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Ethiopian Ethnic Group Votes On Whether Its Region Should Secede


The world's newest Nobel Peace Prize winner is facing one of his biggest tests. His name is Abiy Ahmed, and he won the prize last month for ending two decades of war between Ethiopia and its neighbor Eritrea. Today he faces what may be an even bigger challenge, an election that could create Ethiopia's newest ethnically defined state.

NPR's Eyder Peralta is in the city of Hawassa and joins us now. Good morning, Eyder. Can you just explain where Hawassa is and what you're seeing?

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Yeah, so this is a mid-sized city in southern Ethiopia, but it gets rural really fast. Right now, I'm in the mountains outside of Hawassa in lush coffee country. And the polling places have been set up in military tents, and they're using bed sheets and curtains to make private voting booths.

And the big highlight so far is that the vote is peaceful, but also that we've seen huge voter turnout. People have been in line since last night. And keep in mind that this is Ethiopia, an ancient country that has never really had free elections. And people here have stayed home in the past, but they are participating in huge numbers because they believe their vote is going to count.

MARTIN: I mean, why do they think that? Why do they think this time will be different - that this time their vote will matter?

PERALTA: So, I mean, one of the big things that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promised when he came to power was that Ethiopia would become a real democracy. And I think this is testing that, right? This is his first big test. And, I mean, this will answer whether Ethiopia has really changed and whether there's hope for next year, which is when the country will hold general elections.

MARTIN: Ethiopia is currently made up of nine ethnically based states, I understand. And this vote could create a 10th. So just kind of explain the dynamics. What are the interests - the various interests here?

PERALTA: So they're complicated because just here in this one state there are 56 ethnicities. And the biggest ethnicity, I mean, essentially, wants a divorce here. The Sidama believe that they need power here, that they can - that they should be able to control, you know, the biggest city here in Hawassa and that they should be able to control their money.

And it's hard. It's really hard to find an American analog because American federalism is not based on ethnicity, but it would be kind of like if the Latino majority in Miami decided that they wanted their own state so that they didn't want to have to share power with Tallahassee or with any other ethnicity in South Florida.

And, you know, as you might imagine, something like this has really torn up the community. One woman I spoke to, Nehemia (ph), was scared. She only gave me her first name. And she was scared that when the Sidama people took power they would kick her out - out of the only place that she knows as home. Let's listen.

NEHEMIA: (Through interpreter) I'm really sad if they get independence, if they win because we have been together for a long time. We have eat together. We have get married together. So I will be happy if we continue together like one.

PERALTA: So I should note that in a lot of places, especially where, you know, there are many minorities, this feels sad. Stores are closed. People are off the streets. You know, it very much feels like they're losing something important.

MARTIN: And I imagine there are concerns this could set a precedent - right? - that could be even dangerous.

PERALTA: It can. I mean, look; Ethiopia is home to many ethnicities, and if they all want a divorce, you know, it could lead to chaos. That's the worry.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Eyder Peralta in Hawassa, Ethiopia, on Election Day. Eyder, thank you.

PERALTA: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE PEOPLE'S "OFFAL WAFFLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.