This article is part of the Analytical Reporting to Improve the Federation (ARIF) project.
Neither top-down administrative restructuring nor identity-based autonomy demands are likely to bring peace, democracy, and development to a forgotten corner of Ethiopia.The spark that ignited calls to form a new Ethiopian region was a dispute over coffee.
In November 2018, when a federal tea and coffee authority undermined Kaffa’s status as coffee’s birthplace, it catalyzed a week of protests in Bonga, Kaffa Zone’s capital.
Demonstrators accused federal authorities of airbrushing Kaffa’s rich history and demanded that a National Coffee Museum in the town finally open its doors.1The coffee museum was inaugurated in April 2015 but hasn’t opened to the public despite promises from Southern Nations authorities and from Prime Minister Abiy to look into the matter. There were suggestions for the museum to be run by Bonga University. However, members of the Kaffa elite and other anthropologists argued it is a national museum and should be run by the federal tourism ministry, in part because it contains materials associated with Kaffa’s history and kingdom.
“We were marginalized enough and neglected in every way,” reflected Muluken Mengesha, one of the leaders of the informal but influential Gurmasho (‘youth’ in the Kaffa language) movement, in a November 2022 interview. The authority’s statement, “denying our history proved that,” said the proud Kafficho who runs a printing business, speaking to Ethiopia Insight in Amharic but switching to Kaffii Noono to greet acquaintances in a Bonga hotel.
Back in 2018, after five days of protests, the demand became for Kaffa to carve its own region out of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Regional State (Southern Nations), a sprawling, multi-ethnic bloc undergoing slow-motion fragmentation since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took power in 2018.
That process—which may possibly presage the centrally driven break-up of other large regions—reflects a key tension in the ongoing transition that ensued: the prospect of political liberalization has meant very different things to different Ethiopian constituencies.
While many Ethiopian nationalists hoped it heralded the end of ethnic politics, other groups in Oromia region, in the south, and elsewhere in the country saw the power shift at the center as an opportunity for the full implementation of the 1995 constitution’s promise of untrammeled self-rule.
In Kaffa, and the south-west and south more broadly, those tensions have been playing out ever since, and have, like elsewhere in Ethiopia, involved considerable deadly violence between competing local communities and against those considered as outsiders, particularly Amhara.
Like other autonomy proponents in Ethiopia’s tumultuous identity-based federation, those in Kaffa say neglect by the center left them impoverished.
“Foreign researchers who come to this south-western sphere usually leave with pity and remark: ‘the richest area with the poorest people’,” observed Assefa Gebremariam, a good-humored, dapper 72-year-old local historian, at the coffee museum in October 2021.
The popular protests in November stimulated by the perceived slight to Kaffa’s heritage followed a public discussion in July and formation of a committee that presented Kaffa’s autonomy demands to the Prime Minister’s Office a month later.2The Kaffa elite was backed by Gurmasho who were vocal in asserting their demand for Kaffa region. In July 2018, a public discussion was held in Bonga with Gurmasho, elders, and other elites. From that discussion, a 22-member committee was formed to articulate Kaffa’s “long-time questions”; the top priority being the Kaffa statehood agenda. The committee included academics and figures such as Muluken Tekle, a businessman. Muluken’s father, Tekle Sheligito, was among the founders of Kaffa People’s Democratic Union (KPDU)—now Kaffa People’s Democratic Party—along with Zewde Otoro, a former ambassador and head of the original KPDU. Both Tekle and Zewdie remain vocal Kaffichos and are well-reputed Kaffa political figures as their KPDU fought for Kaffa region for decades. On 26 August 2018, some of the twenty committee members presented demands to then Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) chief of staff. The committee also went to Hawassa to meet with the regional administration and SEPDM officials. All of its activities were outside the Kaffa zonal leadership and administration.
Kaffa Zone Council approved a statehood request on 15 November 2018 and made a written request to the Southern Nations state council on 5 December, while there was a failed federal attempt to hold a meeting on the issue on 2 December 2019, just before the constitutional deadline for the regional council to organize a referendum.3Four days before Kaffa’s deadline, Abiy called a meeting in Addis Ababa to discuss with 100 Kaffa representatives. However, when the prime minister could not attend and assigned top Southern Nations officials instead, the Kaffa delegation refused to meet those they accused of stifling their demand. Abiy held a similar meeting with Wolayta statehood representatives on 1 December, which the federal government said was productive but the Wolayta delegation said was designed to coerce them into following the federal line. The Gurmasho protested in July 2019 and also on 6 December as the deadline elapsed.4The December demonstration was peaceful, however youth were critical of the “unconstitutional approach of SEPDM and SNNPR state to Kaffa’s constitutional demand.” In July, Kaffa’s flag was waved and the youth were in black t-shirts with a statement that read “Our Region is Kaffa”, written in Kaffii Nono and Amharic.
Yet if self-rule was Kaffa’s persistent demand, the center’s eventual response was a new form of amalgamation.5On 30 October 2021, the House of Federation reviewed the results of the referendum to enable the formal procedure of internal secession and conduct a transfer of power. On 3 November 2021, South West officially became the eleventh regional state in the Ethiopian federation.
