ETHIOPIA’S LEADER FACES INCREASING CALLS FOR ETHNIC AUTONOMY AS SIDAMA PEOPLE GO TO POLLS
▶ Nobel Prize-winner Abiy Ahmed has spent months dealing with other minorities’ bids for sovereignty
Ethiopians living in a region of the country dominated by the Sidama people voted yesterday in a referendum that could carve out a new state in a nation already struggling with community tensions.
With heavy security on the streets, the mood yesterday in the regional capital Hawassa appeared to be calm.
But the Sidama’s push for autonomy triggered days of unrest in July in which dozens were killed, prompting the government to place the southern region under the control of soldiers and federal police.
“The Sidama referendum is an expression of the democratisation path Ethiopia has set out on,” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said, as he urged everyone to “engage peacefully throughout the process”.
People began to gather at polling stations during the night; about 2.3 million citizens were registered to vote.
“This is a special day for me,” said Fitsum Anbese, 32, a laboratory technician, who started queuing to vote two hours before daybreak, when polls opened. “I will be recognised for my identity, so I’m happy.”
“The excitement of waiting for this day, which will bring liberty and peace to my people, kept me awake,” said Fantahun Hatiso, 27, after voting.
With apparently overwhelming support among the Sidama to form their own state, people said they were keen to see a peaceful vote. Many fear the sterner test will come once the final results are announced.
The referendum on autonomy springs from a federal system designed to provide widespread ethnic self-rule in a hugely diverse country, Africa’s second most populous, with more than 100 million people.
At present, Ethiopia is partitioned into nine semi-autonomous regional states – with the Sidama voting for a potential 10th.
The constitution requires the government to organise a referendum for any ethnic group that wants to form a new entity.
The Sidama – who number more than three million – have agitated for years to leave the diverse Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region.
The dream gained momentum after Abiy Ahmed, winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, took office last year.
At least 10 other groups in the south of the country have already launched plans for self-determination similar to that of the Sidama.
Analysts fear it could unleash further ethnic violence.
Mr Abiy has spent recent months trying to reduce other statehood attempts, pleading for patience in meetings with leaders of different communities trying to follow the Sidama example.
If, as many expect, the people in Sidama choose to form a new state, the implementation of the referendum is expected to raise several thorny issues.
Sometimes deadly unrest has followed and tensions could rise before national elections in May. Observers say this poses Mr Abiy’s greatest challenge.
The prime minister encourages national unity over an emphasis on ethnic identity to help prevent the eruption of old grievances. Mr Abiy yesterday called for calm and Amnesty International urged the authorities to prevent any use of excessive force.
“The referendum comes at an especially tense time when violence based on ethnic differences is breaking out all over the country and people are being killed simply for expressing their opinions,” Amnesty’s deputy director for the region, Seif Magango, said.
The Wolaita and Kaffa peoples, also in southern Ethiopia, have already requested autonomy but it is not clear whether similar votes will take place.
“It won’t be smooth sailing,” legal expert Kiya Tsegaye said.
“If and when Sidama becomes a regional state, it will have its own budget and special police forces, meaning there is a risk of confrontation when it comes to disputed border areas.”
Mr Abiy encourages national unity over ethnic identity to help prevent the eruption of old grievances
One major sticking point is the status of Hawassa, which the Sidama are eyeing as the capital of their would-be state.
The city of more than 300,000 people is ethnically diverse – only about half the population is Sidama – and up to now has served as the administrative centre for the entire southern region.
Preliminary results from the poll are expected today.
Birhannesh Chilota, 30, comes out of the secret voting booth after casting her ballot during the Sidama autonomy referendum in Hawassa, Ethiopia