Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was just 34 years old when he was assassinated on June 29, 2020 in the capital city of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa (Finfinne). Haacaaluu was a gifted singer and activist who was committed to justice for the Oromo people from his youth. As a teenager, he was taken from high school and spent five years in prison for participating in a peaceful demonstration against the authoritarian rule of the EPRDF government. While in prison, he devoted himself to studying Oromo oral traditions which can be viewed as an archive of the history of the people. He understood how the repression and marginalization that his generation faced at the hands of the EPRDF mirrored the oppression that had been carried out against the Oromo and other groups by successive Ethiopian regimes since the time of Menelik’s military conquest. The oral history his work stored and recounted distilled the experience of the Oromo nation using powerful and unforgettable images. It was during his time in prison that Haacaaluu began to compose songs that connected the contemporary plight of the Oromo people with the suffering of previous generations.
Once released from custody, Haacaaluu rose to prominence as a young artist capturing the voice of his generation by aligning it with the long trajectory of the Oromo nation’s extended struggle. He was exceptionally talented, powerful and mesmerizing. His music placed in historical context the youth’s yearnings for free expression, self-determination and democracy. One of Haacaaluu’s greatest gifts was his ability to frame current issues, sufferings and longings through song and poetry using familiar, yet complex and deeply resonant metaphors that tugged at the heartstrings of young and old alike. His work empowered a full-blown pro-democracy movement among the youth who were outraged at the injustices they faced. This movement demanded that the constitution of Ethiopia – which actually enshrined democratic federal governance as part of its provisions – be honored rather than violated. The pro-democracy youth movement which became known as #OromoProtests, demanded an end to land dispossession, especially the massive confiscation of farmland around the capital called the “Addis Ababa Master Plan”. The youth movement didn’t stop there. They condemned the economic, political and cultural marginalization of the Oromo and other similarly subjugated peoples in Ethiopia and demanded equality.
The songs and performances of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa provided inspiration. They also communicated a vision that drove what was a relentless nonviolent movement to achieve self-expression through democracy that was promised in the 1995 constitution, but not yet delivered. All of Haacaaluu’s music was composed and performed in the Oromo language. His messages were not accessible to the ruling group who were consequently taken unawares by the strength and determination of the youth movement that spanned the entirety of Ethiopia’s most populous and fertile region, Oromia, and it was later joined by youth from other regions. Interestingly, the government could not find or understand the source of the youth’s inspiration though Haacaaluu’s songs were playing on every radio and cell phone in Oromia. He touched the soul of the nation, and left an indelible longing in the hearts of the generation who sacrificed for their rightful place in the country, the region, the continent and the world.
Although a year has transpired since Haacaaluu’s killing, no one has been brought to justice for his murder. It is a widely held belief among the Oromo and in other civic and political circles that he was assassinated by the Ethiopian state when its leaders realized that the criticism contained in his songs also applied to the injustices carried out by their own government led by Abiy Ahmed. Abiy’s claim to an Oromo identity did not absolve him from the clear evidence that his regime was not delivering on promises to meet the youth’s demands for democracy, rights and self-rule. Haacaaluu’s messages pointed to the failure of Abiy’s government.
In his honor, on the anniversary of his assassination, we would like to share a translation of one of the songs he performed using an ancient form of Oromo music called geerarsa. This art form acts as a way of remembering and interpreting collective history. Each artist who performs geerarsa embellishes it by adding the experience of the singer’s era. Geerarsa articulates the Oromo dilemma within Ethiopia as a multinational country. Haacaaluu’s geerarsa frames the challenges that the Oromo face as one of many nations that want the autonomy to manage and develop their own resources. They point to the restrictions the Oromo face and call to dismantle the legacy of oppression that was put in place by those who gained the upper hand through conquest. Throughout the retelling of shared Oromo history in these songs, there are many references made to the subjugation and loss of sovereignty and dignity that the Oromo and other southern Ethiopian peoples experienced. The particularly poignant style of geerarsa that Haacaaluu performed inspired the youth to demand an opportunity to participate in creating an equal and democratic union through a federal arrangement which is written into the constitution, but which has yet to be practiced in Ethiopia since its adoption nearly three decades earlier.
The Oromo protests of 2014-2018 were peaceful, powerful and unstoppable. Haacaaluu’s music has been repeatedly and rightfully called “the soundtrack of the Qeerroo youth movement”. This nonviolent movement eventually led to the ousting of the ruling EPRDF government led by the TPLF. This successful pro-democracy movement was a remarkable feat and should have been championed worldwide as an historic achievement. It is a travesty that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his supporters turned against the movement, targeted it to be dismantled and attempted to decimate it. A large blow against #OromoProtests took place immediately after Haacaaluu’s killing. Tens of thousands of youth were arrested across Oromia within hours of the news of his assassination. Leaders and young aspiring candidates for election were rounded up and have been detained for a year. Instead of leading a transition to democracy and inclusive governance following the change of regime that the peaceful movement accomplished, Abiy’s administration completely betrayed the promise and even waged wars in the Oromia and Tigray regions of the country. The sham election that took place only days before the one-year anniversary of Haacaaluu’s life being snuffed out coupled with a frontal attempt to dismantle the peaceful youth movement was another effort to disenfranchise the Oromo people. Yet, those who think that this movement is eliminated still do not grasp that his music lives on because it is folded into the oral history of the Oromo people through geerarsa.
