Ethiopian activist Jawar Mohammed called for calm on Thursday a day after 16 people were killed during clashes between his supporters and police in the capital and other cities.
Addressing hundreds of his supporters at his house in Addis Ababa, Jawar said: “Open the blocked roads, clean the towns of barricades, treat those who have been injured during the protests and reconcile with those you have quarrelled with.”
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Police fired gunshots and tear gas on Wednesday to break up demonstrations against Jawar’s treatment by the government.
Jawar, a media entrepreneur, organised the demonstrations that helped bring Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power last year.
Abiy won international praise for his political reforms in a country that has suffered decades of repressive rule, and last week was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to resolve a long-running conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.
But the greater freedoms have lifted the lid on long-repressed tensions between Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups.
Both Abiy and Jawar are from the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest, as are most of the protesters. But the flare-up in unrest indicates Abiy might be losing support among his power base.
Protesters outside Jawar’s house on Thursday chanted: “We don’t want Abiy, we don’t want Abiy.”
The demonstrations began on Tuesday after police surrounded Jawar’s house.
Protests quickly spread to other parts of the capital and the cities of Adama, Ambo, Harar and Jimma, residents said.
Following the outbreak of violence, Jawar supporters erected tents outside his house on Thursday and brought matresses, signalling they intended to stay there.
“One week, one month, we don’t care, we will stay here until the government tells us why they did this to Jawar,” said a young protester, who asked for anonymity for fear of repercussions from the security forces.
Half a dozen policemen stood outside Jawar’s house a distance from the protesters.
“Today the city is calm this morning but the road to Addis Ababa is closed by the young men,” an official said.
Shimeles Abdisa, vice president of the Oromia region, also acknowledged some deaths in an interview with regional media on Wednesday night.
“I feel very sorry for the lives that have been lost today,” he said. “I want to express my sympathy on behalf of Oromia regional state. We could replace the property which was destroyed but sadly we can’t get back people who lost their lives.”
Jawar, an Ethiopian-born US citizen, mobilised many thousands of young men all over the Oromia region to protest against the government from 2016 to 2018, building pressure that led to the resignation of Abiy’s predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, and Abiy’s appointment.
Though Jawar and Abiy were photographed together frequently last year, remarks by the prime minister on Tuesday suggested frustration with media entrepreneurs such as Jawar, who are seen to be promoting ethnic agendas ahead of Ethiopian unity.
The unrest highlights divisions within the ethnic Oromo support base that swept Abiy to power last year – divisions that could undermine his position ahead of elections planned for May 2020.