The Ethiopian Election Board declares 13 November 2019 as the date for the Sidama Referendum with Unconstitutional Preconditions

The Ethiopian Election Board declares 13 November 2019 as the date for the Sidama Referendum with Unconstitutional Preconditions

By The Sidama Observer, 31 August 2019

Sidama elder wears a cap with an imprinted Sidama region flag as he attends a meeting to declare a new region in Hawassa. File picture: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

Nearly two months after the expiration of the 12 month constitutional deadline to conduct a referendum to establish the Sidama National Regional State, the controversial National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) declared 13 November 2019 as the date for the Sidama referendum. The decision follows the 18-20 July 2019 massacre of over one hundred Sidama civilians by the defence forces  using the pressure by the civilian youth movement on the Sidama administrative council to consider unilateral declaration of the Sidama Regional State after the end of the 12 month constitutional referendum deadline. Over 2500 youth are currently in jail across Sidama in a crackdown aimed at dismantling the civilian pressure group known in Sidama language as Ejjeetto, the heroes.

The announcement of the date for the Sidama referendum heralds a major positive step to address the age-old demand by the Sidama people, the fifth largest nation in Ethiopia for self determination in accordance with the rights enshrined in the country’s current federal constitution.

Nevertheless, the NEBE declaration of the date for the Sidama referendum comes with the unconstitutional  strings attached. First, the NEBE demands that the council of the old regional state the SNNPRS  promulgates laws governing the rights of the Sidama people in their land of Hawassa vis a vis the rights of the old regional state the SNNPRS which also adopted Hawassa since 1993 as their capital.  Secondly, the NEBE demands that the council of the SNNPRS passes laws protecting the rights of  other ethnic groups currently living in Sidamaland. These two preconditions are not only beyond the constitutional mandate of the NEBE and hence unconstitutional but also meant to undo the very right to a referendum that the NEBE appeared to endorse.

The NEBE is mandated to only organize polls for elections and referenda. It is no mandated to make execute other legal or administrative decisions that are within the realms of the executive and legislative branches of government. The NEBE acted unconstitutionally when it meddles in the affairs of the Hawassa city which will without any doubt remain the capital city of the Sidama Regional State as it has been the capital city of Sidama since 1978.

The new SNNPRS region which will comprise 55 other ethnic groups in the southern part of Ethiopia, will have no geographical connectivity with Hawassa whatsoever after Sidama establishes its own Regional State. The new SNNPRS (55 ethnic groups) will have no choice but select one of the other cities in the south such as Arbaminch, Hosana, Wolkite or any other city as their new capital. It is inconceivable that a new region which has no geographic link with Hawassa  intends to adopt this city as its capital. This would amount to Oromia choosing Jijiga as its capital or Amhara choosing Mekele as its capital.

The leaders in the south not only lack goodwill but also imagination. Instead of striving to develop one more city in the south to a level of Hawassa, particularly in the resource rich zones such as Kaficho and Maji which are the third and fourth largest coffee producers in the south, they endlessly moan and groan about Hawassa somebody else’s land. This is the worst form of lack of leadership, imagination, goodwill and  accountability to the people. Even if  Hawassa had any geographic link with the new SNNPRS it would not have been an ideal location for most parts of the southern region. For instance, the people in Benchi and Maji zones travel for two to three days to reach Hawassa through Addis Ababa for any routine administrative affairs or to seek justice which entails massive transport and logistics costs with massive wastage on limited resources that could be used to address poverty.  The sad reality is that when the politicians are not accountable to the people they govern, delivering social and economic services to the people does not matter. Attempts by the SEPDM leaders to never leave Hawassa is a disturbing level of madness and an absolute and blatant disregard to the interests and the will of the peoples of the remaining 55 ethnic groups who wish to develop their own towns and areas.

The NEBE demand for the promulgation of laws to protect the rights of people from other ethnic groups living in Sidama is  even more disturbing. The Ethiopian constitution provides adequate legal protection to any citizen to live and work in any part of the country. The Sidama Regional State will remain part of the FDRE as the 10th regional state. All federal laws applicable in FDRE are equally applicable in the Sidama Regional State. The draft constitution of the Sidama National Regional State is fully anchored on the constitution of the FDRE  and protects the rights of all Ethiopians living in Sidama as do the constitutions of the other nine Ethiopian states.

Thus, the NEBE preconditions are unconstitutional and untenable. The NEBE is reminded to retract these illegal preconditions and discharge its constitutional duties to conduct the Sidama referendum on 13 November 2019 as planned. Any attempt to link the execution of the referendum  to these illegal preconditions will be challenged in courts of law.

In addition to  these hurdles, the NEBE announcement of the Sidama referendum is also mired with other government measures that undermine the smooth execution of the referendum.  Chief among these hurdles are the imposition of the state of emergency and the continued incarceration of 2500 youth who spearheaded the demand to establish the Sidama regional state.  The government should lift the state of emergency and release all political prisoners to conduct  free and fair Sidama referendum.

Failing these, the government will be taking one step forward and two steps backward on the crucial demand of the Sidama people to exercise their constitutional rights to self administration.

Lift state of emergency in Sidama.

Release all youth Ejjeetto!!