Social media, the Diaspora, and the Politics of Ethnicity in Ethiopia

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On Monday 29 June I noticed my social media feeds become overwhelmed with posts about the sudden death of Hachalu Hundessa, an ethnically Oromo singer who garnered fame for his Afaan Oromoo music during Ethiopia’s 2015-2018 anti-government protests. 

Initial discourse on social media centered on shock, sadness, and fear. Devastated fans mourned and revealed the different ways in which his music personally impacted them. Theyoften remembered his music as the soundtrack to the Oromo experience and protests of the mid-to-late 2010s. 

Not knowing the details behind his assassination, initial discourse on social media was dominated by the circulation of speculative arguments and misinformation. While some reasoned that Egypt was inciting ethnic conflict to udermine Ethiopia’s plans to begin filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the most widespread speculation implied that Hachalu’s death was an ethnically motivated (anti-Oromo) political assassination. Adherents of the later view suggested his assasination was orchestrated by either the Ethiopian government or Ethiopian nationalists (also referred to as neftegnas/neo-neftegnas). 

Pointing to Hachalu’s last interview on Oromia Media Network (OMN), a network established in Minnesota by the now jailed opposition politician Jawar Mohammed, they claimed that Hachalu was at risk of attack because he not only criticized and joked about Emperor Menelik II but because he was vocal about living with constant death threats. However, a version of the interview later released by the Ethiopian government showed that Hachalu feared for his life not because of Abiy Ahmed’s government or neftegnas/neo-neftegnas but because his refusal to participate in divisive and extremist Oromo ethnic politics that had earned him death threats from ethno-nationalist Oromo groups like the Oromo Liberation Front Shane – Group (OLF-SG).

Within hours of the singer’s death, Oromo politicians and activists like Jawar Mohammed were calling for the burial of Hachalu’s body in Addis Ababa rather than in Hachalu’s hometown of Ambo – where the government stated Hachalu’s family wanted the burial. OMN televised and streamed a video of Hachalu’s body being transferred to Ambo. Crowds of young Oromo protesters, often identified as Qeerroo/Qarree (unmarried young men/women or youth in Afaan Oromoo), attended the televised event and gave impassioned speeches about Hachalu’s death and the grievances of the Oromo people. They called for the unity of Oromo people, the dismantling of Emperor Menelik II’s statue, the burial of Hachalu’s body in its place, and even asserted it was time to get rid of the neftegnas

Along with Qeerroo/Qarree, Jawar Mohammed and his security team intercepted the transport of Hachalu’s body to Ambo and forced its return to the Addis Ababa. Once back in Addis Ababa, officials reported that a confrontation over Hachalu’s body ensued between opposition politicians, namely Jawar, and government officials. As a result, an Oromia special force member guarding Hachalu’s body was reportedly killed by a member of Jawar’s personal security detail. According to reports, Jawar and his team attempted to topple the government by instrumentalizing the singer’s death. The federal government responded by arresting political opposition leaders and accusing Oromo ethno-nationalists of instigating violence through media platforms like Facebook and OMN. 


Image 1: Facebook users responding to one of Jawar’s posts by blaming neftegna and calling for violenceImage 2: Facebook users responding to one of Jawar’s posts criticizing Abiy Ahmed and blaming Amharas 

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As tensions amplified, some Ethiopians expressed fear of the retaliatory violence that could be set in motion if Hachalu’s death became politicized and prematurely characterized as an ethnically motivated attack against the Oromo Ethiopian singer (see examples 3 and 4 below).


Image 3: Twitter users reacting to Hachalu’s death Image 4: Instagram users discussing possible outbreak of ethnic violence against minorities on @Shadesofinjera

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The government implemented a country-wide internet shutdown as a tactic to contain the spread of dis/misinformation as well as calls for violent and ethnically politicized protests which resulted in the massacre of Amharas, Orthodox Christians, other ethnic minorities living in Oromia as well as Oromos who tried to protect ethnic minorities. Some Western media reported that while the Nobel Peace Prize winning prime minister has been commended for his initial efforts to democratize the country, his decision to implement a shutdown was undemocratic and repressive. His actions seemed to echo previous Ethiopian government leaders’ use of internet shutdowns – most notably during the 2016 protests when the government clamped down on protesters through a state of emergency decree and imposition of a nine-month-long internet shutdown. However, criticisms against Abiy Ahmed failed to account for how the technological affordances of the internet, which enable political participation in repressive contexts, can also be harnessed to incite violence and spread disinformation. 

