Handling the Sidama Crisis

Tedla Habtemariam

In Abiy’s Ethiopia, the ethnic brigades in pursuit of further fragmentation along ethnic lines, are working overtime to solidify and entrench themselves while his government is persevering to diffuse the poison of ethnicity and re-orient the country towards an inclusive pan-Ethiopian polity. The ethnic elites across the country (TPLF, OLF, Sidama LF?) are aligning themselves in overt and covert ways to thwart any attempt by Abiy, his supporters and the Ethiopian people in general to make the country livable and governable.   On the one hand, Abiy with his inclusive politics strives to make the whole of Ethiopia a nation for all its citizens, irrespective of linguistic and cultural backgrounds. The ethnic entrepreneurs, on the other hand, want ethnic and linguistic differentiations to get accentuated even further, deeper and broader. The current ethno-linguistic federation, they argue, should be loosened to a confederation, just shy of a tiny jump to an ethnically pure, mono-lingual, mono-cultural sovereign nation-state, which needless to say is their original intent in the first place.

It’s in this light that we should see the dangerous and illegal ethnic youth movement in the southern Ethiopian region of Sidama. The movement was heating up in that part of the region for some time now. Some young people in Sidama, and specifically in the Southern capital Awassa, are agitating for statehood, with the multi-ethnic regional capital Awassa strictly under their control. To realize such eventuality, they are threatening to take a unilateral step in declaring Sidama as a separate ethnic state. This is clearly in contravention to written laws and working procedures of the nation. Moreover, this youth movement has given the federal government a set date at which time they’ll carry out the intended unilateral declaration should the latter fail to fulfill their demands. It’s not lost on us that while the young in Sidama (known as “Ejeto” meaning “hero” in the Sidama language) are fronting this illegal movement, the elites who are the brains behind Ejeto are never heard from; and if they are heard from by indirection, what they say is always in the generalities of supporting the movement, not in the specifics of endorsing actionable items such as the unilateral decision stated above.

The federal government on its part has asserted in no uncertain terms that it’d crush any attempt by the Sidama youth in Awassa if the latter attempt anything in contravention of the constitution. Its own solution, as stated by the prime minister, is to implement a nation-wide corrective that’s a comprehensive and judicious arrangement based on the recommendations of the newly formed Administrative Boundaries and Identity Issues Commission. The expectation is that the Commission will do a solid, professional and non-partisan study, and the government and all political actors including civic organization will use it as a basis to rectify the highly politically charged and gerrymandered ethnic enclaves handed down to us by the remnants of the leftist and ever short-sighted Ethiopian Student Movement of the 1960’s.

Coming back to the immediate problem at hand, I think it’s fair to say that at this point Abiy and Ejeto are effectively staring at each other, and along with the rest of us, at the dateline. TPLF and OLF, sensing that Abiy and the historic Ethiopian state are weak, may push the Sidama elites to give the go-ahead to Ejeto and call Abiy’s bluff. Will the Ejeto take the bait and make a deadly mistake? Nobody knows, but we can guess few things. Ethnic propaganda being what it is, we can suspect the youth are promised a lot once the elites are able to exclusively control Awassa. Jobs, businesses, housing, you name it. That’s how tribalism telegrams its message: “You’re deprived because the others dispossessed you of your rightful properties, denied your rights and oppressed you in your own ‘homeland’”.

The grievance machine had been tuned for generations and the real action will then begin once the ethnic elements believe they have the upper hand. Reports say that it’s doing some of this already, but if the elites believe that the prize is in sight, it can be safe to say to that the Ejeto will graduate itself into bullying, intimidation, and harassing the non-Sidama. The multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, tolerant Awassa will descend to chaos and bloodshed. The non-Sidamas will subsequently be pressured to leave the city by the elites; as experienced hands, they will couch the language so it reads, “We can’t guarantee your safety; we advise you to go back to your ‘own land’”. All this so that in the end, the perpetrators will bask in the mono-ethnic nirvana the cleansing is supposed to usher in.

