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Wolaytta’s Quest for Democracy, Self-determination and Statehood

By Makonnen Tesfaye
Tigrai Online Dec. 3, 2019

the peaceful, democratic and constitutional demand of the Wolaytta people for statehood must be supported by all democratic and peace-loving people.

“Hayseyana” (We will make history in Wolaytta Language). The peaceful, democratic and constitutional demand of the Wolaytta people for statehood must be supported by all democratic and peace-loving people.

  1. Introduction and Context

1.1 Wolaytta with its capital Wolaytta Sodo is one of the fifteen Zones in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR), the seventh biggest nationality in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) with a population, projected on the 2007 CSA Census, of 2,473,190 in 2017. Other “estimates” are much higher. The “official” demographic data of the nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia needs to be read with a great deal of caveat and caution given they are highly biased, politicised and manipulated against the smaller nationalities and peoples in the Federation, which is consistent with the legacy of hegemonist politics and national oppression in the country and the preponderance of power pertaining to the allocation of federal resources based on population size.


1.2 The Wolaytta nationality makes up 96.31% of the residents of the Zone where 96.82% speak the Wolaytta language. Overwhelmingly Christian, 71.34% are Protestants, 21% Orthodox Tewahedo and 5.35% Catholic. According to the Wolaytta Development Agency (WODA), human capital development, sustainable livelihood security and access to integrated health are the main developmental objectives of the people in the Wolaytta Zone. The Gilgel Gibe III Dam on the Omo River borders the Zone generating 1,870 Megawatt of electric power, the third largest hydroelectric plant in Africa. With Wolaytta Sodo University and its Teaching Referral Hospital situated in the Zone, it is home to the famous Wolaytta Dicha S.C. football club based in Sodo, who were the Champion of the Ethiopian Premiership League Football Competition in 2017.

1.3 The Wolaytta nationality are a proud people who had a distinct, continuous, strong and independent kingdoms going back to the 13th Century and beyond to the first Millennium until it was finally and brutally crushed in 1886 by Emperor Menelik’s expansionist occupation after heroic war of resistance that lasted 7 years. The war of resistance led by the last Kawo (King) of Wolaytta has been described by the historian Bahru Zewde as ‘one of the bloodiest campaigns of the whole period of expansion’, which resulted in the incorporation of the Wolaytta Kingdom, as other nationalities and peoples in the South, into the Ethiopian Empire. “The Wolaita military resistance and repulsion of Menelik’s generals repeated aggressions, which were armed with modern firearms with backward traditional weapons for more than seven years, showed the strength of Wolaita military organization and the people. The Wolaita’s resistance was finally crushed and incorporated into Ethiopian empire in 1896 after the bloodiest war under the command ship of Emperor Menelik himself and the participation of more than ten of his most experienced generals and army that was armed with sophisticated and advanced guns. This proved how much the kingdom’s military organization was strong except for lack of guns” (Solomon Berhe Tedla et al. The Kingdom of Wolaita (Ethiopia): Military Organization and War, To 1894 Galore International Journal of Applied Sciences and Humanities (www.gijash.com) 12 Vol.2; Issue: 2; April-June 2018). The Wolaytta nationality and people, like the other nationalities in the South, West and East of the country, were subjected to Amhara ruling classes’ Neftegna political economy order characterised by brute Feudal-Military Occupation and a mode of production and relations based on extractive and absentee landlord serfdom.


1.4 Despite the centuries-old oppression, the Wolaytta people have a distinct national identity (i.e. language, culture and traditions, history, psychological make-up and a contiguous geography) that define them and make them distinct from other nationalities and people in Ethiopia. With long and rich history, the Wolaytta people play a significant role in the politics and economy of Ethiopia and culturally as providers of influential national music, dance and cuisine in the country.

1.5 The Wolaytta people’s resistance and struggle against the Feudo-Monarchical and Military Dictatorship regimes for economic and political emancipation over 90 years and against the anti-democratic and anti-federalist machinations (e.g. denying nationality statehood) of the EPRDF/SEPDM regime over twenty years epitomise their enduring and uninterrupted struggle for democracy and self-determination.

