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The Sidama’s quest for self-rule: A study of the referendum on regional statehood


On 14 and 15 January 2020, the European Institute of Peace presented a report entitled “Sidama’s quest for self-rule: a study of the referendum on regional statehood” in Addis Ababa, to an audience of politicians, policy makers, activists,academics and researchers, civil society organisations, and interested citizens of Ethiopia.

This study, conducted by Professor Kjetil Tronvoll with Filata Boroje and Kairedin Tezera on behalf of the Institute, assesses the referendum that was held among inhabitants of the Sidama zone Ethiopia on 20 November 2019.

An overwhelming majority voted in support of regional statehood for Sidama directly under the Ethiopian federation – rather than remaining as an administrative zone under the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR), the other option in the referendum. The authors analyse the period leading up to, during, and after the referendum.

The report demonstrates that while the referendum process as a whole was conducted peacefully and orderly, there were issues of concern at each stage of the referendum. During the preparatory phase, issues ranged from institutional dilatoriness to outbursts of violence. There were concerns over voter registration, and the dominance of the “yes”-campaign which may have intimidated individuals or minority groups inclined to vote “no”. On voting day, various irregularities were reported, eventually leading to an annulment of nearly 11% of all votes cast. In the aftermath of the referendum, the results announcement was delayed a number of times. Various explanations for these issues of concern are proposed in this report, and the role of National Election Board Ethiopia (NEBE) in the referendum is discussed.

The report looks at the procedures for the establishment of a separate Sidama Regional State and its future relationship with the SNNPR. Issues to be tackled include the transfer of state powers, the sharing of assets and liabilities, the status of Hawassa, protection of non-Sidama minorities, and the establishment of an interim Regional Council. Failing to address these may complicate or thwart the consolidation of a capable, capacitated, and sustainable Sidama regional state rule. Finally, while the authors argue that the referendum cannot be considered a litmus test, a number of lessons for the preparation of the general elections of 2020 are outlined.