Opinion: Sidama’s Quest for Statehood and the Question of Hawassa

Photo: Hawassa city

A Sidama Nationalist’s View 

Hailegabriel G Feyissa (PhD), For Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, June 19/2019 – The Sidama question, one of the many pending questions of national self-determination in Ethiopia, appears to be back to the limelight of Ethiopian politics following the ascendance to power of an Oromo prime minister (2018) after years of protests (2014-2018) mainly in the Oromia National Regional State. The resurgence of Sidama nationalism seemed to surprise and annoy many political pundits based in Addis Abeba. It also led to the production of commentaries and opinions that, seen from Sidama nationalist perspectives, add to the stereotyping of the Sidama quest for self-rule and respect.  Pending further critique of the colonial logic that lie beneath such commentaries and opinions, in this short opinion I focus on the issue of Hawassa as the future capital of Sidama National Regional State. The piece is an attempt to respond to non-Sidama perspectives that dominate and shape opinions nationally.   

It is my view that the Sidama’s quest for self-rule have more support among non-Sidamas now than before. Other than among the Oromo nationalists with whom Sidama nationalists sought and worked in solidarity for decades,[1] the support (however reluctant that might be) appears to be coming from other parts of the Ethiopian public too. Opinions expressed on Addis Standard and elsewhere following the re-initiation of the formal procedures for statehood by the Sidama Zone in 2018 are exemplary.[2] One of the issues that does not seem to sit well with the objectors of Sidama self-determination or its newfound reluctant supporters is a Sidama National Regional State whose capital is Hawassa.[3] According to some, it is against law and justice to make Hawassa, one of the largest cities in Ethiopia where people from different ethnic background reside, the capital of a state which is to become a homeland for but one of the ethnic groups. Some add Hawassa is too modern and beautiful to be given away to a national regional state (which they seem to consider as a mark of traditionalism). In their case against an Hawassa-based Sidama state, some go as far as raising the fact that the Sidamas are numerically only the third largest in terms of population size  in the city and that the city was the capital only of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State (SNNPRS) for over two decades since the reconstitution of Ethiopia as a federation of nations.  

These arguments are not actually new to Sidama nationalists. They have been deployed before, in various forms, to frustrate their long-held quest for self-rule. The argument that the city was the capital of SNNPRS (and hence should stay the same at the expense of the Sidamas) is disingenuous. It did not consider the fact that (1) the city has always been the capital of the Sidama Zone for over two decades (i.e., since 1991); and (2) as such, it was within the exclusive jurisdiction of the zonal administration before it was violently excised from it at the turn of the 21st century.  As someone who lived through the transition of Hawassa from a town within the jurisdiction of Sidama Zone to a town answerable to SNNPRS, I know what that meant for the Sidamas who, like many indigenous people of the highland peripheral parts of Ethiopia, ceded ancestral lands to towns that were for long centers of extraction and demographic colonization. The transition was also consequential for it gave license to the aggressive incorporation of indigenous Sidama lands to the city in the name of development and the resultant destitution of the dispossessed Sidama farmers, probably in the scale not witnessed during the era of the neftagna gebbar system. The argument that suggest Hawassa has always been outside of Sidama must therefore be denaturalized, more so now when such Sidama rural towns as Tulla are part of the Hawassa city administration.

Sidama nationalism, like its counterparts in Ethiopia and elsewhere, is a fight against such dispossession and assimilation of indigenous people by a state/an empire whose cultural and economic core is somewhere else (in our case historic Abyssinia and its capitalist paramounts). It has taken the form it has because of Ethiopia’s encounter with Westphalian sovereignty, its contestations in the second half of the 20th century, and the federal dispensation of the ‘second republic’ in 1995. It is not, as some try to argue, an attempt to primarily address efficiency issues involved in administering one of the largest regional states in the federation. Instead, it is an attempt to sustain decades of fight for autonomy in matters that involve ancestral lands and the indigenous people that is losing its land and soul because of Ethiopia’s modernity that privileges non-Sidama cultures. A case in point, Sidamas declining demography in Hawassa (particularly inner Hawassa[4]) and the emergence of Hawassa as one of the industrial and tourist hubs of the nation, a fact which is now ironically invoked by detractors of Hawassa-based Sidama state.

If true, the datum that Sidamas are outnumbered by members of other ethnic groups in Hawassa should be understood in terms of the history of Abyssinian imperialism in the highland periphery. Urbanism as we know it today was only a twentieth century phenomenon in Ethiopia and towns (including the capital Addis Abeba) were not initially centers of finance and commerce. Instead, they were  ‘feudal camps’ that served as ‘centers of extraction of rural surplus’.[5] Towns in the highland peripheries (what are now the states of Oromia and SNNPRS) were initially military garrisons from where the attention of the then new subjects of imperial Ethiopia was directed to the power in Addis Abeba.[6] The most notable garrison towns in Sidama include Yirgalem and Hagereselam towns, towns whose Sidama names are little known to other Ethiopians. Established in 1960, Hawassa was not among the garrison towns of Menelik II period. Yet, it reinforced what the garrison towns it overtook set out to do. Crucially, it, like its numerous counterparts in the highland periphery, functioned as centers of demographic and cultural colonization as well as land dispossession. The demographic asymmetry between indigenous people and non-indigenous people in towns like Hawassa has, therefore, a history: a history of imperialism that highland peripheral nationalists in Ethiopia fought against for decades. As a corollary, the claim of Sidamas in Hawassa is as much based on indigenousness as it is based on the legal history (hence, law) that pertain to the second republic (and its regional embodiment SNNPRS) which is still formally in place.

