Clashes between police and protesters in Ethiopia’s Oromia region have left several people dead, according to officials and regional opposition leaders.
Oromia has seen three weeks of protests over a government plan to integrate parts of the region with the capital, Addis Ababa. Critics say the plan will undermine local rule and cause local farmers to lose their land.
Witnesses say police have used force to contain or shut down protests, including one that took place Thursday in the town of Bako.
“Today in Bako city when the students came out to protest, people joined them and they started firing live rounds and hit some students,” a witness told VOA’s Horn of Africa Service. There was no word on whether anyone was killed.
Bloomberg news quotes a prominent opposition leader, Bekele Nega, as saying police have killed 10 students taking part in the ongoing protests.
Ethiopia’s communications minister, Getachew Reda, put the number of dead at four, and said security forces have been exercising restraint in the face of violence.
Oromia is one of Ethiopia’s nine ethnically-based states and holds the largest population at more than 27 million.
The protests started on November 20 in the Western Oromo region cities of Ambo, Ginchi and Western Welega, and they have since spread.
The tactics used to clamp down on these protests are reminiscent of the 2014 protests in the Oromia towns of Ambo, Nekemte and Jimma, according to Human Rights Watch, where security forces fired live rounds and beat people who were protesting peacefully.
Speaking to journalists in Ethiopia a few days ago, the police commissioner of the Oromia region, Ibrahim Hajj, blamed misinformation and propaganda for fueling hostilities among some in the Oromo community.
“Today the people are ensuring the rights and are beneficiaries in all sectors including, social, economic sectors. But there are some who are trying to make it seem as if the rights of the people have been violated and they take advantage of this situation behind the scenes,” he said.
Felix Horne, an Ethiopia and Eritrea researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the spread of the protests started slowly and gained momentum within schools and other educational institutions.
“Initially it was students in primary schools, secondary schools, some university students and now we are seeing farmers, workers beginning to take part in these protests in different ways — staging protests peaceful means, sit-ins to mourn the death of those who’ve lost their lives. So the protests definitely seem to be gaining momentum,” he said.
Horne said that while the government’s development for Addis sparked the protests, they are about much larger issues.
“Ostensibly these protests are about the Addis Ababa Master Plan but clearly the Oromos have been marginalized by successive governments and so it’s kind of an accumulation of different frustrations,” he said. “Throughout Oromia, arbitrary detention is common, mistreatment in detention is common and then Oromos just don’t have a voice in issues that impact them day-to-day.”