ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Police fired gunshots and teargas as thousands protested in Ethiopia on Wednesday over the treatment of a prominent activist, residents said, in a sign that the country’s Nobel Prize-winning prime minister might be losing support among his powerbase.
More than a thousand supporters gathered in Addis Ababa outside the house of Jawar Mohammed, a media entrepreneur who organised protests that brought Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power last year, after police surrounded the building.
Protests quickly spread to the cities of Adama, Ambo and Jimma, residents said. Four people were reported to have been shot in Ambo.
On Tuesday, Abiy had warned against media owners “fomenting unrest”. That night, security forces surrounded Jawar’s house and the government attempted to withdraw his security detail, Jawar told Reuters.
The next morning, a Reuters witness saw at least 400 young men from the Oromo ethnic group chanting support for Jawar and against Abiy, the winner of this year’s Nobel peace prize. Around two dozen police officers stood nearby.
Abiy has won international praise for his sweeping political reforms but greater freedoms have lifted the lid on long-repressed tensions between Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups.
Abiy must walk a delicate line between increasing political freedoms and reigning in strongmen building ethnic powerbases by demanding more access to land, power and resources for their groups.
Jawar, an Ethiopian-born born U.S. citizen, is an activist from the Oromo ethnic group, the country’s largest. Abiy is also an Oromo.
Jawar’s wide reach - his Facebook page has 1.75 million followers - means he can quickly mobilise demonstrators.
Some Ethiopians have criticised him for using ethnically tinged language, but many young Oromo men consider him a hero who brought the political change that resulted in Abiy’s appointment last year.
At least 20 young men caught up in demonstrations in the outskirts of the capital were wounded and one was killed, a local businessman told Reuters over the phone from Alert Hospital, where he said he had gone to help a wounded friend.
After the showdown in the capital, demonstrations spread to three other cities in Oromiya, residents told Reuters.
In Adama, 90 km (45 miles) southeast of the capital, two residents said they heard gunshots amid protests in support of Jawar there on Wednesday afternoon. It was not immediately clear who fired the shots.
In Ambo, 100 km from the capital, police fired teargas and bullets at thousands of protesters, and at least four people were shot, two residents who spoke on condition of anonymity told Reuters.
There were also demonstrations in the city of Jimma, 350 km from Addis Ababa, residents said.
Jawar, founder of the independent Oromia Media Network, returned to Ethiopia from the United States last year after Abiy come to power and the two have been photographed repeatedly together since.
On Tuesday Abiy issued a warning in a speech before parliament: “Those media owners who don’t have Ethiopian passports are playing both ways,” he said. “When there is peace you are playing here, and when we are in trouble you not here.
“We tried to be patient. But if this is going to undermine the peace and existence of Ethiopia ... we will take measures. You can’t play both ways.”
A spokeswoman for Abiy’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Supporters of Jawar call themselves “Qeerroo”, an Oromo term meaning “bachelor” adopted by the politically active young men.
Outside his house on Wednesday, some shouted “Jawar, Jawar” and “Abiy Down! Abiy Down!”
A 27-year-old student Terefe Waltaji said he had seen Jawar’s post on Facebook reporting that his house was surrounded.
“I called three of my friends and came running,” Terefe told Reuters. “I am angry at the government ... Abiy is letting down the Oromo people and Qeerros who brought him to this stage. If Jawar is in trouble all of us Oromos are in trouble.”
Abiy came to power in April 2018 and began introducing political and economic reforms. Those reforms have opened up what was once one of Africa’s most repressive nations, but also stoked violence along ethnic lines. Dozens, including the army chief, were killed during a foiled coup by a rogue state militia in the Amhara region in June.
Ethiopia is due to hold elections next year.
Reporting by Tiksa Nigeri and Giulia Paravicini; Writing by George Obulutsa and Maggie Fick; Editing by Alex Richardson and Giles Elgood