Neither top-down administrative restructuring nor identity-based autonomy demands are likely to bring peace, democracy, and development to a forgotten corner of Ethiopia.
The spark that ignited calls to form a new Ethiopian region was a dispute over coffee.
Demonstrators accused federal authorities of airbrushing Kaffa’s rich history and demanded that a National Coffee Museum in the town finally open its doors.
“We were marginalized enough and neglected in every way,” reflected Muluken Mengesha, one of the leaders of the informal but influential Gurmasho (‘youth’ in the Kaffa language) movement, in a November 2022 interview. The authority’s statement, “denying our history proved that,” said the proud Kafficho who runs a printing business, speaking to Ethiopia Insight in Amharic but switching to Kaffii Noono to greet acquaintances in a Bonga hotel.
Back in 2018, after five days of protests, the demand became for Kaffa to carve its own region out of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Regional State (Southern Nations), a sprawling, multi-ethnic bloc undergoing slow-motion fragmentation since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took power in 2018.
That process—which may possibly presage the centrally driven break-up of other large regions—reflects a key tension in the ongoing transition that ensued: the prospect of political liberalization has meant very different things to different Ethiopian constituencies.
While many Ethiopian nationalists hoped it heralded the end of ethnic politics, other groups in Oromia region, in the south, and elsewhere in the country saw the power shift at the center as an opportunity for the full implementation of the 1995 constitution’s promise of untrammeled self-rule.
In Kaffa, and the south-west and south more broadly, those tensions have been playing out ever since, and have, like elsewhere in Ethiopia, involved considerable deadly violence between competing local communities and against those considered as outsiders, particularly Amhara.
Like other autonomy proponents in Ethiopia’s tumultuous identity-based federation, those in Kaffa say neglect by the center left them impoverished.
“Foreign researchers who come to this south-western sphere usually leave with pity and remark: ‘the richest area with the poorest people’,” observed Assefa Gebremariam, a good-humored, dapper 72-year-old local historian, at the coffee museum in October 2021.
The popular protests in November stimulated by the perceived slight to Kaffa’s heritage followed a public discussion in July and formation of a committee that presented Kaffa’s autonomy demands to the Prime Minister’s Office a month later.
Kaffa Zone Council approved a statehood request on 15 November 2018 and made a written request to the Southern Nations state council on 5 December, while there was a failed federal attempt to hold a meeting on the issue on 2 December 2019, just before the constitutional deadline for the regional council to organize a referendum. The Gurmasho protested in July 2019 and also on 6 December as the deadline elapsed.
Yet if self-rule was Kaffa’s persistent demand, the center’s eventual response was a new form of amalgamation.
With other nearby zones also demanding their own region under the constitution, Ethiopia’s new rulers engineered the creation of South West Ethiopia Peoples’ Regional State (South West), a combination of six administrative districts, which was formalized following a September 2021 referendum.
Since, the new region has become something of a political poster-child. “This is one big historical outcome of the reform,” claimed Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonen about what he called a “symbol of diversity” at a glitzy 22 June 2022 fundraiser for South West at the Sheraton Addis.
Yet, despite the federal fanfare, on the anniversary of its creation there were no visible signs of developmental benefits from the new structure, and only occasional signs for visitors that a new region was even established.
Since Abiy took office, in addition to South West, the largely mono-ethnic Sidama region was created from Southern Nations region following a sustained autonomy campaign there, while another referendum is promised for the most southerly zones.
Though, in theory, smaller regional units could enhance local democracy and service provision, there is little reason to think that will occur in practice, not least because autonomy-seeking elites are competing to capture benefits from a federal system that has dwindling budgetary resources to distribute, due to reduced growth and shifting central priorities.
Additionally, the manner of the restructuring promises to perpetuate not resolve political grievances.
That is primarily because, while the constitution indicates such administrative upgrading—and even outright secession from the federation—are purely matters of self-determination, that is not the case in practice. Instead, the critical factors are politics and power.
These days, the approach of the all-powerful national Prosperity Party is to coax and coerce local southern elites to combine into multi-ethnic clusters.
