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The Sidama People’s Self-Determination vis-à-vis the Ethiopian Constitution

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                      July 18, 2019

The Sidama people constitute a zone within the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Regional State (SNNRPS), and they have sought and demanded a separate regional state, and their demand has been approved by the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), one of the four parities in the EPRDF (governing party) coalition.

Self-rule and governance is not novice to the Sidama people; they have had effectively administered their livestock and coffee-rich zone as far back as the 9th century common era (CE), when they were a confederacy of mini-states (kingdoms) in the Gibe region until the late 19th century to the turn of the 20th century when they were incorporated into the Menelik-led Ethiopian Empire (nation-state). However, even during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, there was a Sidamo governorate-general (province) amongst the 13 provinces and later 14 provinces, when Eritrea was united with Ethiopia in 1962.1 On top of this, the Sidama people managed to preserve their culture, including their famous Fichee-Chamballala, a massive new year festival, whose central objective is peaceful coexistence, integration, equity, and good governance.

A year or so, when the Sidama people demanded self-determination, in an effort to facilitate their right enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution, the spokesperson for the SNNPRS, Helen Debebe Woldegiorgis, wrote a letter to the Ethiopian National Electoral Board (NEBE), and a copy of the same letter was also delivered to the Prime Minster office; the title of the letter (in Amharic) was ህዝብ ውሳኔ እንዲከናወን ስለመጠየቅ (Requesting the Implementation of a People’s Decision).

However, why the spokesperson sends a letter to the NEBE and not to the House of Federation is quite intriguing, and I like to address in this brief article the constitutional parameters with respect to self-determination and formation of a new state and also the mandate of the NEBE. First and foremost, any demand pertaining to self-determination and formation of a new state or secession should be discussed and decided in light of Article 9 of the Ethiopian Constitution, which clearly states the supremacy of the Constitution or the supreme law of the land. Moreover, sub-articles 2 and 3 of Article 9 respectively state: “All citizens, organs of state, political organizations, other associations as well as their officials have the duty to ensure observance of the Constitution and to obey it;” “It is prohibited to assume state power in any manner other than that provided under the Constitution.”

But the most relevant Articles to the Sidama or for that matter any other Ethiopian people seeking self-determination are Articles 39, 46, and 47. Article 39, sub-article 1 states, “Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession” but there are preconditions to this right of self-determination and secession. A careful examination of sub-article 4 of Article 39 actually makes it harder for states to wildly venture on their own and declare self-determination and go their own separate ways. Here are the component parts of sub-article 4 of Article 9:

The right of self-determination, including secession, of every Nation, Nationality and People shall come into effect:

a)    When a demand for secession has been approved by two-thirds majority of the members of the Legislative Council of the Nation, Nationality or People concerned;

b)    When the Federal Government has organized a referendum which must take place within three years from the time it received the concerned council’s decision for secession;

c)    When the demand for secession is supported by majority vote in the referendum;

d)    When the Federal Government will have transferred its powers to the council of the Nation, Nationality or who has voted to secede; and

e)    When the division of assets is effected in a manner prescribed by law.

What we can understand from Article 39, sub-article 4 is that the process of implementing secession, if approved, is a painstaking, slow, and discouraging enterprise although the rights embedded in the Article are at face value very tempting. We can draw a parallel here: although marriage of couples in a holy communion is rewarding and positively energizing, it is a much   easier performance compared to divorce, which is devastating and costly.

By the same token, if we observe article 46 of the Ethiopian Constitution at close scrutiny, although the language factor is mostly talked about in critical circles, it actually states that “States shall be delimited on the basis of the settlement patterns, language, identity and consent of the people concerned.” Based on Article 46, thus, Article 47 establishes the present regional states of Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Oromia, Somalia, Benishangul-Gumuz, Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples or SNNP (short for SNNPRS), Gambella, and Harar, but further careful examination of sub-article 3 of Article 47, is by and large a repeat of the preconditions of sub-article 4 of Article 39 enumerated above.

Regarding the implementation of the Sidama self-determination and subsequent formation of their own state, however, it looks that the House of Federation has been traversed or ignored, and as a result sub-article 3 of Article 62 has been violated, and on the contrary it is clear that mandate has been given to the Ethiopian National Electoral Board (ENEB). The latter agency was established by Proclamation number 64/1992 and answers to the House of the Peoples Representatives, and according to Article 6 of the amended Proclamation 532/2006, the Board of the NEBE consists of nine members who are nominated by the Prime Minister. Apparently, now, under PM Abiy Ahmed, the members of the Board have been reduced to five.