Geerarsa is one of the many genres of songs and chants in the Oromo culture. There are geerarsa for bravery, for grief, for speaking against oppression, for resistance, for speaking truth to power, for hunting, for war, and for honoring heroes – to name the few. Generally, geerarsa is a call-and-response performance where several lead singers take turns chanting verses while an ensemble chants the refrain. Geerarsa has also been used as a tool for national consciousness raising and for mobilizing people. Addisu Tolessa’s (1999) work argues that geerarsa has been utilized in the Oromo national liberation struggle and he discusses how it constitutes Oromo national literature. Traditionally, geerarsa is performed by men with women chanting the refrain in ensemble. However, women have also claimed geerarsa both historically and contemporarily. Today, Oromo women like Ilfinash Qannoo, Hanisha, Hawi Tazarra and many others have taken up geerarsa.
The Situational Context of Geerarsa – Haacaaluu’s Performance at Millennium Hall, December 9, 2017
Haacaaluu sang a memorable geerarsa as part of a performance at Millennium Hall in the Capital City on December 9, 2017. At that time, the qeerroo youth movement was having a profound impact and change was in the air. Everyone in Millennium Hall knew that the government could not continue in the direction it was going. In the audience were government officials and aspiring leaders of Ethiopia. In a later interview, Haacaaluu revealed that he had come to that event knowing the power of his message and the resistance/revolution that it represented. He understood that EPRDF government stalwarts, including those to be in attendance, would be highly offended by his gerarsaa, but the youth would be inspired. He was committed to conveying the message for the people and especially for the youth in the audience. He was always prepared to face the consequences of exposing unjust conditions. The performance rocked the house.
Haacaaluu’s chant, in this particular context, combines several genres of geerarsa. He recites and he incites, he grieves, and he inspires. He chants bravery and delivers a strong call to action. He speaks truth to power. Everyone listening in person and to the livestream as well as later recordings knew that there were important government officials in the audience. The message was addressed to them as much as to qeerroo and to the larger audiences. Haacaaluu used geerarsa as a political instrument to speak for the Oromo people.
He starts by calling “asham asham asham asham…” He comes out of the wings onto a stage in front of a fired-up audience. People are full of energy; they are brimming with passion. There is so much anticipation in the air, so much excitement. Something significant is about to happen, about to be said and Haacaaluu is calling attention to it. There is a call to action.
“Asham, asham, asham” signifies both greeting and encouragement. By chanting this, Haacaaluu seems to be gathering his courage and challenging the audience to gather theirs. He continues, asking the audience: Jirtuu? Jirtuu? Ijoolleen Booranaa jirtuu? Ijoolleen Wallaggaa jirtuu? Ijoolleen Arsii jirtuu? Ijoolleem Tuulamaa jirtuu? Ijoolleen Macaa jirtuu? Eessa jirtu? He calls on all the major Oromo collectives and asks where they are. But he isn’t just taking a roll call; he is alluding to the range of participants and advocates, casting the net wide. He is calling out to everyone in a show of inclusivity and recognizing their crucial contribution. He is reaching out to everyone as if to say, his is something we do together, not leaving out anyone. It will require youth from Booranaa, Wallaggaa, Gojjam, etc. His call is electrifying, and the audience erupts into response, joining in the call-and-response genre of geerarsa.
The question itself is highly politically charged. Jirtuu? Eessa jirtuu? Are you there? Do you even exist? Where are you? And the response is, “We are at Boolee!” There is a sense of reclaiming the land they are standing on, the land of their ancestors, the place, even claiming the Millennium Hall, reclaiming Finfinnee. This entrance, this situational context, is vital to understanding the power and the impact of the message: We have arrived to claim our space!
Haacaaluu’s Geerarsa – Transcription and Translation
Geerar geerar naan jettu
You challenge me to sing geerarsa, songs of the brave
Mee ka’ee itti haleeluuree
Shall I go ahead?
Badi badi naan jettu
You dare me escape and disappear
Mee ka’ee qajeeluuree
Should I give in and go away?
Ani maalan geerraraa
What shall I sing about?
Anoo yaadan yeelalaa
I have so much to lament
Dhiirri geerraree hin quufne
The brave youth are the ones who should be singing
Hidhaa qaallitti jira
But they reside in Qaallitti prison
Dhiirri geeraree hin quufne
The brave youth who could sing of glory
Hidhaa qilinxoo jira
Are confined to the dungeons of Qilinxoo prison
Dhiirri geeraree hin quufne
The brave youth who should be singing in the place I stand
Hidhaa karchallee jira
Are detained in Karchallee jail
Karchallee Amboo jira
They are in lockdown in Ambo’s prison cells.
