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Justified fears III: Southern Ethiopia’s conundrum

That Ethiopia as a nation-state is in deep trouble is an understatement. Someone recently described Ethiopia as ‘a plane crash in slow motion’. This is not an exaggeration given the Tigray region appears to be preparing for a showdown with the Federal government; the Oromia region is going through a chaotic and confusing situation; there are constant inter-ethnic tensions in other parts of the country; and the recent violence following Hachalu Hundessa’s murder and the ensuing government actions have further polarised the nation. In the midst of all this, I read last week Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) poem in Amharic about Motherland (Ethiopia) and his dream for her on his Twitter account. As the Prime Minister will agree, the metaphor Motherland equals the people of Ethiopia, which denotes belonging. However, whether all people groups in Ethiopia feel secure in their sense of belonging is not certain at the moment. Indeed, many in the South may well be asking whether Motherland for them is their biological mother or stepmother.  

This question would be particularly pertinent to the people of Wolayita at the moment. Scores of Wolayitas in Hawassa died and many lost their livelihoods during Meles Zenawi’s Premiership due to inter-ethnic violence. A large number of innocent Wolayitas were also massacred in the Oromia region during Hailemariam Dessalegn’s Premiership simply because of their ethnic association with him. Even after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power, many suffered horrific killings and loss of their livelihoods. The current situation has become more serious, because Federal Defence Forces were sent to Wolayita last week and killed and wounded scores of people following protests against the arrest of political and religious leaders during a meeting.

The events that led to all this is Wolayita’s quest for regional statehood in accordance with Article 47:2-3 of the Ethiopian Constitution, where any ‘Nation, Nationality or People’ has the right to establish its own state at any time. The Wolayita quest is the same as the Sidama quest. It is also the same as that of ten other administrative zones in the South, who have submitted their applications for regional statehood. In this situation, use of force to silence the Wolayitas or other people groups will only delay and deepen the problem rather than solving it. I would argue that the Wolayita issue is part of the political conundrum of the now crumbling Southern Regional State.

The conundrum was deliberately and probably cynically designed by the former government of Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which at the time was ideologically dominated by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Before EPRDF cobbled together 56 people groups and created the Southern Regional State as one of the nine regional states, it had trouble to know what to do with them. Eritrea’s independence was a foregone conclusion. Harari with the population of about 200,000 was to become a regional state. Gambela with the population of 300,000, Benshangul Gumuz with 600,000, and Afar with about 1.5 million were going to be granted regional statehood. There was, of course, no question in relation to Tigray, Amhara, Oromia, and Somali regions becoming regional states.   

The criteria by which regional states were established were not clear, however. The population size obviously was not the main criterion, because had that been the case Sidama with the population of three million and Wolayita with almost two million would have gained regional statehood. The idea of a broad commonality of identities, customs, languages, and psychological make-ups, as in Article 39:5 of the Ethiopian Constitution, could not have been a criterion either, because the majority of the 56 people groups have little in common with each other. EPRDF probably took all this into account at the beginning and commissioned a team of people to carry out a study and make recommendations. The team recommended that Southern peoples should be organized under five regional states. EPRDF accepted the recommendation, but before very long it inexplicably dismantled those structures and created the Southern Regional State with Hawassa as its capital. Why EPRDF took this course of decision and unilaterally created such a conundrum may be explained in different ways. In my view, the EPRDF took this course of action to achieve political control, employ political instrumentalization, divide and conquer, and to appease the Sidamas.

First, TPLF/EPRDF officials were assigned to be political overlords of the Southern State and some administrative zones. This enabled them to politically control the region as a whole. The leadership of the regional government could take no major decision without the approval of those political overlords. To give a poignant example, a Southern leader once went against a TPLF official’s instruction. Quite unbelievably, the official slapped the leader. Not all put up with this sort of humiliating situation. But those, who submitted to their consciences, stood firm for their principles, and valued their human dignity more than their political status and temporary material gains, were either dismissed or thrown into prison on fictitious allegations. Quite ironically, the slapping TPLF official himself and his Southern crony were jailed on trumped-up charges following serious fallout with the then Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi.

Secondly, the schema of political control was designed in order to politically instrumentalize the Southern peoples. That is to say, the Southerners were treated by the TPLF/EPRDF as an instrument through which ‘revolutionary democratic’ goals were achieved. This clearly goes against Emmanuel Kant’s moral theory where using people merely as means would be tantamount to violation of their human dignity. And yet, the TPLF/EPRDF leadership ruthlessly instrumentalized the people of the South. This political instrumentalization, in my view, was facilitated by religion.

