Confrontation in Ethiopia avoided for the present

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A potentially bloody confrontation between Ethiopia’s federal government and a minority community was averted when a political party postponed plans to set up a new region for the Sidama in defiance of central authorities.

Emboldened by political reforms introduced by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Sidama activists announced they would unilaterally declare a new regional state on Thursday.

This would have been an addition to Ethiopia’s existing nine ethnic-based regional states, overseen by the federal government with autonomy over revenues and security forces.

A government crackdown on the activists could have resulted in widespread violence undoing political and economic freedoms Abiy permitted in what was once one of the continent’s most repressive nations.

If government acceded, it could appear weak at a time when ethnic violence is increasing and encourage other ethnic groups who are making similar demands and complain their communities have long been marginalised.

Ethiopia’s 100 million citizens come from dozens of ethnic groups with competing claims to land, resources and influence.

The showdown was averted when the Sidama Liberation Movement, which represents some Sidama, said it accepted a last minute offer from government for a referendum within five months.

The Sidama demanded a referendum a year ago on the question of a new regional state – a right enshrined by the constitution – and announced plans to declare their region when it was not held within the stipulated timeline.

“Now the most important thing is peace for our people,” Million Tumato, president of the Sidama Liberation Movement, told Reuters. “Still the five month timeline is not specific as it doesn’t indicate when the referendum will take place.”

Almost all shops were shut and few cars were on the streets in Hawassa, 275 km from Addis Ababa, on Thursday as protesters wearing traditional red, white and yellow striped Sidama scarves and hats marched to a planned meeting of Sidama elders and youth.

PEOPLE’S PATIENCE “TESTED”

Activists said security forces prevented them and mobile data was blocked, possibly to impair communication.

Youth activist Tariku Lemma said security forces dispersed protesters firing guns and teargas and two people were wounded. The widespread clashes that shuttered the city and prompted some to send families away did not materialise.

Authorities had no immediate comment on the situation in Hawassa.

“After today’s violence, the Sidama situation looks like another major challenge for a government struggling to manage transition and create conditions for elections next May,” William Davison, an analyst from Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said.

There is a risk of violence escalating as young activists react angrily to Thursday’s events and attempt to push through self-declaration of Sidama region rather than wait for a referendum, he added.

Another official from the Sidama Liberation Movement said the showdown could have been avoided if government made its offer earlier.

“It tested people’s patience. We could have avoided this situation had they acted a week ago,” said Dukale Lamiso, the movement’s chairman. “Nonetheless, we accept the timeline and are ready to co-operate.”

Some activists still want to make the declaration of a 10th Ethiopian region.

“Sidama has put up its own flag and declared it is a regional state. The voice of the people should be respected,” said Samuel Belayneh, a youth activist.

Hawassa is capital of the multi-ethnic Southern Nations region but some Sidama – who make up the largest group in the region – want it as capital of their own entity.

The federal system in Africa’s second most populous country is meant to allow larger ethnic groups some autonomy. Smaller communities such as the Sidama say they have been sidelined and some demand their own regions.