▶ No­bel Prize-win­ner Abiy Ahmed has spent months deal­ing with other mi­nori­ties’ bids for sovereignt­y

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Ethiopi­ans liv­ing in a re­gion of the coun­try dom­i­nated by the Si­dama peo­ple voted yes­ter­day in a ref­er­en­dum that could carve out a new state in a na­tion al­ready strug­gling with com­mu­nity ten­sions.

With heavy se­cu­rity on the streets, the mood yes­ter­day in the re­gional cap­i­tal Hawassa ap­peared to be calm.

But the Si­dama’s push for au­ton­omy trig­gered days of un­rest in July in which dozens were killed, prompt­ing the govern­ment to place the south­ern re­gion un­der the con­trol of sol­diers and fed­eral po­lice.

“The Si­dama ref­er­en­dum is an ex­pres­sion of the democrati­sa­tion path Ethiopia has set out on,” Prime Min­is­ter Abiy Ahmed said, as he urged ev­ery­one to “en­gage peace­fully through­out the process”.

Peo­ple be­gan to gather at polling sta­tions dur­ing the night; about 2.3 mil­lion cit­i­zens were reg­is­tered to vote.

“This is a spe­cial day for me,” said Fit­sum Anbese, 32, a lab­o­ra­tory tech­ni­cian, who started queu­ing to vote two hours be­fore day­break, when polls opened. “I will be recog­nised for my iden­tity, so I’m happy.”

“The ex­cite­ment of wait­ing for this day, which will bring lib­erty and peace to my peo­ple, kept me awake,” said Fan­tahun Hatiso, 27, af­ter vot­ing.

With ap­par­ently over­whelm­ing sup­port among the Si­dama to form their own state, peo­ple said they were keen to see a peace­ful vote. Many fear the sterner test will come once the fi­nal re­sults are an­nounced.

The ref­er­en­dum on au­ton­omy springs from a fed­eral sys­tem de­signed to pro­vide widespread eth­nic self-rule in a hugely di­verse coun­try, Africa’s sec­ond most pop­u­lous, with more than 100 mil­lion peo­ple.

At present, Ethiopia is par­ti­tioned into nine semi-au­ton­o­mous re­gional states – with the Si­dama vot­ing for a po­ten­tial 10th.

The con­sti­tu­tion re­quires the govern­ment to or­gan­ise a ref­er­en­dum for any eth­nic group that wants to form a new en­tity.

The Si­dama – who num­ber more than three mil­lion – have ag­i­tated for years to leave the di­verse South­ern Na­tions, Na­tion­al­i­ties and Peo­ples’ Re­gion.

The dream gained mo­men­tum af­ter Abiy Ahmed, win­ner of this year’s No­bel Peace Prize, took of­fice last year.

At least 10 other groups in the south of the coun­try have al­ready launched plans for self-de­ter­mi­na­tion sim­i­lar to that of the Si­dama.

An­a­lysts fear it could un­leash fur­ther eth­nic vi­o­lence.

Mr Abiy has spent re­cent months try­ing to re­duce other state­hood at­tempts, plead­ing for pa­tience in meet­ings with lead­ers of dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties try­ing to fol­low the Si­dama ex­am­ple.

If, as many ex­pect, the peo­ple in Si­dama choose to form a new state, the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the ref­er­en­dum is ex­pected to raise sev­eral thorny is­sues.

Some­times deadly un­rest has fol­lowed and ten­sions could rise be­fore na­tional elec­tions in May. Ob­servers say this poses Mr Abiy’s great­est chal­lenge.

The prime min­is­ter en­cour­ages na­tional unity over an em­pha­sis on eth­nic iden­tity to help pre­vent the erup­tion of old griev­ances. Mr Abiy yes­ter­day called for calm and Amnesty In­ter­na­tional urged the au­thor­i­ties to pre­vent any use of ex­ces­sive force.

“The ref­er­en­dum comes at an es­pe­cially tense time when vi­o­lence based on eth­nic dif­fer­ences is break­ing out all over the coun­try and peo­ple are be­ing killed sim­ply for ex­press­ing their opin­ions,” Amnesty’s deputy di­rec­tor for the re­gion, Seif Ma­gango, said.

The Wo­laita and Kaffa peo­ples, also in south­ern Ethiopia, have al­ready re­quested au­ton­omy but it is not clear whether sim­i­lar votes will take place.

“It won’t be smooth sail­ing,” le­gal ex­pert Kiya Tsegaye said.

“If and when Si­dama be­comes a re­gional state, it will have its own bud­get and spe­cial po­lice forces, mean­ing there is a risk of con­fronta­tion when it comes to dis­puted bor­der ar­eas.”

Mr Abiy en­cour­ages na­tional unity over eth­nic iden­tity to help pre­vent the erup­tion of old griev­ances

One ma­jor stick­ing point is the sta­tus of Hawassa, which the Si­dama are eye­ing as the cap­i­tal of their would-be state.

The city of more than 300,000 peo­ple is eth­ni­cally di­verse – only about half the pop­u­la­tion is Si­dama – and up to now has served as the ad­min­is­tra­tive cen­tre for the en­tire south­ern re­gion.

Pre­lim­i­nary re­sults from the poll are ex­pected to­day.


Birhan­nesh Chilota, 30, comes out of the se­cret vot­ing booth af­ter cast­ing her bal­lot dur­ing the Si­dama au­ton­omy ref­er­en­dum in Hawassa, Ethiopia

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