Murdering A Speaker Of Truth Is Possible, But Not The Truth

Source: Oromo Commentary

Murdering A Speaker Of Truth Is Possible, But Not The Truth

By Mekuria Bulcha

The journalist Jaida Grey Eagle[1] wrote on 17 July 2020 that “Young protesters who call themselves qeerroo, spoke out about what they wanted from the government in Addis Ababa and what they learned from George Floyd” in St Paul, Minnesota, when she spoke to student Najat Hamza at an Oromo demonstration in Minneapolis. The demonstration was conducted to protest the assassination of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa (Hachalu Hundeessa), an Oromo artist whose songs had been voice of the Oromo protest movement. Casting the assassination of the young artist in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) context, she said “We protested for George Floyd because we understand what pain is. It’s because it resonated with us, and we know what prosecution looks like.” Joining Najat, Aisha Oromia Ali, a registered nurse of Spring Lake Park, Minnesota, adds, “I had a chance to participate in the George Floyd protests. The BLM movement is a movement close to me and many that look like me.”[2]  The two Oromo women were expressing the pain they were feeling because of Haacaaluu’s assassination in Finfinnee (Addis Ababa) two and half weeks earlier on June 29, 2020.

Indeed, as sociologist Asafa Jalata[3] has pointed out in several publications, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Oromo life under Abyssinian subjugation had many similarities with the lives of African Americans. Therefore, like black artists in the US and South Africa, Oromo artists and individuals have also reacted to the Habesha rule in EthiopiaFor instance, Dr. Ali Birraa, the father of modern Oromo music described Haacaaluu as an Oromo Malcom X. His music is as fiery as Malcolm X’s fiery speeches which had played a great role mobilizing the civil rights movement in the late 1960s.  A Sidama blogger Wolassa Lawisso[4] called him the Steve Biko of Oromo resistance. His lyrical music is as effective as Biko’s anti-apartheid rhetoric was in raising the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa in the early 1970s. Indeed, Haacaaluu was the greatest among the Oromo artists who led the Oromo youth movement called Qeerroo against the so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan (AAMP) which, if implemented, would have evicted hundreds of thousands of Oromo households. Like Malcolm X and Biko, Haacaaluu spoke truth to power and paid with his life for it. Witty, honest, fearless, friendly, and immensely intelligent, his character was that of Biko and Malcolm X.

As aptly stated by Shawn M. Mollenhauer, in Oromo tradition music functions as a system for the preservation as well as an instrument of resistance against domination. Mollenhauer adds “Oromos use music to remember past histories, bolster a sense of community among Oromo speaking groups, and fuel anti-colonial nationalism directed, not at a European invader, but also black African ones” [5](emphasis mine). Haacaaluu put the Oromo tradition to best use in his musical art. He used Oromo history as a leitmotif to compose and perform his music which “remembers” and interpret the injustices which were perpetrated against his people. With lyrics that reflect the vibrancy and beauty of the Oromo language and culture, he depicted Oromo experience under consecutive Abyssinian rulers in the past, and bolstered their resistance to land grab, eviction, and terror which the Tigrayan elites were exercising in Oromia since they came to power in 1991.

Mollenhauer notes that Oromo music was used by the TPLF-led regime “to present a face of multiculturalism.” [5b] Yet while the regime selectively preserved Oromo culture, it continued to imprison, intimidate, and implement the disappearance of Oromo musicians for making certain kinds of music. Haacaaluu was among Oromo musicians who were harassed and persecuted by the TPLF regime. First, he was imprisoned at the age of 17 in 2004 suspected of supporting the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and was kept in prison for five years. He stepped out of jail in 2009, determined to struggle for justice for his people. He told journalists that he was interested in music from childhood, but did not know how to write a song, or compose a melody until he was put behind bars by the TPLF regime in 2004.  He started to write lyrics and compose songs in prison.

He released his first album Sanyii Mootii (Kin of the King) two years after leaving prison.  Many of its lyrics were selected from Oromo folklore, and were rewritten and sang with a melody, which, not only touches Oromo feelings, but also reinforces their thirst for freedom.[5] Haacaaluu said, “Music is my life. It got me friends and foes. But it remains a tool that I use to speak for my people.”  Indeed, he spoke to his people through his music; he defended their rights with it without fear.

As noted by Mollenhauer, “violent censorship of Oromo music” [5c] by Ethiopian regimes has been a core feature of both the artistic process and daily life of Oromo artists.” Oromo artists were persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, killed, or disappeared by the Dergue regime. On its part, the TPLF regime was at war with them from the beginning of its rule. It had imprisoned and tortured scores of artists and murdered many of them.  

Haacaaluu’s music came to the attention of the TPLF regime soon after the production of his first album and state security agents were after him wherever he went. Although they were watching every move he was making and would assassinate him any time, Haacaaluu continued with his music and political activism with unrestrained resolve.  He said the TPLF tried to silence him, offering him money, land, and car if he stopped his criticism of their administration and supported their politics. But he refused to be bought. The regime used its power to stop him. Administrators and operators of state-owned TV and radio stations were instructed not to broadcast his songs. Owners of buildings for entertainment facilities were ordered not to rent concert halls to him. Thus, his sources of income were curtailed, but that did not force him to abandon his call.

Invited by the Oromo in diaspora, Haacaaluu had the chance to tour North America, Europe, and Australia in 2013, and was received as a hero everywhere.  He appeared on stage and sang his famous songs in many cities. While on tour in the US and Canada, he produced his second album Waa’ee Keenya (Our Plight) which became immediately the best-selling African album on Amazon which became immediately the best-selling African album on Amazon.  The album contained a mixture of traditional Oromo songs and new lyrics which were written by and became distinctively Haacaaluu’s sounds.

