Ethiopia: In-Depth Analysis – Stories of Hope, Intimidation, Perseverance: Wolaita’s Quest for Statehood

Addis Abeba — Months after the PM’s rise to power and in December 2018, the Wolaita zonal council voted unanimously for the formation of a regional state and presented their request to the SNNPR regional council. According to the constitution of the FDRE, a regional council is expected to send demands for statehood to the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) and a referendum is to be held within a year. None of this happened and the All Wolaita Youth Movement alias Yelega (Yelega meaning powerful youth in Wolaita language) and the Wolaita Teachers Association led a public peace rally with hundreds of thousands in attendance protesting the delay in answering Wolaita statehood demands.

Stonewalling followed by a violent crackdown

During the tenth Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) Central Committee meeting, representatives of the Wolaita zone boycotted the meeting to show their objection to the stonewalling of the process. In the meeting which was held in Addis Abeba, starting on July 05, 2019, the SEPDM CC presented a new study about the regional structure, dubbed a “scientific study”, the study at the time was not disclosed to the public. Addis Standard reported about the proposal for the formation of five new regions. The regions were with respective capitals of Hawassa, Sodo, Arba Minch, Hosanna, and Bonga. However, the proposal and zonal demands for statehood were rejected by the CC, citing the need for more study on the proposal’s findings. 15 months later, nine zonal councils of the total SNNPR zonal councils voted unanimously for statehood to Wolaita. These zones included Kafa, Gofa, Sheka, Bench Maji, Kembata, Guraghe, Dawro, Hadiya, and Gamo.

On August 10, 2020, regional security forces arrested leaders of the movement for statehood including the then zonal Administrator Dagato Kumbe, consequently, these arrests were met with protests. During the protest, the security forces killed 21 people according to the Wolaita People’s Democratic Front party, and 18 individuals were injured in the deadly violence. Prior to the regional administration’s decision to arrest leaders of the movement, a controversy in the then SNNPR council ensued after Wolaita representatives refused to attend meetings, endorsing the demands for statehood.

More crackdown under a new zonal administration

Two weeks after the crackdown in Wolaita, the newly established Prosperity Party through its SNNPR branch removed Dagato Kumbe from his post as the zonal administrator and replaced him with Endrias Geta (Ph.D.). The swearing-in ceremony of the new administration was not attended by more than a dozen members of the zonal council; the then regional spokesman confirmed for Addis Standard, that the emergency meeting had some procedural inconsistencies.

Some in Wolaita still remember these episodes with grief. Like Tezita Tekele, a community organizer, currently a lecturer at Wolaita Sodo University said, ” After the deadly violence and attack of ethnic Wolaita in the newly formed Sidama regional state’s capital of Hawassa, I was thinking that without an organized peaceful movement, we can’t protect ourselves, so I welcomed it when the founders of Wolaita National Movement (WNM) called me to the founding conference of the party.” Before she was elected to the executive committee of WNM, Tezita was an organizer in the Yelega movement. She believes that despite the statehood question of Wolaita not being the point of discussion in the regional administration of SNNPR, it remains the most discussed topic among residents at the kebele level.

“The arrest of opposition party officials, religious leaders, representatives of the community, and the then zonal administrator, Dageto Kumbe during a meeting held to appeal to the House of Federation (HoF), the upper house of the federal parliament responsible for granting statehood status, the answer to the question of statehood by the regional council (SNNPR regional council ) was met with the public protests” She explained.

According to her, extra-judicial killing of civilians was carried out under the command post imposed in response to the protests. She added, “The command post lasted until the departure of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) to the frontlines in the Northern part of the country.” The new zonal administration promised to stabilize the zone and the crackdown on leaders of the statehood movement continued. “I was arrested for three days, accusing me of inciting violence, and later was released on bail,” Tezita said, further stating, ” The crackdown did not change the mind of the community about the quest for statehood.”

Tezita added that the crackdown continues and due process is ignored by regional authorities. ” There is a rumor that the Sidama region asked the SNNPR to relocate their offices by July 07, before that happens the zonal administration wants to suppress influential personalities,” said Tezita, adding that a week earlier prominent opposition political figures were arrested and brought to court after six days.” (It should be noted after this interview all the detainees were released on bail).” She explained that the security officials told the detainees indirectly to keep quiet about the statehood question.

Crackdown on media

Media houses that platformed the statehood demands were not spared either. Natnael Gecho, founder and editor of Wolaita times, a Facebook page with more than 90,000 followers, was one of a few journalists who was arrested. He was arrested twice within two months and stayed for a total of 16 days in detention and was released with 30,000 ETB bail after his second arrest.

Wogeta 96.6, a community radio station based in Sodo which is the capital of Wolaita Zone, was very popular two years ago for being vocally active in the community. It platformed issues regarding the Wolaita statehood question and later shut down.

“The day after we interviewed the then Wolaita Zone Administrator, Dagato Kumbe, members of ENDF came and ordered us to stay away from the radio station compound without any further details,” a journalist who worked for the radio station and asked for anonymity told Addis Standard.

According to this confidential source, the radio station is ownerless now. “We have been under Wolaita Development Association (WDA) before they shut down us for days, then WDA told us that we are no longer their responsibility. Meanwhile, the management and journalists of the radio station signed a petition and handed it to the Wolaita zonal administration but we didn’t get any answer yet.”

Hopes for the future

Bisrat Elias (Ph.D.), deputy chairman at Wolaita People Democratic Front (WPDF), was one of the political figures arrested during the crackdown on Wolaita political figures in August of 2020. According to him, out of the 26 detainees, 16 were released within a month while the remaining stayed for 10 months in prison including the then zonal administrator.

He described a tense situation in the zone and the region saying, ” Right now there is direct and indirect intimidation to deter speaking out loud about the ambitions for statehood. During the active northern war, we experienced mass detentions of Wolaita statehood activists and political figures who were jailed for three months and released without legal procedure.” Describing public fear of raising the statehood question, he added, “Personally, I don’t have the courage to write about the statehood issue because there are ongoing intimidations.”

He joined Dagato Kumbe, former Wolaita zone administrator, in calling upon the National Dialogue Commission to address the Wolaita statehood question as one tabled agenda. He said, “My expectation from NDC is a proper answer for the moral, historical and rightful self-administration question of the Wolaita people.”

Dagato Kumbe, the Wolaita zone administrator in 2020 till his arrest during a meeting alongside 25 other political figures, told Addis Standard that he and nine other people were charged with attempting to dismantle the constitution by force. He said, ” We stayed in jail for ten months before we were released with a bail and after two years, charges were dropped last week.” He added, discussing the proposed national dialogue, ” We heard about the NDC through the media. My hope is that the NDC will meet with community leaders here in Wolaita and address issues at the core of violence in the zone.”

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