Violent Reckoning for Ethiopia’s Nobel Laureate Leader

Violent Reckoning for Ethiopia’s Nobel Laureate Leader

Abiy Ahmed came to power with hopes to break open Ethiopia’s one-party state, but is now accused of a power grab and brutally putting down dissent

By Nicholas Bariyo, July 15, 2020

(Wall Street Journal) — Targeted killings, deadly street protests, a postponed election and rising regional tensions over control of the Nile river are destabilizing Ethiopia, posing a stern challenge to the reformist leader of Africa’s second-most populous nation just a year after he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stunned world leaders when he ended a 20-year conflict with neighboring Eritrea and pledged to break open one of the continent’s most entrenched one-party states within months of taking office in 2018. He freed thousands of political prisoners, closed torture chambers and allowed the return of hundreds of exiled dissidents.

But instead of dismantling the country’s one-party system, Mr. Ahmed is now building a new system centralized around his personal authority, say critics. He has responded to an upsurge of antigovernment protests from a coalition of disaffected groups with an iron fist.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, center, has praised the crackdown, Photo: AP

In the past week, more than 230 protesters from the Oromo—Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group—have been killed in clashes with security forces and thousands more detained as they called for a greater stake in Ethiopia’s political system. In recent months, the government has faced down protests in the restive regions of Tigray and Amhara, where demonstrators called for more autonomy from the government in Addis Ababa.

The government has shut off the internet, closed several media houses and arrested dozens of opposition figures. In a televised address, Mr. Ahmed praised the crackdown, describing the protests as “an empty drama.” Troops called in to quell the protests have maintained a heavy presence in the capital and several other towns. The country’s first multiparty elections, scheduled for August, have been postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Analysts say the next months will be crucial for the course of a strategically vital nation that has posted more than a decade of double-digit growth, casting off its famine-stricken image to become a poster-child for rapid economic development and poverty reduction. Ethiopia is the dominant power on the Horn of Africa, the coastline perched on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and site of mounting geopolitical competition between the Gulf monarchies, Iran, China and the U.S.

Mr. Ahmed, a 43-year-old former army intelligence officer, has been supported by U.S. policy makers hoping to move a crucial counterterrorism partner closer to Washington and away from Beijing.

Protests followed the killing of Hachalu Hundessa, shown performance in 2018, Photo: Tikdsa Negeri/Reuters

The most recent street protests were sparked by the shock assassination of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular musician whose songs decried the treatment of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, who have long complained of politic marginalization. Mr. Hundessa once led the protests that helped bring Mr. Ahmed—also an ethnic Oromo—to power amid hopes the group would gain a greater share of political and economic power. But in recent months, Oromo community leaders have turned against the premier, complaining they have been betrayed as Mr. Ahmed has sought to replace Ethiopia’s federalized state with a centralized unitary government that emphasizes a national rather regional identity.

“It’s (his) biggest test since he came to power; internally he faces mounting opposition over his push for a united Ethiopia,” said Louw Nel, an analyst with Johannesburg-based NKC African Economics.

Mr. Ahmed’s office said Ethiopia’s transition to democracy was “tumultuous and filled with many obstacles as structures, systems and networks that remained under the grip of authoritarianism are slowly being chiseled away.”

The prime minister has hinted that Mr. Hundessa could have been murdered by Egyptian security agents acting on orders from Cairo to stir up trouble. Egypt and Ethiopia are locked in a dispute over construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, an Ethiopian project which Egyptians say will divert water from the Nile.

The coffin carrying Hachalu Hundessa is lowered into the ground during the funeral in Ambo, Ethiopia. Photo OBN/AP

Ethiopia is no stranger to unrest. Supporters of Mr. Ahmed say that he has a long list of political enemies seeking to overturn his reforms by destabilizing the government.

“These groups believe their only pathway to return to power is to exact revenge by plunging Ethiopia into an ethnic conflagration,” said Alemayehu Mariam, an Ethiopian academic at the California State University.

While Mr. Ahmed is still feted in the West, his popularity inside Ethiopia has plummeted. His efforts to unravel decades-old power structures, including liberalizing the economy and repealing laws that restricted freedoms and rights and the expression of ethnic identity, have also fueled open ethnic rivalries, forcing some 3 million Ethiopians to uproot and creating the world’s largest internally displaced population, according to the United Nations. Over 35,000 students have dropped out of universities since November, fleeing ethnic clashes on campuses. During the latest protests, gangs armed with sticks and machetes rampaged through ethnically mixed settlements in Addis Ababa.

“The pace of the reforms Prime Minister Abiy initiated has slowed,” said Laetitia Bader, the Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Over the last two years, we had continued to document security force brutality.” Another rights group, Amnesty International, has reported a rise in killings of Mr. Ahmed’s critics since last year.

Mounting political challenges have been aggravated by the new coronavirus, pushing more people on the streets in protest. Ethiopia’s military and police have used live rounds, grenades and rubber bullets to disperse protesters.

In October last year, some 86 people were killed in clashes between the police and supporters of a prominent activist and harsh critic of Mr. Ahmed, Jawar Muhamed. The clashes were triggered by a post on Facebook in which the activist accused authorities of threatening his life.

Shops were close in Addis Ababa on July 1 after protests. Photo: Maheder Haileselassie/Reuters

Another critic recently killed was Amhara Regional President Ambachew Mekonnen, who was gunned down in his office last summer.

But it is the killing of Mr. Hundessa, that has brought thousands onto the streets. He was shot by gunmen outside his apartment building in Addis Ababa on June 29 and died later at a hospital. Two days later, his uncle was killed outside the singer’s home during a scuffle between the police and a crowd of mourners.

“I do not have anything to say,” the singer’s father, Hundessa Bonssaa, said at the heavily guarded funeral last week “I only beg you to keep seeking justice for my son.”

Write to Nicholas Bariyo at nicholas.bariyo@wsj.com