Awol Beyene got married on Sunday (November 17) in a white tuxedo, with his voting card in one hand and his bride’s hand in the other.
On Wednesday (November 20), 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 local landmark 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.
In July, political activists from the Sidama, currently subsumed into one of the nine states, wanted to unilaterally declare a new regional state. That same month, at least 17 people were killed in clashes between security forces and activists, while some leaders accepted the government’s offer to hold a referendum within five months.
The right for an independence referendum 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.
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.
Ethiopia’s nine regional states enjoy a level of autonomy where they are able to choose their official language and have limited powers over taxation, education, health and land administration.
The enthusiasm of the Sidama themselves is unmistakable. For the last seven years, Astatke Abebe, a 39-year-old Sidama businessman based in Addis Ababa, has been dividing his time between the capital and Hawassa.
“For two years, the debate was very hot and there was no stability in the region. The Sidama Zone was in chaos. Now once this issue is settled, the region will be a great one because there will be a lot of tourists and business will flourish again”, he said.
To mark the upcoming referendum, Astake’s family held a traditional dinner serving ‘shafeta’, a traditional dish made from banana tree, before family members returned to Hawassa for voting. A symbol of equality and unity of the Sidama people, the shafeta represent independence’s choice on voting cards. For those against, the choice will be the sign indicating unity for the Southern region, a hat.
The more open political climate and weaker ruling coalition since Abiy took office has eased the iron grip of his predecessors on the country.
However, that has also brought a surge of long-repressed rivalries between Ethiopia’s 80 plus ethnic groups, forcing 2.4 million people out of their homes and killing hundreds, according to the U.N. and monitoring groups. The Crisis Group, which seeks to help reduce conflicts worldwide, said acceding to the Sidama could encourage other groups to follow suit and cause more chaos.