However, nowhere in the Constitution is mentioned the powers and prerogatives of ENEB to either supervise or implement matters related to self-determination and state formation. In flagrant violation of the Ethiopian Constitution, thus, “The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) released a statement yesterday stating it was conducting preliminary preparations in order to hold a referendum on the statehood request by the Sidama people of Southern Ethiopia within the next five months.”2 Contrary to the mandate given to the NEBE, the “powers and functions of the House of the Federation” as stipulated in Article 62, sub-article 3, “It shall, in accordance with the Constitution, decide on issues relating to the rights of Nations, Nationalities and Peoples to self-determination, including the right to secession”; and according sub-article 9 of the same Article, the House of Federation “shall order Federal intervention if any State, in violation of the Constitution, endangers the constitutional order.”

It is beyond the scope of the this paper to why and how the NEBE was given mandate to look unto the Sidama referendum, but it is abundantly clear that the present regime headed by PM Abiy Ahmed is operating outside the Constitution, the supreme law of Ethiopia, and that is very indicative that the rule of law is emasculated at this juncture of Ethiopian history. Having said this, I like to go back to how the plan to establish the regional states or Kilils was laid out originally, and touch upon the Sidama context in light of the new Ethiopia demarcated along language and ethnic lines.

Before Ethiopia was proclaimed a federal democratic republic (FDRE) constituting nine autonomous regional states, the original plan actually was to divide up Ethiopia into fourteen regional states, i.e. 12 regional states plus Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa as additional autonomous states, and the regional states (Kilils) of 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 would have fallen under the present SNNPRS, and Kilil 8 would have constituted the Sidama, Gedeo, Amaro, and Burji zones with their capital at Hawassa.3  That  arrangement was abandoned and the Sidama are now seeking an exit from the SNNPRS constellation that I called in my book “miniature Ethiopia”; put otherwise, the Sidama are devolving out or seceding from the body politic of the Debub or the Southern States.

Now, as stated earlier, SEPDM has recognized Sidama as an autonomous state on July 16, 2019, and as already discussed the mandate to facilitate the Sidama statehood has been given to NEBE, an agency that does not represent the Ethiopian nations and nationalities; on the other hand, the House of Federation which has 112 members and represents the nations and nationalities of Ethiopia ought to have facilitated the Sidama statehood formation; and according to Article 61, sub-article 2, “Each Nation, Nationality and People shall be represented in the House of Federation by at least one member. Each Nation or Nationality shall be represented by one additional representative for each one million of its population.” Such representation cannot possibly and meaningfully be accommodated by the NEBE; the Ethiopian people are represented in the Ethiopian parliament.

I was perplexed and flabbergasted when I watched on Ethiopian Television (ETV) on July 17, 2019 Mesele Gebrehiwot interviewing Birtukan Mideksa, Chair of NEBE, regarding the Sidama case. I understand that the news anchor is a government employee and should do what has been instructed by his bosses, but I wonder whether he knows the parameters o the constitution in regards to self-determination decision and implementation. By contrast, Birtukan Mideksa, a lawyer by profession and a former court Judge knows very well that her NEBE has no jurisdiction over the Sidama case, and I gather she also knows that Keria Ibrahim, the current spokesperson of the House of Federation, is the right person to view and handle the Sidama demand for self-determination. Paradoxically, the NEBE has now effectively taken matters what has been constitutionally mandated to the House of Federation.

Despite the violation of the Constitution, however, the Sidama people’s demand must be implemented following the procedures set forth by the Constitution. Nevertheless, whether the Sidama case is taken care of by the NEBE or the House of Federation, the Sidama people should move wisely and patiently in order to achieve their grand agenda of forming their regional state within the Ethiopian nation-state. Unilateral declaration of a Sidama State by ignoring the legal procedures could backfire unto the Sidama themselves and they could risk losing their sovereignty endowed and granted to them by the constitution. The Sidama elders and the Ejjeto (youth) should be more prudent than ever before and refrain from engaging in confrontations with the police and defense forces as it happened on July 18, 2019.


1.    Map 1 in Ghelawdewos Araia, Ethiopia: Democracy, Devolution of Power, and the Developmental State, Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA), 2013, p. 65

2.    Addis Standard, “Analysis: Electoral Board to hold Sidama referendum in five months, Dead Locks hit SEPDM”, July 17, 2019

3.    Map 3, Ghelwadewos Araia, op cit, p. 89

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