Elections 2021 In-depth

EIEP: A special statehood request in Ethiopia’s southwest

The formation of new regions in southern Ethiopia is a necessary but insufficient answer to the area’s multiple challenges. 

This article is part of the Ethiopia Insight Election Project (EIEP) series.

On 30 September 2020, the councils of Keffa, Sheka, Bench-Sheko, Dawro, West Omo zones, and Konta Special Woreda put aside their individual requests for statehood and voted unanimously for a referendum on creating a joint South West Regional State. 

The House of Federation (HoF) endorsed the petition and requested the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) to arrange the plebiscite. The referendum that was to be held along with the sixth national and regional election on 21 June was postponed until 6 September. 

If held, it is likely to establish a new region—South West Regional State.

The southwest’s referendum is noteworthy for its attempt to form a multiethnic region from multiple autonomy-seeking zones. 

Compare this referendum, for example, with Sidama’s recently granted request for independent statehood—Sidama, now administratively unaffixed from other southern region zones. Or, more starkly, to Wolayta Zone’s sidelined demand for administrative autonomy—still being fiercely fought by activists and politicians for more than a decade, with no end in sight.

So: Why are statehood demands proliferating across the south? Why has the request for southwestern statehood gained traction over independent state requests? What is the constitutional context and what may be the political ramifications of the southwestern referendum given the constitutional design and practical implementation of Ethiopia’s federal system? And, perhaps most importantly, what will be the fate of the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State (SNNP) after the southwestern special referendum?

To try and answer these questions and more, I traveled from Wolayta-Sodo to Dawro, taking a circuitous and arduous trip across neighboring areas, each destined to face dissimilar futures in the Ethiopian state. 

Along the way, I spoke with administrators, activists, teachers, businessmen, and travelers to get a wider sense of what is happening on the ground ahead of the southwest referendum’s passing—and what it might mean for the rest of the region.

Uneasy ethno-federalism

The ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) decision in 1992 to form a single multiethnic region encompassing the diverse peoples and nationalities of the south—hailed as the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State (SNNP)—was controversial from the beginning. Indeed, fierce debate and cascading conflict over claims to statehood have been common since its initiation.

By now, the criticisms of Ethiopia’s ethnofederalism are new to only a few. The system has been bitterly lambasted for creating a constitution that foregrounds heterogeneity over national unity; for (re-)structuring regional and sub-regional administrations along ethnic territories, and for its failure to administratively accommodate the multifaceted and divergent interests that it was designed to manage. 

At the same time, the constitution makes a unique promise to the peoples of Ethiopia: the inalienable right to state-level self-administration for ethnic communities rooted in the unconditional—though not indisputable—respect for self-determination. 

The law entitles groups to exercise, conserve, and develop self-identity manifestations (including language, culture, and history); meaningfully participate and be equitably represented at various levels of government;  establish self-governance institutions; and exercise external sovereignty—all the way up to secession.

Upholding identity as a valid dividing line unsurprisingly leads to conflict when respect and recognition are taken for granted or honored unevenly in regions across the country. EPRDF’s belief that championing ethnicity could rectify historically unjust relations among varying nations, nationalities, and peoples was insufficient. 

It needed genuine follow-up and concerted attention towards reconciling historical conflicts, investing in equitable development to ensure fairness and address imbalances, and fostering cooperation based on shared interests and visions for the future.

In SNNP, where more than four dozen distinct ethnic groups reside across a geographically diverse region, assertions of self-determination were almost inevitable.

Special states

Ethiopia’s federation offers autonomy for states in areas like fiscal, security, and education policy, although most funding comes from federal transfers and the central government sets overarching policies, such as the public ownership of land. Zones and Special Weredas are below States but exercise relative autonomy compared to weredas. They receive a budget from the regional administration and administer it.

In line with their federal and regional constitutional rights, over the last three years, the 11 most populous zones of SNNP have asked the regional government for referendums in order to be upgraded to regions. Aside from Sidama, Wolayta, and Dawro, there was also Gurage, Gofa, Gedeo, Keffa, Gamo, Kambata-Tambaro, Bench-Maji, Hadiya, and South Omo. 

These requests have previously been understood as an attempt at ethnic self-administration. However, that seems an oversimplification, as statehood has more practical implications than just ethnic recognition; of those, greater autonomy over economic development seems to be the most significant. 

