In Depth Analysis: As the Sidama state prepares for its first year anniversary, a look at past challenges, future plans

Monuments Commemorating Sidema Struggle and its Heroes

By Etenesh Abera @EteneshAb

Addis Abeba, July 03/2021 – Sidama Liberation Movement (SLM) is one of the oldest political parties in the country formed during the Derg era to fight for the right to self-determination for Sidama people. The Derg regime at that time answered the demands of the Sidama people like its neighbouring people by using force to quell their demands. Forceful induction of children into the national army, the mechanism of village formation and other related methods explained by adherence to the socialist ideology, led the people of Sidama to rebel against the Derg government. The term ‘ Ejeetoo’ was introduced at the time to distinguish youth fighting against the regime from the rest. 

In 1978 a year before the official formation of SLM in Somalia, Sidama fighters and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) fighters entered an agreement to fight beside each other due to shared political, social and economic interests of the two people. From 1979 – 1983 heavy fighting was going on between the Dergu and SLM fighters. After a lot of machinations in addition to the fighting the SLM high commanders like Woldeamanuel Dubale order to stop the fighting for the sake of the fighters before they exiled to England. 

In 1991 when the Ethiopia People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition took power in Addis Abeba, SLM was one of the parties that were invited to be a member of the transitional government. Two seats were allocated for SLM; the seats were occupied by Wolede Amanuel Dubale, SLM Founder and Chairman at the time and Betena Wetesa, another founding member who currently resides in England. The current Sidama region and Gedio zone were categorized as region eight at the time. The failed assisationation attempt of Woldeamanuel Dubale brought the party to stagnation. 

In 2002 when the then South Nation Nationalities Peoples Region (SNNPR) decided to move the Sidama Zone administrative center from Hawassa to Yirgalem or another city. The decision was faced by an uproar from the Sidama who took to the streets and as a result unarmed protestors were killed by security forces. Eight years later in 2010, the party initiated yet again the struggle for Sidamar self-determination with the goal of achieving statehood. 

In 2018 while the country was handling the aftermath of Oromo protests, the Sidama participated with statehood being the center of the Sidama movement. A year later in July 2019, when the request for statehood was being stonewalled by the federal parliament, Sidama youth,  Activists alongside elders were ready to announce the establishment of the region and protests engulfed the region which resulted in clashes with security forces and dozens were arrested

Finally the Sidama referendum took place in November 2019, and the long-awaited Sidama National Regional State was established after a majority of 98% voted for statehood. Much of the credit goes to the SLM and the first year anniversary of the establishment of the Sidama National Regional State but the party’s stern silence after the establishment of the region begs more questions about its internal dynamics. 

Why a coalition? 

Dukale Lamisso, the current Chairman of the Sidama Liberation Movement elected three years, told Addis Standard, ‘’I was elected in 2017 as a chairman of SLM. It is possible to say I came along with the ‘reformist’ government.’’’ According to the chairman, new party regulations demand that a chairman only serve for two years but due to Covid-19 breakout as well as major challenges, he continued holding the position for more than two years and will hand over the position after the general election.  

The chairman argued that there were major factors behind the formation of the coalition with PP. He said, “The current political instability in the country, safeguarding the national interest of the country in regard to the Great Ethiopan Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the Ethiopia-Sudan border dispute are two major factors.” The chairman explained, ’’ During the EPRDF era we didn’t get answers for our self-determination question but in the PP era we got an answer for a 43 years old question. Our people love the Prime Minister. ‘’ Another major factor, the chairman disclosed to Addis Standard is the move by unionist and nationlaist parties against the current  federal arrangement. The chairman disclosed that there were pre-conditions, he said,’’ We asked for the construction of a memorial monument for the Sidama people who sacrificed for the cause and to bury their remains in a dignified place. We also demanded a history book that detailed the history of the struggle to be written in different languages including Sidaamu Afoo as well as recognition for veteran SLM members.“

The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) is aware of the coalition between SLM and PP according to the chairman. ’’We hope after this election the structure of the government and that of the party will be separated.’’ Dukale siad. Answering questions about whether the general assembly of the party was in agreement with this coalition, the chairman replied, “The decision was passed by the executive committee which is elected by the general assembly and central committee.’’ The chairman went on to explain the roles of the executive committee. Which, according to him, has the final say when it comes to party agreements. The chairman said that the central committee also backed the decision while still refusing to comment on the general assembly position. 

Unaware, Unhappy and confused

While the chairman of SLM expressed positive attitudes toward the coalition with the ruling party and was certain of his party’s support for the coalition, his deputy Desalegn Geresmo.told Addis Standard, ‘’I have no knowledge of a central committee meeting held at if SLM nor of any decision made whether or not to collaborate with PP,” he continued, “ What I know is that the general assembly must decide on this matter. What I also know is that the matter was on the agenda for the general assembly. The general assembly did not hold a meeting so most definitely the decision did not come from there.’’ Desalegn explained that the general assembly meeting was planned for October 2020 and did not take place due to Covid19 restrictions. 

The deputy chairman also denied any knowledge of the nature of the coalition and insisted that the general assembly should have been consulted. He said, “The issue was raised by the executive committee of the party but neither the central committee nor the general assembly backed it.”  Answering a question by Addis Standard whether or not he felt that the executive committee betrayed both the central committee and general assembly, Desalegn said, “I can say not the entire executive committee but some individuals from SLM who are now candidates for PP.’’ 

