Prominent Ethiopian activist Jawar Mohammed called for calm amid protests that killed 16 people and are challenging Nobel Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in his political heartland.
Addressing supporters at his house in Addis Ababa, Jawar said: “Open the blocked roads, clean the towns of barricades treat those injured during protests and reconcile with those you have quarrelled with.”
He struck a conciliatory tone toward government, saying it was “not the time to kill each other”, but warned supporters to stay alert. “Calm yourself,” he told the crowd, “but sleep with one eye open”.
People died in at least four cities since clashes began on Wednesday, officials and a witness said, after police fired gunshots and teargas to break up demonstrations in support of Jawar.
A media entrepreneur and activist from the Oromo ethnic group, the country’s largest, Jawar organised protests that propelled Abiy to power last year.
Abiy oversaw political reforms after decades of repressive rule, winning international praise culminating in last week’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize for ending a decades-long conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.
Jawar, a one-time ally of the prime minister, mobilised protesters from the Oromo ethnic group – the same group Abiy comes from. The showdown is a litmus test for Abiy: if he backs down, it could embolden Jawar and other regional powerbrokers. Widespread violence would tarnish his reformist credentials.
A spokeswoman for the prime minister did not respond to requests for comment.
On Tuesday, police circled Jawar’s house and told his bodyguard to leave, he told Reuters. Hundreds gathered in support. Protests spread in the capital and to other cities, where police fired teargas and guns to disperse them.
On Thursday, Jawar supporters dug in, erecting tents outside his house. Some chanted: “We don’t want Abiy, we don’t want Abiy”.
Half a dozen police stood at a distance from the protesters.
“One week, one month, we don’t care,” said a young protester, who asked for anonymity for fear of repercussion from the security forces. “We will stay here until government tells us why they did this to Jawar.”
PROTESTS AND POLITICS
Jawar, an Ethiopian-born US citizen, mobilisedthousands of young men in the Oromiya region to protest against government from 2016 to 2018, finally forcing Abiy’s predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn to step down – the first time a prime minister resigned since independence.
Jawar and Abiy were photographed together frequently last year but the prime minister on Tuesday appeared frustrated.
Abiy told parliament, without naming anyone, “Media owners who don’t have Ethiopian passports are playing both ways.”
“We tried to be patient. If this is going to undermine the peace and existence of Ethiopia … we will take measures.”
Some Ethiopians criticise Jawar for using ethnically-tinged language, but many young Oromo men consider him a hero.
Ethiopia is due to hold elections next year. The four main ethnically-based parties in the ruling coalition, in power since 1991, will compete with new, more strident parties. Jawar could mobilise support for the coalition – or a rival.
DEATH TOLL CLIMBS
On Thursday the army was deployed in Dodola, south of the capital, after six people were killed, said an official at Dodola hospital. He said three were shot and three beaten to death.
An army spokesman had no information on the army being deployed.
In Ambo, west of the capital, five protesters died from wounds from gunshots and stones, Oromiya regional police commissioner Kefyalew Tefera told Reuters.
Security forces fired to disperse protesters setting tures alight, 30-year-old Solomon Kidanu told Reuters by phone as gunshots cracked in the background.
In Harar, east of the capital, police shot two people on Wednesday, an official said and protesters killed a third suspecting him of being an informant.
A businessman in Addis Ababa told Reuters he saw two dead protesters brought to the city’s Alert Hospital.