A killing, chaos, and a crackdown
(Ethiopian Insight) — A fusillade of gunfire erupted about 6.30 in the morning of 30 June at the Bole Arabssa Condominium and the adjoining Ayat and Chefe areas of Addis Ababa. The cacophony spread throughout the morning, frightening local residents. But the fearsome racket wasn’t what they might have thought. Instead it was a ritual common in rural Oromo communities to mourn the passing of a great soul.
The night before, the iconic musician Hachalu Hundessa Bonsa, who had become a leading voice of the Oromo protest movement since 2015, had been assassinated. The shooting occurred at the Gelan Condominium, a compound in Addis Ababa’s Akaki Sub-City.
News of Hachalu’s death spread quickly on social media. The next morning’s eruption of violence produced scenes of devastation in parts of the city.
“It was heartbreaking news for all of us,” said one Ayat resident who works as a tour operator. “There was a bad atmosphere throughout the night, which is a sign that the city will be violent the next day,”
The morning after the killing, large stones were strewn across many streets in the capital, blocking traffic. Young men were burning tyres and shouting from behind the columns of smoke in the Bole Arabssa and Ayat neighborhoods. Within hours, the four main routes into Addis from the Oromia region were crowded with young Oromo representing the ‘Qeerroo’, an informal structure that acts as a protector of traditional Oromo culture and society.
As Ethiopia Insight witnessed, hundreds of the ‘Qeerroos’, along with Hachalu’s fans, gathered at several points to wait for his body to be released from Saint Paul Hospital. Many were expressing grief over his death.
But not all went back to honor Hachalu’s body on its way to his hometown of Ambo, which has been the epicenter of the recent Oromo protests. By midday, Qeerroos groups fanned out over the capital, throwing stones and setting fires to buildings, smashing car windows, as well as damaging road and light railway poles. Ethiopia Insight counted at least 78 cars vandalized just in the Gelan Condominium and surrounding neighborhood.
There were several reports of confrontations between police and young men who came to mourn Hachalu’s loss. Sometime around noon, Ethiopia Insight was an eyewitness to the fatal shooting of a young teenage girl who was among a chanting crowd outside a candle factory in the Tor Hailoch area. The origin of the gunfire was not clear, however, as it came in the midst of a clash between security forces and demonstrators.
Federal Police commissioner Endeshaw Tassew held a briefing during the day to confirm there had been bomb explosions in three neighborhoods of the capital.
Rumor has it
Clashes flared again on day two after the assassination. The city was awash with rumors. Residents were apprehensive about what was to come. One widely spread rumor was that the Qeerroo were planning to tear down the Emperor Menelik II monument at Piazza. Residents approached by Ethiopia Insight said they were prepared to defend themselves should a mob approach, as had happened the previous day. A group of Oromo youth began moving along the main roads. Their march, while mostly peaceful, was marred by occasional violence.
Simultaneously, young people living in the city were organizing to protect themselves and the surrounding community. A report on Sheger FM 102.1 radio told of Federal Police and military in the Sidist Kilo area dispersing crowds of youth along the main roads. Some locals sought refuge in nearby shops and others fled to homes in the neighborhood. Security forces were said to be firing shots to clear the streets.
Ethiopia Insight witnessed similar incidents at the Gofa Mebrat Hail Condominium in Addis. Hundreds of youths from various backgrounds gathered, almost all armed with sticks, to defend the area. “No one will protect us if something happens,” a cab driver who was helping to direct the crowds told Ethiopia Insight. “When we come together, we are more than the police.”
That night, 1 July, there was a mood of apprehension. There were again wild rumors about the Qeerroo burning churches and coming en masse. Around 7:45pm a graduating medical student speaking by phone to Ethiopia Insight said, “The Qeerroo are going to burn the Kidane Mihret Orthodox Church. My friend and her parents are calling me in fear as they are living nearby,” (A check by Ethiopia Insight confirmed that the church was safe and neighborhood youth were taking measures to protect it.)
But there was reason for worry. Addis Ababa Police Commissioner Getu Argaw announced on 1 July that 250 private and government vehicles had been damaged by rioters, and 20 vehicles destroyed by fire.
The following day, 2 July, things began to settle back to normal. Still, very few people ventured out on the streets and transportation was rare. On Friday, 3 July , new rumors caught the ears of the residents, warning them “not to drink water as it is polluted”. This was subsequently debunked by the city’s water and sewerage authorities, who performed laboratory checks at some of its water points and declared the water safe.
After a week of unrest and tensions, official figures showed at least 10 people dead in Addis Ababa and several others, including 57 federal and local police officers, injured. Among the dead were two police officers killed in the line of duty. However, a police charge that was read 16 July at a pre-trial court session for some suspects in the killings listed the total death toll at 14.
An ethnic play
As tensions rose in the city, police quickly arrested several political figures. Members of the investigation team, including the Attorney General and the Federal Police Commission, alleged that the events in Addis Ababa had been used by interested parties as a pretext to incite ethnic clashes. At a meeting with city officials, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said these forces were trying to ignite “a city war”. Across the city, nearly 167 million birr worth of property was damaged.
