Editor's Note: This is a two-part analysis of Hachalu Hundessa, a well-known Oromo musician whose death sparked ethno-religious violence exacerbated by online misinformation. Here you can read the first part.
Within an hour after Hachalu Hundessa's murder on June 29 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopian netizens filled social media with wild conspiracy theories, hate speech and disinformation campaigns, especially on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Most of these conspiracy theories exploit controversial historical issues with inflammatory words that pitted the Amhara and Oromo communities at odds. Hachalu was an Oromo, writing critical songs and speaking openly about Ethiopia's fractured politics.
Stories began to circulate that Hachalu's assassination was orchestrated by government authorities and, according to some accounts, by the Prime Minister himself, Abiy Ahemd, whom many Oromo activists abroad consider a puppet of the Amhara people. The term neftegna or “riflemen” it is often used as a two-way reference when referring to the Amhara people, the second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia after the Oromo.
CARD analyzed the trend in use of inflammatory terms, ‘ነፍጠኛ’ (neftegna) and ‘ጋላ’ (galla), on twitter and found out substantial increase in October 2019 and July 2020, when violence occurred. pic.twitter.com/GECulI5Cru
– CARD (@CARDEthiopia) August 5, 2020
CARD analyzed the trend in the use of provocative terms such as ‘ነፍጠኛ’ (neftegna) and ‘ጋላ’ (galla) on Twitter and found a substantial increase in October 2019 and July 2020, when the violence occurred.
Among these theories, one of the most popular holds that Hachalu's disparaging claims about the statue of Menelik II during an interview with the Oromia Media Network (OMN) a week before his assassination, outraged the “riflemen” and that was killed (the statue has been the focus of tensions between the Amhara and Oromo political elites).
Since the assassination, OMN has aired several snippets of the interview on YouTube and Facebook, with the number of page views between 10,000 and more than 200,000, exposing different versions of the theory that the Amhara were somehow involved in the murder of Hachalu.
Supporters of this theory seem to pick parts of the OMN interview to find matching evidence.
Those speculative claims quickly made their way onto powerful satellite television channels. Many “talking busts” abroad repeated the same unverified claims, particularly in the two main opposition outlets: OMN and the Tigray Media Entity (TMH).
All of this became even more important when several top politicians, including Ilhan Omar, the United States representative for Minnesota's fifth congressional district, where the largest percentage of the Oromo community lives in that country, possibly retweeted an article from The New York Times. about Hachalu's murder with a suggestive quote:
The world isn’t kind to people who raise the political conscious of the public.
The music and activism of Hachalu Hundessa provided hope to the Oromo people and so many others.
May he rest in power.https: //t.co/V19dngZT3T
– Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) June 30, 2020
Hachalu Hundessa, Ethiopian musician and activist, shot dead
The 34-year-old musician was known for political songs that supported the Oromo ethnic group's struggle against repression and for being the soundtrack to anti-government protests.
The world is not kind to those who raise the political consciousness of the public.
The music and activism of Hachalu Hundessa gave hope to the Oromo people and many others.
May it rest in power.
At the same time, false and misleading claims emerged in a debate about where Hachalu should be buried. Some Oromo activists abroad claimed that the authorities pressured Hachalu's family to hold the funeral in Ambo, his hometown. Others accused the authorities of rushing the funeral in Addis Ababa to cover up the criminal evidence: the two statements further inflamed ethnic tensions. Hachalu's family and close friends tried to dissipate and publicly stated that they had decided to bury him in Ambo.
Following the violence and destruction against properties of non-Oromo people, non-Muslim families in some parts of Oromia, many netizens saw this as the inevitable result of some speculation and indirect about the ethnic identity of Hachalu's killers, spread mainly via Facebook and OMN.
