Geeska Afrika Online

ETHIOPIA: Southern comfort on the rocks

by Ermias Tesfaye

Since June, the Sidama campaign for a new federal-state in southern Ethiopia was on a rollercoaster, riding the political contortions of a diverse and divided region and country.

Now, after a violent dip back in mid-July, it is on the verge of probable triumph. The electoral board announced in late August that an unprecedented referendum on regional statehood would be conducted and now up to 2.3 million people are set to vote in Sidama Zone today, November 20.

“The fixing of the date in August renewed hope,” said Kinkino Kia, a Sidama legal activist. “The situation proves the resilience of the Sidama quest and the consequent crisis for the southern ruling party.”

While a tortuous autonomy struggle does indeed appear to be in the final stretch, there are still potential obstacles and critical unanswered questions. This may intensify threats to the integrity of the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples state (SNNP), a multi-ethnic region containing around one-fifth of Ethiopia’s more than 100 million people.

Paramount among unresolved issues is the fate of a rump SNNP region, which will lose its commercial and administrative capital if Sidama—the most populous and prosperous part of it—leaves, taking Hawassa city with it. Southern leaders are also faced with constitutional demands to become regions from ten other zones, which will be harder to contain if Sidama sets a precedent.

The challenges are rooted in constitutional arrangements that prioritize group rights and self-determination. There are tensions within ethnic federalism between autonomy and efficiency, and volatilities as political actors exploit the growing weakness of a recently upended ruling coalition that has imposed its will on Ethiopia for the last quarter of a century.

Novel challenge for Ethiopia’s constitutional system

Over recent decades, a Southern Question has emerged: to what extent should the constitutional right to greater administrative autonomy be exercised? Christophe Van der Beken, an Associate Professor at the College of Law and Governance Studies at Addis Ababa University explained the disagreement over this question as being partly driven by a “serious tension between constitutional provisions on the right to territorial autonomy and the predominant political tendency of ‘holding together’.”

While ‘holding together’ may have been a prevalent dynamic since 1991, more recently, Ethiopia’s federation and its key guardian, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), have been closer to falling apart.

Upheaval in the country for more than four years stemmed from a discontent with, and within, the ruling coalition, which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has chaired since March 2018. His leadership seemed to present an opportunity to restructure the south according to local desires, as EPRDF authority suffered from unabating protests, internal upheaval and divisions.

Over the last year, the south’s inherent diversity and unrestrained political aspirations have threatened its constructed unity. Ethnic zonal administrations have used the opening created by turmoil within the ruling coalition to lean on an inviting constitution and seek their own regional states, whose number has remained steady at nine since the constitution listed them in 1995.

The zonal leaders are doing so during a destabilizing transition supercharged by Abiy’s ambitions, the twists and turns by factions of a flailing regime, and a renewed national struggle over federal arrangements. This presents a novel challenge for Ethiopia’s constitutional system, whose most decentralizing provisions have rarely been tested in the past, primarily due to the ruling coalition’s vice-like grip on state and society.


Mirroring Kinkino’s current optimism about the impending referendum, early in July the proponents of the planned Sidama National Regional State were also in a buoyant mood. The campaign’s strength had been demonstrated through large rallies in February and April in Hawassa city. Many Sidama, members of youth movement Ejetto (a term describing a ‘heroic’ subset in Sidama’s stratified society), legal campaigners from Hawassa University, diaspora activists, and Sidama officials from various tiers of the federation appeared united.

“Welcome to Sidama State” signs were visible near proposed future regional borders and a constitution was drafted as the movement prepared to ignore legal procedure and self-declare a region on July 18, 2019, the date that marked the expiry of a one-year window for the regional government to hold a referendum.

Yet before the end of July, a deflated Sidama statehood movement lay in tatters.

On July 17, the eve of self-declaration, Sidama Zone’s now-suspended chief administrator Karre Chawicha and some campaigners had changed tack because the day before the electoral board belatedly promised the delayed referendum.

The board argued that the one-year countdown started from November 22, 2018, the day it received the referendum request from the State Council. However, Article 47 of the constitution stipulates that the right of any Nations Nationalities and Peoples entities (NNPs) to form its own state is exercisable when its referendum demand has been presented in writing to the State Council and the latter has organized a referendum within one year.

It appeared as if the electoral board was seeking to justify additional time in light of the Sidama self-declaration plan. But its interpretation of when the one-year countdown began contravened the constitution, Van der Beken says. As confusion reigned, the Ejetto tried to attend a public meeting-place in Hawassa on July 18 to seek answers, but clashed with security forces, and set up roadblocks of burning tires. Shots were fired by police, killing four, and chaos spread into Sidama Zone.

