A part of southern Ethiopia went to the polls on Monday to vote for or against the creation of a new regional state. The referendum was held in accordance with the federal Constitution, but in contrast to the unifying speech of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Some 19,000 officers were deployed in southern Ethiopia to ensure proper monitoring of the referendum. On Monday, February 6, more than three million of the 108 million citizens of the south of the country went to the polls after a petition launched in six areas and five districts currently belonging to the Regional State of Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of the South (SNNPR ). It is one of the 13 regional states of the country in which the subdivision is planned. The stakes are high: if the ‘yes’ vote wins, Ethiopia will have a 14th regional state, if the two “urban regions” of Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa are included. This will lead to further fragmentation in a country already plagued by inter-ethnic strife.
The vote, approved in August by the House of Federation, the upper house of the Ethiopian Parliament, was made possible under Article 47 of the 1994 Constitution, which grants “every nation, nationality and people”, “the right to establish his own State, at any time”. On this legal basis, the main ethnic group in the region in question, the Wolayta ethnic group, has requested greater autonomy.
A vote without suspense
The Wolayta territories were annexed to Ethiopia in the early 1890s, during the reign of Menelik II, after constant resistance. Since the early 2000s, members of the ethnic group have been demanding the creation of a specific regional state to no avail. “After having mobilized strongly in recent years in opposition to the government, with this vote they have obtained part of what they have been demanding,” explains Sabine Planel, a researcher at the Institute for Development Research (IRD) and a specialist in Ethiopia.
The result of the vote has no mystery. QIf there is a vote, it is because there is a prior agreement on the issue,” says Gérard Prunier, historian and specialist in the Horn of Africa. The vote will be 80 or 90% favorable, as has happened in other referendums.
It is not the first time that referendums of this type have been held in this region of southern Ethiopia. Since the current Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, came to power in 2018, two new regional states have been created following similar consultations.
The Sidama region, in 2019, and the Southwest region, in March 2022, also separated from the SNNPR, to which they belonged. “With this new referendum, this region of the South, made up of 56 ethnic groups, will be divided again, this time into three regions. And it is not over yet, because we are waiting for another referendum in the regional state of SNNPR”, continues Sabine Planel.
In the end, four or even five new states will be created instead of solving the many problems that plague this federal region of 20 million inhabitants, periodically ravaged by ethnic conflicts. Such a scenario goes against the government’s creed of uniting to manage better. But we have seen, since he took office, that the executive is extremely good at saying one thing and doing exactly the opposite.
Ethnic tensions exacerbated by Addis Ababa
For many observers, the policies of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed are directly responsible for the upsurge in ethnic grievances that we are witnessing. This situation “is the result of a deceptive liberalization policy carried out by the premier since he came to power: he has constantly supported ethnic claims through his many tours, especially in the south of the country, and then he has opposed their political recognition. With this, he has only exacerbated the demands of the ethnic groups.
Another problem is that the creation of these new inter-ethnic regions can give rise to new issues of discord, opening up new rifts. “The choice of the capital, the choice of the portfolio or the choice of ethnic groups to represent the elected representatives, runs the risk of fueling the already numerous demands. The expectations of each ethnic group will be extremely difficult to satisfy and will cause a “Increasing local conflicts. The question of the capital alone is so crucial that some voters in this region have already announced that if their city is not elected capital, they will take to the streets.”
One question remains: “why does the prime minister, who claims to be the unifier of the country, not change the Constitution to put an end to these referendums? Because this constitution suits him,” concludes Sabine Planel bluntly. It allows him to continue an extremely authoritarian mode of government in which he plays the game of forged alliances against each other, as the previous regime did. Indeed, he is a worthy heir. He constantly plays with alliances and coalitions to stay in power. In short, it’s a matter of divide and conquer.
According to the National Election Commission of Ethiopia (NEBE), the results will be published on February 15, 2023.
*This article is adapted from its original in French