Ethiopia’s leader urges calm as key referendum begins

ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA (AP) – Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister urged calm yesterday as millions of citizens held a referendum on whether to create a new regional state along ethnic lines.

The Sidama referendum “is an expression of the democratisation path Ethiopia has set out on,” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said in a statement. The vote could inspire others to seek their own regional states and cause further fragmentation of ethnic groups in Africa’s second most populous country. Abiy’s sweeping political reforms since he took office last year have opened the way for some of Ethiopia’s more than 80 ethnic groups to push for more autonomy.

Sometimes deadly unrest has followed, and tensions could rise ahead of national elections in May. Observers said this poses Abiy’s greatest challenge.

The Prime Minister encourages national unity over an emphasis on ethnic identity to help prevent the eruption of old grievances.