Haacaaluu was advised to stay in the diaspora and avoid the threat from the TPLF regime. Many Oromo artists who were released from Ethiopian prisons during the last two decades went into exile leaving behind their families, and in many cases, their careers in lieu of safety and to avoid re-imprisonment which had happened to many artists and political activists who remained in the country. But Haacaaluu did not choose secure life outside his homeland.

In general, the music of Oromo artists who belong to the qubee [6] generation has been that of defiance against terror and powerlessness. Equipped with it, hundreds of young artists have been in the frontline of the struggle in Finfinnee, defiantly articulating the firm resolve of the Oromo youth who told the TPLF regime, “We are outraged!” “We will fight back!” Their music stirred the feelings of the entire Oromo nation and mobilized them to join the protests which were organized and led by both qeerroo and qarree, the Oromo youth both male and female.

Haacaaluu was not only a singer, but also a song writer and poet. His lyrics differed both in melody and rhythm from the work of other musicians.  He adapted traditional lyrics to new melodies and sang them with a soft soothing voice. At the same time, the deep historical contents of the traditional Oromo songs he had adapted made his contribution different from others. His lyrics created awareness and mobilized the Oromo masses to resist the anti-Oromo policies of the TPLF regime, particularly its so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan (AAMP).  Maalan Jira (“What life is mine, or Do I exist?”) which was released in 2015 is such a melody.

In Maalan Jira, Haacaaluu recollects the predicaments which the indigenous Oromo inhabitants had faced following Menelik’s conquest of Finfinnee in the late 19th century. Commemorating metaphorically its different clans and their heroes, the song narrates the pre-conquest history of Finfinnee. It recounts the eviction of the indigenous Oromo households by the conquerors and recollects the pattern of the settlement of the three Oromo communities of Gulallee, Abichu, and Galaan before the mid-1880s. Although it is performed as a love song, Maalan Jira expresses allegorically the loss and suffering which members of these communities had felt because of their eviction and dispersal from Finfinnee.

One can take Maalan Jira as a musical interpretation of a story which was composed and narrated in a dozen concise verses titled “No More Standing on Entotto looking at the meadows below” by an anonymous Oromo poet at the turn of the 20th century (see my article on Finfinnee in this this number of OC). The anonymous poet felt pain as he reminisced the Gullallee Gadaa assembly, which was banned, the huge herds of livestock which were looted, and the idyllic Oromo communities which were destroyed when the conquerors arrived, and freedom was lost. Everything that one used to see on the plains of Finfinnee looking down from the Entotto, everything that was delightful and pleased the eyes had gone. Every section in the short poem ended with the verb hafee which means ‘has gone’ or ‘is no more or it’s over’.  The anonymous poet narrated about Finfinnee which is no more.

Unlike the anonymous poet who deplored about a life that existed in the past and was destroyed by conquerors, gone, and forgotten, in Maalan Jira, Haacaaluu interlaces the past and present, and narrates about an ongoing episode. While reminiscing the dispossession experienced by Oromo inhabitants of Finfinnee in the past, he was bitterly narrating about the TPLF regime’s policy which had already evicted tens of thousands of Oromo households and threatening the eviction of millions of Oromos from the districts adjacent to the capital to implement the AAMP.

As a leitmotif to his artistic portrayal of Finfinnee’s history, Haacaaluu recreated a live scene of the pre-conquest life in its rural villages where villagers were seen flocking to a thriving rural marketplace, livestock in kraals, as well as young girls and boys dancing in a group with piles of sheafs of teff, barley, and wheat harvests piled in the background reflecting wealth and welfare. Maalan Jira expresses that idyllic life in the district of finfinnee before the oromo were evicted from it. Produced while massive demonstrations were thronging the city and town-streets across Oromia to stop the AAMP, the song articulates the misfortune that had befallen the Oromo people poetically and the longstanding misery that is threatening to aggravate if the mega project which will carve out 1.1 million hectares of Oromo land in the name of modernization is implemented.  Although produced to sound like a love song, it was loaded with political messages that had galvanized the massive demonstrations which had thronged the city and town-streets across Oromia to stop the AAMP. The eviction of the Tuulama Oromo from central Oromia was felt as an attack on Oromummaa which is figuratively alluded to in the verse as a mountain, or a fortress of the Oromo nation.

Diiganii gaara sanaa,                                 They have dismantled the mountain
Gaara diigamuu hin-mallee,                      a mountain that should not be dismantled.
Nu baasaan addaan baanee,                    They have divided us.
nuu addaan bayuu hin-mallee.                 We should have not been divided.

