By Sally Hayden
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Mass street protests that saw dozens of people shot by Ethiopian security forces over the weekend could spill into civil war if the government fails to reform land use policies, a veteran Ethiopian opposition politician has warned.
Merera Gudina, leader of the Oromo People's Congress, said the East African country was at a "crossroads".
"People are demanding their rights," he said. "People are fed up with what the regime has been doing for a quarter of a century. They're protesting against land grabs, reparations, stolen elections, the rising cost of living, many things.
"If the government continue to repress while the people are demanding their rights in the millions that (civil war) is one of the likely scenarios," Gudina said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Washington DC.
More than 90 people were shot dead by security forces in protests across Ethiopia's central-western Oromiya and northern Amhara regions at the weekend, according to opposition officials and residents.
Gudina said thousands of people were arrested in Addis Ababa, after the government used "massive and excessive force" to shut down demonstrations that had spread there. Other activists estimated that 3,000 protesters had been detained.
"There have been no attempts at negotiation from the government, no engagement with the opposition or the people. So far, their only response is bullets," Gudina said.
U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein urged Ethiopia on Wednesday to allow international observers into Oromiya and Amhara. He also said allegations of excessive use of force across the two restive regions must be investigated and that his office was in discussions with Ethiopian authorities.
POLL IGNITES FIRST FLAMES
Protests began in November in the town of Ginchi in Oromiya over a government plan to allocate farmland to Addis Ababa for development, potentially displacing large numbers of Oromo farmers, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia.
The plan was scrapped but protests flared again over the continued detention of opposition demonstrators.
On May 24 the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government had won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections, which critics and the opposition said were rigged.
Human Rights Watch estimated that 400 demonstrators were killed by security forces between November and June. Several prominent figures were arrested during that period, including the Oromo activist Bekele Gerba, who was taken from his home in December.
The protests have spread to other areas and people were now organising and co-operating across ethnic lines," Gudina said.
"That is what we have been waiting for," he said.
"The regime could not contain the protests to only one region: all along, we have been expecting that others have their own issues."
Government officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The state-owned Ethiopian News Agency reported that "illegal protests" by "anti-peace forces" had been brought under control. It did not mention casualties.
Gudina, who was part of the student movement involved in overthrowing Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and subsequently spent seven years in prison under the communist Derg government, said he has no power to stop the demonstrations.
"How on earth do you tell people not to demand their rights? The only advice I give is to make their protests as much as possible peacefully and legally."
He said land policies needed to be reformed to ensure that land acquisition was fair, transparent and properly managed.
"When land is taken for real development, there needs to be proper compensation, [an] alternative livelihood should be arranged for the farmers," he said.
Many farmers who have been moved from their land already are now living in poverty, with some women forced to turn to prostitution, Gudina said.
In a statement released on Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa said it was "deeply concerned with the extensive violence that occurred during protests across Ethiopia" at the weekend.
It said it had noted that protesters and security officials had been killed but that confirmed numbers were not available.
Gudina also criticized foreign investors in Ethiopia. "Investing when such governments are at war with their people is not helping. There's no guarantee, no security for their investment until the politics is getting better and the country is stabilized," he said.
"They know that the country is going in a bad direction."
(Reporting by Sally Hayden, Editing by Paola Totaro and Jo Griffin. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)