Recalling the authoritarian methods of Ethiopian rulers throughout the ages, rather than those of a self-declared democratic administration, the government used lethal force against rioting Sidama, some of whom reportedly killed local minorities, as occurred the previous July during unrest in Hawassa. At least 53 people were killed in the unrest across Sidama Zone in the days following the aborted self-declaration.

The authorities put in place a regionwide de facto state of emergency on July 22. More than 1,000 were arrested with activists jailed and the welcome signs torn down. Leading figures from Ejetto, Sidama Media Network, and Hawassa University legal activists were detained. The Committee to Protect Journalists said the arrests from the satellite broadcaster raised questions about the government’s commitment to freedom of expression.

SNNPR administrative map, 2017, OCHA

Although on July 17, a day prior to the outburst of anger, the authorities had set a deadline for the referendum, Kinkino only saw a smokescreen: “All the political machinations, including portraying the Sidama case as a security threat and installation of military control of security, while suspending zonal leadership and eliminating Ejetto, showed there was an intention to curb the Sidama quest.”

The security approach was in keeping with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s warning in parliament on July 1 that anyone taking the law into their own hands would be treated the same as the former government of Somali region, whose abusive president was removed by a federal military intervention in August 2018, reportedly as he was preparing secessionist procedures.

On July 25, Hawassa City and Sidama Zone officials were suspended for agitation by the ruling party. Indicating the broader problems, the ruling Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM)—a fragmenting member of an embattled, disoriented, and divided ruling coalition—also suspended officials from Hadiya Zone, another administrative area seeking to become a state by carving itself out of Southern Nations.

For a few weeks thereafter, the authorities looked to have suppressed the Sidama, as Prime Minister Meles Zenawi did in 2006. According to academic Lovise Aalen, Meles’s tactics at the time included replacing a pro-statehood Sidama Zone leader with one who opposed it, a move resembling the recent one. But Meles’s intervention was part of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) political management of competing interests in a diverse federation; an ability that today’s disorientated coalition has largely lost.

Despite the brutality, due presumably to Abiy’s relative popularity and the recently emboldened opposition to ethnic federalism, but also concerns over potentially spiraling instability, domestic criticism of the crackdown was limited. Former backers of the Sidama movement, such as Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed, also stayed silent, possibly as they did not want to speak out against the Prime Minister at that time.

The relief for statehood opponents, however, was short, as constitutional obligations and the strength of the Sidama campaign led the electoral board to schedule the referendum. Still, the authorities have still not made progress in resolving the broader debate over self-rule in southern Ethiopia, which has been ongoing since group rights were promoted in the 1995 constitution.

Chaos theory

Amid EPRDF disarray, the Sidama took the first steps towards statehood in July 2018, collecting petitions at wereda level and then voting for a referendum at the zonal council. Bucking its integrationist tendencies, SEPDM, whose chairwoman Muferiat Kamil is from Silte Zone, gestured towards greater self-determination at its Congress on September 29.

Following the Sidama, the other zonal councils also voted for referenda and, reportedly, made written requests to the State Council, in line with constitutional requirements. On November 26, presumably spooked by the prospect of wholesale southern fragmentation, SEPDM returned to form, as it criticized the salvo of requests.

Perhaps as a consequence of the ruling party position, only the Sidama request was sent by the region to the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia, which is mandated by law to hold referenda. While other SNNP elites claim double standards, a Sidama insider says the inconsistency is justified. He suggests the subsequent statehood requests only occurred because non-Sidama SEPDM leaders mobilized their own zonal councils to request referenda to try and prevent Sidama breaking free. “The premise was that if everyone asks then nobody gets,” the insider said.

Wolayta activists say that is a Sidama-centric narrative is designed to delegitimize other autonomy claims, and is symptomatic of the manner in which Sidama elites and activists dominate the discourse. The Sidama insider says ongoing political struggle between the Sidama and non-Sidama members of the regional council has occurred for decades. In this instance, the alleged wheeze to dilute the Sidama claim backfired anyway, as statehood movements in Wolayta, Gurage, Hadiya, and Keffa have gathered their own momentum, although it is yet to be seen whether they will gather the force of the Sidama’s.

