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Rights Groups Call for Swift Response to Ethiopian Singer's Death

FILE - Ethiopian musician Hachalu Hundessa poses while dressed in a traditional costume during the 123rd anniversary celebration of the battle of Adwa, where Ethiopian forces defeated invading Italian forces, in Addis Ababa, March 2, 2019.

As anger boils over among Ethiopia’s Oromo population after the killing of a revered singer, analysts and activists say swift action and transparency by the government are necessary to avoid further bloodshed.

Hachalu Hundessa was shot dead in Addis Ababa this week in what police say was a targeted killing. Police quickly apprehended suspects. But few details have been released about Hachalu’s death, fueling suspicion.

Protests in and around the capital city led to injuries and at least 52 people have been killed, according to the regional spokesman, Reuters reported.

Henok Gabisa, a professor of practice at Washington and Lee University’s School of Law, said Hachalu’s music was “the soundtrack of the Oromo revolution.” His death came about a week after he appeared on a satellite television channel, the Oromia Media Network, where he criticized Ethiopia’s leadership and spoke out against the mass incarceration of Oromo youth.

“Hachalu is way more than a musician and way more than an artist,” Henok told VOA. “Hachalu is an activist-artist who always stood his ground. Who spoke truth to power way long ago when it was difficult to do.”

The singer’s killing comes at a time when tensions are already high amid restrictions related to COVID-19 and the announced postponement of parliamentary elections, which had been scheduled for August.

In a national address, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed offered his condolences and sought to quell tensions.

“More than being a national figure, he was a close friend. The sorrow is very deep,” Abiy said. “But the wish of our enemies is for us not to reach our goals so that Oromo people can’t live with other ethnicities and we would paint each other with blood. They want us to trip on the journey we have started. This attempt has been tried repeatedly.”

Smoke rises over Addis Ababa during protests following the fatal shooting of the Ethiopian musician Hachalu Hundessa, June 30, 2020, in this screengrab taken from a video.
Smoke rises over Addis Ababa during protests following the fatal shooting of the Ethiopian musician Hachalu Hundessa, June 30, 2020, in this screengrab taken from a video.

But a slow or heavy-handed government response risks a repeat of past protests among the Oromo ethnic group that led to hundreds of deaths, rights activists say. In November 2019, 86 people were killed in protests following allegations that security forces were plotting to attack Jawar Mohammed, an activist and co-founder of Oromia Media Network.

“It's absolutely key that the Ethiopian authorities respond to this by acting urgently to reduce tensions and to ensure that security forces do not make what could be a combustible situation worse,” said Laetitia Bader, Human Rights Watch's Horn of Africa director, in an interview with VOA. “The government needs to order security forces not to use excessive force or to carry out arbitrary arrests including against protesters, as they've often done in the past.”

As has been the case during past periods of unrest, Ethiopia’s government-controlled telephone and internet provider, Ethio Telecom, shut off internet access inside the country.

Bader said this lack of access to information adds to the confusion.

“It's absolutely key for the government to make sure that as soon as possible it is providing accurate, timely information to the public on what they're doing to investigate [the] killing, but also how they are responding to what could be a very tense situation,” she said.

Protesters have been further angered this week as news spread that Jawar Mohammed was arrested and the domestic operations of his television network were shut down.

A total of 35 people have been arrested in Addis Ababa, including Oromo leader Bekele Gerba.

Merera Gudina, chair of the Oromo Federalist Congress, an opposition party, said the events show the urgent need for reform. He called for a commission with representatives from all sectors of society to oversee the way political opponents and protesters are treated in Ethiopia.

“We want a more inclusive commission that can oversee the way the government is conducting its business, including the way the election board is running, the way the security sector, the army, the police, the militia [are running] and the way they are behaving,” Merera told VOA’s Daybreak Africa. “This is not the way. The government is not properly functioning. So, that is our worry.”

James Butty contributed to this report