Notwithstanding its allegorical vocabulary, the story which Maalan Jira narrates was understood by Oromo listeners and viewers. The plan to evict millions of Oromos for urbanization and modernization was seen, not only as localized loss of homes and property by those who were directly affected, but the Oromo youth and brave artists like Haacaaluu who mobilized the Oromo people to rise in unison and stop the impending threat to their existence as a people. The AAMP was seen as the de-Oromization of central Tuulama, which in the final analysis would mean tearing apart and balkanizing Oromia. Correctly understood as such and shared intersubjectively by Oromos everywhere, Maalan jira galvanized and unified Oromia-wide protests for more than three years. Expressions such as “Finfinnee handhura Oromooti! Finfinneen biyya keenya, eessa deemna (Finfinnee is our umbilical cord, Finfinnee belongs to us, where are we supposed to go)!” became leading slogans and were carried by anti-AAMP demonstrators across Oromia and in the diaspora. As I have stated elsewhere, the struggle over Finfinnee united the entire Oromo nation.[7]

It is not an exaggeration to say that, inspired by the music produced by brave artists such as Haacaaluu, the Oromo were mobilized, conducted massive demonstrations from 2014 to 2018 and had stopped a threat to their existence as a nation. In doing that they paid enormous prices: tens of thousands of men and women were jailed and tortured; thousands were forced to “disappear”, and thousands had incurred life-long physical injuries and psychological trauma. Over 5,000 Oromo youth laid down their lives while resisting heavily armed TPLF security forces with bare hands, and indomitable will.

In October 2017, Haacaaluu released Jirra (“We have survived”), one of his finest lyrical melodies, heralding the end of the vicious policy of Oromo eviction from Finfinnee orchestrated by the TPLF and the beginning of the end of the EPRDF regime and the government of Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn, a puppet of the TPLF leaders. In the song Haacaaluu recounts the victory which was scored all over Oromia and had halted the eviction of Oromos from their land in mass, and de-Oromization of central Oromia as projected by the AAMP.

Produced a year after the mass-massacre of over 700 Irreecha celebrants on October 2, 2016, Jirra attested the resilience of Oromo culture under Abyssinian ruling elites in more than a century, the futility of the vicious domination imposed on them, and inevitability of their victory. In that sense, Jirra has a touch and resonance that resemble Maya Angelou’s well-known poem “Still I Rise.” In the phrase “Still I Rise’, Angelou underlines repeatedly the African Americans’ determination to resist white racism. She expresses the inevitable black victory over it in the following lines.

You may write me down in history.
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I will rise.  ……
Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise.
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain,
I rise.

Thus, Maya ridicules white racism as she celebrates black resilience. So does Haacaaluu in his lyrics. He dismisses figuratively the violence of the TPLF-led EPRDF regime against the Oromo people in the following verses and heralds the victory of the heroic resistance led by the Oromo youth against it.

.Ha’rren ba’aa diddeeti,                      The donkey has refused to carry the load
taate harre-diidaa                               becoming a ‘donkey in the wildness’ (a zebra)
Qambarri sadii cabseeti,                   having broken three yokes
qotiyyoon gafarsaa                           the ox has become a buffalo
Hammenyi ulee mataas,                  also baton violence against heads
injiraan ajeesa                                  kills only head lice.

In short, when produced Haacaaluu’s Jirra lyrics, had not only heralded the end of the TPLF-dominated regime but also galvanized the Oromo march towards victory. In fact, Jirra has gradually become a concept that expresses, not only the survival of the Oromo as a people, but also the hope for and determination to achieve national independence through struggle.

The End Of TPLF Dominance

In 2018, the Oromo protests drove the EPRDF regime into disarray and forced its Tigrayan leaders to flee from Finfinnee to Mekelle. Ironically, the end of TPLF’s physical violence did not result in sustained peace in Oromia.  The Amharic-speaking political activists’ latent discursive violence which ridiculed the Oromo and was tacitly complementing the TPLF’s physical violence for the implementation of the AAMP, which they had hoped would Amharize central Oromia, increased in intensity after the demise of TPLF regime in 2018. With Dr. Abiy Ahmed as the Prime Minister who speaks with unreserved pride about Ethiopia’s past achievements and venerates the deeds of its Abyssinian emperors, the hope of many Amharic-speaking political activists about the rebirth of pre-1974 Ethiopia was strengthened. Their demand for the revocation of the Ethiopian Constitution and the revival of policies and practices from the Amhara dominated imperial past also became some of the contentious issues in Ethiopian politics.

  Menelik’s Controversial Statue  

In 2020, Menelik’s statue in Finfinnee became an additional issue that caused hostile disagreement between Oromo and Amhara political activists.  The debate over the statue was stirred by the global event which was instigated by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in the United States. This event had changed public views about memorials and statues of imperialist oppressors, slave-traffickers, and slave masters’ epitomic symbols of injustice. Leaving them standing in the public space offended the sensibilities of citizens, particularly of groups who were victims of the persons the statutes commemorated.

Inspired by the global trend, the Oromo also started to sign an online petition which demanded the removal of Menelik’s statue in FinfinneeHowever, the reaction to their call was the opposite of what BLM activists had received elsewhere. A commentary transmitted on 14 June 2020 by The Zehabesha News[8] suggested that it is not the statue of its founder but the Oromo themselves who should be removed from Finfinnee and the Ethiopian soil.  Amhara activists who listened to the commentary gave more importance to preserving the statue rather than cultivating fraternity with the Oromo. Consequently, they responded with barges of derogatory statements which attacked Oromo humanity.

In fact, it can be concluded that even blacks in South Africa had not been targeted under the Apartheid rule with such nasty verbal violence like that with which the Oromo have been assaulted in the Amharic-speaking social media. Following the controversy over Menelik’s statue, the Oromo have been told in Amhara social media to go back to the land of their origin in East Africa, or “Madagascar”. The provocative story about Oromo origin from Madagascar was concocted by the Abyssinian Orthodox clergyman called Aleqa Taye right after Menelik’s conquest and circulated uncritically by historiographers and became the basis for an argument to alienate the Oromo from their own homeland. The suggestion has its parallels in the Apartheid discourse which posited that the African peoples of Southern Africa were not indigenous to the region, but descendants of the Bantu who had migrated out of Eastern Nigeria about a thousand years before. They, thus, had no more—and, of course, in practice, less entitlement to land than the European settlers. Chasing the Oromo out of Ethiopia is an absurd suggestion of some of the Amharic-speaking nationalists as the solution to the statue question. However, the Amhara elites think they can treat the Oromo like the Falasha who were forced to migrate to Israel after centuries of discrimination and humiliation in Abyssinia.

