World

Military deployed in Ethiopian capital after more than 50 killed in protests over musician's assassination

The military was deployed in the Ethiopian capital on Wednesday, as armed gangs roamed neighbourhoods in a second day of unrest that has claimed more than 50 lives and deepened political divisions in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's political heartland.

Hachalu Hundessa's killing tapped into grievances fuelled by decades of government repression

Smoke rises over the Addis Ababa skyline during protests following the fatal shooting of Ethiopian musician Hachalu Hundessa. (Reuters)

The military was deployed in the Ethiopian capital on Wednesday, as armed gangs roamed neighbourhoods in a second day of unrest that has claimed more than 50 lives and deepened political divisions in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's political heartland.

The protests were sparked by the assassination of popular musician Hachalu Hundessa on Monday night and spread from Addis Ababa to the surrounding Oromiya region.

Hachalu poses while dressed in traditional clothing during the 123rd anniversary celebration of the battle of Adwa, where Ethiopian forces defeated invading Italian forces. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)

The killing 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.

"I am angry. It's eating me inside," protestor Ishetu Alemu told Reuters as tires smouldered in the street behind him.

Gunshots echoed through many neighbourhoods and gangs armed with machetes and sticks roamed the streets. Six witnesses described a situation pitting youths of Oromo origin against some of the city's other ethnic groups, and where both sides skirmished with police.

"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 Addis Ababa resident, who like others interviewed asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.

An Oromo family said an armed gang had tried to break into their compound. Police had responded, but said they couldn't stay because they were getting too many other calls.

The military had been deployed in some areas, three witnesses said. One described a street littered with rocks that anti-Oromo protesters had thrown at police.

Fears that funeral could spark more violence

Many residents feared Hachalu's funeral — scheduled for Thursday in his home town of Ambo — could ignite more violence.

"Security forces have invaded our town. We can't go out to mourn. No vehicles are moving around except security patrols with machine-guns," 27-year-old student Chala Hunde told Reuters by phone from Ambo, about 100 kilometres west of Addis. "The security forces are putting a finger in our wound."

A tussle over whether to bury Hachalu in Ambo or Addis laid bare the political tensions fanning the protests, said Awol Allo, a professor at Britain's Keele University.

"It's very contentious. Oromos claim the city [Addis] to be theirs, as it lies fully within the Oromo regional state," he said. But the capital is under federal, not regional, control.

The dispute over Addis triggered three years of bloody street demonstrations that led to the resignation of the previous prime minister and Abiy's appointment in the post in 2018. Hachalu's music was the soundtrack to a generation of young Oromos who spearheaded the protests.

Unspecified casualties from explosions

At least 50 people were killed in the clashes in Oromiya on Tuesday, including protesters and members of the security forces, regional spokesperson Getachew Balcha said. Some businesses had also been set ablaze.

"We were not prepared for this," he said.

A policeman was also killed in Addis Ababa, and three explosions there caused an unspecified number of casualties.

Other potential flashpoints are the arrests of prominent Oromo opposition leader Bekele Gerba and media mogul Jawar Mohammed on Tuesday.

Abiy, Hachalu ​​​​and Jawar are all Oromo, but the singer and media owner had become more critical of the prime minister in recent months.

People gather for a candlelight vigil in memory of Hachalu at the Oromo Community of Minnesota building on Tuesday in St Paul, Minnesota. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

In federal Ethiopia, power is traditionally derived through controlling large ethnic voting blocs. Under the previous administration, voting was rarely free or fair; opposition activists were jailed, tortured or driven into exile.

Abiy has allowed greater political freedoms and promised free and fair elections. But his new pan-Ethiopian party faces stiff competition from regional power brokers like Jawar, determined to stake claims for their people.

Jawar's popular Oromo Media Network — which can broadcast via satellite from the United States — means he can mobilize supporters quickly across Oromiya even when the internet is cut off, as it has been since Tuesday morning. His power base could pose a significant challenge to Abiy's party in next year's elections.

now