With other nearby zones also demanding their own region under the constitution, Ethiopia’s new rulers engineered the creation of South West Ethiopia Peoples’ Regional State (South West), a combination of six administrative districts, which was formalized following a September 2021 referendum.6The process was that, between November 2018 and April 2019, at least three zonal units of the now South West unanimously approved independence from Southern Nations at their zonal councils and filed requests to the Southern Nations state assembly. Facing enduring public pressure, the zonal council unanimously approved a Kaffa statehood request on 15 November 2018. This development reverberated in other nearby zones in Southern Nations. In September 2020, five zones—Kaffa, Bench-Sheko, Dawro, West Omo, and Sheka—and one special district, Konta, sent a petition to the House of Federation asking for South West region to be formed. The House of Federation is the upper house in parliament representing the country’s ethnic groups that is mandated to deal with self-determination, among other issues. The House of Federation endorsed this request a month later and asked the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) to organize a referendum. In September 2021, a referendum was held on the same day as the second round of national elections that, according to the NEBE, attracted 93.8 percent of the 1.3 million people registered to vote. An overwhelming majority, around 1.2 million people, voted in support of creating South West region.
Since, the new region has become something of a political poster-child. “This is one big historical outcome of the reform,” claimed Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonen about what he called a “symbol of diversity” at a glitzy 22 June 2022 fundraiser for South West at the Sheraton Addis.7The event gathered officials from the ten other regions, federal ministries, two city administrations, and businesses like MIDROC, which has tea plantations and processing sites in South West like Wush Wush in Kaffa. A total of 690 million birr was raised, although Oromia had pledged 100 million birr on 20 June.
Yet, despite the federal fanfare, on the anniversary of its creation there were no visible signs of developmental benefits from the new structure, and only occasional signs for visitors that a new region was even established.
Since Abiy took office, in addition to South West, the largely mono-ethnic Sidama region was created from Southern Nations region following a sustained autonomy campaign there, while another referendum is promised for the most southerly zones.8The South West referendum was the second for regional secession from Southern Nations after Sidama voted in November 2019. Though ethnic Sidama predominate, minorities also live in Sidama region and protecting their rights in the new state has been a contentious issue. South West is composed of at least thirteen ethnic groups. There is a third referendum scheduled in February 2023 for a new “South Ethiopia” region. It would be formed by six zonal and five special wereda units. The units proposed in 2020 to be under this “Omotic” cluster are: Wolayta, Gamo, Gofa, South-Omo, Gedeo, and Konso zones; and Amaro, Burji, Ale, Derashe, and Basketo special weredas. Although the state is under formation, complex realities remain. For instance, the Wolayta have a strong desire for a standalone region but were included in this plan. Violence, including the killing of Prosperity Party officials, has occurred because some never accepted the merger plan.
Though, in theory, smaller regional units could enhance local democracy and service provision, there is little reason to think that will occur in practice, not least because autonomy-seeking elites are competing to capture benefits from a federal system that has dwindling budgetary resources to distribute, due to reduced growth and shifting central priorities.
Additionally, the manner of the restructuring promises to perpetuate not resolve political grievances.
That is primarily because, while the constitution indicates such administrative upgrading—and even outright secession from the federation—are purely matters of self-determination, that is not the case in practice. Instead, the critical factors are politics and power.
These days, the approach of the all-powerful national Prosperity Party is to coax and coerce local southern elites to combine into multi-ethnic clusters.
Previously, for almost three decades, the omnipotent four-party Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) used iron-fisted enforcement of party discipline—backed up by a fearsome security apparatus in what was also essentially a one-party state—to prevent any administrative restructuring at the regional level, although there was plenty at sub-regional tiers.9In the 1990s, the EPRDF encouraged the establishment of ethnic-based local governments in Southern Nations. Yet, from the early 2000s onwards, the EPRDF and its regional member, the SEPDM, began to resist the establishment of new ethnic-based administrations and emphasized the unity of the southern peoples. This led to a number of attempts to amalgamate ethnic groups into multi-ethnic units such as North Omo Zone and Segen Zone. This approach was similar to today’s clustering strategy.
One way this prevailing top-down reality can be seen in the past few years is through the unequal treatment given to comparable local southern demands. For example, the zones in what may become a south-central region requested statehood around the same time as those in the south-west, but the former have not been ‘granted’ a referendum by the powers-that-be.10The main legal sleight of hand for this is that while the constitution allows untrammeled self-determination, all elections have to be handled by the federal NEBE, giving the center plenty of opportunity to frustrate local constitutional demands. The NEBE is designed as an independent organization, but can only act once the responsible government organs order it to organize the elections. The units proposed in the “Shewa” cluster that would form the South Central region were: Hadiya, Halaba, Gurage, Kembata-Tembaro, and Silte Zones, and Yem Special Wereda. This proposal faced resistance from Gurage officials within the Prosperity Party. Those who aligned with public demands for a standalone state have been suppressed and even imprisoned. As part of this intra-party struggle, the zonal chief administrator was replaced in early November 2022.
For experts on Ethiopia’s federal system such as Yonatan Fessha, the top-down management creates problems—even in those areas that have been granted referendums.
“What makes outcomes from autonomy demands legitimate and successful is an open and fair process of self-determination,” said the law professor at the University of the Western Cape and Research Chair in Constitutional Design for Divided Societies. “I’m afraid that didn’t happen in the south so far either under this government or previous ones, and instead we’ve seen one-sided decisions that were influenced by the political elite and the ruling party.”
