ADDIS ABABA – Ethiopia’s prime minister on Friday said dissidents he recently extended an offer of peace have “taken up arms” in revolt against the government in a week of deadly unrest that followed the killing of a popular singer.
Those who participate “in the destruction of the nation cannot be considered guardians of the nation,” Abiy Ahmed said.
Police earlier this week told the state broadcaster more than 80 people were killed following the shooting death on Monday of Hachalu Hundessa, a prominent voice in anti-government protests that led to Abiy coming to power in 2018. The military has been deployed, and hundreds of cars this week were burned or damaged in the tense capital, Addis Ababa.
The new unrest poses the prime minister’s greatest domestic test since he took office. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year for dramatic reforms, including welcoming home once-banned exile groups, but the more open political space has seen some Ethiopians air ethnic and other grievances. At times it has led to deadly violence, and human rights groups have accused security forces of abuses.
Ethiopia’s internet service has been cut again this week, making it difficult for rights monitor and others to track the scores of killings.
“It’s a moment when people need to pause and de-escalate,” said Murithi Mutiga, project director for the Horn of Africa with the International Crisis Group. He cited a series of challenges in Ethiopia including an armed insurgency in parts of the country and tension over the timing of the next election. The government recently delayed the vote, citing the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is not the first but one in a long line of grave provocations by an actor not yet identified,” Mutiga said, adding that the “wiser course of action is to strive to create an atmosphere of reconciliation and dialogue.”
Ethiopia's prime minister on Thursday hinted there could be links between this unrest and the killing of the army chief last year as well as the grenade thrown at one of his own rallies in 2018.
Police late Wednesday said three people had been arrested in the death of the singer, who was buried Thursday in a ceremony shown on national television.
The past few days appear to be the most serious challenge yet to Ethiopia’s transition to multifaceted democracy, Mutiga said. “Thankfully, the situation seems to have calmed down in Addis and parts of Oromia but the scale of the violence, the degree of grievance witnessed on the streets and the danger of instability was quite high.”
Abiy in comments after meeting with officials on Friday said those behind the unrest should “rethink their motives,” and those responsible for destructive actions will be held accountable. He added that those opposed to the government should contest power through “ideas and policy options.”
Arrests this week included that of a well-known Oromo activist, Jawar Mohammed, and more than 30 supporters. It is not clear what charges they might face. The Oromo make up Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group but had never held the country’s top post until they helped bring Abiy to power.
The arrest of opposition figures “could make a volatile situation even worse,” Human Rights Watch has said.
Cara Anna in Johannesburg contributed.