Ethiopia’s new prime minister pledged on Wednesday to address grievances in his native Oromiya region, the center of violent unrest that threatened the ruling coalition’s hold on Africa’s second most populous nation.
Abiy Ahmed was met by thousands of cheering locals, some of whom held his portrait aloft, when he arrived on Wednesday in Ambo, a town at the heart of protests and clashes with security forces since 2015.
Protests began in opposition to a development plan for the capital Addis Ababa that critics said would expropriate land for farmers in Oromiya province, which surrounds the capital. Demonstrators later began protesting for political rights.
Hundreds of people were killed between 2015 and 2017.
“You have expressed your grievances and have made demands. We give you our unwavering commitment to resolving them,” he said in a speech, a group of spear-wielding Oromo horsemen in colourful capes and baboon skin headdresses looking on.
“But for us to succeed, we also need your unwavering support,” Abiy said, after blessings from traditional leaders and a moment of silence in memory of those who died.
Abiy was sworn in as premier on April 2. His predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn resigned in February, signalling divisions in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, in power since 1991, over how fast to pursue reforms.
The 42-year-old former army officer faces the challenge of calming the anger of young members of his own Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest, who complain they are politically and economically marginalized.
Some said the new leader must respond swiftly to their demands.
“He could start with releasing every single prisoner jailed for political reasons and lifting emergency rule,” said Kumasa Fituma, a lab technician at the local university in the town, 130 km (82 miles) from the capital.
“If he implements his pledges, I am confident there will be peace. If not, then we will be back to the old ways (of violence),” he said.
Since January the government has released thousands of prisoners who included dissidents and journalists in a bid to calm discontent.
On Friday, it shut down a detention facility in Addis Ababa known as “Makelawi”, where rights groups have alleged that torture has taken place.
Another resident said the town and region needed investment.
“We did not only protest for our rights,” said Gemechu Garuma, 25, a university student. “This city needs roads and clean water, while our schools need books and materials. He has to change all that.”
Wednesday’s trip was the prime minister’s second outside the capital since he was sworn in nine days ago. At the weekend he visited the Somali region where violence has displaced nearly a million people in the past year and also pledged to find solutions to unrest there.