Uncertain Peace In Ethiopia Following Deadly Protests, Officials Estimate Doubled Death Toll

Ethiopia’s government said on Sunday that over 166 people were killed in the course of anti-government protests that erupted in the country last week. The state’s capital and other protest hotspots remain under heavy guard by security forces. After the protests began, the government also instituted a blanket internet shutdown which, according to residents, is still in effect as of July 9th. Unrest began in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, after popular musician Hachalu Hundessa was shot and killed by unknown gunmen in an attack which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed condemned as “an evil act.” Initially, the government said 80 people were killed during the two days of protesting, proving to be the deadliest time since Ahmed took office in 2018 with promises of wide-sweeping reforms.

On Sunday, a senior regional security officer told Reuters that the death toll was in actuality at least double the government’s number, with 145 civilians and 11 security personnel killed. Jibril Mohammad, head of Ethiopia’s Oromia Security and Peace Bureau, said that even more deaths may be reported as injuries are treated in hospitals. A source within the national police service revealed that an additional 10 people were killed in Addis Ababa. “The [Oromia] region is now relatively calm and there is no violence or protests at the moment. Businesses have also re-opened,” Jibril told Reuters.

The unrest in Ethiopia ties back to decades of ethnic strife within the country. Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group is the Oromo, but they have long-standing grievances from what they describe, according to Reuters, as “historic exclusion from political power.” Hachalu Hundessa was an Oromo musician and sang in the language of the Oromo people. Hence, his murder hit a nerve with the struggles of the Oromo, leading to the anti-government protests. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is also of the Oromo people, explaining his strong condemnation of Hundessa’s murder. The military was called in to calm the protests last Wednesday and roamed the streets of Oromia towns as a means of containing the Oromo fury and to quell the unrest.

While Ethiopia currently rests peacefully, the underlying currents that caused this unrest still exist. The Oromo people still feel excluded from government, and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, despite being Oromo, has clearly done little so far to alleviate any of those grievances. This has led to the deadliest protests since he took office in 2018. These protests may be over, but it is only a matter of time before violence erupts again if Ethiopia does not directly face and address its internal ethnic conflicts. Amnesty International is calling on the Ethiopian government to bring Hundessa’s killers to justice. While this is an important step, Ethiopia needs to go further and understand the underlying issues that will cause unrest again if left unchecked.

The Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, has expressed long-held feelings of exclusion from government. The murder of one of the country’s most popular Oromo musicians was the proverbial match that lit the flame. It is a wonder that the protests only lasted two days, but brevity does not negate its significance. Ethiopia needs to examine its internal ethnic strife to rectify the underlying causes of these protests. Taking concrete steps to recognize and incorporate the Oromo is the only way to prevent future violence in the country. Too many Ethiopians have already died in this internal strife, and a peaceful solution is crucial. Looking inward before another such event occurs could save Ethiopia further violence, and as such, becomes all the more imperative.

Breanna McCann