Ani maalan geerara
So what shall I sing about, then?
Anoo yaadan yeelalaa
Let me release the lament in my heart.
Yaa ijoollee banneerrakaa
Oh, my brothers, beware!
Gurra abbaa ganneerrakaa
We have abandoned our forefathers’ legacy. We have left it behind.
Oromoon maalum godheree
What did the Oromo do wrong?
Maalum gochuu dideree
Did we not do everything that was asked of us?
Yaalle hamma dandeenyu
We tried to our utmost.
Kana caala maal goonuuf
What remains to be done? What more can we do?
Xinnaas gabbarree guddaa
We have bowed and submitted to the great and the small
Akka wajjin bubbulluuf
Just for the sake of co-existence
Obsuun waanuma jiru
Patience is not new to us
Obsine hamma obsaa
But we have tested the limit of our tolerance
Erga sodaa fakkaate
Since our patience is being mistaken for fear!
Ka’een ishitti cabsa
Let me deal with this. Let us demonstrate our fearlessness!
Nan dhowwinaa nan dhaqa
Don’t restrain me! Don’t hold me back as I go to
Iddoo yartuun nu nyaarte
Those who have dared to ridicule and poke fun at us.
Hamma isheen geessun laala
Let’s size them up. Let’s show them what we are made of
Akka lamuu nu nyaarretti
So they will not mock us again.
Biyyeetti ishii dabala
Let’s overcome them once and for all.
Yaa ijoollee biyya kooti
Hundumtuu haadhoo kooti
You are all as dear as my closest family
Sa’aa keenya ishee burre
The prize milking cows from our livestock
Ishee ribbiif kennine
That we allowed them to borrow for milking and calving,
They strapped and milked
Elmatan bara meeqa
They ruthlessly milked them dry.
Nuuf galchuu didan male
We saw none of the milk and yet they refuse to return our cows to us!
Yoom beekne dubbii keessaa
They hid their real intention
Akka ramacii ibiddaa
Like live embers that hide under ashes
Irra keessa dibanii
Lurking behind a deceptive surface
Nu gubuuf akka yaadan
Masking their intention to destroy us
Rabbumaaf turre malee
Only by God’s grace have we survived!
Rabbumaaf jirra malee
Only by God’s grace are we still here!
Harargeen mancaa qarraan
Harargee sharpened its mancaa (hoe which can serve as a weapon)
Tuulamni farda leenjise
Tuulama trained his horses
Roorroon daangaa dabarraan
When they crossed the line, our grievances spilled over!
Qeerroon falma murteesse
Qeerroo rose in unwavering resolve. Enough!
Addaggeen safuu hin beektu
The shameless scoundrels do not respect any limit, nothing is sacred to them.
Addarra dhaaban malee
Resolutely and ruthlessly stand your ground! Vulgar people know no shame unless you stamp it on their forehead when they come for you.
Falmadhu qeerroo si’ii
Qeerroo, do not be moved! Defend yourself to the end because you are…
Abdiin sabaa yoomillee
…the hope of the nation.
Nu beekuuf bar shororkaa’u
They know us. And they fear us – because they know our potential
Kanaaf garaa jabaatu
That’s why they are merciless
Irreef humna qabaniin
With all their might and power
They fight desperately, with all they have, holding back nothing.
Nuun miti farda keenya
Not just our bravery, but the reputation of our horses
Hin beeku bareechanii
They dread because they intimately know our power
Gaafa gaarreen Aduwaa
What gallantry we displayed and what obstacles we overcame in the mountains of Adwa [implied: They don’t want this collective power turned against them].
Gaafa Maqalee sanii
They remember our triumph at Maqalee
Did I lie?
Nansobee, ijoollee Oromoo?
Did I lie, you children of Oromo out there?
Here Haacaaluu brings the message home. He is not just providing a history lesson. He is making a connection with the very day and hour of their event, saying in effect, “Here we are in the present moment! Now is the time!” He begins to rally the momentum to elicit a thunderous response from the audience by connecting history with the present, saying, Am I not telling it like it is? (Nansobee?) Am I lying? Have I deceived anybody here? Hey, you Oromos out there, am I speaking the truth? (Nansobee? Nan sobee ijoollee Oromoo?)And the audience erupts into rousing response.
And here the climax: By reciting history and aligning what is happening to the Oromo in the current day with the patterns of the past, the artist applies the power of geerarsa by inspiring the audience to affirm the comparisons. The section below appears to be addressed especially to the government officials in the audience. He dares the young people to take the challenge all the way to Arat Kilo the seat of political power, claiming that Oromo rightfully stand on their own ground. This is the call to action, the call to end the patient waiting and commit to energetic defense.
