ADDIS ABEBA – Many feared dead in violence and clashes between security forces and activists in southern Ethiopia seeking a new autonomous region for their Sidama ethnic group, according to a local official and hospital authorities.
Emboldened by political reforms introduced by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed since he took power in 2018, Sidama activists had announced they would unilaterally declare the 10th regional state Ethiopia on Thursday.
The decision put the activists on a course with the government, which accepted to their request for a referendum but said need five months for preparation.
But a threat of large-scale violence largely averted after Sidamas including opposition party Sidama Liberation Movement (SLM) agreed on Thursday to delay a plan to unilaterally declare their own region and accept a government offer to hold a referendum in five months.
But some did not get on board with the agreement, and went on the streets in Hawassa city, located 275 kilometers south of Addis Abeba, to go ahead with the plan on Thursday.
That eventually led to a deadly showdown with security forces, reports say.
At least four protesters had died of gunshot wounds in the city while a dozen others admitted to the Hawassa referral hospital after sustaining injuries, authorities of the hospital told AFP.
Relative peace prevailed in the capital of the multi-ethnic Southern Nations region in the afternoon, reported Fana Broadcasting on Friday quoting local police.
But the violence was spread out to other areas of the Sidama zonal administration. A local district official told Reuters news agency on Saturday that at least 13 people were killed in Wotera Rassa, a town located about 27km from Hawassa.
Confirming the 13 civilian deaths Shubale Buta, head of the town’s Malga district, said soldiers were traveling to calm the violence in a nearby town on Thursday.
“When they saw people gathered near the roads, they thought they were there to create a problem and that is how the killings happened,” he told Reuters via telephone.
A Malga resident said late on Friday he saw 14 bodies after a shooting. “My house is near a field where the people had gathered,” he said.
“I was told by people who were there that the military came to the town [on Thursday] and randomly opened fire on people who had gathered and were discussing the referendum,” he added, saying that he later went to the place where the shooting happened and counted the bodies.
Residents in Aleta Wondo town also told the BBC that three people have died on Friday afternoon in the city.
State security forces had to intervene when the number of protesters start to grow and “begun to take an unnecessary action”, said Dawit Ledamo, mayor of the town.
The protest was linked to what happened in Hawassa, he said, adding at least ten other people were admitted to hospital for injuries sustained in the violence.
Similar violence was reported from Hagereselam, Yirgalem and Lekuna towns of the zone. Reports also claim that several houses and businesses of non-Sidama residents, as well as government offices, were attacked, ransacked and robbed by an organized group.
The towns and cities have now returned to “relative calm”, police and officials say.
Security officials have reportedly taken many including officials of the newly established Sidama Media Network, which is currently broadcasting on a trial basis, and members of Ajeto, a group of Sidama youth activists, into custody for their alleged involvement in the violence.
Ethiopia is already partitioned into nine semi-autonomous regions. The federal system is organized based on ethnicity except in the case of Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region which constitutes over 50 ethnic groups.
The system is designed to allow larger ethnic groups a measure of autonomy but smaller communities such as the Sidama say they have been sidelined and some are demanding their own regions.
Photo Caption: The Sidama, the largest ethnic group in the southern region, have been calling for their own semi-autonomous state [Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]