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Ethiopia: Turmoil over Hachalu’s burial reignites mass Oromo protests

By Morris Kiruga
Posted on Thursday, 2 July 2020 20:16

Highway Protest Minnesota
A man waves an Oromo flag in St. Paul, Minnesota on Wednesday, July 1, 2020. Protesters are outraged by the killing of Hachalu Hundessa. (Evan Frost/Minnesota Public Radio via AP)

The issue of where to bury Hachalu Hundessa , the popular Oromo musician who was shot in Addis Ababa on 29 June, has reignited protests after the government sought to have him buried in his birthplace of Ambo, 124 kilometres west of the capital.

The 34-year-old musician was a popular icon among Oromo youth, who coalesced around his music during the protests that brought down the former Prime Minister paving the way for Abiy Ahmed – an Oromo himself – to take power.

READ MORE  Ethiopia: Popular Oromo musician Hachalu Hundessa shot dead

While the motive for Hachalu’s murder is still unknown, the issue of his burial place has become an emotive rallying point for Oromo youth. Many Oromo political leaders have called for him to be buried in Addis Ababa, the city both the federal government and the Oromo people consider as their capital. In the end, he was buried in Ambo on Thursday 2 July.

To many, Hachalu’s music was “the soundtrack of the Oromo revolution.” Just a week ago, the musician was featured on the Oromia Media Network, a satellite television channel, where he criticised Ethiopia’s leadership and spoke up against the lack of freedom for the Oromo youth.

The regional police commissioner told state TV on 1 July that more than 80 people, among them protestors and members of the regional security force, had been killed in clashes following the musician’s murder. Human Rights Watch said at least 10 more were killed in Adama after a government office was set on fire.

Capital debate

The question of the capital’s ownership is a deep-seated debate and has been going on for more than a century.

Addis Ababa is located in the heart of Oromio, land inhabited by the Oromo people that covers nearly 285,000 square kilometres. Before the Addis Ababa many know today, the Oromo refer to their capital called ‘Finfinnee’.

Addis Ababa was founded by Emperor Menelik II and his third wife, Empress Taytu Betul, in the late 19th century. Since then, the capital has grown into the country’s most important city, as well as the headquarters of the African Union among other critical continental bodies.

One of Hachalu’s most popular songs Maalan Jira (What existence is mine?), released in 2015, centered on the question of who can claim the capital between the federal government and the Oromos.

But among the Oromos, the federal government’s hold on the city has not lessened their own historical rights to it.

Return to violence

While mourning the musician PM Abiy said that “…the wish of our enemies is for us not to reach our goals so that Oromo people can’t live with other ethnicities and we would paint each other with blood. They want us to trip on the journey we have started…This attempt has been tried repeatedly,” he added.

The Oromo tipping point came in mass protests in late 2015 which were met by a deadly crackdown by the government in power at the time.

According to reports by human rights organisations, over 600 Oromos were killed, but the exact number of remains unknown. But in just the first eight months, over 400 were reportedly killed.

Arrests of Oromo

The killing of Hachalu is thus feared to be a trigger to offset another round of deadly protests. As many Oromo made their way down to Addis Ababa following news of his death, the government moved to arrest several Oromo political leaders who had been pushing for the musician to be buried in the capital.

Jawar Mohammed, a known Oromo activist and polarising figure whose attempted arrest in late 2019 resulted in tens of deaths in the capital, was arrested on 1 July in an apparent standoff with security forces in the capital. Bekele Gerba, one of the leaders of the Oromo Federalist Congress, and Eskinder Nega, a known journalist and blogger, were also arrested along with Mohammed. Several media outlets reported that Bekele’s son and daughter were also arrested.

“The group of detainees led by Jawar Mohammed attempted to bring the body for burial in Addis Ababa, against the wishes of his family,” the country’s police chief said in a TV address.  “A police officer was killed in a violent scuffle by a member of the group’s entourage.”

The government also shut down Mohammed’s media outlet, Oromia Media Network (OMN) after it aired an impromptu funeral procession.

“An avowed Oromo nationalist”

Jawar Mohammed, a 34-year-old Ethiopian born US citizen, has been a polarising figure in Ethiopian politics since his return to Ethiopia in 2018.  An avowed Oromo nationalist, he returned to the country after spending years of exile in the United States, where he built a formidable following online.

He ran the Oromia Media Network (OMN) from a studio in Minnesota. The OMN was a crucial voice for the Oromo protests that forced Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s resignation and made way for Abiy’s ascension to power.

A 2010 profile by an American-based Oromo media house called him “a hope in the future” and a “rising star Oromo young man of this time.”

Educated in Stanford and Columbia Universities, the media mogul was initially a supporter of PM Abiy Ahmed’s reforms, some of which made it possible for him to return to his country of birth. But Abiy’s larger reforms at the federal level, as he seeks to unite a country constitutionally divided along ethnic lines, have not gone down well among Mohammed’s supporters, which include many young Oromos.

READ MORE Ethiopia: Abiy inflames tensions with Egypt and Oromos

In 2019, the government withdrew Mohammed’s security detail shortly after PM Abiy warned “those media owners who don’t have Ethiopian passports[are] playing both ways.”

Implications for Abiy

The current instability puts into question the durability of Abiy’s Prosperity Party that came into power on a platform of unity.

Already, his party took a major hit following the deadly riots in November 2019, and put a wrench in his attempted political reforms. 

Ahead of what would have been the first major test for him in general elections, the pandemic forced the government to delay them, though no date has yet been announced.

READ MORE Ethiopia: Indefinite postponement of polls raising political tempers

That means the riots of 2019, the postponement of the elections and now the deadly uprising following Hachalu’s death are creating a difficult pill for Abiy to swallow.

Despite the announcement in March of the postponed polls, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – once the powerbase for the Ethiopian government – vowed to hold them in August.

But on 24 June, the National Electoral Board rejected a request by the Tigray region likely widening the gap between the TPLF and the Prosperity Party.

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