HAWASSA, Ethiopia (Reuters) – Activists in Ethiopia said Thursday a new region for their ethnic group Sidama, defying the central government, and some residents of the southern city of Hawassa worried that it could lead to violence.
The donkeys go through a billboard that says "Welcome to the Sidama Regional State State" on the outskirts of Hawassa, Ethiopia, July 17, 2019. REUTERS / Tiksa Negeri
The statement will be a fundamental test of whether the federal government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed can maintain its commitment to peaceful political reforms in the face of the growing demands of rival ethnic groups.
"The red berets, the special police force of the region, patrol with a shadowy face and pointed weapons. You can see special forces in all corners and small streets, "a resident of Hawassa told Reuters.
Some of his friends were so worried that violence broke out on Thursday he sent his women and children to the Addis Ababa national capital, he added.
The federal system in the second most populous nation in Africa is designed to allow the highest ethnic groups a degree of autonomy.
But smaller groups such as Sidama, which represent around 5% of the 105 million people in Ethiopia, say they have been marginalized. In addition to Sidama, at least eight ethnic groups are campaigning for their own regions.
The city of Hawassa is the capital of the multi-ethnic region of the southern nations, but some Sidama, which form the largest group in the region, consider it the capital of its new region.
Fasika Qedele, another resident of Hawassa, said it was time for Sidama's people to achieve self-government.
"The people of Sidama have been under repression for years and years. We are now very excited while on the eve of the statement of our self-administration, "he said, adding that people had the capacity and the educated work to do this.
On Wednesday, Hawassa streets were unusually quiet, as well as federal police truck patrols.
Outside the airport, the newly painted signs announced "Welcome to the Sidama Regional State".
A planning meeting between the elders and the activists who try to decide on a course of action for Thursday. Reuters journalists were asked to leave the meeting so some activists said it was their own security.
Some activists said the government would lose legitimacy if it responded to the declaration with violence.
"I do not think that the government chooses to disassemble resolving the use of force," said Tariku Lema, a youth activist. "If the government pursues this path, people will accelerate their struggle."
On Tuesday, the National Electoral Board tried to deactivate the situation at the last moment promising that the Sidama could hold a referendum to have their own region within five months.
But some activists said they had already called for a referendum one year ago without any response. The Constitution guarantees the right to a referendum in one year, but does not say what should happen if it is not done.
Tariku, Sidama's activist, said minorities would be protected in the new region like all other Ethiopians.
"As citizens, they would have the right to all the social and democratic rights of the constitution," he told Reuters.
Ethiopia has seen an explosion of violence since Abiy began its reforms, which included the prohibition of political parties, the release of political prisoners and the welcome to rebel groups.
More than 2.4 million Ethiopians have fled their homes due to drought or violence, according to the U.N., which makes it the country with the most displaced people in the world.
Report by Kumerra Gemechu; Additional reports by Dawit Endeshaw in Addis Ababa; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Frances Kerry's edition