The events of July 18, 2019 in one of the major regional states of Ethiopia, the South, have horrified millions of innocent citizens besides being subject of strong condemnation. Political parties have also joined this move. Since the beginning of the so called transition period in Ethiopia, this is not the first time that similar, organised, meditated and pre-planned violent acts have taken place against innocent citizens, targeting their origin or creed. The fear of many is that this state of affairs could end up being ‘the new normal’ affecting the long standing, smooth and peaceful cohabitation of millions of nationals in any region in the country.
The fundamental issue is that each ethnic group can raise what has become one of the basic rights of identity engraved in the Constitution. But this claim for ‘identity rights’ although it reflects the mentality of the times that there should not be any form of discrimination or distinction between ethnic groups (which the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, FDRE calls ‘nation, nationality and people’) extends to the right to self-determination including secession as engraved in Article 39. Many observers have been arguing for years that such clause should not have been part of the document and that it’s a ‘buried ticking bomb’. These last days it has been ticking loudly. Some say it was intentionally buried by the then drafters of the document while others argue that it is indeed one of the basic reasons for which people resorted to armed struggle and paid untold sacrifices for years.
Many contend that one of the dominating political parties (EPRDF, the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front, now feeling marginalised having ruled for 27 years) seems to enjoy fueling as many headaches as they can just to discredit the current government and in an attempt to re-acquire lost influence. The observers say these forces indeed believe that it was they who knew how to keep the country intact for so many years and that none of what is now going on in the country (frequent outbursts of violence) would exist under their authority.
In the meantime, however, they continue to advocate for unity, peace and reconciliation while simultaneously not avoiding being blamed for engaging in the contrary. Regarding their own status, they seem to assert their right to oppose practically each and every move of the current government makes and have little restraint nor embarrassment in openly declaring it despite their status as part of the EPRDF coalition. This in a way may have served as a stimulus to encourage other parties, (such as the Sidama nationality for instance) to do just that.
True, the Sidama issue, a demand for self-determination is not new. In fact, it has been going on for more than two decades. Sidama human rights advocates are heard arguing ‘no one in Addis Ababa seemed to heed us and when there were violent protests and rallies in the past, the regional government, which was clearly under the spell of TPLF dominated, (Tigray People Liberation Front-EPRDF authorities,) did not have too many scruples to silence it’. They say they did report violations of human rights in the process but their efforts fell on deaf ears, the international audience amongst them as well.
In fact, even those who heard about the events could not do a lot as they assumed it would be considered ‘an internal issue or an issue of sovereignty’. In the meantime, the country underwent what many consider as fundamental changes with at least new moves of openness to all claims of freedom of thought and expression and all political detainees benefitting from it. The danger now is how far these violent claims are orchestrated, conceived and planned by political groups that seem to look for their own advantage; or how much are these true, legitimate public grievances that have been maturing for years?
The prime minister recently professed that the Sidama voices were well heard and that a legal procedure is underway and ‘we need to wait for the end of such process’. However, some impatient elements among the Sidama community particularly the youth wing appears to have adopted a more urgent and unilateral move against which however the premier has already issued stern warning.
What happened a few days ago seems a result of such deliberate disregard! In the end, the violent acts were carried out and the government intervened vehemently to stop them. What is really sad and tragic is that, as has been observed in other instances as well previously, the move was a bit late and many observers have taken the opportunity to denounce the inefficiency and prevarication of the government in taking precautionary measures to avert such outbursts. Apart from the avoidable fatalities reported, there was also immense public and private property destroyed by these impulsive youths who many say may have been pushed or encouraged to act even by certain regional administration staff. The government has put the region under the authority of a ‘federal command post’ to guarantee stability and began investigations with scores who took part in the violence arrested.
The problem now is what to do next with all the claims of demands of formation of new regional states. Ethiopia is currently composed of nine regional states. If at least ten other nationalities are claiming similar status, what would the federal government do to come to terms with this new wave? The dilemma is daunting because there is need to balance the demands of the people against the practicality of the case and constitutional provisions.
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