Among the first to be arrested, on 1 July, was Eskinder Nega, the journalist-turned-politician who heads a party he has styled ‘Balderas for a True Democracy’ which has a fairly wide appeal among his Addis Ababa political base. The party’s second-in-command, Sintayehu Chekol, was arrested the following day. By 6 July, six suspects had been taken into custody. At the 16 July hearing at the Federal High Court in Lideta, Eskinder was accused of fomenting ethnic tensions that led to 14 deaths. He countered by saying he had been assaulted, a claim the court pledged to investigate.
The charges against Eskinder not only include responsibility for the 14 deaths, but also for property damage of the birr equivalent of $1.5 million and for providing money to 10 youth groups alleged to have been deployed to incite conflict in five sub-cities around the capital. Eskinder and the other Balderas leaders strongly denied the charges.
The Oromia president Shimelis Abdissa used a televised address on the regional state broadcaster to accuse the ‘Balderas’ of collaborating with the groups behind Hachalu’s assassination and the ensuing violence in Addis Ababa.
Attorney General Adanech Abebe’s report, issued 6 July, says the investigation team found evidence of the involvement of Eskinder and Balderas. Adanech alleged that a group led by Eskinder had incited the violence to exacerbate ethnic tensions in the capital. She noted his party’s involvement in simmering ethnic unrest in the recent past. She said that after Hachalu’s death, the Balderas group had portrayed the Qeerroo as coming against the residents. As evidence, Adanech pointed out that Balderas had been telling Addis residents, “The Qeerroo are coming to attack you. Defend yourself,”
In his newspaper, Ethiopis, Eskinder has often written about what he calls “extremist Qeerroo”, using rhetoric that critics say escalates tensions between the Oromo and Amhara. He has recently picked up support from Amhara nationalists, and toured the region this year.
Incidentally, the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) is also suspected of involvement in inciting ethnic violence in the city, according to the Addis Ababa Police Commission. NaMA is a relatively new political party with a large base in Amhara, including ethno-nationalists.
Hachalu’s murder in Addis Ababa was followed by days of violence in Oromia. It fueled anger as the singer was special to the people of the region. After the murder, the anger led to violence, including ethnic attacks. According to the police, 178 people were killed and the total number of arrested reached 7, 126, including those suspected of killing Hachalu.
The worst violence was at Arsi Negele, Derra, and Qerssa areas, with at least 25 people dead in five districts of these areas in Arsi Zone. In West Arsi, Shashemene, Ziway, and other nearby towns saw killings and attacks. The police recorded three deaths in Shashemene. Four banks, nine grinding mill shops, 14 motorcycles, 20 shops of various services, 21 buildings, 78 hotels – including one owned by legendary athlete Haile Gebreselassie, whose hotel was also attacked in Ziway – and 196 homes were damaged around the town. Dozens of live animals were also robbed.
Until July, 24,553 suspects had been arrested in Shashemene following the chaotic week. In ten weredas (districts) of West Arsi including Shashemene, the number of arrested was 1523. The Bale Zone was also another area of the Oromia region that saw multiple killings. According to police, four people were killed.
According to the national disaster and risk management commission, 7,800 people were displaced from the violence, mainly from Oromia.
Hachalu Hundessa’s murder was followed by a series of high-profile arrest, including Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba, two of the most influential public faces in Oromia. The Addis Ababa studio of the Oromia Media Network (OMN), founded by Jawar, was also forced off the air.
Lidetu Ayalew, a renowned political figure for over two decades, was also arrested in Addis Ababa on July 24. However, Lidetu was charged by the Oromia police, which filed a case that he funded and organized protests in Bishoftu (Debre Zeit), nearly 42 kilometers away from the capital, in the two days following Hachalu’s death. He is now being tried at a Bishoftu district court. His party, the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDU) said his arrest was concerning and their member is highly at risk of contracting COVID-19.
The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) is among the major political forces in the country, which says its members have been arrested and their whereabouts unknown. The party said its members including Shigut Geleta, an advisor to Chairman Daud Ibsa, were arrested. The party’s Office Head, Gedda Oljira, was also arrested for three days and later released. Mikael Boran, an OLF Executive Committee member, is also among those arrested this July who has faced repeated arrests this year. Kenesa Ayyanaa, the party’s central committee member, is also in the list of detainees.
Since the last week of July, OLF Chairman Daud Ibsa was reportedly under house arrest for nearly two weeks. In his absence, the party held a meeting, leading to rumors of his removal and replacement by Arraso Bikilaa, the deputy chair, who was in the 26 July meeting between Abiy and opposition parties. Arrarso said it was not true.
Daud, who was later released, told the BBC in August that he was not told about the meeting. The government claimed his arrest was “for his own security,” Daud said. The OLF has sent the Office of the Attorney General and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission a list of 103 OLF officers and members arrested. It also asked the Red Cross to check the whereabouts of its members.
As a party relatively close to the ruling Prosperity Party, Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (Ezema) members have not escaped arrests. Hirut Kifle, an executive committee member, is now on trial. Police charged her with organizing and supporting youths as protests developed from Amist Kilo and Ginfle area to Kebena in Addis.
Another political figure popular among Amhara, Yilkal Getnet, has also been arrested in the case. His group, the Ethiopian National Movement, has not met electoral board requirements to register as a party. But until his arrest he had been in a group featuring prominent political figures like Lidetu, Abironet (Unity), which is asking for their release.