OMN: An ‘alien’ star in Ethiopia’s skewed media universe is ‘cancelled’
Oromia Media Network was a rare non-Amharic voice in Ethiopia’s media landscape. That is why its bureau was shutdown.
(Ethiopian Insight) — Oromia Media Network (OMN) is an independent media enterprise established in the U.S. six and a half years ago. Its stated mission is producing original and citizen-driven news and stories on Oromia and Ethiopia. The network is financed and operated by an extensive network of grassroots movements and the wider diaspora.
Among its early successes, OMN successfully guided the peaceful struggle of Oromo youth–the Qeerroo—that propelled Abiy Ahmed to power in 2018. In a move that history may record as ironic, OMN became the victim of its own success, when Abiy’s “reformist” government cracked down on the media house following the assassination of Oromo artist and rights activist Hachalu Hundessa on 29 June.
Two days after Hachalu’s killing, security forces raided and effectively shut down the OMN operation in the capital, Finfinne, the indigenous Oromo name for Addis Ababa. The premises were illegally searched, staff members detained, the organisation’s bank accounts blocked, and computers and broadcast equipment seized.
After establishing itself in exile as a Pan-Oromo voice—bringing stories from Oromia to the world and vice versa for more than four years—OMN was warmly welcomed by millions when it returned home in August 2018, particularly at the official event organized at the Millennium Hall. The move created such an excitement within the international community that the 26th World Press Freedom Day celebration was held in Ethiopia in recognition of the country’s bold move in opening up the free media landscape.
OMN had to replicate its U.S. operation to get established as OMN-Finfinne in Ethiopia (henceforth referred to as OMN), but maintained a close working relationship with its mother company, the Minnesota-based OMN. The government swiftly offered support, particularly in cutting bureaucratic red tape during registration and licensing. OMN’s working relations with the country’s media watchdog organization, the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority (EBA), began well, but soon soured due to political interference, both from the Prime Minister’s Office and from other detractor groups within the media establishment that may have viewed it as a threat to their control of the dominant narrative.
Ethiopia’s tightly-controlled media machinery has historically been defined by its imperialist slant. The direction of flow of news stories and agendas has always followed the route of the imperial march—from north-to-south! That is to say, elitist media narratives have always been set in the perspectives and language of the Abyssinians, whose wilful indifference to issues of justice and equality for the peoples of the wider south continues to this day, adding more layers onto the edifices constructed within the Ethiopian state to preserve their dominant status.
Hence, OMN was an ‘alien’ star beaming a light onto a “black hole” within the stellar constellation of Ethiopia’s historically inequitable media universe. It therefore had to be snuffed out.
What’s more, just weeks before the crackdown on OMN, it was reported that there are 30+ television and 60+ radio stations operating in Ethiopia with legal licenses. Most are based in Oromia’s capital Finfinne, but only a few of them use languages other than Amharic. To be precise, only four, including the state-owned Oromia Broadcasting Network, broadcast in the Oromo language—Afaan Oromoo.
The regulator, EBA, allowed this to happen in the heart of Oromia—a decision that could reasonably be taken as an act of imposing cultural imperialism, if not an outright linguistic genocide against the indigenous Oromo people of the area. OMN was erased from this historically unjust media firmament simply because it stood out as an ‘alien —an ‘alien’ that would be unimaginable in any country that maintains even a shred of press freedom. But, alas, this is Ethiopia.
Just as Al Jazeera’s initial mission in 2006 was to counteract the global monopoly held by western news outlets over the media narrative—that flows from northern to southern hemisphere—OMN challenged the historical biases and linguistic domination that are the hallmarks of Ethiopia’s mostly state-run media, flowing in pretty much same geographic direction. By boldly bringing to the fore stories and perspectives from Ethiopia’s diverse south, OMN provided a welcome alternative to the ‘everything’s wonderful’ picture painted by establishment media. And by so doing, OMN not only shone a light on the long-stifled quests, stories and narratives of Ethiopia’s historically subjugated southern peoples, the Oromo included, it also shook the historically biased media cabal to its core.
In all, not a bad record of achievement during the brief time OMN was permitted to operate from within the country.