The majority of people groups in the South used to follow animistic religions until the introduction of Protestantism in the early 20th century. The acceptance of Protestant preaching of love and peace transformed many rival and warring groups into friends. Wolayitas, for example, became friends of Hadiyas, and Kembatas became friends of both Hadiays and Wolayitas. This was reinforced by the arrival of the Italian invaders, who harshly introduced law and order during their rule between 1937 and 1941. But it was with the exponential growth of Protestantism and its biblical emphasis on love of neighbor and enemy that many Southerners came to regard use of sword to protect and promote their values and interests as wrong. EPRDF did not instrumentalize Protestant religion as such but it instrumentalized individuals and communities, who were excited by the constitutional provision for religious freedom following years of persecution and maltreatment by the previous governments.

The newfound constitutional right to freedom of religion was coupled with the right of each people group to self-determination and self-government, and to develop its own language, promote its culture, and preserve its history (Article 39:1-3). As this was something completely new in the history of Ethiopia, the excitement changed into euphoria and elation, even bordering on delirium. Many educated Southerners, the majority of whom were Protestant Christians, joined the effort of building a democratic and prosperous Ethiopia. The national leadership of the EPRDF, who were staunch Marxists, made sure that Protestant or any other religious expressions played no role whatsoever in the political sphere. The new Christian politicians learnt political intrigue and ugly tactics. Their lives were shaped by the principles of love, humility, honesty and service, but they struggled to stand for those principles. Some, in fact, turned into egocentric, dishonest, haughty, and hateful figures. They saw their political position as an end in itself rather than a means for societal betterment. For they were made to believe that their survival depended on their unadulterated faithfulness to the revolutionary democratic values and their complete submission to their supreme guardians.

Thirdly, EPRDF sustained this political instrumentalization through applying the Machiavellian principles of ‘the end justifies the means’ and divide-and-conquer. As Machiavelli in his The Prince describes, the supreme guardians of revolutionary democracy used laws and force, which belonged to both humans and animals respectively, to politically control and instrumentalize the South.  Machiavelli advised the prince to use the lion and the fox from amongst the animal ranks. The lion cannot defend itself against the traps and the fox against the wolves. The fox recognises the traps, while the lion frightens the wolves. All of them, however, are foes, not friends. In Machiavellian imagery, EPRDF created lions and foxes, and played them off against each other. Those lions and foxes would protect each other in order to protect their own self-interest, but they have no love for and trust in one another. Humans, for Machiavelli, are so simple and obedient to their present needs and self-interests. So princes should understand that mutual protection alone would not ensure their success. Sometimes foxes should let lions to be trapped and lions should kill foxes. This was very true in the South.

Through the so-called periodic evaluations, EPRDF facilitated for Southern politicians to engage in mutual destructions for personal and political gains. They were led to believe that confusing human minds with cunning schemes, rather than honesty and integrity, would enable them to achieve great things.  Indeed, pursuant to Machiavellianism, many accepted that to act contrary to trust, charity, humanity, religion etc. was acceptable so long as it enabled them to hold onto power. Politics was characterized by bitter rivalry and fierce competition for power and resources. Kinship and patronage played a part in this zero-sum game, which led to brothers turning against brothers to overcome each other. Social capital, based on trust and trustworthiness, was undermined. Mistrust and instability reigned in the region. All of this was exploited by the political masters and enabled them to achieve their political goals unhindered. The Southern State was their feasting ground.

Finally, the Southern State was not only created for political control, political instrumentalization, and to achieve Machiavellianism, but also it was created in order to satisfy the Sidamas. The Sidamas, led by Woldeamanuel Dubale and his Sidama Liberation Movement, had fought against the military junta since the 1970s. Having failed to succeed against the mighty Ethiopian army, he left the country. He got to know the late Meles Zenawi and others while he was in the Sudan. When EPRDF took over the country in 1991, Woldeamanuel and his party were invited to be part of the transitional assembly in Addis Ababa. After the transitional government led by Meles Zenawi was established, the Sidama quest for its own regional assembly intensified. Woldeamanuel then fell out of favor with Meles Zenawi. Having survived an assassination attempt, Woldeamanuel fled the country, although he later returned.

In the meantime, EPRDF established the Southern Regional State with Hawassa as its capital, but that did not stop Sidama’s quest for constitutional self-governance. The appointment of a Sidama politician as the first president of the Southern State did not satisfy the Sidamas either. The dissatisfaction became deepened when Hailemariam Dessalegn, a Wolayita, was appointed as president of the region. After him, a non-Sidama was never appointed as president of the Southern State. EPRDF used this and many other political and economic tactics, but none quenched the thirst of the Sidamas for regional statehood. Political suppression and use of force were employed, but discontent continued. When Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister, the Sidamas used the newly gained freedom of expression to renew their quest for regional statehood and achieved it in January 2020. But this further complicated the Southern political conundrum.

