When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia inaugurated the newly refurbished palace of Emperor Menelik II on October 10 last year, he hoped it would help his country put their past grievances to rest.
His office said the park where the palace is located would symbolize Ethiopia’s “ability to come together for a common goal.” The following day, Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in restarting peace talks with Eritrea.
But while the world showered Abiy in praise, others in this country of roughly 110 million people were less impressed. For the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, Menelik — a wax figure of whom now sits on his original wooden throne inside the palace — is better described as a genocidal warlord than as the country’s founding father.
One hundred and fifty kilometers away, as Abiy escorted the leaders of Somalia, Sudan, Uganda and South Sudan around the palace, Jawar Mohammed, a media baron and ascending star of the Oromo people’s cause, was visiting a statue showing a severed hand stretched upward holding a woman’s breast.
The memorial site is a permanent reminder of the Oromo people whose hands and breasts were mutilated by the emperor’s forces in the late nineteenth century.
The juxtaposition of Abiy and Jawar — both demonstrating their visions and allegiances for this extremely diverse country of 10 regions and many more ethnic groups — was a telling sign of a deep ideological split that has alienated Ethiopia’s firebrand prime minister from his Oromo base, analysts and close associates of Jawar say.
“For the Oromo, Menelik is a killer,” says Henok Gabisa, who helped found the Oromo Media Network (OMN) with Jawar prior to Abiy coming to power in 2018. “For Jawar, he did not see why Abiy would not also erect the counter-narrative of who Menelik was.”
This week, as thousands of Oromo people took to the streets to protest the murder of Hachalu Hundessa, a prominent Oromo singer who sung about the plight of his people and had openly criticised Abiy in a recent television interview with OMN, the cleavage between Jawar and the Ethiopian prime minister was again on show.
As Hachalu Hundessa’s remains were being transported to his hometown of Ambo roughly 100 kilometers from the capital city, Jawar and some of his supporters belonging to the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress joined his body. However, a decision was made among Jawar’s camp to turn back to Addis Ababa in order to hold the funeral in the capital.
Federal forces did not agree with the decision. As the body approached the Oromia Prosperity Party Office in the city center, there was a standoff between federal soldiers and loyalists to Jawar, according to testimony from both sides. As Hachalu Hundessa’s body lay inside a nearby Oromo cultural center, shots were fired and at least one police officer was killed, say federal police commissioner Endeshaw Tasew and Dawit Bekele, the 21-year-old son of Bekele Gerba, the Oromo Federalist Congress’s deputy chairman. The deputy chairman was arrested by police on Tuesday alongside Jawar.
Hachalu Hundessa’s body was then flown back to Ambo in a government helicopter.
Analysts and observers of Ethiopia’s fractious political scene say the events in Ethiopia were inevitable considering the growing split between Abiy and his base in the region of Oromia.
“He is the consciousness of the Oromo people. He is the voice,” Tesdale Lemma, the editor in chief of the Addis Standard newspaper, says of Hachalu Hundessa. “He is someone who resuscitates the historical injustices and narratives and archives that were completely erased from the state.”
For Abiy, who is also Oromo, his vision of an Ethiopia able to surmount its ethnic history and perform as a fast-growing, cohesive nation is an integral part of his political raison d’être. However, many feel it is still too early for Ethiopia to move on from old wounds.
For Kjetil Tronvoll, an Ethiopia researcher at Bjørknes University in Oslo, “the current crisis has been in the making for a time.”
“The killing of Hachalu triggered a deeper reaction from the increasing Oromo opposition to Abiy Ahmed,” he says. “Many saw the arrest of Jawar and Bekele Gerba as a final proof that Abiy [is] working against Oromo interests.”
An official close to Abiy Ahmed, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says police were expediting investigations of Jawar and Bekele. Investigators are looking into their role in inciting violence through the media and intercepting the remains of Hachalu Hundessa, the source says. Bekele’s son tells Mada Masr that his father, whom authorities brought with them during a raid of the family home on Thursday evening, said he was being investigated for murder.
Several calls to federal police officials went unanswered.
With the fate of Jawar and Bekele still unclear, many fear more violent protests that have left at least 166 people dead, according to police statements, and 86 more in October after Jawar’s supporters demonstrated against an alleged attempt to arrest him at his home in Addis Ababa.
