"Abiy is our enemy" chants rock Addis Ababa as 81 die after deadly protests sparked by musician's death
ADDIS ABABA - For the third day in a row, angry protestors continued to wreak havoc within Ethiopia capital Addis Ababa and it's environs, calling for the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed, following the assassination of renowned musician Hachalu Hundessa on Monday night.
Chanting "Abiy is our enemy" slogans, the youthful protestors accused the government of engineering Hundesa's death as they engaged hundreds of soldiers in running battles within the busy capital, which also hosts the African Union.
Hundesa, 34, was killed by unknown gunmen inside his vehicle, police told reporters, adding that several suspects had been arrested for prosecution. The government did not immediately reveal the number of suspects who are currently in police custody.
On his Twitter account, Dr. Ahmed condoled with the family of the musician and promised to expedite investigations to the death, which he termed as "unnecessary and uncalled for". The PM also asked Ethiopians to be tolerant by allowing authorities to bring the musician's killers to book.
But the protestors could hear none of his appeals, instead, they continued to vandalize businesses in the city, triggering a swift response from the Ethiopian National Defense Forces [ENDF], who had been deployed in the town to boost the police.
As of Wednesday, AFP reported, at least 81 people including the police officers had been killed, with protests also picking Oromia region, the backyard of the PM, and the musician. The two belong to the Oromo ethnic group, which is the largest tribe in the Horn of Africa nation.
There were reports of three explosions on Tuesday allegedly engineered by armed gangs within the capital, which precipitated a sizeable number of deaths. A similar blast was also reported on Thursday with eyewitnesses confirming to Garowe Online that ten more people succumbed to their injuries.
"So far 81 people have been killed, including three Oromia special police force members," Ararsa Merdasa, the Oromia police chief, said on Wednesday in a televised press briefing, adding that security had been beefed up within the musician's home in Ambo.
For the better part of Wednesday, chaos broke out in Ambo, the hometown of the musician, as a number of youths demanding that he's buried in Addis Ababa, which is historically at the heart of their territory, from where they feel they have been displaced.
It was a plan by the federal government to expand the capital into surrounding Oromia, which kickstarted years of anti-government protests which swept Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power in 2018, as the first Oromo to hold the post.
Milkessa Beyene, the Ambo region spokesman, told reporters that the body of the musician was delivered on Wednesday in his home for Thursday's burial but "a group of youths who wanted the funeral to happen in Addis Ababa clashed with security forces, causing unrest."
He said there were "fatalities", including Hachalu's uncle. Oromia police chief Ararsa said "there was a grenade attack on the family home of Hachalu Hundessa in Ambo. That grenade attack killed his uncle and injured two police officers."
But the situation was not any different on Thursday after security forces lobbed teargas at rowdy youths, who insisted that the burial should take place in Addis Ababa. The would-be mourners engaged security forces in running battles, further delaying the burial ceremony at the musician's home.
The ongoing protests were also partly triggered by the arrest of media magnate Jawar Mohammed, a former ally of the PM who's since turned critic and cemented his influence in the Oromo region. Mohammed, who is the owner of Oromo Media Network, was arrested with 34 others on Tuesday while trying to block ferrying of Hachalu's body to Ambo, federal police commissioner Endeshaw Tassew said in a statement late Tuesday.
At Holeta, a town in West of Addis Ababa, police were forced to open fire at demonstrators, who demanded the release of Jawar Mohammed, said Teshome Bongase, a representative of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, of which Jawar is a member.
"The protesters were saying that Jawar is not a thief, he just wants Hachalu's body to be buried with respect. This is their culture, that is what they are asking for," said Teshome.
So fragile has been the relationship between Abiy and Jawar that police were forced to use excessive force in November 2019 within Oromo region to quell protests which erupted after claims of the federal government withdrawing guards attached to the media mogul.
At least 80 people were also killed at that time, mainly unarmed protestors, who accused the PM of "antagonizing our leader". Jawar was instrumental in the ascendancy of Ahmed to power, but pressure over slow delivery of promises to Oromo region informed his decision to withdraw support for the PM.
On his Facebook page, the billionaire entrepreneur accused the government of targeting critics, adding that "the struggle continues". He termed Hundesa as a martyr, adding that "his sacrifices will not go in vain, we shall stand with him".
The protests forced the Ethiopian government to cut off internet connectivity, a move geared towards preventing the "spread of fake news and incitement". The country has remained disconnected since then.
In Addis Ababa, AFP reported, young people gathered in groups with sticks trying to prevent Oromo nationalists from entering the city, and armored military vehicles were seen on the streets of the capital.
Security forces fired into the air to disperse demonstrators who were approaching a statue of Emperor Menelik II, widely seen as the creator of modern-day Ethiopia.
Oromo nationalists see Menelik as a driving force behind their perceived marginalization and for pushing them out of Addis Ababa, and Hachalu called last month for the statue to be pulled down.
In London, angry demonstrators destroyed the statue of Haile Selassie, which was mounted in Wimbledon, where he lived in the 1930s after being exiled from Ethiopia, BBC reported. Haile's father, royal prince Ras Makonnen Wolde Mikael, had his statue also torn down in the city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia.
Wimbledon resident Andrew Morris told the Press Association he had seen a mostly male group in the park, carrying fliers with Oromo slogans, while out walking his dog.
"I heard the statue being smashed up, but didn't actually see it happen," he added, as analysts warned about continuous protests by Ethiopians in the diaspora, over the death of the musician.
Hachalu's songs focused on the rights of Ethiopia's Oromo ethnic group and he had been a prominent voice in anti-government protests that led to a change in leadership in 2018. He was voted Oromo person of the year in 2018.
Although he's credited for staging sweeping reforms in the Horn of Africa nation, Abiy has struggled to contain ethnic violence, which has now left over 200 people dead since 2018. It's his decision to reconcile Ethiopia with Eritrea and freeing political prisoners that significantly contributed to his Nobel Peace Prize award in 2019.
Rashid Abdi, a political and security analyst on the Horn of Africa, says the protests may not end soon, adding that the demonstrations could eventually lead to the unceremonious exit of Dr. Abiy Ahmed, arguing that he may lose key allies in coming days.
"PM Abiy's political survival shakier than ever. Protests unlikely to fizzle out, considering the scale of deaths [certain to inflame sentiments further].Prosperity Party schisms widening. Very likely some of his key allies will ditch him," he wrote.
Ethiopia postponed elections which were scheduled for August due to raging Coronavirus pandemic, a move which was criticized by Tigray People's Liberation Front. Dr. Abiy has since formed Prosperity Party which he believes will rally the nation behind his Medemer philosophy of leadership.