Sidama: An Overview of History, Culture and Economy
I. An Overview of the Sidama History
The Sidama people live in the southern part of the present day Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa. They belong to the people of Kushitic origin that occupy the vast area of north eastern and eastern Africa extending from the Sudan throughout the Horn of Africa to Tanzania. The most notable peoples of the Kushitic origin to which the Sidama people belong include, the Saho in Eritrea, Oromo, Hadiya and Afar in Ethiopia; the Somalis especially the Degodai tribe both in Somalia and Kenya; the Randle and Sakuye in Kenya and many others in Eastern and central Africa. The Sidama along with Agew and Beja were the first settlers in the northern highlands of the present day Ethiopia.
At present the majority of the Sidama people live in the Southern part of Ethiopia with notable geographical features like lake Awassa in the North and lake Abaya in the South. However, during the course of great popular migration from North and East to the South of Africa, some Sidamas were left behind and were later scattered into different parts of the country and even beyond. One example of such groups of people related to Sidama includes those who live around river Dawa in South Eastern Ethiopia and North Eastern Kenya. The Dawa river was the turning point in the history of the migration of the Sidama people from North to the South. These people now speak Somali language and identify themselves as Digodai, the clans of which include several clans in Sidama. The most notable of these clans is Fardano whose name is maintained both in Sidama and Somali Digodai tribe with out slightest modification. Other people that have even greater affiliation to the Sidama people and its culture and language and that were only separated most recently include Alaba, Tambaro, Qewena and Marako. These groups of the Sidama people live in the western vicinity of the present day Sidama land. At present Sidama has an estimated population of about 5 million.
Total area of the land where the majority of the Sidama people live is estimated to be about 15-16000 km sq. The capital city of Sidama, Awassa, is located 275 kms south of Addis Ababa. Land features range from low lands of about 1500 m a.s.l in the Great East Africa Rift Valley that cuts through lakes Awassa and Abaya up to 3000 m a.s.l in the eastern Sidama high lands of Arbegona, Bansa and Arroressa districts. The Sidama land is one of the most ever green and fertile lands in Africa. As a result, for centuries, the Sidama people led one of the most stable and self sufficient lives as an independent nation state in the north eastern Africa until the nation was conquered by the Abyssinian king Minelik II in 1893. Before the Abyssinian conquest, the Sidama people lived in indigenous egalitarian and democratic social, economic, political and cultural systems.
II. The Sidama Indigenous Political System
The Sidama nation was administered by the Moote system. Moote is the system of administration where Mootichcha who is equivalent to a King, is nominated by the family and near relatives for the position. The nominated Moote (the King) is presented to a Fichche, the Sidama New Year celebration, for Qeexala or popular demonstration. Qeexala serves both as approval and mass media to communicate the decision of the coronation to the general public. Then, the Mootichcha (the King) starts to carry out his duties and responsibilities. The Mootichcha is the head of political and administrative structure. The Mootichcha is assisted by Ga’ro, akin to king’s assistant, and hence next to the former in politico-administrative authority.
Fichche is the most celebrated Sidama cultural holiday which represents the Sidama New Year. The Fichche is based on the lunar system. Sidama elders (astrologists) observe the movement of the stars in the sky and decide the date for the New Year and the Fichche celebration. The Sidama New Year is therefore unique in that it does not have a fixed date. It rotates every year following the movements of the stars. Sidama has 13 months a year. And each of the months is divided equally into 28 days while the 13th month has 29 days. This is because the Sidama week has only 4 days and hence each month has 7 weeks instead of the conventional 4 weeks. The names of the 4 days in Sidama week are called: Dikko, Deela, Qawadoo and Qawalanka to be followed by Dikko completing the cycle of a 4-day week.
The Moote and Ga’ro rule in consultation with the council of people’s representatives known as the Songo. The Songo is similar to the modern day parliament. There was a great parliamentary democracy in the Songo. Agenda for discussion was forwarded by every member of the Songo and decisions were made by the members and forwarded to the Moote for approval. The Songo did not have written constitution. It was guided by the oral constitution which was handed over by generations and was learnt by all involved by heart. Moote was involved in over all political and administrative issues of the society including defence, provision of justice, and the like.
