Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) time as Ethiopia’s prime minister is not without difficulties. He even called himself “a Prime Minister with no time to even undergo a medical checkup” in front of lawmakers. Since taking over after Hailemariam Desalegn’s departure, Abiy has ruled a nation that has been plagued by economic distress, political unrest, and even a civil war that has lasted for more than a year. On top of the never-ending problems he dealt with, with most of the incidents occurring in the northern part of the country, there was another heavy task that challenged his leadership. That is the statehood question brought by ethnic groups living in the south.
A few months after taking office, Abiy was inundated with requests from the leaders of more than a dozen zones and woredas, placing pressure on his government to help them realize their desire for a regional state. Participation in the endeavor to achieve statehood recognition ranged from low-level bureaucrats to zonal leaders and officials in the federal government. Ten zones filed a resolution with the House of Federation (HoF) adopted by their separate councils to hold a referendum on statehood. Abiy was aware right away how urgent it was to fulfill the regions’ desire.
Soon after taking office, Abiy traveled to almost all of the South Region’s ethnically divided zones. It was an attempt to win political support as he rushed to replace the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) at the time and establish the ruling Prosperity Party. But his administration’s stance on their desire for statehood was the main topic that dominated the debates at the zones. He promised to respond to their request, which by all legal criteria is legitimate.
However, it was easier said than done to keep the pledge. Sidama was the first regional state to be established following a referendum, with 98 percent of voters supporting the establishment of a new regional state. But civilians paid a price for the government’s efforts to push through Sidama’s desire for statehood, as enraged protesters set fire to the homes of many Hawassa inhabitants and forcibly evicted many others.
In particular, ethnic Amharas were targeted in all incidents involving statehood questions across the South Region. The Attorney General recently released a report that the homes of ethnic Amharas were burned to ashes, which led to the arrest of dozens of people on suspicion of being involved in the violence.
It appears the consequences of ignoring statehood questions were brought by Ethiopians to the south. Abiy formed a team of experts and high-level government officials two years ago to launch a study on the issue after realizing the consequences of disregarding statehood requests.
The team sent out three recommendations. The first option is to maintain the South Nation, Nationalities and People’s Regional State in its present configuration while making changes to the region’s appropriate number of political seats. The second suggestion was to establish the Sidama region while keeping other ethnic groups as members of the SNNPR. The third involved splitting the region into five, clustering the ethnic groups together.
The third alternative seems to be what the federal administration chose after the first two became unworkable due to rising animosity among ethnic group elites in South Ethiopia.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction, but caution should be exercised to avoid making the same mistake as SNNPR, which is now being dismantled due to growing resentment over resource sharing, political participation, and infrastructure development,” said Keyredin Tezera, assistant professor of Social Anthropology who participated in the study carried out at the request of the federal government.
Following Sidama’s victory for independence from the SNNPR, Kaffa, Sheka, Bench Sheko, Dawuro, and West Omo Zones, as well as the Konta Special District, joined to form the South West Region through a referendum. The local council members of five special Woredas – Amaro, Ale, Basketo, Burji, and Derashe – as well as the Konso, Gedeo, Gamo, Gofa, South Omo, and Wolayta zones voted last week to restructure their administrative units into a newly established regional state.
In a similar fashion, members of the Hadiya, Halaba, Kembata Tmbaro, Silte, and Yem Special Woreda local councils have begun the process of creating a new regional state. However, activists and political organizations active in the zones contested the action.
The Gurghe people, with whom the federal government wants to construct a cluster along with Hadiya, Silte, Kembata, Silte, and Yem, are among those who have objected to the concept of forming regions in clusters. The Guraghe zone has a population of approximately six million people and a land area of approximately 5932 sq.km. Its council was one of the zones that submitted a request to hold a vote on becoming a separate region.
Social activist, Misbah Kedir, is one of the ethnic Guraghes who have contested the federal government’s proposal to partition SNNPR into five cluster areas. He thinks it is wrong for the central government to “forcefully” incorporate the Guraghe Zone into the cluster.
“In addition to Guraghes, other zones that had voted to create a cluster region had also supported the motion after receiving an order from the federal government,” said Misbah.
Wolayita’s opposition wants to be heard too.
“First and foremost, the council, whether in Wolayita or other zones, does not have the power to accept such a resolution on behalf of the people because their term period ended almost seven years ago. Second, this is something that the cadres, not the people, want,” said Amanuel Mogiso, leader of the opposition Wolayita National Movement, which is active in Wolayita Zone.
Amanuel exhorts the federal government to pay attention to what the people want, comparing the situation to sitting on a ticking time bomb. “The Wolayita people have peacefully expressed a desire for their own territory. They need to be heard,” he added.
The politician urges the federal government to avoid meddling and let ethnic communities in SNNPR, including Wolayita, exercise their constitutional rights. “To reject their right to have their own regional state is unlawful,” Amanuel continued.
Jember Abdo, a legal expert, agrees.
“The state is turning into an enabler of violence. In the case of Guraghe, this is what I saw. The people exercised their right to form a region but the federal government’s response was to militarize their hometown,” Jember said urging the federal government to uphold the constitution.
There are economic reasons driving the pursuit of statehood.
“In order to obtain a permit from SNNPR officials, farmers and businessmen must travel hundreds of kilometers from distant areas in the Guraghe zone to Hawassa. And after the cluster region is established, they might be required to follow suit in order to obtain a permit from Hossana, which will likely serve as the cluster region’s capital city,” Misbah said.
Amanuel is worried too.
“The political structure is to blame for the underdevelopment of zones. When you have a significant budget and tax in a region, it is not the same,” Amanuel concluded.
Regardless of the final outcome of the campaign to achieve statehood for Ethiopians in the South, there are still many unknowns about the future of the region, which will depend on the government’s decision on how to manage the grievances of the ethnic groups it intends to organize into a cluster region.
Source: The Reporter