Murder of Ethiopian singer catalyses violence and simmering ethnic, political tensions

The shocking shooting of the singer Hachalu Hundessa in Addis Ababa early last week has since sparked widespread violence across the country’s Oromia region. Addis Ababa police have revealed a number of suspects have been detained on suspicion of murdering Hundessa, a singer known for making political commentaries through his music.

And in Oromia, the birthplace of Hundessa, the incident has inflamed deeper ethnic and political tensions. Peaceful protests morphed into demonstrations and ethnic violence leaving 239 people killed according to the latest police reports. These deaths have been attributed to a combination of extreme violence by security forces and interethnic clashes. Although police offers and militia members have been killed, civilians make up an overwhelming 215 of the recorded deaths so far. Police have arrested over 3,500 suspects and are arguing that the agitation is being manipulated by groups to destabilise the current political system. Mustafa Kedir, the Oromia police commissioner, said that on state television there were “anti-peace elements who carried out attacks using the artist’s deth as a pretext to dismantle the constitutional system by force… The Oromo population should be inclusive of other ethnic groups that live amongst it.”

In choosing one side of a partisan divide Kedir has arguably fuelled further division, and the Oromo have have long resented what they perceive as historically entrenched governmental repression towards their people, and a political establishment that seeks to restrict their influence. Hundessa’s murder came a week after he had appeared on the Oromia Media network where he was critical of Ethiopia’s ruling government and highlighted the mass incarceration of young Oromo people.

This fractious narrative has also been reflected in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s response. Although he condemned Hundessa’s killing as an “evil act” he has also analysed the subsequent violence as “coordinated attempts” to destabilise the country. Since winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring Ethiopia’s long-lasting conflict with next door Eritrea to a close, critics have accused Abiy of diverting towards a more authoritarian style of rule. Indeed, the government’s reaction to the protests and violence of the last week has included targeted arrests of high-profile opposition politicians. Five leading members of the Oromo Liberation Front have been taken in by police, including Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba. With that said, Eskiner Nega has also been arrested, an outspoken political figure known to argue against governmental policies he perceives as biased towards the Oromo.

It is therefore important to avoid drawing hasty conclusions when assessing the underlying political motivations of the Ethiopian government’s repression of recent protests. Rather, it is their blind faith in a heavy-handed response fuelled by a “law and order” style mantra that must be critiqued. Their response has failed to show sensitivity to the explosive issue of political rights for ethnic groups within Ethiopia, and has instead simply poured more oil onto an already burning fire. Instead, the government must condemn the killing of Hundessa entirely, with no ifs and no buts. They should then focus on building trust between the political elites in Addis Ababa and the verse ethnic groups that make up their country, not just the Oromo. This will only be achieved by creating peaceful forums for dialogue, both within local communities and across a national stage. The government must place its emphasis on healing the country’s entrenched divisions, rather than assuming that a protest equals instantly amounts to some form of political coup.