Mourners gathered Thursday to bury Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, a popular singer and activist whose killing has catalyzed massive protests and stoked ethnic tensions for days across Ethiopia. Dozens of people have died in the unrest after the singer was shot to death earlier this week — but the violence didn't dissuade scores from seeking to attend his funeral in the town of Ambo.
The 34-year-old musician at the heart of the turmoil is a member of the Oromo ethnic group, the largest in Ethiopia. His songs provided the score for a swell of anti-government protests that handed power to the country's first Oromo prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. Two years later, Haacaaluu's death on the streets of the capital, Addis Ababa, put the match to a tinderbox of ethnic discontent.
At least 80 people have died in the ensuing clashes between security forces and and protesters, some of whom have burned buildings and set off bombs in the capital and the surrounding region.
The anger and frustration have been felt even in Minnesota, where demonstrators marking his death peacefully blocked traffic on a highway Wednesday in St. Paul.
Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said authorities are investigating Haacaaluu's killing, while law enforcement has also tried to smother the upheaval. The government shut down the Internet and arrested at least two major opposition figures who had pressed the government — unsuccessfully — to allow the singer's funeral to be held in Addis Ababa. Authorities said the security situation for the event would be too volatile for the capital.
One of the prominent opposition figures arrested, Oromo media mogul Jawar Mohammed, is a former ally of Abiy's. But since having fallen out with the reformist prime minister, Jawar has sparred repeatedly with the government and spearheaded some massive protests of his own.
The government's response to the protests has alarmed international observers.
"Rather than restoring calm, the authorities' internet shutdown, apparent excessive use of force, and arrest of political opposition figures could make a volatile situation even worse," Laetitia Bader of Human Rights Watch said Wednesday. "The government should take prompt steps to reverse these actions or risk sliding deeper into crisis."
Security forces were in evidence again Thursday at the nationally televised ceremony. Reuters, citing residents nearby, reported that several people were injured during scuffles between security forces and protesters outside the stadium where the funeral was held.
"[Haacaaluu] is not dead," the slain singer's wife, Santu Demisew Diro, said at the ceremony, according to a Reuters translation. "He will remain in my heart and the hearts of millions of Oromo people forever."