Polls opened on Wednesday, November 20th in Ethiopia's ethnic Sidama region in a referendum for a new regional state closely watched by other restive ethnic groups also seeking more autonomy since reforms by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed shook up the national power balance.
Sidama voters described the referendum as the achievement of a lifetime and the culmination of decades of struggle for autonomy. The Sidama are mostly based in the south and comprise about 4% of Ethiopia's 105 million population.
Polling stations open at 6am (0300 GMT) and close at 6pm (1500 GMT). Preliminary results are due Thursday. Around 2.3 million voters are registered at nearly 1,700 polling stations, the national electoral board said.
The mood in the regional capital Hawassa appeared calm 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."
Ethiopia's constitution grants the right to seek autonomy for its more than 80 ethnic groups. More than a dozen groups are debating whether to demand such powers, amid reforms to create a more open society under Abiy Ahmed, who took office last year and won the Nobel Peace Prize last month.
The vote comes ahead of a national election next year and has brought fears of renewed violence. At least 17 people died in clashes in July between security forces and Sidama activists after the government delayed the poll by five months.
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 tenth.
The Sidama people want the multi-ethnic 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 industrialisation drive.
The Sidama referendum "is an expression of the democratisation path Ethiopia has set out on. As citizens go out to vote today, I call upon all to engage peacefully throughout the process", the prime minister 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.