Ethiopian referendum overwhelmingly backs new federal region

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Wednesday's referendum passed off peacefully said the National Electoral Board

Ethiopia's Sidama people have voted overwhelmingly for a new federal region, with 98 percent choosing autonomous rule, the electoral board said Saturday.

The result means a major shakeup in Ethiopia, with analysts saying it could inspire other groups to push for autonomy to redraw boundaries in Africa's second most populous country, with more than 100 million people.

The official results were released by Wubshet Ayele, deputy head of the National Electoral Board, in the regional capital Hawassa, roughly 200 kilometres (125 miles) south of Addis Ababa.

"The November 20 polls was peaceful and didn't have major logistical challenges, although in some places there were larger than projected queues of voters," Ayele said.

Less than two percent of the 2.27 million people who voted in the referendum chose to remain in the existing federal region, one of nine currently in Ethiopia, Ayele said.

The poll paves the way for Sidama to become a 10th state -- but also acts as inspiration for others keen to carve out their own ethnic region.

With more than 10 other ethnic groups potentially interested in holding their own referendum on autonomy, the Sidama result will have an impact far beyond the local region itself.

- Ethnic self-rule -

The referendum on autonomy sprang from a federal system designed to provide widespread ethnic self-rule in a hugely diverse country.

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

The Sidama autonomy push gained fresh momentum after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, took office last year and enacted a series of reforms that have encouraged more freedoms.

But his drive to open up Ethiopia's authoritarian one-party state has also unleashed ethnic violence as different groups and regions jostle for power and resources.

The Sidama push for autonomy 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.

There is concern among non-Sidama people in the new state, especially those in the city of Hawassa.

The new state will split off from the old region, and will hand tax-raising powers and control over schools, police, health and other services to the Sidamas, who would be in the majority in the state.

- Balancing rights -

Abiy has already congratulated the Sidama people for the "holding a peaceful and democratic" referendum.

"The voting process is demonstrative of our capacity for taking our differences to the ballot and allowing democratic processes to prevail," Abiy said on Thursday.

Creating a new state will be far harder than just voting for one.

Implementing the referendum result is expected to raise a host of thorny issues, and there are a lot of stages ahead before the new state becomes a reality.

"A new region will not be created overnight -- this is just one key part of a process," William Davison from the International Crisis Group, said ahead of the result.

"And during no part of that process should Sidama statehood harm non-Sidama residents or businesses."