OMN, already criticized for cutting essential details from Hachalu's fateful interview, issued an open call for genocide against the Amhara people, immediately after Hachalu's assassination:
July 1, 2020 OMN LIVE from MN: quotes from a speaker in a town hall meeting:
– “Amharas need to be exterminated in our neighborhood.” pic.twitter.com/VwsLZPJoYv
– Alemayehu Gemeda (@AlemayehuGK) July 5, 2020
July 1, 2020, Minnesota OMN LIVE – Quotes from a speaker at a municipal meeting:
“The Amharas in our neighborhood must be exterminated.”
Meanwhile, members of the Oromo community abroad continued to emphasize the violence committed by government forces that are perceived as dominated by the Amhara elite.
Other netizens say that local authorities in Ethiopia are complicit in the organization of vigilante groups, activists or political groups, which constantly stoke ethnic-religious resentment both online and offline.
Putting together the political puzzle
As massive speculation continues to churn social media, government authorities have published a theory about Hachalu's death that appears to be supported by some evidence.
Now, the authorities are following the theory that the murder was the work of two opposition parties with different motivations but agree that Hachalu should die. The first group is the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and the second group is the OLF-Shane.
The former (formerly part of the defunct Ethiopian Revolutionary and Democratic Front) controlled the security and intelligence services for 27 years before he was removed from office in April 2018. Hachalu was an outspoken critic of the TPFL regime and spent much of his life fighting against him.
In 2017, at a nationally televised concert, which was primarily aimed at helping members of the Oromo community in Somalia, he bravely and openly criticized the TPLF.
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UoQiCFN0Ag4 (/ embed)
Politically speaking, the TPFL associates Abiy with imperial Ethiopia, denounces that Abiy conspires to revive its prestige to the Government. They benefit from the claim that the recent violence is the fault of the Abiy regime, which did not provide national security.
In turn, the Abiy administration denies these accusations and blames the TPLF, which they accuse of wanting to sow chaos and push for regime change in Ethiopia.
OLF-Shane is a paramilitary organization splinter from the OLF that uses violent tactics to advance its political goal of establishing an independent Oromia. He has reportedly led dark death squads calling themselves Abbaa Torbee, an Afan-romo phrase that means: “Whose turn is it this week?”
Abbaa Torbee is very active on Facebook. There are hundreds of user accounts, some 28 dedicated pages and numerous groups dedicated to this violent extremist group. Almost all the pages and user accounts have been created in the last two years as, like other OLF factions, they returned from exile to Ethiopia and attracted tens of thousands of followers on Facebook.
In the months leading up to Hachalu's assassination, members of the Abbaa Torbee intimidated, beat and even killed civilian and foreign supporters of the ruling Prosperity Party. They think that these groups unfairly exploit the resources of the Oromo people.
These killings were hardly mentioned in the Ethiopian media, much less internationally.
Abbaa Torbee seemed to know something of the chaos that followed Hachalu's assassination. Most notably, on one of their most popular pages they warned that they would start “cleaning up Addis Ababa” the day before Hachalu's death.
Indeed, there was some unrest in Addis Ababa and ethnic and religious minorities faced violence in parts of Oromia. A close-up of Hachalu's body was posted on the same page within hours of his murder, and government authorities were accused of killing him.
Additionally, many Abbaa Torbe Facebook pages have called on Oromo protesters to march to Addos Ababa and seize the statue of Menelik II.
To close observers of Ethiopian disinformation campaigns, this all sounds extremely familiar. They recall that in mid-2019, when ethnic rivalries between the Amhara elites ended with the murder of top government officials in the Amhara region. The Facebook accounts associated with the Amhara nationalists spread the rumor that the killings were part of a plot by the Oromo elites to end the leadership of the Amhara people.
In the same way, disinformation campaigns about Hachalu's tragic assassination reflect a bitter divide within the Oromo elites.
On the one hand, there are those who attribute the murder to Amharas, rooted in the interpretation of the modern Ethiopian state as a colonial project of Amhara settlers, and that the murder of Hachalu is the continuation of that project.
On the other, there are those who believe that the Oromos played an integral role in building the modern Ethiopian state, and the Hachalu assassins want to shore up their dwindling political fortune with the assassination of an Oromo icon, and continue their political project of separatism.