And here is where the probable cause for the recent assassination of the popular Oromo artist and rights activist Hachalu Hundessa comes in. In his interview on the OMN, Hachalu had spoken about the Oromo understanding of who Emperor Menelik II was. In this telling, Menelik II was a medieval-era-styled 19th century feudal ruler who founded the Ethiopian empire by waging some of Africa’s most brutal wars of conquest and subjugation against many of the indigenous peoples, including the Oromo, in what is today southern Ethiopia.
Historical accounts of the human cost of the conquest written by foreign observers, including the emperor’s own Russian advisor Alexander Bulatovich, told that Menelik II committed crimes of genocidal proportions on some of the linguistic and cultural groups, using modern weapons provided by his European and Russian “Christian friends” from 1880 to 1900.
For instance, Bulatovich, a devout admirer who accompanied Menelik II’s army battalions during these wars of colonial conquest, wrote in his 1900 book titled “Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes” — that the Gimira people were on the verge of total extinction due to the war; but were spared after “his majesty, the emperor” ordered his army commanders to stop killing the remaining Gimira as “they shall be hunted down and caught to be sold as slaves”. Bulatovich wrote that Menelik II’s war of conquest had exterminated about 80 percent of the Gimira and 50 percent of the Oromo populations by that time.
Another book by a foreign observer, the French Catholic missionary Martial De Salviac, who had travelled extensively across the Oromo country, appears to precisely corroborate Bulatovich’s account. De Salviac’s 1901 book, “The Oromo: An Ancient People: Great African Nation” reports that of the 10 million Oromo population he estimated at the time, five million were killed in Menelik II’s war of conquest. These two independent foreign sources suggest what in another time and place would be called a genocide against the Oromo by Menelik II’s invading army, which “reduced the Oromo population by half”, to use Alexander Bulatovich’s words.
These historical accounts resonate well with a compelling argument made by the Israeli historian Yuval Harari in his best-selling book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”. Harari argues that building and maintaining an empire often required the slaughter of large populations and the oppression of everyone who was left out. Harari notes that the standard toolkit in building an empire includes war, enslavement, deportation, and genocide.
“When the Romans invaded Scotland in 83 AD, they were met with fierce resistance from local Caledonian tribes, and reacted by laying waste to the country,” Harari writes. “In reply to the Roman peace offers, the chieftain Calgacus called the Romans ‘the ruffians of the world’, and said that ‘to plunder, slaughter and robbery, they give the lying name of empire, they make a desert and call it peace”. It is perhaps worth noting that, in a rare interview with a local radio station, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Harari’s book is among his favorites.
In his fateful interview with the OMN, Hachalu made a casual comment about the statue of Emperor Menelik II that stands in downtown Finfinne, suggesting that it is inevitable that the genocidal emperor’s statue would eventually be taken down in a city that is the capital of both Oromia federal state and Ethiopia’s federal government, as well as headquarters of the African Union. Hachalu’s comment came amidst of a globally heating up wave of protests that has witnessed statues of imperialist leaders and slave traders being torn down.
Historians like Harold G. Marcus regard Menelik II as the “greatest slave entrepreneur” of his time, who expropriated 10 percent of all his captives from southern Ethiopia into slavery. In line with this, in a paper he published on the journal of African Economic History, Charles W. McClellan wrote that “while some of the slaves were deployed in the imperial gibbi (Menelik II’s palace), many others were exported to slave markets in Egypt, Arabia and east Africa, providing an important source of income for the government of emperor Menelik II”.
Hachalu’s offhand comment infuriated the falsely named “Ethiopianist” establishment, which exercises near absolute control over Ethiopia’s historical narrative. The establishment portrays Menelik II as a benevolent king, if not saint, who founded the “holy country” called Ethiopia, through “holy wars” of conquest. To dare to mention the feudal emperor’s genocidal deeds and suggest that his statue should be removed from Oromia’s capital is tantamount to trying to destroy their “emiye Ethiopia”. Measured by this yardstick, Hachalu’s comment was treasonous.