Zones requesting referendum Population Date requested
1 Sidama 4.1 July 19, 2018
2 Kaffa 1.2 Nov 15, 2018
3 Gurage 1.8 Nov 28, 2018
4 Bench-Maji 0.9 Nov 29, 2018
5 Hadiya 0.8 Dec 01, 2018
6 Dawro Zone 0.7 Dec 06, 2018
7 Wolayta 2.2 Dec 09, 2018
8 Gamo 1 Dec 12, 2018
9 Kembata Tembaro 1 Dec 19, 2018
10 South Omo 0.8 April 23, 2019
11 Gofa 1.3 May 22, 2019
12 Gedeo 1.2

Figure 1: Zones requesting statehood (population in millions, recent official estimate)

In a response to these constitutional demands, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has, on different occasions, said the peoples of SNNP will be better off—economically, culturally, and politically—if they stand together as one rather than fragment; or, at least, if they are technocratically split into an optimal arrangement. 

Pro-government elites and politicians affirm Abiy’s position that a single administrative structure in the south may afford stronger collective bargaining power and mobilize more development resources. 

Unfortunately, these arguments often fail to acknowledge and address the root causes behind the requests: the lack of equitable investment in basic infrastructure and maladministration by both federal, regional, and local governments.

Therefore, one of the key tests for all statehood campaigns, including in the southwest, is whether they will deliver improved public services to the people.

Speculative standards

Armed with nothing besides the constitution, the peoples of SNNP began their quests for independent statehood one by one. Unfortunately, the federal government was not ready to accommodate the complex realities that ethnofederalism posed in practice. 

For a long time, statehood requests were smothered and even violently suppressed. It was apparently not considered in the national interest to change the status quo, as cries for independence from the south met deaf ears in the capital and by civil society elites across the country. 

When finally calls could no longer be quelled or squashed, as in the case of Sidama, statehood has been begrudgingly granted—only to sow further confusion and dissatisfaction in the region. The endorsement of the Sidama referendum over multiple similar requests, all rooted in the same legal framework and yet rejected or ignored, suggests a double standard.

Dawro Zone, for example, previously made its own appeal for independent statehood, and, much like neighboring Wolayta’s current appeal, that request was left pending without any promise of passing. 

The ancient kingdoms of Dawro and Wolayta had similar histories and grievances—from forced integration into the Ethiopian state during the controversial reign of Menelik II to shared discontent with their current representation at Hawassa headquarters. 

Unlike Wolayta, though, Dawro has recently taken the conscious decision to join a coalition and to resubmit its statehood appeal alongside five neighboring zones and one special wereda. It is not, evidently, by chance that Dawro’s request for autonomy will soon be approved in joint form, while Wolayta’s request will be left hanging.

I traveled to Dawro in March to learn more about the history of the southwest’s statehood quest, and to explore the new state’s viability, given the varying needs of its constituents.

Dawro’s journey

I began my trip by taking a public bus from Wolayta-Sodo to Dawro-Tercha via Bale-Awasa at 9:30 am. Any reader of maps would be shocked at the fact that I did not arrive in Tercha, Dawro’s administrative center, until 5:30 pm. Eight long hours later.

The Dawro are among those people living in southwest Ethiopia who had autonomous administration before their formal incorporation into the Ethiopian state under Emperor Menelik II. During the time of the Derg, and for almost a decade after, Dawro was part of the North Omo Zone. It was not until 2000 that the North Omo Zone was split into Gamo-Gofa, Wolayta, and Dawro zones and Basketo and Konta Special Weredas.

The Dawro people made their first serious claim for statehood in 2018. The claim has roots in historical and identity-related stimuli; for the most part, though, it was a culmination of concerns that are broadly shared by people across the southwest. 

Concerns included rampant maladministration and government stagnation at the local level, inadequate representation at the regional and federal levels, resentment over unequal burden-sharing and benefit arrangements, dissatisfaction with infrastructure investment and insufficient development, distaste for the power-politics of elites, and the center’s inability to empathize with the needs of rural regions, and the physical distance and logistical difficulties in traveling to the regional capital. 

This latter concern ultimately helped to push the southwest statehood claim to its peak. 

Personal frustrations aside, the case for greater infrastructure investment and the need for a more accessible administration appeared especially stark in Dawro. And while recent road, water, and tourism projects are notable, as well as construction projects including Mizan Tepi airport and Mizan Aman Stadium in Bench-Sheko Zone, confidence in the efficacy and follow-through by distant governments—from Hawassa to Addis Ababa—seemed in short supply in Dawro. 

