Hacaaluu Hundessa’s only weapon was his music. His sentence for singing was death. One of Ethiopia’s most popular musicians, Hacaaluu sang of the plight of the Oromo — Ethiopia’s largest but historically repressed ethnic community. His June murder sparked protests around the country and, tragically, confirmed the very repression he sought to end. What’s more, his killing exposed the autocratic DNA of Ethiopia’s government, a regime that benefits from nearly $1 billion of U.S. aid every year while cozying up to China and crushing Ethiopia’s very pro-American constituency — the Oromo.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed used the protests following Hacaaluu’s murder as a pretext to jail his political opponents and shut off the country’s internet access, a blackout that has lasted for three weeks. Likely fearing a democratic electoral repudiation, Abiy also indefinitely postponed Ethiopia’s elections, under the guise of the coronavirus pandemic. While the parliament voted last week to hold elections, the entire electoral process and legitimacy of elections has to be called into question, when nearly every leading opposition figure has been jailed recently and when Abiy and his new Prosperity Party were never elected as such by the people. Among the hopes for the 2018 transition was to implement reforms, including multi-party, multi-region federalism that would set the stage for 2020 elections. Finally, the Constitution calls for elections every five years, suggesting the only way for change, is to amend it.
Abiy’s chillingly anti-democratic actions are just the latest chapter of his illiberal regime. Amnesty International reported in May that under Abiy’s rule, which began when he was named prime minister in April 2018, as many as 10,000 people have been unjustly arrested and at least 39 people — including a 16-year-old boy — were killed in extrajudicial executions in Oromo-majority regions of Ethiopia.
Paradoxically, Abiy himself is an Oromo and the Oromo movement initially helped bring him to power. He came into office promising government reforms, he released prisoners, and in 2019 he received the Nobel Peace Prize for resolving a longstanding and deadly dispute with neighboring Eritrea.
But his refusal to protect the human rights of his own people, combined with his democratic backsliding, must be understood as a problem for Washington as well as for Ethiopia. As the largest country in East Africa, Ethiopia has been a vital partner in the U.S. global war on terror and could yet provide a bulwark to China’s expansion in Africa. But Ethiopia cannot reliably advance U.S. interests in East Africa if the government in Addis Ababa invites instability by repressing Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. Ending this repression and cementing strong bilateral ties with the United States, as authoritarian countries like China seek more influence on the African continent, is the goal of the Oromo community for all Ethiopians.
Need for U.S. Pressure
This goal can most swiftly be met with pressure from Washington. Lawmakers, diplomats, and military officials in the U.S. responsible for providing security assistance and funding to Ethiopia should call on Abiy to immediately and unconditionally release the political prisoners he rounded up both before and after Hacaaluu’s murder. As a member of the Oromo diaspora in America, I treasure my protected right of free speech. But I am too frequently and sadly reminded that today in Ethiopia I could be jailed along with peaceful Oromo protesters — like human rights activist Jawar Mohammed — just for voicing my opinions.
Fortunately, the U.S. Congress agrees that this goal should be achieved. In April of 2018, The House of Representatives unanimously approved a resolution calling for the Ethiopian government to, “release all activists, journalists, and opposition figures who have been imprisoned for exercising their constitutional rights.” And last month, 20 members of the House wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing concern about the “alarming” situation in Ethiopia, and urging him to “engage with the Ethiopian government and all other stakeholders to prevent violence and protect civilians, to promote stability and better dialogue, and to support continued progress toward strengthening democratic institutions.”
Congress should go one step further by holding to account anyone in the Ethiopian government who is responsible for human rights violations under the Global Magnitsky Act. The Oromo community has been heartened to see the bipartisan application of the Global Magnitsky Act across two presidential administrations to wield America’s considerable might to support voiceless minorities who would otherwise be forgotten, or even vanquished.
The same congressional resolution that called for the release of Ethiopian activists also urged the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to “engage in a cooperative effort…to advance democracy.” That clause has never been more needed. Afraid of being voted out of power, Abiy, citing the coronavirus, indefinitely postponed Ethiopia’s elections, which were originally scheduled to take place in May. Ethiopia would face a constitutional crisis should Abiy rule beyond the constitutionally mandated period for elections. And while the virus is, undoubtedly, a serious concern, Ethiopia could have safely held elections as soon as last month. In the United States, federal and state-level elections have occurred in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, despite the tragic spread of the virus, and a number of elections have proceeded in Africa.
Attacks on Independent Media
A vital part of any robust democracy is a free, independent press. This includes opinion journalism and outlets dedicated to specific groups like the Oromo. Unfortunately, as observers at Human Rights Watch and other organizations have reported, the Ethiopian government has shut down independent media outlets, arrested journalists, and taken action against critics from various ethnic or political affiliations. That includes independent news outlets published in the Oromo language and those that report on issues important to the Oromo people. Diaspora blogs have sought to illuminate Oromo issues, but those outlets cannot replace shoe leather reporting in Ethiopia. With the government able to shut down the internet at will, the Oromo seeking news in their own language may soon be forced to rely on carrier pigeons.
Finally, it is my hope that an independent commission will be allowed to investigate Hacaaluu’s assassination. The government clearly has a conflict of interest in the outcome of this investigation and has actively spread disinformation about his killing. So far, the government has blamed Hacaaluu’s killing on the Egyptians (Ethiopia and Egypt are engaged in a major dispute over a dam) as well as on two separate Ethiopian ethnic groups, even as it decided against conducting an official autopsy. As the highest-profile victim of anti-Oromo violence, if Hacaaluu cannot receive justice, can any other Oromo expect it?
Hacaaluu’s assassination laid bare Ethiopia’s underlying fragility, which stems from the Ethiopian peoples’ anxiety about losing their democratic and human rights for good. Ethiopia has long been a stable U.S. partner in beating back terrorism and is well-positioned to confront burgeoning security challenges. But continuing any meaningful security or economic partnership requires a stability in Ethiopia that is authentic, sustainable, and consensus-driven, and that reflects democratic values. For the United States, promoting the rights of the Oromo and other oppressed groups in Ethiopia is a national security issue.
Congress has already laid out a blueprint that would help return stability to Ethiopia. For the sake of both our countries, it is time to act on it.