While the people of the south-west have always lived together and in the past were even administered as one, some question whether regional statehood can help meet the long-held demands of minority groups for increased development and political representation, and quell the inter-communal clashes in the area.11South West is not a new concept. “The people in these zones are not strangers to one another. They are different ethnic groups, but are connected by blood and shared history,” Assefa, the historian, said. During the imperial period that ended in 1974, the groups within the newly formed South West region lived together for four decades. Jimma was the capital of Kaffa Teklay Gizat, a province that was under the tight control of the central government. Inhabitants of South West, with the exception of Dawro and Konta zones, were part of “Region 11” or “Kaffa region” during the 1991 to 1995 transitional period. This was one of fourteen administrative regions before the Ethiopian federation was established, five of which were subsequently combined to form Southern Nations.
The critics agree with Yonatan that the formation of the new region was heavily influenced by the Prosperity Party, and that there was insufficient public consultation.12That view was challenged by the National Electoral Board, which said it learned from the Sidama referendum, with, for example, free radio airtime allocated to parties and groups with different voices. In this view, the procedure in which new states are formed will have lasting negative effects.
Initially, leaders in Addis Abeba, including Prime Minister Abiy, were unmoved by the proliferating statehood demands and appealed to the Southern Nations zones to remain together. This position was based on the recommendations in a 2019 study conducted by the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), the then-ruling EPRDF coalition’s regional party in Southern Nations.13This study was the result of the SEPDM’s 10th Congress in Hawassa held from 28 September to 1 October 2018. A research group consisting of twenty academics and SEPDM members was then commissioned to put forward recommendations to respond to statehood demands in Southern Nations. That study’s findings, completed in May 2019, were first presented internally for SEPDM’s Executive Committee, then discussed with other academics and elites of Southern origin, as well as the general public. The study, which remains unpublished, put forward three recommendations: (1) for the 56 Southern Nations ethnic-groups to continue together while responding to structural problems and injustices faced in development, political representation, and administration; (2) to divide Southern Nations into two or maximum five states or, alternatively, to form a cluster of four to five state-capital centers while Southern Nations continues as one; or (3) to delay responses to statehood questions until the stability is restored in the country at large and in Southern Nations specifically, which was ruled by a command post at the time given the violent events in Sidama and beyond. SEPDM decided in favor of the first recommendation, that Southern Nations should remain as one. Yet the SEPDM had to consider Sidama Zone’s inevitable exit with its statehood request already approved by then. Thus, the decision was explained as a “1 to 55 organization” of the state, meaning Southern Nations continuing as one state minus its Sidama constituency. There were also discussions on implementing the second recommendation that would divide Southern Nations into two to five regional states. SEPDM leadership favored splitting the regional capital while maintaining Southern Nations as one. Politicians in Southern Nations zones with demands for regional states opposed that decision and their anger translated into public protests. If anything, practically, SEPDM chose to delay statehood questions and keep Southern Nations together until stability was achieved. This approach mainly had to do with the SEPDM’s uncertain fate amid the EPRDF’s merger into the Prosperity Party. There was a fear within the SEPDM that it would be disbanded if the region were divided, something that ultimately happened when the Prosperity Party was formed in 2019.
These sentiments were later echoed through a group of 83 Peace Ambassadors drawn from across the south established in January 2020 by the Office of the Prime Minister.14The “Peace Ambassadors Group” was initiated by Prime Minister Abiy after his meeting to discuss statehood demands with public representatives from all Southern Nations zones on 23 January 2020. According to an internal 30-page document, the group’s activities were overseen under a project office in the Prime Minister’s Office specifically set up to adjudicate statehood demands and structure affairs in Southern Nations. Its 83 members were volunteers from across all zones, except Sidama, in Southern Nations. The group was tasked to present its findings and recommendation to the federal government based on discussions with the public. Divided in three groups, the peace ambassadors held the main round of discussions with the public in Southern Nations zones throughout March 2020. As the internal document details, there was opposition from several zones contesting SEPDM’s response, which was to maintain Southern Nations.
What seems to have nudged the door ajar is the persistent and powerful Sidama autonomy movement.
“The demands for statehood by several groups in the South West, including ours, was pushed to the forefront and became stronger after the state council’s approval of the Sidama request in November 2018,” said Fikre Aman, the former chief administrator of Bench Sheko Zone who is currently a member of the House of Federation, in an interview with Ethiopia Insight on 9 October 2021 in Addis Ababa during meetings about South West region.
However, for a time, the regional legislature and the SEPDM, didn’t respond to referendum requests from zones within the south-west and elsewhere. As was true in the past, the party-state’s response simply reflected its leaders’ priorities.
But as the Sidama movement fueled other statehood demands, the committee of Peace Ambassadors headed by Abadula Gemeda, an EPRDF veteran who became a key ally of Abiy, was assigned to discuss with the public and southern elites, then table recommendations to respond to the growing statehood requests.15There were many questions in relation to the public consultations that were held by the 83-member ambassador group. For instance, the group should have visited the tiers of all Southern Nations districts, as was initially planned. Citing the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the first recommendations were reportedly based on discussions that only took place at the zonal level.
