Protests sparked by the arrest of Konso leader Kala Gezahegn underlined growing tensions between Ethiopia’s central government and many ethnic populations

By William Davison |

Nothing seemed amiss when an Ethiopian government vehicle arrived to collect the traditional leader of the Konso people for a meeting in March. But instead of being taken to discuss his community’s requests for more autonomy, Kala Gezahegn was arrested.

Kala Gezahegn’s detention marked a low point in fraught relations between the Konso in southern Ethiopia and the regional authorities in the state capital, Hawassa. Five years ago, the Konso lost their right to self-govern, and growing tensions since then mirror discontent in other parts of Ethiopia.

The 1995 constitution in Africa’s second most populous country allows different ethnic groups to self-govern and protects their languages and culture under a system called ethnic federalism. The largest ethnicities – such as the approximately 35 million-strong Oromo – have their own regional states, while some smaller groups administer zones within regions, as the Konso effectively used to do.

Many of Ethiopia’s ethnic identities, which number more than 80, were suppressed during the imperial and national-socialist eras that preceded the federal system.

What happened in Konso followed demonstrations and killings by security forces in Oromia, the most populous region. A rights group says 266 people have been killed since mid-November during protests over injustice and marginalization.

Demonstrations were sparked by a government plan to integrate the development of Addis Ababa and surrounding areas of Oromia. After fierce opposition from the Oromo, that scheme was shelved in January, but protests have continued, fueled by anger over alleged killings, beatings and arrests.

In Amhara, a large region north of Addis Ababa, there was violence late last year related to the Qemant group’s almost decade-old claim for recognition as a group with constitutional rights. The fact that the Qemant rejected a territorial offer from the authorities, saying it was too small, may have provoked local Amhara people. In December, federal security forces were dispatched to contain escalating communal violence.

In Konso, after Kala and other leaders were locked up, thousands took to the streets to protest. During clashes with police on 13 March, three people were killed, and now the dispute seems entrenched.

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