Op-ed: The quest for regional nation-statehood in Ethiopia’s defunct SNNP Region: The gap between constitutional principles and praxis

The former SNNP region (Illustration: Addis Standard)

By Milkessa Gemechu, @milkessam

Addis Abeba – Ethiopia announced last month the establishment of two new regional administrations—Southern Ethiopia Region and Central Ethiopia Region—increasing the number of regions in Ethiopia to thirteen. Sidama Region and South West Ethiopia regional states were already formed in 2019 and 2021 respectively.  With the birth of these four regions, the former Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) Regional State officially ceased to exist. In this piece, I discuss the quests and movements for national self-determination in the former SNNP Region (home to 56 national-linguistic groups) and examine how those quests have been handled and responded to by the Prosperity Party (PP) led government.

The right to national self-determination is the main foundational principle of the 1995 federal constitution of Ethiopia. The constitution opens with “We, the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia…” recognizing national groups as the building blocks of the country and thus entrenching them as the ultimate sovereign power holders (see Article 8).  Article 39 provides that “Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession.” National groups are thus granted not only to form their own regional state governments in Ethiopia, but also empowered to declare external self-determination, i.e., statehood. Article 47 provides each national group settling in the original nine regional states with the rights and procedures to establish, at any time, their own regional nation-states: “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-thirds 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 organized 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 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.”  

Thus, the federal constitution clearly stipulates that each national group has the right to form a regional state. Ethiopia is a multinational federation, and the constitution provides for the formation of nation-states at the regional level. For instance, if the Wolaita Nation were given the opportunity to hold a separate referendum, it would have been able to establish a Wolaita Nation-State at the regional level, that would have been completely natural and constitutional.

Based on these constitutional frameworks, since 2018, at least fourteen national groups (Sidama, Kaffa, Gurage, Bench-Maji, Hadiya, Dawro, Gamo, Wolayta, West Omo, Kembata-Tembaro, Gofa, South Omo, Konso and Gedeo) in the defunct SNNP Region were reported to have unanimously voted for separate regional states in their special zonal councils. At the center of the nationalities’ questions to establish national-regional states are the issues of official language, national identity survival, representation and political autonomy, cultural freedom and preservation, access to federal resources and socio-economic development (related to budgets sharing), and others—in short, self-determination. These are natural and constitutional rights of national groups in Ethiopia. These rights are enshrined in the very constitution of the country and the constitution of the SNNP Regional State for that matter.

Except the nation of Sidama, who struggled for over two decades to establish its own national regional state, all national groups in the SNNP Region who requested referendums to create their national-states, are denied their constitutional rights as will be discussed shortly. Initially, the government of Abiy Ahmed was reluctant to hear the national-statehood demands of Sidama. However, his administration was compelled to allow a separate referendum for Sidama after violent clashes between protesters and government forces that began to escalate within the first year of his office.    

Following the formal establishment of Sidama National-State, the Prosperity Party initially attempted to advance what it called the “1 to 55 arrangement” meaning retaining the SNNP Region without Sidama Nation which already achieved its statehood. However, the demand for statehood became unstoppable in the region. A twelve-member committee (“peace ambassadors”) led by Ministry of Peace, Minister Muferiat Kemil, was established by Prime Minister Abiy in March 2020 to study and propose a lasting solution to the growing demand for statehood in the SNNP Region.

The committee divided the SNNP Region into three clusters for the study purpose and had discussions with local officials and residents. It presented its reports to the Prime Minister in the presence of zonal authorities from the SNNP in May 2020 and agreed to give “priority to the administrative structural convenience principles.” And thus, the committee was advised to revise the study. Finally, the committee of ambassadors of peace backed by the SNNP Regional government and party sponsored research committee jointly presented a proposal to divide the SNNP Region into four clusters of administration excluding Sidama Region. Upon the recommendation of the prime minister, the proposed number of regions was reduced to three clusters (see የደቡብ ብሔሮች፣ ብሔረሰቦችና ሕዝቦች ክልል የአደረጃጀት ጉዳዮችን በተመለከ በጠቅላይ ሚኒስትሩ  አዲስ የተቋቋመው ኮሚቴ  ሪፖረትና ምክረ ሀሳብ, ግንቦት/2012, አዲስ አበባ).

Subsequently, the interests of the PP government and the nationality quests for regional statehood kept on further going apart. Thus, the idea of restructuring the reminders of the SNNP into South West Ethiopia, Southern Ethiopia, and Central Ethiopia regions was engineered by the central PP authorities against the constitutional demands of national groups. From naming the nomenclatures of these regions to the implementations, it is a typical geographic cluster administration determined in a top-down process. 

