Defusing Ethiopia’s Latest Perilous Crisis

The killing of a prominent Oromo musician has unleashed a wave of protests that have left dozens dead, highlighting anew the fragility of the country’s transition. Authorities and opposition leaders should call for calm and engage in sustained dialogue to bridge the bitter divisions.

A wave of deadly violence ripped through Ethiopia’s capital and much of the country’s largest state, Oromia, after the 29 June assassination of a prominent Oromo musician brought thousands of protesters into the streets. Dozens were killed by a combination of armed gangs rampaging through mixed ethnic settlements and the police, who deployed lethal force to tackle them. The violence is the latest bout of escalating unrest punctuating Ethiopia’s halting transition to multiparty politics. It could well presage a period of sustained instability in Oromia, which was the epicentre of the 2014-2017 protests that paved the way for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s rise to power and which is now home to an armed insurgency. Government and opposition leaders should urgently appeal for calm. Abiy should invite key opposition leaders for dialogue on the issues that divide them, including, most urgently, planning for delayed elections initially slated for August. Engaging his rivals might reduce Ethiopian actors’ temptation to settle differences on the street, a dynamic that risks tipping the country into graver conflict.

Hachalu Hundessa, one of Oromia’s most celebrated musicians, was ambushed by unknown gunmen outside an apartment complex in the capital Addis Ababa late on 29 June. He died of his wounds in hospital a few hours later. A former political prisoner detained at the age of seventeen in 2003 for his activism, Hachalu gained cult-figure status among the Oromo for his lyrics that encouraged protesters to stay the course during their campaign for political change. His music contained evocative references to Oromo folklore and narratives surrounding what the Oromo view as decades of repression and political exclusion.

While Hachalu’s killing was the trigger of the latest unrest, the violence that followed his death also results from deeper tensions. These have been simmering over the course of a transition to multiparty democracy that has uncorked dangerous ethno-nationalist frictions, long suppressed by a largely authoritarian state. So far, Abiy’s government has struggled to balance competing demands for change among Ethiopia’s diverse constituencies. These include those of Oromo nationalists who aspire to enhanced devolution of power from the centre, an end to economic marginalisation and a formal role for the opposition in planning for the next election, among other goals. Many in Oromia celebrated Abiy’s April 2018 ascension to the premiership, believing that he would deliver them a greater share of political power and the fruits of a decade of rapid economic growth. Some of Abiy’s Oromo rivals now accuse him of letting them down.

Other disputes feed the febrile atmosphere. Parliament’s recent unilateral postponement of national elections initially scheduled for August but suspended due to COVID-19 and its extension of its own term have stoked anger. Top opposition figures feel that Abiy should have given them a bigger role in deciding how to handle the delay, given the transition’s fragility and the need for consensus on what are expected to be highly competitive elections. In response to the decision, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), once at the vanguard of the ruling coalition but now opposed to Abiy, has undertaken to hold its own regional vote in August, a move Addis Ababa has warned could lead to conflict.

Hachalu’s killing, the ensuing protests – the most serious unrest since the prime minister came to power – and the authorities’ strong reaction have further inflamed an explosive situation. The government shut down the internet and deployed the military to the streets of Addis Ababa. Police also detained Jawar Mohamed and Bekele Gerba, two key Oromo opposition figures who are leading members of the Oromo Federalist Congress, one of the two main Oromo opposition parties. Police claim that Jawar and 34 others were arrested for trying to stop Hachalu’s body from being transported to his hometown in Oromia, instead demanding that he be accorded a funeral in the capital. The arrests quickly became a rallying cry for protesters, who demanded the detainees’ release. Authorities later detained Eskinder Nega, an opposition leader with substantial support in Addis Ababa who condemns Abiy’s government as a front for a broader Oromo power grab. Officials did not give an immediate reason for his detention.

