The attacks and the protests coincide with an unprecedented political opening in Ethiopia under its new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. The relaxation of once-authoritarian control has been accompanied by an explosion of ethnic tension across this diverse country.
Although most of the previous violence has taken place in distant regions where up to 2 million people have been displaced, over the weekend it reached the capital, Addis Ababa. Villages on the edge of the city were attacked, many residents were driven from their homes, and reports emerged of killings and rapes.
Alemayehu Ejigu, head of the Oromia Police Commission, told state television Monday that 23 people were killed in the attacks and that 200 suspects were arrested. He described the attackers as organized criminals.
Federal Police Commissioner Zeynu Jemal added that the attackers had been paid to destabilize the country and block current reforms. He said an additional 300 people were arrested in Addis Ababa after the protests.
Witnesses described the attackers as young Oromos from neighboring areas and the victims as members of the small Dorze, Gamo and Wolaita ethnic groups.
With details still scarce about the attacks and unverified photos of mutilated corpses being shared on social media, tempers were running high in Addis Ababa, where many resident feel under siege by the Oromos living in the countryside around the city.
“The Oromo people are killing too many people around Addis, and we have to protest them,” one protester said as young men marched through downtown, waving the red, yellow and green nationalist flag of pre-1991 Ethiopia.
Most shops closed and much of city’s public transportation ground to a halt as the protests in different parts of the city stretched through the day.
Protesters, many wearing headbands in the colors of the nationalist flag, chanted, “We need justice,” and, “The government says peace, but we are being killed,” as they stopped traffic and marched through downtown. They traversed the city’s Meskel Square, where a massive Oromo political rally was held just two days earlier.
As part of his political opening, Abiy, who hails from the Oromo ethnic group, invited many exiled opposition leaders to return to Ethiopia. On Sept. 9, leaders of the Ginbot 7 opposition returned from the United States amid a massive outpouring of support in the capital.
One of its leaders, Berhanu Nega, won election as mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005 before being driven out of the country, and he and the group remain popular in the city.
On Saturday, it was the turn of the opposition Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) to return from exile in neighboring Eritrea. In this case, however, most of the group’s supporters came from the Oromo hinterland, which surrounds the capital, and tens of thousands flocked into the city.
When these supporters jogged in formation through Addis Ababa before the rally, singing in the Oromo language and waving the OLF flag, residents found it intimidating.
Scuffles broke out between Oromos and Addis Ababa residents when young Oromo men tore down Ethiopian flags from the previous week’s rally to put up their own and tried to paint sidewalks in the OLF colors.
Saturday’s rally in Meskel Square, however, went off without a hitch and featured horsemen, traditional warrior dress and about 100,000 people to welcome the OLF leaders.
Many of the Oromos at the rally talked about how they never thought that one day their flag and their leaders would be displayed so prominently in the heart of the city. They described themselves as born again after years of being oppressed and marginalized.
“I never thought this day would come,” said Arfase Elias, 27, who came from the town of Ambo, about 70 miles west of the capital. “I’ve seen my brother bleeding and dying in the street, and I saw people sacrifice themselves for this flag.”
She added that everyone owed this day to the Qeerroo, the Oromo word for bachelors, which has come to mean the young Oromo men who demonstrated against the previous government and helped bring about the rise of Abiy and the political opening.
Yet after the attacks over the weekend, which some Addis Ababa residents claim were carried out by Qeerroo returning from the rally, the group has come under increasing criticism, accused of being out of control. Many of the crowd’s chants during Monday’s protests were against the Qeerroo.
At one point Monday, the crowd passed by the massive Oromo cultural center near Meskel Square, and demonstrators stopped and began shaking their fists, raising middle fingers and jeering at the building, while a thin line of Oromo police officers armed with sticks shifted nervously.
Eventually, a phalanx of heavily armored federal riot police came jogging down the road to reinforce them, and the crowd moved on.
Meanwhile, Addis Ababa’s tram, the only light rail in sub-Saharan Africa, sailed by on its elevated track. Opened to great fanfare three years ago, it was considered a symbol of Ethiopia’s booming economy but now appears to be a witness to the deep cleavages in society.