Ethiopian Democracy Off Track: What’s At Stake
By Seenaa Jimimo, July 28, 2020
(Diplomatic Courier) — Hacaaluu Hundessa’s only weapon was his music. His sentence for singing was death. One of Ethiopia’s most popular musicians, Hacaaluu sang of the plight of the Oromo—Ethiopia’s largest but most repressed ethnic community. His June murder sparked protests around the country and, tragically, confirmed the very repression he sought to end. What’s more, his killing exposed the autocratic DNA of Ethiopia’s government, a regime that benefits from nearly a billion dollars of U.S. aid every year while staying cozy with China and crushing Ethiopia’s most pro-American constituency—the Oromo.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed used the protests following Hacaaluu’s murder as a pretext to jail his political opponents and shut off the country’s internet access, a blackout that has lasted for three weeks. Fearing a democratic electoral repudiation, Abiy also indefinitely postponed Ethiopia’s elections. Those chillingly anti-democratic actions are just the latest chapter of Abiy’s illiberal regime. Amnesty International reported in May that during Abiy’s rule up to 10,000 people were unjustly arrested and that at least 39 people—including a 16-year-old boy—were killed in extrajudicial executions in Oromo-majority regions of Ethiopia.
Paradoxically, Abiy himself is an Oromo. But his refusal to protect the human rights of his own people combined with his democratic backsliding is a problem for Washington. As the largest country in East Africa, Ethiopia has been a vital partner in Washington’s Global War on Terror and could yet provide a bulwark to China’s expansion in Africa. But Ethiopia cannot reliably advance U.S. interests in East Africa if the government in Addis Ababa invites instability by repressing Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. Ending this repression and cementing strong bilateral ties with the United States, as authoritarian countries like China seek inroads to our continent, is the goal of the Oromo community.
It’s a goal that can most swiftly be met with pressure from Washington. Lawmakers, diplomats, and military officials in the U.S. responsible for providing security assistance and funding to Ethiopia should call on Abiy to immediately and unconditionally release the political prisoners he rounded up both before and after Hacaaluu’s murder. As a member of the Oromo diaspora in America, I treasure my protected right of free speech. But I am too frequently reminded that today in Ethiopia I could be jailed along with peaceful Oromo protesters—like human rights activist Jawar Mohammed—just for voicing my opinions.
Fortunately, the U.S. Congress agrees that this goal should be achieved. In April of 2018, The House of Representatives unanimously approved a resolution calling for the Ethiopian government to, “release all activists, journalists, and opposition figures who have been imprisoned for exercising their constitutional rights.
I would ask that Congress go one step further by holding to account anyone in the Ethiopian government who is responsible for human rights violations under the Magnitsky Accountability Act. The Oromo community has been heartened to see the bipartisan application of the Magnitsky Act across two presidential administrations to use America’s considerable might to extend a hand to voiceless minorities that would otherwise be forgotten, or even vanquished.
The same congressional act that called for the release of Ethiopian activists also called on the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development to “engage in a cooperative effort to advance democracy.” That clause has never been more needed. Afraid of being voted out of power, Abiy, citing the coronavirus, indefinitely postponed Ethiopia’s elections, which were originally scheduled to take place in May. Ethiopia would face a constitutional crisis should Abiy rule beyond October. And while the virus is, undoubtedly, a serious concern, the United Nations has said that Ethiopia can safely hold elections as soon as August.
A vital part of any robust democracy is a free, independent press. This includes opinion journalism, and outlets dedicated to specific groups like the Oromo. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian government has shut down all independent newspapers published in the Oromo language along with those that report on issues important to the Oromo people. Diaspora blogs have sought to illuminate Oromo issues, but those outlets cannot replace shoe leather reporting in Ethiopia. With the government able to shut down the internet at will, the Oromo seeking news in their own language may soon be forced to rely on carrier pigeons.
Finally, it is my hope that an independent commission will be allowed to investigate Hacaaluu’s assassination. The government clearly has a conflict of interest in the outcome of this investigation and has actively created disinformation about his killing. So far, the government has blamed Hacaaluu’s killing on the Egyptians, and two separate Ethiopian ethnic groups while opting against conducting an official autopsy. As the highest profile victim of anti-Oromo violence, if Hacaaluu cannot receive justice, can any other Oromo expect it?
Hacaaluu’s assassination laid bare Ethiopia’s underlying fragility, which stems from the Ethiopian peoples’ anxiety about losing their democratic and human rights for good. Ethiopia has long been a stable U.S. partner in beating back terrorism and is well-positioned to face burgeoning security challenges. But continuing any meaningful security or economic partnership requires stability. For the U.S., promoting the rights of the Oromo and other oppressed groups in Ethiopia is a national security issue. Congress has already laid out a blueprint that would help return stability to Ethiopia. For the sake of both our countries, it is time to act on it.