Ethiopia: why the Sidama secession demand needs to be negotiated

Young men in the traditional attire of southern Ethiopia’s Sidama people. commons.wikimedia.org

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.

Map of Ethiopia’s semi-autonomous states. Shutterstock

Constitutional amendment

The good thing for the Sidama and others is that the Constitution has kept the door of statehood ajar for ethnic groups wanting to establish a state of their own. Article 47(2) provides ethnic groups the right to establish a state of their own.

All a community needs to do is to show that it has support for its demand. A simple majority vote of the community is enough – or so it would seem. In reality, the process is proving to be much more complicated.

In his recent address to law makers Abiy alluded to the complexity of the problem when he pointed out that a majority vote in favour of statehood might not be sufficient because the constitution only lists nine states that constitute the federation. Getting the prospective state of Sidama onto that list would require a constitutional amendment.

Many, including myself, were quick to dismiss this as an act of legal gymnastics by a Prime Minister who has found himself between a rock and hard place. The Constitution, after all, states that a new state directly becomes a member of the federation without any need for application to join it.

But the prime minister is also correct that the constitutional clause listing the states must be amended if the Sidama’s quest for statehood is to be completed. And this is an amendment that requires the support of the two houses of the federal parliament and the legislative assemblies of at least two-thirds of the states.

One may argue that a suitable referendum result should place an obligation on the member states and the federal government to effect the necessary constitutional amendment. To borrow the famous lines of the Supreme Court of Canada, ‘a clear expression of a will by a clear majority’ of the population of the Sidama to secede from the Southern State should create an obligation on the rest of the country to do what is constitutionally necessary.

But this also poses a potential stumbling block: is it possible to coerce a state from which a territory is seceding – in this case the Southern State – to vote for a constitutional amendment that effectively presents a threat to its territorial integrity? After all, there is no language of obligation in Article 47. In as much as it gives ethnic communities the right to demand internal secession, it does not impose a corresponding duty on the others to accept it.

Even if an obligation exists, I would argue that it is an obligation to negotiate. This means that the concerned parties, including the federal government, the government of the Southern State and the Sidama local governments, must come to the table to negotiate the possibilities and ramifications of a new Sidama state.

That is why, in my view, it was also unconstitutional for members of the Sidama community to unilaterally declare the formation of a new state. Ethiopia’s Constitution is silent on what should be done in the event a state or federal government refusing to entertain a request to secede. But it does subject internal secession to a procedure. This suggests that it does not allow for a unilateral declaration of succession. Further, a federal law requires appeals to be directed to the House of Federation, the body tasked to deal with constitutional disputes.

Negotiating table

All roads, it seems, lead the parties to a negotiating table. It must be admitted that the Sidama’s struggle to have their own state is at a point of no return. The state and federal authorities have now agreed to hold a referendum within the next five months.

Perhaps in the meantime they can engage in a negotiation and deal with many of the questions that remain unanswered. This includes who should be allowed to vote in the referendum, the division of assets and the concerns of individuals that do not belong to the Sidama ethnic group.

Ethiopia is in an extremely fragile political state. It can’t afford the instability and chaos that might follow from the disorderly partitioning of an existing state and a similar push by others. Both state and non-state actors must work towards a cooperative internal secession.

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