Hachalu Hundessa, Ethiopian Singer And Activist, Shot Dead: He Was ‘The Soundtrack Of The Oromo Revolution’

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Written by Dana Sanchez
Hachalu
Ethiopians are mourning the death of Hachalu Hundessa, a beloved protest singer, songwriter and activist who was shot in a planned attack in Addis Ababa, triggering protests around the country and in the diaspora. Hachalu Hundessa in an image still from the video of his ballad, “Maalan Jira.”

Ethiopians are mourning the death of Hachalu Hundessa, a protest singer, songwriter and activist who was shot in a planned attack late Monday in the capital, Addis Ababa, triggering protests around the country and in the diaspora.

The death drew widespread condemnation from Ethiopians. At least nine people were reported dead and dozens injured in protests as Ethiopia emerges from dictatorship and works toward establishing a multiparty democracy, New York Times reported.

Hachalu, 34, encouraged the country’s ethnic Oromo group to fight against repression through his songs. Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo have long been economically and politically marginalized.

He was shot in an Addis Ababa suburb in the area of Gelan Condominiums and hospitalized after the attack but died later, Police Commissioner Geta Argaw told the state-affiliated broadcaster Fana on Tuesday. Suspects have been arrested in what was a planned attack, Argaw said. Details are scarce.

Thousands of Hachalu’s fans went to the hospital where his body was held and protests erupted across the country. There were three explosions in Addis Ababa, Reuters reported. Young protesters lit fires, blocked roads and chanted slogans, AlJazeera reported.

Internet connectivity in the country of almost 110 million people appeared to be down, which is common during political protests. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has been criticized for his response to protests, called for calm, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

Hundreds of protesters gathered at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, demanding justice for Hachalu.

“I can’t express in words how much he meant to my generation,” said Dahir Wako, who helped lead the protest in St. Paul. “He is our icon. He is a father figure.”

Hachalu was considered “the soundtrack of the Oromo revolution,” said Awol Allo, a professor at Keele University in England, in a New York Times interview. His songs were protest anthems during years of popular uprisings that resulted in the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in 2018.

Hachalu, a former political prisoner, rose to prominence during prolonged mass anti-government protests led by the Oromo that helped propel Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed into office in 2018.

A fellow Oromo, Abiy rose to power two years ago, ending decades of political dominance by ethnic Tigray leaders in a country made up of more than 80 ethnic groups.

Abiy has introduced greater economic and political freedom in what has long been one of Africa’s most repressive countries. He won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his reforms and his work to end the conflict with neighboring Eritrea.

But Abiy’s is often challenged by local leaders who want more access to land, power and resources, Al Jazeera reported. Elections due this year have been postponed to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Najat Hamza, who helped organize the St. Paul demonstration, said she was protesting because the Oromo people are still being persecuted.

“Yesterday we were all minding our business when we got the news of our artist being shot down in the capital,” she said. “They shot him down and then everything went to hell, basically.”

Youth protesters were attacked in Addis Ababa, political leaders were arrested and a community media source shut down, she said. “This is complete chaos.”

Hachalu performed at the Epic Event Center in Minneapolis in 2013. Minneapolis has the second-most monthly streamers of Hundessa’s music of any city after Toronto, according to MPR News. 

The Oromo people have been subject to cultural repression, arrests, forced disappearances, torture, and state killings. Hachalua was arrested when he was in high school and was in prison for five years. There, his commitment grew to the Oromo struggle against oppression. Most of the songs on his first album were written in prison.

His songs were at the heart of the anti-government resistance that started in 2015 with street protests in the Oromia region, Allo told NYT. Ballads such as “Maalan Jira” (“What existence is mine”) and “Jirraa” (“We are here”), captured more than the frustrations of Oromo protesters but also their dreams for the country.

“Hachalu was exceptionally courageous and a man of many great talents,” Allo said. “His songs mobilized millions.”

Prime Minister Abiy called for calm, Fana reported. “Let us express our condolences by keeping ourselves safe and preventing further crime,” Abiy said. “We are expecting full investigation reports of this evil act.”

Abiy’s politics have triggered a backlash from some in his own Oromo powerbase, spearheaded by media magnate Jawar Mohammed, AlJazeera reported. Clashes between police and Jawar’s supporters resulted in the deaths of at least 78 people in October 2019 after the government tried to withdraw Jawar’s security detail.

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“They did not just kill Hachalu. They shot at the heart of the Oromo Nation, once again !!…You can kill us, all of us, you can never ever stop us!! NEVER !!” Jawar posted on his Facebook page on Tuesday.

Jawar set up the Oromia Media Network in Minnesota while he was a resident there and has blasted the prime minister in the past for shutting down the internet and cracking down on protests. After police raided the Oromia Media Network headquarters in Ethiopia, it broadcast via satellite from Minnesota.

Hachalu appeared in an interview last week with the Oromia Media Network and was critical of Abiy’s leadership, the New York Times reported.

“A lot of people have been tortured, a lot of people have been abused,” said Tiyu Tahiro in St. Paul. “This is not democratic. This is not freedom.”