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Ethiopia deploys military after more than 80 people killed in unrest following murder of protest singer

A candlelight vigil for the late musician and activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa at the Oromo Community of Minnesota building in St Paul, Minnesota, on June 30, 2020.
A candlelight vigil for the late musician and activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa at the Oromo Community of Minnesota building in St Paul, Minnesota, on June 30, 2020. © Stephen Maturen, AFP
3 min

Ethiopia deployed its military in the capital Addis Ababa on Wednesday to quell a second day of unrest following the killing of a popular protest singer that has left more than 80 dead.

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At least 80 people were killed in Ethiopia's Oromiya region in protests following the fatal shooting of protest singer Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, a regional police chief said on Wednesday, laying bare splits in the prime minister's political heartland ahead of next year's polls.

Haacaaluu, a hugely popular figure among ethnic Oromos, was shot dead on Monday night in what police said was a targeted killing.

Protests reflecting anger at the killing of a popular figure and a sense of political marginalisation broke out the next morning in the Ethiopian capital and other towns and cities in the surrounding Oromiya region.

"So far 81 people have been killed, including three Oromiya special police force members," said Ararsa Merdasa, the region's police chief.

Police said late on Tuesday that a policeman was also killed in Addis Ababa, and three explosions there had killed and injured an unspecified number of people.

At least 80 people killed in Ethiopia as violence spreads in wake of singer’s death

Prominent Oromo opposition leader Bekele Gerba and media mogul Jawar Mohammed were also arrested when Jawar's bodyguards refused to disarm during a stand-off with police.

Witnesses said the military was deployed in the Ethiopian capital on Wednesday as police struggled to contain armed gangs roaming neighbourhoods.

Soundtrack to a generation

Haacaaluu, whose funeral will be held on Thursday, provided a soundtrack to a generation of young protesters. Their three years of bloody street demonstrations forced the unprecedented resignation of the previous prime minister and the appointment of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018.

A still from the video of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa's 2015 hit Maalan Jira.
A still from the video of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa's 2015 hit Maalan Jira. © Haacaaluu Hundeessaa videos

Abiy, Haacaaluu and Jawar are all Oromo, Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, which has long complained of being excluded from power.

Abiy ushered in greater political and economic freedoms in what had long been one of the continent's most repressive states, and won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.

But ethnic and political clashes spiked as long-repressed grievances boiled over. Local power brokers competed for access to land and resources in a country with more than 80 ethnic groups.

Challenge to pan-Ethiopian politics

Abiy's attempts to quash the violence and his emphasis on pan-Ethiopian politics sparked a backlash from some erstwhile supporters, and his ability to impose order may be severely tested when polls are held.

Elections were scheduled for August but were postponed until next year due to Covid-19.

Jawar was a prominent supporter of Abiy's appointment, but became more openly critical last year. Jawar's popular Oromo Media Network gives him the ability to mobilise support quickly across Oromiya and his power base could pose a significant challenge to Abiy's party in next year's elections.

Ethiopia's federal structure means power was traditionally derived by claiming the support of large ethnic voting blocs. Under the previous administration, voting was rarely free or fair, and opposition activists were often jailed, tortured or driven into exile.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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