Previously, for almost three decades, the omnipotent four-party Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) used iron-fisted enforcement of party discipline—backed up by a fearsome security apparatus in what was also essentially a one-party state—to prevent any administrative restructuring at the regional level, although there was plenty at sub-regional tiers.
One way this prevailing top-down reality can be seen in the past few years is through the unequal treatment given to comparable local southern demands. For example, the zones in what may become a south-central region requested statehood around the same time as those in the south-west, but the former have not been ‘granted’ a referendum by the powers-that-be.
For experts on Ethiopia’s federal system such as Yonatan Fessha, the top-down management creates problems—even in those areas that have been granted referendums.
“What makes outcomes from autonomy demands legitimate and successful is an open and fair process of self-determination,” said the law professor at the University of the Western Cape and Research Chair in Constitutional Design for Divided Societies. “I’m afraid that didn’t happen in the south so far either under this government or previous ones, and instead we’ve seen one-sided decisions that were influenced by the political elite and the ruling party.”
While the people of the south-west have always lived together and in the past were even administered as one, some question whether regional statehood can help meet the long-held demands of minority groups for increased development and political representation, and quell the inter-communal clashes in the area.
The critics agree with Yonatan that the formation of the new region was heavily influenced by the Prosperity Party, and that there was insufficient public consultation. In this view, the procedure in which new states are formed will have lasting negative effects.
Initially, leaders in Addis Abeba, including Prime Minister Abiy, were unmoved by the proliferating statehood demands and appealed to the Southern Nations zones to remain together. This position was based on the recommendations in a 2019 study conducted by the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), the then-ruling EPRDF coalition’s regional party in Southern Nations.
These sentiments were later echoed through a group of 83 Peace Ambassadors drawn from across the south established in January 2020 by the Office of the Prime Minister.
What seems to have nudged the door ajar is the persistent and powerful Sidama autonomy movement.
“The demands for statehood by several groups in the South West, including ours, was pushed to the forefront and became stronger after the state council’s approval of the Sidama request in November 2018,” said Fikre Aman, the former chief administrator of Bench Sheko Zone who is currently a member of the House of Federation, in an interview with Ethiopia Insight on 9 October 2018 in Addis Ababa during meetings about South West region.
However, for a time, the regional legislature and the SEPDM, didn’t respond to referendum requests from zones within the south-west and elsewhere. As was true in the past, the party-state’s response simply reflected its leaders’ priorities.
But as the Sidama movement fueled other statehood demands, the committee of Peace Ambassadors headed by Abadula Gemeda, an EPRDF veteran who became a key ally of Abiy, was assigned to discuss with the public and southern elites, then table recommendations to respond to the growing statehood requests.
The group’s initial report with its findings and recommendations—from public discussions it held across Southern Nations zones with statehood demands from 16-20 March 2020—was presented to the southern elites and officials in May 2020 at the Prime Minister’s Office. The deliberations on the report were tense and opposed by some ethnic groups.
For example, one of the ideas the report floated was to constitute the Wolayta, Gamo, Gofa, and Dawro zones into a new North Omo state. North Omo was a zone where the EPRDF had previously tried to engineer a new ethno-linguistic identity and language for these same groups in the late 1990s, an ill-conceived initiative that led to deadly violence.
After some twists and turns, the peace group updated its report with a proposal and presented it to Southern Nations zonal and special wereda heads for deliberations in a Prime Minister’s Office session on 9 June 2020.
The proposal was to split Southern Nations into three geographic cluster regions—namely, Omotic, South Central, and South West regions. Although the peace group didn’t explicitly mention Sidama, its proposal would effectively mean dividing Southern Nations into four.
The blueprint included Dawro Zone and five other administrative units under the South West cluster, and a referendum for that new region was eventually held a little over a year later.
As matters stand, the South West region is the only tangible result of this centrally directed process, but, with a referendum on the way for the Omotic group, it seems safe to assume that in time more regions will be carved out of Southern Nations according to federal priorities.
This may also be the case in the populous Oromia and Amhara regions, where assertive ethno-nationalism presents a challenge to the center and elicits hostility from Ethiopian nationalists.
Any moves to break up those regions may well be vociferously opposed, as is currently occurring in Gurage where there is ongoing strong resistance to the idea of the zone being incorporated into a South Central Region.
