The Sidama Question, Democratic Self-determination and Federalism
By Makonnen Tesfaye
Tigrai Online, July 24, 2019
1. The Sidama Quest for Regional Statehood
The manner of the handling and the brutal attack on Sidama people’s aspiration and constitutional right for a Regional Statehood is yet another major milestone of the Abiy Government’s systematic onslaught on democracy, self-determination and federalism in Ethiopia. The fifth biggest nationality in Ethiopia, the Sidama people’s quest for a Regional Status is completely in line with the Constitutional requirements and has been sanctioned both by the SPNNP Regional Government and the Sidama Zone parliament; and having submitted a written request and only waiting for a referendum to validate the wish of the Sidama people. Sub-article 3 of Article 47 of the Constitution of the FDRE stipulates that:
“The right of any Nation, Nationality or People to form its own state is exercisable under the following procedures: a) when the demand for statehood has been approved by a two-third majority of the members of the Council of the Nation, Nationality or People concerned and the demand is presented in writing to the State council; b) when the Council that received the demand has organised a referendum within one year to be held in the Nation, Nationality or People that made the demand; c) when the demand for statehood is supported by a majority vote of the Nation, Nationality or People in the referendum; d) when the State Council will have transferred its powers to the Nation, Nationality or People that made the demand; and e) when the new state created by the referendum, without any need for application, directly becomes a member of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.” (Source: The Constitution of FDRE).
Hence, the Constitution couldn’t be any clearer. The Sidama people, in requesting statehood, have followed the letter and spirit of the Constitution. All they have been waiting for (more than a year now) is for the Government to undertake the referendum within the time permitted by the Constitution.
Yet, the Abiy Government paid scant attention to the rightful demand of the Sidama people, if anything, whilst falsely appearing to acknowledge the rights, threatened to use force. This was exceedingly insensitive and provocative to the Sidama people, in particular the youth, who had thought that an Oromo PM would consider their demand duly and respectfully. In fact, the PM in his most recent report to Parliament laid down conditionalities that are fundamentally unconstitutional. These include the readiness of the Electoral Commission and implications of other Nations, Nationalities or People making similar demands for statehood. Why should not other nationalities demand regional statehood if they so wish? Notwithstanding the administrative and non-administrative complexities involved in the creation of regional states, there are likely to be many but not necessarily unsurmountable, the critical and paramount consideration is the imperative of addressing democratic and constitutional rights. The defining political and ideological divide in class and national struggle in Ethiopia over the last fifty years has been and will continue to be whether to respect national self-determination, including and up to secession, or not, let alone requesting a regional statehood, which is a lower threshold of democratic aspiration.
The Head of the Electoral Commission (appointed by the PM) led by the former Kinigit Deputy Chair Person (who sought and failed to undermine the Democratic Federal order in 2005) sent an 11th hour letter to the Sidama people telling them their plan to hold a referendum in six months’ time. Is it better late than never? Why an 11th hour letter? Is this not but disrespectful and out of fear that the Sidama people would declare their statehood unilaterally? At any rate the outcome is what we have witnessed in Sidama in the past few days, the brutal suppression and mayhem in the Sidama Zone where dozens of people have been killed by the Federal and Regional military forces. Whilst not condoning any possible ethnic targeting or unlawful acts that might have been perpetrated (there are unsubstantiated and skewed reports that suggested so, but must be condemned if proven) the principal blame must be directed at the PM Abiy’s Government that ignored and provoked the Sidama people and youth for requesting their constitutional right to statehood. What is shameful and disrespectful is the PM’s absence from the country when he perfectly anticipated (and planned the response) what was likely to happen when he was away from the country. The PM pretends to be a peace-maker, negotiator or consensus-builder in his grandstanding in Sudanese affairs or showboating in Eritrea, but where was he when Sidama was hurting and burning? I think we all know by now that there is a method in his thinking and behaviour, which is to stir trouble or avoid difficult but necessary domestic decisions and run and look from the out-side the consequences of his actions or inactions. Consistent with his misdemeanour, “I told you mentality” and political make-up, as during the Gedeo tragedy and Benishangul-Gumuz massacre, there were no words of condolence from the PM to the Sidama people or statement to the Ethiopian people as would be expected from a national leader. The reason is clear, why associate himself with troubles and mayhems that taint his political image, in particular in front of foreign onlookers who are his prime audience.
Interestingly, where was the so called “Ejetto-Querro” solidarity and Jawar Mohammed’s opportunist posturing, or the bankrupt “Cushite Politics” in Sidama in their hour of need? In contrast, the OLF must be commended for their steadfast and principled support of the Sidama people’s democratic and constitutional right for a regional statehood.
2. The Systematic Attack on Self-determination and Federalism
The latest episode of PM Abiy’s attack on the democratic and constitutional rights of the Sidama people for self-determination and democracy is nothing but the continuation of his systematic undermining of the Constitution of the FDRE, and includes:
2.1 Strategic Ambivalence on Self-determination and Federalism
The defining political stand of the PM is a deliberate and strategic ambivalence on self-determination and federalism. This is most expressed by his association and affinity with the anti-democratic, anti-federalist and chauvinist unitarians, which include the likes of Berhanu Nega, former Dergists and feudal aristocrats. His most recent remark in Parliament on Ethiopia’s Federal Constitution is mind boggling for it crassness, shallowness (deliberate vagueness?) and arrogance for failing to understand and articulate its fundamental essence, tenets and purpose. For the PM, federalism is rights that are conferred upon (or withdrawn) top-down by a benevolent central authority, not that it is a bottom-up, voluntary and equal union of sovereign nations and nationalities. The PM does not get the logic of the Constitution, which is that the federal state authority is in essence derived from and is subordinate to the collective sovereignty of the nationalities that create the Federation, and that a central authority does not exist, and has no meaning or power outside the union, and the Federation is expressed as the voluntary union of, by and for the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia.