Gameessa koo yaa abbaa daamaa
My wise one, owner of a strong horse, Daamaa
Oromoo koo yaa abbaa daamaa
Oh Oromo, riding Daama
Yaa abbaa daalee yaa abbaa shaanqoo
Oh, you mounted on Daalee and Shaanqoo
Soori farada kee qopheessi
Feed your horses, get ready
Eeboo kee qarii soroorsi
Sharpen your spear and stand ready
Gaachana fannoorraa buusii
Take your shield from the wall
Roorroo didee sirra marse
The agony of injustice has rained down on you
Maaliif duuta mana teessee?
Why should you die in your own home?
Are you waiting for liberators from abroad?
Alaa eegaa hin abjootin
Don’t dream of a savior from elsewhere
Abjuu hin taane
That is a futile dream
Kaafaddhu farada keen loli
Rise up and fight on horseback
Araat Kiilootti situ aanee
Arat Kilo (seat of power) is rightfully yours
Kaafadhu bullookeen loli
Rise up and fight on your horseback (on Bulloo)
Araat Kiilotti situ aanee
Arat Kilo (seat of power) is rightfully yours
Kaafadhu eebookeen loli
Rise up to defend with your spear
Araat Kiilotti situ aanee
Arat Kilo (seat of power) is rightfully yours
Kaafadhu mancaakeen loli
Raise up fight with mancaa tool to break the ground
Araat Kiilotti situ aanee
Arat Kilo (seat of power) is rightfully yours
This geerarsa is about preparation for what lies ahead: feed your strong horses, sharpen your mancaa, take out your shield, stand unmovable on Araat Kilo itself in the heart of Finfinnee, let alone the other sites under contention. Don’t wait for salvation from outside, don’t dream, don’t get lost in unachievable visions, get up and do what you can and fight with what you have and assert your rights even over the seat of government! This is a declaration of readiness. This call must be seen in light of the history recounted of abuse and overreach by the adversary. Otherwise, the whole picture and the power of the moment and the message does not come through. Without making these connections, it is not possible to understand what brought the house down in Millennium Hall with enthusiasm. It is the mix of historical and current events that moved the audience to a booming endorsement.
Haacaalu sang this geerarsa at a critical moment in Ethiopian history. We are now living in what appears to be the wake of what was a truly revolutionary movement. However, the change which was to bring about the liberation the people longed for has yet to arrive. The very fact that Haacaaluu was chanting such geerrarsa for such a huge audience in a lofty hall, reflects the spirit of liberation that fired up both those in the audience and those watching it from around the world. Now his voice has been silenced and his courageous performances ended.
As advocates for the rights, the democracy, the self-determination and the well-being that the youth sacrificed for, we think that it is important to understand the power of Haacaaluu’s message. Art plays an important role in interpreting events. Its call for reflection is pivotal. The songs he developed were inclusive as they shared elements of the collective Oromo experience. His work represented a comprehensive narrative that informed listeners about the connections they had with one another across time and space as it related to their experience as a marginalized people in Ethiopia.
Geerarsa is clearly an effective way to reach and to empower the masses. Oromo songs, particularly geerarsa, have been at the heart of Oromo life for centuries. They are an important art form that continue to interpret personal and collective experiences. Through the qeerroo, these songs were placed at the center of Oromo experience in the current era, making them urgently relevant. They have become central in the struggle to keep and develop Oromummaa, their way of life. Haacaaluu was a master at this art form and his stirring and powerful performances will forever be seared into the minds and hearts of the Oromo who loved him and his music. We honor his memory while acknowledging that the Oromo culture and wisdom that produced him cannot be extinguished with his death. Haacaaluu Hundeessaa will live on through his art.
We would like to thank Dr. Martha Kuwee Kumsaa for her contribution to this piece.
Tolesa, Addisu. (1999). Geerarsa folksong as the Oromo national literature: A study of ethnography, folklore and folklife in the context of the Ethiopian colonization of Oromia. Edwin Mellen Press.
 An alternative spelling for geerarsa is geerrarsa
Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba and many other opposition leaders and journalists were imprisoned in Ethiopia on June 30 and have remained incommunicado for the past 8 months. That their apprehension was carried out to silence Oromo pro-democracy activists and politicians that would be formidable opponents in the country’s upcoming election. In response to mistreatment and the silencing of their voices demanding democratization and the respect of human rights in the country, Jawar, Bekele and 18 others in Ethiopia’s infamous Kaliti prison have gone on a hunger strike. Today, February 12, 2021, marks day 16, entering a critical third week.
If an intervention is not made on their behalf soon, the country could lose two powerhouses of its most ardent supporters of democracy.
There is something that you can do!
Please personalize the letters below and reach out to your representatives, Secretary of State and Ethiopia’s Ambassador to implore them to encourage the Ethiopian government to release these opposition leaders.
On July 22, 2020 Minority Rights Group (MRG) issued an irresponsible, inflammatory, and politically charged statement that cast blame on the Oromo youth for horrific killings and property destruction. (CLICK HERE TO READ OAA’s FULL STATEMENT.)
