Ethiopia protests spark Internet shutdown and fears of high death toll after popular singer killed

Ethiopia protests spark Internet shutdown and fears of high death toll after popular singer killed

People gather outside the Governor’s Mansion on Tuesday in St. Paul, Minn., to protest the death of musician and activist Hachalu Hundessa in Ethiopia. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

By Max Bearak
NAIROBI — (washingtonpost)–A large death toll was feared as protests rocking Ethiopia’s largest ethnic region continued Wednesday following the slaying of a popular singer, but exact information was unclear with an Internet shutdown making communication difficult.

A spokesman from the Oromia region surrounding the capital where most of the unrest took place told Reuters that 50 people were killed Tuesday, including protesters and security forces. In a speech, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said only that “several” died.

Three explosions were also reported Tuesday in the capital Addis Ababa, with unspecified injuries and deaths.

According to residents of multiple cities, protests over the death of Hachalu Hundessa continued across the region on Wednesday. According to Hachalu’s cousin, Moti Hundessa, security forces in the town of Ambo, west of the capital, attempted to take Hachalu’s body from his house, provoking a clash in which Hachalu’s uncle was killed.

“Security forces tried to grab the body, and we fought with them to prevent them,” Moti Hundessa said. “Then they began shooting at us.”

The medical director of the main hospital in Ambo confirmed the death and said he had seen multiple people with gunshot wounds come in on Wednesday. Moti Hundessa said six people were killed by security forces in Ambo on Wednesday. Roads across Oromia were closed, many blocked by protesters chanting, “Abiy is our enemy,” according to witnesses.

The demonstrations in Oromia, as well as the capital, were the latest indication of seething ethnic grievances that have repeatedly threatened to derail Ethiopia’s transition to multiparty democracy. The government shut down the country’s Internet on Tuesday morning — a common move during unrest — and has not yet restored the service.

Hachalu, 34, belonged to the Oromo ethnic group, the country’s largest, and was shot in his car on the outskirts of Addis Ababa on Monday night. He died hours later in a hospital. Police said his assailants and their motives are unknown. His songs had galvanized a movement that succeeded in pushing Ethiopia’s previous prime minister to step down and opening the way for democratic reforms.

Abiy, himself an Oromo, released political prisoners, allowed greater freedom of speech and lifted a ban on several opposition groups, but many Oromos say they continue to be marginalized in the new nation-building process.

Abiy won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in brokering an end to a decades-long standoff with Ethiopia’s northern neighbor, Eritrea. Domestic conflicts have proved harder to smooth over, and millions of Ethiopians remain internally displaced.

“This is an act committed and inspired by domestic and foreign enemies in order to destabilize our peace and to stop us from achieving things that we started,” Abiy said Tuesday, in reference to Hachalu’s killing, without providing evidence.

Long before the pandemic delayed parliamentary elections, which were scheduled for August, analysts had warned that simmering discontent in Oromia ahead of the vote could lead to large-scale bloodshed.

A prominent Oromo media outlet reported that its founder, Jawar Mohammed, and Bekele Gerba, the country’s two most prominent Oromo politicians, were arrested in connection with an argument over the burial of Hachalu’s body. Dozens of others were also arrested, the outlet said on Facebook.

In a Facebook post just before the Internet was shut off, Jawar posted an impassioned tribute to Hachalu.

“They did not just kill Hachalu. They shot at the heart of the Oromo Nation, once again !!…You can kill us, all of us, you can never ever stop us!! NEVER !!” he wrote.

In October, Jawar warned on social media about government moves against him, prompting widespread demonstrations across Oromia that left at least 100 dead.

Officials in Abiy’s government have accused Jawar of using popular social media platforms to incite protests that turn violent, but Jawar has insisted that the government is always the instigator.

“If the army is deployed, there will be blood. And that, well, it comes down to Abiy. If there is violence, it will begin at his command,” Jawar said in an interview with The Washington Post in March.