A. The demand for Statehood in Ethiopia
The government of Ethiopia under the Premiership of Abiy Ahmed has recorded outstanding achievements and faced multiple political challenges. One of the most memorable political events that occurred under Abiy Ahmed’s premiership is the conceding of statehood to the people of Sidama Zone in 2019, in response to a decades-long sustained struggle.
The granting of statehood to Sidama Zone has opened a Pandora’s box of political conundrums and a potential for instability in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR). As Hawassa city, which has been the administrative capital of the SNNPR, becomes the administrative capital of Sidama State, other Zones are in the process of determining a new administrative capital. This process has a disproportionate impact on the South Omo Zone, which is located in the southern periphery of the SNNPR.
Due to a combination of historical, socio-political, economic, and cultural reasons, the people of South Omo have continually demanded statehood for some time now. The government of Ethiopia, in a typical fashion, has delayed tackling the question through condescending political discussions. If the federal government does not address the demand for statehood from one of the most peaceful zones in the whole country, the consequences may be far greater than one might imagine. There will be a sense of marginalization, lack of belongingness and possibly sustained protests and violence all of which are inimical to economic development and prosperity.
B. Five Reasons in Support of South Omo’s Statehood
Today it appears that reasoned political discourse has no place in the current political environment of Ethiopia. Legitimate pleas for a better and more efficient governance structure are conveniently branded as ethno-nationalism. For three decades, under the government of Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Revolutionary Front (EPRDF), run by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), demanding statehood was labelled as an attempt to disintegrate the country. Now, this political strategy of misbranding, aimed at suppressing legitimate popular demand is still prevalent among political elites who over-zealously want to create a large government wherever it is possible. They ignore historical, socio-economic, cultural and local political contexts to achieve their ambition of big, corrupt and inefficient government structures. The time has come to reject such anachronistic political strategy and to examine alternative political ideas with reasonable and civil discourse.
In that spirit, this short memorandum invites the federal government to closely examine South Omo Zone’s demand for statehood rather than arrogantly dismissing it. The zone’s plea for statehood is a measured and appropriate response to an unjust political system and decades of marginalization. It is aimed at creating a more stable and sustainable self-administration. The memorandum provides five key reasons why South Omo Zone’s demand for statehood warrants an affirmative response from the federal government.
South Omo was directly accountable to the central government from 1891 to 1937 E.C. From 1938 to 1979 E.C, it was under the administration of Gamo Gofa Region (Kifle Hager). After the establishment of the Southern Region in 1980 E.C, it was renamed Region 10 (Kilil 10), when it resumed its status as a regional state. Subsequent to the 1984 regional council election, the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR) was formed with the merger of Regions 7-11(Kilil 7-11) including South Omo (Kilil 10).
The historical evidence suggests that South Omo witnessed stronger economic development and prosperity when it enjoyed the status of state. On the contrary, it witnessed significant economic disadvantages and marginalization under the SNNPR. The people of South Omo should not be denied their historical right to self-administration recognized by the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. According to Article 47(3), any Ethiopian Nation, Nationality or People has the right to form its own state. This right of the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of South Omo that has existed throughout history and is recognized by the constitution should be restored to them.
When South Omo Zone became a part of Gamo Gofa Region, its people made significant contributions to the development of the city of Arbaminch and its surrounding areas. Subsequent to the restructuring, which made South Omo part of SNNPR, South Omo integrated with SSNPR, yet its investment of resources into the development of Arbaminch have not been recognized.
Over the past several decades, the people of South Omo have similarly contributed massively to the development and prosperity of Hawassa. Hawassa, as the administrative capital of SNNPR, has for decades been a symbol of hope and unity for the people of South Omo. Subsequent to the granting of statehood to Sidama Zone, South Omo is once again on the verge of losing its hope and access to invaluable infrastructure in which it has invested for decades.
During these cycles of state restructuring, Jinka, the administrative capital of South Omo, has suffered from severe economic disadvantages as resources were directed to building the capacity of the regional capitals. Universities, technical training institutions, regional government offices, private investments, were all concentrated in those cities.
South Omo should no longer be required to endure this cycle of unproductive state restructuring that unfairly consumes its resources while undermining the people’s historical and constitutional right to self governance and economic prosperity.
The various ethnicities in South Omo Zone do not share linguistic and cultural similarities with Gamo Gofa, Konso and other ethnicities in the Sothern region. They also do not share common cultural heritage and psychological makeup with these neighboring nations and nationalities. Interms of economic development, South Omo is one of the Zones that still lags behind. The people of South Omo legitimately believe that it is unfair toorganize people with significant differences in language, culture, psychological makeup, and economic development under the same state structure. The current state structure will perpetuate the existing gap in the distribution of infrastructure and overall economic development and perpetuate South Omo’s slow economic development.
South Omo Zone is endowed with natural resources including minerals, agricultural and grazing lands, water resources, forests, national parks, fisheries, and a young labor force. The Zone is also one of the top tourist destinations in the country. The efficient and sustainable utilization of theseresources for local and national development and prosperity requires a strong state of self-governing nations, nationalities, and peoples. The granting of statehood to South Omo would ensure that a relatively smaller regional government mobilizes these resources without mismanagement and maladministration.South Omo zone is well situated to be a state in terms of population size (estimated to be over 1 Million People), natural resources, a strong sense of patriotism and Ethiopianism, history of longstanding peaceful co-existence of various ethnicities and commitment to local and national development.
In South Omo Zone, youth unemployment is increasing at an alarming rate due to the lack of specialized training institutions for youth who drop out of school or who are unable to attend universities and thus seek vocational training. This has created a gap in employability where new job posts are filled by youths coming from other regions while those born and raised in South Omo are considered unqualified and remain unemployed. In addition to the above challenges, the zone has generally poor infrastructure and public services including electricity, road, health services, financial services, roads and many other essential services. The granting of statehood to South Omo would create an opportunity to invest in various infrastructure and youth employment programs.
South Omo peoples’ demand for statehood should not be easily dismissed. The question is raised by the younger generation. It will define the future of politics in the Southern region. It is a justifiable demand, not only from the perspective of the right to self-administration but also from the standpoint of efficient administration of natural resources, good governance and democracy. It is proven in other countries that smaller governments manage their resources better fight against corruption more effectively and deliver public services, including responding to epidemics, more quickly and effectively.
South Omo Zone can be considered one of the most peaceful zones in Ethiopia where different ethnic groups co-exist. It has also had a long- standing friendly relationship with neighboring zones. The Zone will continue to represent modern Ethiopia for centuries to come. It will continue to demonstrate the strength that lies in diversity in its quintessential form. However, all of these will happen only if its nations, nationalities, and peoples are given back their historical and constitutional right to self-governance and prosperity. South Omo must regain its statehood for the good of its people and the people of Ethiopia and it should regain it now.
If the government continues to treat the people with condescension and engage in opaque behind-closed-door dialogues with selected individuals, it will be a consequential mistake that the government would regret in the future. True democracy, sustainable development, and prosperity cannot be achieved by arbitrary decision-making in government structure and over-centralized government.
Asress Adimi Gikay (PhD) is Lecturer in AI, Disruptive Innovation and Law at Brunel University London.