Join us in a Twitter campaign to hold MRG accountable! Click on the below text & images to easily tweet:
On July 22 @MinorityRights released a statement on #Ethiopia that was irresponsible, inflammatory and politically charged. It cast blame for horrific killings and property destruction on innocent local citizens. #MRGDoBetter. Take it down.
When organizations like @MinorityRights issue statements, they are taken seriously. Their July 22 statement marked Oromo youth as violent mobs. It helped justify their murder over the last 3 months. MRG refuses to account for its role in vilifying the Oromo. #MRGDoBetter
On July 22 @MinorityRights released a statement that vilified Oromo youth & framed them as perpetrators of violence in Ethiopia. THOUSANDS of them have been jailed and HUNDREDS killed over the last 3 months. Their murders have gone unreported and continue unabated. #MRGDoBetter
.@MinorityRights says it stands for Indigenous rights. But in Ethiopia its statement has contributed to the vilification of historically marginalized communities. Oromo youth are being killed on the streets and MRG classified them as perpetrators. #MRGDoBetter please!
That inflammatory @MinorityRights statement of July 22 was weaponized to advance a political narrative which victimized Oromo people. Yet #Oromo continue to be disproportionately affected by the violence that has followed the killing of #HaacaaluuHundeessaa. #MRGDoBetter
To @MinorityRights: #MRGWhatisYourEvidence that members of the local Oromo community members carried out the killings that followed #HaacaaluuHundeessaa’s murder? That they spoke Afaan Oromo? That they looked like Oromo? #MRGDoBetter. #TakeItDown.
Do you care, @MinorityRights, that your July statement fueled a political narrative that demeans and denigrates all Oromo youth (Qeerroo)? Are you okay with how the statement has been weaponized to delegitimize Oromo Voices & justify vicious retaliation? #MRGDoBetter #TakeItDown.
The @MinorityRights July statement remains unsubstantiated and has contributed to the unrest in the country by fueling disinformation. MRG refused to act after it was made aware of the high stakes and the impact the piece was having. Why? #MRGDoBetter
Foreign correspondents took MRG’s rush to judgement as definitive and did not further scrutinize who was to blame for vicious attacks following Haacaaluu Hundeessaa’s June 29 killing. That @MinorityRights statement put the lives of innocent youth in danger. #MRGWhereisYourEvidence
The violence @MinorityRights addressed was not perpetrated by Oromo youth. That violence is part of a wider practice of the Ethiopian state to instill division among groups to be ruled from the center. #MRGDoBetter and disclose the facts through responsible investigation.
The @MinorityRights failure to investigate politically-motivated allegations exposed already vulnerable Oromo youth to prejudice and hateful defamatory discrimination. #MRGWhatisYourEvidence that locals were involved? Take down your irresponsible statement and apologize.
The @MinorityRights July statement on #Ethiopia has been weaponized to vilify Oromo youth and to justify attacks on local Oromo residents. Dr. @JoshCastellino is that something that you are proud of, willing to defend and stand by? #MRGDoBetter Take down the piece.
MRG is responsible for gross violation of the human and civil rights of the Oromo in Ethiopia. Dr. @JoshCastellino and @MinorityRights Council Members have failed to set the record straight after being made aware of problems in their statement. This is unacceptable. #MRGDoBetter
Thanks in no small part to @MinorityRights, Oromo youth who led a sustained nonviolent resistance from 2014-2018 — have been maligned, attacked, sidelined and removed from active participation in election preparation. Many are languishing in overcrowded prisons. #MRGDoBetter
.@MinorityRights says it stands for Indigenous rights but in Ethiopia its July statement helped contribute to framing Oromo youth as violent mobs. Their mass imprisonment and murders have been justified using in large part MRG’s statement. When will #MRGDoBetter?
That unsubstantiated @MinorityRights statement was inserted into the public sphere to an extremely harmful effect. It continues to be cited to legitimize continued violence against Oromo youth. @JoshCastellino, this is not OK. When will #MRGDoBetter? #MRGWhereisYourEvidence
When rights groups like @MinorityRights utterly fail the very people they claim to represent it is a great travesty. @JoshCastellino you have had 3 months to do better. What is your excuse? Do the lives of Oromo youth not matter? #MRGDoBetter #MRGWhereisYourEvidence
The passage of time and repeated plea for retraction has afforded adequate opportunity for investigation, reconsideration and correction by @MinorityRights. Yet @JoshCastellino refuses to correct this misguided stance. It is unacceptable. #MRGDoBetter #MRGWhereisYourEvidence
For three months members of the affected Oromo community have pleaded with @JoshCastellino @MinorityRights to investigate, reconsider & to correct MRG’s misguided stance. The harmful July 22 statement has been allowed to stand and continues to cause harm. When will #MRGDoBetter?