The uses and meanings of (neo)neftegna 

Some of the most vocal Oromo Ethiopian social media users in the diaspora sought justice for Hachalu by immediately assigning responsibility to what they perceived and portrayed as a neftegna/neo-neftegna system – often employing a binary us vs. they/them rhetoric. Their rhetoric notably aligned with a statement Jawar Mohammed posted on Facebook before the internet shutdown: 

They did not just kill Hachalu Hundessa. They shot at the heart of the Oromo Nation, once again !! It was Tadesse Biru, Haile Fida, Elemo Qilxuu, Eebbisaa Addunyaa … now Hacaaluu! You can kill us, all of us, you can never ever stop us!! NEVER!!

La Aluta Continua !!

Naming prominent Oromo activists, nationalists, and cultural figures who died at the hands of different Ethiopian political regimes, Jawar’s use of “they” strategically referred to Ethiopian governments and Ethiopian nationalists. Many other Oromo social media users echoed Jawar’s sentiment and laid blame on they/them as well as (neo)neftegna – which other Ethiopians took as coded language for Amhara and Ethiopian nationalists (see examples above). 

Historically, neftegna has been used to refer to imperial settler-soldiers who were given locals’ lands in an effort to incorporate areas that resisted the expansion of Ethiopia under Menelik II (Assefa, 2018). Neftegna literally means musketeer. The neftegna, usually coming from northern Ethiopia, became a privileged class in the areas where they settled. They were given land, assigned local laborers (farmers and tribute-paying peasants), and at times even replaced the traditional leadership. This approach to social control and nation building created long-standing tensions as it failed to not only equitably incorporate the over eighty different ethno-linguistics groups that came to constitute Ethiopia but also to create an Ethiopian national identity that has widespread acceptance. 

In the aftermath of Hachalu’s death, neftegna and neo-neftegna system were deployed to criticize the lingering effects of Ethiopia’s state and nation-building processes, those from the Amhara ethnic group, as well as non-Amhara Ethiopians that champion pan-Ethiopianism. Those using neftegna and neo-neftegna claim the term is not an attack against the Amhara, but against a system of oppression within Ethiopia – a system which has disproportionately favored Amharic speakers in the political and cultural representation of the country – particularly in the country’s capital of Addis Ababa . 

Nonetheless, while neftegna and neo-neftegna are argued to be neutral terms for highlighting structural inequities, they are often deployed to promote hostility toward northern Ethiopians, particularly the Amhara, followers of Orthodox Christianity, and proponents of a pan-Ethiopian identity. 

Diasporic engagement and media 

Though the internet shutdown left locals without internet access and lent the Ethiopian government to Western criticism, it positioned diaspora Ethiopians at the helm of efforts to shape the narrative for Western and international audiences. 

During Ethiopia’s over two-week-long complete internet blackout, Ethiopia’s ideologically and ethnically split diaspora seized the internet’s capacity to facilitate discourse and on-the-ground action within places like North America, the United Kingdom, and Germany (see also here, here, here). The diaspora(s) used social media to launch competing information campaigns, petitions, protest marches, and fundraising campaigns (see here, here, and here). They collectivized around protest campaigns like Oromo Protests (also see oromoprotests.org) or Peace for Ethiopia (see also Justice and Peace for Ethiopia). At times, social media users appealed to Western and international support by influencing politicians  (also see here, here, and here), organizations, and media reports by authoring commentaries and news articles as well as speaking on behalf of Ethiopians in the homeland. 

Frustrated diaspora members, especially those who didn’t agree with the protest tactics of extreme ethno-nationalists, attempted to fact-check, report, and complicate what they saw as harmful dis/misinformation and identity politics. Oromo protesters countered these attempts by claiming fact-checkers and counter-protesters were dismissing the underlying grievances of the Oromo and attempting to undermine their protests. At times they falsely equated the violence  perpetuated by state forces against Qeerroo/Qarree protesters and the violence committed against minorities in Oromia by Qeerroo/Qarree and Oromo militants.