The group’s initial report with its findings and recommendations—from public discussions it held across Southern Nations zones with statehood demands from 16-20 March 2020—was presented to the southern elites and officials in May 2020 at the Prime Minister’s Office. The deliberations on the report were tense and opposed by some ethnic groups.16In several Southern Nations zones, the elite and officials were angered by reports of the Peace Ambassadors’ public discussions. For instance, two Peace Ambassador members from Wolayta mentioned to the author that public meetings minutes released after the meeting in Wolayta held on 16 March 2020 weren’t approved by the 83 ambassadors themselves and facts were fabricated in them. At times, they claim, the opposite from what was said appeared in the minutes. There was also bitter criticism in the Northern Omo Zone following the reporting of the public meeting minutes. The zone believes the peace group committee report “misled” Prime Minister Abiy, and sent video and audio records to back this claim up. This type of opposition to the peace group during a meeting in May 2020 caused the PMO to update its report and recommendations, and call for another round of consultations.
For example, one of the ideas the report floated was to constitute the Wolayta, Gamo, Gofa, and Dawro zones into a new North Omo state. North Omo was a zone where the EPRDF had previously tried to engineer a new ethno-linguistic identity and language for these same groups in the late 1990s, an ill-conceived initiative that led to deadly violence.17The attempt to create a new combined language led to what has been dubbed by academics and politicians as the “WoGaGoDa turmoil”. It led to deadly unrest and, instead of supporting administrative unification, the episode culminated in the zone being divided into three zones and two special weredas in 2000. “It was an attempt to erase the identity and history of each ethnic group owing to a few shared commonalities,” Tekle Bezabih, the young former chief administrator of Dawro Zone who is now head of the South West Justice Bureau, recalls of the WoGaGoDa story.
After some twists and turns, the peace group updated its report with a proposal and presented it to Southern Nations zonal and special wereda heads for deliberations in a Prime Minister’s Office session on 9 June 2020.18After the southern zones’ meetings in May and June 2020 at the PMO to discuss findings and recommendations of the peace group, Abiy had to call a separate meeting with the Wolayta, Gamo, Gofa and Dawro—the four parties involved in the infamous WoGaGoDa saga. In the May meeting, the three zones expressed opposition to the idea of being constituted with Wolayta. They recalled the bitter history of WoGaGoDa, cited lasting administrative and boundary disputes at the district level, and noted their resentment of Wolayta’s political dominance in the former Northern Omo Zone. In a meeting on 9 June, Abiy said he would travel to speak with cultural leaders and elders from the four groups in a bid to reconcile them and strengthen their peoples’ social relations. Citing his busy schedule, Abiy instead decided to convene the zonal leaders in Addis in late July 2020.
The proposal was to split Southern Nations into three geographic cluster regions—namely, Omotic, South Central, and South West regions.19That would create a similar structure as during the 1991-1995 transitional period, before five proto-regional states were finally amalgamated into the Southern Nations, creating a bloc comparable in size to Ethiopia’s two most populous regions, Amhara and Oromia. Although the peace group didn’t explicitly mention Sidama, its proposal would effectively mean dividing Southern Nations into four.
The blueprint included Dawro Zone and five other administrative units under the South West cluster, and a referendum for that new region was eventually held a little over a year later.20The PMO decided that this group would conduct a second round of consultations and make changes to its proposals, which would then be sent to the House of Federation. This round, once again only at the zonal level, did not appease those opposed to splitting Southern Nations in three. There were accusations in several zones that the group distorted what was said during the consultations. In response, some took their case to the PMO and House of Federation.
As matters stand, the South West region is the only tangible result of this centrally directed process, but, with a referendum on the way for the Omotic group, it seems safe to assume that in time more regions will be carved out of Southern Nations according to federal priorities.
This may also be the case in the populous Oromia and Amhara regions, where assertive ethno-nationalism presents a challenge to the center and elicits hostility from Ethiopian nationalists.21In the south, the process is administratively unifying different ethnic-based local governments, but, in the Oromia and Amhara regions, this would amount to carving up existing ethnic-based regions. Considering the current degree of Oromo and Amhara nationalism, such an attempt may be strongly resisted.
Any moves to break up those regions may well be vociferously opposed, as is currently occurring in Gurage where there is ongoing strong resistance to the idea of the zone being incorporated into a South Central Region.
Experts caution that the heavy hand of the new ruling party and federal government in the making of South West and elsewhere in the south could be costly in the long run. Legitimizing elite decisions as the people’s will, federalism expert Yonatan argues, will have negative repercussions, particularly in multi-ethnic regions.
Marishet Mohammed Hamza, a doctoral student at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, emphasizes the procedural irregularities that have occurred to ensure federal control.
He points out that the House of Federation, the upper house of parliament, handled the process when, according to the constitution, it should have been managed by the Southern Nations assembly. The House of Federation’s role as an appellate body is only supposed to kick in if the regional council has failed to properly adjudicate the matter.22Both institutions are heavily dominated by the Prosperity Party. During an academic dialogue in September 2022 on the ‘Statehood Quests in Ethiopia’, some other experts also made critical arguments against the House of Federation (HoF). One was by Asnake Kefale from Addis Ababa University, who argued that the HoF is not an adequate institutional body to handle self-determination issues. Among his recommendations is a judicial institution to replace the role of the HoF in overseeing such matters.