Some people may think such a scenario is an exaggeration, and unlikely to happen. But I think ethnic cleansing in Awassa is a distinct possibility if, for instance, Abiy blinks and fails to deliver on his words. Take, for instance, the case of Gedeo in Guji, just next door. The Gedeo suffered significant persecution in the hands of the OLF fighters and its sympathizers among Oromo nationalists. Their houses got burnt, and they had to flee their homes. They may have been displaced for a better part of the year, if not more. OLF, either by proxy or directly, had done similar things in Harar and Burayu. Of course, the Sidama ethnic elites likely have taken some lessons. Much as the OLF wants to cleanse non-Oromos from what thinks is its homeland, the Sidama elites, as its ideological brethren (if you glorify tribalism as ideology), will certainly try out some of the same things in what it considers as its homeland; in Awassa above all. It knows time is on its side, and it will work through the cleansing once it’s able to achieve its Killil and the prize Awassa.

This is a frightening and, potentially disintegrative outcome for the country at large. We should dread the aftermath of such an outcome. If Ejeto succeeds in realizing Sidama + Awassa, this effectively means open season for everyone. If Ejeto can do it, so can anybody: a federal government that shrugs its shoulders when it happens in Sidama is expected just to stand aside when others anywhere else do it, by whatever means.

On the other hand, what the federal government is actually threatening to do is also scary. No one but a cruel person wishes death and mayhem on the Sidama youth of Awassa; after all this is what ‘crushing’ means. And given that no effort as far as moderation has been publicized from either side so far, the increasingly likely outcome of the stand-off seems nightmarish. At this point, one may ask what will come of their declaration anyway? Let Ejeto say whatever it wants, and at the end of the event, they’ll go home, and the next day, it’ll be business as usual. But I don’t believe it’ll end there. My guess is that they’ll start acting on the implications of their decision. Which is to say that they’ll start taking over the security, and the local administration – as a proxy for the elites, that is. Which is to say that the cleansing proper will then ensue.

What to do then? Avoidable bloodshed on the one hand and ethnic cleansing and massive conflict on the other. As far as I can tell I think Abiy’s least bad option (there seems to be no good option) is to bring in a significant federal police and security to Awassa and, if need be, to smaller towns in the Sidama zone. This will help forestall a mis-adventure by the Ejeto youth. The show of force should be intimidating enough so the youth should be frustrated from having any second thoughts. In such a manner, the lives of the youth will be spared and Abiy’s government will have thwarted a crisis in the making. Also, given that the timeline is rather short, the decision to move in the federal forces should be made in the next few days. The federal forces should plan on staying in Awassa and securing its peace for a foreseeable future, at least until the Commission gives its recommendation and the government redraws the administrative boundaries along sensible lines. It pains me to write that the federal force should exclude ethinic Sidama for obvious reasons – shame on us, but this is the current reality in our beloved country.

At this point, let me digress to make a larger point: Abiy’s government or any future government should never let major urban centers to be under any one ethnic group. Urban centers are by their very nature inclusive, tolerant, diverse, multi ethnic and multi lingual melting pots. They are no one’s homeland; no body ‘owns’ them. If they ‘belong’ to anyone, it’s to the residents of the particular time in question. And as such, they should be administered by business savvy and entrepreneurial mayors and other elected officials chosen by residents of the city.  They should not be allowed to be corruption machines for unproductive, incompetent, entitled and narcissistic ethnic elites. Much as Addis Ababa is melting pot of Ethiopians, so should be Awassa, Nazret and Dire Dawa. In a decade or so, the odds-on is that the nation’s economy will likely have already taken off, and in the process lift most other Ethiopian cities (Arba Minch, Jimma, Dessie, etc.) to a similar melting pot. In the ensuing economic prosperity, we’ll reverse the centrifugal ethnic force threating to do us apart.

To wrap up, throughout human history cities have served as economic engines of nations. Properly administered cities draw all sorts of businesses and ambitious people from near and far. Their primary goal is to facilitate a conducive atmosphere so the city’s residents engage in productive pursuits with equal opportunity; not to alienate parts of the residents. Nobody should have precedence nor given exclusive rights to anything. Merit and only merit should be the measure of all public offices, not some automatic ‘ethnic right’. In other words, the most competent person must be rewarded for his efforts and initiatives, irrespective of ethnicity. Even for the disadvantaged among the ‘natives’ such a person of ability will do far more than an entitled person selected from ones’ own ethnic group. Ethnicity should not even be acknowledged let alone be used as a measuring stick. If London’s mayor can be a person whose parents are non-white and non-Christian (neither of which describe the British in any historic sense), it’s pointlessly retrogressive to argue that people in Ethiopia should first pass the ethnic test to live and serve in a particular place.