It should be underscored here that this viscerally violent and pre-political “Ethiopianist” group was resurrected and essentially emboldened not just by Abiy’s nostalgic imperialist rhetoric about the “great Ethiopia” of the past, which never existed anyway, but also by some of the practical measures he took in his “palace renovation project” that were offensive to many southern peoples.
A day after Hachalu’s comment was broadcast, social media erupted with calls for his immediate murder—also see some of the comments written under OMN Facebook and YouTube pages in the days after the interview’s online publication. Two days later, PM Abiy appeared to indirectly criticize Hachalu, saying “only historians, not ordinary folks [like Hachalu] should make comments on the history of Ethiopia”. This statement, at a totally unrelated event to inaugurate a new bakery, can even be viewed as incitement against Hachalu.
About a month after Hachalu was assassinated, a group of young men in the capital came out in ecstasy to the street celebrating the killing of artist Hachalu, jubilantly chanting “Hachalu is dead, Jawar will be next”. On the same day, however, another youth group in the streets of the city spared Jawar from death via their rather lenient slogan “Jawar rots in jail”. In that fateful interview he had with OMN, Hachalu also told to the journalist that he has long been enduring death threats and other forms of intimidations including physical attacks from such “proud Ethiopians” every time he drives in the city.
Prime Minister Abiy’s attitude toward Hachalu’s dissent had previously been documented. In a book titled “The Hijacked Revolution” written by an anonymous author (pen name: Mudhin Siraj) and published about a year before Hachalu’s assassination—on page 109 of the book, the author recounts how Hachalu was summoned to the prime minister’s office for a ten-minute lecture. It was not a dialogue, but a stern ‘executive order’ in which Abiy told Hachalu in no uncertain terms that:
“…the Oromo political struggle is over. The country is now being led by an Oromo Prime Minister and, therefore, you shouldn’t dare to produce any music work which opposes my government. If you obey this strict order, we can fulfil all your material needs. But if you defy, I will not tolerate you even for a single day. Whether you like it or not, I [Abiy Ahmed] will remain leader of this country for at least the next ten years”.
As I am writing this piece, it has come to my attention that Abiy’s government has concocted a ridiculously amateurish video suggesting there is some link between Hachalu’s cold-blooded murder and two powerful Oromo opposition political groups (Oromo Federalist Congress [OFC] and Oromo Liberation Front [OLF]) and an independent, influential Oromo media house (OMN). This amateurishly doctored drama draws a fictitious triangle that purports to connect these three Oromo organizations that Abiy’s government considers its sworn opponents. The people in Oromia/Ethiopia should reject this laughable disinformation ploy; and I believe they have.
Since the day the OMN headquarters in the capital was shut down, all state-owned media and those affiliated with the ruling party have been waging a sustained propaganda campaign against the OMN. Their reason? OMN did a LIVE broadcast as Hachalu’s fans and supporters turned out in their thousands to accompany his body in the early morning hours of 30 June. But certainly, given the artist’s massive influence in Oromia and the entire country, it must have been odd for any Ethiopian media to ignore the story and come out criticizing what OMN did on that day. But alas, this is Ethiopia.
Plus, we see these days the government propaganda machines and affiliated detractors accusing OMN of conspiring with the propagandists’ own former master and ideological soulmate, the TPLF. The irony here is that some of these propaganda outlets like Fana Broadcasting Corporate, Walta Media and Communication Corporate are themselves the creations of the TPLF. Anyone who knows anything about OMN knows it would never have anything to do with the TPLF, or any other political party for that matter. The propagandists can choke on their words.
Furthermore, we have received credible information from within Prosperity Party circles over the last two years, that Amhara elements of the party have repeatedly demanded that the government should crackdown on the OMN and other popular Oromo entities like the OLF and OFC. And indeed, we knew this could perhaps come one day. It has long been a sticking point in internal political conversations between the Amhara and Oromo elements within the Prosperity Party, and we were anticipating the crackdown coming, especially if the balance of power tilts towards the former.
It should therefore be clearly stated here that the government’s move to shut down OMN’s headquarters in Finfinne and launch attacks against the OLF and OFC leadership is a political decision that has nothing to do with “upholding the rule of law”, as the state’s propaganda machine wants us to believe.
