ADDIS ABABA – Ethiopian police were patrolling the country's troubled Oromia region and the capital, Addis Ababa, on Sunday, following a week of unrest in which 166 people were killed and more than 2,000 arrested, after a popular singer was shot dead.
In Oromia, 145 civilians and 11 members of security forces were killed, Girma Gelam, deputy police commissioner in the region, told the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate. Another 10 people were killed in the capital, eight of them civilians.
The internet was cut last week to try to dampen the protests and made it difficult for rights monitors to track the scores of killings.
More than 2,280 people were arrested in Oromia and Addis Ababa, said police. Arrests 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 political post until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018.
The arrest of opposition figures “could make a volatile situation even worse,” Human Rights Watch has said.
The unrest erupted after popular singer Hachalu Hundessa was killed. He had been a prominent voice in anti-government protests that led to Abiy coming to power. The singer was buried Thursday in a ceremony shown on national television.
The new disturbances amount to the prime minister’s greatest domestic test since he took office, say analysts. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year for dramatic reforms, including welcoming home once-banned exile groups. However, Abiy's steps to open political space have been used by some Ethiopians to air ethnic and other grievances. At times it has led to deadly violence, and human rights groups have accused security forces of abuses.
Speaking about the week of unrest, Abiy said he had recently extended an offer of peace to dissidents, but they have “taken up arms” in revolt against the government in a week.
Those who participate “in the destruction of the nation cannot be considered guardians of the nation,” Abiy said on Friday.
“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.”
The past week appears 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.”