The commentators’ absurdity does not stop with the above. According to the derogatory commentary broadcasted by The Zehabesha News, Menelik was called “the Abraham Lincoln of Ethiopia” whose name should not be counted among slave owners, and slave traders. Donald Levine wrote that “The Amhara is skillful at deception. With straight face and convincing manner, he will relate the most preposterous fictions.”[9] The comparison of Menelik II with Abraham Lincoln is such a fiction. Abraham Lincoln fought a civil war to abolish slavery.  Menelik waged war, conquered free people, enslaved, and sold hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to Arab slave traders. As I will explain below, his expansionist wars exacerbated domestic slavery and increased the slave trade.

It is important to note here that it is not the first time that the Oromo are demanding the removal of Menelik’s statue from Finfinnee. In April 1992, a demonstration was staged by Oromo residents of Finfinnee asking for its demolition. As a commentator expressed, “looking at the statue of Menelik II standing in the heart of Oromia brings painful memories to most Oromos.”[10] To them, the statue symbolized a system which, as noted by Waugh, “is not meant to protect the conquered peoples, but to hold them in subjugation.”[11] However, for the Amhara, particularly the elites, it symbolizes their history and national pride. Therefore, they staged a counterdemonstration, and as J. Perlez of the New York Times reported from Finfinnee, “spruced up the emperor’s statue with silver paint in defiance of southerners who wanted it torn down, the authorities stood by.”[12] The Oromo people were unable to continue with their demand to remove the statue. Their leaders were forced to quit the Transitional Government of Ethiopia in June 1992. The controversy over the statue remained unresolved and was raised once again in June 2020.

 Haacaaluu’s Views About Menelik And His Statue

The murder of George Floyd which had changed people’s attitude about historical statues in the world, did not affect the attitude of Amharic-speaking elites. It was while an intensive debate was in progress over Menelik’s statue in social media that, on June 22, 2020, the Oromia Media Network (OMN) conducted an interview with Haacaaluu. One of the many questions which the OMN journalist, Guyyo Waario asked Haacaaluu was to explain a line in his song Maalan Jira which referred to a horse and a person called Siida Dabalee. Specifically, the line which Haacaaluu was asked to explain goes:

 Farda Siidaan kaatani     Riding on Siidaa’s horse
Siidaa Dabalee Suurii      Sidaa Dabalee Suurii
Erga nu daangessani        since they divided us,
Bari turee bubbule           remember, it was long ago.

Haacaaluu said that, according to local history, the horse in sculpture of the statue on which Menelik sits was robbed from an Oromo called Siida Dabalee, from the Galaan Oromo in the district of Finfinnee.[13] Siida was a famous warrior whose horse was the best of its kind in his district. According to local social history of the Galaan Oromo which Haacaaluu had cited, Siida loved his horse as a friend and fed it well with barley, washed and groomed it regularly. When the information about Siida and his horse reached Menelik, he sent an order to Siida to come and participate in a gugs (horse-race competition), on the celebration of St. George’s day in Finfinnee. Siida obeyed the order and participated in the competition.  Having watched the race, Menelik ordered his guards to take the horse and send Siida home. His words to Siida were, “such a fine steed should not belong to Galla (pejorative word for Oromo), but a king.” Siida went home sad and broken.

 Haacaaluu, who grew up riding horses and had learnt about the feeling an Oromo, particularly a traditional warrior, had for his horse, sympathized with Siida and told the journalist that Menelik was a cruel man who does not deserve a commemoration with monument in Oromia. In his eyes, Menelik’s statue symbolized, not glory which the Amhara associate with it, but atrocity and brazen robbery.

In the OMN inteview, Haacaaluu was talking, not only about a single horse robbed from a single farmer, but also referring to atrocities which were committed by Menelik and his forces against the Oromo at Anoolee in Arsi in 1886, Calanqoo in Hararge in 1887 and other places in Oromia. Contrasting the situation with what was going on in the United States in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, he was hinting at the lack of understanding which was reflected in the opposition to the Oromo demand for the removal of Menelik’s statue from public space in Finfinnee.

Minilik
The controversial statue of Emperor Menelik II in Addis Ababa/Finfinnee. In Haacaaluu’s eyes it represented atrocity and brazen robbery.
The Oromo demanded the removal of the statue from Finfinnee first in April 1992. They made their second demand in June 2020.

Siida Dabalee and his horse symbolized the Oromo who were deprived and Oromo resources which were confiscated or looted during the conquest of Oromoland, respectively. Therefore, expressing his views about the statue figuratively, Haacaaluu said that “the Oromo must get back their horse,” meaning they will restore their rights over their resources. Hinting at the ongoing destruction of statues in the United States, he stressed that if not today, the Oromo will pull down the statue tomorrow.

