Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, now faces an influential competitor — Jawar Mohammed, the founder of a media network and a former ally.
ADAMA, Ethiopia — Not long after security forces tried to arrest him in the middle of the night, Jawar Mohammed, a media baron and one of Ethiopia’s most prominent political activists, found himself face to face with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the man whose government ordered his arrest.
Sitting at a table in a state conference room in the capital, Addis Ababa, the two men met on Nov. 3 to talk about preventing more of the ethnic violence that erupted in October after Mr. Jawar’s supporters began protesting his botched arrest. Eighty-six people died in two days.
Since the bloody protests, the two men have agreed to tone down the violence, and Mr. Jawar has announced plans to take his case to the ballot box. He intends to run in next year’s elections to unseat Mr. Abiy, his one-time ally.
Mr. Abiy, who became prime minister only last year, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last month for his efforts to end Ethiopia’s long-running war with Eritrea and to bring greater political and economic freedoms to a country that had suffered decades of repression.
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But the ethnic tensions that have torn this country apart in the past have resurfaced in recent months, and the clashes in October were the deadliest since Mr. Abiy came to power. The violence has tested Mr. Abiy’s claim to be a new kind of leader who can unify the country and usher in a new era of political freedom.
His efforts to reform the country have empowered the opposition — including Mr. Jawar and his followers — and set loose “centrifugal forces from the inside,” said Tobias Hagmann, a political scientist and expert on Ethiopia at Roskilde University in Denmark.
“He has all this discourse about national unity, reconciliation and forgiveness, but at the same time, things are happening in the streets, and politics is up for grabs,” Mr. Hagmann said.
In Mr. Abiy’s first months in office, he lifted the state of emergency, freed political prisoners, legalized opposition groups that had been outlawed, and dismissed military and civilian leaders suspected of corruption. The country breathed a sigh of relief.
A signature initiative of Mr. Abiy has been trying to persuade his fellow citizens to subordinate their ethnic identities to a national one. But Mr. Jawar and his allies say they want a government that respects their demands for greater regional sovereignty.
Ethiopia has nine semiautonomous regions, where ethnic conflict is rampant and groups that have been newly empowered by the recent democratic overhaul are demanding the ability to run their own affairs.
One ethnic group — the Sidama — is seeking to create a 10th semiautonomous region. A referendum that would decide the matter is scheduled for Wednesday, and there are fears that the vote could descend into further violence.
Mr. Jawar said he would run for a parliamentary seat in Oromia, a sprawling region of about 30 million mostly rural dwellers, consisting of dozens of different ethnic groups. His aim is to create a political party there with the goal of winning enough seats name him prime minister.
His Oromia Media Network, which has over a million followers on Facebook, gives him a powerful platform to sway voters, and he has proved his ability to mobilize his supporters.
“I will contest and I will challenge him,” Mr. Jawar said of Mr. Abiy in an interview. “And I will defeat him, there is no question about it.”
When Mr. Jawar alerted his followers on Oct. 23 that there was a plan to arrest or possibly kill him at his house in Addis Ababa, they came out in force to support him.
The violence that resulted was particularly deadly in Adama, a city in Oromia about 60 miles east of Addis Ababa. According to hospital records, 17 people died in the city.