Killing of pop star, who gave voice to the Oromo group, highlights the African nation’s simmering ethnic tensions.
• How Hundessa’s Murder Reveal Ethiopia’s seperation •
Firaol Ajema and his friends, dressed in black T-shirts, have been meeting each afternoon in recent days to listen to the music of Ethiopian pop star Hachalu Hundessa, also known as Haacaaluu Hundeessaa.
The homemade shirts bearing the dead singer’s portrait and the slogan “I am also Hachalu” are their way of honouring the man whose murder on Monday sparked violence that killed at least 166 people and highlighted Ethiopia’s simmering ethnic tensions.
“We haven’t been able to properly mourn,” said Firaol, a university student in the town of Legetafo outside Addis Ababa, where security has been tight since the killing. “We are suffocating inside our own houses.”
Hachalu’s death, which remains unsolved, was destined to become a political flashpoint.
In uptempo pop songs riddled with political references, Hachalu gave voice to feelings of marginalisation among fellow members of his Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest.
His music was the soundtrack to anti-government protests that swept Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the country’s first Oromo leader, to office in 2018.
Yet, as Ethiopia prepares for elections that will test its democratic transition under Abiy, many Oromo nationalists feel betrayed, arguing the prime minister has failed to champion their interests.
Opposition politicians claim many of the deaths were instigated by security forces who have fired on protesters in multiple locations in Addis Ababa and the surrounding Oromia region.
Firaol and his fellow young Oromos in Legetafo agree.
“The killing has caused a lot of sadness among us, but the way the government is handling it is even worse,” said Birhanu Gadisa, also a student. “It’s totally unacceptable.”
The issue at the centre of this week’s crisis is the historic Oromo claim to Addis Ababa, which many ethnic nationalists refer to as Finfinne, the name given to the territory before Emperor Menelik II founded the capital in the late 19th century.
The catalyst for protests that swept Abiy to power was the unveiling in 2015 of a master plan for Addis Ababa’s expansion into Oromia.
Hachalu’s resting place has been contested with some arguing he should be buried in Addis Ababa, rather than his native Ambo to the west.
“He needed to be buried with respect inside Addis Ababa. Finfinne belongs to the Oromo people,” Firaol said.
Government officials and some of Hachalu’s relatives, however, wanted him buried in Ambo, leading to an unseemly tussle over his corpse.
According to an account provided by federal police commissioner Endeshaw Tassew, a group of Oromo nationalists, among them prominent opposition politician Jawar Mohammed, intercepted the body en route to Ambo on Tuesday and tried to take it back to Addis Ababa, where they clashed with security forces.
One police officer was killed and Jawar was arrested, further inflaming tensions in Oromia.
Two days later, the funeral in Ambo turned deadly when soldiers opened fire on crowds of mourners in a botched attempt at crowd control.
At least nine people were shot, two of them fatally, triggering fresh grief for Hachalu’s fans.
“Even when many people go out to mourn his death, we lost more lives,” said student Chala Tola.
‘Eyes of the Oromo’
Hachalu is now buried, but the divisions his killing has exposed will shape Ethiopian politics in the months to come.
Jawar remains jailed, alongside another prominent Oromo politician, Bekele Gerba. Officials have provided scant information about the charges against the two men who are due to appear in court this month.
And, as Hachalu made clear in one of his final interviews, Oromo nationalists’ grievances are deeper than recent events. Last month the singer called for the removal of a statue of Emperor Menelik II from the capital’s Piasa neighbourhood.
While Menelik is widely respected as the creator of modern-day Ethiopia, for Oromo nationalists he embodies a system of marginalisation.
During the recent protests, a crowd advanced on the statue, seemingly intent on toppling it to make Hachalu’s wish a reality, but security forces pushed them back. City police officers have been stationed around the statue since.
For Firaol, back in Legetafo, that Hachalu is dead and the statue stands says everything he needs to know about the government’s priorities.
“While they should have been protecting this guy, they have been protecting the statue,” he said. “For me Hachalu was not one person. He was the eyes of the Oromo people, and now they have blinded us.”
• Hundessa’s Murder caused protest in Ethiopia, 166 killed – 167 injured and over 1,000 arrested, 5 murder suspect nabbed •
Police confirm at least 166 deaths in violent protests over killing of popular Oromo singer Haacaaluu Hundeessa.
At least 166 people have died during violent demonstrations that roiled Ethiopia in the days following the murder of popular singer Haacaaluu Hundeessa, police said.
“In the aftermath of Hachalu’s death, 145 civilians and 11 security forces have lost their lives in the unrest in the region,” said Girma Gelam, deputy police commissioner of Oromia region, in a statement on the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate on Saturday.
Another 10 people are known to have died in the capital, Addis Ababa.
Girma said a further 167 had “sustained serious injuries” and that 1,084 people had been arrested.
Pop star Haacaaluu, a member of the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest, was shot dead by unknown attackers in Addis Ababa on Monday night, heightening ethnic tensions and threatening the country’s democratic transition.
Five people have been arrested in connection with his killing.
Officials have repeatedly suggested the Oromo Liberation Front, a rebel group, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, an opposition party, were implicated.
Officials have attributed the deaths to a combination of lethal force by security officers and inter-ethnic violence.
Girma added that the violent unrest had now “completely stopped”.
Last week, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Haacaaluu’s killing and the subsequent violence represented “coordinated attempts” to destabilise the country.
Three high-profile opposition leaders – including former media mogul Jawar Mohammed – have been arrested in connection with the unrest, though officials have provided few details about the cases against them.
Haacaaluu, 36, the Oromo-language singer and song writer was buried on Thursday under heavy police and military presence in his hometown of Ambo, about 100km (62 miles) west of Addis Ababa.
He is survived by his wife and two children.
Haacaaluu’s music gave voice to Oromos’ widespread sense of economic and political marginalisation during years of anti-government protests that swept Abiy to power in 2018.