Residents of Ethiopia’s Sidama zone voted in favor of a new federal region, with about 98.5% choosing autonomous rule, the country’s electoral board said on Saturday. Voter turnout was 99.8%.

The official preliminary results of a referendum held on Wednesday were released by the deputy head of the National Electoral Board, Wubshet Ayele, in the regional capital, Hawassa, about 200 kilometers (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.

By creating their own federal region, Sidamas people — Ethiopia’s fifth most numerous ethnicity — hope to regain control of land resources, political representation as well as to reaffirm their cultural identity.

Read more: Opinion: Ethiopia’s reform government wrangles with ethnonationalism

Long road to independence

Ethiopia’s Sidama zone, home to about 4 million residents, is part of the country’s Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR), home to over 40 ethnic groups.

For decades the Sidama people have been longing to break free form the SNNPR and gain regional independence, a right enshrined in the constitution. But years of autocratic rule have failed to fulfill this provision.

Read more: Ethiopia’s Sidamas vote on regional independence

Rapid change

Saturday’s result paves the way for Sidama to become Ethiopia’s 10th state, but it also could act as inspiration for other ethnic groups keen to carve out their own region.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said the move was an “expression of the democratization path Ethiopia has set out on.”

Ethiopia, once one of Africa’s most repressive nations, has been undergoing rapid changes since Abiy was appointed last year, promising to forge a more open society.

Last month, Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize for his political reforms and for making peace with Eritrea.

Read more: Abiy Ahmed: Ethiopia’s first Nobel laureate

kw/sms (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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