  1. Wolaytta’s Constitutional Demand for Statehood.

2.1 The defeat of the Military Dictatorship in 1991 and the establishment of the FDRE and the Federal Constitution in 1995 ushered in a new era of unprecedented national self-determination (i.e. autonomy in self-governance, territorial regions, recognition of national identities and languages) peace and stability, economic development and relative democracy in the country over 27 years. These have been defining success stories despite significant and serious deficits in democracy and governance, economic injustice, corruption, rent-seeking and the uneven and unjust implementation of some of the provisions of the Federal Constitutions, in particular pertaining to nationalities demands for statehoods.

2.2 During the 1991-94 Transitional Government period, the Wolaytta nationality was combined in Kilil 9 with Gamo, Gofa, Dawro and others with the capital city in Arba Minch. Subsequently and following the establishment of the FDRE in 1995, Wolaytta was included within the newly created SNNPR (comprising Kilils 7,8,9,10,11) as one of the 54 nationalities that made up the Region. Notwithstanding the “pragmatism” of the administrative imperatives and some semblance of “consultation” that informed the formation of the Region by political elites, the configuration of the SNNPR has not been based on clearly expressed democratic wishes and consultation of the nationalities concerned. Moreover, over the years the constitutional demand of the Wolaytta people (including demands from other nationalities) for statehood has been unjustly and illegally ignored by successive EPRDF governments, in particular the SEPDM, the Region’s ruling party. The stifling of constitutional and democratic rights of nations, nationalities and peoples for statehood is contrary to the Sub-Article 3 of Article 47 and by extension Sub-Articles 1-5 of Article 39 of the Constitution of the FDRE.

2.3 The SNNPR Government  did not even considered the Wolaytta nationality as having a distinct language, which led to widespread protests by all social strata of the Wolaytta population in 1998 that eventually resulted in Wolaytta having a  zonal status and the recognition of its distinct language  in November 2000,


2.4 The constitutional rights of the Wolaytta people for statehood has gathered momentum in the recent years, where following widespread consultation held at all levels the proposal to establish a Wolaytta Regional State was approved. The Zonal Council unanimously voted to demand statehood, and consistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution sent a formal letter on 19 December 2018 to the SNNPR Government requesting a referendum. When the demand was ignored and to reinforce the their demand, the Wolaytta people staged peaceful and legal demonstrations, the biggest of which was the rally held in Sodo City on 17 March 2019. “YELEGA”, which is an “All Wolaytta Youth Movement”, and the Wolaytta Teachers Association, in unison with people, are playing leading roles in the quest for Wolaytta statehood.

2.5 The FDRE Constitution stipulates that demand for statehood is concluded with a referendum within a year of a formal request, and yet the SNNPR Government as of today, 3 December 2019, has not even bothered to reply to the peoples’ formal request let alone organise a referendum. This shows the totally and utterly anti-constitutional, anti-democratic and anti-federalist stance of the SNNPR Government, which has been usurped by the unitarian and hegemonists faction, led by the supremely political opportunist and reactionary Muferiat Kamil, Chairwoman within the now defunct governing party, the Southern Ethiopian Democratic Movement (SEPDM).

  1. The Historic Betrayal of the Self-determination of the Southern Ethiopian Nationalities by the SEPDM and the “Federal” Government.

3.1 Upon his assumption of power, the PM began to systematically undermine the unity and collective strength of the SEPDM, which was one of the constituent parties in the now defunct EPRDF. He banished tried and tested leaders on the pretext of bring-in new leadership, who for the significant part are totally subservient to his political machinations and anti- federalist political agenda. Many of the leaders of SEPDM are out of their depths in managing the understandably complex regional issues, such as the demands for statehood. However, instead of addressing the paramount issues of democracy and constitutional rights, they were side-tracked by political opportunism as well as by the administrative implications of the creation of regional states, which are of second-order magnitude in political significance in comparison. The PM’s Machiavellian divide-and-rule politics has rendered SEPDM inept and powerless, resulting in the opportunists taking over the party. The failure of the SEPDM is expressly shown by its inept and mal-handling of statehood demands from nationalities in the SNNPR and its historically shameful betrayal of the self-determination of the Southern Ethiopian nationalities.

