Ethiopian authorities are braced for further violence after two days of unrest following the assassination of the popular musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa earlier this week.
So far as many as 88 people are thought to have died since protests following Haacaaluu’s murder at his home in Ambo, a city 70 miles, (110km) outside the capital, Addis Ababa, on Monday.
Even as the singer’s funeral was being held on Thursday morning, a bomb in the capital was reported to have killed eight people amid further clashes between demonstrators, security forces and armed gangs.
The killing of Haacaaluu, 34, has tapped into grievances fuelled by decades of government repression and what the Oromo, Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group, describe as their historic exclusion from political power.
“Haacaaluu represented the [Oromo] struggle over recent years and there’s been a huge outpouring of emotion that has led people on to the streets. There’s a sustained protest continuing with some lawlessness attached. Live rounds have been fired and escalation has come very, very quickly,” said Ahmed Soliman, an east Africa analyst at Chatham House in London.
On Wednesday, gunshots were heard in many neighbourhoods in Addis Ababa and tyres smouldered as gangs armed with machetes and sticks roamed the streets. Witnesses described a situation as pitting youths of Oromo origin against other ethnic groups and the police. At least one police officer is reported to have been killed.
“We had a meeting with the community, and we were told to arm ourselves with anything we have, including machetes and sticks. We no longer trust the police to protect us so we have to prepare ourselves,” said one resident in Addis Ababa, who, like others interviewed, asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
There were further clashes overnight amid reports the military had been deployed in some neighbourhoods to restore calm.
Prof Awol Allo, at Keele University in the UK, said a row over whether to bury Haacaaluu in Ambo or Addis Ababa had revealed the political tensions underlying the protests. The capital is under federal, not regional, control.
“It’s very contentious. Oromos claim the city [Addis] to be theirs, as it lies fully within the Oromo regional state,” Allo said.
Local media reported that Haacaaluu’s father had criticised attempts by some Oromo activists and politicians to have his son buried in the capital.
“Why was this needed? His father, his mother and his family wanted him to be laid to rest in Ambo. To blame this on the government is not correct. This is tantamount to burying Haacaaluu’s truth,” Hundeessaa Bonssaa was quoted as telling mourners at the funeral on Thursday, which took place in Ambo.
Santu Demisew Diro, the singer’s wife, called for a monument to be erected in Addis Ababa to her late husband’s memory.
“Haacaaluu is not dead. He will remain in my heart and the hearts of millions of Oromo people forever,” she said.
A live broadcast by Oromo Broadcasting Network, which is owned by the Oromia regional state, showed much of the stadium remained empty.
Police were turning people away from the ceremony, said one Ambo resident who tried to attend but met crowds of people who had been told to return home. Members of the military, federal police and regional police were out in force, he said.
“It is very sad that his body is accompanied by only a few people and security forces are keeping many others away,” one of Haacaaluu’s relatives, who had been allowed to attend the funeral, told Reuters.
The state broadcaster reported the arrest of the prominent journalist and activist Eskinder Nega, a former political prisoner who runs a pressure group opposed to what it describes as Oromo attempts to dominate the capital.
The dispute over Addis triggered three years of bloody street demonstrations that led to the resignation of the previous prime minister and Abiy Ahmed’s appointment to the post in 2018.
The new unrest could further hinder efforts by Abiy to transform the political and economic system in the vast, strategically important country.
The 44-year-old won the Nobel peace prize last year for the peace deal he concluded with neighbouring Eritrea last year, three months after coming to power. The agreement resolved nearly two decades of military stalemate following a border war that ended in 2000.
The prime minister, who is Oromo, has also been praised for his reforms at home, which have dramatically changed the atmosphere in what was regarded as a repressive state. His public renunciation of past abuses drew a line between his administration and those of his predecessors, as did the appointment of former dissidents and a large number of women to senior roles.
However, in federal Ethiopia power is traditionally derived through the control of large ethnic voting blocs, and Abiy’s management of the decades-old internal conflict between the central government and a protest movement in Oromia has been less sure.
“He’s done some good things … There’s been a lot of progress in regional relations but much less has been achieved on the domestic front in terms of reconciliation and resolving tensions resulting from ethnonationalism,” said Soliman.
Though Abiy publicly deplored the death of Haacaaluu, describing him as an “amazing young artist”, the arrest on Tuesday of the Oromo opposition leader, Bekele Gerba, and the media mogul Jawar Mohammed also fuelled anger.
Abiy has been criticised for a failure to tackle extensive human rights abuses committed by security forces, and campaigners say the government’s internet shutdown in Addis Ababa could exacerbate the violence.
“Rather than restoring calm, the authorities’ internet shutdown, apparent excessive use of force and arrest of political opposition figures could make a volatile situation even worse. The government should take prompt steps to reverse these actions or risk sliding deeper into crisis,” said Laetitia Bader, director for the Horn of Africa region for Human Rights Watch.