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Editorial: Despite visible red flags, gov’t goes ahead with birthing a new region. Time to pause and reevaluate plans!

Addis Abeba – On 29 November 2022, senior regional officials, led by Ristu Yirdaw, president of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s (SNNP) regional state, convened in Butajira City, one of the major administrative centers of the Gurage Zone in SNNP located about 120 kilometers South-Southwest of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Abeba, and quietly endorsed a plan to carve out a new regional state called ‘Central Ethiopia Regional State’

The officials cited a prior decision from Ethiopia’s House of Federation (HoF) as having endorsed the merging of five zones and one Special Woreda in the SNNP region as the basis of their decision. According to them, the decision by the HoF sets the direction for Gurage, Hadia, Silte, Kembata Tmbaro and Halaba zones, as well as the Yem special Woreda to be “organized into one region.”

But since then, there is no publicly available document issued by the HoF, nor was there a request sent to the Ethiopian National Election Board (ENBE) to hold a formal referendum to decide on the creation of the said ‘Central Ethiopia Regional State.’

the unilateral decision by the authorities does not only constitute a clear constitutional transgression, but also undermines the basic principles of democracy, human rights, and social stability that the people of the five zones and one special woreda yearn for

From the get go, the announcement by the SNNP senior officials was deeply problematic not least because none of the zonal and the special woreda councils knew about the decision, much less hold a referendum, which is the constitutionally recognized mechanism of creating new regional states or zonal and woreda level reorganizations.

What makes it more problematic is the fact that regional officials, with the green light from the federal government, used the opportunity of earlier decision by the HoF to hold a separate referendum in Wolaita, Gamo, Gofa, South Omo, Konso and Gedeo zones, as well as Derashe, Amaro, Burji, Ale, and Basketo special woredas of the SNNP region in order to reconstitute them into a new regional state called “South Ethiopia Regional State.” The regional authorities decided it was the best opportune moment to take the short cut and tag along the birth of another state, a flagrant disregard to a constitutional procedure in the already troubled SNNP regional state.

Needless to say, the unilateral decision by the authorities does not only constitute a clear constitutional transgression, but also undermines the basic principles of democracy, human rights, and social stability that the people of the five zones and one special woreda yearn for.

In their quest for the right to self administration, something that is enshrined in the Ethiopian multinational constitution, the people of Gurage through their zonal council, were among the first of eleven national groups in the SNNP to have  unanimously voted for the establishment of a separate Gurage regional state as far back as November 2018. Since then however, their demands were met with state-sanctioned brutality and suppression, marked by the killing, maiming, jailing and forced disappearance, among others, of community leaders, activists, journalists and politicians. Despite the incessant crackdowns, the Gurage people’s demand is far from over.

Similarly, over the past several weeks, the people of Hadia, Silte, Kembata and Tmbaro and Halaba zones have been voicing their protests over proposed plans of distribution of administrative offices between major cities in the respective zones.

Regardless of these visible red flags however, preparations by local authorities to launch the establishing convention of the new “Central Ethiopia Regional State” are finalized and a date is set for today, Friday 18 August, for the convention to take place in Wolkite city of the Gurage zone.  

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The convention is expected to pass decisions on the proposed distribution of administrative offices between major cities in the respective zones as well as related regional state structures.

the decision to birth a regional state without the full consent of the people to be incorporated in it in a region that has already been neglected even in the best of times will exacerbate existing communal, religious, or cultural tensions within the diverse communities

This is a recipe for future conflicts for multiple reasons.

First, a regional state that is not formed with the consent of the people lacks legitimacy. leading to a lack of trust in the government, which can result in unrest and challenges to its authority.

Second, such unilateral top-down decision constitute a clear violation of the fundamental principles of human rights enshrined in Ethiopia’s constitution. It is a universal truth that state structures formed in such a manner often fail to prioritize the rights and freedoms of their citizens as they are not accountable to the people, resulting in authoritarian rule, censorship, discrimination, and other abuses of power.

Third, it reflects a glaring disrespect for the the people’s interests and needs in these zones, leading to policies that don’t address the concerns and aspirations of the respective communities, ultimately breeding discontent and social divisions.

Combined, the decision to birth a regional state without the full consent of the people to be incorporated in it in a region that has already been neglected even in the best of times will exacerbate existing communal, religious, or cultural tensions within the diverse communities. Different groups might end up being more marginalized and excluded from the decision-making processes, making the new region prone to violence more complex than addressing the concerns today.

Under Ethiopia’s current federalism dispensation, consent is listed as a fundamental principle of group and individual rights for a just and democratic political community.

It is important both for the federal and the SNNP regional governments to pause the push now and to reevaluate the decision in order to ensure that the birth of a new regional state leads to a more just, stable, and peaceful state than to serve as another catalyst for a potential conflict in the making among communities who have asked nothing but their constitutionally guaranteed rights to self-administer. AS

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