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How the murder of musician Hachalu Hundessa incited violence in Ethiopia

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Written by Endalkachew Chala
Global Voice

Part I

Speculation began to fly amid long-standing ethnic and political tensions

Editor’s note: This analysis on Hachalu Hundessa, a popular Oromo musician whose murder incited ethnoreligious violence fueled by disinformation online. 

Iconic Ethiopian singer Hachalu Hundessa gained prominence for using his creative talent to raise the consciousness of the Oromo people. He was assassinated in the suburb of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, on June 29.

That night, at 9:30 pm, as Hachalu was exiting his vehicle, a man named Tilahun Yami allegedly walked up to his car and fired a gun into the artist’s chest. He was rushed to the nearest hospital, where he was officially declared dead. It was later determined that the bullet severely damaged his internal organs.

Addis Ababa’s police chief reported two suspects were arrested. After a few days,  government authorities charged an alleged assassin along with two other accomplices.

In the wake of his murder, the country has struggled to come to terms with the violence that followed. The truth of Hachalu’s assassination is not yet fully clear, and in its aftermath, speculation began to fly as politicians and activists stoked long-standing tensions between Oromo and Amahara elites, two of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups.

That day, mourners flooded the streets of Addis Ababa and cities and towns across Oromia state. The next morning, Oromia Media Network (OMN), a satellite TV station on which Hachalu had his last contentious interview, provided online and TV coverage as his casket was transferred from Addis Ababa to Hachalu’s hometown, Ambo.

The slow, televised journey turned into a deadly battle between government authorities and opposition politicians over where Hachalu would be buried, and OMN interrupted its coverage as the hearse was forced to return to Addis Ababa. At least ten people were killed and several were injured in Addis Ababa.

The scuffle led to the arrest of several opposition politicians including Jawar Mohammed, an OMN figurehead, and opposition politician Bekele Gerba, who were both charged with instigating the mayhem.

Confusion swirled after government authorities eventually took Halachu’s body back to Ambo by helicopter, where feuding parties continued to clash, denying the bereaved family members a proper burial.

Meanwhile, turmoil and violence ensued. A three-day rampage gripped parts of Oromia and Addis Ababa, at a substantial cost: 239 people were left dead; hundreds of others were injured and more than 7,000 people were arrested for violence and property damage worth millions of Ethiopian birr.

On June 30, the government began a three-week internet shutdown to attempt to halt calls for violence circulating on social media.

A number of people were shot and killed by government security forces, but several news outlets including Voice of America and Addis Standard reported that angry mobs from the Oromo ethnic group attacked multiethnic, interfaith towns and cities in southeastern Oromia, targeting non-Oromo, non-Muslim families in the region.

Most of the violence fell along ethnic Amahara-Oromo lines, but religion may have played a more central role due to an intricate, localized understanding of ethnicity: The southeast Oromo community’s ethnic identity markers usually combine the religion of Islam and the Afan-Oromo language. A local farmer reportedly said “we thought Hachalu was Oromo” after he watched Hachalu’s televised funeral rites that followed the traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

According to reports, most victims of the most gruesome violence were minority Christian Amharas, Christian Oromos and Gurage people. Eyewitnesses say mobs destroyed and burned property, committed lynching and beheadings and dismembered victims.

A fateful interview

When news of Hachalu’s assassination first hit, Oromo diaspora media outlets zeroed in on Hachalu’s fateful interview with OMN host Guyo Wariyo, that aired the week before Halachu was killed.

During the interview, Guyo repeatedly asked Hachalu provocative questions about his alleged sympathy for the ruling party, interrupting him multiple times to challenge his answers.

Hachalu fiercely denied any sympathies with the ruling party, but also decried the deeply discordant and fractionalized Oromo political parties, demonstrating his staunch independence as a thinker and musician — a quality that made him a target for online abuse until the day of his murder.

At one point, however, Guyo asked Hachalu about the historical injustices allegedly committed against the Oromo people by Menelik II, Ethiopia’s 19th-century emperor who shaped modern Ethiopia.

Hachalu shocked some listeners when he answered that the horse seen immortalized in Menelik’s equestrian statue in Addis Ababa belongs to an Oromo farmer called Sida Debelle, and that Menelik robbed that horse.

This exchange attracted applause — and criticism — from commentators on Facebook and Twitter.