The defence side of the administration is handled by Gaadana or war leader. The Luwa system which involves both administrative and cultural aspects of the Sidama society was mainly responsible for the defence activities of the society. Luwa is administered by an age grade system where each grade rotates every 8 years. There are five rotating grades in the Luwa system: These are: Darara, Fullassa, Hirobora, Wawassa and Mogissa. The Malga clan in Awassa district adds Binancha as the sixth grade.
In the Luwa system, recruits stay outside of their homes for about 5 months. During this period, the recruits carry out military training and training on war songs like Geerarsha which is a counterpart of Geerarsa of the Oromo people. Luwa is ruled by a democratic principle and its leader is known as Gadaana (different from Gaadana-war leader). The deputy of Gadaana is known as Ja’lawa. Under Ja’lawa comes Murrichcha (division leader) who during wartime leads Murassa an equivalent of a military division. The Sidama indigenous defence system was therefore fairly well advanced. This was because of the threat of constant conflict with the neighbouring tribes for more cultivable and grazing lands.
III. The Sidama socio-economic culture
The cultural affairs of the Sidama society is handled by the Woma system. The Woma system has its own council known as the Womu Songo. Woma acts like a cultural and religious leader. He usually performs Kakalo (sacrifices) and other cultural and religious rituals including marriage and circumcision.
There were also other independent socio economic institutions which reflect a unique and egalitarian culture of the Sidama society. Among such institutions the most notable one is Seera. The Sidama Seera system is divided into two: the first refers to the broad concept of Seera as a social constitution which governs the Sidama social life based on the Sidama moral code of halale (the ultimate truth). John Hammer, an American anthropologist who studied the Sidama society extensively, stated that the Sidama moral code halale, provides the basis for distinguishing “good” and “evil” and in the broadest sense the term refers to ‘the true way of life’ (Hammer 2002). If an individual in a community is involved in wrongdoing but refuses to admit it or pay the prescribed fine, this may result in ostracism (Seera) where the recalcitrant becomes non-person as people refuse to work, eat or associate with him (Hammer 2002). Although there were no written procedures and enforcement mechanisms for Seera, individuals abide by it because of the fear of breaking the halale and being referred to God, by the elders, as a consequence.
The second concept of Seera refers to the narrower sub constitution created to facilitate cooperation among the community members in construction of houses. This type of Seera is usually referred to as Minu Seera (constitution for house construction). This is similar to the modern day constitution of building society’s but is more powerful because it is linked to the broader concept of Seera that is linked to the societal moral code of halale.
Another related Sidama social sub constitution is called Jirte. Jirte refers to the mechanism of community cooperation during death and other ceremonies. In Sidama, community members living in near by villages form one Jirte system. The Jirte system is comprised of 4-6 villages and is usually formed based on lineages. If a person dies, community members share the burden of looking after mourners until the mourning ends. The mourning usually takes one week. However, non Christian community members could organize remourning ceremonies based on the social status of the deceased. If a community member does not obey the Jirte system, he can be fined based on the principles of the larger Seera system. Jirte is a typical example of the present day voluntary community based organizations (CBOs).
The Sidama society also had unique systems of economic cooperation. The most notable of these are: (a) Dee-rotating labour contribution for farming, (b) Kotta- producers’ cooperatives, and (c) Shufo-rotating butter credit.
Dee is a voluntary arrangement to contribute labour during the farming season instead of farming on one’s plot individually. The labour pooling system usually involves manual digging of plots but can include oxen farming if all of the members have oxen and are willing to cooperate to rotate the farming. The labour pooling system starts with the elders in the groups and goes down to the youngest member. However, if any one in the system needs an urgent assistance, the members will skip the age based system of rotation. Dee is unique Sidama economic cooperation for which modern counterpart cannot be found easily.
