Members of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition were celebrating in their home villages when they received word from Addis Ababa that an elderly man accused of supporting the opposition had been killed. The death came under circumstances that were described as suspicious.
The president, prime minister and other senior politicians urged the crowd to remain calm. The opposition, fearing that violence would break out, called for protests. For the government of Ethiopia, these developments were as familiar as they were uncustomary.
Asad Abdisalan, a spokeswoman for Ethiopia’s ruling party, said members of the armed forces engaged the protesters and that the death occurred after they had subdued them. She said the protest itself was “not harmful.”
“What has happened in our country is not true,” Abdisalan said. “We condemn such extreme displays of disrespect.”
The United States, which last year started funneling $100 million a year in economic and humanitarian aid to the Horn of Africa nation, said it was deeply concerned by events and urged restraint on all sides.
“We are deeply concerned by ongoing violence and accusations that could escalate tensions,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in a statement. “We urge all parties to refrain from any act that could further exacerbate ethnic tensions.”
The protests that flared in the months after the ruling coalition announced last June that its long-time leader, Meles Zenawi, would step down were quelled by security forces. But tensions flared again this month when the country’s most popular opposition figure, the jailed leader of the Movement for Unity and Democracy party, came out of prison and warned against violence against the government. Several hundred people marched in the capital, Addis Ababa, calling for the release of hundreds of jailed political activists.
Ethiopia is a vast and poor country and the resistance movement led by Meles is hugely popular among the people, who are ferociously divided over the leadership of Meles.
The ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, has ruled Ethiopia since 1991, when a Marxist government was overthrown. It lost power after the last election in 2005, but won a second, and constitutionally required, five-year term in 2010.
Meles died of a stroke at 56 in 2012, and was succeeded by his deputy, Hailemariam Desalegn. Hailemariam has since spent much of his time abroad attending the annual summit of the African Union.
In the trial of dozens of defendants over the alleged plot to overthrow the government, lawyers for the opposition accused Hailemariam of breaking the law when he said the protests were “dangerous” and “could escalate” into violence. They asked a magistrate to suspend the hearing pending a final ruling on whether Hailemariam’s comments amounted to incitement to violence.
Ethiopia said Hailemariam was only voicing a fear, because he knew of the government’s efforts to quell the protests. “His words gave voice to the reality that while the government was seeking to avoid bloodshed, violence could have and had already happened,” the government spokesman, Getachew Reda, said.
Getachew said Hailemariam’s words should be examined by the public prosecutor, who also said the government would cooperate with investigations.