Ethiopia’s Sidama people voted overwhelmingly to form their own self-governing region as many ethnic groups demand greater autonomy under reforms led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
The country’s electoral board said provisional results showed 98.5% of voters backed the change in Wednesday’s ballot, with turnout reaching 99.7%.
The result grants the Sidama, who represent four percent of Ethiopia’s 105 million population, their own self-governing region – the country’s 10th, control over local taxes, education, security and certain legislation.
Ethiopia’s constitution gives the right to autonomy to its more than 80 ethnic groups. Abiy’s political reform agenda saw government approve the Sidama request for a referendum.
The country, once one of Africa’s most repressive nations, is undergoing rapid changes since Abiy was appointed last year promising to forge a more open society.
Last year, ethnic violence forced more than two million people from their homes and killed hundreds, according to the United Nations and monitoring groups.
Saturday’s result may encourage more than a dozen other ethnic groups considering requesting similar votes, a move that could threaten Abiy’s push to unify the country ahead of elections scheduled for 2020.
The new Sidama homeland will be carved out of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNP) region, the most ethnically diverse part of Ethiopia, bordering Kenya and South Sudan. Hawassa, south of Addis Ababa, will be the new regional capital.
A senior police official in Hawassa told Reuters celebrations were banned on Saturday but festivities would be organised once the final result is announced.
People refrained from celebrating publicly but many drivers sung and played music. Soon after the results were announced, a group of young people gathered in Hawassa’s central square to sing and dance. They were dispersed by police with whistles and heavy rain later kept many indoors.
“I have friends who died, were imprisoned and exiled for this cause,” Unani Fikro (24) a member of a Sidama activist group, said. “For me it’s the day of resurrection.”
Members of other ethnic groups in the city feared outcome meant they could suffer discrimination or become marginalised.
“I’m afraid the Sidama will hurt us … they will take all the jobs and even if you file a complaint it will go unheard as you will be complaining to them,” said Tsion (28) a Hawassa resident who did not give her full name for fear of retribution.
Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commissioner Daniel Bekele, who visited more than 100 polling stations in five cities and 15 rural towns across the Sidama zone during voting said the referendum was peaceful with no major irregularities reported.