Police in Ethiopia’s war-scarred region of Tigray arrested and baton-charged opposition leaders and supporters ahead of planned demonstrations on Thursday, a protest organiser and a local journalist said.
A coalition of three opposition parties had called for demonstrations against the region’s interim administration led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades until 2018.
Hailu Kebede, a senior official in the Salsay Weyane Tigray (SaWeT) party, told AFP that security forces had “dispersed the demo with beatings and arrests.”
He said police had taken at least 26 people into custody since Wednesday, including Hayalu Godefay, the head of SaWeT, and Dejen Mezgebe, the president of the Tigray Independence Party (TIP).
The two men had been detained for a day on Tuesday as they urged people to come out in protest against “the incompetence” and “autocratic character” of the TPLF.
A local journalist told AFP on condition of anonymity that security forces had “totally cordoned off” Romanat Square, the location of Thursday’s planned rally in Tigray’s capital Mekele.
“I saw them beating demonstrators who were attempting to enter the square,” he said, corroborating Hailu’s account of the arrests.
“All roads leading to Mekele have been closed and people are unable to move. The businesses in central Mekele have also remained closed and the streets are empty,” he added.
The political challenge to the TPLF comes as the region emerges from a bloody two-year war between the party and Ethiopia’s federal government.
In November 2022, the TPLF and the federal government signed a peace deal that brought the curtain down on a conflict that inflicted a huge toll in lives and damage.
Authorities in Mekele had refused to authorise the demonstrations, citing the lack of available police officers in the run-up to the Ethiopian New Year on Tuesday.
But the opposition has insisted that it does not need authorisation to hold a peaceful demonstration.
Getachew Reda, the head of Tigray’s interim government, told state media on Wednesday that opposition parties could not decide “the time and place” of protests.
“We didn’t say the rally shouldn’t happen, we said the circumstances are not met (for) the rally to happen tomorrow,” he said, citing security fears.
Tigray suffered from dire shortages of essential supplies during the conflict.
Since the peace deal, some basic services have resumed to the region, but media access remains restricted and it is impossible to independently verify the situation on the ground.