In its July statement @MinorityRights noted internet blackout in Ethiopia and promised to investigate and research the situation. That’s a tacit admission that the statement was made in the absence of research. The promised investigation is long overdue. #MRGWhereisYourEvidence?
The @MinorityRights failure to respond to alerts about the dire effects of the use and misuse of its July statement reveal either an intention or lack of concern about the reach and the consequences of MRG’s decision to issue this rush to judgement. #MRGDoBetter and #TakeItDown
The @MinorityRights’ false accusation of local Oromos has become part of a campaign to sow division by instilling fear and hostility between Oromos and their neighbors. MRG’s unexamined judgment is fueling tensions and conflict. That is unconscionable. #MRGDoBetter and retract.
Dr. @JoshCastellino and @MinorityRights must take responsibility for the unexamined judgement cast against Oromo youth, which has become a lynchpin for those intent on vilifying innocent people and justifying their demonization and the silencing of Oromo. #MRGDoBetter and retract
When @MinorityRights makes a serious allegation against a historically marginalized group, we expect it to back up its claim with clear evidence. #MRGWhatisYourEvidence? @JoshCastellino, what definition of ethnic cleansing did you rely on? What acts constitute ethnic cleansing?
.@MinorityRights, what constitutes “ethnic cleansing”? Is it the gruesomeness of the attack? The scale? Some measure of intentionality? Or the perpetrators? The identity of the victims? Did MRG investigate? Interview victims? How were they identified? How to hold MRG accountable?
On July 22 @MinorityRights issued unverified claims about Oromo youth which the International media and policy makers accepted & used to blame a whole group with false charge of ‘ethnic cleansing’. One result: Oromo people are being attacked & silenced. When will #MRGDoBetter?
.@MinorityRights went public recklessly blaming Oromo youth for “ethnic cleansing” without careful consideration of a fragile political moment and all who were affected. It ignored that 80% of those killed were Oromo themselves. When will #MRGDoBetter? #MRGWhatIsYourEvidence
On July 22, 2020 Minority Rights Group, MRG, issued an irresponsible, inflammatory, and politically charged statement that cast blame on the Oromo youth for horrific killings and property destruction on ordinary citizens of several towns of Dera, Kokosa and Shashamane. MRG did not provide any evidence for the extremely serious and incendiary allegations against an already vulnerable community and failed its due diligence obligations of “Do No Harm”. In subsequent days and months, this statement was used on social media, policy platforms, and various advocacy fora to vilify and dehumanize the Oromo youth and the Oromo public at large. The statement further provided the justification for the widespread and overwhelming violence being perpetrated by security forces across the Oromia regional state since the assassination of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa.
Beginning on the night of June 29, 2020 and continuing into early July, a series of unexpected horrifying attacks on local civilians in a number of Rift Valley cities in central southern Ethiopia shocked the populace. Homes and businesses were burned, residents brutally attacked and some gruesomely mutilated by unknown assailants. At the time the country was in total internet blackout due to the killing of a high-profile artist that had occurred that first night. Journalists were not allowed to enter the area to view the destruction or find and interview witnesses until two weeks after the events. Media reported the accounts of terrified witnesses interviewed after a fortnight. Yet without investigation of its own, and with no evidence, MRG laid the charge of ethnic cleansing against a marginalized and defenseless population that has been the object of state violence and harassment for decades.
Politicization of the MRG statement should cause concern and prompt a definitive response
The title of the MRG statement in itself is inflammatory, “Recent violence in Ethiopia’s Oromia region shows hallmark signs of ethnic cleansing, says MRG.” It was immediately deployed to advance a political narrative which victimized indigenous Oromo. When the MRG statement was posted, the title caused a sensation. Its allegation that hallmarks signs of “ethnic cleansing” were evident in Ethiopia’s Oromia region was followed by the assertion that this violence was carried out by “members of the Oromo [read: indigenous] community”. A sense of triumph was expressed by certain Ethiopian political parties and actors who instantly locked this assertion into a political narrative that demeans and denigrates Oromo youth. These political actors, who are largely drawn from urban elite minorities, regard the pro-democracy multinational position pursued by Oromo, particularly the youth, to be adversarial to their long-term political interests. They perceive the effort to control the “narrative” about what is happening in Ethiopia as a battle over the future configuration of the country, as a device to condemn Oromo with whom they actively struggle over the fate of the constitution, the future direction of the country, what language and economic models will prevail, etc. The stakes are high.
The MRG statement played directly into this political contention. MRG as an organization has been made aware that language it introduced , i.e., that “ethnic cleansing” was carried out by “members of the Oromo community,” constitutes a rush to judgement, remains unsubstantiated and has contributed to the unrest in the country. The MRG usage was embraced and immediately became part of an arsenal of incendiary language employed by political parties intent on controlling a public narrative that might usher them to power. This narrative demonizes and dismisses the Oromo whom they see as their primary political rivals, asserting that they are not viable or responsible actors. These political parties are themselves composed largely but not entirely of persons of Amhara and Gurage origins, urban elites who share language, culture and religion with non-Oromo minorities residing in Oromia. They constitute a tiny fraction of the members of those national groups, but they have traditionally enjoyed great privilege in the country. That privilege extends to distinct advantages in access to the internet, social networks and possession of high-performing technology tools.