It is also worth noting that while the OMN and towering Oromo artists and activists like Hachalu have been sacrificing so much to save the Ethiopian empire from itself, Abiy and his “Ethiopianist” cabal are unyielding in pursuit of their counter-productive project of saving their “emiye Ethiopia” from the Oromo and the “other” peoples of the wider south. Will they be successful? The jury is still out.
OMN was established as an activist entity aiming to offer extensive coverage of Oromo news and stories suppressed or ignored by state-run outlets and other interest groups in Ethiopia’s media industry. By so doing, it has developed a reputation for grassroots activism, aspiring to help mobilize Oromos in their quest for democracy, justice and equality in Ethiopia.
When I took over as Executive Director in December 2019, part of my plan was to steer OMN’s structural evolution toward more professionalism and independence. In pursuit of those goals, we devised a series of steps aimed at re-designing the organizational structure and capacity building.
The first order of business was to de-couple the organization from the shadows of my predecessor, the influential former executive director Jawar Mohammed, who had chosen to enter party politics. At that time, a commission established by the prior leadership had developed a valuable five-year strategic plan that laid out the 3Ps of OMN—passion, performance and professionalism. To broaden the audience base, the network had engaged with rights activists and intellectuals from the south, so much so that any casual visitor at office could feel OMN was a home for the perspectives of Ethiopia’s diverse nations and nationalities. And therefore, it wasn’t difficult to see the increasing influence that OMN commanded within Ethiopia’s media community, even while operating in a hostile environment marked by intimidation from the government and other interest groups.
In a multi-ethnic country like Ethiopia where over 75 distinct languages are spoken, the successful containment and control of the deadly COVID-19 virus requires a multidisciplinary approach and using as many languages as possible to communicate vital health information to the various linguistic and cultural groups. OMN’s multi-linguistic strategy in the pandemic public information campaign was widely applauded. Our unique track record of accomplishment is on display for anyone to see and judge.
One key point should be highlighted here: It is a matter of public record that no other media house, public or private, managed to regularly bring together, on a single table, teams of high-profile experts from a multitude of health science fields. Among them were epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, medical anthropologists, virologists, pharmaceutical/medical supply system specialists, pharmaco-economists, health systems managers, community health workers, pharma/health technologists, preventive medicine specialists and others to inform and educate the public about the collective effort required to effectively fight the spread of the coronavirus. OMN also employed 18 Ethiopian languages, including sign language, in disseminating WHO’s vital health information as part of its fight against COVID-19. Certainly, no media in the country has been as multilingual and multidisciplinary as this in educating the public about the danger we face.
The big question
Indulging in a scholarly debate on the pitfalls of the barbaric political project called empire was not the objective of this piece. But this moment presents a unique opportunity. As Harari wrote in his aforementioned book, empires throughout history have crushed threats and rebellions with an iron fist; and when its day comes, a frustrated and sinking empire has always used all its might to save itself, usually collapsing into chaos and carnage. But as Harari argues, history has taken a different course since the collapse of the European empires—particularly since 1945 when the British Empire started falling apart as its colonies across the globe were liberated one by one — most of them without violence.
The current Ethiopian state has a blood-stained history down to its imperial roots. Its first constitution, written in 1931, boldly described it as an “Empire State”. Its territories and subjects were all “possessions of the emperor”. Ever since, Ethiopians across the board have waged bitter struggles — both political and military — to break the yoke of imperial oppression and transform the empire into a republic of and by the people. During all these times, Ethiopia has sustained the shocks of two major revolutions (1974 and 1991) and also a ‘peaceful internal political coup’ spurred on by powerful protests by Oromo Qeerroo that ultimately propelled Abiy to power in March 2018.
Now the question is, in light of Ethiopia’s past, and the failure of Abiy’s much anticipated “reformist” government to address the chronic contradictions of the historically imperialist Ethiopian state, will the forces struggling to keep Abiy in the the palace step aside peacefully in keeping with the precedent set by other post-1945 collapsing empires? Or, will the country descend into chaos and anarchy, as was the rule during the pre-1945 period?