Police in Ethiopia have said that 67 people have been killed and 213 more have been injured following violent protests that have erupted across the country. It comes just weeks after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s controversial Nobel Peace Prize award.

Kefyalew Tefera, the Regional Police Chief, told the Guardian that the violence included instances of security forces opening fire on protesters, but that it was increasingly taking the form of ethnic and religious clashes.

“Some people have lost their lives with sticks, with machetes, some houses have been burned. People have been using even bullets and light arms to kill each other, to fight each other,” he said.

Over 150 people have been arrested so far in the Oromia region.

Who is Jawar Mohammed?

On Wednesday, the violence swiftly spread across the capital, Addis Ababa, and in most of the African country’s Oromia. It was sparked by the remarks of a high-profile activist, Jawar Mohammed, who alleged that the authorities were planning an attack on him.

His supporters immediately took to the streets in protest against the way he was treated. The mobs – who were from the same Oromo ethnic group as both Ahmed and Mohammed – felt it was an act of betrayal against them. The disturbance soon escalated when they started to also turn on other ethnic groups.

Mohammed was initially part of the powerhouse that helped to drive Ahmed’s popularity, but in more recent times, he grew disparaging of the Prime Minister’s role.

In an interview with EFP, Mohammed explained, “He has resorted to the early signs of dictatorship, of trying to intimidate people, even his very close allies who helped him come to power who happen to disagree with some of the policies and positions and ideologies he’s advocating.”

Mohammed also indicated that there was a “possibility” that he could run against Ahmed in next year’s election.

“I want to have an active role in the coming election. In what capacity I’m not sure, but I want to make sure that the influence I have in the country has a positive contribution,” he added.

Abiy Ahmed’s rise to the top

This week’s riots come as a contrast to rallies that took place in the capital – almost a year ago – to celebrate Ahmed’s rule and welcome changes in the country. Crowds of thousands gathered to welcome home exiled insurgents and praise Ahmed’s work. His meteoric rise to the top made him so hugely popular that the phrase “Abiymania” was coined. His face was emblazoned on posters, t-shirts, stickers, and books.

“Without Abiy we would be doing nothing,” Asrat Abere, a taxi driver, told the Guardian at the time. “If he had time he could change everything.”

“The country is now democratic,” said another supporter, Stentehu. “Abiy is amazing – he is just like my father, my brother. He is family.”

On April 2, Ahmed became the youngest African leader in office at the age of 41. He inherited an Ethiopia after three years of riots, violence, and an economy on the brink of collapse.

In a short space of time under Ahmed’s rule, thousands of political prisoners were freed, the state of emergency was removed, and he made measures to steer the nation away from being state-controlled.

Most notably, just three months after coming into power, Ahmed forged a peace deal with Eritrea to end a 20-year military stalemate following a border war. Despite this, the task of delineating the border has not moved forward. But just weeks ago, Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize as a result of the deal.

Many fear that the ensuing violence could worsen in the coming days. In an official statement, Ahmed said, “The crisis we have faced will become even more fearsome and difficult if Ethiopians don’t unite and stand as one.”

“We will unswervingly work to ensure the prevalence of the rule of law and to bring perpetrators to justice.”

He highlighted that many buildings ­– including homes, workplaces, and places of worship – have been demolished, and that many Ethiopians have been displaced. The United Nations estimates that over 2 million people have been internally displaced.

“There has been an attempt to turn the crisis into a religious and ethnic one. In the process our comrades have become victims in terrible circumstances,” he added.

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