Protests in Ethiopia are already tarnishing its Nobel Peace Prize president

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Earlier this month, Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”

Two weeks later, the PM now faces protests in his home region of Oromia, where demonstrators are burning copies of his book.

At least 16 people have been killed in clashes between protesters and police since the demonstrations began on Wednesday. The tense situation highlights the fragile state of security in Ethiopia but it also brings the president’s Nobel Peace Prize image into question, days after he warned Egypt his country would be ready to go to war over its controversial Renaissance dam project, if necessary.

What a difference two weeks can make.

Violent protests erupt in Oromia

Protests against Abiy’s government erupted in parts of the Oromia region and the capital Addis Ababa on Wednesday after opposition figure Jawar Mohammed accused the police of attempting to orchestrate an attack against him. The activist and Oromia Media Network founder said police asked his government-provided security team to leave his home in the middle of the night.

“Why were they trying to remove my security at night?” he asked on the Facebook page of the Oromia Media Network. “In the past, whenever they made changes to security, the commanders either personally called me or the head of my detail to inform us. What changed?”

Mohammed claims the request was part of a plan to take advantage of political unrest already taking place in parts of the capital and Oromia.

“The plan was to remove my security and unleash civilian attackers and claim it was a mob attack,” he said in the Facebook post.

Police Commissioner General Endeshaw Tassew denied the claims in an interview with VOA, insisting the request was a routine procedure in which security details are removed.

Regardless, more than 1,000 supporters gathered outside of Mohammed’s home in Addis Ababa and his security detail has allegedly refused to leave. Demonstrators have been seen burning the book of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in the town of Dadar while protesters in other areas were heard shouting: “Down, down, Abiy.”

Spotlight on Ethiopian security once again

While Abiy Ahmed has been widely praised for his efforts in establishing peace with neighbouring Eritrea, his first term in power has failed to contain ethnic divides within his country. His policy of widespread reforms has opened up political freedoms but it has also created new space for ethnic tension, which continues to teeter on the verge of conflict.

Abiy’s less repressive Ethiopia is struggling to prevent ethnic clashes that weren’t tolerated under previous regimes.

Funnily enough, Jawar Mohammed was a key figure in organising the protests that ultimately forced former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn to resign and paved the way for Abi Ahmed to become Ethiopia’s current leader. Now, he looks like a figure that’s stoking demands for Abiy’s demise among his own ethnic group, which was the major driving force behind nationwide protests that reshaped the country’s political landscape.

Abiy Ahmed should know as well as anyone that he can’t afford to underestimate the power of demand for change emanating from his home region.

His next move could be critical.

Meanwhile, Jawar Mohammed has called upon his supporters to ease tensions after the news that 16 people were killed in clashes with police in the capital and other locations.

“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,” he said to hundreds of his supporters outside his home in Addis Ababa on Thursday.

Those sound like the words of someone striving for peaceful demonstrations while Abiy’s tone has become more combative in recent weeks – particularly in relation to the Renaissance dam dispute with Egypt.

The timing of these events couldn’t be much worse for the PM or people hoping he can succeed in soothing the ethnic tensions threatening to pull Ethiopia apart. With next year’s election looking, the uncertainty for Abiy’s government will only intensify, as will the scrutiny over his every move.

While the latest wave of protests is far from the first challenge Abiy has faced during his brief time in power, they could prove to be one of the most defining ahead of the 2020 vote. The biggest question hanging over his tenure has always been healing Ethiopia’s political and ethnic divides and the unexpected peace deal with Eritrea was an astute move that bought him more time and distracted attention from the issues taking place at home.

However, those divides continue to deepen and Abiy is running out of time to prove he has what it takes to guide his country into a peaceful, united future. This was never going to be an easy task but now the whole world is watching after his Nobel Peace Prize win.

The next few months could show how worthy he is of that prize.

Featured image: By Odaw – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66598891

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.