Experts caution that the heavy hand of the new ruling party and federal government in the making of South West and elsewhere in the south could be costly in the long run. Legitimizing elite decisions as the people’s will, federalism expert Yonatan argues, will have negative repercussions, particularly in multi-ethnic regions.
Marishet Mohammed Hamza, a doctoral student at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, emphasizes the procedural irregularities that have occurred to ensure federal control.
He points out that the House of Federation, the upper house of parliament, handled the process when, according to the constitution, it should have been managed by the Southern Nations assembly. The House of Federation’s role as an appellate body is only supposed to kick in if the regional council has failed to properly adjudicate the matter.
“The House of Federation suspiciously worked beyond its mandate and over others,” he concluded.
The flipside of this federal manipulation is a relative lack of popular participation, which reduces the chances of some sort of democratic dividend resulting.
Ideally, the public would have thoroughly deliberated and understood the potential pros and cons of forming a new region. However, as was the case elsewhere in the south, there was limited zonal-level consultation in the south-west.
“Almost no information was available about the process to create the state,” Yonatan argued, raising similar reservations he had about the Sidama referendum.
The youth, active in asking for statehood in places like Kaffa, had little say. A week after the referendum, plenty of residents of zonal capitals, including Bonga and Mizan Aman, appeared unenthused about the prospect of forming the new region.
In rural areas, where the needs are the greatest, there is more support for the new region, but less understanding of the process and its details.
Back in 2018 as the transition got underway, such currents were manipulated by both the South West elite and regional political leaders.
In August of that year, Muferiat Kamil, the SEPDM chair and federal Minister of Peace from October 2018 to October 2021, argued that public demands in the south were more about poor service delivery, maladministration, and development than merely statehood, which, she said, was pushed by some self-interested elites.
In contrast, Terefe Tadesse, one of the peace ambassadors and a Prosperity Party representative from a Shey-Bench constituency in Bench-Sheko Zone, argues that people largely bought into the rationale behind creating a new region.
“The public wants the new state because it has demands for services to be nearby” as it experienced during the transitional period in the early 1990s, said the 34-year-old, a coffee and spices exporter as well as a politician. “The elite might have pushed the issue from an administrative and political end, but the public equally knows the benefit.”
Similarly, Fikre, the former Bench-Sheko Zone Chief Administrator, claims the EPRDF regime had suppressed popular statehood demands and this pent-up sentiment became visible during public meetings in recent years.
“It was one of the untouchable issues, a taboo,” he said about the EPRDF era. “It is a question which has been raised by the people for many years.”
Undoubtedly, the creation of a new region always had proponents among both the ruling and opposition elite in the area.
For instance, the Kaffa People’s Democratic Union (KPDU), an opposition party that emerged during the transitional government period in the 1990s but was dissolved in 1994, was one of those parties that opposed the creation of the Southern Nations bloc and vied for Kaffa’s self-government.
In December 2019, the KPDU was reestablished as a party and placed statehood foremost on its agenda. It gained some support after becoming vocal about the referendum’s postponement and threatened to withdraw from the June 2021 election because of the issue.
During the election, some young Kaffichos criticized the KPDU as an “ethnic party”, while others claimed that its members were former SEPDM now pushing for autonomy after they lost out during the transition.
Yet, its leaders today, many of whom were not among its first generation, argue otherwise. “This is the south-western peoples’ win,” said Kifle Mesesha, an executive committee member.
Rejecting the allegation of opportunism, Kifle and the KPDU Secretariat instead accuse the Prosperity Party of the same. “Its cadres have been manipulating the public to believe that it is only their party that can realize the creation of the new state,” Kifle claims.
For years, people in the south-west have cited a lack of equitable development and political representation as rationales for statehood. It remains unclear whether the new region will address such concerns, not least because more resources may well not be available as the zones that comprise South West have been relatively weak performers in terms of revenue collection.
So far, due in part to the lack of a national census, South West’s budget is comparable to what its constituent zones were previously allocated from the Southern Nations total. This has tied the hands of the new regional leadership.
“Let alone pursuing and executing bigger developmental projects, it is not enough to cover costs to deliver basic services and existing projects,” South West President Negash Wagesho, a technocrat from Dawro, told the regional assembly in Bonga on 10 August.