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

Zones requesting
PopulationDate requested
1Sidama4.1July 19, 2018
2Kaffa1.2Nov 15, 2018
3Gurage1.8Nov 28, 2018
4Bench-Maji0.9Nov 29, 2018
5Hadiya0.8Dec 01, 2018
6Dawro Zone0.7Dec 06, 2018
7Wolayta2.2Dec 09, 2018
8Gamo1Dec 12, 2018
9Kembata Tembaro1Dec 19, 2018
10South Omo0.8April 23, 2019
11Gofa1.3May 22, 2019

Regardless of political shenanigans, the Sidama movement prepared for statehood and then intensified self-declaration mobilization, even after the SNNP region made the formal referendum request, as regional and federal authorities still appeared paralyzed by the prospect of fragmentation. SEPDM eventually showed some signs of urgency, holding a 10-day meeting of its Central Committee until July 15. It deliberated on an expert study and pledged to address demands, yet its gnomic concluding statement elicited bemusement. A day later, the electoral board made its last-minute intervention—chaos and confusion ensued.

Legal activist Kinkino, who is based in Belgium, believes there was a plan to delegitimize the statehood movement. He makes the same allegation of covert external provocation that Ethiopian political actors often employ, despite lacking evidence, when violence occurs following elite agitation. “The moment Abiy said Sidama was a national security threat and warned of imminent military intervention, those opposing Sidama state planned to create instability and attacks on property by using unknown mobs,” he says. “The purpose was to justify federal control of security and send a message that demands for new regions have produced serious violence, so they should not be granted.”

Whether the violence was the result of Ejetto frustration at the last-minute deviation or, as Kinkino claims, the result of external incitation, the arrests, suspensions, and crackdown has had the somewhat perverse effect of calming the political situation and focusing minds on the referendum.

Sidama activists are now set to achieve statehood and there have been positive signs for months. In September, the regional council removed its Sidama leader Million Mathewos, who backed the autonomy campaign, and replaced him with Ristu Yirdaw from Gurage Zone. That looks like preparation for a Sidama state, with Muferiat and allies now focused on holding the rest of the region together after accepting Sidama would leave, and so withdrawing the carrot of regional leadership from the departing elite. Demonstrating the zero-sum tendencies ingrained in the existing Ethiopian federal politics, an emerging concern is that the Wolayta and Keffa statehood campaigns will be energized by a belief that Gurage Zone will benefit disproportionally in terms of government resources now that it occupies the regional presidency.

Political science

Generally, rather than adopting a democratic approach to dealing with the various interest groups imposing their demands, the reoriented ruling party and authorities have so far favored a familiar mix of force and top-down, sometimes opaque, procedures.

On December 8, 2018, SEPDM announced a “scientific” restructuring study to assess the statehood demands over a period of six months. This was actually more a re-restructuring study because a similar process led to the decision a month before to create three new zones and 44 weredas, demonstrating that regional administrators are familiar with administrative upheaval. The changes included splitting Gamo-Gofa Zone in two and Konso receiving a zone after campaigning against a 2011 amalgamation into Segen Zone.

These processes recalled earlier ones, such as the successful restive 1998 campaign for the Wolayta to administer their own zone rather than be part of North Omo Zone with the Gamo, Gofa and Dawro. That also featured a controversial integration effort after the composite Wogagoda language was created—its name stemmed from the first two letters of each group—only to then be violently rejected.

On July 22, 2019, the study group disclosed three possible scenarios: maintaining the southern region as it is; dividing it into two or more regions; or freezing the statehood demands. It claims that the people of the region preferred the first option. Like the electoral board’s late intervention, the conclusions seemed more political than legal; let alone “scientific”, as they were based on a sample size of less than one percent of the region’s population. The SEPDM-commissioned research appeared to be part of the latest effort to hold the south together.

Members of SEPDM Central Committee, October 2018

1Hikma KhayredinAlaba26Demeke AchisoHadiya
2Amanuel AbdelaAmaro27Takele NecheKambata
3Alemayehu BawdiAri28Marta Luwiji (f)Kambata
4Belay KojoabBench29Teshome TadeseKeffa
5Asrat AsefaBench30Asrat AlemayehuKeffa
6Kebede SahleDassenech31Masresh BelachewKeffa
7Yematalem ChekolDawro32Helen Debebe (f)Keffa
8Mulugeta TeferaDerashe33Meseret MesqeleKeffa
9Alemtsehay PaulosGamo34Tezera WeldemariamKonta
10Lelalem G/yohanesGamo35Tamrat DilaMareko
11Mitiku KasaGamo36Yeshiwas AlemuSheka
12Heywet HayluGedeo37Abiy AndamoShekicho
13Bilen GizeworkGurage38Kare ChawechaSidama
14Zeynu BitaGurage39Markos TekleSidama
15Shisema G/selasieGurage40Simret GirmaSidama
16Fikre GizawGurage41Sikuare ShudaSidama
17Misganaw AredaGurage42Ayano BerasoSidama
18Ristu YirdawGurage43Aklilu LemaSidama
19Fitsum AregaGurage44Abdulfeta YesufSilte
20Fate Sermelo (f)Gurage45Usman SururSilte
21Tefera MolaHadiya46Tekle LezaWolayta
22Ayalew ZenaHadiya47Hayleberhan ZenaWolayta
23Asefa AbiyuHadiya48Tesfaye YigezuWolayta
24Sintayehu WeldemikaelHadiya49Aster DawitWolayta
25Aklilu TadeseHadiya50Amanuel AbrahamWolayta