But we all know that the ethnic elites have mastered the art of nursing ethnic grievances. We also know nursing ethnic grievances is not a productive pursuit – it doesn’t create wealth, nor does it promote economic wellbeing. And as any honest Ethiopian can see, our nation’s problem is at its root economic; it’s not failing to affirm ethnic right of this sort or another. After all, in the times we live in, no one is forbidden to speak in his or her mother tongue, nor forced to dress or dance in only a certain way. Except for an extremely tiny ethnic elites, the overwhelming citizenry (virtually 100%, and yes including the people of Tigray despite what we’re being told), just want a secure livelihood and a betterment of their lives. The rest is petty-bourgeois random noise.


  1. The government doesn’t need to negotiate with terrorists. Ejjeettos are nothing but purse snatching thugs who TRY to accomplish mission given to them by Sidama extermists.

    Cleaning the Sidama extremist from the bureaucracy in Awassa and disarming the incompetent police MUST be a priority. If the Abiye administration had taken a decisive action last year when the thugs killed innocent people, the situation would have been different.

    The government has shown too much respect for the thugs. If they try any thing illegal, the government should stand good on its promise. Awassa is established by all ethnic groups and any groups that attempts to make Awassa a property of a single ethnic group will end in bloodshed. Let them to Benesa where they came from.

  2. “… the illegal ethnic youth movement in the southern Ethiopian region of Sidama.”
    What is illegal? By what measures can Demanding the rights enshrined in the constitution be illegal? Why should the Sidama nation ( 5 Million) be denied the right to self governance that has been allowed for the 200,000 Harari?? Constitutional rights are not conferred or denied according to the temperament of some strong man or the will of political groups that want to keep the nation under subjugation.
    The Sidama nation has gone through all the necessary measures and procedures demanded by the constitution. PM Abiy or anybody else can not be above the constitution and, let alone threaten the nation, they can not deny the fulfilment of the demand! The cry of the Habeha has no relevance there!

  3. በአንድ ነገር እርግጠኛ ነኝ በተለይ ዶክተር ዓቢይ አህመድ ወደ ሥልጣን ከመጡበት ግዜ ዥምሮ:: ይህ እርግጠኝነት ምንድነው ብትሉ:-
    1. ወላይታ እንኩዋን በክልል መደራጀት አቅም ስለማይፈቅድላት የፌደራል ሥርዓቱን መቃወም መጀመሩዋ:
    2. አማራውም ክንፍ ይሄ መንግሥት አይወክለኝም የሚለው የአማራን ህዝብ ባህል አስተሳሰብ የማይቀበል ከሆነ ነው:: አብይ ጃኖ በርኖስ ሲለብስ አፍቃሬ ምኒልክነትን ሲያሳይ የአማራ የፓለቲካ ልሂቅም ደቂቅም ቂጡን እስኪያልበው ተወዘወዘ::

    ምን ለማለት ፈልጌ ነው:- አዳሜ የማትችይው ሲመጣ መቃወም ልማድሽ የት-የለሌ ጥፈት መጣፍም ጥርስሽን የነቀልሽበት ነው:: ወላሞው ሲዳማ ቢሆን ኖሮ ልክ እንደ ሲዳማው ነበር መብቴ ይከበር በህግ-አምላክ ይል የነበረው ዳሩ ምን ዋጋ አለዉ ወላሞ ወላሞ ነው ምግቡም ስኩዋር ድንች ነው:: (ሱካሬዲኒቼ)
    ሲዳማ ሲዳማ ነው ወርቅ ነው ምግቡንም ወርቄ ብሎ ይጠራል:: ኦሮሞ ኦሮሞ ነው:: አማራ አማራ ነው::ትግሬም ትግሬ ነው::