The Wolayita quest is part of this conundrum. Many, of course, would be quite judgmental about the ways in which the government addressed the Sidama quest while there was no clear, credible and acceptable roadmap about the future of the SNNPR and Southern peoples. Whatever our hopes and views were at the time, retracing the steps, seeking to expose government failures, and priding in the rightness of our predictions will contribute nothing towards resolving the current tense and very uncertain situation. I must say, however, that if the government behaves in a cavalier, careless, cunning, off-handed or unilateral manner in terms of the ways in which it tries to resolve the Southern conundrum, I fear that the future of Ethiopia as a nation-state would be in mortal danger. So the following are my humble suggestions for what they are worth.

First, while it is important for the government to maintain law and order in the country as a whole, the harassment, killings and jailing of the leadership, activists, religious leaders, and ordinary people of Wolayita must stop. I hear that the Wolayita leadership has unilaterally withdrawn itself from the jurisdiction of the government of the SNNPR. This course of action may be wrong, but it can and should be resolved through dialogue and discussion. Wolayita’s quest is the quest of ten other administrative zones. The government must look for a viable solution for all quests for regional statehood rather than resorting to violence.   

Second, the Federal government should treat Southern peoples with empathy and sympathy. The Southern Regional State has not been the Garden of Eden for them. Many who live in places so far away from Hawassa (e.g. Jinka and Bench-Maji) have suffered so much injustice and inequity in so many ways. Many non-Sidama officials and residents in Hawassa have experienced alienation and mistreatment. Financial and material resources allocated for administrative zones and districts have been largely squandered by self-seeking bureaucrats and corrupt politicians in Hawassa. Southern peoples, in short, have been victims of the EPRDF ill-considered and unfair formula of political and structural arrangements. The injustice and unfairness suffered by Southern peoples must be redressed and rectified with ‘political’ empathy and sympathy.        

Third, the Federal government must listen to all voices. This must start by accepting that there has been a catalogue of missteps and mistakes in the ways in which the government has sought to resolve the Southern State conundrum. Some claim that all attempts made so far and solutions proposed are not genuine. Whether genuine or not, neither the first recommendation in 2019 to keep all 55 people groups together under one regional government nor the subsequent recommendation in 2020 to create several regional clusters has been accepted. In all these attempts, I feel, the government have sought to listen to selected voices rather than to all diverse voices. This approach must now change.

Fourth, the current government should never seek to control, instrumentalize or divide-and-conquer Southern peoples in the way EPRDF did. Nor should they sideline them in any political attempts to find solutions for Ethiopia’s problems. The problems of the Southern peoples are Ethiopia’s problems and vice versa. I have heard persistent assertions that the Oromos and Amharas are brothers and their unity would serve as universal panacea for Ethiopia’s problems. There is no question that love and unity between the two people groups would be a good thing for Ethiopia. However, Prof Fikre Tolossa’s kind of claim that Amharas and Oromos share a common origin ‘True Ethnic Origin of the Oromos and the Amharas” or creating unhealthy political alliances to promote ethno-centric goals could endanger the future of Ethiopia. National problems require collective solutions. As I have argued elsewhere, any endeavor towards those solutions must be based on the conviction that Ethiopia is one nation of sisters and brothers https://hintset.org/articles/view-point/one-nation-of-sisters-and-brothers.  

Finally, while all the quests for regional statehood are constitutional, the practicality of creating 55 regional states in the South is very doubtful. Granted, this is a terribly difficult matter, but piecemeal approaches to address this difficulty should be avoided. While there may be denials in some quarters, it seems obvious to me that quests for regional statehood cannot be addressed without addressing constitutional flaws. Our constitution has many strengths, but it unfortunately privileges one people group over another and the majority over the minority. Unless these constitutional flaws are addressed honestly and openly, the Southern conundrum would persist. As a result, I fear that grievances could deepen and make it difficult to achieve the hoped for national unity, peace and prosperity. I, therefore, appeal to the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to genuinely seek national consensus in terms of timeframe and strategies to address the constitutional and existential concerns of not only the Southern peoples but also all minorities in all regions of Ethiopia. This, I hope, will contribute to averting the dangerous situation where Ethiopia looks like a plane that is crashing in slow motion.

Desta Heliso (PhD) studied at the London School of Theology and King’s College in London. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at destah@gmail.com. 

Originally posted at The Reporter Ethiopia 

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