These EPRDF political failings aside, the constitutional rights to self-determination also present significant legal challenges. Coerced integration and untrammelled fragmentation both contain risks.

The administrative chaos and deadly conflict in the former Segen Zone, which is bordered to the west by South Omo Zone and to the north by Gamo Zone, is just one recent worrying example of the possible fate of the entire southern region. Segen, formed against the wishes of some leaders from the eight ethnic groups that it incorporated, was dissolved in 2018 following persistent Konso requests and protests. Though the demand followed legal procedure, SEPDM delayed and denied, before being compelled to comply. This led to the suspension of Segen Zone, which left the administrative status of the Amaro, Burji, Dirashe and Ale Weredas pending. A destructive conflict ensued. After some delay, the remaining weredas are to become special weredas and the division of property in the former seat of the Segen Zone has begun.

According to the SNNP constitution, zone and special wereda councils have the power to determine the working language of their district; protect rights to develop and write their languages and preserve their history; enact laws on matters uncovered by federal and regional laws; approve its budget; and appoint a speaker, deputy speaker and chief administrator. Weredas are in charge of local plans for social service and economic development and implementing rules and policies issued by higher authorities.

Diversity in amalgamation

SNNP was created 24 years ago as an administrative home for no less than 45 (now, 56) officially recognized ethnic groups, whose ascribed classification into ‘nations’, ‘nationalities’ or ‘peoples’ has been subject to ambiguity and controversy since the regional state’s conception. As such, it constitutes a microcosm of Ethiopia’s unity in diversity; a multi-ethnic federation within a multi-national federation.

Its population, now more than 20 million, made it a suitable fourth regional pillar in the EPRDF system. It acted as a counterweight to Amhara and Oromia, the regions dominated by two groups that have historically impinged on southern communities’ autonomy, who now possess around 29 and 37 million people respectively, according to extrapolations from the 2007 Population and Housing Census. The political component of the set-up was the SEPDM, which, like its sister EPRDF parties and their affiliates, not only controls all elected seats, but has been largely indistinguishable from the state itself.

The recent flurry of statehood requests have created bitter disagreement between integrity and statehood advocates. The key proponent of cohesion over the years has been the SEPDM leadership. It was formed in 1992 as the Southern Ethiopian People Democratic Front (SEPDF), an amalgamation of 14 Political Development Organizations that the victorious rebels proceeded to create and merge after taking power from the Derg in 1991.

Political Development Organizations that formed SEPDF

2Gedeo10Dawro Konta
6Gamo Gofa14Burji
8Southern Omo16Bench Maji

SEPDF was renamed SEPDM in 2003 as a result of the renewal (tehadso) campaign of 2001 which sought to consolidate support for Meles’ leadership in the EPRDF after his own Tigrayan party split over the Eritrea war and ideology; some of the dissidents purged by Meles had been primarily responsible for developing the southern PDOs, according to historian Christopher Clapham. More recently, SEPDM was chaired by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who hailed from Wolayta, giving it more federal leverage. Now, SEPDM threatens to disintegrate into something like its original units, as the NNPs push against the integrationist tendency.

The SEPDM position rests on the achievement of a “southern identity” rooted in respecting diversity and Ethiopian unity. Often supported by academics like Kinkino, statehood advocates argue for dignity through equal recognition, as smaller groups such as the Harari received a region when the federation was designed. The SEPDM leadership argues that SNNP is a cost-effective arrangement, while activists and local elites claim that smaller regions would be more administratively efficient. For example, Keffa, a western Zone with a history of autonomy is a long way from Hawassa. Arguably, even the relatively sparsely populated South Omo Zone—whose extreme ethnic diversity, with its many agro-pastoral peoples—adds yet another layer of complexity and could potentially become a viable region with a seat at Jinka. Much will now depend on how Sidama fares in its unprecedented bid to become the federation’s tenth member.

