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What Ethiopians can learn from Sidama's thorny statehood journey

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By the end of November 2019, Ethiopia may have one more autonomous regional state within its borders. Late last month, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia has announced that a referendum to decide on the Sidama ethnic group's request for statehood will be held on November 13. The announcement came on the back of deadly clashes between Ethiopian security forces and activists seeking to unilaterally proclaim a Sidama regional state.

The Sidama are hoping to become the 10th member state of the Ethiopian Federation and they are almost certain to get their wish following the referendum. Nevertheless, giving the Sidama the autonomy they seek within the Ethiopian Federation is going to take a lot more than just a referendum, and delays and frustrations on the way may be unavoidable.

Ethnicity has been central to Ethiopia's political discourse since the emergence of the "nationality" question in the 1960s. The attempts of the former communist Derg regime to forge a common national identity around "scientific socialism" failed spectacularly and the regime was forced to allocate a great deal of human and material resources to battle rebel groups formed around ethnic identities throughout its reign.

Despite its repeated attempts to suppress many ethnic identities of the peoples of Ethiopia, in May 1991 forces loyal to various ethnic groups within the country took over control and formed a democratic republic based on ethnic federalism.

The Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four ethnic-based parties led by the Tigray People's Liberation Front, formed a transitional government and started governing the country. The biggest opposition force at the time, the Oromo Liberation Front, was similarly an ethnonationalist entity. The Ethiopianist/nationalist voices were in disarray and systematically excluded.

The transitional government constituted 14 regions, principally along ethnic lines. The 1995 constitution continued the ethnic-based federal arrangement, with a critical adjustment. The five regions that occupied the southern part of the country, including Sidama region, were merged into a single multi-ethnic Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples' Regional State (SNNPR).

The Sidama resisted the merger to no avail. The discontent was exacerbated by the fact that two ethnic groups with significantly lower population sizes, the Afar and Harari, were granted their own regional states.

The formation of SNNPR against the wishes of the Sidama was not the end of the story. Ethiopia's........

© Al Jazeera