When Hachalu was killed one week later, many members of the Oromo diaspora community immediately speculated that Hachalu’s criticism of the Menelik II statue infuriated sympathizers of imperial Ethiopia, which may have led to his murder.

On social media, Oromo netizens focused obsessively on Hachalu’s Menelik-related remarks, which led many down a winding path to an insidious disinformation campaign. The rest of the interview contains other loaded issues of divisions and contradictions within the Oromo community.

Throughout the interview, Guyo grilled Hachalu about the country’s ongoing political reforms, stoking anti-government sentiment with questions about Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, himself an Oromo, and whether or not the government had met the demands of the Oromo people after the prime minister came to power in 2018.

Hachalu reiterated his non-involvement in the rabid partisanship of Oromo politics but he did criticize those who question Abiy’s Oromo identity.

He defended his position against top Oromo opposition leaders who sought an alliance with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a once-dominant party with historic ties to the now-defunct Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (the EPRDF). The TPLF turned into an opposition party after Abiy dismantled the EPRDF.

Hachalu also addressed the political violence in the Oromia region, blaming both government authorities and the militant, splinter right-wing Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) militia group (informally known as OLF-Shane).

Following Hachalu’s murder, the government was able to acquire and release the full 71-minute interview to the public. The missing tape included Hachalu’s accounts of death threats he received from parts of western Oromia, where the radical OLF-Shane militia is active. Hachalu said he believed he would not have been attacked on social media if he had praised OLF-Shane.

He addressed a direct conflict he had with Getachew Assefa, Ethiopia’s security and intelligence chief during the TPLF period.

Guyo, who promoted this interview on Facebook as “must-see TV” in the days before its broadcast, has since been arrested and the government is investigating the full 71-minutes of interview tape for further clues that may help determine the facts regarding Hachalu’s murder.


 Part II

Editor’s note: This is a two-part analysis on Hachalu Hundessa, a popular Oromo musician whose murder incited ethnoreligious motivated violence fueled by disinformation online. Read Part I Part I here.  

Within an hour of musician Hachalu Hundessa’s assassination on June 29 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopians netizens hit social media with scattershot conspiracy theories, hate speech & disinformation campaigns — particularly on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Most of these conspiracy theories tap into the country’s divisive historical issues with incendiary words that pitted Amhara and the Oromo communities against each other. Hachalu was an Oromo who wrote critical songs and spoke openly of fractured politics in Ethiopia.

Stories began to circulate that Hachalu’s murder was orchestrated by government authorities — and by some accounts, by Prime Minister Abiy Ahemd himself, seen by many diaspora-based Oromo activists as a stooge of the Amhara people. The term neftegna or “riflemen,” is often hurled as a dog-whistle reference to Amhara people, Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group after the Oromo.

Among these theories, one of the more popular claims holds that Hachalu’s disparaging remarks about Menelik’s II statue made during an interview with Oromia Media Network (OMN) a week before his killing incensed the “neftegna” and led them to assassinate him. (The statue has been a focus of tensions between the political elites of Amhara and Oromo).

Since Hachalu’s assassination, OMN has run several segments on YouTube and Facebook, with page viewership numbers ranging from 10,000 to over 200,000, that lay out different versions of this theory — that the Amhara were somehow involved in Hachalu’s murder.

Proponents of this theory seem to cherry-pick lines from the consequential OMN interview to find the nuggets that fit their desired spin.

These speculative claims moved swiftly to far-reaching satellite TV channels. Several “talking heads” based in the diaspora then repeated the same unconfirmed claims — particularly on two major opposition media outlets: OMN and Tigray Media House (TMH).

It was given further prominence when several top politicians—including Ilhan Omar a US Representative for Minnesota’s 5th congressional district, home to the largest percentage of the Oromo diaspora community in the United States — possibly unwittingly retweeted a New York Times story about Hachalu’s killing with an insinuating quote:

At the same time, false and misleading claims bubbled up in a debate over where Hachalu should be buried. Some diaspora-based Oromo activists asserted that government authorities pressured Hachalu’s family to hold his funeral in Ambo, his hometown. Others accused authorities of rushing the funeral in Addis Ababa, to hide criminal evidence. These claims further inflamed ethnic tensions. Hachalu’s family and close friends tried to dispel these claims by notifying the public that it was their decision, in fact, to bury their son in Ambo.

