Hachalu Hundessa: Ethiopia’s ghost of the past, the present and the future

On June 29th prominent Oromo singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa was murdered by gunmen in the capital of Ethiopia. Hachalu Hundessa’s life, death and the events following his death are deeply tied to the path Ethiopia is taking as a nation. The remnants of the former dictatorial regime, ethnic tensions, in/out group politics, regional versus national power and the power and abuse of state actors delineate the character and struggle of politics in Africa’s second most populous country. When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali was elected in 2018 he opened up the political system towards more inclusion for ethnic groups and regional authorities. Powerful political opponents counter these new narratives of inclusiveness with their own narratives of ethnic/regional autonomy and self-rule. The response of  Abiy Ahmed’s government after Hachalu Hundessa’s death are illustrative of botched responses that undermine Ahmed’s path towards an inclusive government.

Hachalu Hundessa’s life

Hachalu Hundessa was an activist for Ethiopia’s largest (although marginalized) ethnic group, the Oromo people. His songs challenged this marginalization and became the soundtrack of anti-government protests against the autocratic regime in 2015. This regime was headed by Hailemariam Desalegn, but was made up out of a coalition of parties representing Ethnic groups into the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which encompassed over 80 different ethnic groups. In 2018, as a result of the large protests, the Desalegn’s regime resigned. When Abiy Ahmed Ali (surprisingly) became prime minister in April 2018, he set out towards democratization, peace and inclusive government, which won him the Nobel Peace Prize. This was not an easy task; he inherited a divided society and, according to a statement from Abiy Ahmed’s office, the “structures, systems and networks that remained under the grip of authoritarianism.” Ethnic suspicion and violence combined with human rights violating government organs make up this inheritance, which came apparent after Hachalu Hundessa’s death.

Hachalu Hundessa’s death

Hachalu Hundessa’s death was followed by protests, ethnic violence and political suspicions.  At least 239 people have been killed by the unrest, mostly in the Oromia region. In their statement concerning the events, International Crisis Group sees the violence as a result of “deeper tensions” that have been “simmering over the course of a transition to multiparty democracy that has uncorked dangerous ethno-nationalist frictions, long suppressed by a largely authoritarian state.” Besides general protests across the country, cohorts of armed gangs and militias rampaged through ‘rival’ ethnic communities, who also mobilized to defend themselves. These ethnic skirmishes “could snowball into even more serious intercommunal violence” or even outright rebellion against the federal government says International Crisis Group

The government’s response has not been one of democracy and inclusiveness. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and Human Rights Watch have both expressed their concern and criticism of the government’s response to the death of Hachalu Hundessa. Protests are being violently and disproportionately suppressed by the military and the shutdown of the internet “disproportionately restricts the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression, including freedom to seek, receive and impart information and risks further exacerbating tensions,” said the OHCHR. Furthermore, the arbitrarily and “unjustly” arresting opposition politicians fuels ethnic mistrust.

Rumors and unfounded allegations concerning ethnic groups or political parties are harmful to Ethiopia’s democratic process as they fuel mistrust, hatred, violence and an in-group/out-group narrative between ethnicities. Last week, Abiy Ahmed said that the murder was a ploy to derail Ethiopia’s filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, implicating Egypt in the murder. PM Abiy Ahmed and other Ethiopian officials have also pointed to political opponents, like the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Oromo Federalist Congress and government critics. The rhetoric was followed by political arrests of members from these parties. The arrests and disappearance of opposition members without the “apparent lack of legal basis justifying the deprivation of liberty” has human rights organizations like the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) worried, especially as they are held incommunicado without access to a lawyer.

After Hachalu Hundessa’s death

One of the chief political opponents arrested is Jawar Mohammed, who grew up in the Oromia region before studying in Singapore and the U.S., where he graduated in a study of human rights at Stanford and became an activist and founded the Oromia Media Network (OMN). He was allowed back into Ethiopia as part of Abiy Ahmed’s reforms and left the chief executive position at OMN to become a prominent member of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC). He has a large following of especially young Oromo people. Jawar Mohammed’s following in combination with his political philosophy makes him a powerful opponent to Abiy Ahmed. Where Abiy Ahmed calls for political unity among ethnicities, Jawar Mohammed hails ethnic self-rule and ‘nationalism’ as the key towards economic and political development. The stated reason for the arrest of Jawar Mohammed is an accusation that one of his  bodyguards shot and killed a security officer  during a protest. Government supporters, says the BBC, see his arrest as vital to stop the ethnic violence that stems from the ethnic nationalism Jawar Mohammed promotes in this political philosophy, even though he does not promote violence. Supporters  see the arrest as a political ploy and say that it was not a bodyguard that killed the police officer.

The arrest of Jawar Mohammed and the arrest of other political leaders that represent a regional political party or ethnicity  broadcasts the message that the Ethiopian federal government is not inclusive towards the people these leaders represent. Abiy Ahmed’s aim to build an inclusive  and democratic political system for all of Ethiopia’s ethnicities and regions is undermined by the rhetoric and actions that highlight dividedness and top-down enforcement, especially if this top-down approach is one of intransparency, suppression and violence. The lack of transparent investigation and law-abiding security forces are two vital elements Ethiopia struggles with, and this struggle undermines the democratic process and trust in government. Enquiries into the string of high-profile assassinations have been “mostly inconclusive and deepened mistrust” says the International Crisis Group. In 2020, human rights organizations have criticized the disappearance of  an opposition leaders after being detained be security forces, the mass arrests of opposition supporters, violence without impunity, internet shutdowns, and the active participation of security forces in rape, extrajudicial executions and property destruction in ethnic violence, inhumane and life threatening prison conditions and is still categorized as “not free” by Freedom House due to the lack of political and civil liberties.

Abiy Ahmed Ali has chosen a path of building unity between regions and ethnicities over the philosophy of ethic self-rule and ethnic ‘nationalism’. For this path to be successful, the ethnic communities have to be included successfully into Ethiopia’s general political system and society. This inclusiveness means allowing their voice to be heard and their interests and lives to be protected and represented sufficiently. Cooperation, dialogue and peace are key in this long and difficult road ahead. On July 10 two men were arrested in connection to the murder, with a third suspect on the run; a key element on the path towards inclusion is the independent and transparent investigations in politically motivated killings like the murder of Hachalu Hundessa.