“The House of Federation suspiciously worked beyond its mandate and over others,” he concluded.23According to the Ethiopian constitution, any statehood demand should be submitted to a regional council that is obliged to arrange a referendum within one year. Proclamation No. 251/2001 says an appeal can be made to the HoF if the council fails to handle the matter as per the law. Regarding South West, no request was submitted to the Southern Nations council. Instead, the matter was taken directly to the HoF, allegedly by the peoples in the region, and it decided to hold a referendum. Almost the same procedure is being pursued in the upcoming referendum. “As the supreme body with the mandate to oversee the enforcement of constitutional order in the country, the HoF should have followed the legal steps and ensured constitutional procedures,” Marishet told Ethiopia Insight.
The flipside of this federal manipulation is a relative lack of popular participation, which reduces the chances of some sort of democratic dividend resulting.
Ideally, the public would have thoroughly deliberated and understood the potential pros and cons of forming a new region. However, as was the case elsewhere in the south, there was limited zonal-level consultation in the south-west.
“Almost no information was available about the process to create the state,” Yonatan argued, raising similar reservations he had about the Sidama referendum.
The youth, active in asking for statehood in places like Kaffa, had little say. A week after the referendum, plenty of residents of zonal capitals, including Bonga and Mizan Aman, appeared unenthused about the prospect of forming the new region.
In rural areas, where the needs are the greatest, there is more support for the new region, but less understanding of the process and its details.24The public in rural parts of South West was more hopeful about what the new region would bring, yet interviews in November 2022 revealed that not many were well-informed of the details or even if the state is officially in place. This highlights that the southern statehood demands, and perhaps politics in Ethiopia at large, are driven by urban elites while the biggest challenges exist in the countryside. Though basic services like water are inadequate in many urban areas in the south-west, elite promises of enhanced development are most appealing to the rural public, some of whom must, for instance, travel hundreds of kilometers to reach a hospital.
Back in 2018 as the transition got underway, such currents were manipulated by both the South West elite and regional political leaders.
In August of that year, Muferiat Kamil, the SEPDM chair and federal Minister of Peace from October 2018 to October 2021, argued that public demands in the south were more about poor service delivery, maladministration, and development than merely statehood, which, she said, was pushed by some self-interested elites.
In contrast, Terefe Tadesse, one of the peace ambassadors and a Prosperity Party representative from a Shey-Bench constituency in Bench-Sheko Zone, argues that people largely bought into the rationale behind creating a new region.
“The public wants the new state because it has demands for services to be nearby” as it experienced during the transitional period in the early 1990s, said the 34-year-old, a coffee and spices exporter as well as a politician. “The elite might have pushed the issue from an administrative and political end, but the public equally knows the benefit.”
Similarly, Fikre, the former Bench-Sheko Zone Chief Administrator, claims the EPRDF regime had suppressed popular statehood demands and this pent-up sentiment became visible during public meetings in recent years.
“It was one of the untouchable issues, a taboo,” he said about the EPRDF era. “It is a question which has been raised by the people for many years.”
Undoubtedly, the creation of a new region always had proponents among both the ruling and opposition elite in the area.
For instance, the Kaffa People’s Democratic Union (KPDU), an opposition party that emerged during the transitional government period in the 1990s but was dissolved in 1994, was one of those parties that opposed the creation of the Southern Nations bloc and vied for Kaffa’s self-government.25In a 1995 report, Amnesty International documented persecution of KPDU leaders during the transitional period.
In December 2019, the KPDU was reestablished as a party and placed statehood foremost on its agenda. It gained some support after becoming vocal about the referendum’s postponement and threatened to withdraw from the June 2021 election because of the issue.
During the election, some young Kaffichos criticized the KPDU as an “ethnic party”, while others claimed that its members were former SEPDM now pushing for autonomy after they lost out during the transition.
Yet, its leaders today, many of whom were not among its first generation, argue otherwise. “This is the south-western peoples’ win,” said Kifle Mesesha, an executive committee member.
Rejecting the allegation of opportunism, Kifle and the KPDU Secretariat instead accuse the Prosperity Party of the same. “Its cadres have been manipulating the public to believe that it is only their party that can realize the creation of the new state,” Kifle claims.
For years, people in the south-west have cited a lack of equitable development and political representation as rationales for statehood. It remains unclear whether the new region will address such concerns, not least because more resources may well not be available as the zones that comprise South West have been relatively weak performers in terms of revenue collection.26While the Southern Nations has various fiscal imbalances, zones and special districts across the South West had been weak performers compared to others like Gurage, Kembata Tembaro, Gedeo, and Wolayta. The total revenue from local tax collected from the now six South West units in 2020-21 amounted to fifteen percent of the region’s total.
So far, due in part to the lack of a national census, South West’s budget is comparable to what its constituent zones were previously allocated from the Southern Nations total.27Based on an agreement between the South West and Southern Nations that was endorsed by the House of Federation, South West will receive 19.4 percent of Southern Nations’ budget. This is based on population numbers that the six zones which clustered to form South West had in Southern Nations. At South West’s second regular assembly, held in Bonga from 9-10 August 2022, the council approved an 11.3 billion birr regional budget for fiscal year 2022/23. Of this, 6.4 billion was a federal budget subsidy (non-earmarked block grant), 39 million from foreign assistance, 435 million was a federal grant allocated for implementation of Sustainable Development Goals in South West, and 4.1 billion came from regional revenue like income accrued from its local tax base and other sources. The president later clarified that this 4.1 billion includes revenue collected jointly with the federal government. The division of Southern Nation’s assets among new regions is another fiscal matter that is not yet finalized. This has tied the hands of the new regional leadership.
