For one family, Ethiopian referendum reverberates through generations

By Giulia Paravicini

HAWASSA, Ethiopia (Reuters) – Government forces displayed the severed heads of Yerusalem Kawiso’s relatives in the market after the two men fought to carve out a state for Ethiopia’s Sidama people. Forty years later, the Ethiopian mother rose before dawn on Wednesday to vote for the referendum her family dreamed of.

Yerusalem Kawiso, 48, a government employee who lost a brother, a brother in law and a great uncle to Sidama struggle, makes coffee in her h

“From today, there will be no more killing in the name of the Sidama cause,” she said, ink from the polling station staining her finger.

The story of Yerusalem’s family encapsulates the divisions – and the hopes – of Ethiopia today. The government has promised to liberalise Africa’s second most populous nation, which has been one of the continent’s fastest growing economies for a decade.

But decades of abuse have bred deep mistrust of the central government, driving citizens to seek safety within their own ethnic groups.

Then Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed rode a wave of popular protests to power last year. He is directing domestic and regional political reforms that won him the Nobel Peace Prize last month. The reforms have also allowed the Sidama to hold their long-dreamed of referendum.

But it may be too late for the government to overcome its legacy of violence.

“We lived our whole lives under oppression. I still remember my brother-in-law’s head hanging from that pole in the market,” 48-year-old Yerusalem told Reuters, hours after casting her vote.

Four decades later, she wept as she described biting her collar to stop the tears. Showing public sympathy for so-called traitors was dangerous under the Derg military regime in power at the time – even for an eight-year-old girl.

The Derg, which took power after overthrowing the Ethiopian Empire’s 700-year-old dynasty in 1974, was toppled in 1991 by a coalition of parties led by guerrilla fighters that kept a firm grip on the country. The coalition remains in power, but has loosened its hold under Abiy.

A 1995 constitution guarantees ethnic groups the right to hold referendums on creating their own regions. But the government previously suppressed such efforts.

Abiy released political prisoners, lifted bans on exiled groups, and allowed the Sidama to finally hold their referendum. But greater freedoms have also unleashed long-repressed anger against the government and intensified ethnic rivalries between groups with leaders building rival power bases.

Violence forced nearly 3 million Ethiopians to flee their homes last year, making Ethiopia home to the largest number of displaced people in the world, said the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.


Abiy is racing to unify Ethiopia before next year’s national elections. But many citizens are rallying behind ethnic leaders who plan on challenging the government for power.

More than a dozen other ethnic groups are debating whether to demand their own regions. They see Sidama as a litmus test of the government’s sincerity. Granting their wishes could further fragment the country and fuel ethnic divisions. But denying their constitutional rights could spark bloodshed.

The Sidama referendum was originally due to be held in July. After the government missed a constitutionally mandated deadline, 17 people died in clashes between security forces and Sidama activists.

Dukale Lamiso, head of the activist Sidama Liberation Front, said if Wednesday’s vote were to be rigged, “of course there will be violence.”

Reuters interviewed 30 voters in the Sidama referendum. All voted for statehood, which would bring greater control over taxes, security, and official recognition of their language.

The Sidama are about 4% of Ethiopia’s 105 million people. Their new state – Ethiopia’s tenth – would be carved out of the ethnically diverse Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples region.

But other minorities fear a new Sidama state could make them targets, citing previous attacks. Such fears could also play out in other referendums.

Sundado, 45, a Hawassa-based real estate broker from the Wolaita ethnic group said, 50 Sidama people destroyed his home in 2018 with no warning.

“I still don’t know how I am not dead,” he said, declining to give his full name for fear of reprisals. “We fear that by the creation of this new region, a crisis will be created.”

(Reporting by Giulia Paravicini; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Katharine Houreld and Peter Graff)


  1. Self mutilation and disintegration of a nation can only be celebrated with a mindset that can only see not far from ones nose. It is true people have paid with their life for the things they believed. This is a phenomena that can be found around the nation. Recent articles popping up on several sites written by foreign correspondents are very divisive and weak on the reality of Ethiopian society at large.
    “We lived our whole lives under oppression” who in Ethiopia did not lived under oppression? The fallacy of Ethnic federalism is it limits the inhabitants to see beyond their imaginative borders. That itself creates conflict and bloodshed unabated. NO nation on the globe survived based on Ethnic division. Ethiopia’s enemies are ready to instigate so we can continue to fight for nothing for years to come. When we kill each other without ceasing ethnic identity mean nothing. It will be brothers killing their own sisters. In the end, Ethnic boundaries will not be useful to the ethnically bound people or the nation. It will be a source of conflict for years to come. Wait and see!

  2. Tesfa, you querry “who in Ethiopia did not lived under oppression?” Surely, you did not, for you do not know what oppression means! You claim “NO ‘nation’ on the globe survived based on Ethnic division”. You did not cite an example, but if you mean Ethiopia, it is a wrong one. Ethiopia is an empire, a prison house of nations, as it is known. Your lamentation is to preserve this colonial empire of your forefathers, not about the oppression of nations. Oppression is what Yerusalem Kawiso lived through the whole of her life – the loss of family members because they raised their voices against tyranny – a tyranny borne out of the colonial legacy of Ethiopia’s formation and continuation. There are millions like Yerusalem Kawiso who lost beloved ones, killed by the successive colonial regimes of Ethiopia. The are millions who are still yearning to see the end of tyranny and colonial repression. But your likes are shedding tears for the loss of previleges as heirs to the anachronistic empire.

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