3.2 The present state of emergency in the SNNPR (dressed-up as military command posts) signifies, for all intents and purposes, the take-over of the SNNPR by the Government. The SEPDM has completely lost its authority and legitimacy as the democratic voice of the peoples of its Region by becoming an instrument and facilitator of this treacherous act against its own peoples. The shameful collaboration with the PM in the declaration of State of Emergency and in joining the “Ethiopian Prosperity Party”, an anti-federalist, hegemonist and totalitarian (Medemer) movement, is the ultimate act of betrayal and the final nail in the coffin of the SEPDM.

  1. What is to be Done - The EPRDF and SEPDM are Dead and Long-live Democratic Federalism.

4.1 First and foremost, the peaceful, democratic and constitutional demand of the Wolaytta people for statehood must be supported by all democratic and peace-loving people. If and when the deadline for the conduct of the referendum expires on 17 December 2019 and should the Wolaytta people choose to unilaterally declare their Zone as an autonomous region, it must be supported peacefully, legally and constitutionally, since the only authority that is breaking the rule-of-law and the Constitution is the Federal Government.

4.2 Second and similarly, the demands for statehood by the nationalities of Keffa, Gamo, Gofa,  Kembata, Gurage, Silt’e and Hadiya as well as other nationalities must be equally and resolutely be supported as a matter of principle and legal rights.

4.3 Third, the illegal misuse of the power of state of emergency by the Government to undermine and supress the constitutionally enshrined democratic rights of self-determination must be condemned by all peace-loving, democratic and federalist forces. Furthermore, the state of emergency needs to be lifted so that the people can express and exercise their full rights, in particular close to the Election, if ever it is held as scheduled. The PM’s calculation is to limit or deny nationality statehood demands (which are being led by supporters of the Federal Constitution) this side of the Election so that it does not affect the balance of federalist and unitarian forces in the Legislature, in particular in the House of Federation, since 2/3 majority in both Houses is necessary to amend some of the Articles of the Constitution.

4.4 Fourth, even in the events of the declaration of legitimate state of emergencies, it is important to recognise that the rights of self-determination, as stipulated in Articles 39 and 47, cannot be limited or suspended even under a state of emergency according to the Ethiopian Constitution. Therefore, the peaceful and lawful demands for regional statehood must continue to be supported. For example, as expressed by the steadfast and principled support for the Sidama people’s quest for statehood.

4.5 Fifth, the virulent attack on the democratic demands of the nations, nationalities and peoples of the SNNPR by the chauvinist, anti-democratic and anti-federalist parties (e.g. Ezema, Prosperity Party) and the establishment media (e.g. EBC, Fana, Walta, ESAT and Ethio 360 Media) must be exposed and countered.

4.6 Sixth, the biased reporting, and deliberate miscategorisation and misrepresentation of the democratic demands of the nationalities and peoples in SNNPR by the foreign media must be exposed.  A case in point is the Economist Magazine (July 2019), a leading mouth-piece of right-wing neo-liberalism, which deliberately mischaracterised the demands for regional statehood in the SNNPR as “Ethnic Separatists”. It is a deliberate falsehood because it is widely known that the demands for regional statehood (a lower threshold democratic aspiration) are not demands for political secession (separation), which, at any rate, is a constitutional right enshrined in Article 39 of the FDRE Constitution.

4.7 Finally and more importantly, looking at the big picture and given the PM in league with the anti-federalists is undermining the democratic and federal state order in a piecemeal fashion leading the country to deeper societal and constitutional crisis, only by forging of strategic alliances can the gains of self-determination and democratic federalism are protected and the unity of the country is preserved.

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