The immediate assumption on the part of these parties was that the judgement of the prestigious MRG on the matter was to be regarded as definitive and that there was no further need to scrutinize who was to blame for the attacks and what remedy is supported by the facts. They promoted the stance that the MRG position on the matter, blaming and naming Oromo young people, closes the book on establishing wrongdoing. A closer look, however, reveals that perpetrators of the events described were not and could not be Oromo from the community. In fact, there is increasing evidence that the perpetrators were deployed by Ethiopian security forces as part of a wider practice of instilling division among groups to be ruled from the center. Now it is MRG’s responsibility to set this record straight through responsible investigation.
According to its mission statement Minority Rights Group is attentive to the challenges of protecting rights of both minorities and indigenous peoples in Ethiopia. Historically MRG has been attentive to the unique conditions in Ethiopia where the use of the terms “minority” population and references to “minority rights” do not apply to indigenous peoples. In the case of Ethiopia , the majority population are indigenous and yet dominated by a more powerful, armed, privileged minority. This minority, put in place as part of Ethiopian expansion and state formation, have held state-sanctioned political and economic power as armed settlers in the central and southern regions of the country. Although the term that was coined in the Amharic language to refer to these gun-carrying settlers who dominated in formerly conquered areas has fallen into disfavor by their descendants, the power relationships are remarkably intact.
The distinctions significant to the mission statement of MRG, between “minority groups” and “indigenous” groups are not recognized in MRG’s recent statement on Ethiopia’s Oromia region. Far from it. The rights of the indigenous were not even mentioned in the statement. In the report, without inspection and without demonstrating concern about protecting the rights of indigenous communities, MRG overtly names younger members of the Oromo resident population as likely responsible for atrocities, without citing any evidence. MRG wrote that the attacks were carried out by an “organised and large group of predominantly young people from the Oromo community.” This statement implies that locals are involved; it implies that neighbors are attacking neighbors. This has turned out to be a lethal allegation. The fact that MRG was willing to assert such an accusation without any investigation is a violation of its stated mission to protect the rights of indigenous peoples from prejudice and from hateful defamatory discrimination.
The behavior described by MRG is completely at odds with cultural mores of the Oromo in relation to their neighbors. By allowing an unvetted allegation to be issued on July 22 in the name of MRG, the organization and its statement have been weaponized to vilify Oromo youth and to justify attacks on local Oromo residents. It is a move that is contrary to the mission of MRG and one that is not only grossly negligent of the rights of local Oromo, but MRG has allowed its voice to join those who actively violate the rights of innocent civilians. MRG’s inserting the uncritical use of the term “ethnic cleansing” instantly heightened the level of hostility against the Oromo and tipped the balance distorting Ethiopia’s national narrative.
MRG is responsible for gross violation of the human and civil rights of the Oromo in Ethiopia.
In the three long months since the MRG lent its voice to fan an inflammatory political narrative vilifying what MRG termed “young people from the Oromo community,” Oromo youth who led a sustained nonviolent resistance against the previous Prime Minister from 2015-2018 have been maligned, attacked, sidelined, their leaders imprisoned and removed from active participation in elections preparation. MRG contributed significantly to that turn of events.
The MRG’s ill-conceived statement was irresponsibly inserted into the public arena to an extremely destructive effect. It played an outsized role in exacerbating tensions in the country as citations of the MRG statement dominated political, policy and media platforms to the open delight of political groups who unapologetically oppose Oromo participation in the political process.
Passage of time has afforded adequate opportunity for reconsideration and correction by people of integrity and goodwill at MRG of this misguided stance.
In order to continue to contribute to the protection of rights on all sides MRG should take the following steps:
The July 22 ‘Statement’ should be superseded by a ‘Report’ as soon as possible.
The statement itself promised an actual investigative report, assuring readers as follows: “Now that Ethiopia’s internet blackout has ended, MRG will continue to investigate and research the situation.” Yet that investigation and research has not taken place. That promise amounts to an admission that the “statement” was made in the absence of research and rather constituted an expression of “concern.” The promised research is long overdue. Every agent, news reporter, media commentator, political actor and analyst already refers to the posting as a “report,” assuming, in error, that it conveys verifiable findings. It does not. It is at best speculative, and that speculation is in error. The nuance between a “statement” and a “report” from MRG is lost on the public. It is past time to make good on that promise to provide reliable data on MRG’s platform. At this point MRG has moved into such visibility in the Ethiopian discourse that it behooves the group to step up to carry out a responsible investigation and issue a report that can be verified as soon as possible. This report should be one that MRG can stand behind or retract. MRG’s reputation depends on it. When MRG announces that it will conduct the anticipated investigation, the July 22 piece should be withdrawn.
