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Death of Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa deepens divisions in Ethiopia

Ethiopian musician Hachalu Hundessa is buried in Ambo, Ethiopia, July 2, 2020, in this still image from a video.
Ethiopian musician Hachalu Hundessa is buried in Ambo, Ethiopia, July 2, 2020, in this still image from a video. via REUTERS - HANDOUT

Hundreds of mourners have flocked to Ethiopia’s Ambo town for the funeral of the Oromo protest singer Hachalu Hundessa. His killing this week sparked deadly protests and has reignited ethnic and religious tensions that risk threatening the democratic transition of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

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The funeral ceremony took place on Thursday in Hachalu's hometown Ambo, west of the capital Addis Ababa, and was broadcast live on the Oromia Broadcasting Network.

Well-wishers laid wreaths at the stadium, some in tears, others defiant, like Hachalu’s widow Santu Demisew Diro, who insisted her husband’s memory would live on forever.

"Hachalu is not dead. He will remain in my heart and the hearts of millions of Oromo people forever," she was quoted by Reuters as saying. "I request a monument erected in his memory in Addis where his blood was spilt."

The popular singer was shot dead in the capital Addis Ababa on Monday by unknown gunmen, in what police say was a targeted killing.

His assassination sparked protests in the capital and surrounding Oromia region, which has left more than 80 people dead so far.

Tight security

The tense atmosphere saw a heavy military presence at Hachalu’s funeral, and many Ambo residents reported being turned away by police.

For those who made it to Ambo stadium, it was an opportunity to say goodbye to a man considered a national hero.

"He was a true freedom fighter," Belay Aqenaw, the funeral's organiser, said in a speech. "He was a singer who raised our spirits," AFP reported.

For nearly two decades, Hachalu’s songs provided the soundtrack to the Oromo people’s aspirations for greater rights and was the melody of the protest movement that swept Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power in 2018.

Though Abiy is the country's first Oromo leader, many nationalists from his ethnic group say he has failed to address their sense of widespread economic and political marginalisation.

As Hachalu’s funeral took place, multiple blasts were reported in the capital Addis Ababa, killing at least eight people.

There were fears the death toll could climb further amid reports that armed gangs in the capital were targeting ethnic Oromos.

At least seven people were shot dead in Ambo on Tuesday by security forces trying to break up the protests, sparking outcry against the deadly use of force by police.

Abiy political survival

The turmoil sparked by Hachalu's death has left the Prime Minister Abiy fighting for his political survival, experts say.

"I think it will be very difficult if he survives," comments Mehari Maru, a scholar on peace and security at the European University Institute.

"If he does, he will be the prime minister of Addis Ababa only. The country is a de facto confederation now," he tells RFI.

For almost 30 years, Ethiopia has been governed as a collection of ethnic regions dominated by a single group at the head of a highly centralised state. Abiy has promised to reform that system, but Oromos are protesting today because they feel he has not done enough to improve their interests since coming to power.

That perception could cost the prime minister.

"He's going to be increasingly limited to Addis Ababa," continues Maru. "His main constituency, the Oromia region is now gone."

Security problem

Maru reckons the prime minister made a mistake in postponing this year's parliamentary elections, which deprived him of the opportunity to assert his legitimacy.

"First he said there was a lack of preparation and then it was because of the impact of Covid-19. But many countries in the same situation have still conducted elections," he commented.

It is however the circumstances of Hachalu's death, which still remain unclear, that could cost Abiy dearly, Maru says.

"The lack of protection that led to Machalu's assassination shows there is a security problem and this reflects a political problem," he reckons.

The singer's death is the latest in a string of assassinations in the Horn of Africa nation that almost witnessed a coup last year when the country's chief of staff was shot dead by his own bodyguard.

"You cannot deal with security problems if you don't address the root cause and the root cause remains a political crisis."

Machalu's death has laid that bare. The singer and activist will be remembered as a martyr of the Oromo people, says Maru, and perhaps a harbinger of Abiy's downfall. 

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