Granting rights

Among the criticism of Sidama leaders’ autonomy drive is that they already largely control Hawassa City administration and run Sidama Zone, as well as using the Sidama as the main administrative working and primary education language. However, there are substantive political and economic reasons why Sidama and other zones may want to become regions.

Critics are likely to cast Sidama’s achievement of statehood, including full control of Hawassa city, as the final step of decades of Sidama’s political elites increasing their influence over its administrative institutions through their dominance in the SEPDM party apparatus. A gradual process which, van der Beken says, has negatively affected governance of the city and soured relations with non-Sidama representatives.

Another consequence of the existing situation is that SNNP can intervene upon SEPDM’s instruction in any zone or special wereda’s business any time it considers necessary, even if such interference has no formal legal basis. The only option for complaints by sub-regional authorities is to the regional and then national upper parliamentary chambers.

Despite the autonomy granted on paper, SNNP did not devolve powers such as taxation to the zones or special weredas, as Tigray has. Instead, the region controls taxation, including concurrent powers with the federal government; economic, social and development policies; and administration of land and other natural resources. Therefore, a driver of Sidama statehood is economic self-determination; Sidama could advance self-rule by levying taxes and administering land and natural resources.

Voters in the Sidama referendum; November 20, Hawassa; Nathalie Tissot

Fiscal decentralization in Ethiopia allocates federal transfers to regions by estimating their revenue raising capacity and expenditure needs in order to calculate fiscal gaps, which become the percentage share of the overall grant allocated to each region. The proportion allocated to each region is roughly equivalent to population share, with the south in the past raising more from federal subsidies and less from business taxes than other EPRDF-run states.

The federal government annual grant to SNNP this year is 27.8 billion birr out of a total national regional subsidy of 140.8 billion birr. In total, the region says it currently generates its own revenue of 8 billion birr. Sidama statehood would reduce the basic federal grant to SNNP by a considerable amount because of Sidama’s large population. Another factor determining regional needs is ethnic diversity and related costs of the legislature, which in the south includes the Council of Nationalities, a regional version of the House of Federation, which interprets the constitution and rules on identity and inter-regional disputes.

According to the regional government, Hawassa City administration generates revenue of 1.5 billion birr, while SNNP gives matching fund subsidy of up to 200 million birr for infrastructure construction to Hawassa. There is no other subsidy from the region to Hawassa. The lakeside city partly has strong revenues because it is the regional capital and a popular tourist destination. Hotels benefit from visitors and trips by officials for meetings throughout the year, while investment has been strong.

Federal subsidies

RegionEstimated expenditure need (ETB billions)Potential revenue (ETB billions)Relative gap (%)Population share (%)
Dire Dawa0.

It is tricky to estimate the winners and losers of a reconfiguration, as, for example, businesses and investment may locate from Hawassa due to political tensions and because it is no longer the wider regional capital, although, significantly, the State Council has decided it could stay in the city for up to two full election cycles. Attention is likely to decrease if the capital is moved, and politics is already having an impact: some non-Sidama business-owners complain of discrimination by the Sidama-dominated city government. This situation has reportedly shifted investment to other major southern towns.

Currently, Sidama Zone is lumped in with other lower revenue-raising capacity zones and special weredas in SNNP, while Hawassa City is the only self-sustaining administration in the region. SNNP provides a subsidy of 3.2 billion birr to Sidama Zone, which has livestock and cereal and is the leading coffee-producing zone in Ethiopia, the single largest grossing export commodity. More than 40 percent of Ethiopia’s washed coffee comes from Sidama, but it has no powers to levy taxes on this production, which could lead to a regional request that primary commodities have similar federal-regional tax revenue-sharing arrangements to extractive industries.

By comparing with other regions, the data suggests that a new Sidama region might receive a more than 50 percent increase in its federal subsidy, although there are many factors to consider, such as how House of Federation number-crunchers would account for Hawassa’s relatively high-level of development and revenue-raising capacity.

Largely as a product of EPRDF’s unitary-like de facto control of a de jure radically devolved system, despite the right to raise taxes, regions rely on federal grants and, despite the right to grant weredas and zones revenue-raising powers, weredas and zones rely on regional transfers. Moreover, there is little tax competition between states, again presumably because it is EPRDF and affiliated parties that have jointly set policy.

With the EPRDF system more strained than ever before, these federal dynamics could begin to shift. And with increased inter-regional tensions, better performing states may start objecting to subsiding those that rely more on federal grants. Regional administrations would be in a better position to adjust to this new scenario than zones or special weredas because of regions’ constitutionally guaranteed revenue-raising rights.