“Let alone pursuing and executing bigger developmental projects, it is not enough to cover costs to deliver basic services and existing projects,” South West President Negash Wagesho, a technocrat from Dawro, told the regional assembly in Bonga on 10 August.28Negash said that, to cover this budgetary shortfall, the region had to seek a loan from the federal government and was granted 1.8 billion birr. A devout evangelical protestant, Negash has been an academic and researcher with a focus on water engineering. He served as Southern Nations Water and Irrigation Development Bureau Head and more recently as a federal State Minister of Water and Energy.
Given the budgetary shortfall, it will be critical for South West to increase its regional income, and for a new subsidy formula to be adopted when a national census is finally held.
Additionally, owing to poor infrastructure, these areas have been detached from both the center and one another. For instance, because the quickest route is via Addis Ababa, it is about 713 kilometers to travel from Bonga to the former regional government offices in Hawassa.
“Most people in the region have never set foot in Hawassa,” said Terefe, the Shey-Bench politician. “A considerable amount of the yearly budget from [the regional government] to zones in the South West is spent on overhead costs, usually for transport and meetings of officials to Hawassa.”
This, along with a bloated payroll for state employees, is therefore one area where resources can be reallocated towards improving public services in the new region.29Salaries are the biggest cost in the region, Negash said, accounting for 6.7 billion birr yearly of the state budget. This includes what Negash called “illegal employment and promotions.” In some districts, he said, 92 percent of the budget for a zonal council is being used for payroll. “What development is expected to be executed with eight percent?” Negash asked rhetorically. In response, South West has decided there will be no new government employment in the region and announced there will be significant layoffs in several departments.
While distance is a challenge across much of Ethiopia, as Prime Minister Abiy argued during a 2019 public meeting in Kaffa, in the south-west the normal urban-rural dichotomy has been exacerbated by state neglect and repression.30An estimated 88.9 percent of Southern Nations’ total population lives in rural areas. Despite improved human development markers in recent years, many disparities remain. For instance, many households still lack access to clean drinking water and use unprotected sources, while 35 percent of households practice open defecation. This lack of sanitation in part explains the relatively high incidences of neonatal and child mortality in Southern Nations.
While the area possesses many natural resources, including valuable metals and minerals such as iron and gold, much of South West lacks basic services.
One notable exception is the Southern Nations Supreme Court, which opened a branch in Bonga. Such measures ease the burden of travel to Hawassa, but other deficits remain, such as poor road infrastructure and health facilities.
Tekle Bezabih, the young former chief administrator of Dawro Zone who is now head of the South West Justice Bureau of the Dawro Zone, believes that if there were comprehensively decentralized basic services, demands for statehood would not have come this far.
The federal administration that came to power in 2018 has been active in two areas that are now part of the new region, Dawro Zone and Konta Special District. This is done through the Koysha Project, a tourism initiative driven by Abiy.31Within these clusters are the historical Kati Halala Walls and Chebera Churchura National Park in Dawro.
“When the Ethiopian leaders succeeding me come to this place, it will be to enjoy the Chebera Churchura park and Guranto fountains; it will not be to answer [your] questions of road infrastructure,” Abiy predicted before crowds in Tercha on 7 March 2020.
But, if past practice is any guide, such projects do not sufficiently address developmental needs.
For example, the nearby Gibe III dam appeared to benefit these zones because it led to the construction of roads that connected their districts. Yet many residents say that the dam has only led to an increase in traffic on the Sodo-Tercha-Chida road, the main road between the capitals of Wolayta, Dawro and Konta, and added 70 kilometers to the route, a blow for those from the South West who depend on Wolayta’s markets.32This road was part of the construction of Gibe III dam, which also submerged an Omo river bridge. It added more than 70 kms distance on the Chida-[Tercha]-Sodo route. The burden fell on the Dawro and Konta people, who depended on Wolayta markets. The longer route was a “top-down” decision by Wolayta officials to ensure it passed through populated areas. In an 14 November interview, Rahel Baffie, a national opposition figure from Dawro, corroborated that the decision resulted from the influence of Wolayta elites. Still, former Dawro Zone chief administrator Damene Dalota once called Gibe III “a gift of God to Dawro people ” and said the road would bring development. Gibe III also alters the flow of the Omo River, potentially resulting in hunger for hundreds of thousands in South Omo Zone. There is better news in the form of an 80-km road from Jimma-Chida that Abiy launched in February 2021 and is financed by a 90-million Japanese grant. It is supposed to be finished by December 2023. Abiy considers the road an important part of the Gebeta Lehager project in Konta, including Koysha.
While there has been an improvement during the federal era in the representation of minority southern groups, their political agency continues to be limited to the lower levels of government. Though some beg to differ, there is little sign that this will change with the creation of South West.
