Police fired gunshots and teargas as thousands protested in Ethiopia over the treatment of a prominent activist, residents said, a sign the country’s Nobel Prize-winning prime minister might be losing support.
More than a thousand supporters gathered in Addis Ababa outside the house of Jawar Mohammed, a media entrepreneur who organised protests that brought Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power last year, after police surrounded the building.
Protests quickly spread to Adama, Ambo and Jimma, residents said. Four people were reported shot in Ambo.
On Tuesday, Abiy warned against media owners “fomenting unrest”. That night, security forces surrounded Jawar’s house and government attempted to withdraw his security detail, Jawar told Reuters.
The next morning, a Reuters witness saw at least 400 young Oromo men chanting support for Jawar and against Abiy, winner of this year’s Nobel peace prize. Around two dozen police officers stood nearby.
Abiy won international praise for his political reforms but greater freedoms lifted the lid on long-repressed tensions between Ethiopia’s ethnic groups.
Abiy must walk a delicate line between increasing political freedoms and reigning in strongmen building ethnic powerbases by demanding more access to land, power and resources.
Jawar, an Ethiopian-born born US citizen, is an activist from the Oromo ethnic group, the country’s largest. Abiy is also an Oromo.
Jawar’s reach – his Facebook page has 1,75 million followers – means he can mobilise demonstrators speedily.
Some Ethiopians criticise him for using ethnically tinged language, but many young Oromo men consider him a hero who started the political change that resulted in Abiy’s appointment last year.
At least 20 young men caught up in demonstrations on the outskirts of the capital were wounded and one was killed, a local businessman told Reuters from Alert Hospital, where he had gone to help a wounded friend.
After the showdown in the capital, demonstrations spread to three cities in Oromiya, residents told Reuters.
In Adama, south-east of the capital, residents heard gunshots amid protests in support of Jawar on Wednesday. It was not immediately clear who fired the shots.
In Ambo, 100 km from the capital, police fired teargas and bullets at protester, and at least four people were shot, two residents who spoke on condition of anonymity told Reuters.
There were also demonstrations in Jimma, 350 km from Addis Ababa, residents said.
Jawar, founder of the independent Oromia Media Network, returned to Ethiopia from the United States last year after Abiy came to power and the two have been photographed repeatedly together.
On Tuesday Abiy warned in a speech to parliament: “Those media owners who don’t have Ethiopian passports are playing both ways. When there is peace you are playing here and when we are in trouble you not here.
“We tried to be patient. If this is going to undermine the peace and existence of Ethiopia we will take measures. You can’t play both ways.”
A spokeswoman for Abiy’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Supporters of Jawar call themselves “Qeerroo”, an Oromo term meaning “bachelor” adopted by politically active young men.
Outside his house, some shouted “Jawar, Jawar” and “Abiy Down! Abiy Down!”
Student Terefe Waltaji said he saw Jawar’s post on Facebook reporting his house was surrounded.
“I called three friends and came running,” Terefe told Reuters. “I am angry at government. Abiy is letting down the Oromo people and Qeerros who brought him to this stage. If Jawar is in trouble all Oromos are in trouble.”
Abiy came to power in April 2018 and introduced political and economic reforms. Those opened up what was once one of Africa’s most repressive nations, but also stoked violence along ethnic lines. Dozens, including the army chief, were killed during a foiled coup by a rogue state militia in the Amhara region in June.
Ethiopia is due to hold elections next year.