The road to Tercha 

Dawro is 319 kilometers from the regional capital Hawassa. Its administrative center, Tercha, is located 507 kilometers southwest of Addis Ababa via the Shashamane-Sodo road; 435 kilometers from the capital via the Hosaina-Sodo road; and 490 kilometers via the Jimma-Konta road.

From where I began in Wolayta-Sodo, Dawro-Tercha is 166 kilometers far, via a winding, rundown roads.

Transportation services from neighboring Sodo are scarce. Drivers make trips based on daily calculations of the number of officials traveling for civil service activities and a small number of passengers traveling for personal reasons.

Sodo-Tercha travelers negotiate with intermediaries at Wolayta-Sodo bus station about service availability and costs. The ticket cost is often determined based on these intermediaries’ appeals, who also take their own cut. Anyone who joins the trip at any distance from the departure—even halfway along the road—is obliged to pay the same fare.

The Sodo-Tercha road has been diverted since the construction of Gibe III dam a decade ago. Travelers complain that, instead of passing directly over the Gibe River by a bridge, the modified road adds unnecessary length and inconvenience. They are not wrong, as an additional 60 tortuous kilometers results in an average of three extra hours of travel time.

The re-routed road meanders along Bale-Awasa, passing through the mountainous and rugged region of Kindo-Koysha. This is an area blighted by dry, overused, and unproductive land. As we traversed it, one traveler marveled, “I don’t understand what these people survive on.” 

High levels of soil erosion produce ripe environments for landslides, which in turn creates hazardous conditions for transportation. Road accidents are common and can be deadly. The lengthy and uncomfortable journey poses an acute risk for elderly passengers and those with health conditions.

Concerns about the road exist among other complaints related to Gibe III construction and infrastructure development. In Tercha, people I spoke with said that the installation of Gibe III substation in Wolayta instead of Dawro was unfair. 

And, in spite of the dam, the distribution of electricity is not consistent across zones. Rural kebeles across the southwest not only lack access to telecommunication services, they also lack access to electricity.

Consider the case of Waka town, some 17 kilometers from Tercha and Dawro’s former administrative center. 

Waka is considered as one of Ethiopia’s historically significant sites, yet when I visited it I saw nothing but dilapidated slum houses with underdeveloped and inadequate basic infrastructure. The only sign of promise was some digging, demonstrating a yet unfulfilled effort to pave the town’s road.

The government-initiated road renovation plan stretches from Waka to Tercha. In Tercha, the aged and narrow road through town has recently been bulldozed to begin construction of Tercha town potable water and the Koysha projects. The projects offer hope for better connection to services and somewhat easier access to administrative centers.

Still, many people also question when the constructions will be completed, and whether the initiations will materialize. Additionally, the needs are more significant than one road can satisfy. Only 30 of the 181 kebeles in Dawro have rural kebele-to-kebele linking roads.

Meanwhile, in the interim of one road’s completion, unfulfilled demands for representation at the political center feel increasingly urgent.

Dawro’s referendum

Dawro people complain that the regional administrations in Hawassa and federal administrators in Addis Ababa have long neglected their needs, which makes many suspicious of solutions proposed from those centers. 

It was notable from my conversations with Tercha and Waka residents that Dawro people have a critical understanding of past mistakes made in administrative restructuring. They blame the system set up by the EPRDF and its member party, the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), for ongoing misfortunes. They suggest that a new administration, or a merger of existing ones, should come from the people as a real reflection of their interests.

Most Dawro residents expressed acceptance of a shared southwestern regional state—so long as that administration maintains national unity, represents all peoples in the composite region, and equitably distributes burdens and benefits.

1.     Bench Sheko + West Omo 0.9
2.     Dawro 0.7
3.     Keffa 1.2
4.     Konta 0.1
5.   Sheka 0.3

Figure 2: Population of southwest (Approximation in Millions, 2019 population projection)

Demblo Gebrabu, a senior politician now acting administrator at Tercha’s Ethio telecom, believes that the concerns of people in the periphery, including the people of Dawro, are basic: things like infrastructure and mutual respect. Demblo claimed that statehood was not a prior interest for the Dawro people. He blames inequitable investment in infrastructure and unequal distribution of services for creating conditions that made the demand necessary. 

Comparing Sidama to Gedeo, and Wolayta to Dawro, he questioned: “How can it be that two adjacent administrations have such contrasting infrastructures?”

