair constitution for all Ethiopians. We run out of patience . We lost a generation being led under this unfair ethnic federalism already . We can not survive like this any longer .

    We all know there are over four ethnicities in the region so we will not settle for only four regions . If Southern ethnicities are expected to share then In that case why don’t you combine Somali ethnicities , Oromo ethnicities , Amara ethnicities and even Tigray too and make them share one region , as you are suggesting for the southern ethnicities?

    The ethnic federalism commonly known as Zenawism was advocated by TPLF led coalition . TPLF followed ethnic federalism making Tigray a region who only Tigrayans own. Look how free the Tigray state is. Tigray state is free in many aspects , SNNP region want to be free too. We at least need to be the once coming up with the number of states regions we want. We don’t want the federal government to impose on us how many regions we want. We the people of the SNNP region need to decide whether we want four or more states. We the people of Ethiopia should be free to decide whether we want to end the ethnic federalism constitution or not.
    Sidama shall be free!
    Wolaita shall be free!
    Silte shall be free !
    Sebat bet shall be free!
    Gedeo shall be free !
    Konso shall be free !
    List goes on!

    ALL IN ALL THE OVER EIGHTY ETHNICITIES NEED TO BE FREE TO DECIDE FOR THEMSELVES IF THEY WANT THEIR OWN REGION OR NOT.

    SEVENTY PLUS REFERENDUMS NEED TO BE CONDUCTED TO HAVE A FREE , UNBIASED AND FAIR ETHNIC FEDERALISM SYSTEM TO FLOURISH IN ETHIOPIA.

    To hold such referendums there needs to be a government capable of leading Ethiopia . Unfortunately there is no government in Ethiopia , what we got now Is a group of thugs who spread fear and false promises as their prosperity gospel doctrine teaches them. They are just a cult followers who pretend to be gover Inments without qualifying to perform as a government. Abiy is hoping to postpone the election until GERD construction is completed and until the water is completely filled which is definitely not what the 140 million plus Ethiopians want. .

  • My view, its better early on to do the right solution: here its;
    1- Sidama state is already done deal👍.
    2- Waliyta to be a state, Waliyta state✔.
    3- Gurage to be a state, Gurage state✔.
    4- Hadiya to be a state, Hadiya state✔.
    5- left over zones to be divided into 3 or 4 states✔. total 8 or 9 states.
    6- Addis Ababa & Dira dhaba/waba to be a states.✔
    Small is smart…let people have their freedom & rule their affairs🇪🇹🇪🇹.
    If they have problems early stages is fine because Oromo state & Amhara state have it as well, its temporary.
    Small states are normal everywhere, exp. Harar, Maryland, Berlin, Delaware & so on. Ethiopia might have 20 or more states just fine.

    • Good thinking. Let the people vote what federal state they want. Ethiopia can have a 100 states as long as it is based on actual local vote and not some “elite based” narratives.

      • Very far from transparency. First of all Ethiopians are not informed citizens and any one eyed individual can lead the whole blinds to a ditch which will take sometimes to come out of it.
        You see our neighbouring east africans. They build their citizens unlike Ethiopia,the blocks.
        Completely equally innocent leaders and the masses.

        • Well, the “I am informed and the ordinary people are not” idea has led to the current impasse of sham ethnic states didn’t it?

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