The Sidama society also had what one may call an early form of cooperative movement called Kotta. Kotta is a voluntary farmers’ (producers’) cooperative and hence common ownership of given crops on a given plot of land. The Kotta can be limited to one year or can continue for several years and is purely voluntary economic arrangement. The output of the crops is shared among the Kotta members according to their contributions. The Sidama society had, thereof, had a model cooperative system in Kotta that could serve as an example of successful voluntary producers’ cooperatives.
The Shufo, rotating butter credit, is different from other economic arrangements in that it involves (a) commodity credit and (b) it is carried out exclusively by women. In Sidama society women could not own any property except butter. Therefore, when they are in a financial problem or have social occasions for which they need larger amount of butter, the other women living in the village can bring certain amount of the commodity and hand over to the needy women after taking the measurement of the size of the butter contributed by each woman. Another interesting feature of Shufo is that, not all women know how to measure the butter and keep the size of the butter each woman contributed in their memories for so many rounds. It needs exceptional talent to keep the size of each measurement in memory because none of the women involved are literate and can read and right. This was how the Sidama women fought both poverty and economic marginalization by men.
Before the Abyssinian conquest land in Sidama was mostly owned privately. Every household had access to land and was able to produce enough for its needs. Land outside of the private ownership was owned communally and was called the Danawa land. The Danawas were administered by the local Songos and were distributed to newly married men and new comers based on their needs. Communal lands in Sidama were properly conserved.
In that way the Sidama society was able to maintain sustainable socio-economic and socio-political system for centuries. However, most of these systems were disrupted as a result of the Abyssinian conquest in 1893 and the consequent brutal feudal system.
IV. Sidama and the Feudal System
After the conquest the Sidama society lost most of their democratic and egalitarian socio-political and socio-economic systems. They were subjected to an alien political domination. Alien culture and language were imposed on them while their culture and language were relegated as “uncivilized and backward”.
The conquering army of Minelik known by the name of Neftegna, carriers of guns, began to establish few garrison towns throughout Sidama to ensure a complete domination and subjugation of the people. The first commander of Minelik, Beshah Aboye, who encroached Sidama from the northern tip, by the side of lake Awassa, did not succeed to establish a permanent control over Sidama because of systematic resistance led by Baalichcha Worawo, the last King of Sidama. It was Luelseged, the second commander of Minelik who encroached Sidama through the eastern side of the boarder between Sidama and Bale Oromos, who was able to establish the first permanent settlement of northerners in the place called Hula. Leulseged succeeded in controlling Sidama because he waged a massive attack with superior military power and organization which was unmatched by the Sidama traditional weaponry. The Sidama people always resent that it was Luelseged who subjugated their nation and assassinated their king Baalichcha Worawo. Baalichcha Worawo was taken to the Konso land in South of Sidama near lake Abaya and was killed there.
As the conquering army continued to establish itself in Sidama land, the main stay of the Sidama economy, land, was taken away from its legitimate owners, the Sidama people, and was divided among the conquering neftegnas who became new landlords. This signified the beginning of the brutal feudal oppression in Sidama. The Sidama people were turned into virtual tenants whose lives completely depended on the mercy of these landlords. Three fourths of what they produced was robbed by the landlords and the Church which was an army of the Abyssinian administration. On top of the wanton economic plunder and exploitation, the Sidamas were reduced to virtual slaves where both heads of a household had to work for land lords both within Sidama and other parts of the country particularly the capital, Addis Ababa. Several people had been taken to Addis Ababa to provide slave labour to the landlords. Many of these people perished either on their way or in the capital. The writer’s uncle served as a slave labourer in Addis Ababa in early 1920s for over a year and had to travel back to Sidama on foot for over a month. He told the writer that he served the Amhara land lords for over a year in a settlement near Intoto, the northern part of the present day Addis Ababa, under very harsh conditions.
V. The Aftermath of the Feudal System
The brutal Abyssinian feudal system was overthrown by the popular movement in 1974. However, the popular movement was hijacked by the armed military junta which proclaimed the country a socialist state and ruled with an iron feast. The head of the Junta Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam established a close ties with the Eastern socialist block to help him implement misguided socialist economic policies and to suppress any resistance to its brutal subjugation of the rights of peoples.
