By Giulia Paravicini
HAWASSA, Ethiopia (Reuters) – Awol Beyene got married on Sunday in a white tuxedo, with his voting card in one hand and his bride’s hand in the other.
On Wednesday, Awol’s Sidama people will vote in a referendum on whether to form their own self-governing region in southern Ethiopia, as sweeping reforms under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed have emboldened ethnic groups to demand more rights.
The vote “makes us super excited – even more than our wedding,“ 22-year-old Awol said proudly, as he and his new wife posed for photographs at a traffic circle in Hawassa, the regional capital.
“The question of Sidama’s statehood has been ongoing for more than 130 years. It is an issue for which our forefathers made heavy sacrifices,” he said.
If the referendum passes, the Sidama, Ethiopia’s fifth largest ethnic group, who make up around 4 percent of the country’s 105 million population, will gain control over local taxes, education, security and laws.
The vote is being watched closely by other ethnic groups from among more than 80 that make up Ethiopia. More than a dozen other groups are considering demanding similar votes.
The right is enshrined in the constitution, but has become a reality only now under Abiy, who in just over a year in power has made peace with long-term foe Eritrea – for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize last month – and enacted large-scale change in what was once one of Africa’s most tightly controlled countries.
New freedoms under Abiy have encouraged regional aspirations for self-rule, but also led to a surge in ethnic nationalism that some fear could lead to more unrest.
“The Sidama referendum is the first real test on the constitutional principle that all ethnic groups may become direct members of the federation with their own regional state,” said Kjetil Tronvoll, peace and conflict studies professor at Bjørknes University in Oslo.
It could “inspire other vulnerable minority groups to seek regional statehood,” which could lead to “huge operational challenges for Ethiopia”, he said.
The Sidama homeland would be carved out of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNP) region, the most ethnically diverse part of Ethiopia, a rural region of around 20 million people that borders on Kenya and South Sudan.
The Sidama people want the multiethnic regional capital, Hawassa, located 275 km from Addis Ababa, to be their own city. Members of other groups worry about being disenfranchised.
“If the referendum succeeds I fear for the safety of the Wolaita people and for other minority ethnic groups, as there is no rule of law currently in the country and this might lead to a security crisis. Everything is possible at the moment,” said Hailemichael Lemma, an activist whose Wolaita people live mainly in an SNNP district adjacent to Sidama territory.
But the enthusiasm of the Sidama themselves is unmistakable. Astatke Abebe, a Sidama businessman based in the capital Addis Ababa, said he had provided transportation for his family and employees to travel back home to register to vote.
“No one will miss this day, God forbid, unless it is a matter of life or death, it is simply a day we will not miss.”
(Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Katharine Houreld and Peter Graff)