Image 5: Found hereImage 6: Found hereImage 7: Found here

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As reports of rising death counts at the hands of government police and Qeerroo came out of Ethiopia, I witnessed a number of heartfelt discussions on Instagram. Pages like @Shadesofinjera and @soundthehorn_ hosted Instagram Live events which allowed young diaspora Ethiopians across ethnic lines to talk about Ethiopian history, their identities, grievances, hopes for the future, and the events surrounding Hachalu’s death. Many social media users acknowledged Ethiopia’s problems with linguistic, cultural, and political representation.

In these talks, young Oromo participants expressed their frustration with the lack of equitable representation and opportunities – sharing stories about having their Ethiopianness questioned and denied in Ethiopian/diasporic spaces as well as the frustration of not being rightfully recognized as integral parts of Ethiopian culture and history. However, Oromos who identified as Ethiopian, upheld their mixed ethnic heritage, and/or sought to problematize extreme ethno-nationalism complained of Oromo and Ethiopian nationalists’ essentializing takes on identity. 

Others vented that the disinformation campaigns used by ethno-nationalist protesters and the ethnic animus toward Amhara and other ethnic minorities back home would only lead to more tensions and undermine any progress that has already been made. Some argued that the protracted ethnic identity politics of the diaspora was costing Ethiopians in the homeland a chance at a better future. 

The impacts of media representation

During this internet shutdown, Western and international media often reported on the Oromo Protests by using simplistic social justice frames. Repeatedly portraying binary narratives of the oppressor and oppressed, leaving out important details regarding the political assasination of Hachalu, and romanticizing the politics of extremist ethno-nationalists like Jawar Mohammed. 

Uncritical reporting on these events resulted in the uptake of biased stories as news (usually intended for western audiences) and allowed highly vocal and partial diaspora members to speak on behalf of local Ethiopians with authority. While there needs to be sustained criticism against Ethiopia’s government for extrajudicial killings, wrongful incarceration of protesters, and infringement on Ethiopians’ rights, it’s also important to recognize that some protesters and opposition politicians are mobilizing historical grievances and identities for political gain and retaliation against perceived historical enemies. Diasporic Ethiopians’ engagements with the ethnic politics behind Hachalu’s assasination not only reveal the complexities of Ethiopia’s political climate but also the ways in which the frames used to illustrate social issues profoundly influence how audiences understand and respond to them.

Azeb Madebo (@uh_zeb) is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

References

Assefa, G. (2018). The Constitutional Right to Self-determination as a Response to the “Question of Nationalities” in Ethiopia. International Journal on Minority and Group Rights, 25(1), 1–50. https///doi.org/10.1163/15718115-02501002

2 COMMENTS

  1. “Here’s what you need to know. You can not just blame the entirety of the Amhara ethnic group for what has happened in the past hundred years. It is not fair because the Amhara PEOPLE do not have the ability or authority to hurt other ethnic groups in the way you’re saying they did. Only the government can do that. You blame Amhara for what the government has done to us, yet Derg (Mengistu Hailemariam) who was the one who severely fucked Tigray and Eritrea up, was FULLY Oromo. Haile Selasie before him was half Oromo. After Mengistu was Meles who ruled from 1991-2012 was Tigrayan and a member of TPLF, and he committed many atrocities against Amhara. I believe it was during his terms of rule that 3-5million Amharas went missing. It has also been reported that Amhara women are being forcefully sterilized. And let’s not forget how TPLF created all of Ethiopia’s modern tribalism problems through the bullshit ethnic federalist system they implemented. And now Ethiopia’s current government is run by Oromos. So please tell me how Amhara are at fault for all of this?” … “a government does not represent a social group. By your logic we should blame all Tigrinya speaking people because of what isaias is doing. We should blame all oromos for what their ancestors did 400 years ago. We should blame all Somalis, Afars, Hararis, Argobbas for what Ahmed Gragn and his troops did 400 years ago. Retaliation or not, i don’t care what you think history is telling you but if you kill innocent people, you’re a criminal and should be put in prison. This isn’t a movie where crimes of passion are let go, this is reality.”

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