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Handling the Sidama Crisis

16 mins read

Tedla Habtemariam

Sidama New PicIn 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.