ADDIS ABABA - At least 10 people died and more than 80 were wounded when the killing of a popular singer triggered blasts and protests in Ethiopia’s capital and the surrounding Oromiya region on Tuesday, police and a doctor said.
The unrest spotlights growing divisions in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Oromo powerbase as powerful ethnic activists that were formerly allies increasingly challenge his government.
Abiy called the killing of musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa “an evil act” in a televised address on Tuesday night.
“This is an act committed and inspired by domestic and foreign enemies in order to destabilise our peace and to stop us from achieving things that we started,” he said.
Haacaaluu was shot dead at around 9:30 p.m. on Monday, police said. Some suspects had been detained, Addis Ababa city police commissioner Getu Argawhe told state media, giving no further details. The killing appeared well planned, police said.
The capital Addis Ababa erupted the next morning. There were three explosions in the city, federal police commissioner Endeshaw Tasew said.
“Some of those who planted the bomb were killed as well as innocent civilians,” he said in a televised address on Tuesday night, giving no further details.
A police officer was also killed during a stand-off with the bodyguards of media magnate Jawar Mohammed, he said. Scores died when Jawar’s supporters clashed with police last October.
The prime minister, Jawar, and the slain singer are all Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, which long complained of being pushed to the margins of power until Abiy’s 2018 appointment.
Jawar, a once-staunch supporter of Abiy turned vocal critic, was arrested along with Bekele Gerba, a leader of an opposition Oromo political party, and 33 other people, said Endeshaw. Police seized weapons and radios from Jawar’s guards, he said.
Jawar’s TV station was forced to broadcast by satellite from the U.S. state of Minnesota after police raided its headquarters and detained its staff, it said.
Jawar had posted about the killing on Facebook early on Tuesday, using an alternative spelling of the singer’s name.
“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.
Haacaaluu criticised Ethiopia’s leadership in an interview with Jawar’s media network last week.
In the town of Adama, the main hospital received around 80 wounded people, medical director Dr Mekonnen Feyissa told Reuters. Most had been shot but some had been beaten or stabbed. Eight people died en route to the hospital or in it, he said.
Footage on social media showed large crowds surrounding a car said to carry Haacaaluu’s body, slowly walking to his home town of Ambo, about 100 km west of Addis Ababa.
In the Oromo city of Harar, pictures appeared to show demonstrators pulling down and beheading a statue of former emperor Haile Selassie’s father. Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the pictures or video.
Telephone services worked intermittently and the internet was shut down, a step the authorities have previously taken during political unrest.
NetBlocks, an organization that tracks global internet shutdowns, said the shutdown began around 9:00 a.m. local time and that it was the most severe for the past year.
SOUNDTRACK TO A REVOLUTION Haacaaluu’s songs were the soundtrack to years of bloody protests that propelled Abiy to power.
Haacaaluu, a former political prisoner, rose to prominence during anti-government protests which began in the Oromo heartland. Abiy’s ascent to power in 2018 ended decades of dominance by ethnic Tigray leaders.
Abiy ushered in greater political and economic freedoms in what had long been one of the continent’s most repressive states, and won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.
But ethnic and political clashes spiked as long-repressed grievances boiled over. Local power brokers competed for access to land and resources in a country with more than 80 ethnic groups.
Abiy’s attempts to quash the violence and his emphasis on pan-Ethiopian politics sparked a backlash from some erstwhile supporters, and his ability to impose order may be severely tested when polls are held.
Elections were scheduled for August but were postponed until next year due to COVID-19.
Additional reporting by Kumerra Gemechu in Addis Ababa, Ayenat Mersie in Nairobi and Giulia Paravicini in Paulu; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Peter Graff and Mike Collett-White