Can A Unified Ethiopia Exist Under The Country’s Current Constitution?

Ethiopia’s 1995 constitution created states based on ethnicity and promised elections to any that could meet the standards. Now concerns are growing that the nation could fracture along ethnic lines.

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Imagine a Constitution that allows any ethnicity to create its own state. That means they will have their own president and security force. Ethiopia’s Constitution guarantees just that. And a recent vote is bringing up questions about whether a unified Ethiopia can continue to exist. NPR’s Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Like a lot of big cities in Ethiopia, Hawassa is majority minority. This is a nation with scores of ethnicities all trying to make it work in the federation. This market is run by minorities. So the day before a vote to decide whether to form a new ethnically defined state was scheduled, there is a ton of nervousness.

Most people declined to talk, but Nehema, who only gives her first name, calls me over. She is heartbroken about this referendum.

NEHEMA: (Through interpreter) Really sad. If they get the independence, if they win, I will feel sad, very sad, because we have been together for a long time. We have eat together. We have – get married together.

PERALTA: To her, this feels like a divorce. She’s sold a local bread called injira for years at this market. She’s raised her kids in this town. This is home. But now, her neighbors from the majority Sidama are looking to form their own ethnic enclave.

NEHEMA: (Through interpreter) After the referendum, if they win, they will deport us for sure. And that is our fear.

PERALTA: That fear is not unfounded. Over the past two years, more than 2 million Ethiopians have been displaced because of ethnic violence. Right here in Hawassa last summer, stores were looted and burnt, and people who were not from the majority were driven off their lands.

In the past, Ethiopia was held together by a central government. Through violence and repression, reformist Abiy Ahmed has shown restraint. And in response to the violence this summer, he offered a vote. To Nehema, this feels like minorities aren’t being protected.

NEHEMA: (Through interpreter) Abiy is the one who create them and who brought this problem.

KIYA TSEGAYE: The Constitution has given greater attention to ethnicity. You know, ethnicity defines everything in Ethiopia.

PERALTA: That’s constitutional scholar Kiya Tsegaye. He says since ethnic federalism was adopted in 1995, the Constitution has been seen as a panacea, an end to historic injustices, an entrave into development. So today, it is the Sidama people seeking statehood, but right behind him are dozens of others.

TSEGAYE: I understand their claim, the pain. You know, I – but it’s not going to be an end by itself.

PERALTA: Kiya says this constitution almost guarantees Ethiopia will implode. This is a country, after all, that hasn’t even settled border disputes with most of its neighbors. What happens now as new states pop up, as politicians who have pushed to deepen Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism vie for newly created presidencies and vice presidencies and cabinet positions?

TSEGAYE: The elites should come to their senses and understand that if this country is not going to be for all of us, it will be for none of us.

PERALTA: On voting day in Hawassa, polling stations are set up in military tents. That same Constitution made this promise, too, democratic elections for an ancient country that has never had them. And for the first time, millions lined up, convinced their vote would count. For the first time, turnout exceeded 90%. Ligeet Erbamu woke up before the sun rose. He put on his best suit, threw on a hat and a tie and picked out his fanciest cane.

Do you always dress this nice?

LIGEET ERBAMU: (Laughter).

PERALTA: He tells me he’s 99. At times, he says, Sidama people have been ridiculed for speaking their language. Some have had to leave home to be educated because they weren’t allowed to study alongside the ruling ethnicities. Over the years, he says, he has seen friends die for the promise of this Constitution. So today, he had to wear a suit.

ERBAMU: (Through interpreter) This is the day that we are looking for since a long time.

PERALTA: There was little doubt that this referendum would pass and Ethiopia would get its tenth state. In the coffee region above the city, everyone had voted by noon. So Yitina Belay, a politician in the region, was taking his lunch, proud that Ethiopia was moving forward with ethnic federalism. I ask him why that is so important.

YITINA BELAY: (Through interpreter) We believe in (unintelligible). But the problem is, their own governments, they have tried to conquer Ethiopia as one. But they were destructive. A lot of people died.

PERALTA: Even the ancient monarchies had to use overwhelming force to keep Ethiopia together. So in 1995, after the communist regime had been toppled and after years of bloody civil war, this was the compromise, he says – end the fighting by giving dozens of ethnicities a chance to be celebrated, a chance to stay or go.

BELAY: (Through interpreter) That is only solution – the only option we have.

PERALTA: The only way to keep Ethiopia together, he says, is to tear it apart.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Hawassa, Ethiopia.

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