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Unrest reflects Ethiopia's discontent

October 25, 2019

Ethiopia is grappling with unrest after a quarrel between premier Abiy Ahmed and media mogul and former ally Jawar Mohammed. The fresh unrest could pose a new challenge to the country hit by ethnically-tinged conflicts.

Unterstützer von Jawar Mohammed versammeln sich in Addis Abeba
Image: AFP/Stringer

Just two weeks ago, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize for his sweeping reforms. Now he has to face the biggest challenge since he took office last year: At least 67 people have been killed this week in a nation-wide unrest triggered by tensions between security forces and the country's most prominent activist: Jawar Mohammed.

Read moreOpinion: Nobel Peace Prize for Abiy Ahmed a misguided decision

"Down, down Abiy!"

Large protests in multiple cities broke out when Mohammed unexpectedly found his house in the capital Addis Ababa surrounded by police on Wednesday morning. Attempts were made to remove his government-provided security detail. "The order to remove my security was strange and attempted in the middle of the night," Mohammed 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."

Mohammed alerted the public on social media, hundreds of his followers gathered outside his home in support. Some chanted slogans against the prime minister: "Down, down, Abiy!" Mohammed appealed for calm, but told the crowd at his house to "sleep with one eye open".

"The protests were triggered by concerns that Jawar was possibly facing arrest," William Davison, Senior Analyst from the International Crisis Group told DW. The media entrepreneur and activist is said to have played a key role in mobilizing protests that led the former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to step down. Mohammed and Abiy are from the Oromo ehtnic group, Ethiopia's largest.

Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia
Many Oromo youth view Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as not catering for their welfareImage: AFP/E. Soteras

Read more: Former Ethiopia PM: Labeling me 'dictator' is wrong

Veiled threat from Abiy Ahmed?

On Tuesday, in remarks to parliament, Abiy warned: "Media owners who don't have Ethiopian passports are playing both ways" and that "if you threaten our peace and security, we will take measures." Many Ethiopians saw this statement as a warning to one-time ally Mohammed, who is Ethiopian-born but has a US passport and returned from exile last year.

Mohammed admitted that Abiy's sharp remarks had surprised him: "We have a very cordial relationship but we have differences, too, so I do criticize him." He had warned Abiy that his reforms could slip back and to be careful with his tendency of centralizing the country's politics. "Activists like Mohammed are interested in protecting and furthering the interest of their own group, and they are obviously in stark opposition to those who want to move away from  a system that grants ethno-regional autonomy and also self-rule at the sub regional level," Davison said.

Read moreIs Ethiopian PM Abiy's reform drive running out of steam?

Abiy would not be able to change things overnight, Mohammed added, and warned against insisting on holding the election in 2020 on time. "You can win an election and lose the country, too." The activist has hinted that he might run in the election, "maybe assisting the opposition or bridging the gap between the opposition and the ruling party."

 Jawar – hero of the Queerroos

The unrest ignited in at least four cities across the Oromia region that is home to many of Jawar's supporters, the so-called "Queerroos". At least six people were killed in Dodola on Wednesday, in the town of Ambo, five protesters died from wounds from gunshots and stones. In Harar, police shot two people and protesters killed a third because they suspected him of being an informant. Several roads heading out of Addis Ababa remained closed as Mohammed's supporters blocked roads. Police fired gunshots and teargas to break up demonstrations in support of Mohammed.

Oromo men protesting
Jawar Mohammed commands a strong support among Ethiopia's young Oromo menImage: DW/Y. Gebreegziabher

While some Ethiopians have criticised Mohammed for inciting ethnic hatred and aiming to destabilize the country, many young Oromo men consider him a hero. "The Queerroos [...] are responsible for the prime minister being in office, and today they could make the reform project much more difficult to implement," Ludger Schadomsky, head of DW's Amharic Service said. "Some say that one day they [Queerroos] could be the reason for the end of Ahmed's term."

Lingering discontent in Oromia

Young Oromos are disappointed by how Ahmed has been running the country so far, according to Davison. Several Oromia residents reported that non-Oromos had been attacked, their properties looted and burned. "This reflects lingering discontent in Oromia among the Oromo," Davison said. "Some of the demands dating back to 2018 of the protest movements have not been met, like the language demand. The general concern is that the prime minister is not governing in the interest of the Oromo people."

Media entrepreneur and activist Jawar Mohammed
Media entrepreneur and activist Jawar Mohammed says he was surprised by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's remarksImage: DW/Y. Gebregziabher

Abiy Ahmed had promised to liberalize the bureaucratic, state-controlled economy, he unbanned many political parties and dismissed or arrested many senior officials accused of corruption, torture or murder. After the loosening of repressive controls, many regional powerbrokers have claimed more resources, power and land for their own regions, fueling ethnically-tinged conflicts around the country.

Read more: Ethiopia: Ethnic strife threatens church's unity

A security vacuum?

"There are broader problems of weakness in the security apparatus due to the general upheaval that Ethiopia has seen over the last years," Davison noted. Change in leadership, institutions and the process of political liberalization would have been positive and much needed, but had also allowed many new political actors and, therefore, increased contestation.

The protests could now have a strong impact on the nation-building process in Ethiopia, a country ruled through an ethnically based, federal system. Davison said. "Some political parties believe this ethnic federal system is enhancing divisions in Ethiopian society and working against national unity," Davison said. To him, there is only one solution left: "It needs some form of compromise to improve individual rights protection and to move politics and political organization away from ethnicity. "If that could work, broader problems could be avoided in Ethiopia's future."

Hailemariam Desalegn on Conflict Zone


DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German journalist and radio host.