The death toll from demonstrations and ethnic violence that erupted in Ethiopia last week has risen to 239, according to a tally of police figures AFP reported on Wednesday. The unrest and violence was sparked by the murder of a popular Oromo singer and activist, Hachalu Hundessa.
“Due to the unrest that occurred in the region, nine police officers, five militia members and 215 civilians have lost their lives,” acting Oromia police commissioner Mustafa Kedir said on state television on Wednesday.
Hundessa, a hero to many Oromo who saw him as the voice of their marginalisation, was shot dead by unknown attackers on Monday last week. Hundessa death has fuelled ethnic tensions that have threatened the country’s democratic transition.
Protests broke out in the capital, Addis Ababa, as well as the surrounding Oromia region which is the homeland of the Oromo people. Despite being the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo have long felt economically and politically sidelined in the diverse nation.
The Ethiopian government shut down the entire country’s internet, as reported by non-profit organization Net Blocks.
Update: Real-time data show #Ethiopia's internet shutdown is now in its 9th day after 192 hours of near-total disconnection.
Communication blackouts restrict press freedom, endanger public safety and limit accountability for extrajudicial killings 📵
— NetBlocks.org (@netblocks) July 8, 2020
Officials have attributed the deaths during the unrest to a combination of lethal force by security officers and inter-ethnic violence. Police in Addis Ababa had previously reported 10 deaths in the capital. Kedir also said there had been “extensive damage and looting” of government and private property.
“To control this unrest, more than 3,500 suspects have been arrested,” he said, adding “They were anti-peace elements who carried out attacks using the artist’s death as a pretext to dismantle the constitutional system by force. The Oromo population should be inclusive of other ethnic groups that live among them.”
Ethiopia is currently preparing for elections that will test its democratic transition under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Many Oromo nationalists, however, feel betrayed, arguing that Ahmed has failed to champion their interests.
Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for ending a long running conflict with neighbouring Eritrea, has been accused of reverting to the tactics of his predecessors. This has included a wave of arrests of high profile opposition politicians during last week’s protests.
He has linked the chaos to another current major headache he is facing, namely the filling of the country’s mega-dam which has been built on the Blue Nile River. The dam’s filing is facing objections from Ethiopia’s neighbours, Egypt and Sudan.
“The latest news [of unrest and demonstrations] aims to make the Ethiopian government take its eye off the dam,” Ahmed said Tuesday during a Q-and-A session with lawmakers. He did not, however, give evidence to support his claim.