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Political Assassinations Leaving Ethiopia in Turmoil

Political Assassinations Leaving Ethiopia in Turmoil

Two years after the June 23rd attempt to assassinate the then new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed (PhD), Ethiopia continues to be racked by political killings every year. Particularly, the month of June seems to be the harbinger of nothing but calamity. On June 22nd of last year Amhara region officials and military generals were killed in Bahir Dar and Addis Ababa, respectively. Similarly this June, Ethiopia saw the tragic assassination on the Oromiffa singing sensation Hachalu Hundessa.

Following the singer’s murder, riots broke out in Addis Ababa as well as in some Oromia region towns. According to official report, the riots have claimed the lives of over 170 people. Moreover properties worth millions, including two resorts owned by the legendary runner and business mogul Haile Gebreselasse, were burned down.

Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed has characterized Hachalu’s killing as a premeditated political assassination.  

Even before the current round of unrest, Ethiopia was beset by a raft of both ethnic and non-ethnic conflicts. The conflicts are primarily attributable to the rising political temperature and tensions between political parties afflicting the country’s politics.

The latest turmoil has come weeks after the Tigray regional state council’s decision to go ahead with polls against a resolution of the House of the Federation (the federal house empowered with interpreting the constitution) to postpone this year’s general elections due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Days before the Tigray regional council’s decision to hold elections the Speaker of the House, Keria Ibrahim, abruptly resigned from her office saying she can no longer be complicit in Abiy’s administration which, according to her, is trying to foist a dictatorial rule on the country.   

Following the regional council’s move, there is a growing tension between Prosperity Party (PP) and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).  On June 23 the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) rejected a request by TPLF asking it to undertake the elections. However, it’s not clear how polls can proceed in Tigray without NEBE’s blessing. Despite the snub, TPLF is preparing and organizing discussions on how to hold the region’s election. 

The TPLF’s move is seen as a threat to national unity by some, while others consider it as constitutional and a legitimate exercise of the right to self-determination. There are also some who fear war may be brewing between the region and the federal government.

The assassination of Hachalu and the ensuing turmoil took place at a critical time when the country is seemingly at a crossroads. Though the singer’s alleged killers have been arrested, the identity of their masterminds is not yet known. There are several speculations about the group which could be behind the murder. According to the federal government the shooting was carried out, at the behest of foreign enemies, by domestic political groups that want to grab power in violation of the constitutional order.

The president of the Oromia regional state, Shimels Abdissa, has blamed TPLF and OLF Shene as the perpetrators behind the murder. The media controlled by these groups, which have been taken off air now for inciting ethnic strife, shift the blame towards the government.

Using the murder as a pretext, some members of the Kero (Oromo youth) movement engaged in violent protests across the capital Addis as well as in different Oromia cities for three days. In the meantime influential activist and politician, Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba, were placed under arrest on suspicion of being involved in Hachalu’s killing and inciting violence.   

According to Tigistu Awelu, chairman of Unity for Justice and Democracy Party (UJDP), the government needs to step up the measures it had started to take.

“The very motive behind political assassinations in Ethiopia, including that of Hachalu, is to create instability and lawlessness. In my opinion the government’s determination to uphold rule of law should not waver,” said Tigistu.

Apart from the political killings, some criticize the government of not providing clarity about the investigations into them saying this had encouraged the further commission of similar crimes.

According to Adanech Abebe, Federal Attorney General, however, the investigations are proceeding duly, adding the government is working hard to deliver speedy justice.

“Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba [members of the Oromo Federalist Congress] were placed under custody in connection with the killings and violence in the wake of Hachalu’s murder. Three suspects have also been arrested in relation to the murder of Hachalu. Similarly, investigations are continuing with respect to the assassinations of the Amhara regional state officials as well the military Generals. As to the attempted murder on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed two years ago, the problem we faced is the difficulty in arresting Getachew Assefa, one of the suspects who happens to be the former intelligence head. We could not bring him here [using force] from where he is in the Tigray region out of respect for the Tigray people,” said Adanech.

Lately all government officials, including the premier, are strongly saying in media that the government’s patience has reached its limit and that it will no longer tolerate political groups threatening the safety and security of citizens and the country’s sovereignty.

The head of the Prime Minister Office’s Press Secretariat, Nigussu Tilahun, has told the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA) that the government’s hitherto restrained response to the violence that has racked the country for some time now is not attributable to the inability to uphold rule of law.

“It was because we chose patience over strong-handed measures and because we wanted to expand the political space. But everything has a limit. And the limit is the welfare of the people and the country’s sovereignty.  There can be no tolerating anything which threatens these two things. So we have started taking measures. And we will continue to do so,” said Nigussu.

Following the arrest of Jawar Mohhamed in particular, many are expressing cautious optimism that the rule of law will be ensured in the country.  

Wendwosson Belay is a resident in Addis Ababa. The father of two had developed over time insecurity and fear about the future because of the mounting instability in Ethiopia. Even though his insecurity is not entirely gone, he is regaining confidence in the government after the arrest of the alleged perpetrators of the violence that erupted on the heels of the death of Hachalu.

“I am happy that the supremacy of the law is finally starting to be respected because the arrests send a message that no one is above the law,” said Wendwossen.

But according to Mehretab Gebremeskel, a scholar in law, it’s too early to conclude that the government is determined to upholding the rule of law.

“Normally one of the measurements of the rule of law is judicial independence. The persistent political interference continues to negatively affect the application of the due process of law. But as one step and progress the arrest may herald good tidings for supremacy of the law,” said Mehretabe.