Ethiopia’s pacifist President, Mussie Zerai, on Monday vowed to lead troops on the front lines of a four-year-old insurgency to protect the nation from rebels, calling the country “the safest place on earth” in an address to the nation.
Dr. Zerai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, spoke at his university in the capital, Addis Ababa, after a gun battle Saturday killed 29 students and injured dozens of others.
“The long-held fear that Ethiopia is a place that the Ethiopian army will not and will not protect is today a distant memory,” said Dr. Zerai.
“We have fought a war of self-defense and we came out victorious.”
The dissident Students Liberation Front has announced it is starting a new military camp and has announced it is launching an armed campaign in the northwestern Ogaden region, which has become a front line for Ethiopia’s decades-long separatist fight.
As the Somali-speaking rebels launch a campaign in a region that produces two-thirds of Ethiopia’s oil, Dr. Zerai says his soldiers will follow the orders of the state.
“As peacemakers we will not engage in a confrontation with those who have a different view on the path Ethiopia must take. On the contrary, we will be there to protect our country and people from any potential threat,” he said.
The violence comes amid tension over President Meles Zenawi’s death in 2011, with a government victory in the presidential race prompting the formation of a no-party coalition that is demanding parliamentary and regional elections.
“Power will shift to the hands of the people, not to political parties and not to kingdoms,” said Dr. Zerai, who also co-founded the opposition party, the Movement for the Emancipation of Ethiopia (MEI), in 1972.
The government has accused the splinter party, which insists it was created after a power struggle in 2015, of “hijacking” the student protests and called on the public to keep faith in the referendum process.
Several human rights groups have accused the government of taking a heavy-handed approach to the demonstrations, arresting hundreds.
It has also accused the rebels, who are mostly Somalis, of inciting violence against the government.
More than 100,000 people have died in a long insurgency, with security forces accused of burning villages and torturing opposition leaders, according to the Oromo Human Rights Network.
The one-time British colony lost its independence after four decades of civil war and civil strife after leaders were declared unconstitutional in 1981.
Supporters of former rebel leader Meles Zenawi say his pro-growth and pro-development policies boosted economic growth in one of Africa’s poorest countries.
However, it was during Meles’ years in power that Ethiopia allowed foreign investment, inflation soared, independent reporters and social media platforms were banned and reports of widespread human rights abuses emerged.
About 60 percent of the population of 100 million now live on less than $1 a day.