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.
“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