From 1995 to 2019, the EPRDF controlled Southern Nations’ political affairs through the SEPDM.33The party was originally called Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Front. It changed its name into SEPDM in 2003. The shift away from a coalition-type structure was supposed to reflect the stronger unity of the Southern peoples. This was evidenced by the making and remaking of the Southern Nations, along with how local governance and statehood questions were handled.34Administrative restructuring included the establishment of new zones like Wolayta and amalgamating existing ones, such as Segen Zone. There was also an EPRDF government refusal to establish new ethnic-based regions, such as Sidama. In the absence of a strong opposition, the ruling party had a free hand to govern and quashed any challengers that did emerge.
For some, little has changed.
The South West’s politicians are “familiar faces, who for years have been loyal to the interests of the ruling party,” argued Dereje Korkoba, a psychology lecturer at Mizan Tepi University.
This lack of south-western agency is felt acutely at the regional and federal levels.
Melkamu Shegeto is a Kafficho opposition figure who ran for a Kaffa federal parliament seat in 2021 for the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA) opposition party.
“When was the last time you saw a Gurage-, Kembatta-, or a Hadiya-born President [of Southern Nations region] or a Kafficho in a key federal position? There were none,” he argues. In his opinion, power in the south has been dominated by the Sidama.35This differential treatment cuts against the concept of ‘Debub’, the Amharic word for ‘south’, which has been used as an identity marker in public discourse since the federation was constructed in the 1990s. More recently, a growing assertiveness about sub-regional identity, such as Kafficho, Sidama, or Wolayta, has evolved to challenge a mostly urbanite discourse that portrays ‘Debub’ as a solid base of Ethiopian nationalism.
Melkamu hopes that, by enhancing local government, South West will help people hold elected officials to account and allow them to exercise more political agency.
“Politicians from South West areas in the region have not been accountable or transparent to the people they represent. That is because they are too far from it physically and emotionally,” Melkamu said. “The new state will change that.”
Terefe, who was elected in 2021, has become an influential figure from within the Bench, the main group in the Bench-Sheko Zone. He sees better public administration ahead. “There is more commitment than ever before.”
One challenge, however, is that becoming a region will not automatically solve pre-existing problems, such as the lack of political pluralism.
During the most recent general elections in June 2021, the Prosperity Party, like the EPRDF before it, won the federal parliament and regional council seats in nearly every constituency in the south.
In Kaffa, those in the opposition, such as the KPDU and Kaffa Green Party, tend towards Melkamu’s view that the Prosperity Party is a new entity in name only.
Dereje, the lecturer, is also from Bench-Sheko and supported South West’s creation. He is more critical of the centralizing Prosperity Party than Terefe, but believes South West still gives the people a better chance of development.
“It is better to have a new state and work on that than continue to be despised and forgotten as people,” he said. “We are, at least, no more under southern heels.”
From March 2021, Mitiku Bedru, a hydrologic engineer, led a project office for the South West referendum.36This office had five task forces for drafting the South West constitution, preparing legal frameworks, a ten-year development plan, drafting the first-year executive plans of the new government, and processing the power transfer and division of assets.
When Ethiopia Insight spoke to Mitiku back in October 2021, the office was making plans for a public consultation and review of the draft constitution.37The plan was to start on 16 October 2021 and finish by May 2022. The new constitution includes a secession clause that is a verbatim copy of Article 39 in the federal constitution.
The process involved the creation of a taskforce to oversee and review its contents, such as the official language and, crucially, the designation of a state capital—one of the most divisive issues, mainly between elites from Mizan Aman in Bench-Sheko and Bonga in Kaffa.38As per the new constitution, South West will be the fourth multiethnic state to adopt Amharic as its official working language. Amharic is also used in Southern Nations, Gambella, and Benishangul-Gumuz. This choice is explained by the region’s linguistic diversity.
Determining the administrative capital is no easy task because South West does not have a dominant group. The competition around this issue is so fierce because of the economic benefits in terms of government jobs and spending that come with being the administrative center.
Therefore, a novel element in South West’s constitution, which was approved on the regional state’s official formation day, is the creation of a multi-city state capital.39The Constitution of the South West Ethiopia People’s Regional State, which came into effect on 23 November 2021, largely draws from the spirit and contents of the federal constitution, and is also similar to Southern Nations’ constitution. The creation of a multi-city capital is one of the few peculiarities of the new region’s constitution.
What this focus suggests is that the administrative restructuring is as much about trying to capture state resources and investment as it is about improving local democracy, public services, and overall governance.
One of those who has objected is Muluken, the Kafficho Gurmasho leader from Bonga.40Muluken says Gurmashos including him challenged the Kaffa leadership’s SEPDM officials before 2018. He claimed zonal officials from SEPDM didn’t embrace the initial reform agenda. They attempted to stop a rally organized by the Gurmasho, eventually held in July 2018, to support the reform and Abiy. Muluken felt “motivated by Abiy’s leadership promise,” and that reform was achievable for Kaffa and Ethiopia. After being inspired by Abiy, Muluken joined Prosperity Party during its late 2019 founding, partly to “help the Gurmasho push and Kaffa’s pursuit for statehood.”
However that hope was short-lived.
He wrote a resignation letter to South West Prosperity Party office in August 2020 that was circulated on Kaffa social media circles portraying him as a heroic Gurmasho who stood for his people.
The letter criticized how the region was being administered and said the multi-capital policy typified an “authoritarian” top-down approach.
Political wrangling aside, a series of serious inter-communal conflicts also jeopardize progress in South West.
