At least three people have died in Ethiopia’s southern city of Hawassa, hospital authorities said on Friday, amid a showdown between state security forces and some local activists who want to declare a new region for their Sidama ethnic group.
The threat of large-scale violence in Hawassa city centre on Thursday was largely averted after a Sidama opposition party agreed to delay declaring their own region and accept a government offer to hold a referendum in five months.
The threat to unilaterally declare a new region was a direct challenge to the authority of the Ethiopian federal government, which oversees nine regions in the nation of 105 million people.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, appointed by the ruling coalition last year, has been widely praised for political reforms in what was once one of the continent’s most repressive nations.
But many Ethiopian activists are now using their greater freedoms to demand more rights, sometimes for their own ethnic groups.
At least eight other ethnic groups beside the Sidama also want their own regions. The tensions sometimes spark violence.
In Hawassa, not all Sidama people accepted the decision to delay the declaration. Some activists were still on the streets on Friday and most shops were still closed.
Local police told Fana Broadcasting that relative peace prevailed in Hawassa and nearby areas and they are working to restore peace in areas affected by the violence.
“Efforts are underway to put under control the violence which started in Hawassa and later spread to the neighboring Sidama woredas (district),” regional state Police Commissioner Tewodros Woldemichael told Fana.
Police arrested individuals who took part in the violence that resulted in loss of life and properties, according to Fana.
Hawassa Referral Hospital has received 12 injured civilians in the last two days, three of whom died, said general manager Zinaw Serniso.
Some had fractured bones after being hit with batons and others had been shot, he said.
One man shot in the head died on Thursday, and two more shot in the leg and abdomen died on their way to the hospital on Friday, he said.
“The decision by top Sidama administrators to accept a belated referendum meant the zone didn’t self-declare and so a major confrontation was avoided yesterday,” said William Davison, an analyst from Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
“But that decision was not accepted by all of the youthful activists, who complained they were not consulted and were further angered when security forces prevented public meetings being held to discuss the situation.”
Organised groups in towns outside Hawassa are ransacking houses, business and also robbing people, said Million Tumato, president of the opposition Sidama Liberation Movement.
He confirmed three civilians had been killed in Hawassa and said 15 others had been killed in outlying areas.
Reuters could not immediately confirm the deaths or the circumstances surrounding them.
“At this moment, we cannot calm our people,” he said.