Additionally, Demblo said the extreme pre-election political arguments, conflict, and confusion in Addis Abeba do not help meet the needs of rural people. He said the purpose of a localized administration is “to serve people in an accessible, efficient, and economically sound manner.”

According to Miheretu Mekonen, a public prosecutor and legal expert in Tercha, the main aim of statehood is to have a “responsive administration nearer to the people.”

Tercha resident and teacher, Semayat Teferi, shared similar sentiments. He stated: “Dawro people do not expect an overnight fulfillment of everything. However, they want to know who is responsible for what.” 

Dawro’s election 

With regards to the national election, Dawro residents have doubts whether the hope-giving initiatives of political parties will manifest themselves in concrete results (and roads) and how timely they will be. 

Past experience has shown for many that once votes are cast, promises go woefully unfulfilled.

In a pre-election interview, Keftawu G., head of the ruling Prosperity Party (PP) in Dawro, disputed such suspicions. He asserted that “initiating and implementing development projects are the all-time duty of the government”. 

Keftawu also insisted that Dawro people are feeling more optimistic due to the incumbent’s initiatives in the area.  He said: “Our people are happy with the government’s projects.” 

Considering the zone’s underdevelopment and significant needs, the PP government’s recent investment in roads, water, and tourism, in particular, was a clear way to demonstrate concern and get support in the election. And these efforts paid off. 

A local religious leader I spoke to said, “People are more critical now than ever before. They know who serves them better.” He explained: “People want a government that works more than one that talks.”

That said, political competition for the national election was low in Dawro, to say the least.

Ezema (Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice) and the Ethiopian Social Democratic Party have opened party offices in Tercha. However, both premises stayed closed throughout my week-long visit in March. The phone numbers linked to the offices were switched off, and I was unable to reach any of their party representatives. 

Ato Miheretu, the legal expert I spoke with in Tercha, commented on the insignificant activities of opposition parties in Dawro. He said: “Since reform began, some opposition leaders have been sucked [into PP], others rendered less important. Others have failed to capture current political dynamics.”

A brief pitstop

On the way to Dawro at the roadside town and the newly inaugurated municipality of Bale-Awasa, I heard similar testimonies regarding the influence of opposition parties. A shopkeeper there told me that “oppositions were already eliminated and their office premises locked up. The government follows up opposition party affiliates, via spies, and arrests them.”

In Bale-Awasa, however, I did not get the impression that many had much of a problem with the suppression of opposition. Overwhelmingly, town residents expressed a need for peace and work opportunities over political preferences. The shopkeeper asked and answered a rhetorical question: “Could opposition political parties avail work and security? No, they could not do it.”

It is unsurprising, then, that the Prosperity Party won by an overwhelming majority in Bale-Awassa this June. 

Meanwhile, in Wolayta-Sodo

Whereas Dawro’s statehood request will soon be fulfilled in the compromised form of a joint referendum, and Sidama’s battle for independent statehood was singularly granted, Wolayta Zone is continuing its grueling quest for administrative autonomy of its 21 weredas and administrative center in Sodo. 

Wolayta’s long-standing struggle for statehood gained notable momentum in 2018— essentially in lock-step with Sidama. But power imbalances in SNNP’s State Council and accompanying complications stalled Wolayta’s ambitions, while the requests of their neighbors were granted.

As Sodo city’s former mayor, Abraham Bachore, explained to Ethiopia Insight: “Ethiopia has experience in designing a double-standard for administrative structuring that is characterized by mal-implementations.” 

Wolayta statehood: pros and cons 

Supporters of independent statehood in Wolayta provide historical, legal, political, and socio-economic justifications for their demand. They also make arguments based on population and territorial size relative to other peoples and administrative territories in the region. 

Whereas Sidama is the fifth-largest ethnic group in the country with around four million people, and the combined southwest has a population of approximately 3.2 million people (see Figure 1), Wolayta’s population was estimated in 2007 as approaching two million—and is growing fast.

A common allegation is that a lack of genuine representation under SEPDM-EPRDF impeded statehood pursuits, as the party acted to suppress rather than serve the public interest. 

Former mayor Abraham told me: “People were not genuinely represented in forming SEPDM nor consulted at the formative stage.” Instead, he claimed, “SEPDM founders were TPLF-oriented war-captives of ‘southern’ background who were formerly fighting for Derg against the TPLF”.

