Dozens killed in anti-Abiy protests, ethnic violence in Ethiopia

Oromo youth shout slogans outside Jawar Mohammed's house, an Oromo activist and leader of the Oromo protest in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on October 23, 2019
Oromo youth shout slogans outside Jawar Mohammed's house, an Oromo activist and leader of the Oromo protest in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on October 23, 2019 Tiksa Negeri, REUTERS

Some 67 people were killed in Ethiopia's Oromia state this week as protests against Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed morphed into ethnic clashes, police said Friday.


"The total number dead in Oromia is 67," said Kefyalew Tefera, the regional police chief. "There are about 55 of them killed by the conflict between them, between the civilians and the rest are killed by the security forces."

Five of the dead were police officers, he added.

On Thursday, authorities and hospital officials had reported that protests in the capital and other cities resulted in 16 deaths and dozens of wounded. It was not immediately clear how many of the 16 were included in the tally of 67 reported in Oromiya.

The violence underscored the dilemma facing Abiy, who must retain support in Ethiopia’s ethnically based, federal system but not be seen to favour one group.

But kingmakers like prominent activist and media mogul Jawar Mohammed are flexing their muscles. Like Abiy, Jawar comes from the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest. His supporters have stopped believing in Abiy’s promises of reform, he said in an interview with Reuters Friday, accusing Abiy of centralising power, silencing dissent and jailing political prisoners – like his predecessors.

Amnesty International says that, since Abiy took office, there have been several waves of mass arrests of people in Oromiya perceived to be opposed to the government. Detainees were not charged or taken to court, Amnesty’s Ethiopia researcher Fisseha Tekle said.

“The majority of people believe the transition is off track and we are backsliding towards an authoritarian system,” Jawar said at his heavily guarded home-office in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. “The ruling party and its ideology will be challenged seriously not only in the election but also prior to the elections.”

The prime minister’s spokeswoman did not return calls seeking comment. Abiy has not commented on this week’s violence.

On Friday afternoon, the defence ministry said the army had been deployed to seven cities where there had been protests this week. The forces have been deployed “to calm the situation in collaboration with elders and regional security officers”, Major General Mohammed Tessema told a press conference in Addis Ababa.

Strident parties

The four ethnically based parties in the coalition that has ruled Ethiopia since 1991 are facing increasing competition from new, more strident parties demanding greater power and resources for their own regions.

“For a prime minister whose popular legitimacy relies on his openness, recent protests in Oromiya could be politically suicidal,” said Mehari Taddele Maru, an Addis Ababa-based political analyst. “It signals a significant loss of a populist power base that propelled him to power.”

If next year’s elections are fair – as Abiy has promised they will be – they will test whether the young prime minister can hold together his fractious nation of 100 million people and continue to open up its state-owned economy, or whether decades of state repression have driven Ethiopians into the arms of the political competition.

Jawar said he hadn’t decided who else he would support in next year’s polls, or whether he would run himself. His Twitter feed had been teasing the possibility last weekend: “The story about me running for office is just speculation. I am running to lose weight.”

His remarks were his strongest criticism yet of Abiy, with whom he was photographed frequently last year, but the split follows pointed remarks by Abiy to parliament on Tuesday.

Abiy said, without naming anyone, “Media owners who don’t have Ethiopian passports are playing both ways ... If this is going to undermine the peace and existence of Ethiopia ... we will take measures.”

The comments were widely seen as a dig at Jawar, who is Ethiopian-born but has a US passport and returned from exile last year.

Abiy didn’t create Ethiopia’s ethnic divisions, but he must address them, said Abel Wabella, a former political prisoner who is now editor of the Amharic-language newspaper Addis Zeybe.

Jawar is “testing the waters”, he said. “Ethnic federalism creates monsters ... if Abiy fails to dismantle the power groups based on ethnicity, and to address the structural problems we have as a nation, we will end up in civil war.”


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