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US Oromos Protest Singer Hachalu's Killing in Ethiopia


A man holds up the U.S. flag as members of the Oromo community march in protest over the death of musician and revolutionary Hachalu Hundessa, July 8, 2020, in St. Paul, Minnesota.
A man holds up the U.S. flag as members of the Oromo community march in protest over the death of musician and revolutionary Hachalu Hundessa, July 8, 2020, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Nearly two weeks after the slaying of a popular singer in Ethiopia, thousands took to the streets in diaspora communities in the United States and elsewhere to mourn his death and peacefully protest the government in Addis Ababa.

In downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota, home to the largest U.S. population of ethnic Oromo, a crowd of roughly 1,500 people blocked an interstate highway for more than an hour Friday evening.

The death of Hachalu Hundessa, 34, who was shot and killed in Addis Ababa on June 29, has seemingly galvanized the Oromo diaspora against the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

“Hachalu had the distinct ability to use music to capture his people's anguish and suffering in ways that resonated with the young and the old,” said Awol Allo, a senior lecturer at Britain’s Keele University.

“That made him inspirational to his people, both at the level of the individual and the community,” with the Oromo revolution.

Multiple demands

The Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest, is pressing for self-rule of the country’s vast Oromia state and for establishing Afaan Oromo as the national language.

Demonstrators in the Oromo diaspora also are calling for the resignation of Abiy, who was appointed to office in April 2018. His late father was ethnic Oromo, but demonstrators say the prime minister has not supported their goals.

In Minneapolis, the Star Tribune newspaper quoted one local Oromo woman as saying the arrest of Jawar Mohammed — a prominent opposition leader who at one time had lived in exile in Minnesota — also drew people to Friday’s protest.

“The Oromo people want elections. They want the freedom to choose who are the leaders of their country,” said Zemu Tuke, of Minneapolis, who was among the hundreds of people marching on Interstate 35W on Friday. At least 40,000 Oromos live in Minnesota, the community estimated.

Suspects arrested

Over the weekend, Ethiopian Attorney General Adanech Abebe said three suspects in Hachalu's death had been arrested. She blamed a breakaway armed faction of the Oromo Liberation Front for the killing.

According to Ethiopian officials, at least 239 people have been killed and nearly 5,000 arrested amid the country’s protests. After Hachalu’s death, the government cut off internet service, which remained widely unavailable as of Monday.

Protests have taken place around the world.

Last Monday, hundreds of mostly young adult demonstrators marched to the U.S. State Department in Washington, demanding justice and an independent investigation into Hachalu's killing.

The protesters delivered a letter with demands for Abiy’s administration, including releasing opposition leaders from the Oromo Federalist Congress and Oromo Liberation Front who were arrested after the singer’s killing, said Janet Adem, chairwoman of the Oromo Community of Washington, D.C.

“Two years ago, when the Ethiopian prime minister came to engage with the diaspora, we showed up with our flags and expressed our support. We thought he was for real democratization and reconciliation,” Adem said. “Then came killings in west and southern Oromia. The Abiy administration did not answer the Oromos’ questions. It showed it can’t answer the demands of nations and nationalities.”

On Tuesday, the Oromo community in Portland, Oregon, held a rally and publicly grieved for Hachalu. He “touched every generation,” said Eddie Argo, one of the organizers.

“Those of us who grew up abroad, including those who were born and raised in the United States, love him for his work … even my friends who don’t speak the Oromo language well,” Argo, 38, told VOA in a phone interview. “For one to be loved by those who do not speak the language you sing shows that he has done something extraordinary.

“That is Hachalu,” Argo said. “My community, young and old — everyone is shocked by his assassination.”

Nobel Prize questioned

On Wednesday, hundreds had gathered in front of the Nobel Peace Center in Norway’s capital to demand that the Nobel committee either denounce or retract the 2019 peace prize it had awarded to Abiy.

A letter of complaint, handed to peace center representatives who came out to meet with demonstrators, “detailed democratic backsliding, crackdown on the media and opposition parties, and the use of force to settle political differences,” Hailu Kitaba, one of the protest’s organizers, told VOA’s Horn service. Hailu, who lives in Norway, was a friend of the late singer and is a musician himself.

From “someone who received an award for peace, you expect peace, not violence in the country,” he said of Abiy.

In a speech to Ethiopia’s Parliament last Tuesday, the prime minister said people abroad who are pushing for unrest should follow the singer’s example and return to Ethiopia to fight for what they believe in.

“You will never bring about victory by sitting afar and ordering others to close roads or rise up to kill,” Abiy said.

Protesters against Abiy’s government say they will continue to hold rallies and mourn Hachalu.

Tigist Geme of VOA’s Horn of Africa service contributed to this article.

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