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

Ermias Tasfaye Daba, July 1, 2020 at 6:20 AM EDT

People gather during a protest of the death of musician and activist Hachalu Hundessa outside the Governor’s Mansion on June 30, 2020 in St Paul, Minnesota. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

NAIROBI (The Washington Post) — A large death toll was feared as protests rocking Ethiopia’s largest ethnic region continued on 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 only said “several” died.

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

According to residents, protests continued in cities across the region on Wednesday with reports of gunshots. Police said the burial was scheduled for Thursday in Ambo, a town west of the capital.

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 into 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.

The singer, Hachalu Hundessa, 34, belonged to the Oromo ethnic group, the country’s largest, and was shot in his car on the outskirts of Addis Ababa Monday night before dying hours later in a hospital. Police say 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.

Ethiopia’s new prime minister, 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.

Ethiopia’s first shot at real democracy could be derailed before elections are held

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 on Tuesday, in reference to Hundessa’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 on Facebook that its founder, Jawar Mohammed, as well as Bekele Gerba, the country’s two most prominent Oromo politicians, had been arrested in relation to an argument over the burial of Hachalu’s body. Dozens of others were also arrested.

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 Post in March.

Ermias Tasfaye Daba contributed from Burayu, Ethiopia.

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