Marginalization and struggle for autonomy by the Sidama nation: Historical Perspective.Betana Hamano's Speech to EU Parliament
The Sidamaland is located in the south central of Ethiopia, 275km. south of Addis Ababa. The area of the Sidamaland is over 7000 sq. km, and the population of Sidama is projected to be 4 million in 2015 by the Central Statistical Agency (CSA) of Ethiopia, which is about the population size of Finland or Scotland. Sidama is an ancient Cush speaking nation. The Sidama economy remains predominately agricultural. The coffee crop, which is known as the backbone of Ethiopia’s economy, comes mainly from the Sidamaland. This serves as a main reason for oppression and exploitation of the Sidamas by the Ethiopian state.
The Sidama people were conquered by the Abyssinian power under the leadership of emperor Menelik II. King Menelik II of Showa, who later became the emperor of Ethiopia, conquered the Sidama people in 1893. Sidamas fought a very serious war to defend their sovereignty, but lost the battle, owning to the Menelik’s superior arms provided by Europeans. Before the conquest, the Sidamas lived under their own form of administrative system, and led by Mote (king). Mote executed or ran his government through ‘songo’ (sort of parliament). Elders representing different communities (clans and sub-clans) sat at the Mote’s songo, and discussed all affairs of the nation. All decisions were consensual; but at times decisions were achieved through majority vote. Mote could not impose his wish without the will of the people.
After the conquest, Menelik established a ‘gabar’ system, a form of serfdom. Consequently, the conquerors became ‘malkaygna’ (lords), while the conquered became ‘gabar’ (serfs) on their own land. This system continued after Menelik until the Italian invasion in 1936. Italians occupied Ethiopia for 5 years. Under the Italian occupation the Sidamas got a relative freedom. I dare say this because the Sidamas got their land right, and the right of their labour. However, it is not full freedom, because only one occupier simply transferred to another.
The relative freedom under the Italians ended in 1941 when the Italians were driven out of Ethiopia by the British and continued resistance from inside. Using this opportunity, Haile Selasie returned to Ethiopia. The Sidamas resisted his re-entry into the Sidamaland; they fought a bitter war for a year and a half (18 months) during that period thousands of Sidamas were killed.
The Sidamas fought the war under the leadership of its well-known brave men: Yetera Bolle (also known as Aba-shika, meaning ‘Mr. push forward, never back’) was a commander-in-chief on the eastern front, and Hushula Xadiso (Tadiso) led the western front with a similar rank. In the end, however, with the help of British forces, Haile Selasie managed to control the Sidamaland.
After having regained his control over the whole of Ethiopia, Haile Selasie proclaimed reformation, in which he banned slavery and serfdom, and granted the freedom of religious worship according to one’s belief. He brought very little change for the Sidamas; he established feudalism, which was no better than serfdom. However, as regards religious freedom, following the proclamation, many missionaries mostly Protestant came to Ethiopia, and then to the Sidamaland. As a result, many Sidamas were converted to this new religion, but mainly, because they hated the Ethiopian Orthodox religion (church), which was regarded as the state religion and an exploiter like any other feudal lords.
Missionaries built churches, schools, clinics and even hospitals in the Sidamaland. In addition to this, after World War II, coffee became an attractive commodity in the world market. This attracted many coffee traders (merchants), mostly foreigners, to the Sidamaland. These two positive factors (missionaries and coffee trade) contributed to the increased consciousness of the Sidama people of their status in the Ethiopian empire state. During the 1950s and 60s, the Sidama’s political and economic struggle had reached a very high level. Sidama people openly rejected political and economic domination of the feudo-\capitalist state. At the same time, the Sidamas organised Sidama self-help associations (e.g. coffee marketing association, Sidama students association and so on); and all these intensified the struggle of Sidama people against the domination and tyrannical rule of the regime. The struggle culminated in the 1974 Sidama peasants revolt, together with many other groups, against Haile Selasie’s rule’ No doubt that this revolution shook the foundation of Haile Selasi’s government.