 Vicious Reactions – Making A Volatile Situation Worse

Haacaaluu’s statement about the controversial statue infuriated beyond description the Amharic-speaking audience who heard the OMN interview.[14] They considered his criticism of Menelik II, not only treasonous but also sacrilegious as well. Haacaaluu could have overstated Menelik’s lack of horsemanship, but the rest of his story was based on accepted historical knowledge and evidence. Refusing to acknowledge the truth is a trick used by Amhara literati and political elites when claiming rights which they do not have or will deprive others their rights. Consequently, they have kept on denying adamantly the looting of properties which Menelik and his forces had carried out and the crime against humanity which they had committed against the Oromo and other indigenous peoples of the south. The grievances are, according to the Amhara elites, stories fabricated by enemies of the Ethiopian state.

Insult is a well-known trick used by Abyssinians to belittle and silence their adversaries.  Donald Levine observes that “Most Amhara males look forward to occasions when they can insult with impunity.”[15] The next day after the OMN interview, an Amharic-media outlet called Addis Monitor[16] broadcasted a pseudo-historical commentary which attacked Haacaaluu crudely and whipped-up an orgy of insults against him on social media. Stirred up by a pejorative commentary broadcast over irresponsible Amharic-speaking media outlets, the reaction to Haacaaluu’s interview turned into provocative insults levelled at the entire Oromo people in social media. Among the 363 audience views which were expressed regarding the commentary, many condemned Haacaaluu to death. “Kill him!” “Haacaaluu you will die!” were part of the verbal violence which was used against him because of his criticism of Menelik II.  A week after, on June 29, 2020, Haacaaluu was brutally murdered in his car in the Galaan suburb of Finfinnee.

Regrettably, the hateful comments against Haacaaluu were not abandoned by the Amharic-speaking social media even after his assassination. Some weeks after the sad event, a youth group were seen in a video clip celebrating in the streets of Finfinnee the first filling of the Grand Millennium Dam with water, singing delightedly, “Haacaaluu is dead! Jawar is left!” Ironically, Jawar was already in jail; however, the death threat which the naked hatred suggests on his life cannot be ignored.

Hachalu
“Humnan dhabe malee nama mucaa koo ajjeese nan beeka.” (“I know who killed my son. But I do not have the power to bring him/ them to justice”). Obbo Hundeessaa Boonsaa (by an anonymous illustrator)

These reactions reflect the depth of the hate which many Amharic-speaking nationalists have for those who defend Oromo rights and interests and their wish to silence critical Oromo voices against emperor Menelik. Whatever the motive of Haacaaluu’s murderers might have been, I believe that the crime was a vindictive act related to his comments about Menelik. Overall, the role which his music had played as a soundtrack in mobilizing the Oromo struggle over Finfinnee cannot be excluded from the motives behind his assassination. Nevertheless, it seems that, because of the Amhara nationalists’ hostility which was whipped-up against him in social media after his interview with the OMN, his assassins thought that their action would not cause public uproar.  But they were totally wrong; their treacherous crime had widened the unresolved cleavage between the Oromo people and the Ethiopian state. In fact, the statue symbolized the socio-political cleavage between the conquered and conquerors.

A journalist wrote, “The night the popular Oromo singer Haacaaluu Hundessa was murdered, a dreadful sense of loss and fear seized me. I felt my hands and feet shivering as I struggled to post a message of condolence on Facebook.”[17] Those who can imagine the place the iconic artist and hero occupies in the hearts of the Oromo and the tense political situation in the country at the time, can understand the fear that visited this journalist. The details of what had happened was reported widely and need not be repeated here. In short, in the violent protests that broke out in aftermath of the incident, more than 150 people lost their lives and private and public properties worth millions of dollars were burnt down in the Oromia State.

It is important to note that Haacaaluu’s assassination as well as the tragic death of many innocent people in its aftermath were results of the blind protection of the name of Menelik and lack of feelings for peoples against whom he had committed crimes. The emperor’s statue symbolizes contradictory understanding of history. As mentioned above, from the Oromo perspective, it symbolizes the violence of conquest and the socioeconomic order called naftanya-gabbar system which was imposed on them to hold them in subordination and consolidate Amhara domination. Not surprisingly, the descendants of the naftanya (gun-bearing settler) look at the statue fondly: it awakens their hope to become great again and dominate others. As a vestige of the imperial system, it strengthens their feelings of superiority, which is openly expressed even today by Amharic-speaking politicians. Their dictum says, Amhara yigezaal inji ayygezam – “the Amhara are rulers; they are not to be ruled by others.”  

 Oromo Demands In A Global Context

Summarizing the universal BLM anti-racism actions of destroying memorials, the American journalist Dan Wootton stated that “Trying to gloss over historic mistakes and barbarism from another time does little to provoke modern understanding of what went on and why so much of our history must not be repeated. We don’t want historic statues to tear our future apart.”[18] Indeed, this is the core of the BLM movement’s humanist philosophy which is shared by millions of people around the world and led to the removal of offensive statues in many countries. Over 369 monuments and memorials were destroyed the USA. In the list of over a dozen countries which met the demands of the BLM movement, we find Great Britain with 30, Canada 11 and 9 statues destroyed.

It is necessary to note that the Oromo are demanding the removal of Menelik’s statue, not simply because the Americans, the English, the Belgians, etc. have toppled statues of the morally corrupt historical figures in their countries, but because they think that they had committed crimes against their ancestors and imposed on them a system that enslaved them.  However, to judge the rationality of the Oromo demand for the removal of Menelik’s statue from Finfinnee, it is fair to compare his crimes with crimes for which the statues of historical figures were toppled in countries mentioned above following the murder of George Floyd.