Pro-statehood Wolayta youth accuse SEPDM of deliberately recruiting undergraduates who lack the necessary analytical skills and expertise in political affairs. Such recruits, they argue, are more concerned for their tenure than they are for public interest. They resist changing political dynamics because it is controversial and therefore inconvenient.

Wolayta people participating at a rally demanding Wolayta statehood; 17 May 2019; social media

Not all advocates for Wolayta’s independence share the radicalism of the young and politically active. Statehood proponents who make arguments for economic self-sufficiency have gained backing from intellectual elites, business owners, and the like, especially in larger towns. 

These are leaders who make a defense for statehood based on the need for more efficient budgeting and better use of resources. They aim at attracting investment, creating employment opportunities, and expanding service sectors that leverage human capital.

For Habtamu Timatiows, Chief Executive of the Wolayta Development Association, statehood is the only feasible way to appropriately respond to the needs of the people. At the same time, he advises against overly emotional appeals which lead to violence, as occurred last year, and destruction,  which will ultimately hurt the cause. 

Habtamu believes that it is only a matter of time before the call for statehood is answered affirmatively and that maintaining order is essential in the meantime. “The people have asked in a peaceful way and we are waiting for a response,” he said.

For Ato Teketel, a legal expert in Wolayta-Sodo, regional-level administration confers decision-making power and gives wider freedom to decide on political, social, and economic needs. This includes the power to decide on the usage of natural resources, the ability to access and administer its own budget from the federal government, and the authority to design and implement policies geared at addressing public interest.

Teketel further explained the political implications of regional administration, saying that the state could make its own decisions about region-to-region relationships and shared interests. Moreover, direct administrative power within the proximity of the people would result in greater efficiency and necessary accountability.

Opponents of Wolayta statehood believe that administrative independence should not be considered a priority for the region. They view the assertion of statehood as narrow ethnic nationalism, a familiar sentiment from EPRDF days.

One senior official who requested anonymity explained his opposition by saying that it would be impossible to contain the explosive Wolayta population, dispersed conspicuously across the country, on the limited land and natural resources of Wolayta Zone, and there should be a concerted focus to serve Wolayta people’s needs across the country.

Ato Gobeze, Chief Secretary of the Wolayta Tussa Federalist Front (WTFF), or Tussa, argues that counterarguments that undermine statehood grants for administrative budget implications are unfounded.

According to Gobeze, the infrastructure constraints and complaints throughout southern Ethiopia are not necessarily due to a budget deficit; instead, budgetary misuse, corruption, and misallocation are problems that a new Wolayta region administration, when granted, would tackle.  

Another way out against the budget deficit is through creating jobs, effectively using the natural resources of the region, and inviting investment by demonstrating peaceful cooperation and cohesive people-power. Statehood, arguably, enables greater access to available resources, which should be used for maximizing revenue generation. 

In spite of strong arguments on either side, statehood proponents are coming out ahead after Wolayta’s neighbors in Dawro explicitly rejected the idea of forming a joint region with them.

Indeed, independent statehood appears increasingly appealing for people in Wolayta, with eyes aimed at their best interests. As in other areas, the government has been offering sweeteners, probably to try and maintain the status quo: there have been some projects initiated in the zone since the eve of the election, including telecom and irrigation projects.

Post-election politics

While opposition parties were notably absent across the southwestern referendum area that I visited, Tussa has been attracting meaningful interest as an opposition party in Wolayta.

According to its Chief Secretary Gobeze, his party has been working to liberate Wolayta from tyranny and aspires to ensure all-around prosperity for its people. Accordingly, Tussa’s party has three pillars: (1) full-fledged self-determination, (2) economic independence, and (3) a peaceful environment for interaction between Wolayta and its neighbors.

Gobeze blames SEPDM for its oppression of Wolayta’s people. He stated: “Wolayta people have contributed to Ethiopian nation-building and fought for its sovereignty and wellbeing but have not benefited equitably from benefit dividends to the extent of their contribution.”

Gobeze claimed that Tussa will rectify the mistakes of SEPDM by elevating the role of Wolayta-born politicians, mobilizing all available resources in the effort to reverse past injustices, and ensuring economic self-sufficiency and independence.

Gobeze also alleges that Tussa has been forced to defend itself against the deliberate obstruction of its offices in rural towns. He also mentioned arrests of party leaders and members and surveillance and seizure of communication equipment that facilitates its function. Still, he said that “despite massive challenges we have been facing, Tussa has been working for and with the people of Wolayta.” 