It remains to be seen whether the new region will alleviate the drivers of conflict, especially in a national environment of increasing political polarization over clashing visions of a more integrated Ethiopia or a federation that hands more de jure and de facto power to identity-based administrations.
The violence has at times involved attacks against ethnic Amharas and is exacerbated by more demands for sub-regional administrations. At least three of the South West’s five zones—Bench-Sheko, Sheka, and Western Omo—are dealing with such requests, and attendant multi-layered security problems.41These are demands for autonomous zones, special weredas or kebeles. Most notably, the Sheko are still calling for an independent zone out of Bench-Sheko Zone after the Sheko Wereda Council approved the demand in September 2018. On 2 December 2021, only a week after South West was established, the Sheko also made the request to the new regional authorities and the House of Federation. Dereje of Mizan Tepi University argues that zonal and regional officials have long-suppressed Sheko autonomy demands. Previously, the Sheko and Majang, an ethnic group that mostly resides in Gambella, wanted to establish a joint special zone by merging structures from Sheko areas in Bench-Sheko; Sheko-dominated kebeles in Sheka Zone’s Yeki district and Tepi town; and all Majang areas in its Gambella zone in Gambella, including Godere Wereda, parts of which have been included in South West. Also, the Me’ent group has claims in Bench-Sheko’s Guraferda Wereda and in Kaffa Zone, and there are also ethnic Manjo autonomy demands in Kaffa and Sheka zones, though the group is still striving for recognition of its identity.
For instance, residents of Yeki Wereda and Tepi town of Sheka Zone, whose population is composed of about eighteen ethnic groups and are claimed by the Sheko and Majang, have continued to engage in brutal conflict that has killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands.42Sheko-Majang resentment still haunts the sphere after first being documented two decades ago. In Sheka, the Sheko live alongside the Majang, a group that also lives in neighboring Gambella region. The Majang have a historical conviction that Tepi town of Sheka Zone is their historical land. At one point in 2020, a Sheko-Majang alliance was formed by the elites of the two groups, who vied to make a joint “Sheko-Majang Zone” by taking three districts from Sheka and Bench Sheko Zones, comprised of the Sheko ethnic group, and one district of Majang from Gambella. In recent years, the autonomy demands and associated conflicts have been dismissed by regional officials as an issue of “yetateku shiftoch”, meaning armed bandits. The conflicts in this sphere are also related to other groups labeled as “settlers” such as the Amhara and Oromo. In recent years, episodes of brutal killings in Guraferda district of Bench Sheko Zone cost the lives of hundreds of civilians, mainly Amharas, and also members of regional security forces. In June 2021, the Guraferda district head connected the episodes with what has been happening in Metekel Zone of Benishangul-Gumuz. In August 2021, UN OCHA reported that between the end of 2020 and early 2021, 50,000 people were displaced in Bench-Sheko Zone due to inter-communal conflict. A killing spree included the killing of 31 people in two rounds across three kebeles of Guraferda district. Around 5,000 were displaced. Fatal attacks on 18 and 21 October reportedly targeted mostly Amhara farmers who moved to the area more than twenty years ago and there were similar killings in early 2021. In May, the zone said nine security personnel were slain.
For people like Dereje, a Sheko, Southern Nations politics has inflicted a double harm, as minorities such as his are subject to dominant groups both at the local and regional levels.
Episodes of bloody local conflicts in the Maji area between the Surma, Dizi, and Me’ent groups have also continued, even while the area’s rich cultural mosaic continues to draw in Western tourists.
In Western Omo Zone, several groups, mainly the Suri in the Surma District of Maji Zone, are still under the suspicion of the federal and regional special forces. They have lived under surveillance amid the continuation for decades of inter-communal conflicts in Maji.
Twenty-six-year-old Ephrem, a member of the Southern Nations Special Forces that was previously stationed in Surma Wereda, said last year that he lost many colleagues. “This is one of the most dangerous areas not only in South West but also across the country,” he said. “Sometimes, you have to deal with armed groups and sometimes traditional archers.”43In Surma, whose capital is a village called Kibish, the presence of security forces has only aggravated the inter-communal conflict. Ephrem and all other Special Force members from other Southern Nations areas, except those from the South West, are preparing to leave the area. But, the fear is that the Surma armed groups have growing connections with armed groups from neighboring South Sudan, which they trade arms with.
The Abiy administration’s response to local-level grievances in Southern Nations, and perhaps elsewhere going forward, has been territorial restructuring. While that may serve various political purposes, it creates new struggles over power sharing and does not address minority demands.
Whether justified or not by the reality on the ground, South West has become the political showpiece of the Prosperity Party’s hasty response to statehood questions. But the degree to which the ruling party has controlled the procedure of creating new regions does not bode well for the ability of the strategy to mitigate conflict and address long-standing issues of constrained economic opportunities and political representation.
In sum, without improved respect for the rule of law, and more resources, it is doubtful that South West, or any other new regional state, can adequately meet demands for peace, development, and democracy.
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Main photo: Supporters campaign for a referendum on the formation of South West region. Decha district, Kaffa Zone, 24 September 2021; Abi Tadesse.
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Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished.
This is an informing peace.
However, I expected little bit more explanation about ብዝሃ-ማዕከላት (multi-city). Will it solve the multiple challenges? Or multiple them? I need your observation.
Thank you Yared.