The music of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular Ethiopian musical artist and activist, gave voice to the grievances of many Oromos during the years of protest against their political and economic marginalization. The Oromos are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, making up about 34.5% of the nation’s population. The Oromo protest movement led to the downfall of Ethiopia’s authoritarian government and the appointment of Abiy Ahmed, the country’s first Oromo prime minister. Hundessa’s songs represented their struggle for equality and justice, making him an icon to more than 37 million Oromos across the country. Therefore, when he was assassinated, thousands of protestors assembled across the region. Unfortunately, the protests did not stay peaceful.
Following Hundessa’s death on June 29, 2020, an organized group of Oromo people reportedly killed and burned down the property of many ethnic minorities, namely Amharas and Gurages, as well as Christian Oromos. An ethnic Amhara from Legatafo named Lake Amanu is from a town in Oromia near the nation’s capital of Addis Ababa. He told the Guardian how him, his driver, and a police officer were chased by an Oromo gang with non-firearm weapons and how “they chase you if you don’t speak their language.” Many different people across the region can recount similar experiences.
Some residents who were victims to the violent actions of the Oromo demonstrators formed defense groups, which in some cases attacked Oromo residents and their property. In an effort to restore peace and order, Ethiopian troops were deployed and the internet in the region was shut off for more than a week. “In the aftermath of Hachalu’s death, 145 civilians and 11 security forces [had] lost their lives in the unrest in the region,” Oromia Deputy Police Commissioner Girma Gelam said in a statement to the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate. That number hit 239 by July 10th and over 2000 people were arrested including prominent Oromo activist, Jawar Mohammed.
Oromos have faced their share of marginalization from the central government in the past, but currently, ethnic minorities in the region are being targeted by Oromo extremists. Minority Rights Group International (MRG) condemned the recent targeting of ethnic minorities, saying it showed “disturbing hallmark signs of ethnic cleansing.” The most prominent sign was that the attacks were premeditated. Attackers went door to door with a list of people and households to target, checking identification cards for ethnicity. People who were not Oromo were then attacked or had their property damaged.
Furthermore, government officials turned a blind eye. Most of the time when ethnic minorities called law enforcement for help, the government was unwilling to send security forces in time. Moreover, in some cases when victims tried to defend themselves, Oromia region special forces attacked them. In addition to the targeting of ethnic minorities in the region, violence-inciting messages and hate speech filled social media and media outlets including a TV station formerly run by Mohammed. The ethnic cleansing and unrest in the region points to grievances from their history of being oppressed and their hatred of ethnic Amharas stemming from it.
Nonetheless, all of this is currently happening in the context of a democratic transition of power that opposition groups say Prime Minister Ahmed is stalling. The end of the Ethiopian Parliament’s constitutional five year term is on October 5th. Without the election that was postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19, the country could be left without a legitimate government. The deputy police commissioner, Girma Gelam, claimed the violent unrest following Hundessa’s death has “completely stopped.” However, his death was only a spark to hostile ethnic tensions that already existed and will continue to exist until Ahmed and his government intervene.
When appointed as prime minister, Ahmed promised democracy and the improvement of the lives of the politically and economically excluded Oromos. As soon as he got into office, he made drastic changes to do so. Ahmed even received the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for achieving “peace and international cooperation,” and more specifically, solving the border dispute with neighboring country Eritrea.
Ahmed’s changes included welcoming back home once exiled groups, releasing political prisoners, and guaranteeing more freedoms for previously marginalized groups. Although his steps toward an open political space were necessary for democracy, political discourse often led to violence. So when the person whose music represented their struggle for these newly gained rights was assassinated, Oromo extremists were able to easily riot and kill people and the government did very little about it.