Based on my interviews throughout Sodo, Boditi, and Areka towns, Tussa was set to be the toughest competitor to PP in Wolayta. One Boditi resident commented that “relative to PP, Tussa has been diligently working to make Wolayta peoples’ voices heard.”  

In Areka town, a resident gave the opinion, “Tussa has young leadership who bitterly fight maladministration, and are committed to addressing the demands of the people.” In spite of such passion, Tussa stronghold remains limited to Sodo and nearby towns.

Ezema was another competitor to both PP and Tussa in Wolayta and its surroundings. For Wolayta youth dispersed across the country in search of sustainable livelihoods, Ezema’s Ethiopianism and citizen-based allegiance have strong appeal.

According to ex-mayor Abraham, Ezema was the ideal choice if it was able to accommodate Ethiopianism within identity interests in Wolayta. One way to do so, he suggested, would be to present an ethnic-Wolayta intellectual as a candidate.

Gobeze, however, argued that Ezema’s current ideology cannot capture the pressing demands of the Wolayta people. He stated: “I’m sure Ezema can succeed after decades or half a century due to changing environmental factors but not necessarily for the current election.”

NEBE announced PP winning in both Wolayta and Dawro zones despite certain irregularities and complaints by opposition political parties. 

Tussa warned it may boycott the election due to unfair PP influence on the process held in 85 out of 104 constituencies. Of those, 75 were won by PP, four by Ezema (including Amaro Special Wereda constituency, and in Gurage’s Zeyze constituency), and two by the Gedeo People Democratic Organization in Gedeo Zone. 

The result means PP will decide on statehood requests.

Is statehood the solution? 

It struck me throughout my travels that the varying concerns for people across the southwest are not only complex but genuinely difficult to resolve. Miheretu M, the legal expert in Tercha, put it simply: “Statehood is not the ultimate solution for the multiple problems people have been facing…but it may be one [part of the] solution.”

For Dawro and others, the southwest referendum may go some way to answering statehood demands and fulfilling constitutional rights, but whether and how it will address issues related to infrastructure and representation is yet to be known. The asymmetrical costs associated with disparate needs across zones is sure to be a point of continued contention—as will be the basic costs of administering a poorly connected region as one.

And in Wolayta, the belief that statehood achievement is key to resolving social, political, and economic issues does not necessarily hold up against arguments on the other side. Effective management and sharing of resources, for example, is a matter of good governance. Whether a governing institution is localized or operating at a distance, upholding capable and ethical oversight should be a core interest of the government. 

Still, there are realities that cannot be denied. For instance, the demographic explosion creates the need to expand region-specific services, just as booming economic activities in some regions over others require more supervision by efficient and accessible administrations.

Sidama managed to use arguments including population size and economic success to help win its case for statehood while Dawro made up for weaknesses in its case by joining a broader coalition, thereby gaining size and economic weight. In Wolayta, a large population with high economic potential has not apparently been enough to push the case for statehood to its peak. 

Asymmetries abound

While the southwest coalition made strong arguments for a joint referendum, observers should be concerned that their request followed an improper path towards its endorsement. This suggests another form of top-down politics that southerners railed against during the SEPDM-EPRDF era. 

The constitution outlines that any statehood demand, whether joint or individual, goes first to the regional State Council for prior approval—as was the case with the Sidama referendum. In the case of the southwest demand, however, the request was endorsed directly by the House of Federation (HoF), thereby superseding order and undermining the rule of law.

The HoF’s approval signals a preference for collective claims over individual ones. This is perhaps not surprising, as it represents the very same logic that led to the establishment of SNNP in the first place. Nevertheless, it does suggest the introduction of extra-constitutional criteria for statehood and arguably undermines local voices.

Also, against this preference, we should show caution and learn lessons from failed experiments from the past—such as from the Semen Omo Zone (and the WoaGaGoDa experiment), and the Segen Area People’s Zone. Sidama’s recent separation from SNNP should also teach us something important about the flawed nature of forced mergers. 

Moreover, according to political insiders, aside from the southwest referendum, other administrations are not willing to form joint regions—or at least are unable to agree on various aspects of new administrations at this time. Dawro Zone’s rejection of Wolayta’s proposal to join their state is one of many examples where ancient animosity and current competition are inseparable.

Like elsewhere in the country, powerful elites in the southwest wielded historical grievances as weapons and manipulated ethnic and other divisions as they battled for scarce resources. It is no wonder that more and more regions now believe that their survival is achieved by competing against, rather than cooperating with, their neighbors.   