The little freedom and prospects for economic development expected from abolition of serfdom and return of land to the tillers was immediately lost as a result of such misguided economic policies of collectivization and villagization. These not only brought untold suffering to the Sidama people but led to economic collapse the result of which was massive unemployment and impoverishment.
The Sidama people who have never accepted the Abyssinian conquest and its consequent brutal subjugation from its very onset have started to wage an organized armed struggle against the military regime beginning from its very inception in 1970s. The war between Sidama and the military regime that took place in the highland districts of Arbegona, Bansa and Arroressa between 1977-1983 claimed over 30,000 Sidama lives. Similar resistance struggle took place in northern Sidama in places known as Borrichcha in Shabadino district and Wotara Rassa in Awassa district in 1978. The socialist regime brutally crushed all Sidama resistance movements during the early 1980s and subjected the nation to untold suffering.
However, the socialist government had one positive contribution in Sidama. That was the construction of several elementary schools in many parts of Sidama and the building of few modern manufacturing industries in Awassa town such as the Awassa textile factory, the Awassa Flour Mills, the Awassa Ceramics Factory and several other smaller socio-economic infrastructures. Mass education for the rural people in Sidama began during the time of the socialist regime.
VI. Sidama Today
The Sidama people had made tremendous and historic contribution to the weakening and the final down fall of the military regime. However, the TPLF, which overthrew the military regime in 1991, ignored the historic contribution of other peoples in the struggle against the socialist regime and monopolised political power in the country. The current regime continued to deny human and democratic rights of the Sidama people by denying the people its basic right to regional self determination.
The current regime follows an outdated system of indirect rule used by the British Empire in the colonies before the 1960s. The regime assigns handpicked loyalists who often lack education and experience to serve as the representatives of the Sidama people. The purpose of these people is to use them as informers to the central TPLF leadership instead of as leaders of their people. Whenever the informers fail to inform properly or try to voice little concern about the people they are supposed to represent, they are removed immediately and either sent to jails in Awassa or Addis Ababa or are left jobless. The Sidama administrative sub region (also called zone) witnessed 11 administrative changes in 13 years, one informer (leader) serving less than 1.1 years. One can imagine how economic and social progress as well as the provision of justice can be attained with such highly volatile political environment. The irony is that the volatility is deliberately maintained by the regime that claims to be the champion of the oppressed peoples.
This derives from the strategic plan of the regime to suppress the Sidama struggle for regional self determination which the regime successfully reduced to the struggle for regional status. The regional questions are crucial in the Ethiopian politico- administrative structure. Sidama as a nation of an estimated 5 million people have undisputed democratic right to be an independent region in Ethiopia. The Sidama people resent being bullied by the current regime with 45 smaller tribes. The continued suppression of this fundamental democratic right by using naïve loyalists who end up in jail turn by turn, only increases the resentment and the determination of this heroic people to fight for their total independence.
Following the genocide of the peaceful antigovernment Sidama demonstrators in Looqe, Awassa, by the regime’s defence and police forces, on May 24, 2002, in which over 70 Sidamas were brutally murdered and hundreds of others were wounded, the Sidama nation has witnessed unprecedented violations and abuse of the rights of its citizens. Mass imprisonment, torture, harassment and intimidation became the order of the day. The abuse of human rights continued until today because the people have intensified their struggle for recognition of regional status.
Awassa town was established in 1964 by removing the Sidama dwellers near lake Awassa. The Sidama people have been living in the present land of Awassa for over 1000 years. However, the current regime in Ethiopia tries to rewrite history by denying the right of the Sidama people to ownership of the city. The current regime made several attempts to remove the Sidama capital from Awassa and send it to remote districts in the hinterland of Sidama. In a similar manner, the regime tried to remove the Oromos from Finfine (Addis Ababa) but when the people of Addis Ababa rejected the current ruling party in May 2005 elections, the Oromos were regranted their right of living and working in Finfine as their capital. Several such examples of double standards and policy inconsistencies of the current regime can be listed but time and space are not always on our side.