The most expressive manifestation of PM Abiy Government’s contempt for the federal constitution is his ambivalence and indecision on the forthcoming General Election, which is constitutionally a closed case. One need not have a PhD in political science to see through his political calculation, which is based whether he thinks he can garner a majority to form the next government. Will an alliance of the OPDO/ODP, ANDM/ADP, subservient parties from the other nationalities and “Ethiopian branded” Amhara parties (e.g. Ezema) secure a majority? If not, given the strength of the OLF in Oromia and ANM in the Amhara Region and the unpredictability of political alliances in the other regional parties, the PM will postpone the forthcoming election to buy more time. In other words and in all probability, the PM’s political expediency will trump the Constitution. But, this is not a forgone conclusion.
2.2 The Ethiopian Somali Region
In his most recent speech in Parliament, the PM openly, unashamedly and boastfully confirmed what we had already known, which is that he used force to undermine the constitutionally conferred rights and sovereignty of the Ethiopian Somali people when he used the military to occupy the Region, and abduct and imprison the Regional President contrary to the wish of the Regional parliament, which had the authority to impeach the President if it deemed necessary. The motive of the PM was undoubtly based on his desire punish the Somalis for the Somali-Oromo ethnic clashes (undoubtly there were major crimes and culprits on both sides) and to install a subservient and opportunist Somali leadership that supports his brand of the overarching political agenda of Big Nation Oromo Chauvinism. The PM’s contempt for the sovereignty of the Somali people and Region has the making of the Achilles’ Heel of the Abiy Government in the medium to the long-term unless correctly handled and addressed in time.
2.3 The Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR)
The first act of PM Abiy’s when he assumed power was to systematically undermine the unity and collective strength of the Southern Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement (SEPDM), which has been a major and fundamental pillar of the Ethiopian federal state order. In many respects, the SNNPR is a “mini” Ethiopia state and society with its diverse nationalities and peoples. Yet, it has been undermined by the “Oro-Mara” politics and the machinations of the PM. First, he retired and vanished tested and tried leaders, the likes of Siraj Fergesa and Shiferaw Shigute, on the excuse of bring in new leadership, who for the significant part are subservient to his power politics and scheming. Moreover and more importantly, many are out of their depths with the challenges of managing understandably very complex regional issues, such as the demands for statehood (which are also political, administrative and geographical in nature). Secondly, he has used Machiavellian divide-and-rule politics to render SEPDM inept and powerless. The result has been the current rather sorry state and political limbo of the SEPDM as demonstrated by its mal-handling of the Sidama question and other statehood demands from the nations, nationalities and peoples in the Region, such as the Welaita and Kaffa nationalities. The recent politically and ideologically incoherent statement of the Central Committee of the SEPDM provides yet another clear evidence of its lack of strategic direction, or clarity on organisational and politico-ideological challenges. The question is whether the minority in the SEPDM is in a position to challenge the opportunist wing and rally the front to support self-determination and federalism. Time will tell, but never to underestimate the aspiration and strength of the peoples of the SNNP Region.
2.4 The Tigray Region
The Abiy Government probably feared most the TPLF’s rear-guard actions to defend the Federal Constitution and the sovereignty of the Region. His tactics and strategy are two-pronged. First, federally sponsored attacks on the Region’s political leadership, economic and budgetary pressure, and poisonous propaganda directed at the Tigray regional state and people. The second strand is to condone and encourage Amhara chauvinist threats against the Region, by using unconstitutional devises, such as the Boundary Commission, with the intention of arbitrarily and unconstitutionally altering the regional boundaries. The PM also appears to play a zero-sum game politics from the real as well as manufactured contradictions that exist between the Amhara-Tigray regional leaderships.
2.5 The Amhara Region
Having used the so-called “Oro-Mara” opportunist and “unholy alliance” to subvert and assume power within the EPRDF and the Government, including condoning Amahra chauvinists attacks on the Tigray Region as well as encouraging conflicts between the Regions, the Abiy Government appears to be threatened by the rise of irredentist and supremacist Amhara nationalism of the Genera Asamenew and Eskinder Nega varieties. Moreover, they are increasingly becoming antagonistic to the overarching political agenda of his brand of Big Nation Oromo chauvinism. Hence, the PM’s propensity to interfere in the internal affairs of the Amhara Region (e.g. in the appointment of the new Regional President?), the outcomes of which are difficult to predict, but yet to fully unfold.
3. What Next?
Lacking a solid social and electoral base in Oromia (unlike the OLF), and by allying with the ANDM/ADP that also lacks social base and political support in the Amhara Region (unlike the ANM) and with anti-federalists unitarians, the PM is knowingly or unknowingly leading the country on a trajectory of regime-failure, which is exactly their stated goal. Their first option is for the Abiy Government to fail. Their strategic objectives are to postpone the coming General Election, call for a “Transitional Government” and annul the Constitution. These are with a view to ultimately setting up a unitarian, One Nation-One Language-One Religion hegemonic Ethiopian state.
What is very important and a burning question now is for democratic federalist forces, such as the OLF and the TPLF, to form strategic alliances and not to wait passively for the PM to unilaterally determine the future of federalism and the nature of the Ethiopian state - the outcome of which will determine the survival and political cohesion of the country and the gains of self-determination and federalism. The only other second-best alternatives are likely to be the demands for political secession, or a confederal association by a multitude of nations and nationalities, because a return to Ethiopia as a prison of oppressed nationalities and peoples is a completely unacceptable solution in our time.
It is time that democrats, federalists and progressives express their solidarity with the Sidama people and demand that the Federal Government respect their constitutional rights for a Regional Statehood by holding a referendum without ifs and buts.