In brief

Ethiopia: Sidama people test ethnic federalism, right to self-determination

New federal state to be unilaterally declared if referendum is not organized

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Author: Office of the Prime Minister of Ethiopia
Authorities of the Sidama people are set to unilaterally proclaim the birth of the Sidama state 18 July after Ethiopia has not organized a referendum that has been officially demanded for almost a year now, the right of self-determination being officially recognized in the Constitution. The new state would be part of federal Ethiopia. But consequences could spill over the region’s borders into the rest of the country, which is immersed in a process of deep political change.

4-million strong Sidama are the largest people in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR), one of the nine states that make up the Ethiopian federation. The 21 Sidama-majority districts voted 18 July 2018 for a referendum to be organized with the goal of becoming the tenth federal state of Ethiopia. The Constitution of Ethiopia gives each people the right to establish its own federal state if it so wishes. It also allows each federated state to become independent from Ethiopia. The system is known as “ethnic federalism”.

Neither the regional nor the federal authorities have called the referendum on Sidama demands, which should have been held within a maximum period of one year. The Sidama leaders now say they will unilaterally proclaim their state. Other peoples within the SNNPR, like the Wolayta, are considering following the Sidama in the demand of a state of their own.

A Crisis Group report recommends Ethiopian authorities to accept that the Sidama-inhabited area will become the country’s tenth federal state and to negotiate with their leaders a referendum date. The report suggests that, in exchange, Sidama leaders should not proclaim their state 18 July 18 or, if they do so, not try to implement it unilaterally. The think tank fears that the issue leads the SNNPR —where one fifth of Ethiopia’s more than 100 million people live— to “turmoil” that could “complicate” Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s reform agenda.

In the long run, Ethiopia falling into destabilization has the potential to facilitate the re-emergence of secessionist demands, as it has happened in the past in Tigray, Oromia or the Somali region.