Only a few weeks after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won Nobel Prize for his achievements in regional peace making, violence erupted in his country, challenging him to retain his popularity in Ethiopia’s ethnically based federal system without being biased to a particular group.
A rally was called for to protest governance issues in Addis Ababa, but was cancelled after the authorities declared it illegal.
Last Wednesday, violence erupted in the Ethiopian capital and the outlying Oromia region after prominent activist and media entrepreneur Jawar Mohammed accused security forces of trying to attack him. However, the police denied his statements.
Quickly turning into ethnic clashes, the total casualties in Oromia reached 67, of whom 55 were killed as a result of the conflict between civilians and security forces, and five of the dead were police officers, said Kefyalew Tefera, the regional police chief in Oromia.
Until Sunday, Ahmed did not comment directly on the protests, but expressed frustration with media owners who seem to be promoting ethnic agendas ahead of Ethiopian unity.
“We will work tirelessly to ensure justice and that perpetrators are brought to justice,” he added.
He stated that those protests began to take an ethnic and religious dimension. “Because of these events, houses, shops, and places of worship were destroyed, causing the displacement of a large number of Ethiopians,” he stated.
In an interview with AFP on Friday, Mohammed accused Ahmed of taking Ethiopia back to the old ways of authoritarian rule, raising the possibility of challenging Ahmed at the polls, though he also said he could end up backing Ahmed if he changes course.
“[Ahmed] has resorted to the early signs of dictatorship, of trying to intimidate people, even his very close allies who helped him come to power who happen to disagree with some of the policies and positions and ideologies he’s advocating,” Mohamed said. “intimidation is the start of authoritarian rule,” he added.
His remarks were the strongest criticism of Ahmed, who appeared frequently with him in pictures last year, right after Ahmed’s comments in parliament on Tuesday.
“Owners of the media outlets who do not have Ethiopian passports are manipulating the two sides,” the prime minister said, without naming them. The remarks were widely seen as a reference to Mohammed, who was born in Ethiopia but holds a US passport and returned from exile.
Mohammed has dismissed accusations that his rhetoric has contributed to violence, saying the government is responsible.
The relations between Mohammed and Ahmed have recently deteriorated after the former criticised a number of the prime minister’s reforms.
Mohammed is widely credited for promoting the protests that installed Ahmed to power last year, but he has recently become critical of some of the premier’s policies.
Both Ahmed and Mohammed are from the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest. Their feud highlights divisions within Ahmed’s Oromo support base that could complicate his bid for a five-year term when Ethiopia votes in the elections currently planned for May 2020.
Reactions to the current situation
Ahmed was awarded with several accomplishments, including lifting of the country’s state of emergency, releasing of thousands of political prisoners, easing the media censorship, the legalisation of outlawed opposition groups, tackling corruption, and promoting women in politics.
While many Ethiopians bask in the international recognition of Abiy’s achievements after just 18 months in power, others are less celebratory and more concerned about their country
Despite In one of the recent comments on his performance, Dessalegn Channie, chair of the opposition National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) said, “People are getting frustrated that he is a showman as he only, focuses on acts that have a public relationship impact.”
“For a prime minister whose popular legitimacy depends on his openness, the recent protests in Oromia can represent political suicide,” said Mehari Taddele Maru, a political analyst in Addis Ababa. “It points to a significant loss of a popular power base that has brought him to power,” he added.
According to Maru, if elections next year are held fairly, as Ahmed promised, it will be a test of how the young prime minister can rally his fractured country of more than 100 million people behind him and continue opening up its state-controlled economy.
Ethiopia’s influential Orthodox church on Sunday criticised Prime Minister Ahmed’s response to ethnic and religious clashes that have left nearly 67 people dead, accusing him of failing to protect its members.
Churchgoer Esubalew Yimam called the government’s response and particularly Ahmed’s statement “disappointing”.
“The duty of the government is to protect its citizens, more than development and other things. Currently we’re not seeing that happening,” he said.
Esubalew also accused Ahmed of failing to stand up to the activist whose allegations against the security forces kicked off last week’s unrest.
“While the people who incite violence are known publicly, the government is turning a deaf ear to these people. Unless the silence is broken it will be a troubling time,” he added.
“People are dying and questions are being raised if the government even exists. The people are losing all hope,” Father Markos Gebre-Egziabher, a leader in the Orthodox Tewahedo Church told AFP, following a memorial service at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa.
Church leaders met with Defence Minister Lemma Megersa and Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen, state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate reported Saturday, though it was unclear what came of the meeting.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front was behind the overthrow of the Marxist military regime in 1991 and since then the Revolutionary Front of the Ethiopian People has dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition until 2018 when demonstrations led by the country’s two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo, defeated the front.
Ahmed is not only facing ethnic challenges in his country, but he has to continue efforts to fully implement peace deal with Ethiopia. Ahmed has played a crucial role in mediating disputes in the region – from Sudan’s transition government, to meditate between Kenya and Somalia. He also initiated peace deal with Eritrea which turned later into a point against him. Borders between two countries closed after it was opened as celebration of reconciliation.
The criticism comes only few weeks after some Ethiopians were celebrating Ahmed’s winning of the Noble Prize, and took to social media to change their profile pictures to the prime minister.
Hallelujah Lulie, programme director at the Addis Ababa-based Amani Africa think-tank, said in media statement following announcement: “Abiy’s rhetoric has resonated with a lot of Ethiopians who want peace, reconciliation, unity, and prosperity in this country.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also said peace efforts between Ethiopia and Eritrea had inspired hopes of regional “security and stability” and that the prime minister’s leadership had “set a wonderful example for others in and beyond Africa looking to overcome resistance from the past and put people first.”