Ethiopia is facing a turbulent political period of unrest ignited by the shooting death on June 29 of a beloved and iconic Oromo musician and activist, Haacaaluu Hundeessaa. Assassinated in the capital, Addis Ababa, Haacaaluu played a pivotal role providing inspiration and vision for the youth movement in 2014-2018 that forced a peaceful change at the top of Ethiopia’s ruling party in 2018.
In April 2018 in an internal party election of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), Hailemariam Desalegn was succeeded by Abiy Ahmed. The latter embarked on a reform process which was supposed to address contradictions exposed within Ethiopian society and politics by the protests, especially the need for domestic economic reforms and breathing life into the federal character of the Ethiopian state. Abiy has since dismantled the EPRDF and formed a unitary party, the Prosperity Party (PP).
The news of Haacaaluu’s death shook a country already despairing of a smooth transition to democracy. It touched off widespread grassroots protests in the Oromia region, the largest and most populous of Ethiopia’s 10 federal states. Police responded with a brutal crackdown starting with firing live ammunition into crowds of mourners. Immediately a sweep of Oromo individuals and institutions followed. At the time of writing more than 300 people have been killed, many more injured by security forces in the aftermath of the assassination. Three weeks ago, government sources reported that more than 7,000 people have been detained. Although updated figures have since not been released, detention rates remain high and schools emptied by COVID-19 are now prisons.
The first taken were well-known opposition leaders Bekele Gerba and Jawar Mohammed, along with 35 others. Jawar’s arrest was particularly dramatic because, despite his stated skepticism, he was considered an early ally of Abiy. The next day after Jawar’s arrest, police ransacked and closed the Oromia Media Network (OMN), a popular alternative to government-controlled sources of information for millions of people in Afaan Oromo, a language spoken by about half of the country’s population. The OMN was established in 2013 by journalists and activists living abroad, and Jawar became its second Executive Director in the US. After Abiy became a prime minister, Jawar returned to Ethiopia.
Unfortunately, international English language media coverage of the unfolding crisis in Ethiopia has presented a single, incomplete narrative to explain the conflict. Major news outlets, such as Associated Press, Washington Post, and WSJ represented the crisis by attributing it to “ethnic” tension, using terms such as “violent mobs” and “vandalism.” Some outlets insinuate that the current catastrophe is a byproduct of the country’s “ethnic federal system.” TIME conspicuously implicated the country’s constitution because it “divides Ethiopia into ethnically based territories.”
In Ethiopia’s existing political landscape, a fraction of the approximately 20% of the population who are urban elites blame the constitution for the current tensions and want to dismantle the components that protect the rights of named regional states. They want the resource base to be treated as a centrally controlled asset they can exploit. The model of multinational federalism created regional states from national/linguistic/cultural groups as semi-autonomous entities to cooperate in federal arrangement. This decision was the result of long resistance to autocratic centralized military rule. It retains a strong support among rural producers (at least 80% of the population). They want rights to develop the lands they consider their birthright and to protect them from unsustainable development by urban elites controlled from Addis Ababa. Yet mainstream media coverage presumes that nationality-based territories protected in the constitution contribute to the unrest rather than provide a solution.
Ethiopia is on the brink of chaos, perhaps even at great risk for a devastating civil war, primarily due to Abiy’s attempts to subvert the existing constitutional arrangement. Most Ethiopians do not support the imposition of further centralization from Addis Ababa. By turning a blind eye to the mounting grassroots resistance, media coverage fails to provide the kind of complete picture or balance necessary to understand the crisis.
Media coverage of Ethiopia needs to acknowledge those who support the sort of regional state autonomy based on linguistic/cultural groups that is enshrined as “multinational federalism” in the Ethiopian constitution of 1995. When Abiy stepped into the political opening created by the youth resistance, he explicitly promised to deliver the transition to democracy via free and fair elections that the previous regime had failed to deliver. The US, the EU, and other international bodies accepted and praised him for his commitment to democratic transition.
However, the basic demands of the grassroots movement have been deliberately dismissed. The marginalized groups are again disappointed. Furthermore, Abiy has commanded an active campaign to delegitimize the peaceful protests and the youth who led them. His government encourages the maligning, denigrating, and targeting of Oromo youth categorically. Over the last two years and increasingly in the aftermath of the assassination, state media have continuously referred to them as “violent,” “hate-driven,” and violent mobs driving “inter-ethnic” conflict. They are now being scapegoated for the recent unrest. Both domestic and international media outlets have magnified this narrative.
With Abiy’s about-face, the glimmer of hope, presented by what was to be a transformative transition to participatory democracy, has now flickered and disappeared. In fact, while urging the youth movement and Oromo leaders to “give him time,” the prime minister has taken giant steps away from democratization.
Over the last year and half, while virtually all media reporting on Ethiopia centered around vanity projects which placed the Prime Minister in the limelight, his government has imposed a state of emergency and military command with severe restrictions on citizens in parts of Oromia where his policies enjoy little or no support. Forces under his direct control carry out extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, house burnings, displacement, and other human rights abuses in these dissident areas as documented by human rights groups such as Amnesty International.
Media reporting has missed how Abiy’s persistent steps have subverted the goals of the grassroots movement. In October 2019, for example, Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize, winning laudatory media coverage. He also dramatically acted to dismantle the ruling coalition party, EPRDF, which provided the underpinning to multinational federalism. In an affront to the spirit of federalism he announced the creation of a single national party.
This move was universally unpopular with the youth movement as a betrayal of the promises of democracy. The ensuing region-wide youth demonstrations, in which 86 people died, were blamed on Jawar, noting his large following among the youth. He had spoken out publicly against Abiy’s political move against federalism by forming a single party. But media reports, and even human rights groups, missed this wider context of youth vexation over Abiy’s betrayal.
Remarkably, people managed to hang onto hope as they anticipated elections. A key to that constant reminder of hope was the music of Haacaaluu on everyone’s playlist, singing about what was possible if they peacefully harnessed their energy and looked to a future of unity. He embodied the grassroots. He himself had urged the youth to be patient with Abiy and to wait for him to get them to elections so that they could realize their desire to transition into a decentralized (multinational) federal system.
Haacaaluu’s assassination removed a safeguard against despair, not only for Oromo, but for other people brought forcibly into Ethiopia and marginalized thereafter. They all anticipated a change away from oppressive economic, political, and cultural structures.
Abiy’s return to authoritarian rule has re-ignited the #OromoProtests movement. His brutal response in suppressing the protests threatens to destabilize the country and the region. Yet the media claim that Abiy has “transcended” ethnic politics, missing many complexities, including a rise in incendiary historical narratives coming from his office and amplified on state and establishment media that pits national groups against each other. Following the assassination, media coverage has missed the scale and motivations for the ongoing government crackdown against anyone who does not agree with Abiy’s agenda. Journalists have presented simplistic narratives that suggest a personal conflict between Abiy and Jawar, reducing an extremely complex story involving much of the grassroots, who are entirely erased from coverage. By including the view from the grassroots, media outlets can deliver a more complete and balanced account of this volatile and fragile moment in Ethiopia.