After the massacre the Sidama people living in the town were considered as second class citizens. Most of the people were systematically removed from the town and sent to districts in the name of restructuring of the civil services. Hundreds of ethnic Sidama civil servants were removed from their jobs following the massacre. Many civil servants have fled the country. In Sidama history mass emigration took place only twice. The first was during the war of 1977-1983 between the Sidama freedom fighters and the military regime. And the second was during and after the massive human rights abuses following the May 24, 2002 Looqe massacre. For a comprehensive and pioneering study of the Diaspora identify and forced flight of the Sidama people refer to Seyoum Hamesso (2007). Moreover, several hundred ethnic Sidama members of the police force have been removed for their alleged support of the cause of the Sidama people. On the other hand, the naïve loyalists were promoted to various lucrative positions.
People were also removed from Sidama land in the name of resettlement to reduce population pressure. The genuine solution to the over population of a given area is to establish an alternative employment schemes by investing on alternative manufacturing, mining and services sectors. Deportation of the people from their home lands to an area which is less developed than their own home land can not be justified by any reason. Forced resettlement and villagization programmes carried out by the socialist regime were utter failures. There is no guarantee that an equally unpopular regime can bring a miraculous success by forcing people to move from their lands and settling them in remote areas of the country.
VII. The Sidama Economy
The Sidama economy is based primarily on subsistence agriculture characterized by archaic production techniques. However, a substantial proportion of the Sidama land produces coffee which is the major cash crop in the area. Coffee has been the major sources of income for the rural households in the coffee producing regions of the Sidama land. However, the recent plunge in international coffee price coupled with inimical government policy on Sidama drew most of these households back into the subsistence production and absolute poverty. In fact, Sidama is one of the major coffee producing regions in Ethiopia. In particular, Sidama supplies 45-50% of washed coffee to the central market. Coffee is the single major export earner for the country. Export earnings from coffee ranges from 55-67% although the country’s share in the world market is less than 3%.
The Sidama people have never faced hunger and famine in the history of their society because they had always produced enough for themselves. The society has been characterised by what one may call the long run equilibrium. Even the 1984 great famine that hit all other parts of the country did not affect the Sidama land. However, the subsistence nature of agricultural production which is dependent on archaic technology and vagaries of nature coupled with massive growth of rural population and inimical government policy, made the Sidama land prone to frequent hunger and famine that characterizes the country. Thus, it is not surprising to see that, today, about 1/4 of the total population in Sidama is directly or indirectly dependent on food aid from the international community.
A semi narcotic crop called Chat has recently become another major cash crop in the Sidama land. A crop whose leaves are chewed as stimulants has become another major export earner for the country and a substantial amount of this crop comes from the Sidama region. Given the dramatic fall in the world coffee price and subsequent loss of revenue and deterioration in living standards of the rural households in Sidama, it is feared that farmers may root the coffee plants out and replace them with Chat permanently.
Other major crops produced in Sidama include Enset (also called false banana or Weese in Sidaamuffo), wheat, Oat, maize, barley, sorghum, millets, sugar cane, potatoes, and other cereal crops and vegetables. Enset is the main staple food in Sidama. Apart from being the main source of food, parts of the Enset tree can be used as inputs in other economic activities like construction of houses, production of containers like sacks, and for handling food items during and after preparation of food. Thus, the pattern of Enset and coffee production and consumption over the years has substantially shaped the nature of the Sidama culture and hence the name the Enset culture.
The role of livestock was highly significant in medieval and early 20th century Sidama society. However, recently the importance of live stock has been dwindling because of two factors. First, a rapid increase in population reduced the size of grazing land for large stocks, and second a severe ‘Tse-Tse’ fly disease in low land areas has virtually wiped out most of the livestock population during the last quarter of the 20th century. However, livestock is still the most important source of livelihood for people living in the peripheral areas of the Sidama land.
