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Ethiopia delays referendum on new independent region

Susan Houlton
July 18, 2019

Members of the Sidama ethnic group must now wait several months longer for a referendum that could lead to the setting up of a new independent region. Many, especially young Sidama, are unhappy with the delay.

A large group of Sidama activists, some seated, some standing
Image: DW/D. Wolde

Leaders of the Sidama ethnic group in southern Ethiopia had planned to unilaterally declare their own federal state on Thursday. In Hawassa, the would-be capital of the proposed state, supporters were out in force at the start of the week, with young men running through the streets waving flags and singing songs in anticipation of the announcement.

The Sidama make up the largest group within the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region, which is one of the nine members of the Ethiopian Federation. In addition to the Sidama, who number around four million, there are another 56 different ethnic groups within that regional body, all of which could become members of the federation independently. This is in line with the constitution, which requires the government to organize a referendum for any ethnic group that wants to form a new entity. This should happen within a year of the group submitting a request. For the Sidama, the deadline was this Thursday. Then came the news that the Sidama Liberation Movement had agreed to a new deadline proposed by the Electoral Board in the interests of preserving peace. There had been considerable fears that a unilateral announcement could lead to violence and possible bloodshed. 

Numerous pressing issues for government

The Sidama's dream of having their own state gained fresh momentum after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power last year promising wide-ranging reforms.  But his government was slow to respond to the request for a referendum. Dr Awol Kassim Allo, lecturer in law at Keele University in England, told DW the delay had been largely due to the many pressing issues on the agenda of the new government. The Electoral Board itself "badly needed to be institutionalized again," he said. "There were also new laws in the pipeline, so it took time for the Board to organize the referendum because, practically speaking, there are issues throughout all the institutions in the country to deliver on something as important as this."

Members of the Sidama Liberation Movement seated in front of an array of microphones
The Sidama Liberation Movement has agreed to a delay in holding the referendumImage: DW/S. Wogayehu

The Sidama's demands for independence go back some 25-30 years, but Allo says the new delay in holding the referendum is understandable: "The Ethiopian state has been going through a very complex period of transition since April 2018. The challenge began back in 2015, when members of the Oromo ethnic group took to the street to protest. That protest expanded and ultimately brought about a change in government that saw the current prime minister come to power."

The Oromo are Ethiopia's largest ethnic group. Their protests were triggered by a long-simmering conflict over land.

A line of traditionally dressed Sidama people
Sidama celebrating their New Year festival in traditional dressImage: DW/S. Wegayehu

Domino effect?

Becoming an independent member of the federation would bring several advantages to the Sidama, according to Allo. "They would start to benefit more economically; they could draw up policies specific to themselves and advance their culture."

This begs the question whether the Sidama issue could trigger a domino effect in other parts of the country. Dr Zemelak Ayitenew, director of the Center for Federalism and Governance at Addis Ababa University, described it as "kind of a special case" in an interview with DW. "They have been demanding their own regional state since the late 1990s, unlike other communities, which were not pushing this agenda as fervently." However, he added that a domino effect could not be ruled out "because there is now a push by other ethnic communities for their own state; some of them do not seem to be willing to continue within the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Region."

In the city of Hawassa, the mood changed on Thursday from singing and flag-waving in anticipation of independence to a scene of burning tires and stones lobbed at security forces, reflecting the dissatisfaction of many young Sidama with the prospect of having to wait several months more for the long-awaited referendum.