NAIROBI, Kenya – In life, Hachalu Hundessa’s protest songs woke up and united Ethiopians who yearned for freedom and justice. He is doing the same thing in death, with thousands of people gathered on Thursday to bury him in Ambo, the city 60 miles west of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where he was born and raised.
Hundessa, 34, was shot Monday night by unknown assailants in Addis Ababa and later died of his injuries in a hospital. Her death has sparked protests across the country that have killed 81 people, injured dozens of people, and caused extensive property damage. Authorities blocked the Internet and arrested 35 people, including a prominent media magnate and government critic, Jawar Mohammed.
The riots, analysts say, threaten the stability of Africa’s second most populous country and deepen the political crisis in a nation that is already undergoing a democratic transition on a roller coaster.
“I am in bitter sadness,” said Getu Dandefa, a 29-year-old university student. When he saw Mr. Hundessa’s coffin in Ambo, he said that he dropped to the ground and started crying.
“We lost our voice,” he said, “we will continue to fight until Hachalu gets justice. We will never stop protesting.”
Mr. Hundessa’s funeral serves as a moment of national recognition in a country that already faces innumerable political, economic and social challenges. The fury sparked by his death represents a challenge for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came to power in 2018 after a wave of anti-government protests that Hundessa, a member of the country’s largest but historically marginalized ethnic group, the Oromo, helped galvanize . through his music.
Since then, Abiy, an Oromo, has introduced a series of changes aimed at dismantling Ethiopia’s authoritarian structure, freeing political prisoners, liberalizing the centralized economy, committing to reform repressive laws, and welcoming exiled opposition and separatist groups. .
In 2019, Mr. Abiy received the Nobel Peace Prize for his initiative to resolve the decades-long conflict with neighboring Eritrea and for spearheading regional peace and cooperation in the Horn of Africa.
A nation of approximately 109 million people, Ethiopia has one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, is home to the headquarters of the African Union, and is a key ally of the United States in the fight against terrorism.
But while the 43-year-old prime minister has come a long way, the changes have unleashed forces that have led to a sharp increase in lawlessness in many parts of the country, with mounting ethnic tensions and violence that have displaced 3 million people.
Yohannes Gedamu, an Ethiopian and professor of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Georgia, said the ruling coalition had lost control over the structures it once used to maintain order in an ethnically and linguistically diverse nation. As a result, he added, as the country moves toward multi-party democracy, rival ethnic and political factions have clashed over the country’s resources, power, and direction.
The government has been criticized for failing to stop the killing of government critics and prominent figures such as the Ethiopian army chief of staff, and its inability to rescue a dozen or more university students kidnapped months ago.
In combating the disorder, the authorities have resorted to the tactics of previous repressive governments, not only by blocking the Internet, but by arresting journalists and enacting laws that, according to human rights defenders, could limit freedom of expression. Ethiopian security forces have been accused of serious human rights violations, including rape, arbitrary arrest and extrajudicial executions.
The coronavirus pandemic has complicated all of this, prompting the government to postpone the August elections that many saw as critical evidence of Abi’s reform agenda. The move prompted condemnation from opposition parties, which fear the government will use the delay to attempt a takeover.
“The last days show how fuel the situation is in Ethiopia,” said Murithi Mutiga, director of the Horn of Africa project at the International Crisis Group.
He added: “The simplest spark can easily unleash all these bottled ethno-nationalist passions that have become the defining feature of Ethiopian politics, especially as it undergoes this delicate transition.”
While Abiy has a daunting task at hand, many say the government’s forceful response to discontent could make matters worse. Laetitia Bader, director of the Horn of Africa at Human Rights Watch, said the group had received reports that security forces had used deadly force against protesters in at least seven cities.
“The initial signs are not good,” said Bader. “The government must make clear that it is listening to these complaints, creating space for them to be heard and responding appropriately to them without resorting to repression or violence.”
Given Mr. Hundessa’s stature and how His music provided a moving soundtrack against the crackdown, authorities should withdraw and allow “people to grieve in peace,” said Henok Gabisa, co-chair of the St. Paul, Minnesota-based Oromo International Bar Association. About 200 of the city’s Oromo community protested on Tuesday.
“The Oromo people are incredulous, shocked and confused,” said Gabisa, who met Hundessa and met him a few months ago in Ethiopia. But arresting political opposition leaders like Bekele Gerba of the Oromo Federalist Congress party and raiding Mohammed’s Oromia Media Network only risked inflaming long-running tensions, he said.
“Abiy searched,” said Gabisa. “You dropped the ball.”
However, despite the recent turmoil, analysts still give Abiy high marks for his efforts to put Ethiopia on a new course.
Gedamu said the prime minister had made great strides on multiple fronts, establishing the unified Prosperity Party at the national level, overseeing an unprecedented tree planting project to tackle climate change, and expediting efforts to complete the Great Renaissance Dam from Ethiopia, which would strengthen the country. electricity supply.
“I understand that positive revolutionary changes could actually take some time,” Gedamu said. “But overall, the achievements of the reform outweigh the challenges.”
For now, tensions remain high in Ethiopia, as Mr. Hachalu is resting. The army was deployed in parts of the capital on Wednesday, and witnesses reported hearing gunshots.
Rawera Daniel, 24, an unemployed university graduate in Addis Ababa, said authorities should not crack down on citizens who want to cry.
Upon learning of Mr. Hundessa’s death, “I cried as if I had lost my mother,” she said. “He fought for our freedom. Her letters spoke on our behalf. “
Mr. Mutiga of the International Crisis Group said that Mr. Abiy should rise to the challenge not only as a political leader but as the chief healer of Ethiopia.
“I think what Abiy could definitely do better is try to reach a consensus,” he said, “persuade his opponents and be more deliberative and consultative and try to bring people with him.”
Tiksa Negeri contributed reports from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.