Uncertainties and insecurities

Sidama’s achievement in becoming Ethiopia’s tenth state—the first to succeed since the constitution listed states in 1995—indicates that we are in a new phase of our federalism. If the southwest succeeds to form a joint state, it will be another indication of the federal system’s newfound flexibility. This presents a novel challenge for Ethiopia’s constitutional order, whose most decentralizing provisions have rarely been tested in the past. 

SNNP has continued to experience identity, border, and resource-related conflicts and accompanying complexities. Recent examples include conflicts among the communities of the dissolved Segen Zone, ongoing violence in Guraferda area of Sheko zone between Mezenger and Sheko on one side and the Shakicho on the other, and Guji-based militant attacks against Amaro people. Add these to the evils of the raging war in Tigray, unceasing armed conflict in Western Oromia, and the untold horrors of the violence in Benishangul Gumuz. 

Whether you agree with or dispute Ethiopia’s ethno-federalism, it appears that implementations of the system have reached a peak point. How the Prosperity Party will handle these crises in terms of our constitutional design now that it has won power is unknown. In the south, constitutional clarity is especially pressing, as statehood demands will continue coming through. 

For many, the slow and asymmetrical success of southern statehood has led to disappointment and disillusionment in politicians and parties. At the same time, rebuilding faith in institutions and establishing trust between people and politicians requires a genuinely free and fair election, where healthy debate over competing visions for the future are encouraged and expressed. But it is by no means clear that is occurring, as demonstrated by the uncompetitive electoral landscape and political repression I encountered on my travels.

Moreover, just like its predecessor, the SEPDM, the Southern-Prosperity Party’s track record of passing contradictory decisions, not following constitutional guidance, and foot-dragging in implementing statehood demands suggests that it is either not willing or not able to solve the multiple self-determination questions across SNNP. 

This will have important implications on the security of the region. Already fragile peripheral areas such as the Sheka and Bench-Sheko zones may experience the worst conflicts, while Wolayta is likely to erupt again.

Therefore, in the immediate aftermath of the election and upcoming referendum, elected leaders must approach statehood demands in a more proactive, communicative, and transparent manner—taking into account the historical background of the formation of SNNP, seeking to de-escalate current tensions, and upholding the clear constitutional basis of the right to self-determination, although perhaps in a modified form. 

At the same time, these issues all need to be balanced with the consideration that extreme fragmentation is likely to further complicate the political, economic, and social state of the federation’s southern nations.

Questions answered

The major causes for statehood demands across the south are repeated grave mistakes underlying the design of the political structure and its ill-implementation by various administrators.

Inequalities in terms of distribution of political power and infrastructures—a product primarily of administrative abuse and elite-perpetrated antagonism in the ethno-federalist system—have triggered evocations of self-determination across SNNP Region, provided by the constitution. 

Given the relatively swift top-down approval for the southwest’s request, as compared with other statehood requests in SNNP, it appears that the federal state has a preference for joint multiethnic states over isolated claims. This will likely have consequences as other states consider their viability for achieving relative autonomy. 

Still, these conclusions are unstable due to prevailing political uncertainties and the accompanying deterioration of peace and security across the country. The future of the ethnic-based federalist system is hanging in the balance. Statehood requests in the south will continue—and the feasibility of these requests will be impacted by the ruling party’s ability to reconcile the text of the constitution with the politics on the ground.

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This article is part of the Ethiopia Insight Election Project (EIEP), a series of in-depth reported pieces from across Ethiopia in our ‘Elections 2021’ section that analyzes issues related to this year’s polls.

Main photo: A rally in Wolayta-Sodo in support of Wolayta statehood; 17 May 2019; Wolayta Media House

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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 kullex3@gmail.com


  • Let’s get back to a specific time line, Ethiopia before 1991. Can the current generation of Ethiopians look at the list of these Ethiopian provinces and start to think. We need answers. The provinces in Ethiopia proper would have been:

    1) Tigray
    2) Gonder
    3) Gojam
    4) Wollo
    5) Wellega
    6) Ilubabur
    7) Keffa
    8) GamoGofa
    9) Sidamo
    10) Arsi
    11) Shoa
    12) Bale
    13) Harrarghe

    These provincial districts were actually truer and respected the territorial integrity, historical background, traditional rulers and centuries of migration and intermingling of the Ethiopian people from all corners North, South, East, and West.

