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Hachalu Hundessa, Ethiopian Singer and Activist, Is Shot Dead

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Africa|Hachalu Hundessa, Ethiopian Singer and Activist, Is Shot Dead

The musician, 34, was known for political songs that provided support for the ethnic Oromo group’s fight against repression and a soundtrack for antigovernment protests.

June 30, 2020Updated 10:08 a.m. ET

NAIROBI, Kenya — Hachalu Hundessa, a prominent Ethiopian singer, songwriter and activist, has been shot dead in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in a killing that risked heightening tensions in a nation taking stuttering steps toward establishing a multiparty democracy.

Mr. Hundessa, 34, was shot late on Monday night in the Gelan Condominiums area of Addis Ababa, the city’s police commissioner, Geta Argaw, told the state-affiliated broadcaster Fana on Tuesday. The singer was taken to a hospital after the attack, but died later of his wounds. It was not immediately known who was responsible for the shooting.

The killing drew condemnation from Ethiopian officials and citizens both inside and outside the country, with many pointing to how his protest lyrics and politically conscious music galvanized members of the country’s ethnic Oromo group to fight against repression. Even though they are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromos have long complained of economic and political marginalization.

“Hachalu was the soundtrack of the Oromo revolution, a lyrical genius and an activist who embodied the hopes and aspirations of the Oromo public,” said Awol Allo, a senior law lecturer at Keele University in England who has written extensively about Mr. Hundessa’s music.

His songs, Mr. Allo said, were at the heart of a groundswell of antigovernment resistance that began in 2015 with street protests in the Oromia region that eventually led to the resignation of the prime minister at the time, Hailemariam Desalegn. Through ballads like “Maalan Jira” (“What existence is mine”) and “Jirraa” (“We are here”), Mr. Hundessa was credited for capturing not just the struggle and frustrations of Oromo protesters but also their dreams and hopes of a better future in Africa’s second-most populous nation after Nigeria.

“Hachalu was exceptionally courageous and a man of many great talents,” Mr. Allo said in an interview. “His songs mobilized millions of Oromos across Ethiopia.”

On Tuesday, news of Mr. Hundessa’s death led to protests in the capital and other parts of Ethiopia, with images and videos on social media showing hundreds congregating at the hospital where his body was taken.

In an interview with the Oromia Media Network last week, Mr. Hundessa was vocal in his denunciation of the violence committed by past emperors and regimes, but he also reserved criticism for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s leadership.

The media outlet was founded by Jawar Mohammed, a media magnate who belongs to the same Oromo ethnic group as Mr. Abiy but who is a fierce critic of the prime minister. Even though Mr. Abiy has introduced wide-ranging overhauls, his government has come under criticism for detaining journalists, for blocking the internet and for cracking down on protesters.

After Mr. Hundessa’s death on Tuesday, the network said in a Facebook post that the authorities had stormed its studio in Addis Ababa and detained its employees. In a separate post, the network said that Mr. Mohammed, along with another prominent opposition leader, Bekele Garba, had also been arrested.

Internet service across the country was shut down at approximately 9 a.m. local time, according to Berhan Taye, an analyst at the nonprofit Access Now. The move, she said, “is simply driving confusion and anxiety among Ethiopians and the diaspora” especially as they seek “credible, timely information” at such a time of crisis.

Mr. Abiy expressed condolences at the killing of Mr. Hundessa and called for calm. The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize laureate faces the daunting task of limiting the spread of the coronavirus while sustaining economic growth and taming an uproar over elections that had been scheduled for August but were postponed because of the pandemic.

“We are waiting for the police to provide us with a full report about this heinous act,” Mr. Abiy said in a statement posted on Facebook. “We understand the gravity of the situation, and we are paying attention and monitoring activities in the country. We should express our condolences while protecting ourselves and preventing further crimes.”

Ethiopians who knew Mr. Hundessa said that it would be a while before they recovered from the shock of his death.

“His entire life was resistance,” his friend Mohammed Ademo, who lives in New York, said. “He departed before realizing the freedom and justice he so fiercely advocated for. This is a loss unlike any other.”

Tiksa Negeri contributed reporting from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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