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FILE PHOTO:  Ethiopian musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa poses while dressed in a traditional costume during the 123rd anniversary celebration of the battle of Adwa in Addis Ababa

One hundred and sixty-six people were killed during violent demonstrations that roiled Ethiopia in the days following the murder of popular singer Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, according to reports.

The singer, a member of the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest, was shot dead by unknown attackers in Addis Ababa on June 29, fuelling ethnic tensions threatening the country’s democratic transition.

Another 10 are known to have died in the capital Addis Ababa.

Officials have attributed the deaths to a combination of lethal force by security officers and inter-ethnic violence.

Haacaaluu’s music gave voice to Oromos’ widespread sense of economic and political marginalisation during years of anti-government protests that swept the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, to power in 2018. The musician was shot by unidentified assailants in the Galan Condominium area of capital city Addis Ababa. The motive for the murder remains unclear. The local police have arrested some individuals in connection with the case.

A Human Rights Watch report stated the government cut internet services across the country, making it difficult to access information on those who were killed and injured in the protests.

Just before his death, on June 22, Hundessa gave an interview to the Oromia Media Network (OMN), which had sparked outrage on social media. During the interview, he criticised the government and spoke out against the marginalisation faced by his community, the Oromos. Following his death, OMN was raided by the police and several journalists were detained. Jawar Mohammed, who owns the network, was also taken into custody.

Hundessa, 34, was a musician and activist who sang about his community’s struggle for freedom. The Oromo community is the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, making up more than 50 per cent of the country’s population. Hundessa had said earlier that he starting writing songs when he was imprisoned for political activities between 2003 and 2008.

Hundessa gave voice to the anti-government protests that emerged in 2014 and culminated in the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in 2018.

The protests began after the government announced a plan to expand the boundaries of the capital into the Oromia region. The community was concerned that the expansion would displace farmers living in the outskirts.

While the plan, called the “Addis Ababa Master Plan”, was eventually dropped, the protests continued, signalling the growing frustration of the ethnic group that felt marginalised by the government.

Separately, anti-government protests also emerged in the Amhara region, home to another ethnic community called the Amharas. Tensions in Oromia and Amhara escalated after October 2, 2016 when, during the Oromo thanksgiving holiday, over 55 people were killed in a stampede.

After fresh protests broke out following the incident, the government declared a state of emergency and established a special unit to “rehabilitate” those who had been arrested for participating in violence or unrest in the past year.

According to Amnesty International, following the events of October 2016, the government security forces arrested tens of thousands of people in Amhara and Oromia among other regions. Those arrested included political activists, protesters, journalists and members of the Human Rights Council among others.

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