After the violence and destruction of properties targeted non-Oromo, non-Muslim families in parts of Oromia, many netizens viewed it as the inevitable result of specific speculations and innuendos about the ethnic identity of Hachalu’s killers — spread mainly via Facebook and OMN.

OMN, already under fire for cutting out essential details from Hachalu’s fateful interview, then broadcasted an open call for genocide against Amhara people, immediately following Hachalu’s murder:

Meanwhile, members of the Oromo diaspora community continued to emphasize the violence committed by government forces perceived as dominated by the Amhara elite.

Other netizens say that local authorities in Ethiopia are complicit in the organization of vigilante groups — activists and political groups — who are actively stoking ethnic and religious resentment on- and offline.

Putting together the political puzzle

While massive speculation continues to churn on social media, government authorities have issued one theory regarding Hachalu’s murder that that appears to be supported with some evidence.

Authorities are now pursuing a theory that the murder was carried out by two opposition groups with different motives but who may share a belief that Hachalu should be assassinated. The first group is Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the second group is OLF-Shane.

The TPLF (once part of the now-defunct Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) controlled Ethiopia’s security and intelligence services for 27 years before they were ousted from power in April 2018. Hachalu was an outspoken opponent of the TPLF regime and spent most of his life fighting against them.

In 2017, in a nationally televised concert, aimed mainly at helping members of the Oromo community who were displaced from the Somali region, he courageously and explicitly criticized the TPLF.

Politically speaking, the TPLF associates Abiy with imperial Ethiopia, alleging that Abiy conspires to bring back its relics to the government. They benefit from the assertion that recent violence is the fault of Abiy’s government, who failed to provide national security.

Abiy’s administration, in turn, denies such allegations and puts the blame on the TPLF, whom they accuse of wanting to wreak chaos and push for regime change in Ethiopia.

OLF-Shane is a splinter paramilitary organization of OLF that uses violent tactics to advance its political aim to establish an independent Oromia. The group has reportedly run shadowy death squads who call themselves Abbaa Torbee, – an Afan-Oromo phrase meaning, “Whose turn is this week?”

Abbaa Torbee has an active presence on Facebook. There are hundreds of user account profiles and roughly 28 pages and numerous groups devoted to this violent extremist group. Nearly all pages and user accounts were created over the last two years, as various factions of OLF were welcomed back to Ethiopia from exile and attracted tens of thousands of followers on Facebook.

In the months leading up to Hachalu’s assassination, Abbaa Torbee members intimidated, beat up, and, in some cases, killed sympathizers of the ruling Prosperity Party, both civilians and foreigners. They think these groups unfairly exploit Oromo peoples’ resources

These killings barely registered in Ethiopian media, let alone internationally.

Abbaa Torbee seemed to hold some inside knowledge about the chaos that followed Hachalu’s murder. Most notably, on one of their most popular pages, they warned that they will start “cleansing Addis Ababa” a day before Hachalu was murdered.

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A screenshot of one of Abbaa Torbees Facebook post. Screenshot was taken on August 5, 2020.

Turmoil indeed transpired in Addis Ababa and ethnic and religious minorities faced violence in parts of Oromia. The same page posted a close-up picture of Hachalu’s corpse within hours of his assassination, accusing government authorities of killing him.

Also, several Abbaa Torbe Facebook pages have called for Oromo protesters to march to Addis Ababa and haul down the statue of Menelik II

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A screenshot of Abbaa Torbee’s Facebook post. Screenshot taken on August 5 2020.

To close observers of Ethiopian disinformation campaigns, this all sounds wildly familiar. Think back to the summer of 2019, when intra-ethnic rivalries among the Amhara elites ended with the assassinations of top government officials in the Amhara region. Facebook accounts associated with Amhara nationalists spread rumors that said the assassinations were part of a plot created by Oromo elites to wipe out the leadership of the Amhara people.

Similarly, disinformation campaigns about the tragic murder of Hachalu reflect a bitter divide within Oromo elites.

On the one hand, there are those who attributed Hachalu’s assassination to Amharas, rooted in the interpretation of the modern Ethiopian state as an Amhara settler-colonial project — and Hachalu’s murder is the continuation of that project.

On the other hand, there are those who believe Oromos played an integral role in building the modern Ethiopian state and Hachalu’s assassins want to shore up their dwindling political fortune by killing an Oromo icon — and pursue their political project of separatism.