Ethiopia: the creation of a new state region draws the “failure of the policy of unity” by Abiy Ahmed

The upper house of Ethiopia’s parliament on Wednesday approved the creation of a new state region in Ethiopia. This new fragmentation of the country, undermined by ethnic claims, undermines the unifying aspirations that Abiy Ahmed advocated when he came to power in 2018 and marks a crisis of federalism in the country.

“The creation of a new regional state in Ethiopia will calm and ultimately create new tensions,” said Roland Marchal, a researcher at the Sciences Po International Research Center (Ceri).

The Upper House of Ethiopia’s Parliament on Wednesday, July 5, “unanimously” approved the creation of a 12th regional state, called “Southern Ethiopia Region”, from the Regional State of Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of the South (SNNPR).

“Ethiopia follows the model of Nigeria, which began in the 1960s with three regions and which today has 36, continues the French sociologist. This phenomenon of subdivision is a sign of a crisis of federalism in Ethiopia.”

The current constitution, adopted in 1995, four years after the fall of the military-Marxist Derg regime, had divided Ethiopia into nine regional states, divided according to ethno-linguistic criteria and endowed with broad powers within a federal system.

SNNPR divided into four regions

Since current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, three new regional states have emerged following consultation by referendum. The Sidama Region in 2019, then the Southwest Region in March 2022, were also separated from the SNNPR to which they belonged. We now have to reckon with the region of southern Ethiopia, which has also seceded and cut this former area into four parts.

While the other regions of Ethiopia are largely ethnically homogenous, this southern region, made up of 56 ethnic groups that have been arbitrarily grouped together within the SNNPR, has regularly been the scene of tension and violence in recent years.

“When the central power fails to overcome the difficulties, it opens the way for new administrative structures via referendums, notes Roland Marchal. and the inter-ethnic inequalities that are the cause of the claims. Consequence: other ethnic groups will be dissatisfied and in turn ask for their independence. It’s a never-ending process.”

A constitutional fragmentation

Such a division of the country is made possible thanks to Article 47 of the Constitution, which authorizes each “nation, nationality or people belonging to one of the regional states (…) to form at any time its own regional state, subject to holding a referendum and a positive result.

Except that all referendum inclinations have all been stifled by previous governments, led by Hailemariam Desalegn or Meles Zenawi. Eager to show his reformist will when he came to power, Abiy Ahmed has over time freed himself from many territorial and identity claims. Even if it means putting himself on edge with the image of the country uniting that he showed in his beginnings.

“These divisions are the sign of the failure of the unity policy advocated by the head of government. Tested by the reality on the ground, especially with the war in Tigray, he had to abandon his faith in ‘everyone’ behind Abiy Ahmed” and abandon his desire for unity to return to a more pragmatic policy”, explains Patrick Ferras, teacher at Iris Sup’ and Sciences Po and specialist on the Horn of Africa.

“Divide and rule”

These new administrative divisions also have serious advantages for the government. “The central government can better take into account the realities of the actors on the ground and better understand the difficulties thanks to this direct connection.

And in a more cynical way, it also allows the government to have a much greater stranglehold on the territory, and it also allows it to get a much bigger stranglehold on the territory.” Patrick Ferras abounds. It’s a way of dividing and conquering.”

For the inhabitants of these new regions, this new administrative division also has advantages. “These new regions have more power because they have a direct connection with the central state, continues the doctor of geopolitics. And then they also get direct funding without going through the grants that the large federal region is willing to give. give them. ”

This is why residents of the SNNPR region turned out massively at the polls during the referendum organized on February 6 last year. The “yes” majority won with 95.42% against 4.58% of the “no”.

Ongoing ethnic tensions

But the benefits of such a division stop there. “We must not think that these new distributions will determine the violence. Ethnic tensions will always be present”, asserts Roland Marchal.

They even risk bringing new disagreements in their wake and opening up new rifts. “The choice of the capital, the portfolio or the choice of the ethnic groups to represent the elected officials risks fueling the already numerous demands, emphasized Sabine Planel, researcher at the Institute for Research for Development (IRD) and specialist in Ethiopia in an article of 6 .

February The expectations of each of the ethnic groups will be extremely difficult to meet and will lead to increased local conflict.

It remains to be seen how other regions may develop in the coming months and years. Ethnic minorities from regions such as the Oromo or Amhara, real powder kegs for the government, could also draw inspiration from the model of the SNNPR region to demand a new administrative agreement.

“This would again be a very interesting operation for the government, which always tries to divide and therefore perhaps weaken these traditionally conflicting regions”, concludes Patrick Ferras.

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