The Sidama people of Ethiopia have, for the first time ever, been given the opportunity to vote for their autonomy. If a majority vote in favour, it will mean they can carve an autonomous region for the Sidama. The Sidama comprise about 4% of Ethiopia’s 105 million people.
Ethiopia’s current federal structure was created under the 1994 constitution. It stemmed from political agitation in which groups took up arms against Ethiopia’s central government and its elites alleging rampant ethnic oppression and discrimination.
But the federal structure has caused lots of problems for the country. This is primarily because it is constituted along ethnic lines. This is problematic because Africa’s second most populous country has more than 80 ethnic groups. The biggest groups are the Amhara and Oromo which together comprise more than 65% of the population.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government faces a difficult dilemma trying to reconcile the voices in support of the country’s federal arrangement versus those who perceive it as a threat to their group, and the nation.
The Sidama vote is just the beginning of what is expected to be a long process of state secession. The referendum will be followed by a few critical issues.
Firstly, is the matter of Hawassa, the multi-ethnic city the Sidama hope to make their capital. Its status must be debated and the creation of a legal framework to ensure the rights of the many non-Sidama who call the city and the zonal administration home should be entertained.
Secondly, the Sidama Zone, as it stands now is under a state of emergency. The security situation is volatile as inter-ethnic violence could emerge at any time. Therefore, the government must be able to address security concerns once and for all so that the necessary constitutional process can be implemented.
Thirdly, the Ethiopian constitution must be amended to change the number of regional states that make up the ethnic federal arrangement. For that to happen, all regional states must agree to a formation of a new regional state.
Lastly, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration must be ready to handle the fall out from the Sidama referendum more carefully. More statehood demands are expected to emerge in the near future.
A vote in favour of succession will be a big win for the advocates of Ethiopia’s current ethnic federal arrangement, which is designed to provide more self-governance rights for groups.
But it will also spur similar statehood demands. Already there are a number on the the horizon. The Wolayta people, in particular, are organising to follow the Sidama example. The Wolyata are among the 56 ethnic groups in South Peoples’ Nations and Nationalties region, from which the Sidama are seceding.
This will continue to pose more trouble for the Ethiopian state. Unless Abiy’s administration finds ways to tame ethno-nationalists especially from his home region of Oromia, chances are high that the country is drifting towards the unknown.
Moreover, the Sidama statehood success could also inspire a major push by other groups, like the Wolqayt and Raya Amharas, who are demanding for self-determination votes. They seek to join another region (Amhara) given identity, language similarities, and based on historical foundations to their demands.
Such trend is indicative of a weakening central government and reinforces the idea that ethnocentric views have now become mainstream characters of Ethiopian politics. Adding to this, the recent revelation that the Tigrayan region is also considering to defy the federal government by even considering the establishment of a de facto state, one could argue that Ethiopian politics is more tense today that ever before.
Read more: Explainer: why Ethiopia's federal system is deeply flawed
What next for the country
Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy has done well when it comes to the ways he handled the Sidama statehood demand. Of course, the violence from a few months ago and the death of citizens could have been prevented. However, in the face of an increasingly militant Ethiopian public, keeping a tight grip on security has been challenging.
There are still many challenges to his leadership, as well as the ruling party’s grip on power. One is that ethno-nationalist activists and groups are attempting to form a coalition (still theoretical) to bring down his government.
Abiy and his allies are trying to stay one step ahead. There are reports that they are working to unify the parties that make up the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition. The aim appears to be to end the front and make way for a new party called Prosperity Party.
Ethiopia’s politics over almost the last three decades is the coalition’s politics. Every single event and issue within the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front can benefit or hurt Ethiopia. But with this new attempt to create a unified party, I believe that Abiy and his allies are doing Ethiopia a huge favour.
A new unified party would mean that decision making systems within the party hierarchy could be more centralised. This would make it easier to address security and stability concerns across Ethiopia’s federation.
Until now, the fact that each regional state is administered by a single ethnic party has made it difficult for the federal government to be assertive over some critical issues. The new, Prosperity Party, once realised, could change that.