Ethiopia’s destabilising regional frictions may worsen if the small Sidama ethnic group carries out a threat to unilaterally declare a new semi-autonomous region in defiance of the federal government, a global think-tank said.
The Sidama, about five percent of Ethiopia’s 105 million people and are largest of more than six ethnic groups in the Southern Nations region, say they will declare their own region on July 18 unless granted a referendum.
Ethiopia has nine regional states, mainly along ethnic lines, with considerable autonomy which the Sidama also want.
They are emboldened by a more open political climate – and a weaker ruling coalition – since reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in April 2018 and eased the iron first of his predecessors.
That brought a surge of long-repressed rivalries between Ethiopia’s 80 plus ethnic groups to the fore, forcing 2.4 million people from their homes and killing hundreds, according to the UN and monitoring groups.
The Crisis Group, which seeks to reduce conflicts worldwide, said acceding to the Sidama could encourage other groups to follow suit and cause more chaos.
Blocking them could bring mass protests that may turn lethal in Ethiopia’s volatile and violent climate. “All options for managing the Sidama statehood demands come with risks,” it said, criticising government neglect of the issue.
While Abiy has been widely praised for freeing prisoners and easing restrictions, troubles in the regions brought global concern for future prospects of a regional powerhouse with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
Last month, the security chief in Amhara region led what federal government described as a failed coup attempt in which dozens of people, including five top officials, were killed.
Abiy addressed the Sidama issue in parliament saying government received their referendum request.
He urged patience and warned against “unlawful” action.
“Government will not bargain away the unity of Ethiopia,” he said.
Reforms and regional muscle-flexing weakened his ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which faced down years of protests and unrest before appointing him.
Ethiopia’s constitution guarantees all ethnic groups the right to vote on forming a new regional state if their leaders request one, as the Sidama did on July 18, 2018.
Achieving that status would gain them rights to levy some taxes, choose their official language, run their own security force and pass laws on issues including education and land administration.
Sidama activists held a rally in Hawassa, capital of Southern Nations region and the city they want as their capital.
“The people have decided and we are making preparations,” said activist Tessema Elias (33) an assistant professor of law at Hawassa University.
“Government simply has to recognise us and if they refuse to, this will lead to a crisis.”
Crisis Group said at least eight more ethnic groups are campaigning for region status. There was no immediate response to a request to Abiy’s office for comment on the report.