There is parallel in the arguments made against the establishment of an Hawassa-based Sidama state and the denial of Addis Abeba (Finfinnee) as the capital of Oromia National Regional State. And, I suspect such arguments are meant to discourage the emergence in the highland peripheral parts of Ethiopia of urban centers that defy the logic of Abyssinian imperialism, the primary historical factor for the problems we are facing right now. While more persuasive arguments can be made on behalf of non-Sidama residents of Hawassa for democratic participation, such arguments cannot convincingly defeat Sidamas’ case for Hawassa-based regional state that are both ethically and legally sound.

The most uncritical argument against an Hawassa-based Sidama state is the one that tries to present Hawassa as aesthetically incompatible with a Sidama regional state. Such arguments are informed by the ever-present colonial thinking among some Ethiopians that consider matters involving indigenous peoples in peripheral parts of Ethiopia – what they pejoratively call ‘tribes’ (or gossa) – is incompatible with modernity. Modernity for these set of people is a mark only of the state-sanctioned nationalism (Ethiopianism) and the cultural and political projects it permits. Of course, disdain, indifference, and blatant racism towards peoples of Ethiopian periphery (highland or lowland) and their nationalisms were not new to discourses of Ethiopian modernity, discourses which are derivative and colonial for they give primacy for European social and political thoughts at the expense of indigenous ones.[7] The writings of some of the most widely celebrated Ethiopian modernists[8] were replete with lines that scholars of colonial discourse would probably find too abhorrent to be uttered by thinkers hailing from Ethiopia, a country that symbolized black freedom from European colonialism. Aside from its affinity with colonial discourses elsewhere, such line of argument is insensitive to the beauty of the Fitchee Chambalaalla the Sidamas annually gather to celebrate at their Gudumale, Hawassa. There is no better place than their Gudumale and their current capital for the Sidamas to imagine as the future capital of their regional state. The more thoughtful we are as a society, the more contemptuous we become to thoughts that suggest the aesthetic incompatibility of the Sidamas, one of the largest nations in the country, to the town that is founded on a land they traditionally own. AS

Editor’s Note: The writer Hailegabriel G Feyissa (PhD) is a
Melbourne based Ethiopian legal scholar interested in Ethiopian Politics. He
can be reached at hailegabrielfeyissa@gmail.com

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are that
of the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial of Addis Standard.



[1] See, eg,
Seyoum Hameso, ‘The Sidama nation and the solidarity of colonised nations in
Ethiopia’ in Asafa Jalata (ed), State Crises,
Globalisation and National Movements in North-East Africa
(Routledge, 2004)

[2] See, eg, Belachew Mekuria, ‘More Could be Better: Ethiopia’s Federalism and New States’ (Addis Standard, November 28, 2018).

[3] See, eg, https://www.addismaleda.net/archives/5071?fbclid=IwAR0pkUdCvc06D5I6tlYGgYFkB0K_s8OxZykgxrncWJwdjCtCyTIAfs1_XxU.

[4] By inner Hawassa, I am referring to the Hawassa excluding the 12 rural kebelles that were made part of the city for a decade now. Figures regarding the ethnic composition of Hawassa may thus vary depending on whether one is talking about the Hawassa of pre-2009. Moreover, figures may also vary with sources.

[5] See Frederick Gamst, ‘Peasantries and Elites without Urbanism: the Civilisation of Ethiopia’ (1970) 12 Comparative Study in Society and History 373; Akalou Wolde-Michael, ‘The Impermanency of Royal Capitals in Ethiopia’ (1966) 28 Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers 147; Ronald Horvath, ‘The Wandering Capitals of Ethiopia’ (1969) 10 The Journal of African History 205; Ronald Horvath, ‘Towns in Ethiopia ’ (1968) 22 Erdkunde 42; Jonathan Baker, ‘Migration in Ethiopia and the Role of the State’ in Jonathan Baker, Tade Aina (eds), The Migration Experience in Africa (Gotab, 1995) 235.

[6] Wolde Michael, above n 4, 5. 

[7] See, eg, Messay Kebede, ‘Gebrehiwot Baykedagn, Eurocentrism, and the Decentring of Ethiopia’ (2006) 36 Journal of Black Studies 815.

[8] See, eg, Gebre Heywet Baykedagn፣ አጤ ምኒሊክና ኢትዮጲያ [Emperor Menelik and Ethiopia] (Addis Ababa, 1912), 9. 

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