Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed faced the most serious political challenge of his short rule Thursday as officials said dozens of people might be dead in two days of unrest caused by tensions between security forces and the country’s most prominent activist.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Jawar Mohammed hinted he might raise the stakes by entering next year’s election, but he warned that holding the vote amid current conditions “is the most dangerous thing Ethiopia can do.”
Not two weeks have passed since Abiy was named the Nobel winner for his sweeping reforms that included welcoming home from exile Mohammed and other critics and opposition figures who had been considered terrorists by the previous government. Abiy called it opening up the political space after he took office last year, and Ethiopians were surprised but jubilant.
I think what our leaders need to be very careful of is there’s no condition for a return to dictatorship. If anybody tries to do that, it will be inviting catastrophic communal violence across the country.
Now Ethiopia’s largest regional state is engulfed in protests sparked by apparent friction between security forces and Jawar, a media entrepreneur who many say played a key role from afar in mobilizing months of widespread protests that led the previous prime minister to resign.
Some Ethiopians fear protests could emerge again as long-held grievances are aired after the loosening of repressive controls in a country with scores of ethnic groups. Officials recently expressed disgust with some media outlets that they called unprofessional and too ethnic-centered.
Last year, Abiy welcomed Jawar home. On Tuesday, however, in remarks to parliament Abiy warned unnamed people “who don’t even have an Ethiopian passport” that “if you threaten our peace and security, we will take measures.”
Many Ethiopians saw it as a warning to Jawar, a U.S. passport holder, who said he woke up the next morning to find attempts being made to remove his government-provided security detail in the capital, Addis Ababa.
“The order to remove my security was a strange one. It was attempted in the middle of the night,” Jawar said. “Later on I found out the plot was to remove the security and then unleash a mob attack on my house and accuse some other rival groups.”
He alerted the public on social media, and hundreds of his supporters began to arrive. Some camped outside and chanted slogans against the prime minister: “Down, down, Abiy!” Some remained on Thursday, while Jawar appealed for calm.
The unrest ignited in cities across the Oromia region that is home to many of Jawar’s supporters. At least six people were killed on Wednesday, regional officials in Oromia told local media outlets.
But the real death toll could be in the “dozens,” a local official in the regional capital, Adama, told the AP on Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.