HAWASSA, ETHIOPIA - Ethiopia's Sidama people vote on self-determination in a referendum Wednesday closely watched by other restive ethnic groups also seeking more autonomy since reforms by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed shook up the national power balance.
The special vote for the Sidama, mostly based in the south and comprising about 4 percent of Ethiopia's 105 million population, comes ahead of a national election next year and has brought fears of renewed violence.
At least 17 people died in clashes in July between security forces and Sidama activists after the government delayed the poll by five months.
If the referendum passes as expected, the Sidama will control local taxes, education, security and laws in a new self-governing region that would be Ethiopia's 10th.
The Horn of Africa nation's regions are emboldened by a more open political climate — and weaker ruling coalition — since Abiy took office in 2018 and eased predecessors' iron rule.
However, that has also brought a surge of long-repressed rivalries between Ethiopia's 80-plus ethnic groups, forcing more than 2 million people out of their homes and killing hundreds, according to the United Nations and monitoring groups.
'Danger for Ethiopia'
"Should there be irregularities and should autonomy not be declared, that would be a danger for Ethiopia itself because of course there will be violence," said Dukale Lamiso, head of the Sidama Liberation Front, an activist group.
Around 2.3 million voters are registered at nearly 1,700 polling stations, the national electoral board said.
Polling stations open at 6 a.m. (0300 GMT) and close at 6 p.m. (1500 GMT). Preliminary results are due Thursday.
Sidama people have been proudly carrying their voter cards and told Reuters they are overjoyed at the chance to vote for statehood. One businessman in Addis Ababa said he had provided transportation for his family and employees to travel back home to vote.
More than a dozen other ethnic groups are considering or already campaigning for region status.
The vote will also be closely watched for its tone prior to next year when Abiy has promised a free and fair national poll.
Previous elections going back to 2005 were marred by irregularities, violence and clampdowns by security forces.
A potential Sidama homeland would be carved out of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNP) region, the most ethnically diverse part of Ethiopia, a rural region of around 20 million people that borders Kenya and South Sudan.
The Sidama people want the multiethnic city of Hawassa, located 275 km (170 miles) from Addis Ababa, to be their capital.
The city, located on a lake and surrounded by farmland, is home to the country's first industrial park, opened in 2017, where Western and Asian companies are producing clothes for export as part of Ethiopia's ambitious industrialization drive.