Hachalu Hundessa’s death exposed an unlikely anti-Abiy alliance

Some Oromo nationalists have allied with TPLF, threatening inter-ethnic peace in Ethiopia.

The poster of the slain Ethiopian political singer Haacaaluu Hundeessaa
A poster of the slain Ethiopian political singer Haacaaluu Hundeessaa is seen near his hometown of Ambo, Ethiopia on July 22, 2020 [Reuters/Dawit Endeshaw]

Ethiopia has returned to normal after weeks of ethnic violence and unrest triggered by the June 29 murder of the revered Oromo singer, Hachalu Hundessa.

On July 10, Ethiopian authorities said they arrested two suspects over the killing. Both the capital, Addis Ababa, and the surrounding Oromia region – the Oromo homeland which became an epicentre of violence following the tragic murder – have returned to calm. Internet services that were shut off on the day of the killing to prevent further escalation of violence have also been reinstated.

The country’s return to normalcy is welcome news, but the devastating episode of violence that claimed more than 200 lives left permanent marks on Ethiopia’s national psyche and clearly demonstrated that the nation’s ethnic faultlines have not been fully mended.

During the violence, scores of innocent Ethiopians were murdered for the sole “crime” of belonging to a certain ethnic group, mostly Amhara. Homes, businesses and vehicles belonging to Ethiopians from various ethnic and religious backgrounds were destroyed. In Shashemene, a diverse and beautiful town located at the heart of the Oromia region, even school buildings were burned to the ground.

The question now facing Ethiopia is whether this most recent recurrence of ethnic violence is going to hinder the country’s long-awaited transition to democratic governance.

Since his rise to power in 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has sought to promote reconciliation, national unity, solidarity and social justice in Ethiopia. He achieved some success in easing the tensions between Ethiopia’s many  ethnic groups. He introduced new schemes to elevate the economy and ambitious plans to overcome environmental challenges. The prime minister also created several governmental commissions to work on national reconciliation and promotion of good governance.

All this helped most Ethiopians get behind Abiy’s plans for achieving sustainable national unity, but there are still many more challenges to be conquered for the country to be able to smoothly transition to democracy.

Abiy’s ethno-nationalist detractors

The violence that followed Hachalu’s tragic murder drew renewed attention to the ethno-nationalist detractors of Abiy’s government.

More importantly, it exposed the dangerous alliance The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – the political representative of the Tigray minority which dominated a coalition government for years before Abiy took office – and some radical Oromo political organisations formed to undermine the reforms that are being enacted by Ethiopia’s first Nobel Peace Prize laureate to end the country’s ethnic divisions.

After Hachalu’s murder, rather than allowing the relevant authorities to investigate the crime and punish the perpetrators, the TPLF and ethno-nationalist Oromo groups embarked on a blame game and intentionally raised tensions across the country.

By framing the heinous killing in ethno-nationalist terms and blaming entire communities as well as the federal government for the death of the young singer, these groups paved the way for a new episode of violence.

The anti-Abiy alliance between radical Oromo groups and the TPLF was in the making long before Hachalu’s killing.

After Abiy’s rise to power, several Oromo leaders, including the now-jailed leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress, Bekele Gerba, openly embraced the TPLF, ignoring the group’s long history of oppressing Oromo rights and freedoms.

During TPLF’s decades-long rule, Oromos were silenced, tortured and arrested en masse, to the point that the Oromo language was dubbed “the language of prisons”.

But this painful history was all but forgotten by many Oromo leaders when Abiy emerged as a unifying leader eager to create a new political system in which no ethnic group has dominance over others. Oromo leaders who expected Abiy, himself an ethnic Oromo, to fight solely to expand Oromo influence over the federal government were disappointed by his policies aimed at achieving national reconciliation.

While the TPLF took a stance against the new prime minister to avoid losing all of its past powers and privileges, Oromo groups that are more interested in securing power for themselves than unifying the nation also positioned themselves against Abiy. Their shared desire to undermine the new prime minister led these two erstwhile enemies to join forces.

Hachalu himself had acknowledged and criticised this new-found alliance before his death. In his last interview with the now-banned Oromia Media Network, Hachalu implicitly criticised links between opposition Oromo leaders and the TPLF, stating “one thing I know for certain is that the Oromo people have defeated TPLF and brought our current leaders to power”. He had also asserted that any Oromo political group’s collaboration with the TPLF should be viewed as a betrayal of the Oromo struggle for equality and political freedoms.

The actions of the Oromo-Tigrayan alliance against Abiy’s government had raised concerns about renewed ethnic violence in Ethiopia for the first time in May when the parliament announced its decision to postpone the general elections that were scheduled to take place in August due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The TPLF officials criticised the federal government’s decision and announced their intention to hold an election in the Tigray region in a clear attempt to undermine Abiy’s authority. Abiy’s Oromo opponents also strongly criticised the decision to postpone the election. Oromo political activist and Oromia Federalist Congress member Jawar Mohammed, for example, asserted in an op-ed in Addis Standard that Ethiopia will not have a legitimate government after September 30 – the day that should have marked the end of the current government’s tenure.

Jawar Mohammed has a lot of influence over Oromo youth. His vocal opposition to the government’s decision to postpone the election, coupled with the TPLF’s apparent refusal to follow the federal government’s guidance on the matter, raised concerns that the anti-Abiy stance of the two groups may eventually lead to renewed ethnic strife in the country.

The violence that followed Hachalu’s murder clearly demonstrated the threat this new-found Oromo-Tigrayan alliance poses to Ethiopia’s democratic prospects. If Abiy fails to successfully counter the incendiary rhetoric utilised by these groups, there is indeed a chance that Ethiopia may experience more bloodshed as the date of the postponed election nears.

All is not lost

The TPLF and some Oromo political groups’ opposition to Abiy’s democratic reform agenda is undoubtedly a concern, but the young prime minister has not yet lost the battle to create a political system in which all Ethiopians are equally represented and heard.

Abiy came to power on the back of widespread Amhara and Oromo protests triggered by the TPLF’s decades-long marginalisation of the two ethnic groups. Once Abiy took over the country’s leadership with a promise to bring all Ethiopians together, however, the country’s other marginalised ethnic groups, such as the Somalis, also joined in the efforts for democratisation and supported the new government.

Therefore, although Oromo and Amhara protests are often credited for paving the way for much-needed political, democratic and economic reforms that Abiy enacted in his first two years in power, almost all Ethiopian ethnic groups played a role in getting the country on the road to democratisation.

Acknowledging this fact and understanding that reforms should serve not any single group but all Ethiopians, Abiy refused to give in to the ethno-nationalist demands of his detractors and continued on the path to democratisation.

This does not mean Ethiopia’s prime minister did not encounter any challenges, or experience any failures, during his first term in power. Back in April 2019, I myself expressed concerns over Abiy’s failure to address rising ethnic tensions and violence in Ethiopia. Fortunately, in the year that followed, the prime minister managed to make significant gains against armed groups active in the country and made Ethiopia a safer place for all Ethiopians.

The devastating events of the past month, however, revitalised concerns over the Abiy administration’s ability to ensure the safety of Ethiopians and the stability of the nation.

Nevertheless, Abiy can still deliver on his promises of democratisation and reconciliation as long as he stands strong against the ethno-nationalist demands of both the TPLF and his Oromo opponents. By engaging citizens to address the issues between different communities through dialogue rather than violence, and utilising transitional justice mechanisms to heal wounds and offer meaningful reconciliation, Abiy can ensure his detractors are not successful in deepening ethnic divides, and he can pave the way for all communities to peacefully co-exist in a united Ethiopia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.