Despite his relentless efforts to effect democratic change in Ethiopia (which was one of two reasons he won a Nobel Peace Prize last year), Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is facing divisions in the country that are more complex than his ability to settle them.
This couldn’t be more apparent than following the murder of prominent Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa in late June. Riots flared in Ethiopia, resulting in the death of 239 people, according to an Ethiopian official police report published by the BBC 8 July.
Less than two days later, Ethiopian Attorney-General Adanech Abebe announced in a televised statement the arrest of the main suspect, Tilahun Yami, and one of two of his accomplices, Abdi Alemayehou. The third suspect, Kepdi Gemtshu, remains at large.
Abebe added that the defendants admitted that the opposition Oromo Liberation Front ordered them to kill Hundessa, providing no further details. Until now, the reason the Oromo singer was killed remains unknown.
The Oromo Liberation Front is an armed movement that focuses its activities against the government. It is centred in the western areas of the Oromo region.
The Oromo people have been suffering cultural, economic and political marginalisation for over a century, or since modern Ethiopia was established in the late 19th century, as emperor Haile Selassie forbade the Oromo from practising their language and religious and cultural rituals and traditions.The Oromo group is the country’s largest, comprising 34 per cent of the population, whereas successive rulers of Ethiopia came from the Amhara, who make up no more than 27 per cent of the population, which explains the discrimination the Oromos experienced through long decades, in addition to the fact that the Ethiopian capital falls within Oromo lands.
Ahmed is the first Oromo to reach the helm in Ethiopia. However, the first Ethiopian to win a Nobel Prize was met by opposition from his own people.
A number of Oromo leaders were apprehended, prime among whom is Jawar Mohamed, a controversial figurehead who is regarded by Ahmed’s supporters as a populist while the country’s opponents believe Mohamed is a national hero who doesn’t accept compromise.
Mohamed may be a threat to the throne of Ahmed, according to a BBC report published last week. Many observers believe Mohamed is no more than a secessionist, having said “I am an Oromo, first and foremost… Ethiopia was imposed upon us.”
This sentence was repeated during chants by Oromo protesters in Paris who regarded Ethiopia as a threat to the Oromo.
As fierce as Mohamed’s opposition was, so was Ahmed’s response. The prime minister told parliament in reference to Mohamed, “Those media owners who don’t have Ethiopian passports are playing both ways. When there is peace you are playing here, and when we are in trouble you are not here. We tried to be patient. But if this is going to undermine the peace and existence of Ethiopia... We will take measures. You can’t play both ways.”
Hundessa was an opponent of Ahmed. The majority of the songs he wrote or sang was in the Oromo language, despite the fact that the Amhara language is the most widespread and the official language of Ethiopia.
Nonetheless, Hundessa’s political songs that call for freedom attracted fans from different ethnicities.
In a celebration held by the Ethiopian Ministry of Culture in honour of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, who was on his first visit to Ethiopia since the two countries buried their border war, Hundessa sang about the necessity of bringing justice to those who lost their lives in the east of the country during clashes between the Oromo and Somali groups.
Ethiopian officials criticised Hundessa at the time because his songs were “not appropriate”. It seems such songs were the reason he received death threats until a short time before his murder. Hundessa never revealed the source of the death threats.
What is worrying, however, is that the prime minister, on the day of Hundessa’s murder, said “external and domestic forces” were behind the singer’s death. He added his government foiled a plan to fuel civil war in the country.
“This is an act committed and inspired by domestic and foreign enemies in order to destabilise our peace and to stop us from achieving things that we started,” Africa News reported Ahmed as saying.
As with every incident of the sort, the Ethiopian authorities arrested a large number of protesters and cut off the Internet. This was the third time the government shut down the Internet nationwide since Ahmed became prime minister in April 2018. The two previous incidents were the military coup in Amhara region in 2019 and the deadly fights between the Oromos and Somalis in August 2018.
It looks like the ethnic breakdown Ethiopia is undergoing is a difficult wound for Ahmed to heal in two years, or even a decade.
This is what pushed Ahmed to put off from elections previously slated to held next month.
The succession of events in Ethiopia revealed that any general elections to be held in the country will fail, while ethnic conflicts (in a country with more than 80 ethnicities) threaten to break the back of the entire country.
Ethiopia is suffering a million displaced people as a result of national and ethnic fractures. In addition, locust swarms are looming.
Besides ethnic divisions, the Oromos are seeing major cracks in their walls, rendering Ahmed without a supporting majority and weakening his popularity even further.
However, without holding elections the authorities can maintain the unity of the country and thus the stability of the Horn of Africa.
Bloomberg reported that the Eritrean minister of information said Saturday that peace with Ethiopia didn’t rise to Asmara’s expectations. The minister was reported as saying that two years after signing the peace agreement, Ethiopian forces were still on Eritrea’s sovereign lands.
He added that trade and economic relations were not resumed to a satisfactory extent.
The peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea ended a stalemate following a border war that lasted from 1998 to 2000, in which 100,000 people were killed.
Following the peace deal, the UN lifted sanctions imposed on Eritrea for decades.
Ahmed’s mission in Ethiopia is very difficult, but it is not impossible. As much as there are demands that exceed the capacity of the Ethiopian government, there are forces that fear the disintegration of the country that could bring Ethiopia back to the dire conditions witnessed under Selassie.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly