(Bloomberg) -- Ethiopia’s electoral agency plans to conduct a referendum this year on the creation of a 10th state, the first of a series of votes that are anticipated as ethnic groups demand greater autonomy.

Regional groups have intensified calls for more self-determination since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in April 2018 with a pledge to reform the country’s political system. The country has been governed by a federation of ethnic states since 1991, when a more than decade-long military dictatorship ended.

The Electoral Board of Ethiopia announced the referendum Tuesday after representatives of the ethnic Sidama group threatened to unilaterally declare statehood by July 18 unless the government announced plans for a plebiscite. The new jurisdiction would be carved out of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples regional state, which accounts for a fifth of Ethiopia’s 105 million people.

“The referendum will ensure the wishes and decisions of the people are legal and free,” the agency said in a statement posted on its Facebook account.

Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous nation, is made up of nine regional states and more than 80 ethnic groups. Zonal councils that represent other ethnic groups in southern Ethiopia, including the Wolayta, Gurage and Gamo-Goffa, approved statehood requests last year that also require referenda.

To contact the reporters on this story: Nizar Manek in Nairobi at nmanek2@bloomberg.net;Samuel Gebre in Abidjan at sgebre@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: David Malingha at dmalingha@bloomberg.net, Paul Richardson

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