As a result, the redrawing of a new geographic based cluster administration began with the formation of South West Ethiopia. After curving out five zones and one special district in South West Ethiopia including Konta Special District, West Omo Zone, Bench Zone, Dawro Zone, Kafa Zone, and Shaka Zone, the government organized a referendum in September 2021. The options given for the voters were limited to two—either to remain in the old SNNP Region or join the newly restructured South West Ethiopia Region. And the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) announced the formation of a new region in southwest Ethiopia.

As part of the restructuring and forming the new cluster administrative regions, the next region had to be created was Southern Ethiopia Region by incorporating nationalities in six zones (Konso, South Omo, Wolaita, Gamo, Gedeo, Gofa) and five special woredas (Burji, Basketo, Ale, Amaro, Dirashe) by a referendum held in February, 2023 by once again limiting the choices to two as mentioned above. According to the report of the NEBE published on March 29, 2023, the establishment of the new region was approved. One can argue that the said referendums were to serve as a window dressing rather than to reflect the real interests of the peoples.

NEBE canceled the referendum in Wolaita zone and later on held a re-election which forced Wolaita voters to choose from the options that did not include their choices at all because the demands of the Wolaita Nation and other groups were to form a separate autonomous regional state, not a cluster administration of Southern Ethiopia Region. Thus, the new region was created by a top down approach to meet the cluster administrative principles of the PP to the detriment of the constitution which have now complicated the problems. The formation of the Southern Ethiopia Region heralded another phase of repression of legitimate questions for which many have been killed by government forces.  In short, national groups are now officially denied of their constitutional and natural rights to form their regional administrations.

When it comes to the Central Ethiopia Region, procedurally speaking, it was created in a unilateral decision by the federal government of Ethiopia in a complete constitutional disregard, as the PP regime did not like to hold even the kind of cosmetic referendum discussed above when it imposed the new cluster region. Recall that Gurage national group has been protesting for statehood which met violent federal and regional responses. The constitutional rights of Gurage and other nationalities to form their regional nation-states have been repressed with the announcement of the creation of the Central Ethiopia Region last month.

It means their languages are once again effectively prevented from becoming governmental languages, languages of correspondence, bureaucracies, and opportunity to develop.”

In general, as far as the establishment of South West Ethiopia, Southern Ethiopia and Central Ethiopia Regions is concerned, it is confusing to know whether the new administrations are going to be transitional or instituted as de jure ones. The issue of approving regional constitutions by elected regional constituent assemblies and organizing the three branches of the governments in accordance with their respective constitutions is yet to be known. There were reports that Prosperity Party led-conferences were held in some of these regions and attempted to approve what they said draft constitutions. Constitution making cannot be an internal affair of a single ruling party. What we have now known is that the executive branches in those regions, which are assigned by the Prosperity Party, are forming their administrations without mentioning anything about the transitional period. 

In those cluster regions, Amharic language has been declared as their working language. What does that mean for national groups questing for regional nation-states? It means their languages are once again effectively prevented from becoming governmental languages, languages of correspondence, bureaucracies, and opportunity to develop. These would guarantee new marginalization, inter-group competition and national conflicts against the government. National groups could continue to worry for the survival of their distinct national identities, language, histories, and cultures. Official language is also linked to access to employment opportunities, business and economic development. In terms of administrative convenience, it could be argued that the new entities are closer to the people than the defunct SNNP region. There are now four positions of regional presidents, executive, judicial, and legislative branches. For PP officials from the regions, these are already seen as new political and resource opportunities to compete over. But the basic political and national demands of nationalities to form their national-states are suppressed and in turn the political vision of the PP has been enforced.

In conclusion, it is completely unacceptable and even unconstitutional to impose oppressive administrative apparatuses on national groups vying for more autonomy and national self-rule. Establishing regional governments should have been left to the national groups who get to determine how to organize their governmental institutions. This is their constitutional and natural rights. Disregarding constitutional principles and procedures altogether, even if the party may not like the rights of national groups provided in the constitution, is not a good lesson for the country. Thus, from the get go, the new cluster administrative entities seem not going to be sustainable because they lack popular legitimacy, transparency, and above all, national groups are denied the right to separate statehood which would serve as a recipe for future conflicts. AS

Editor’s Note: Milkessa M. Gemechu (PhD) is a visiting assistant professor of political science at Albion College in the US. He can be reached at mgemechu@albion.edu 

Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button