Given the budgetary shortfall, it will be critical for South West to increase its regional income, and for a new subsidy formula to be adopted when a national census is finally held.
Additionally, owing to poor infrastructure, these areas have been detached from both the center and one another. For instance, because the quickest route is via Addis Ababa, it is about 713 kilometers to travel from Bonga to the former regional government offices in Hawassa.
“Most people in the region have never set foot in Hawassa,” said Terefe, the Shey-Bench politician. “A considerable amount of the yearly budget from [the regional government] to zones in the South West is spent on overhead costs, usually for transport and meetings of officials to Hawassa.”
This, along with a bloated payroll for state employees, is therefore one area where resources can be reallocated towards improving public services in the new region.
While distance is a challenge across much of Ethiopia, as Prime Minister Abiy argued during a 2019 public meeting in Kaffa, in the south-west the normal urban-rural dichotomy has been exacerbated by state neglect and repression.
While the area possesses many natural resources, including valuable metals and minerals such as iron and gold, much of South West lacks basic services.
One notable exception is the Southern Nations Supreme Court, which opened a branch in Bonga. Such measures ease the burden of travel to Hawassa, but other deficits remain, such as poor road infrastructure and health facilities.
Tekle Bezabih, the young former chief administrator of Dawro Zone who is now head of the South West Justice Bureau of the Dawro Zone, believes that if there were comprehensively decentralized basic services, demands for statehood would not have come this far.
The federal administration that came to power in 2018 has been active in two areas that are now part of the new region, Dawro Zone and Konta Special District. This is done through the Koysha Project, a tourism initiative driven by Abiy.
“When the Ethiopian leaders succeeding me come to this place, it will be to enjoy the Chebera Churchura park and Guranto fountains; it will not be to answer [your] questions of road infrastructure,” Abiy predicted before crowds in Tercha on 7 March 2020.
But, if past practice is any guide, such projects do not sufficiently address developmental needs.
For example, the nearby Gibe III dam appeared to benefit these zones because it led to the construction of roads that connected their districts. Yet many residents say that the dam has only led to an increase in traffic on the Sodo-Tercha-Chida road, the main road between the capitals of Wolayta, Dawro and Konta, and added 70 kilometers to the route, a blow for those from the South West who depend on Wolayta’s markets.
While there has been an improvement during the federal era in the representation of minority southern groups, their political agency continues to be limited to the lower levels of government. Though some beg to differ, there is little sign that this will change with the creation of South West.
From 1995 to 2019, the EPRDF controlled Southern Nations’ political affairs through the SEPDM. This was evidenced by the making and remaking of the Southern Nations, along with how local governance and statehood questions were handled. In the absence of a strong opposition, the ruling party had a free hand to govern and quashed any challengers that did emerge.
For some, little has changed.
The South West’s politicians are “familiar faces, who for years have been loyal to the interests of the ruling party,” argued Dereje Korkoba, a psychology lecturer at Mizan Tepi University.
This lack of south-western agency is felt acutely at the regional and federal levels.
Melkamu Shegeto is a Kafficho opposition figure who ran for a Kaffa federal parliament seat in 2021 for the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA) opposition party.
“When was the last time you saw a Gurage-, Kembatta-, or a Hadiya-born President [of Southern Nations region] or a Kafficho in a key federal position? There were none,” he argues. In his opinion, power in the south has been dominated by the Sidama.
Melkamu hopes that, by enhancing local government, South West will help people hold elected officials to account and allow them to exercise more political agency.
“Politicians from South West areas in the region have not been accountable or transparent to the people they represent. That is because they are too far from it physically and emotionally,” Melkamu said. “The new state will change that.”
Terefe, who was elected in 2021, has become an influential figure from within the Bench, the main group in the Bench-Sheko Zone. He sees better public administration ahead. “There is more commitment than ever before.”
One challenge, however, is that becoming a region will not automatically solve pre-existing problems, such as the lack of political pluralism.
In Kaffa, those in the opposition, such as the KPDU and Kaffa Green Party, tend towards Melkamu’s view that the Prosperity Party is a new entity in name only.