  4. The Sidama People (Ejjeetto) Eyeing Their New Regional State is Born Despite Stiff Resistances from Entrenched Interests
    The road to hell is paved with good intentions. About a year ago, the newly elected Prime Minster of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed (PhD) convened a meeting with Sidama people at Hawassa. The Sidama’s demand for regional autonomy is fully constitutional and will be dealt with according to the constitution of Ethiopia, he said after attentively listened to their plea initiating a kick-off yet to another legal process. Ethiopia’s federal constitution provides for “unconditional” self-determination.
    While less than two weeks remaining to complete setting and declare after passing several hurdles in past several months, with a surprising twist, the PM threatened with violent reprisal if the Sidama people proceed with their demand.
    The response of Commander-in-Chief was beyond shocking to over 6 million Sidama people.
    Ejjeetto, ‘the last generation to secure Sidama’s regional autonomy’ as they call themselves, responded with their latest press release that they have no room to accommodate unconstitutional responses from anyone including the PM’s irresponsible and violence laden rhetoric. None is on their table, according to their statement, other than declaring it on constitutionally set up time-line, July 17, 2019(11-11-11 – the Ethiopian equivalent).
    Embracing their motto – Our demand is Constitutional, Our means is Peaceful – Ejjeetto made persisted calls to the PM’s government to comply with their constitutional demands to which, stubbornly, deaf ears were given. Several peaceful marches (including historic all-woman-march), sit-ins, no-workdays protests throughout the region were not good enough to draw the governments attention which left many in frustration.

    Ejjetto, despite conducting their struggle with strict principles of non-violence movement and however hard they try, their one-sided commitment did not yield intended peace throughout the year. With perfectly calculated anti-Sidama media campaigns, staged displacements, deliberately instigated violences, all meant to suppress the Sidama ethnic identities and maintain status quo, the anti-Sidama groups have been able to create chaos now and then to which lives have been lost, properties damaged and mistrust between Sidama and others have been developed. Ejjeetto also have lost over 30 of their comrades over the course of past year alone and no one is held accountable.
    Overcoming several of such attempts to portray the movement as violent, Ejjeetto have earned kudos from various organizations and government’s high officials, including security chief of the country, for their peace keeping role, however.
    One needs to note that, Ejjeetto is not anymore young determined Sidama youth at frontline of the movement. Every Sidama is now an Ejjeetto. It comprises young and old, male and female. The popular Sidama traditional form of discourse, Affin, is code of conduct for the movement. These days, meetings are convened on regular bases at Gudumaale area that comprises people from every part and every rank of the Sidama society including highly respected elders. Next course of action of the movement is discussed and consulted during these meetings.
    Hence, one gets outright wrong if tries to label Ejjeetto as youth segment of Sidama society spearheading the movement.
    The demand of the Sidama people is not in excess of their constitutionally guaranteed basic right. Some may try to justify Sidamas motives as an act of belligerence towards others. But for the Sidama people this is more than just securing self-administration right that the other 9 regions of Ethiopia are enjoying. It is pursuit of justice. Justice to these who were rounded up and massacred at Hashesho area by the imperial regime for asking the king Haile Selasie to respect Sidama’s autonomy in 1946. Justice for these who perished in the Ogaden desert while fighting the Military regime of Mengistu while struggling for Sidama’s regional autonomy in 1978. Justice for these who were mercilessly massacred by TPLF led regime at Looqqe while peacefully protecting for Sidama’s regional autonomy in 1994. Justice for members of Ejjeetto whose lives cut short while struggling for the Sidama’s regional autonomy while other regions savoring relative freedom within past year. It’s justice for countless Sidama who paid ultimate prices so generations after them to live free.

    Threatening with violent reprisal as his predecessors against peaceful demands is not a wise move for the premier who day and night pontificates he is there to break the cycle of injustice-revolt in the country. After all, no one can afford unpleasant confrontation that risks precipitating yet another violence in the nation that has been teetering at the edge of crises. It doesn’t bring any good to anyone and the Sidama people know this all too well.

    The Sidama people still hope and believe Dr. Abiy’s government will deliver on his promises as well as submit to the supreme law of the land. National as well as international organizations such as Crisis Group, who sounds the alarm to prevent deadly conflict, are also warning the PM to abide by law of the land to avert looming crisis. The ball now is on PM’s court.

    Having justice and truth on their back, the Sidama people (Ejjeeto) are already looking beyond the single day of the year, 11-11-11, to the just Ethiopia.

  5. CORRECTION: “In Abiy’s Ethiopia, the ethnic brigades in pursuit of further fragmentation along ethnic lines” should read “In Tplf’s Ethiopia, the ethnic brigades in pursuit of further fragmentation along ethnic lines.” Tplf from minority Tigray region is the one that introduced and nurtured ethnic federalism to remain in power, period. Expecting Abiy to change that in a year what took Tplf 40 years is simply foolish!


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