Activists in Ethiopia were set to declare a new region for the Sidama ethnic group in defiance of central government, with some residents of southern city of Hawassa worried it could lead to violence.
The declaration will be a litmus test of whether Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal government can maintain its commitment to peaceful political reforms in the face of increasing demands from competing ethno-nationalist groups.
“Red berets, regional special police force are patrolling with grim faces and guns pointed. Special forces can be seen in all corners and small streets,” one resident in Hawassa told Reuters.
Some friends were so concerned violence would erupt on Thursday they sent wives and children to Addis Ababa, he added.
The federal system in Africa’s second most populous nation is designed to allow larger ethnic groups a degree of autonomy.
Smaller groups such as the Sidama, who make up about 5% of Ethiopia’s 105 million people, say they have been sidelined. In addition to the Sidama, at least eight more ethnic groups are campaigning for own regions.
Hawassa city is capital of the multi-ethnic southern nations region, but some Sidama – who make up the largest group in the region – claim it as capital of their own new region.
Fasika Qedele, another Hawassa resident, said it was time for the Sidama people to achieve self-rule.
“The Sidama people lived under repression for years and years. Now we are super excited as we are on the eve of declaration of self-administration,” he said, adding the people had capacity and an educated workforce to do this.
On Wednesday, Hawassa streets were unusually quiet apart from federal police patrols.
Outside the airport, freshly painted signs announced “Welcome to Sidama National Regional State”.
A planning meeting between elders and activists to decide on a course of action became heated. Reuters journalists were asked to leave for what some activists said was their own safety.
Other activists said government would lose legitimacy if it responded to the declaration with violence.
“I don’t think government would opt to dismantle itself by resolving to use force,” said Tariku Lema, a youth activist. “If government pursues this track, people will accelerate the struggle.”
On Tuesday, the National Election Board tried to defuse the situation by promising the Sidama a referendum on their own region within five months.
Activists said they requested a referendum a year ago with no response. The constitution guarantees the right to a referendum within a year, but does not say what should happen if it is not held.
Tariku, the Sidama activist, said minorities would be protected in the new region like all other Ethiopians.
“As citizens, they would be entitled to all social and democratic rights in the constitution,” he told Reuters.
Ethiopia has seen an explosion of violence since Abiy began his reforms, which included unbanning political parties, releasing political prisoners and welcoming home rebel groups.
More than 2.4 million Ethiopians fled due to drought or violence, the UN said, making it the country with the highest number of displaced people in the world.