After the fall of Haile-Selasie’s regime, a communist military junta, known as ‘derg’, took power by gun. The Sidama people never accepted this military or communist dictatorial rule of Ethiopia. At that junction the Sidamas established the Sidama Liberation Movement (SLM) that spearheaded struggle for regional self-determination. They fought a well-organized guerrilla war for 14 years until the fall of the regime in 1991. The armed struggle reached its high level towards the mid-1980s: many areas of Sidamaland (e.g. the district of Hororessa, Bansa, Harbegona, part of Hula ‘Ageraselem’ and part of Hawasa) were liberated. The derg admitted that the fighting was though, and it brought over 60,000 armed forces, including mechanized brigade, assisted by tanks, helicopter gunship and other heavy arms, which it used against the Sidama civilian population. This time the military support was provided by the then Soviet Union and other communist countries. During these 14 years of fighting, over 10,000 Sidama youngsters were killed. In addition to this, the derg massacred many innocent Sidamas in many different places. Just to mention a few, in August 1979, it massacred more than 300 Sidamas, children, women and elders at Boricha village, located about 25 km. south of Hswassa town. In February 1980, they took 32 innocent peasant prisoners from Yrigalem prison house, and executed them without trial in Bansa town, some 130 km. south-east of Hawassa; and their dead bodies were left on different streets of the Bansa town for about 36 hours for exhibition, with a view to terrorising the Sidama people. But all these did not stop the struggle of the Sidama people. However, the use thanks and helicopter gunship in highly densely populated areas caused a high casualty among the civilians. The troops of the derg also raped hundreds of Sidama women, including 12 and 13 years old girls; for instance, a derg captain, by name of Adamu, used to say ‘I won’t be satisfied unless I see the blood of a Sidama’. The literal meaning of this is killing of Sidama fighters; and the hidden meaning is raping under-aged girls. These reasons necessitated the Sidama’s retreat in 1984 from the central areas, although fighting never stopped until the fall of the derg regime in 1991.
The current regime of the Tigray people’s Liberation Front (TPLF), or with its more known pseudo (cover up) name the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), is carrying out the same atrocity of its predecessors; perhaps it has even become worse than its predecessors. Since it assumed power by gun in 1991, the regime has performed systematic persecution, against the Sidama people: harassing, terrorising, imprisoning and even killing numerous innocent Sidama people. This has become clearer in the massacre of more than 100 Sidamas, on 24 May 2002, at the village of Loque near Hawassa town. The massacre was not accidental, but pre-planned. The final decision was formalized on 23 May 2002, at 6.30am local time. On the said morning, carefully selected high ranking officials from different departments of the Ethiopian government held a meeting in the Regional Head Office Hawassa, to decide on the fate of the Sidama people. After the meeting, the Federal Defence Army and Rapid Action Troops ‘fetno-derash’ were called in immediately to implement the resolution. On the following day, the mentioned armed forces opened fire without reservation and killed peaceful demonstrators. It is not clear why the army was required in the affairs of civil society: was it beyond civilian police control? Yet no one among the demonstrators carried any weapon, except Ethiopian flag (showing unity as Ethiopians) and green leaves (symbolising peace). The calling of the army to shoot and kill unarmed civilians may indicate a complicated side of the conspiracy, which invites researchers to find out the secret behind it. The following list discloses the names of the individuals present in the meeting that led to the massacre of the civilians on 24 May 2002, in the vicinity of Hawassa.
From central government Abadula Gemeda Defence Minister and chairman of OPDO Girma Birru Industry Minister and vice chairman of OPDO Bereket Simon Information Minister Mulugeta Alemsegid Politburo Member of TPLF and Protocol Adviser to Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of Ethiopia From Regions Tadesse Kassa (Tinkshu) Vice chairman of Amhara Region and ANDM Hailemariam Dessalegn President of the Southern Region (the current prime Minster of Ethiopia) Melese Marimo Vice President of the Southern Region From Sidama Zone Girma Chulke The then President of the Sidama Zone Wakayo Damassa The then Head Officer of Capacity Building Shifferaw Shigute Politburo Member and Finance Head Petros Woldesenbet Head Officer for Education Galalcha Janje Police Commissioner Adane Dingama Executive member of the council And some others All the above mentioned indicate their position at that time.
Adane Dingama, Galalcha Janje and Shifferaw Shigute were promoted to a higher position as a reward for their loyalty in the execution of the decision to massacre the Sidama civilians; Galalcha guided the armed forces in the massacre according to the desire of the Ethiopian government. However, Girma Chulke and Wakayo Damassa, who acted according to their conscience by refusing to sign the imposed decision from above, were blamed for the massacre, demoted and imprisoned; they had only acted in the interest of the people they represented.
One may find it difficult to understand why those high officials of the federal government were chosen from different and unrelated departments to determine the fate of the Sidama people. Most probably, it was because they were very trusted individuals of the Prime Minister to enforce arbitrary decisions like the one of May 24. Obviously this was the case for Melese Marimo who gave order to the killing, but was re-appointed to chair the investigation commission concerning the massacre. With reason, these names should be recorded and kept in the Sidama history document, for we believe that in accordance with the international law on the protection of human rights, one day they will be brought to court of justice to account for the massacre of innocent civilians. My colleague will say more about the massacre, and I leave you here. Betana Hamano Brussels, Belgium