The protests appeared to have been sparked by a prominent critic of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who claimed the police had tried to orchestrate an attack on him.
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Protests against Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia erupted on Wednesday, threatening to taint the aura around his newly won Nobel Peace Prize, after a prominent critic accused the police of attempting to orchestrate an attack on him.
The accusations made by the critic, Jawar Mohammed, founder of an independent media network, fueled simmering political tensions in the landlocked nation of 110 million, the most populous in Africa after Nigeria. The protests came a day after Mr. Abiy warned in Parliament that unidentified media owners were fomenting ethnic unrest.
Hundreds of supporters of Mr. Jawar, an Ethiopian activist who has American citizenship and was in exile in the United States until last year, gathered outside his Addis Ababa home, which was surrounded by police officers.
The supporters, of the Oromo ethnic group, denounced the prime minister, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize less than two weeks ago for his work in ending the protracted war between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea, and restoring some political freedoms in his country.
News reports and witnesses reached by telephone said the protests had spread to the cities of Adama, Harar and Ambo, and that some had turned deadly.
In Addis Ababa’s Black Lion Hospital, a protester from the capital’s Jemo area said six people were killed there from what he described as “police action.” The protester, Ali Jerra, 25, said the number of wounded was unclear.
Earlier, the BBC reported that three people had been killed in unrest in areas outside of Addis Ababa and that some protesters had burned copies of the prime minister’s newly published book.
The government did not confirm any casualties from the protests. There was no immediate comment from Mr. Abiy, who was attending a summit of African leaders convened by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia at the Russian Black Sea resort town of Sochi.
Mr. Jawar claimed on his Facebook account that police officers in two cars had arrived at his home around midnight and demanded that his own security guards leave. Mr. Jawar said the demand was part of what he described as a pretext for an attack against him. Elaborating later in a telephone interview, Mr. Jawar said the police officers apparently had wanted “to remove my security and to mobilize a mob attack and claim it was linked to ethnic strife.” He also said “I cannot say for certain” that Mr. Abiy was responsible, “but it is possible that loyalists in the security services thought they had a green light from what he was saying in Parliament.”
Mr. Jawar and Mr. Abiy are political rivals, and both are from the Oromo ethnic group, the largest in Ethiopia.
William Davison, an Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, said, “Jawar and Abiy have been tense allies over the last year, as they are both popular in Oromia, but have different political priorities. While Abiy broadly wants to move the ruling coalition and Ethiopia away from ethnic politics, Jawar is focused on furthering the autonomy and power of the Oromo people.”
He added, “Abiy has generally tried to govern in the interests of all Ethiopians, but that leaves him open to allegations of neglecting Oromo concerns from activists such as Jawar, who clearly still retain considerable mobilizing capabilities.”
In remarks to Ethiopia’s Parliament on Tuesday, Mr. Abiy made an implicit criticism of Mr. Jawar, who returned to Ethiopia after Mr. Abiy came to power last year.
“When there is peace you are playing here, and when we are in trouble you not here,” Mr. Abiy said, without specifically referring to Mr. Jawar. “We tried to be patient. But if this is going to undermine the peace and existence of Ethiopia … we will take measures. You can’t play both ways.”
Shimelis Abdisa, deputy president of the Oromia region, which includes Addis Ababa, told a news conference Wednesday night that the police visit to Mr. Jawar’s home had been “a major mistake” that should not have happened.
“It will be investigated and necessary measures will be taken,” he said. “I want to assure you that the federal and regional government will work on the safety of Jawar,” and other Ethiopia exiles who have returned since Mr. Abiy took power.
Most of the protests were peaceful, he said, attributing the violence to outsiders “who want to destabilize Oromia and engage in robbery.”
Mr. Jawar, 33, who founded the independent Oromia Media Network, enjoys an extensive social-media reach in Ethiopia — he has 1.75 million Facebook followers — giving him considerable ability to mobilize demonstrations. His supporters credit Mr. Jawar with playing a decisive role in the political changes that helped bring Mr. Abiy to power last year.
Mr. Abiy, 43, devoted much of his first year in power not only to restoring some long-repressed political freedoms in Ethiopia, but to ending the two-decade-long conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, its isolated neighbor, A formal declaration to the end of their “state of war” was made on July 9, 2018.
The Nobel Committee that awarded Mr. Abiy the peace prize on Oct. 11 cited the accomplishments of his first 100 days that included lifting the state of emergency, granting amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, halting media censorship and legalizing outlawed opposition groups.
But some of Mr. Abiy’s political liberalizations also unleashed forces that have endangered the country’s stability. He escaped at least one assassination attempt barely two months after he took office.
Mr. Abiy’s tenure also has been punctuated by ethnic rivalries that have flared in recent years. More than 2 million Ethiopians have been internally displaced because of conflict.