At least 80 people have been killed in Ethiopia amid an outbreak of ethnic unrest in what could become the biggest test for Abiy Ahmed since he became prime minister in 2018.
The violence follows the killing on Monday night of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular protest singer, who died at the hands of unknown assailants.
Troops have been deployed in Addis Ababa, the federal capital, since Hachalu’s killing, according to Reuters, amid reports of gunfire and gangs of young men roaming the streets with machetes. The internet was cut off for a third day on Thursday.
Hachalu was a prominent voice of the mass street protests that began in 2014 and forced the removal of the previous prime minister four years later, clearing the way for Mr Abiy’s selection by the ruling coalition.
Both Mr Abiy and Hachalu come from the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s biggest, which makes up more than a third of the country’s 110m population. Under the previous government, which was dominated by the much smaller Tigray ethnic group, the economy had grown at near-double digits for two decades, but the Oromia region felt marginalised. The Oromo claim Addis Ababa as their region’s capital.
Dozens of people have been arrested this week including Jawar Mohammed, also an Oromo and a former ally of Mr Abiy. Mr Jawar, who has emerged as the most potent opposition leader, was arrested after his supporters tried to intercept the body of Hachalu in Addis Ababa as it was being taken to his home town of Ambo, about 70 miles west of the capital, according to police.
Hachalu’s funeral is due to take place in Ambo on Thursday, raising fears of further violence. “Security forces have invaded our town; we can’t go out to mourn,” Chala Hunde, a 27-year-old student, told Reuters from Ambo.
“So far, 81 people have been killed, including three Oromia special police force members,” Ararsa Merdasa, Oromia’s police chief, told a televised press briefing on Wednesday, according to the BBC. Police said that Mr Jawar and 35 others had been arrested and that security forces had confiscated eight Kalashnikovs and five pistols from his bodyguards.
A man wears a T-shirt demanding justice for Hachalu outside the governor’s mansion in St Paul, Minnesota, US © Stephen Maturen/Getty
Ethiopia is regarded by many in Africa as the continent’s most successful economy after years of fast growth that have seen one of the poorest countries in the world edge towards middle-income status. But successive governments have struggled to implement a political settlement to satisfy a complex mosaic of ethnically configured states.
There has been unrest since Monday’s killing elsewhere in the country. In the walled holy city of Harar, in eastern Ethiopia, a statue of the father of Haile Selassie, a symbol of national unity for many and of Oromo oppression for some, was torn down. Demonstrations even found an echo in London where about 100 men carrying the Oromo flag smashed the statue of Haile Selassie, the former emperor, in a park in Wimbledon.
Mr Abiy was initially hailed by many in Oromia as the man who could redress what they regarded as centuries of oppression. But many Oromo have turned against the prime minister, who since taking office has pushed a unity agenda that favours Ethiopian national identity over the interest of any particular ethnic group.
Mr Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, has lifted a ban opposition groups and allowed a freer media in what had been a highly authoritarian state. Yet the more open policies have unleashed a fierce ethno-nationalism, while security forces have been accused by human rights groups of tightening their grip once again.
“The government’s responses to the protesters risks inflaming long-simmering tensions,” said Human Rights Watch, criticising the cutting of internet services across the country. It said there were credible reports of three explosions in Addis Ababa on the day of Hachalu’s murder and of 10 people being killed in Adama, a city in central Oromia, when a government building was set on fire.
Mr Abiy was due to face the electorate in what he had promised would be free and fair national elections in August, but these have been postponed because of coronavirus. No new date has been set.
Last year, the chief of Ethiopia’s army and two senior regional political figures were shot dead in what appeared to be co-ordinated attacks aimed at destabilising Mr Abiy’s government.