Although agriculture is a key to the development of the country, successive regimes failed to successfully transform the traditional agriculture in Ethiopia. The transformation of traditional agriculture as an engine of growth and development was emphasised by one of great economists, Theodore Schultz (1964), who states that all resources of the traditional type are efficiently allocated, and hence the rate of return to increased investment with the existing states of the art is too low to induce further saving and investment. According to Schultz, therefore, the development of traditional agriculture depends on breaking the established equilibrium. Based on a theory of the price of income streams, he suggests that breaking such established equilibrium requires the introduction of modern inputs in the form of human and material capital. The author is certain that when Schultz talks about the modern inputs (human and material) he does not mean dumping fertilizers to the poor who have no clue as to how to use them. Worse still, in Ethiopia the modern input is not only incomplete but also is a means of enriching government companies at the expense of the poor. Where the poor manage to produce surplus in one bumper season, there will be no market to sell the products. Therefore, during the next season the farmers are bankrupt and unable to sustain the previous level of production. This perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty in Sidama land.
Forestry and fishery are underdeveloped in the Sidama area. Fishing activities are limited to the most prominent lakes in Sidama: lake Awassa and lake Abaya. Although Sidama has several perennial rivers these rivers have never been exploited. Although commercial forestry is underdeveloped, Sidama is well known for its traditional agro forestry system which saved the land from erosion and desertification for centuries. Every household in Sidama practices planting crops with trees. However, this tendency has also brought a negative impact in recent times. Farmers began planting Eucalyptus trees near other crops. Because the later plant has a poisonous effect, it destroys other crops planted near it. Most farmers are aware of the problem. However, the economic benefits of the eucalyptus tree outweigh the cost of losing small crops near it for individual farmers. But this trend is dangerous for the overall environmental sustainability of the Sidama land.
Sidama is characterized by a very low level of industrial development. There are very few manufacturing factories in Sidama land. A very few factories available in the area are all located in Awassa town and its environs. The government owned textile and ceramic factories are the only notable manufacturing activities in Sidama. A chip wood factory built in recent years and a meat processing factory in Malga Wondo are the only major private manufacturing activities in the entire Sidama land. Small scale manufacturing activities are highly underdeveloped because of the inimical government policies. No attempt has been made by the government to develop industrial sector to create jobs for the massive redundant labour force in the rural area.
The agriculture development led industrialization strategy of the current regime is a policy document for donor consumption. We have not seen the strategy in practice for 15 years now. The conventional agriculture development led industrialization involves the building of agro processing industries that process the local agricultural inputs that can be sold in domestic or export markets thereby adding value to the primary products. This plays a crucial role in reducing rural poverty. The poverty reducing impact of such projects is twofold: first, the market for the agricultural products is readily available at the door step of producers. Second, processed products fetch better price both in domestic and foreign markets than primary products. The writer has never witnessed any agriculture development led industrialization activity in Sidama or other parts of South Ethiopia during the past 15 years. The writer has witnessed successful agriculture development led industrialization in the Philippines where there are over 70 medium and large scale sugar processing factories located through out the country which is the size of the Oromia region in Ethiopia. Varieties of other agro processing factories are found in this country and the country follows an exemplary agriculture development led industrialization policy.
Mining is virtually non existent. Although Sidama is said to have a good potential of mineral resources particularly in the Great East African Rift Valley and the eastern highlands of the Sidama land, nothing has been done to exploit these resources. An absolute lack of industrial development in the area which is characterized by massive over population in rural areas, means that the Sidama people will continue to suffer from poverty, illiteracy and starvation for years to come.
The development of both economic and social services is very low. Economic infrastructure is severely underdeveloped. The Supply of electricity, water and telephone services is the monopoly of the government and hence its supply is severely curtailed. Many of the capital towns of the main districts do not have electric supply connected to the national grid. All whether roads are not more than 400 kms. Asphalted roads are non existent except for the 90 kms stretch of the Cairo - Addis Ababa- Gaborone road that passes through the Sidama land. The private financial services are beginning to operate in the area but are still insignificant. Trade and transport services are severely underdeveloped and limited mainly to very few urban areas. Trade activities in rural Sidama heavily depend on purchase and sale of coffee. The coffee slum has severely affected these activities.
