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Ethiopia: The killing of Hachalu Hundessa cuts deep

Merga Yonas Bula
July 2, 2020

The unsolved fatal shooting of the celebrated Oromo resistance singer has ruptured Ethiopia's brittle political system. Can talks on a national scale avert a bad-to-worse outcome for the multiethnic nation?

Hachalu Hundess
Image: Reuters/T. Negeri

Ethiopia has seen six recent years of severe political instability. The first four were characterized by deadly protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions.

The right to self-rule and an end to human rights violations were at the core of the demands by opposition groups for change.

In 2018, the then-ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) gave in and pledged reforms, released political prisoners, and invited back exiled political parties, media and activists.

Read more: Unrest erupts in Ethiopia after killing of singer

But before long, politicians and activists were accusing the rechristened ruling Prosperity Party of reneging on its promises to the protesters. Oromo politicians, in particular, argue that the government continues to arrest and kill Oromos, who make up Ethiopia's largest ethnic group.

Hachalu Hundessa provided the soundtrack for that Oromo-led anti-government protest movement.

Political analysts say the killing of Hachalu on Monday and the scores of protest deaths reported in the Oromia Region and his hometown in particular since, aggravates an already tense political climate. 

Read more: Can PM Abiy Ahmed breach Ethiopia's ethnic divide?

Fuel to the fire

Dozens were reported killed or arrested as the army deployed in Oromia and three bombs exploded in Addis Ababa in the wake of the killing. 

Authorities took the Oromia Media Network (OMN) off-air and arrested its frontman Jawar Mohammed. In his last interview with the network, Hachalu had spoken of death threats from those who did not like his work. He also vowed that he would not bow down to menace.  

Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba are among the more prominent politicians and informal protest leaders who are being detained. Security forces made the arrests after a dispute at Hachalu's funeral over whether the place of burial should be Addis Ababa or his birthplace of Ambo, some 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the west of the capital.   

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, in a televised speech a day after Hachalu was killed, said that "internal and external forces" were responsible. The same forces, he alleged, were trying to prevent the singer from being taken back to his place of birth. 

Read more: Does Ethiopian Nobel laureate Abiy Ahmed have new enemies?

Amnesty International has urged the government to "conduct prompt, thorough, impartial, independent and effective investigations into the killing" of the singer and bring to justice anyone suspected to be responsible."

"There must be justice for the killing of Hachalu Hundessa," said Sarah Jackson, Amnesty Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.

A protest movement reactivated?

Bekele and Jawar are members of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), one of the parties that is said to have a strong base in the state of Oromia. Bekele has previously been jailed for advocating for the rights of the Oromo people. His son and daughter were also arrested and their whereabouts were unknown this week, according to Human Rights Watch.

"The detention of these people will not help what is going on in the country," Professor Merera Gudina, Chairman of the OFC, told DW. He called on the government "to release them since their detention is not helpful for peace and stability of the country".

Jawar Mohammed
Jawar Mohammed has accused PM Abiy of acting like a dictator Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Ayene

According to Kjetil Tronvoll, Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the Bjorknes University in Oslo, the public reaction to the killing of Hachalu shows that he was considered a "strong defender of Oromo rights and Oromo interests."

"Through his songs, statement and appearances, he was looked upon as the person who supported and defended the current constitutional framework," Tronvoll told DW. The Ethiopian constitution decentralizes political powers to regional states for self-rule, which has been a central question of the Oromo people over the Oromia Regional State.

Political analysts are also talking about a reactivation of the protest movement of 2014-2018 as a result of the singer's death.

"Jawar has been perceived as one of the key informal leaders of the protesters throughout the four or five years. Both Jawar and Bekele are strong advocates of the constitutional framework," said Tronvoll.

"So arresting them is perceived by people in Oromia as an attempt to hijack the opposition party, and as an attempt to marginalize the opposition ahead of the election."

Read more: Crisis looms in Ethiopia as elections are postponed

Excessive state actions

Footage of the killing of Hachalu and the subsequent killing and arrests of protesters by security forces circulated in real-time on social media. Condolences and anger on the part of the diaspora poured across platforms. American politicians, including Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, reacted, too. 

As the protests erupted, the Ethiopian government reportedly shut down the internet. Amnesty noted that the move "has made it difficult to verify reports of people killed in ongoing protests."

"Authorities should immediately lift the countrywide blanket internet shutdown and allow people to access information and to freely mourn the musician,” Sarah Jackson, of Amnesty International said.

Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa Director at Human Rights Watch, warned: "Rather than restoring calm, the authorities' internet shutdown, apparent excessive use of force, and arrest of political opposition figures could make a volatile situation even worse."

"The government should take prompt steps to reverse these actions or risk sliding deeper into crisis."

Read more: Opinion: Ethiopia is on the brink of failure

Abiy Ahmed in Oslo
Abiy Ahmed was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace PrizeImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/NTB scanpix/H. M. Larsen

Dialogue as a remedy

The opposition OFC Chairman, Professor Merera, says a genuine "national dialogue" could pull the country out of its political instability. 

"Without addressing the basic political problems and without making real agreement about the future of this country, I don't think we could move forward,” he told DW. "We are at a very critical crossroads. The party in power should help this country by engaging in a real national dialogue. National reconciliation is really needed."

Street Debate: Hate Speech in Ethiopia

Art to expose truth 

Hachalu Hundessa used rhyming epic lyrics in songs that centered on the marginalization of the Oromo people. His 2015 hit "Maalan Jiraa!" (which roughly translates as 'Where are We') reflects his sorrow over the never-ending oppression of the Oromo in Ethiopia and their historical claim to Addis Ababa — or Finfinne to the Oromo.

In 2017, "Jirra" (We are Here), with which Hachalu said he wanted to remind the Oromo people not to forget where they are and what they should do in the future, became a hit. 

In an interview with DW in January 2018, after receiving the Odaa Award for influential Oromo musicians, Hachalu outlined his motivation. "Well, I think with music you analyze the political, social, economic, and the life of society. I personally feel happy when I sing resistance songs. Singing such songs is inside me since I am part of the society," he said. 

"If there is an oppressed society, and I am one of the oppressed, I express my disappointment against that subjugation through my music. Art is a tool to tell truth and expose tyranny".

On the influential Oromia Media Network (OMN) in the week before his death, Hachalu said he was planning to release a new song titled "Eessaa Jirta?", which loosely translates to "Where are you?"