Ethiopia’s upcoming referendum on self-determination for its ethnic Sidama community has been dominated by headlines of violence and civil unrest. Since July, at least 40 people have died in clashes between state security forces and activists in Southern Ethiopia. The country’s leaders have historically struggled with the challenge of providing equally effective government to such a diverse population. So where does the latest chapter in this story leave Ethiopian aspirations of stability?
THE ETHIOPIAN STATE
Ethiopia is home to 110 million people who make up over 80 ethnic groups. Their right to self-determination is provided for by Article 39 of the Ethiopian constitution. Because of this, the country is divided into nine ethnically-based and politically autonomous regional states.
Political autonomy is basically the ability to be self-governed. These states therefore have their own democratically elected councils to direct internal affairs and their own police forces to maintain law and order.
The state’s commitment to self-determination means that the Ethiopian government must hold a referendum within a year if it receives a request from any ethnic group which wishes to form a separate state.
THE SIDAMA CAUSE
The Sidama population is the fifth largest ethnic group and largely resides in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s (SNNP) region. Taking inspiration from the other four largest ethnic groups which have their own recognised regional state, Sidama activists submitted a request for a referendum shortly after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was elected in April 2018.
The deadline for the government to deliver on their promise of a referendum passed on July 18 this year, prompting a sharp rise in violent disorder in the region as activists await the referendum which is currently scheduled for November 20, 2019.
This movement is led by groups such as the Sidama Liberation Movement, who believe regional autonomy would be beneficial to their community. Social and economic development could benefit from this reform, as the Sidama people would be more able to implement policies which truly serve their best interests.
THE THREAT THE STABILITY
However, the practical realities of this process are proving to be quite damaging to the federal government’s attempts at asserting its authority. Since 2018, at least 8 other ethnic groups have voiced their own desires for greater autonomy. This has fragmented the nation across regional and cultural lines.
3 million people have been forced to leave their homes due to ethnic violence – more than anywhere else in the world. This is aggravated by the degree of autonomy that certain regions have been able to establish, provoking fears that the central authority of the government is too weak to provide effective control over more powerful states such as Amhara and Tigray.
Although many people sympathise with the desire for native ethnic groups to have a greater say in their governance, the destabilising consequences of regional fragmentation highlight the need for politicians to find solutions that preserve the authority of their governments.