Defective inception

Appreciating Ethiopia’s Southern Question, which could destabilize the entire country, requires understanding the groups’ history and how they were fused into one region. During the pre-Menelik II period, the south was largely under customary administrative systems. Some groups with large population like Kaffa and Wolayta had formed kingdoms, creating localized hegemony. Communities were relatively autonomous until forcibly incorporated into Emperor Menelik II’s administration after he led territorial expansion southwards in the 1890s. The communities were then forced to pay tribute to new local rulers appointed by the center.

Menelik II’s rule and that of subsequent emperors involved economic exploitation, social domination, including slavery, and political inferiority for southerners. But the forcible incorporation of the south also sowed seeds of resistance in southern areas like Sidama, which would periodically surface in struggles for greater autonomy under Haile Selassie I, in the form of Sidama Liberation Movement under the Derg and under the early imposition of ethnic federalism by EPRDF, and now during the current power vacuum.

After the last emperor, Haile Selassie I, was overthrown in a 1974 socialist revolution, the military Derg regime put “Ethiopia First”, leaving ethnic autonomy trailing. A fresh opportunity for self-rule came during the transitional period from 1991 to 1994 where priority was given to the rights of what became known as NNPs—whose definition in the Ethiopian constitution borrowed from Joseph Stalin’s theory of nationalities and definition of the nation.

The 45 southern groups during the Transitional Charter period

Region 7Region 8Region 9Region 10Region 11
Amaro (Koore)
Shekocho (Mocha)

With ethnic groups in Ethiopia accordingly designated as “nations, nationalities and peoples” (NNPs), this implied a hierarchical categorization based generally—there were plenty of exceptions—on population size that influenced their administrative status within the federation, despite the terms having the same definition. Some ethnic groups (‘nations’) such as Afar, Amhara, Oromo, Somali and Tigray were thus granted regional statehood, while other often smaller groups (‘nationalities’ and ‘peoples’) were lumped together into multi-ethnic regional states—notably the southern NNPs, but also the Agew in Amhara, and the five communities that administer Benishangul-Gumuz and Gambella. Yet regardless of how they were originally classified, all groups were granted the same right to self-determination, up to and including secession from the federation, encouraging potentially never-ending demands for increased autonomy.

In the Transitional Charter, 63 NNPs were grouped into 14 regions, with the original 45 NNPs of the south spread across five multi-ethnic districts.

Yet the constitution, drafted by a commission selected by transitional parliamentarians, eventually compressed the five regions into one. The official reasoning was partly a concern about a lack of qualified civil servants, according to a recent SNNP government-commissioned study. The Sidama and others saw the consolidation as inconsistent with the creation of Harari, Gambella and Benishangul-Gumuz regional states, which had much smaller populations than a number of southern NNPs, and this triggered the ongoing disagreement.

2007 populations of select regions and SNNP zones (millions of people, SNNP zone unless stated)2.901.601.501.401.200.900.800.800.800.700.700.600.500.300.300. GofaWolaytaAfar regionHadiyaKeffaGedeoB-Gumuz regionSilteKembataBench MajiSouth OmoDawroGambella regionHawassa cityKonsoAlabaShekaHarari region

Legal confusion

In its July 16, 2019 statement, the electoral board detailed issues that it said needed to be negotiated prior to the referendum, including the future rights of non-Sidama minority groups and the division of assets in Hawassa. It also requested a security plan from the region. The preconditions raised opposition—although opposition was muted as activists did not want to interrupt the path to a referendum with legal challenges—as the board is only mandated to organize elections and referenda. Sidama Zone said local minorities would face the same legal situation as in any other Ethiopian region as the constitution guarantees their rights.

But it is not only some of the board’s interventions that have caused controversy among activists. There are also reasons to be concerned about aspects of the legal procedures themselves.

The EPRDF’s travails combined with the democratization agenda, which should mean respecting the rule of law, are leading to the constitution being tested more than ever, according to Ethiopian federalism expert Van der Beken. He stresses that critical parts of the constitution have now become important practical considerations after lying largely dormant. Provisions such as Article 39, the secession clause, and Article 47, the rules for statehood requests, were largely theoretical, as there had only been the Somali case for secession in the early years of the federation, a short-lived claim by the Berta in 2001 for separate statehood from Benishangul-Gumuz, as well as a previous Sidama statehood push in 2006.

