Ethiopia’s prime minister throws himself in battle with protesters

Mixed media by Parker Edgar

The battle to control Ethiopia’s most populous city has grown more fierce with the country’s prime minister throwing himself on the front lines, jeopardizing his position as he tries to steer the country through a bloody war.

The fighting in Woliso, capital of Oromia region, spilled into the residential areas of the city over the weekend when security forces opened fire on demonstrators and scores of people were killed.

Abiy Ahmed, who took office as prime minister in April, is under heavy international pressure to address widespread dissatisfaction that has led thousands to join protests since 2015.

While the nation’s interior minister said there were protests on Sunday, he said the violence was not the work of the security forces but rather a state of emergency imposed by the former prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn.

“We don’t know for sure how many people are dead or wounded, but there are, according to what we are hearing, dozens or hundreds dead, and also people wounded,” Gebeyehu Bulega, a spokesman for Abiy, told Al Jazeera on Monday.

Abiy, 36, has a reputation as a skilled orator and nationalist and in recent weeks he has made a number of spectacular public gestures, such as asking for forgiveness for the deaths of protesters and calling for a judicial probe into deaths.

However, he has yet to acknowledge the deaths of any of his security forces.

Such inaction risks alienating not only the demonstrators, but the security forces, security analysts and activists say.

Oromia region

Oromia region is home to about 60% of Ethiopia’s population and is the nation’s largest region, spanning four states.

The region is home to one in five Ethiopians and has been the focus of much of the protests, with many residents complaining of a lack of democratic rights.

Ethiopia used a state of emergency that was lifted in July to quell the protests and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been the main figurehead of the crackdown.

Nevertheless, Abiy’s reform efforts have succeeded in largely overturning more than two decades of draconian and repressive political and security policies that denied Ethiopians the chance to build an inclusive democracy, said a report by Transparency International titled ‘A Revolution for All: The Burying of the Clichéd Fight for Ethiopia’s Minority’ published in February.

Ethiopia’s central government appeared to lose control of the region in mid-August after security forces opened fire on thousands of protesters and left hundreds dead, prompting Abiy to declare a week-long state of emergency and reportedly ordered security forces to act with restraint.

The protesters belong to the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups who have long felt marginalized by the regional government and accused it of neglecting them. The government refused to comment on the figures.

According to a report by Ethiopia’s Crisis Management Center, security forces have been deployed to more than 40 areas in the Oromia region since August to quell unrest.

The violence escalated in July when police reportedly fired live ammunition and tear gas at demonstrators in the town of Merera Gudra.

In August, hundreds of protesters reportedly defaced the identity of a police station by covering it with mud and chalk. Many Ethiopians believe the attack signaled a pivotal moment in the country’s history.

Although the state of emergency was lifted on July 28, the violence has continued.

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