There is a great tourism potential in Sidama land. The rift valley lakes like Awassa and Abaya are already some major tourist attractions in Sidama land. However, the access to lake Abaya through Sidama land has been opened only five years ago and is not well developed and not open for potential tourists. The agro forestry and the mountain ranges of eastern highlands are other potential tourist attractions in Sidama. However, they have not been exploited so far.
Unemployment and underemployment is rampant. An estimated 1.5 million people in rural Sidama are either unemployed or under employed. Employment in modern sector is very much limited. The total estimated number of the labour forces employed in modern sector in Sidama is less than 1%. Out of the estimated total population of 5 million, an estimated 2.5 million people are in the active labour force of which 1.5 are estimated to be underemployed or unemployed in Sidama. If properly utilised huge supply of labour can make positive contribution to economic development. As early as the middle of 20th century economist such as William Arthur Lewis, the first black economist to win Nobel Prize in economics, have emphasised the potential of economic development with unlimited supply of rural labour. Lewis’s (1954) paper on ‘Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour’, elaborates how the dual sector model can be successfully used in promotion economic development in poor countries with unlimited supply of labour.
The deliberate dismantling of the donor assisted development initiatives in Sidama by the current regime has made matters worse. Last week the author watched a feature film on international media that showed the Sidama people from Awassa and Borrichcha districts queuing for food hand outs while the woman carried emaciated children on their backs. I was told by my colleagues to watch people who are starving to death in Ethiopia, but when I watched, the people were from my own village. Their story inspired me to write this article.
The Sidama people had enjoyed an independent and egalitarian socio-economic life before the 1893. They had a unique indigenous political system led by the Mote (King) assisted by Ga’ro. The Mote serves as the political and administrative leader of the nation and rules in consultation with the council of people’s representatives called the Songo. The cultural affairs of the society were the responsibility of the Woma who is responsible for carrying out religious sacrifices (Kakalo) and other cultural duties. The most prominent Sidama culture is the Seera (the grand social constitution) linked to the Sidama moral code of halale (the ultimate truth), “the true way of life”. Varieties of sub Seera’s or constitutions were developed based on the grand Seera such as Minu Seera (building societies), Jirte (association during mourning and other social events) and economic cooperations such as Dee (labour contribution for farming), Kotta ( producers’ cooperatives) and Shuffo (revolving commodity credit). Sidama had such unique and beautiful indigenous and egalitarian, social, political and economic arrangements that it could offer to the international community.
However, this beautiful indigenous socio-cultural and socio-political set up was disrupted with the imperial conquest of Minelik. The consequent feudal system not only deprived the Sidama people their right to the ownership of their basic capital land, but also converted the people into a virtual slavery.
The abolition of the feudal system did not bring fundamental changes to the lives of the Sidama people. Although serfdom and direct slavery were abolished, misguided economic polices based on the socialist ideology of the military regime brought further suffering. Forced collectivisation and villagization programmes led to massive fall in agricultural production. The resistance to such unpopular policies led to the war between the military regime and the Sidama people between 1977-1983 and various other uprisings in Sidama which were all brutally crushed by the military regime. In this war over 30,000 Sidamas were killed. This seriously undermined the Sidama struggle for freedom and democracy but did not kill the spirit of the nation.
At present even though the fundamental problem of the Sidama society is perpetuation of underdevelopment with all its manifestations: hunger, poverty and illiteracy, the lack of regional representation in the country is considered to be a major step backward in the history of the society. Economic development and poverty reduction can not be thought of when the people do not enjoy their fundamental rights. Continued resistance for regional recognition have not only led to high volatility in Sidama political administration, but also to a massive abuse of human rights ranging from massacre to imprisonment and torture. However, a society that survived over a century of suppression will not at all despair.
Hammer, JH. 2002. The Religious conversion process among the Sidama of North East Africa. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 72 (4): 598-627
Hameso, S. 2007. Diaspora identity formation and forced flight of Sidamas. The University of East London, UK.
Schultz, TW. 1964. Transforming traditional agriculture. Yale University Press.
Lewis, WA. 1954. Economic development with unlimited supplies of labour. The Manchester School of Economic and Social Studies. May 1954.