Unrest quickly spread across the capital and many parts of Oromia. Youthful Oromo protesters, known as Qeerroo, staged protests in Addis Ababa and across Oromia, destroying property and attacking members of other ethnic groups, prompting non-Oromo to mobilise in self-defence. Eighty-three civilians and four police officers have been killed in the mayhem, according to Oromia’s police commissioner. By 3 July, troop deployments appeared to have mostly brought calm to the capital and large parts of Oromia. But if attacks resurge, they could snowball into even more serious intercommunal violence and breathe further wind into the sails of a group of Oromo nationalists who have been running an armed rebellion for the past two years in the state’s western and southern extremities.

As well as mounting a strong security response, officials have pointed a finger at political opponents for attempting to destabilise Ethiopia, an accusation that threatens to further embitter the country’s divisions. Prime Minister Abiy suggested that the killing was a deliberate ploy to foment trouble. “We have two choices as a people: to fall into the trap being set up by detractors or to deviate from their trap and stay on the course of reforms. Choosing the first is to willingly aid them in our demise”. While the prime minister did not identify a culprit, some of his close allies have implicated the TPLF in the assassination. These claims will inevitably cause deep anger among the former ruling party’s leadership, who bristle at what they perceive as Addis Ababa’s tendency to blame them for every crisis the nation has faced over the past year. Other officials have blamed Oromo rebels, and still others claim that another country might have staged the killing to stir up unrest.

Since Ethiopia’s leadership transition in April 2018, the country has witnessed repeated bouts of violence whenever events at the national level have rattled the political system. This occurred in June 2018 when attackers in Addis Ababa staged an apparent attempt on Abiy’s life; it occurred again a year later when rogue security officers killed the military chief and the state president of the Amhara region, Ethiopia’s second largest after Oromia. Another bout of mass unrest took place in Oromia in November 2019, after opposition leader Jawar Mohamed said authorities had withdrawn his security detail. These – and other – rounds of fighting have resulted in thousands of deaths and displaced more than three million people.

The immediate priority is to defuse tensions and prevent a return to violence on the streets. In the first instance, that will require the federal authorities and opposition leaders to call for calm and back down from confrontational stances. All sides should commit to tackling their differences peacefully and through talks. Preventing repeated cycles of violence requires the prime minister to be more consultative. For their part, opposition parties’ leaders should commit to pursuing their goals through the political process and restrain supporters from attacking private property, government installations and fellow citizens whenever a dispute surfaces. In particular, Jawar – who enjoys enormous sway among the Qeeroo youth who led the protests and remain a force on the streets – should unambiguously condemn lawlessness when he is released.

The federal government also should undertake credible and transparent investigations into the string of assassinations that have rocked the transition over the past two years. Past enquiries into high-profile killings have been mostly inconclusive and deepened mistrust. To avoid this reoccurring, the authorities could empower Ethiopia’s human rights commission, now headed by a widely respected figure, to undertake independent investigations and report its findings back to parliament within a defined timeframe. In the same vein, top officials should stop insinuating that political opponents were behind the assassination before an exhaustive investigation has been completed.

More broadly, and as Crisis Group has repeatedly advocated, sustained dialogue among political elites is essential, given their diverse visions for the country’s future, notably how to balance power between the centre and state governments. Many of Abiy’s rivals resent that, although they supported his rise to power, he has failed to consult them before major decisions, including on the election date. The prime minister and the Prosperity Party he leads should rethink their unilateral approach and seek some form of dialogue with representatives from across the political spectrum. Talks could start by focusing on immediate priorities, including setting the electoral timetable and addressing the TPLF’s isolation. Those discussions might in turn open space for debate of deeper-seated rifts, including over the division of authority between Addis Ababa and the regions, autonomy demands by groups in the south, Amhara and Oromo nationalist agitation, and the raging Oromo insurgency. Before dialogue takes shape and to create conditions conducive for healing these divides, authorities should release detained opposition figures.

Ethiopia’s transition has been a source of hope for many within the country and beyond. But the deadly clashes over the past few days – and prior, repeated bouts of unrest – highlight that the path ahead will be fraught. It is high time for Ethiopian authorities and the opposition to engage in sustained and serious dialogue on key fault lines to ensure that their followers stop taking their disputes to the streets.