Riots in Ethiopia: Songs of Wrath

After the death of the singer Hachalu Hundessa, deadly riots occur again in Ethiopia. Is Nobel laureate Abiy Ahmed’s state reshuffle in danger of failing?

An analysis by Fritz Schaap, Cape Town

Songs of wrath
Protest in Ethiopia: The death of Hachalu Hundessa sparks mass protests Evan Frost/ AP

Germany (SPIEGEL) — Since last Tuesday, there have been deadly riots in Ethiopia over the murder of singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa. The 34-year-old, whose protest songs have accompanied the Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group, during their protests for years, was shot dead in a suburb of Addis Ababaon Monday. The motive for the crime is still unclear, but the assassination is developing a force that poses major problems for the government.

Hundreds of people gathered outside the hospital in Addis Ababa, where Hundessa, the singer of their songs of anger, died. Protests erupted. Since then, the country has not come to rest. At least 81 people have died so far, and in the capital Addis Ababa, shots continue to reverberate through the streets, and the army has been sent to the city.

This week’s scenes seem sadly familiar. Ethnic conflicts continue to flare up in Ethiopia. In October 2019, a few weeks after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, 86 people died in unrest in Oromia.

Ethnic conflicts are a threat to the nation state of Ethiopia

The region has been neglected politically and economically for decades. It is a long history of marginalization, which began under Emperor Menelik II.

He ruled from 1889 to 1913 and in a few years conquered the peoples of southern Ethiopia, the emirate of Harar, the Sultanate of The Afar, the kingdoms of the Kaffa and Oromo. The unity of the multi-ethnic empire with more than 80 ethnic groups was threatened from the beginning by ethnic centrifugal forces, by riots, uprisings, secessionist efforts.

FILE PHOTO: Ethiopia’s new prime minister Abiy Ahmed attends a rally during his visit to Ambo in the Oromiya region, Ethiopia April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri/File Photo

When Abiy Ahmed came to power in April 2018, the Oromo were allowed to hope for the first time. For now one of theirs was at the head of the state. But ethnically driven politics is alien to the new prime minister. The Oromo continued to feel disadvantaged, and their disappointment soon emanated into violent protests. It all started well:

  • After taking office, Abiy released tens of thousands of political prisoners,
  • and ended the seemingly eternal conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
  • It has again allowed banned political parties to be
  • apologizes for human rights violations,
  • repressive laws repealed,
  • started to open up the economy,
  • Exiles invited to return
  • and women in government leadership positions.

There have been voices who have said that since Mikhail Gorbachev implemented his perestroika in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s, no country has initiated such radical reforms.

Abiy also promised the Ethiopians to decentralize the state and strengthen federalism. This could now be a disaster for him. Most of the ten semi-autonomous Ethiopian administrative regions are ethnically defined.

The fact that the regions have now been given more rights reinforces the separatist forces in the country. Abiy’s plan to strengthen federal structures without provoking a split along ethnic divides is a risky plan whose success now seems increasingly questionable. In 2018 alone, three million people fled their home regions, largely because of ethnic conflicts.

Abiy gives room for tensions

For the reforms of the head of state have given way to the long-suppressed tensions between the many ethnic groups of the country. Analysts now say the current riots could jeopardize the stability of Africa’s second-largest population. The country has already faced countless political, economic and social challenges.

A name keeps popping up these days. During the deadly protests in October last year, as well as today: Jawar Mohammed. Like Abiy, he is also an Omoro. Jawar, a politician and owner of a media company, supported Abiy in his election as Prime Minister.

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