The set of criteria which were used by the BLM movement to topple the monuments and memorials, and the destruction of works of arts can be categorized as (a) racism, (b) slavery or exploitation of slave labor, (c) slave trade, (d) imperialism and the genocide of indigenous peoplesSeveral of these crimes were overlapping behaviors of those whose memorials had been destroyed. I will compare Menelik II and his controversial statue with some of the historical figures whose statues had been toppled by the BLM activists in different countries.

In the first place, the slave ownership or profiteering from slave labor had been the main crime of most of the historical figures around the world, whose statues were vandalized, or toppled. It is interesting to note here that Menelik II, who, as mentioned above is called the Abraham Lincoln of Ethiopia, and his wife Taytu owned 73,000 slaves.[19] In comparative terms, the number of slaves owned by him was larger than the number of slaves owned by the nine largest slaveowners in US history put together.[20] The number of slaves he owned was equal to a quarter of the entire slave population on all the plantations owned by white settlers in the 13 American colonies at the time of the declaration of American Independence in 1776.[21] Menelik collected tributes in slaves.[22]  The gifts he gave in slaves to family members and others reflected the numerical size of bondsmen and women he owned. His chronicler, Gabra Sellasé, proudly noted that “in 1882 Menilek sent 500 slaves as a present to his son-in-law Ras Araya Sellassé,”[23]the son of his suzerain, Emperor Yohannes IV. According to Pankhurst, another Tigrayan warlord, “Dajazmach Gabra Sellaseé Baria-Gabr was given 15 slaves at his marriage in 1903 by him.” [24]

It is also common knowledge that Menelik was the greatest slave entrepreneur. For example, Harold Marcus wrote “as a Christian, Menelik affected, not to be directly involved in this traffic, the business being transacted by Muslim agents. Many slaves were, however, supplied by him.”[25] Quoting the Italian explorer Marquis Orazio Antinori who was in Shawa between 1876 and 1882, Pankhurst notes that in the early 1880s, “a caravan left Shoa every three months and that 18,000 to 20,000 slaves reached the coast every year.”[26] This means over 200,000 slaves were exported from Shawa during those years alone. The slave export increased tremendously in the mid-1880, reaching a climax in 1888-89. As noted by Marcus, Menelik was “indirectly Ethiopia’s greatest slave entrepreneur and received the bulk of the proceeds”[27] from the trade.

In general, the historical record suggests that the number of captives who were exported to the Middle East and Asia from Menelik’s empire and from which he had benefited was many times larger than the size of the “human merchandize” bought or captured in Africa and trafficked by Edward Colston’s Royal African Company (RAC) and sold in the Americas and the Caribbean. Colston was a 17th century English politician, philanthropist, and slave trader. His RAC trafficked about 100,000 Africans over the Atlantic. His statue was pulled down in Bristol by BLM protesters on 8 June 2020.[28]

The indictment of Menelik II’s statue becomes stronger if we compare him with King Leopold II of Belgium whose memorials were destroyed in many places in Belgium by the BLM activists. By and large, his history bears striking similarity with that of the Belgian king.  Both Leopold II and Menelik II (king of Shawa later emperor of Ethiopia) became kings in 1865. Leopold II was the architect of the Scramble for Africa. Both were overly ambitious and ruthless to achieve what they had wanted. They committed genocide of indigenous peoples they had conquered during the so-called European scramble for Africa.

Furthermore, it is important to compare the Amharic-speaking activists’ reactions to Haacaaluu’s comments about the statue of Menelik II and the Belgian public’s responses to Joëlle Sambi Nzeba’s comments on that of Leopold II by the Belgians, respectively.  The Belgian-Congolese poet and spokesperson for the Belgian Network for Black Lives, Joëlle Sambi Nzeba, told the BBC that Leopold II’s statues tell her she is “less than a regular Belgian” and she and her history are not “valid.”[29] She means, to erect Leopold II’s statue as a historical monument in the public arena is to misrecognize the humanity of the victims of atrocities committed in Congo and disrespect for the feelings of the Congolese. Her feelings were shared by many native Belgians who will not see their city squares any more tainted by monuments, or streets which bear the names of colonial figures who had committed atrocious crimes against humanity.

Thus, although Belgium gave up its Congo colony in 1960, the racism which led to the brutal murder of George Floyd awakened the Belgians to examine their conscience about their country’s colonial role in Africa and consider the situations of the African diaspora residing in Belgium today. They joined the global Black Lives Matter movement and removed the statues of King Leopold II in several cities including Brussels.

This does not mean there was no opposition to the destruction of the statues of Leopold II. In fact, there were Belgians who had defended the memory of Leopold II and opposed the removal of his statues and street signs that bore his name. He is recognized as a leader who defended Belgium’s neutrality in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-7 and a monarch who, commissioned public works fit for a modern nation. However, what he did for his country did not sooth morally the conscience of the Belgians and outweigh the crimes which were committed against humanity in Africa.[30] He did not set a foot on the African soil, but atrocities were committed in his name. However, to keep the monuments and street signs that bear his name in Belgium is interpreted not only as acquitting him from his crime against humanity, but also disrespect for the humanity of the Congolese.

