Ethiopia: why the Sidama secession demand needs to be negotiated

Mounting tensions in southern Ethiopia are creating high levels of nervousness in the country. At the centre of the conflict is the clamour for internal secession by the Sidama, the country’s fifth largest ethic group. Most recently, the federal government declared that it, rather than the local authorities, was now in charge of maintaining peace and security. This followed violence which had led to deaths and injuries.

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The Conversation

By Yonatan Fessha

Mounting tensions in southern Ethiopia are creating high levels of nervousness in the country. At the centre of the conflict is the clamour for internal secession by the Sidama, the country’s fifth largest ethic group. Most recently, the federal government declared that it, rather than the local authorities, was now in charge of maintaining peace and security. This followed violence which had led to deaths and injuries.

Ethiopia has 80 ethnic groups. More than two decades ago, the country adopted a constitution that uses ethnicity as a basis to organise the federation. But only five of the nine states are home to a dominant ethnic community. The remaining four states are markedly multi-ethnic.

Here the complications set in. While some numerically stronger ethnic communities have been denied the status of a state, some smaller ones have a state to call their own. For example, the State of Harari is home to the eponymous community of fewer than 200 000 people.

On the other hand there are ethnic groups, like the Sidama – with more than three million people – that don’t have a state of their own.

It has not always been like this. The Sidama have a history of distinct administrative existence dating back to imperial days. More recently, the ethnically defined State of Sidama, in which the Sidama were the majority, was established in 1991.

But this was abolished when Ethiopia adopted a new Constitution in 1995 and the Southern Nations and Nationalities and People’s Regional State (the Southern State) was established where the Sidama became just one of the 56 or so ethnic groups that inhabit the state.

Since then, members of the Sidama community have been demanding their own state, pointing to states like Harari.

The matter came to a head on July 18 when members of the Sidama community tried to carry out their threat of unilaterally declaring the creation of a separate state. This followed months of agitation.

What Ethiopia now faces is a hugely complex legal and political issue. The clauses in the Constitution dealing with secession are open to wide interpretation, as has been made clear by recent comments by the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

On the other hand, it’s important that all parties concerned work their way towards a negotiated settlement particularly given the fragile state the country’s in.

The matter came to a head on July 18 when members of the Sidama community tried to carry out their threat of unilaterally declaring the creation of a separate state. This followed months of agitation.

What Ethiopia now faces is a hugely complex legal and political issue. The clauses in the Constitution dealing with secession are open to wide interpretation, as has been made clear by recent comments by the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

On the other hand, it’s important that all parties concerned work their way towards a negotiated settlement particularly given the fragile state the country’s in.

A longer version of this article was first published on the IACL-IADC Blog under the title “Internal secession and Federalism in Ethiopia”.

Yonatan Fessha, Marie-Curie Fellow, EURAC Research and Associate Professor, Public Law and Jurisprudence, University of the Western Cape

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons License. Read the original article