One of the signs that was taken down in July; July 13; William Davison

For example, if, rather than threatening self-declaration, the Sidama had followed procedure and appealed to the House of Federation, a 2001 law defining the chamber’s procedure says their case would be seen within two years. If there was then no decision during that period, the law is silent on what is supposed to happen next. This could create a future dilemma for the Wolayta, who promise to follow legal procedures in their so far unanswered pursuit of statehood.

And despite the constitution promising that an NNP that votes to become a region “directly” becomes a member of the federation “without any need for application”, federalism expert Yonatan Fiseha has suggested a constitutional amendment may be necessary, which would need approval by a simple majority in two-thirds of State Councils and by a two-thirds majority at a joint session of both houses of federal parliament. A source suggested some officials at the Prime Minister’s Office and electoral board support this position.

Because of recent developments, there needs to be debate on potential new laws that would detail issues like how a State Council should manage statehood referendum requests, for example by explaining the relationship with the electoral board, and detailing preconditions, said Van der Beken. “Outstanding issues created by loopholes such as those in Article 47 and the division of powers between the federal and regional governments should be discussed, not only as political issues but also as legal ones,” he said.


The Southern drama is not just a product of local divisions. If Sidama activists claim rights to statehood as part of democratization promised by Abiy, opponents of ethnic federalism see it as a classic example of the blinkered ethno-nationalism they say is tearing the country apart. Instead, they want Hawassa to become an autonomous city accountable to the federal government like Addis Ababa; and possibly a campaign for that eventuality will emerge if Hawassa City is shown by disaggregated results to have voted against statehood. Abebe Gellaw, the Managing Director of ESAT, has crowed that fragmentation in Southern Nations would provide conclusive evidence that ethnic federalism has failed.

While Oromo nationalists received widespread support when they stoked unrest against the EPRDF, and against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in particular, under Abiy, there is no reason for opposition elites that back the prime minister to support ethno-nationalist agitators. Sidama might have expected support in July from Oromo activists like Jawar, but he was not forthcoming. Other than the Oromo Liberation Front, Oromo parties sat on the sidelines, presumably because they faced the no-win outcome of upsetting either the government or Sidama campaigners.

While these types of positions are part of the broader debate surrounding the Southern Question, the most acute issue is within the ruling coalition. Under assault from opponents, EPRDF has also been internally fraying due to suspicion and competition among its members, as shown by the heated rhetoric between Tigray and Amhara’s ruling parties following the June 22 assassination, which put the bad blood on public display. The TPLF position that SEPDM should handle the statehood requests (basically, by accepting them; contravening the TPLF’s earlier stance during the Meles era) and the latter’s rejection of that interference was another sign of ruling coalition’s internal trauma.

Members of SEPDM Executive Committee, October 2018

1Tilahun KebedeGamo9Abraham MarshaloSidama
2Haylemaryam TesfayeGedeo10Desie DalkeSidama
3Tesfaye BeljigeGofa11Million MathewosSidama
4Elyas ShekurGurage12Muferiat Kamil (f)Silte
5Melese AlemuHadiya13Zeynu JemalSilte
6Ergoge Tesfaye (f)Hadiya14Getahun GaredewWolayta
7Kifle GebremariamKeficho15Moges BalchaYem
8Anteneh FeqaduKembata

The EPRDF has been ruled by each of its four parties having a quarter of the share of the vote in the coalition’s decision-making committees, regardless of their demographic weight. This arrangement is already under pressure with the country’s most populous region, Oromia, in the ascendancy, and would come under increasing strain if one or several new southern states emerged. Some Sidama leaders want to remain part of the SEPDM even after statehood is fully achieved, at least until after the next elections—although they fear resistance to that plan from the Ejetto.

But the broader risk is that the EPRDF’s unraveling could be triggered by the disintegration of SEPDM, if its efforts of holding together the region fail, which would then undermine its own raison d’être. Abiy’s answer is for EPRDF’s bickering members to merge into a single national organization, while also adding the affiliated ruling parties from five other regions into the mix of what would be called the Prosperity Party.

But this untested and bold move—for which a new method of apportioning voting weights between regional chapters has not yet been agreed upon—could create further instability in the federation. The first signs of this are indicated by Jawar’s criticism and TPLF’s vote and statement in opposition to Abiy’s proposal. Yet, the move to merge also contains the potential for positively re-balance the political spectrum by at least moving the EPRDF beyond its current travails, albeit into an uncertain future.