Therefore, taking the moral responsibility and rectifying symbolically the harms which were committed by his distant nephew, the present King of Belgium, Philippe Leopold Ludwig Maria (since 2013) took the opportunity of the global historical juncture and sent a letter in June 2020 his “deepest regrets” to the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) “for the ‘suffering and humiliation’ his nation inflicted while it colonized the region.”[31] Emphasizing the need to acknowledge the past and build a common future which is based on reciprocal respect, Belgium’s education minister announced that secondary schools in Belgium would teach colonial history starting next year.[32]

Obviously, such an idea is foreign to the Amharic-speaking defenders of Menelik II’s statue in Finfinnee. To start with, the pains inflicted by Menelik II on those who were conquered and dispossessed by him is not in their imagination. Haacaaluu’s feelings about the statue and the recalcitrant position of the Amharic-speaking mob who, as mentioned above, threatened him with death reflect such an attitude.  While the Belgians, led by the voice of morality anchored in their inner feelings, were acknowledging the crimes which Leopold II had committed in Africa against Africans and were removing his names from Belgian public places, the Amharic-speaking elites had been threatening Oromos who demanded the removal of a statue which is erected in the middle of what used to be the Aradaa (modern) part of the imperial city, portraying a towering image of a conqueror who had inflicted atrocities against the Oromo and other peoples. Tyranny is a trait of the Abyssinian political culture. It is a culture that does not recognize the feelings of those whose human rights it violates. In fact, Menelik started looting Oromo properties, confiscating their land first where his statue stands now. It was in Finfinnee. Had the statue been erected in the Amhara state, the Oromo might have not reacted against it.

The heroism which Amharic-speaking nationalists associate with Menelik does not heal the wounds which were inflicted by his brutal wars of conquest. The victory of Adwa over Italian forces in Abyssinia in the north cannot overshadow or be used as an excuse for the atrocities committed against non-Abyssinian peoples in the south. Denial of past injustice cannot make the Oromo to forget the scars of the multi-dimensional injuries inflicted by subordination and marginalization upon them for more than a century. It deepens the soars, cultivates hate, and intensifies conflict. It does not create a situation in which people can stand with each other on a footing of frankness and equality and decide on their future.  Acknowledgement of injustices and finding a solution accepted by those who are injured does.

 Concluding Remarks 

Haacaaluu was a poet, activist, and heroHe took the risk of speaking truth to power on behalf of his people. As an Oromo scholar has stated, Haacaaluu was “a towering musical genius” who had “the poetic expression with which he was able to articulate and insightfully identify some of the deeply entrenched and profoundly rooted problems that the Oromos had been facing”[33] under Abyssinian rule. The Oromo poet and activist Soretti Kadir writes that Haacaaluu “represented the aspirations of the Oromo people creatively, with dignity, boldness, and deep love.” Tsedale Lemma, Chief Editor of Addis Standard, said that “When people were out on the street being shot at and being killed, [Haacaaluu] comforted the Oromo people with his songs of revolution, love and resistance to the system that oppressed [them],”[34] His gruesome murder represents the misrecognition of Oromo aspirations and signals an effort to silence the voice that speaks for them.

Thus, in June 2020, when the global community was condemning racist violence and toppling the symbols of colonialism, slavery, and racism, and is showing its readiness to rectify the historical harms done in the past, the development in Ethiopia was the opposite. Rather than acknowledging the atrocities committed by Menelik, and instead of following the global moral concern set by the Black Life Matter movement, the Amharic-speaking nationalists were loudly condemning those who dared to associate the Ethiopian emperor’s name with anything negative and demanded their death.

That Haacaaluu was harassed by the TPLF regime had been public knowledge. In his interview with the OMN, he said that he was harassed wherever he went, even after Dr. Abiy came to power. However, he continued to be the voice of the Oromo people. To the OMN journalist who asked him whether he did not fear for his life, his answer was “Every time I walk in this city, I know that I am walking on the edge of death, however, what I am afraid of is a meaningless death, a death that has no purpose. I’m not afraid because I have a clarity of purpose in terms of what I want to achieve.” That was also Steve Biko’s famous testimony, when he said, “It is better to die for an idea that will live, than live for an idea that will die”, and continued to speak truth to power. Biko was arrested and murdered in prison on 12 September 1977 at the age of just 31. His vision survived and transformed the agenda of South African politics.

Haacaaluu was a voice for truth. He galvanized the Oromo resistance against the so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan. His role in the Oromo struggle against eviction from Finfinnee combined with his comments about Menelik II and his statue seem to have led to his assassination.  In his conversation with journalists and others, Haacaaluu liked to use the Oromo dictum “seenaa rirm hinnyaatu” which means “termites do not eat history.” That means one may cover history or deny the truth, but when the right time comes, distortion and mountains of lies cannot stand on its way. In other words, it will survive and reveal itself with time and does not decay. As a friend of Haacaaluu said when she heard that he was assassinated, “This is the darkest fight. But it is also the fight that can get us to the end, which basically have our own country—if we can’t coexist in peace and have our human dignity.”[35] That is exactly where Ethiopia is today, at the last crossroads.

