Controversial Sidama referendum underway in Ethiopia’s southern region

(REUTERS) – Ethiopia’s Sidama people vote on creating a new administrative region in a referendum today that is closely watched by other restive ethnic groups also seeking more autonomy.

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.

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.

“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.