Ethiopia’s Sidama People: Lessons for Post-Colonial Africa
By Neo Sithole
Undoubtably the rise in conversation around Africa’s ethnic violence is the result of an increase in reporting and not in actual violence. However, in most cases, the violence is over limited resources and in defence of historical and traditional identities and territories. The Sidama people in Ethiopia are an ethnic group that has witnessed a renewed wave in vigour for regional autonomy. A wave that if understood and contextualised will have lessons for the rest of the continent.
The question of the Sidama people’s constitutional right to request and possibly be granted an independent state in Ethiopia starts a rather interesting conversation not only in Ethiopia but for the rest of Africa. Especially when the demand for regional independence is mostly understood as demanding the creation of a new independent, internationally recognised state.
A bullet-like background of the Sidama people’s want for the regional independence of the Sidama region is vital. The Sidama People are one of the indigenous Cushitic or Kushitic language-speaking Ethiopians. After EPRDF (Ethiopia People Revolutionary Democratic Front) assumed power in the Sidama nation was granted regional self-administration for a brief period with only the two other smaller ethnic groups incorporated to it. However, this was only short-lived when unexpectedly the previously five distinct regions of the south were amalgamated together into the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR) without consulting the Sidama nation and others concerned according to primarily a decision of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Following this, The Sidama people have been repeatedly demanding their region for the last 27. The latest response has been a further 6-month delay on behalf of the Ethiopian Electoral board.
To avoid any confusion with what the Sidama mean by regional independence/separate region it is important to keep in mind that Ethiopia is a federation and as a federation, it is comprised of a partially independent state that while being impacted by the central government administer their affairs. Currently, Ethiopia is administratively divided into nine semi-autonomous regions or regional states that are based largely on ethnic territoriality. What the Sidama have agitated for their semi-autonomous region and, if acquired, would make it the tenth separate region. My crude understanding of the process constitutionally is that once a people gain a majority vote in their region, then the next tier of government, in this case the SNNPRS administration, must organize a “referendum” the Ethiopian electoral board (Article 39 & 47 of the Constitution) that region and in the event that the referendum shows a majority for becoming a separate region then the new region is set up. Two important things to note that was meant to have conducted and government after members of the Sidama zone council unanimously approved a request by the Sidama people for regional statehood in 2018, this is the second time the Sidama people’s request has been approved in by their zone council.
An important part of the conversation around the people of Sidama’s quest for an independent region is that the constitution of Ethiopia gives provision for the right to statehood. Despite the violence in the area between the Sidama, the government and other ethnic groups in the SNNPRs region the Sidama people are attempting to achieve statehood using the rights and provisions stipulated in Ethiopia’s foundation document. Something just as important is that The Ethiopian constitutional arrangement, unlike many, does not give any power to the federal authority to decide on the formation of new regions. So ultimately, Sidama people could unilaterally declare their state because of the unjustified delay in assisting a referendum. The delay in a unilateral declaration is a form of goodwill on behalf of the Sidama people.
So, how does the Sidama requesting their semi-autonomous region pose an issue, especially when the request and processes followed are constitutional?
Primarily, the issue comes when the granting of autonomy of the Sidama has the potential to spark further violence in Ethiopia’s Southern region. Other the Sidama the SNNPR is home to 56 ethnic groups and while the Sidama is indeed the largest an assumption is that the formation of the SNNPR as the Sidama region would negatively impact the other 56 ethnic groups. A knee-jerk response seeing as the Sidama have until no cohabited with these other ethnic groups and have at no point made statements suggesting that they would. Ideally, the Sidama in having partial autonomy for the region they occupy would allow them to implement socio-economic changes that would benefit their region as well as its occupants. Surety when it comes to cultural protection becomes a lot less when it is considered that where a majority ethnic group rules smaller ethnicity and their cultures tend to be marginalised.
As a diplomatic issue, the functioning of the African Union as worry it should be quickly dismissed because Ethiopian happening has no bearings on the AU short of a threat of physical violence against AU personnel or buildings, neither of these have been suggested. However, Ethiopia as a regional stabilizer may be badly affected if the situation in the Southern Region was to rapidly deteriorate.
A broader perspective is the limitations African nationalism has on quashing ethnic as a site of political engagement. When weaving together peoples of different tribal and ethnic identities under the banner of one nationality a challenge many states faced was that of dealing with the various ethnic groups.
One of Africa’s longest-standing problems and that is the fragility of Ethnic/Tribal cohabitation. One of the most wide-spread untruths about pre-colonial Africa is that the tribes and civilisations lived in Eden-like harmony when clashes between Monarchies and Empires were, in some cases, frequent. Although undeniably amplified by the former powers and current colonial legacies historically some of the largest civil wars and genocides have been on ethnic lines and although these lines.
Several countries have struggled with how to form a productive unified nation and more importantly how to distribute administrative and political resources in a way that actively deals and nullifies the tension caused by the reality of numerous ethnic groups. In instances with only two ethnic groups the dominance of ethnic group over the other, usually coupled with ethnic cleansing as seen with Zimbabwe’s Gukurahundi and Rwanda’s genocide against the Tutsi during the Rwandan Civil War. Not to say that ethnic diversity has kept the peace, but often ethnic plurality seems to allow for increased ethnic tolerance and social deterrent for ethnic violence against indigenous peoples.
Let’s localise it.
Ethiopia’s functioning as a federation with semi-autonomous regions based on ethnic groups is no different than several unitary states that have provinces ruled by ethnic groups on a majority based. South Africa is an example with each province having a ruling ethnic majority despite the provinces not having been based or created on ethnic lines. Where Ethiopia does provide plenty of insight and thinking value is in a country like South Africa where the occasional argument for provinces to break-away from the Republic and form their own countries, most recently used Cape Party in wanting to the Western Cape, Northern Cape some of the Eastern Cape and the Free State to be independent of South Africa. The same has been said by some of Kwa-Zulu Natal becoming sovereign and breaking away. In honestly South Africa is no stranger to a semi-autonomous region Orania, while small, operates mostly independently of the South African Republic, flag, currency and all.
In a continent with where the term ‘ethnic plurality’ is moderate considering states like the Democratic Republic of Congo have more than 250 ethnic groups clashes between ethnic groups are not only frequent but expected. However, in cases were resources and regional identities are involved tensions flare. Despite the constitutional allowance, the Ethiopian federation gives for people to calm regional statehood the dangers a domino effect where other ethnic identities push for regional recognition leading to a federal state with 20+ semi-autonomous regions are a possibility. Looking at a time where resources run thin and ethnic majorities misuse number advantage to marginalise smaller groups throughout the continent the Sidama’s quest for regional autonomy holds lessons for many African governments.