Time for Ethiopia to Bargain with Sidama over Statehood

Leaders of the Sidama people in southern Ethiopia have threatened to unilaterally declare their own regional state within Ethiopia’s federation on 18 July 2019. Each of the country’s ethnic groups is constitutionally entitled to a vote on forming a new state if its governing council requests one. The poll is supposed to take place within a year of the request, which in the Sidama’s case came on 18 July 2018. Yet with the deadline for the vote only two weeks away, the Ethiopian authorities have neither set a date nor started preparations. If poorly managed, Sidama statehood aspirations could fuel violence and deepen an ongoing crisis within Ethiopia’s ruling coalition. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and other coalition leaders should seek agreement with Sidama leaders, ideally on a later referendum date. If that proves impossible, and the Sidama declare a new state unilaterally, then their leaders should delay the state’s implementation while the parties resolve contentious issues. Deploying the army to stop the Sidama from declaring statehood, as Abiy seems ready to do, risks provoking greater bloodshed.