Tens of thousands of people descended in Addis Ababa’s Meskel square on Saturday morning in a massive show of support for Abiy Ahmed, the new, reformist prime minister of Ethiopia.
Dressed in colourful attire displaying Abiy’s image and carrying signs with slogans such as “One Love, One Ethiopia”, the diverse crowd cheered on as the 41-year-old prime minister repeated his message of unity in a country rocked by violent unrest in recent years.
But the sense of jubilation didn’t last for long.
Shortly after Abiy wrapped up his speech, an explosion went off among the demonstrators.
At least one person was killed and more than 150 others were wounded, in what is believed to be a grenade attack.
Abiy, who has announced a series of major reforms since taking office in April, was hurriedly escorted out of the rally as his supporters tried to come to terms with what had just happened.
“The people who did this are anti-peace forces,” Abiy said in an address broadcast afterwards on state television.
“You need to stop doing this. You weren’t successful in the past and you won’t be successful in the future.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the explosion. Later on Saturday, police said six people were being investigated for the attack.
|Abiy waves to supporters at the rally before the explosion [Reuters]|
The blast sent shockwaves across Ethiopia, a country at a critical juncture in its political history as it seeks to emerge from a tumultuous period of instability.
“Abiy’s effort to move the country forward has angered those who for a very long time maintained a stronghold on the country’s politics and economy,” Mohammed Ademo, political commentator and founder of OPride.com, an independent news website on Ethiopia, told Al Jazeera.
“They are trying to scare people and undermine the prime minister so they can send a signal that he is not capable of stabilising the country,” Ademo added.
“The incident is going to unite the people more and put the hardliners who want to obstruct his changes in a more difficult position.”
Ethiopia was rocked by mass anti-government protests in 2015, which first broke out in the populous Oromia region, home to the Oromo, after the unveiling of plans for a controversial development project in Addis Ababa.
The rallies then spread to other parts of Ethiopia, including the Amhara region, with demonstrators demanding an end to human rights abuses as well political reforms and greater freedoms.
Hundreds of people were killed and more than 20,000 others were arrested in a government crackdown that was widely condemned by human rights organisations.
In February, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn abruptly resigned, citing ongoing “unrest and a political crisis” in the country as major factors in his decision.
He was replaced two months later by Abiy, who became the first prime minister from the Oromo ethnic group since the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came to power 27 years ago.
Since assuming office, Abiy has introduced a number of reforms and has overseen the release of jailed dissidents and moves to liberalise the economy.
Overall, thousands of prisoners, including several senior opposition leaders accused of charges such as incitement to topple the government, have been pardoned since January – even before Abiy’s election by the EPRDF.
The pardons are part of reforms that the government pledged to undertake after the violent unrest broke out three years ago.
Ryan Cummings, a political and security risk analyst, said the attack on Saturday is unlikely to force Abiy to change course.
“[He] has instituted enough socioeconic and political reforms, [which makes it] unlikely to respond to the attack today by instituting some of the repressive measures which he has lifted since his tenure [began],” he told Al Jazeera.
“Instead, the prime minister may continue to enact reforms which he has promised to deliver to Ethiopia and which will be central to the country’s long-term stability.”
It is going to be people power versus the power of a few disgruntled established hardliners. I think people power will overcome in the long run. It is people power that brought him to power
Mohammed Ademo, political commentator and founder of OPride.com
The new prime minister enjoys a lot of political support, especially from the younger population.
He has also made peace overtures to aggrieved opposition groups, as well as neighbouring Eritrea.
On June 5, Addis Ababa announced that it will fully accept the terms of a 2000 peace agreement with Asmara which ended a two-year war, in a major step towards calming deadly tensions with its decades-long rival.
The move, however, has been met with criticism by groups opposing the deal.
“Rescinding conciliation with Eritrea could render his governance as weak and could incentivise further violence in response to his policy promulgation,” Cummings said.
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki recently said the East African country will dispatch a delegation to Addis Ababa to “gauge current developments” in the region following Ethiopia’s moves.