Dereje, the lecturer, is also from Bench-Sheko and supported South West’s creation. He is more critical of the centralizing Prosperity Party than Terefe, but believes South West still gives the people a better chance of development.
“It is better to have a new state and work on that than continue to be despised and forgotten as people,” he said. “We are, at least, no more under southern heels.”
From March 2021, Mitiku Bedru, a hydrologic engineer, led a project office for the South West referendum.
When Ethiopia Insight spoke to Mitiku back in October 2021, the office was making plans for a public consultation and review of the draft constitution.
The process involved the creation of a taskforce to oversee and review its contents, such as the official language and, crucially, the designation of a state capital—one of the most divisive issues, mainly between elites from Mizan Aman in Bench-Sheko and Bonga in Kaffa.
Determining the administrative capital is no easy task because South West does not have a dominant group. The competition around this issue is so fierce because of the economic benefits in terms of government jobs and spending that come with being the administrative center.
Therefore, a novel element in South West’s constitution, which was approved on the regional state’s official formation day, is the creation of a multi-city state capital.
What this focus suggests is that the administrative restructuring is as much about trying to capture state resources and investment as it is about improving local democracy, public services, and overall governance.
One of those who has objected is Muluken, the Kafficho Gurmasho leader from Bonga. After being inspired by Abiy, Muluken joined Prosperity Party during its late 2019 founding, partly to “help the Gurmasho push and Kaffa’s pursuit for statehood.”
However that hope was short-lived.
He wrote a resignation letter to South West Prosperity Party office in August 2020 that was circulated on Kaffa social media circles portraying him as a heroic Gurmasho who stood for his people.
The letter criticized how the region was being administered and said the multi-capital policy typified an “authoritarian” top-down approach.
Political wrangling aside, a series of serious inter-communal conflicts also jeopardize progress in South West.
It remains to be seen whether the new region will alleviate the drivers of conflict, especially in a national environment of increasing political polarization over clashing visions of a more integrated Ethiopia or a federation that hands more de jure and de facto power to identity-based administrations.
The violence has at times involved attacks against ethnic Amharas and is exacerbated by more demands for sub-regional administrations. At least three of the South West’s five zones—Bench-Sheko, Sheka, and Western Omo—are dealing with such requests, and attendant multi-layered security problems.
For instance, residents of Yeki Wereda and Tepi town of Sheka Zone, whose population is composed of about eighteen ethnic groups and are claimed by the Sheko and Majang, have continued to engage in brutal conflict that has killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands.
For people like Dereje, a Sheko, Southern Nations politics has inflicted a double harm, as minorities such as his are subject to dominant groups both at the local and regional levels.
Episodes of bloody local conflicts in the Maji area between the Surma, Dizi, and Me’ent groups have also continued, even while the area’s rich cultural mosaic continues to draw in Western tourists.
In Western Omo Zone, several groups, mainly the Suri in the Surma District of Maji Zone, are still under the suspicion of the federal and regional special forces. They have lived under surveillance amid the continuation for decades of inter-communal conflicts in Maji.
Twenty-six-year-old Ephrem, a member of the Southern Nations Special Forces that was previously stationed in Surma Wereda, said last year that he lost many colleagues. “This is one of the most dangerous areas not only in South West but also across the country,” he said. “Sometimes, you have to deal with armed groups and sometimes traditional archers.”
The Abiy administration’s response to local-level grievances in Southern Nations, and perhaps elsewhere going forward, has been territorial restructuring. While that may serve various political purposes, it creates new struggles over power sharing and does not address minority demands.
Whether justified or not by the reality on the ground, South West has become the political showpiece of the Prosperity Party’s hasty response to statehood questions. But the degree to which the ruling party has controlled the procedure of creating new regions does not bode well for the ability of the strategy to mitigate conflict and address long-standing issues of constrained economic opportunities and political representation.
In sum, without improved respect for the rule of law, and more resources, it is doubtful that South West, or any other new regional state, can adequately meet demands for peace, development, and democracy.
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Main photo: Supporters campaign for a referendum on the formation of South West region. Decha district, Kaffa Zone, 24 September 2021; Abi Tadesse.
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