Ethiopia: Abiy inflames tensions with Egypt and Oromos

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi

Posted on Thursday, 24 October 2019 14:14
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaking in parliament on 22 October. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Days before Nobel Peace Prize laureate Abiy Ahmed left Addis Ababa for the two-day Russia-Africa summit he launched a book on his political philosophy and made statements to Ethiopia’s parliament that have triggered both a complaint by Egypt and protests among the Oromo.

  • In Parliament, Abiy reportedly said in response to questions on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: “Some say things about use of force [by Egypt]. It should be underlined that no force could stop Ethiopia from building a dam […]. If there is a need to go to war, we could get millions readied. If some could fire a missile, others could use bombs. But that’s not in the best interest of all of us.” The stalled talks between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan have escalated to calls for military action by Egyptian media and politicians.
  • In a press statement, Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its “shock, great concern and deep regret over the statements”, saying that it had expected the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Abiy to prompt his side to “demonstrate political will, flexibility and good faith towards reaching a binding and comprehensive legal agreement that takes into account the interests of the three sisterly countries of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan.”
  • Abiy and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi are due to hold a meeting about the dam on the sidelines of the Sochi summit.

On his government’s decision to hold elections in 2020, Abiy told Ethiopia’s parliament that “whether it is this year’s election or the next, in Ethiopia it is impossible to hold an election without problems and free of challenges. Democracy is an exercise and a culture and it is so when we exercise it, when we do it, not when we run away from it.”

He also explicitly warned media owners against “fomenting unrest”. “Those media owners who don’t have Ethiopian passports are playing both ways,” he said. “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.”

Protection removed for Oromo activist

Shortly after Abiy’s statements in parliament, Oromo activist and media owner Jawar Mohammed wrote on his Facebook page that his security detail was being withdrawn in the middle of the night, triggering ongoing protests in the capital and several towns.

  • Abiy’s comment on Ethiopian media owners with foreign passports seemed directed at people like Jawar, who holds a US passport.
  • He ran the Oromia Media Network from a studio in Minnesota; the OMN was a crucial voice for the Oromo protests that forced Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s resignation and made way for Abiy’s ascension to power.

Hundreds of Qeerroo (an Oromo youth movement whose name translates as “the bachelors”) protestors gathered around Jawar’s home, as other protests and counter-protests spread across Oromia. In Adama, two people people told Reuters that they heard gunshots, and several media reports say about five people have been killed and tens more wounded.

  • The protestors chanted pro-Jawar and anti-Abiy statements, and burnt several copies of Abiy’s new book.

In his Facebook post to his 1.7 million followers, Jawar said: “It appears the plan was not to arrest me. The plan was to remove my security and unleash civilian attackers and claim it was a mob attack.”

Federal Police Commission commander Endeshaw Tassew told VOA: “Police have been assessing the need for private guards for individuals and making similar decisions. We will continue to do so.”

  • The protests forced the security forces to block roads leading into and out of the capital, and it is still unclear who is responsible for the reported deaths.
  • Oromia deputy president Shimelis Abdisa apologised to the Qeerroo for the decision to withdraw Jawar’s security detail, according to a report by

Although he is not an elected official, Jawar’s pro-Oromo activism has made him popular among Oromos, who make up the largest ethnic group in the Eastern African country. Jawar has denied that he is considering running for office, but a source told Addis Standard that he is, mainly because he disagrees with the PM’s plan to merge the ruling EPRDF into a single party.

Jawar deflected the speculation with humour:

Jawar’s popularity among the Oromo is bound to complicate Abiy’s political base as he seeks to create a strong party for next year’s elections and ease Ethiopia’s web of ethnic divisions and violence.


Ethiopia postponed by a week the Sidama referendum, which was initially slated for 13 November. The referendum could potentially create the country’s 10th autonomous region. Its results will also increase the calls for autonomous states by at least eight other groups in the country.



Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options