ADDIS ABABA - Prominent activist Jawar Mohammed does not rule out challenging his erstwhile ally, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, in next year's election, he told Reuters on Friday, after days of demonstrations by his supporters resulted in dozens of deaths.
Jawar's ability to organize street protests helped propel Abiy to power last year, ushering in sweeping political and economic reforms. Abiy won the Nobel peace prize this month for his regional peacemaking achievements.
But this week, Jawar's supporters demonstrated against Abiy after Jawar said police had surrounded his home and tried to withdraw his government security detail.
Late on Friday, the police commissioner for Oromiya told Reuters that 67 were people killed in the region in the two days of protests this week, a dramatic jump in the number of deaths from earlier reports.
Sixty-two of the dead were protesters while five were police officers, Oromiya regional police commissioner Kefyalew Tefera said by phone. Thirteen died from bullet wounds and the rest from injuries caused by stones, he said.
On Thursday, authorities and hospital officials had reported that protests in the capital and other cities resulted in 16 deaths and dozens of wounded. It was not immediately clear how many of the 16 were included in the tally of 67 reported in Oromiya.
The violence underscored the dilemma facing Abiy, who must retain support in Ethiopia's ethnically based, federal system but not be seen to favor one group.
But kingmakers like media mogul Jawar are flexing their muscles. Like Abiy, Jawar comes from the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia's largest. His supporters have stopped believing in Abiy's promises of reform, he said, accusing Abiy of centralizing power, silencing dissent, and jailing political prisoners - like his predecessors.
Amnesty International says that, since Abiy took office, there have been several waves of mass arrests of people in Oromiya perceived to be opposed to the government. Detainees were not charged or taken to court, Amnesty's Ethiopia researcher Fisseha Tekle said.
"The majority of people believe the transition is off track and we are backsliding towards an authoritarian system," Jawar said, sitting in his heavily guarded home-office in the center of the capital, Addis Ababa. "The ruling party and its ideology will be challenged seriously not only in the election but also prior to the elections."
The prime minister's spokeswoman did not return calls seeking comment. Abiy has not commented on this week's violence.
On Friday afternoon, the defense ministry said the army had been deployed to seven cities where there had been protests this week. The forces have been deployed "to calm the situation in collaboration with elders and regional security officers," Major General Mohammed Tessema told a press conference in Addis Ababa.
The four ethnically based parties in the coalition that has ruled Ethiopia since 1991 are facing increasing competition from new, more strident parties demanding greater power and resources for their own regions.
"For a prime minister whose popular legitimacy relies on his openness, recent protests in Oromiya could be politically suicidal," said Mehari Taddele Maru, an Addis Ababa-based political analyst. "It signals a significant loss of a populist power base that propelled him to power."
If next year's elections are fair - as Abiy has promised they will be - they will test whether the young prime minister can hold together his fractious nation of 100 million people and continue to open up its state-owned economy, or whether decades of state repression have driven Ethiopians into the arms of the political competition.
Jawar said he hadn't decided who else he would support in next year's polls, or whether he would run himself. His Twitter feed has been teasing the possibility last weekend: "The story about me running for office is just speculation. I am running to lose weight."
He refused to be drawn on Friday, telling Reuters: "I don't exclude anything."
His remarks were his strongest criticism yet of Abiy, with whom he was photographed frequently last year, but the split follows pointed remarks by Abiy to parliament on Tuesday.
Abiy said, without naming anyone, "Media owners who don't have Ethiopian passports are playing both ways ... If this is going to undermine the peace and existence of Ethiopia ... we will take measures."
The comments were widely seen as a dig at Jawar, who is Ethiopian-born but has a U.S. passport and returned from exile last year.
Abiy didn't create Ethiopia's ethnic divisions, but he must address them, said Abel Wabella, a former political prisoner who is now editor of the Amharic-language newspaper Addis Zeybe.
Jawar is "testing the waters," he said. "Ethnic federalism creates monsters ... if Abiy fails to dismantle the power groups based on ethnicity, and to address the structural problems we have as a nation, we will end up in civil war."