Sample Letters Urging US Officials to Take Action for Release of Pro-Democracy Prisoners on Hunger Strike

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.

Holding Minority Rights Group Accountable: Twitter Campaign

Click the image above to tweet about the campaign!

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

MRG says it works with “Ethiopian partners” but it refuses to listen to advocates of #Oromo youth who have been seriously harmed by the finger-pointing July 22 statement. #MRGDoBetter

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

OAA Statement on the Minority Rights Group Statement of July 22, 2020

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.

The Media’s Crisis on Ethiopia

Western media coverage of Ethiopia’s political crisis turns a blind eye to the grassroots movement behind the protests.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Read more at Africa Is a Country.

How the Murder of an Ethiopian Singer Triggered an Uprising Against a Disintegrating Democracy

BY RIBKA AYANA JULY 24, 2020 2:58 PM EDT

Ribka is co-chair of the Oromo Advocacy Alliance, which advocates for peace, justice, inclusive governance and the economic well-being of the Oromo and other peoples of Ethiopia

The June 29 murder of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, singer and activist, has triggered a popular uprising in Ethiopia. TIME columnist Ian Bremmer described the protests in a recent piece; since he wrote it the death toll has risen to at least 289, with over 7,000 detained. Internet services were shut down within hours of the assassination, and were only restored after four weeks.

But it’s important to understand what is taking place from the point of view of the grassroots in Ethiopia. That this single event would cause such a country-wide uproar has many asking, who was Haacaaluu? What are his songs about? Why did his death evoke such an outpouring of anguish, pain, and rage?

Haacaaluu, 34, was a bold performer and artist considered a cultural treasure, particularly by the Oromo people, the country’s largest nationality, cultural and linguistic group with a population of around 40 million.

His killing has touched every young person among the Oromo and many more who had access to a radio or a playlist. Haacaaluu’s songs breathed life into an ancient art form with great skill, making his music accessible across generations as well as nationalities.ADVERTISING

Most notably his messages propelled the politically active grassroots youth movement often referred to as Qeerroo (meaning young unmarried person) in ways that the world beyond Ethiopia is just beginning to understand.

They played the leading role in creating the political opening that brought the current Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, into his position. Haacaaluu’s musical messages deeply resonated with the historically marginalized who regard him as the embodiment of standing proud in their own identities.

Haacaaluu’s music provided the soundtrack for youth protests that erupted in 2014 against the expansion of Addis Ababa into Oromo territory. At the heart of these grassroots protests was the question of rights in the face of past and current land grabs that left Oromos dispossessed and strangers on their own lands. With his words playing in their ears, they persisted against brutal crackdowns to turn out en masse in the streets. This movement brought down the repressive regime of Hailemariam Desalegn, demanding fundamental freedoms and justice.

Haacaaluu’s songs highlighted deeper historical injustices and resonated deeply with those whose lands were confiscated to create Ethiopia and its capital city in the late 19th century. He spoke to their dream of building a decentralized Ethiopia that reflects the rich diversity of its many peoples. However, this desire creates alarm and fear among Ethiopians who support the kind of assimilation that created the country. From the view of the dispossessed, Haacaaluu’s assassins crushed their hopes. His death evokes anguish and rage because it symbolizes an assault on their identities, their human dignity and their deepest aspirations.

The idea that the Ethiopia is divided into ethnically-based territories by its constitutions is the issue most misunderstood in the West. It is only one one side of a major debate in Ethiopian politics today.

The constitution drawn up in 1995 starts: “We the nations, nationalities, and peoples of Ethiopia….” capturing the commitment of the country’s diverse peoples to build and live together in a multinational federation in Ethiopia that reflects the identities of all its peoples. Prior to this, the majority of the country’s population lived under governments that pursued assimilationist policies which suppressed cultural expression and diversity.

Creating constitutionally-protected multinational states was the first sign of a historic transition from autocracy to democracy. The grassroots in Ethiopia treasure the constitution and they are determined to protect it.

Surprisingly, the vision that Abiy offers now stands in contradiction to the will of the majority that brought him to power. His vision of a single national identity purports to “transcend” ethnic divisions. On the contrary, for the grassroots movements, it is a return to the assimilationist politics of the past. This vision has been tried time and again by Ethiopia’s emperors and by the Dergue military regime, which was in power from 1974 to 1987, but it has failed utterly.

The constitution enshrined multinational federation as a democratic response to the age-old question of nationality or cultural identity in Ethiopia. What is cloaked as “unity” in Abiy’s vision erases and persecutes ethnic identity and associated rights. As such it is seen by the grassroots youth movement as anti-democratic. Haacaaluu, inspiring the youth, championed a view which Abiy has turned against.

The grassroots movement has resumed because Abiy Ahmed has resorted to a politics that is deeply troubling, opening old wounds of conquest and historical trauma and indefinitely postponing elections. Further, he has jailed opposition leaders Bekele Gerba and Jawar Mohammed on false accusations of inciting violence — ironic because they have championed peaceful protests and civil disobedience since 2014. This on top of the closure of the country’s only independent Oromo news outlet, the imprisonment of journalists and the killing of protesters shows that Ethiopia’s democratic transition is in peril.

Until this renewed crackdown on opposition the movement had been remarkably peaceful. Yet as JFK said, “those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” The current situation where the people are subdued by brute force is not sustainable. As Africa’s second most populous nation and an important regional political broker, the root causes of Ethiopia’s current crisis must be politically addressed and resolved to achieve stability in the region.

The international community can make a great contribution by taking steps to promote a democratic process, encouraging Abiy to return to the promises made at the outset of the transition, reinstating freedoms of speech and assembly, democracy and access to opportunity. Abiy cannot presume to pursue democracy with the opposition in custody. In addition to urging the release of prominent opposition leaders, journalists and protesters, global institutions must support a genuine political dialogue with input from all parties and stakeholders, including youth, to develop a roadmap to participatory democracy by way of free and fair elections.

Even though he is gone, Haacaaluu’s call for people to come together and build an Ethiopia that reflects all of its peoples still resonates.