Federal democracy

The SEPDM has admitted that its internal affairs are partly responsible for the escalation of regional insecurity in Sidama. Meanwhile, the party continues to deliberate on outstanding statehood demands; keen to avoid a ripple effect which in the worst case could lead to not only the break-up of the Southern Nations, but would make the SEPDM itself superfluous. Contingency continues to reign, however, as the status of other requests is far from certain, with the electoral board set on only starting the one-year countdown from the day it officially receives demands to conduct referenda over statehood, and the de facto state of emergency dampening political activity across the region.

One lesson from the recent deadly saga over Segen is the folly of imposing administrative structures against the will of the concerned people. Unless they answer the Southern Question through genuine political and public consultation, SEPDM leaders risk making the same mistake on a much larger scale.

As far as a protagonist in the Segen drama was concerned, who at different times found himself under attack from activists and imprisoned by local officials, the root problem was vicious zero-sum politics that characterized the EPRDF era. “Impartiality and independence are not acceptable in Ethiopian politics,” said Yakob Yatane, now a senior official at Konso Zone. Mirroring that complaint, the Sidama insider said that during the July unrest he felt “sandwiched” by, on the one side, the regional and federal elite, and, on the other, militant Sidama youths.

The situation suggests that SEPDM must approach statehood demands in a more pro-active, communicative, and transparent manner—taking into account the historical background of the formation of SNNP, seeking to de-escalate the current tension, and upholding the constitutional basis of the right to self-determination, although perhaps on a modified basis.

In the case of Sidama, statehood advocates have pursued legalist arguments to advance their cause, making recourse to specific articles of the Ethiopian constitution. However, the unresolved Southern Question exposes far deeper problems inherited from the early 1990s transitional period and a constitution that invites agitation for greater autonomy.

Where upgrading administrative status to a regional state, however, becomes a real possibility, as is the case of Sidama Zone, a string of political, economic, and socio-cultural issues and recalibrations are suddenly at stake. Yet it is almost impossible to guarantee a just outcome for all actors involved and the danger is that any outcome of a referendum would only pit winners and losers against each other.

Sidama people in Hawassa Zuria Woreda; July 12, 2019; William Davison

Still in the background, sensitive issues such as the geographic location of the Gedeo community, who suffered mass displacement from Oromia last year, and which would be cut off from the rest of Southern Nations if Sidama Zone upgrades into a region, are yet to come to the fore. This could add further discomfort on the rocky Southern road ahead. To date, there has been little discussion by a single-minded Sidama campaign of how to mitigate that group’s disadvantages and risks, even though further aggravation of the momentarily calmed Gedeo-Guji crisis could have wider political ramifications.

The broader contours of the Southern Question, which has returned with vengeance under Abiy, continues to divide opinions over ethnic federalism.

On one hand, opponents of ethnic federalism imply that demands for greater autonomy would disappear under a liberal or pan-Ethiopian government. This seems a rather simplistic claim which does not acknowledge the problems that dismantling ethnic federalism would create. On the other hand, the contention that untrammeled self-determination—given the uneven and inconsistent application across the federation—is a sustainable system appears equally untenable. Either way, the path ahead seems to pass through more political turbulence, with the constitution under increasing pressure.

In July and September, Prime Minister Abiy visited Wolayta Soddo and Kaffa to promote his Green Legacy Ethiopia tree-planting initiative, which even policy analysts supportive of Abiy’s reforms consider primarily a campaign for national unity. During the visit Abiy discouraged the statehood aspirations in the Southern Nations. An intervention which advocates for greater autonomy may well consider an affront, and one that is in keeping with the top-down approach of previous EPRDF leaders.

Rather than inhibiting greater autonomy, supporters of the federal system initially hoped that Abiy’s premiership would seek to uphold its democratic potentials and guarantee constitutional rights. In its handling of the Sidama demands—use of lethal force and mass arrests, a lack of adherence to due process, and a de facto state of emergency—the supposedly reformed and soon to be merged EPRDF under Abiy Ahmed has looked more like the original version in terms of its ruthlessness—but without any of the past purpose, organization, or discipline.

Meanwhile those claiming greater rights are still largely locked in a destructive cycle with the state. Until activists expect an impartial application of the law, they are likely to retain violence as an option to press constitutional claims—thus partly legitimizing a further authoritarian response.

Given this, it is questionable whether further statehood demands in Southern Nations can be contained or worked out peacefully. But breaking that chain could be a vital first step in unlocking a convoluted and entrenched set of disputes—and beginning to formulate an answer for Ethiopia’s increasingly confounding Southern Question.

Query or correction? Email us

Editors: William Davison and Jonah Wedekind

Editing assistance from Christophe Van der Beken and Chris Preager

Main photo: Overview of Hawassa; Mimi Abebayehu

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



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