    Why the TPLF destroyed the identities and autonomous regional demarcations of the patriotic, and peaceful communities of Southern Ethiopia, and created the now unattainable SNNP region, disrespecting their tradition and history can be traced to its avaricious, ethno-centric fanaticism of making tiny Tigray bigger than what it is.

    There was absolutely no reason why TPLF could not have adopted a regional federalist Ethiopia based on the above 13 provinces, if TPLF was truly interested in federalism or even had a modicum understanding of the fundamentals federalism.

    In one bizarre interview, the self promoted general, Tsadikan was asked why they drafted the killel (literally enclosure) ethnic federalism in Ethiopia, and low and behold this pseudo “general” answered something tantamount to “ at that time that was our understanding of it i.e. federalism”. That answer exposes the ignorance, stupidity and greed of the nincompoop group that was suddenly foisted at the helm of the Ethiopian ship in 1991 by a historical accident.

    Of course, if the regional federalism was adopted what would have happened is provinces like Sidamo, Harraghe, etc would have had more federal representatives, and federal seats and out of the 547 seats, the province Tigray, would not have gotten more than 28 to 30 seats at the maximum.

    It would have meant, the Harrarghe province encompassing some 107,000 square miles and 16 million or so people would have gotten more of the federal budget, for roads, schools and health facilities. It got virtually nothing over the past 30 years, while Tigray killel sucked up the bulk of the federal budget.

    Furthermore, withe the CEO’s cessation of Eritrea and the establishment of Afar as a newer province, the proportional seat of Tigray would have been further cut to its true size.

  • One thing which I have tried to appreciate is patience the author to write the lengthy article.The author has shown his biased views; is not independent and impartial. Here I want to indicate important flaws which may induce misunderstanding :
    1. The author has tried to indicate that Wolaita has been advanced by the cost of Dawro…which is very false and very misleading. The notion has contained very toxic content with tendency to contaminate relations.

    2. The quest of Wolaita is clear and bold, Wolaita Regional State….no invitation has been made to other nations, including Dawro to join.

    3. The demand for regional statehood is not mainly about access to service. It is about autonomy of self rule, its a claim about equity and equality.
    4. What ever one would say, the closest relative, and the most connected people to Dawro, in terms language, culture, commerce, Geography and religious practices is Wolayta, no one can deny this the inherent fact. This connection can never cease as a result of administrative departure. So that, let the people of Dawro join to the 11th regional state, but it is unworthy to defy the public by articulating false narratives.Dawro was under Kefa provincial administration during the Derg, but its social, cultural, religious and commerce ties with Wolaita sustained,..the ties have sustained despite some elites have never stopped their spitting of poisoning narrations and actions.
    The peoples will prevail together❗️

    • Matewos, it seems you missed properly understanding the major theme off the article- why proliferate statehood demands and the manner the government have been handling them. The author has descried tangle facts in legal-and-political in economic, social and demographic set up. The article is not simple reflection of author’s views.
      1. The author has, raised instances of Sodo-Tercha road and the Gibe III power station which are facts than fictions. Does this mean author’s bias?

      2. The author, though title of the article is about South West ref, he committed substantial portion of it to argue for Wolaita’s case – and in a comparative set up in light of Sidama and SW case. Rejection to join with Wolaita id public and can’t be hided. Where and how he is biased?
      3. The author has underlined that proponents of Woliata’s demand demand statehood not merely rooted in other grounds but also as an autonomy seeking. Is that not the case? where the bias?
      4. Which discussion in the article is “false narratives” about Wolaita and Dawro?

    • Dear M.,

      It seems you have not wasted even minutes to read and understand whats issues are raised under the article, how linked to different but interlinked other issues and how the article attempted to shed light on the issues.

      Please re-read it and talk to the author on issues of fact, if you desires.

  • Dear Author,
    You piked the current agenda but with shallow and biased analysis at some points. This kind of issue requires wide openion from various community groups, not only from activist and politicians(old &new). I know all the respondants you included in this article.
    One thing you have to correct is that, as far as I know Wolaita people never asked Dawro people to join them in the statehood quist. And the new proposal(south west region) is also imposed by higher political elite upon the oppressed people. Only time will show us how it create easy access to poor and marginalized people.

    • “Along the way, I spoke with administrators, activists, teachers, businessmen, and travelers to get a wider sense of what is happening on the ground ahead of the southwest referendum’s passing—and what it might mean for the rest of the region.”

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