On November 20, Ethiopia’s Sidama people realised a dream decades old. Queuing from dawn until dusk to cast their ballots, more than two million voted in a watershed referendum on secession. Almost all backed a bid to break away. In a new, semi-autonomous state, the Sidama people will shape their own future unfettered by far-flung lawmakers – but some worry it could be the start of a frenzied unravelling of Ethiopia’s fragile federal system.

Ethiopians agitating to exercise their rights were once locked up or shot, such was their nation’s repressive set-up. But things have changed. Elected last year, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has worked tirelessly to kick-start a democratic revolution. His government has released thousands of political prisoners, repatriated exiled opponents, and made a point of approving the Sidama’s referendum request.

Their right to a vote on self-determination is enshrined in the country’s constitution. Any of Ethiopia’s over 80 ethnic groups can seek autonomy, according to the text – but fearing wider fragmentation, past rulers have been quick to quash independence impulses.          

Small wonder the shot at secession wasn’t to be passed up by the Sidama, Ethiopia’s fifth-biggest ethnic community. An astounding 99.8% of the electorate turned out, with all bar 1.5% backing a break-away. Their new state will be carved from the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR), and will command its own tax regime, education system, and security force.       

Reaching this point has not been easy – even with Abiy in office. For months his government dithered on the question of a referendum, postponing a vote scheduled for July. The consequences were catastrophic. Enraged at what they saw as a federal snub, the public rose in revolt. As civil unrest spread across the SNNPR, government troops clashed with protesters, and fifty lives were lost.  

The bloodshed’s shadow hung over the referendum campaign. Public rallies were banned and soldiers prowled the streets; but by-and-large, the vote was a peaceful affair. It was an expression of the nation’s “democratisation path,” the prime minister said afterwards, one that bodes well for his planned general election next year. 

Abiy hopes that vote will galvanise a sense of national unity, as he strives to steer the country away from its ‘ethno-federal’ roots. He plans to replace Ethiopia’s long-running party of government, the EPRDF, with the Prosperity Party, a new national coalition. This group will engender a different type of politics, he hopes – one that focuses more on policy than ethnicity. 

But Abiy’s dreams of reform are likely hindered by the Sidama vote. Following their neighbour’s lead, at least ten other groups in Ethiopia’s south are now demanding a ballot, experts believe. “[The] key question now is how Wolayta, Hadiya, Gurage, Keffa and other zones seeking statehood referendums will react,” said William Davison of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank.               

Their cause is being championed by former-exile Jawar Mohammed, an influential activist and vocal critic of the prime minister. In a post to his 1.75m Facebook followers, Jawar – who intends to stand in the forthcoming election – described the Sidama result as “one in the bag for federalists”, urging like-minded groups to “stand for self-determination”.

It is a message that resonates with many. But a speedy disintegration of the SNNPR would be dangerous, especially at a time of heightened ethnic unrest. Intercommunal conflict forced more than two million Ethiopians from their homes last year, according to the United Nations – and in recent weeks, there has been a marked upsurge in violence. 

On October 23, supporters of Jarwar took to the streets, blocking roads and burning copies of Abiy’s new book on the merits of national unity. Events then took a bloody turn, as the protesters – mostly young men of Oromo heritage – clashed with groups of Amhara, Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnicity.  

Skirmishes have continued sporadically ever since, claiming as many as 80 lives. Many of the victims were stoned to death. Others were killed in attacks on mosques and churches, hinting at a worrying religious development. 

This violence must be stamped out, but doing so won’t be easy. Abiy has wedded himself to a democratic path, but in doing so he risks inciting long-repressed ethnic tensions. Emancipated communities will coexist more peacefully, he hopes, but the opposite could also be true: emboldened racial groups at loggerheads over their new-found sovereignty. Either way, the road to further referendums now lies open. For better or worse, their results will reshape Ethiopia.

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