MRG should assume responsibility for the scale and impact of the statement
If the language of MRG intervention had been deployed in a way that MRG found offensive or detrimental to its mission, the organization would be expected to take every possible measure to assure that MRG’s impact does no harm. Some readers speculated when the report was issued, that the MRG Director or the MRG Council Members might not be cognizant of the extent of the destructive impact that the title and framing had on the political scene in Ethiopia. If made aware, MRG would act immediately to mitigate its deployment as a piece of propaganda in the hands of Ethiopian political actors.
But MRG’s failure to respond to alerts about the dire effects of the use and misuse of the statement reveal either an intention or lack of concern about the reach and the consequences of MRG’s decision to issue this rush to judgement.
The Oromo have a proverb that states, “You cannot wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.”
When asked to retract the statement, MRG has demurred, more concerned about disappointing or discounting the sense of loss of named minorities than about the victimization of members of both minorities and indigenous people. MRG relied on unnamed “Ethiopian partners” whose advice placed MRG in this vulnerable and disadvantageous position in the global sphere where MRG has formerly enjoyed respect and prestige.
MRG should assess the negative impact of its statement regarding
Actions against Oromos
Since July 22, there has been an explosion of killings, abuse, detention, and intimidation of Oromos by official and unofficial forces in Ethiopia. The general tenor of blame targeted at Oromo youth in the MRG statement is cited to justify harsh actions against them. Over 1,000 have been killed, over 30,000 detained countrywide. MRG’s unexamined judgement on the matter finds its way into media reporting, public speeches, scholarly and analytical commentary, everyday conversation and social media interactions accessible in a number of languages. The general assumption is that with the harsh crackdown, the Oromo are getting what they deserve or that they brought it on themselves. This is contrary to the very mission of MRG.
Fear and distrust instilled in minorities
The well-being of minorities is affected here in ways that should be acknowledged. The false accusation of local Oromos has become part of a campaign to sow division, by instilling fear and hostility among Amharas and Gurages. They are told that MRG confirms that, indeed, they are targeted by members of the Oromo community and they therefore need to fight for their very lives. Members of these minority groups are literally arming themselves in their homes and hiding in churches to escape from their Oromo neighbors from whom they had nothing to fear. The irony is that first reports out of the affected areas noted that some in the Oromo community actually intervened to protect Amharas from the real perpetrators who arrived in dozens of trucks from outside the community equipped with gasoline and lists of homes and businesses to attack, prepared to wreak havoc. None of the locals knew who they were.
Hardening of positions undermines platforms seeking common ground
This divisive approach undermines any contribution that MRG might make to the long-term achievement of peace. Casting blame without care and without certainty has also undermined the MRG commitment to peace by contributing to hardening of positions on both sides. Oromos are now castigated by minorities who suspect them and point them out to security forces. These youth are hunted by the same security and police who MRG reported had failed to protect victims at the time of the attacks. Politically motivated actors, who relish the dominance they have achieved in the three short months since Haacaaluu was killed, thrive in the climate of fear, distrust and division achieved by manipulating the sensibilities of minorities and placing Oromo on the run. The rights of these minorities were never in danger from Oromo throughout the entire period when Oromo youth protested in Oromia (2015-2018), demanding peace, democracy and opportunity. During that time Oromo youth led in the effort to bring down a repressive regime. Unfortunately, the trust that existed has unraveled, creating a much bigger challenge to envisioning the kind of platforms for dialogue and peace that Minority Rights Group claims to support.
A challenge to reconsider the MRG statement and policies that led to it
How can the impact of the MRG statement be mitigated? It should be retracted followed by these specific actions: 1) the promised investigation, conducted with full transparency, 2) widespread circulation of the findings, and 3) active outspoken advocacy to undo the harm caused. Part of the corrective must include scrutinizing how MRG selects and chooses to respond to these “partners” consulted behind the scenes and whose reports MRG keeps secret. As an organization with a mission to protect, MRG must consult a range of voices among its “Ethiopian partners,” consider how representatives of indigenous peoples are to reach MRG to obtain similar access to its good offices and determine how those who are not already on the inside track to influence MRG can gain the opportunity to persuade and present data/findings/hypotheses to be examined and convey their equally legitimate sense of loss.
A way forward: setting a precedent for addressing human rights complexity
In suggesting above that MRG launch an investigation worthy of MRG’s past reputation, let there be no illusion that stepping away from this position after nearly three months of allowing it to stand will be easy or straightforward. If MRG embraces the nuance and sophistication required to serve both groups of victims – the minorities in Oromia and the Oromo indigenous people – and correct this dangerous precedent, the organization can model a workable standard for investigation and inspection of human rights and international understanding/comprehension of complex phenomena. This is an opportunity for Minority Rights Group not only to correct a very negative impact in a contentious environment, but also to lead in discerning how to ground the protection of rights in a foundation of fact-finding.
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