Endnotes

[1] Eagle, J. G. “I want to know that the Oromo people are here: Killing in Ethiopia ignites a youth revolution in Minnesota”, Shan Journal, 17 July 2020
[2] OMN: Ugguru Geejjibaa Guyyaa 4ffaa, 6 August 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rP6mebVnagU
[3] Asafa, J. Fighting Against the Injustice of the State and Globalization: Comparing the African American and Oromo Movements, New York, Palgrave, 2001.
[4] Lawisso, W. “Haacaaluu Hundeessa and Steve Biko, the two young lions of Africa.” 2020.
[5] Shawn Michael Mollenhauer, “Millions on the Margins: Music, Ethnicity, and Censorship among the Oromo of Ethiopia”, A Dissertation submitted in partial satisfaction of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Music, August 2011:Vi.
[5b] ibid Vii
[5c] ibid
[6] The Oromo generation who went school after the fall of the Dergue regime in 1991 and received school education in the Oromo language. Qubee is the Latin alphabet adapted to transcribe Oromo sounds.
[7] Mekuria Bulcha, “Greater Addis Ababa in the Making: Stop them or Keep Quiet and Perish” Gadaa.com. Dec 3, 2003.
[8] Zehabesha News,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6NL0ER-FqZw
[9] Levine, D. Wax & GoldTradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture, Chicago University Press, 1972: 250.
[10] Teferi Fufa, “Oromo: The Ethiopian Dilemma”, The Oromo Commentary, No. 2, 1991, p. 27
[11] Waugh, E. ibid p. 26.
[12] Perlez, J.  New York Times, April 26, 1992, page 34.
[13] Haacaaluu Hundeessaa Habashaa Waccisiisaa Jira. Siidaan Haaj Aadam Saaddoo Eebbifame.
youtube.com/watch?v=Oq-0XY1ISJc&list=RDCMUCdN3A6ktdBthZQApKtHcOgw&index=3, •Premiered June 24, 2020
[14] Haacaaluu Hundeessaa Habashaa Waccisiisaa Jira. youtube.com/watch?v=Oq-0XY1ISJc&list=RDCMUCdN3A6ktdBthZQApKtHcOgw&index=3, •Premiered June 24, 2020
[15] Levine, D. N. Wax &: Gold, Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture, University of Chicago Press, 1972: 230.
[16]Haacaaluu Hundessa, Addis Monitor, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOE4Xs8trs4
[17] Senior Editor, “Ethiopia, what really happened to the Oromo singer Haacaaluu Hundessa?”, East African News, September 10, 2020.
[18] Wootton, D.  “We don’t want historic statues to tear our future apart.” The Sun, 10 June 2020.
[19] R. Pankhurst, R. Economic History of Ethiopia, 1968: 103
[20] Scott, T. L. ”9 of the Biggest Slave Owners in American History”, Atlanta Black Star, December 23, 2014.
[21] In 1780, there 287,000 slaves in the 13 colonies, most into the southern colonies, see Lumen Learning, Boundless US History. Expansion of the Colonies, 1650-1750, https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-ushistory/…/the-growth-of-the-colonies
[22] Garretson, P. “Manjil Hamdan Abu Shok (1898-19389) and the Administration of Gubba”, in Modern Ethiopia: From Accession of Menelik II to the Present, Tubiana, I (ed.), 1980. Johnson, D. H. “On the Nilotic Frontier; Imperial Ethiopia in Southern Sudan, 1898-1936, in The Southern Marches of Ethiopia, Donham, D. and James, W. (eds.), 1987, p. 233.
[23] Cited in Pankhurst, R. Economic History of Ethiopia, 1968: 103. The chronicler was of course proud on behalf of his master. Gabra Sellasé himself was a son of Menelik’s slave. Ibid. p. 75.
[24] Pankhurst, R. ibid.
[25] Marcus, H. The Life and Times of Menelik II: Ethiopia 1844-1913. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975: 73.
[26] Pankhurst, R. ibid. 1968: 103.
[27] Marcus, H. ibid., 1975: 73.
[28] The Guardian, “Who was Edward Colston and why was his Bristol statue toppled?”, 8 June 2020.
[29] Rannard, G. ibid
[30] Rannard, G. ibid. writes, “The protests” of 2020 “are not the first time Belgium’s horrid history in Congo has been contested in the streets. In 2019, the cities of Kortrijk and Dendermonde renamed their Leopold II streets, with Kortrijk council describing the king as a “mass murderer.”
[31] Picheta, R. “Belgium’s King Philippe sends ‘regrets’ to Congo for Leopold II atrocities”, CNN  7/1/2020. https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/belgiums-king-philippe-sends-regrets-to-congo-for-leopold-ii-atrocities/ar-BB168PRD (accessed 2020-10-20).
[32] Rannard, G. ibid.
[33] Awol Allo cited in Aljazeera News, “Haacaaluu Hundessa: A Protest Singer Who Became an Oromo Icon”, 3 July 2020.
[34]Aljazeera News.  ibid.
[35]Najat Hamza in Eagle, J. G., ibid.

2 Comments

  1. Absolutely brilliant! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article! At times, your essay is as poetic as Haacaaluu’s work itself; painting a wonderfully potent image of one of the best sons of our people! AND that image is truly deserved by this young man; so viciously cut down by the descendants of an armed Amhara settler elite STILL dreaming to continue RULING over us!

    Let us see to it that Haacaaluu did not die in vain! It is the duty of the true sons and daughters of the Oromo people to honor him, by bringing forth the birth of an independent and sovereign Oromo Republic!

    LET US STAND WITH THE OROMO LIBERATION ARMY!

    WAQAA GURRACHA OROMO WALIIN!

  2. Professor Mekuria,
    You, Proffesors Mohammed Hassan Ali, & Gammachu Magarsaa have been my favorite Oromo Scholars (AND of my whole family as well,) for as long as I can remember! It is truly a pleasure and a privilege for me to call you my TEACHER sir, although I have never attended your classes at Uppsala University! I am SURE your work DESERVES to be treated as a STANDARD to which ALL our Oromo Scholars worthy of that title should aspire to, both in the RIGORS of the research of the topic addressed, and the fluency of the LANGUAGE the work is presented in to readers!

    Thank you for being an uncompromisingly TRUTHFUL scholarly voice of the Oromo people! Looking forward to reading and learning from more of your work!

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