The Sidama statehood referendum cements multinational federalism in Ethiopia: a rejoinder to Hilary Matfess’ article on Sidama referendum

The Sidama Observer, December 8, 2019

Sidama referendum on November 20, 2019. Well organized, disciplined and calm people of Sidama have earned warm congratulations from around the world.

Result of Sidama Referendum on November 20, 2019
– Voters turnout 2,277,063 out of 2,280,147 (99.86%)
– 2,225,249 people (98.51%) voted for statehood.
– 33,463 people (1.48%) voted against statehood.
– 18,351 votes were disqualified

We read a recent post on Ayyaantuu and Kichuu by Hilary Matfess entitled “ The Sidama statehood referendum throws a wrench on Abiy Ahmed’s plans for Ethiopia: Ethno-regional divisions might tear apart hopes of unifying power at the centre”

While global solidarity and knowledge generation and sharing are essential attributes of our increasingly globalized world today, such endeavors must be informed by an evidence based analysis and an in-depth research about a particular society or an issue that we aim to address. In this regard Hilary Matfess’s opinion piece on Sidama statehood referendum does not only fall short of expectations but it is flawed, ill-informed and biased.  First, wittingly or unwittingly, the author attempts to reduce the right of nations, nationalities and peoples to self determination enshrined in article  39 of the 1995 constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia as “ethno-regional divisions”. This is both an attack on the constitution of the country and the nations, nationalities and peoples that paid massive sacrifices to usher in this right to self determination.  The over 90 ethnic groups which the author ironically acknowledges as numbers, made tremendous sacrifices  in the past 130-150 years to regain their rights to regional self administration they lost due to an illegal annexation into the Abyssinian empire in 1880s and 1890s.

The Sidama nation was an independent northeastern African nation with its own government with its kings at the helm  until 1891. It was an independent and prosperous Cushitic African nation ruled by the Luwa system guided by egalitarian and pervasive gerontocracy.   It was forcefully annexed into the Abyssibean empire by the expansionist forces of the Abyssinian  king Minelik in 1891. The Sidama nation never accepted the forced annexation into the Abyssinian empire lying down. The last King of Sidama Baallicha Worawo defeated the first  invading army of King Minelik led by Beshah Aboye in 1890 and was defeated by the second wave of invading army led by Lul Seged in 1891. King Baallicha Worawo was assassinated by Lul Seged two years after the annexation in Konso where he was taken by force by the invading army.  The Sidama  resistance against annexation continued in various forms and shapes led by  gallant freedom fighters of the nation for the past 129 years. For instance,  the Sidama nation took up arms against the military/Derg regime for six years in 1978-1984 liberating three highland districts of Horooreessa, Bansa and Harbagoona.  Over 10,000 Sidama freedom fighters and civilians lost their lives during the Sidama-Derg civil war in 1978-1984, which was one of most hidden secrets in Ethiopian empire then.  The cause of the civil war was the renewed demand for regional self administration by the Sidama people following  the downfall of the regime of emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.  The Sidama people also rose up against the military regime in Wotara Rassa and Borricha in 1980 demanding regional self determination.   At the same time, other oppressed nations, the Oromo, Ogaden, Afar, Tigray, and many others waged armed struggle against the military regime finally overthrowing the unitarist military dictatorship in May 1991 ushering in a new multinational federalism that guaranteed unconditional right to self determination by all nations nationalities and peoples in Ethiopia.

The Sidama referendum was not a charity by any one. It was the right guaranteed in the multinational federal constitution that was the outcome of more than a century of bitter struggle to achieve self rule within Ethiopia by all oppressed nations in the country. Sadly,  Matfess assaulted the dignity of the oppressed nations in Ethiopia by attempting to reduce their quest for self rule as ethno regional division.  This is an affront to the conscience of over 85 million Ethiopians who cherish their hard won gains of self rule over their respective regions  to develop their economy, culture, language and preserve their history.

The Sidama referendum was not only a victory for 5-6 million Sidama people, the fifth largest in Ethiopia, but for all 79 oppressed nations nationalities and peoples in Ethiopia the author acknowledges only as numbers. The victory epitomizes the aspirations of the 2.3 million voters in Sidama of which 98% voted for regional self administration. For a writer from the west where the rule of law, respect to the constitution and the freedom of  choice by the electorate constitute the core values of freedom and liberty, reducing the will of 2.3 million Sidama people to form a regional self governing state as ethno-regional division is a hypocrisy to say the least. Such ill-informed opinion pieces do not serve any purpose in global diplomacy except sowing divisions. Before putting pen to paper on issues of nations and peoples about which one has little or no knowledge, it is wise to conduct a little research at least digitally on google.  Today, information is available on finger tips on everything in every little corner of the world thanks to the ICT revolution. Articles based on unfounded hearsay by certain illegitimately  aggrieved groups neither help advance knowledge nor global peace.

Secondly and equally troubling is the author’s prediction of post referendum violence based on interview with one person in Sidama. The author acknowledges that 2.3 million Sidama voted peacefully. The peaceful conduct of a referendum of that scale does set any precedent for peace in Sidama for the author. Instead, the author opts to send an alarm based on an unfounded concern by one person. If this is not the poorest analysis and research in the world, what is?

Finally, the author appears to be concerned about the impact of the Sidama referendum on the prime minister’s vision of building a unitarist Ethiopia with a unifying power at the center. Alas! First, Ethiopia is a constitutional multinational state and any attempt to build a unitarist state with a unifying power at the centre violates the current constitution of the country.  Therefore, the author’s concern about the Sidama referendum undermining  the illegal attempt to build a unitarist state with the unifying power at the centre does not hold water. Secondly, it is not clear if the author spoke to the Ethiopian Prime Minister or his spokesperson about the goal of the merger of the EPRDF. As far as we understand, the prime minister has not officially stated that the goal of merging the political parties in the EPRDF coalition into one party which he terms as prosperity party (pp), whatever that meant, was to dismantle the multinational federation and build a unitarist state with a unifying power at the centre. If the goal of the pp is to dismantle the multinational federation, and build a unitarist state with a unifying power at the centre, again this violates the current federal  constitution  and will be rejected with the contempt it deserves by all oppressed multinational federalist forces in the country.

There are no hopes of a unifying power at the centre that will be torn apart by the Sidama referendum. The Sidama referendum cemented the multinational federalism, a hard won victory by multitude of nations, nationalities and peoples to administer their own affairs themselves in their national regional states in the Ethiopian federation. The multinational federalism is non-negotiable and irreversible.

We wish to offer a word of advice to the author. Conduct a little research on the history of state formation and nations and peoples of Ethiopia. Read the current constitution of the FDRE which is the supreme law of the land. Engage both the unitarist and multinational federalist forces to understand the dynamics of the country’s politics. By the time you come out of your last session you realize that you owe the 79 oppressed nations in Ethiopia a humble apology and retract your unwarranted attack on the dignity of over 85 million people.

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