The deputy chairman blamed the media for misleading the public, he said ‘’It is the individual’s right to be a member of any party but SLM didn’t form a coalition with PP. ‘’ Answering yet another question for Addis standard, the deputy chairman speaking of his knowledge of the SLM chairman Dukale Lamisso deal with pp said, ’’Maybe the chairman and I can go and join any party but not SLM, there are laws in the country that handle such issues.’’ The deputy chairman disclosed to Addis Standard that during the Sidama region formation, individuals claiming to represent SLM joined the leadership of the newly formed region. But he added, “Neither those who joined the regional government or those running under PP are representatives of SLM.”  

About the possibility of holding the general assembly, the deputy chairman explained that calling a general assembly is the responsibility and mandate of the executive committee. ‘’ As a result of the Covid-19 restrictions, we have to wait. But to avoid confusion and clarify things I want to say two things. First the chairman signed an agreement that didn’t fulfill the three stages required by NEBE. Second, SLM is a member of the ‘ Medrek’ coalition. Technically It should have announced its withdrawal before joining a new coalition and all that must be decided by the general assembly according to party bylaws. So any agreement signed without fulfilling the above criterias can not be validated by NEBE.” 

Others like Mulatu Gemechu, Deputy Secretary of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and its representative at the Medrek coalition commented on news about the new coalition and added,  “We don’t have that information about a coalition with PP. We know they haven’t signed anything yet. If a party was willing to create a coalition, front or to consolidate with another party, it’s their right but it’s prohibited to create or join more than one  coalition at a time,” he continued voicing concern, “ In the case of SLM we heard from informal sources that some members joined the PP after being bribed to do so. We know those members don’t represent the party and we are not aware of this new coalition as it was not communicated to Medrek officially and formally.” He concluded by adding, “ Our knowledge is that the party’s rules and regulations dictate that the general assembly not the executive committee decide which coalition to join and which one to leave.”

Petrose Diboso, a former SLM central committee member and head of its Hawassa chapter who also ran as a candidate for the Sidama Unity Party (SUP) agrees with Mulatu but adds, “It is not a coalition, it is an addimlaton oplan disguised as a coalition.” He explained his remarks by adding, “Working together is normal and it is certainly not wrong. PP is a national party and Sidama PP is a chapter or a branch of it,” he continued, “Sidama PP can not join this coation as it is illegal and If SLM wanted a coalition, they would have to deal with another independent party but Sidma PP is not as it is only a chapter of the bigger national party and does not have the mandate to create or join coalitions.” 

A Sidama academic who heavily participated in the formation of the regional state but preferred not to be named argued, “An important challenge presents itself is the lack of understanding of federalism as a principle of governing. SLM does not understand the concept of regional autonomy,” he continued, “Concerns about the national interest led to this decision and if I can add  that serving national interest does not mean dissolving your political party and joining. It is this lack of understanding for the federal arrangement and its complexity that led to this decision.” The academic went on to argue against the notion presented by some Sidama leaders that PP delivered the needed referendum on statehood, saying, “Sidama people got their demands answered by the mere strength of their struggle and the magnitude of their sacrifices. it was not granted but it was taken and it is not that far that PM Abiy Ahmed sent soldiers to crackdown on the people and silence their struggle,” he continued, “Self determination comes only when people struggle and it is not in any way a gift by someone.” 

 What is next? 

Questions concerning the next big policy for SLM after the establishment of the Sidama National Regional State, started to surface. That was answered when on march 24, 2021 the ruling Prosperity Party (PP) and SLM signed an agreement. The agreement included mechanisms on future endeavors of both parties as well as plans to run for the upcoming 6th national elections. About the event, Legesse Lankamo, the SLM secretary said, “After the formation of Sidama region, we have been negotiating with Sidama PP to enhance relations and work together for the interests of the Sidama people.” At the same event, Asfaw Bonesa, Sidama PP political and ideology department head said, “This collaboration is very important for the Sidama people.” According to representatives of the parties, the coalition was formed under the new electoral law proclamation 1162/94.  That did not stop the SLM leadership from deciding to withdraw from election as the party’s deputy chairman,Desalegn Geresmo confirmed to Addis Standard 

Petrose Diboso, a former SLM central committee member and head of its Hawassa chapter argues that SLM was formed for the purpose of achieving full measures of self determination and self rule. He said, “Becoming a regional state is one step closer to self determination, it is not the end by itself,’ he added, “A lot must be done after becoming a region. If the SLM was for the people, now is the time to be stronger and secure the people’s vote in the election. Their argument is that the struggle’s goals were achieved . That is just an excuse, they know what the people are expecting from them.”  

Sidama statehood signboard

It is noteworthy to mention that on election day and during the electoral process. SLM did not register any candidates, as according to its chairman, a coalition was being formed with Sidama PP. However, an offshoot (Sidama Unity Party otherwise known as SUP) of the party was formed and ran candidates for both the House of People’s Representatives and the Regional Council. Results for both the HoPR and the regional council are yet to be announced as the NEBE of Ethiopia is so far sequentially announcing results only in two regions. AS

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