Ethiopia PM’s comment on burying political opponent divides views

Image copyright PA Image caption The two men have had a fractious relationship since 2002

Ethiopia’s leader, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, came under fire on Friday after he told his “enemy” he would bury him.

Media reaction was split, with some reporting the comments as incitement to violence, but others saying they were merely statements of love and sympathy.

The comments were in response to a declaration made by Mr Abiy’s predecessor in 2007 by Meles Zenawi.

The PM has been locked in a bloody conflict with the Oromo ethnic group for a year.

Mr Zenawi appointed the country’s first prime minister under a federal constitution, Hailemariam Desalegn, in October 2015, but his tenure was plagued by accusations of corruption and mismanagement.

In a widely quoted speech, Mr Zenawi said the country would not be saved by federalism, and put pressure on Ethiopians to support an armed force.

Mr Hailemariam succeeded his boss in April 2017, but tensions between the Addis Ababa government and the Oromo rebel group led by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) remain high.

A 5 May Oromo protest – some of the worst political violence in recent years – left five people dead and over 25 wounded, according to officials.

“In the history of Ethiopia, where countries have been written off as failed states, no elected premier has given one up if he were talking to one of his enemies,” Eric Herskovits, from the Harvard Kennedy School, said in a BBC media blogpost.

“I’m not sure that Abiy’s comment will go down in history, in other words, as being an act of incitement to violence.”

‘Awakening Ethiopia’

Ethiopia’s Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights Practices says at least 729 people have been killed since the end of March 2018.

To put the statistics into context, only 25,500 people died during the 2007-2008 famine, in which nearly a quarter of a million people died.

ABC Africa’s Jane Lyons reported that the ONLF claimed a soldier from their ranks was arrested after the killings on Thursday, and would testify at a court martial in July.

Experts fear more bloodshed, as tensions in the Oromia region are running at an all-time high.

“It’s a wake-up call to the fact that Ethiopia’s state has failed over the last 10 years, and the Prime Minister is calling for the Ethiopian people to go back to the streets,” a University of Illinois professor told the BBC’s Jon Leyne.

Others were less worried.

“I think this seems the kind of touching thing that a prime minister might say about a friend in trouble, and I think his intentions have nothing to do with trying to mobilise people,” said Yashovardhan Ruhemu, the head of Ethiopia at Human Rights Watch.

“He clearly wants to engage with people who are marginalised. This show of solidarity between an elected prime minister and an elected president is important.”

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