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Ethiopia's Sidama people vote on regional state

People formed long queues at polling stations at dawn, with some 2.3 million people registered to vote.

Voters wait in a queue to cast their vote during the Sidama referendum in Hawassa, Ethiopia, on 20 November 2019. Picture: AFP

HAWASSA - Polls opened on Wednesday in Ethiopia's ethnic Sidama region in a referendum for a new federal state, a critical vote in a tense region that could embolden others to follow.

The Sidama push for statehood already triggered days of unrest in July that left dozens dead and prompted the government to place Ethiopia's southern region under the control of soldiers and federal police.

But the mood on Wednesday morning in the regional capital Hawassa appeared calm.

People formed long queues at polling stations at dawn, with some 2.3 million people registered to vote.

Away from the polling stations, the streets of Hawassa were much quieter than usual, with Wednesday declared a holiday for the vote. Heavily armed police and soldiers patrolled the streets.

"The voting process is inclusive, smooth, transparent and exciting," said 27-year old Fantahun Hatiso, after casting his ballot.

"I voted for a decision that I believe will work towards development, peace and personal well-being."

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 tenth.

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 fresh momentum after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, took office last year.

"I stayed up until late in the night," Hatiso added. "The excitement of waiting for this day, which will bring liberty and peace to my people, kept me awake."

At least ten 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.

Polls opened at 6:00 am (0300 GMT) and close at 6:00 pm (1500 GMT). Preliminary results are expected on Thursday.

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