Tronvoll, who believes the government is at its weakest since the fall of the Derg regime in 1991, says keeping Jawar behind bars would “likely only lead to continued instability” and increase the chance that more young men join a radicalized militia known as the Oromo Liberation Army.
Ethiopia’s outlook was not always so bleak.
Jawar, through his activism online and his media network based in Minnesota, had helped Abiy rise to power by galvanizing the opposition to his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn. Abiy road that wave of government discontent by promising a political transition that would at last address the Oromo peoples’ struggle.
Four months after coming to power in July 2018, Abiy visited the US to conduct a tour of his country’s diaspora and talk about his reforms to boost civil liberties and heal the wounds from decades of ethnic tension.
In Minneapolis, Jawar met with Abiy, according to Henok, his close associate. Jawar believed in Abiy’s transition. His wish, according to Henok, was for Lemma Megersa, who currently serves as the minister of defense but was president of the Oromia regional state when Abiy came to power, to play a central role in carrying the country forward while making a strong allegiance with the neighboring Amhara region, a long-time foe.
“He saw himself as part of that transition, since Jawar is the face of the Oromo youth,” says Henok, a stern critic of Abiy.
Instead, Abiy went back to Ethiopia and focused his politics on a more national agenda and his self-made concept of “medemer,” which loosely translates from Amharic as “the coming together.”
“In a very short period of time Abiy flipped the table. Lemma became subordinate and Abiy came up with the ‘medemer’ concept,” says Henok.
In speeches delivered since he came to power, Abiy has continuously underlined his quest to put Ethiopia on a new trajectory that moves beyond its previous difficulties concerning ethnic divides and the rights of regional powers. He has allowed ethnic groups, such as the Sidama in the south of the country, to hold their own referendum on creating a new regional state after years of uprisings against federal forces. Under Abiy, opposition parties have been able to register, civil liberties have improved and thousands of activists have been freed from jail.
But, analysts say, his wider policies aimed at creating a firm Ethiopian national identity do not resonate with the majority sentiment among the Oromo or provide them with the local rights and recognition they are demanding.
Jawar soon realized he was of little use to Abiy. He would emerge as the number one threat to his rule. On August 5, he returned to Addis Ababa from the US flanked by security guards.
Merera Gudina, chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress to which Jawar now belongs, says the government should treat the death of Hachalu Hundessa as an opportunity to heal old wounds in the country.
“The only way the government can avert [more violence] is by releasing Jawar to make him part of the negotiating team and make him part of the discussion over the future of Ethiopia,” he says. “We’re at a very dangerous, critical crossroads.”
On Friday, Abiy met with Federal Police Commissioner Endeshaw Tassew, Attorney General Adanech Abeebe and Ethiopian National Defense Forces Chief of General Staff, General Adem Mohammed, to discuss the way forward.
According to his chief spokesperson, Billene Seyoum, Abiy “explained that the incidents of the past few days were coordinated attempts to create civil unrest in the country. He also says that unspecified forces were “pulling the strings” at a time when Ethiopia was undergoing talks with Egypt over how to fill a controversial hydro-dam on the Blue Nile.
“The prime minister further stressed the importance of all actors vying for power to ask themselves in what ways they can lead a country if they lead it to destruction and civil war,” says Billene.
Shemeni Begna, an Oromo Federalist Congress member living in Adama, a town roughly 100 kilometers from Addis Ababa, says his town had experienced violent clashes between protesters and federal soldiers, who opened fire, killing at least six people and injuring 75 others on Tuesday. Police officials in Oromia did not respond to several calls requesting comment.
“It’s very difficult to predict what may happen. But when I see the actions of the government in the death of Hachalu Hundessa, as well as the actions of the government in arresting opposition leaders, I’m not optimistic,” he says.
Last month, Hachalu Hundessa gave an interview to OMN where he raised questions about a statue of Emperor Menelik II in Addis Ababa and asked why it should not suffer the same fate as other statues being removed as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.
There is, therefore, an intractable rift between Abiy and Hachalu Hundessa’s visions for Ethiopia, analysts say.
“The anger cannot easily subside for two reasons. The artist was very prominent and he was speaking his mind recently, criticizing the government, the prime minister and others including the ruling party,” says Mehari Taddele Maru, a professor at the European University Institute. “The second reason is the fact that no one trusts that the government will conduct a credible, independent investigation and put people on trial. There will be a lot of suspicions that the government might be involved.”