The amplification of false and dangerous narratives contributed to July’s deadly violence against civilians in Oromia.
The night the popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa was murdered, a dreadful sense of loss and fear seized me. I felt my hands and feet shivering as I struggled to post a message of condolence on Facebook. That night, I could not sleep. Looking at how the media were reporting events leading up to the murder of Hachalu, I was sure that something terrible would befall the nation. And I was not wrong.
When Ethiopia embarked on a journey of political and economic reforms in April 2019, the early feeling of euphoria among Ethiopians was intense. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promised that his administration would bring about democracy and prosperity to a nation he inherited when it was at the brink of economic collapse and, arguably, civil war.
Abiy’s first year was “nothing short of a miracle,” according to OPride founder, Mohammed Ademo. But it was also full of challenges, which continued throughout his second and third years as prime minister. But none of them seems to have posed a more dangerous threat to his administration than what happened to the nation after Hachalu was murdered in June 2020. In violent protests in the aftermath of Hachalu’s death, more than 150 Ethiopians lost their lives while properties worth millions of dollars were burnt down in Oromia Regional State and Addis Ababa.
Reports of different media and rights groups tried to highlight scope of the destruction. But a few media dared to go in-depth trying to answer possible causes of the violence. If I connect the dots to paint a full picture of events that led up to Hachalu’s death, both private and state media were more part of the problem than the solution.
The genesis: Abiy is “not sabboonaa enough”
The story goes back to 2018 when Abiy met his first public opposition from the prominent activist Jawar Mohamed, who is often credited for helping Abiy come to power.
Jawar started voicing his disagreement before Abiy came to power, when he was pushing for Lemma Megersa over him for the premiership. But he did not draw much attention until later on. Jawar first accused Abiy of “not being sabboonaa enough.” Sabboonaa is an Oromo word used to capture the concept of pride in being Oromo. Jawar also accused Abiy of belittling “sabbonumma”—Oromo nationalism.
This accusation did not seem to bother the Oromo and political actors at the outset, but it was the beginning of a pile of accusations ready to be hurled at him later. Neither Abiy nor his government, nor his party, bothered to fend off the accusations. In as much as Abiy and his party, PP, did not worry about them, few media reporting or analyses tried to show possible consequences of such accusations. It was not surprising at the time to see the lack of concern for the topic, as it was not really worthy of serious media attention given other more serious events.
The birth of Prosperity Party
Abiy began to face mounting criticism both from within and outside PP when he announced the birth of Prosperity Party (PP) in December 2019. Prosperity Party was born after three of the four ethnic–based parties that made up Ethiopia’s ruling coalition–Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) decided to merge. Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the most powerful of the four parties, voted against the merger.
Once again, Jawar appeared as the most critical voice against PP’s creation. A few days after PP was officially announced, he posted at length on his Facebook page a long article in which he argued how the PP could push back the gains of Oromo nationalism, jeopardize the existing federal system, and encourage the resurgence of Ethiopian nationalism; thus, by extension, Amhara nationalism. This narrative became the blueprint of his future political campaign.
The accusation was welcomed by the aggrieved TPLF politicians who felt marginalized by Abiy’s administration. It did not take them much time to informally ally in order to work against Abiy. But many Ethiopians were surprised over the new partnership: the two former adversaries now teaming up against Abiy.
Opposition against PP gained momentum when Lemma, a former strong political ally of Abiy Ahmed, revealed that he opposed the merger. He also announced that he did not subscribe to Medemer, the philosophical underpinnings for Abiy’s new Prosperity Party developed by the prime minister himself.
Jawar, along with TPLF officials, began a concerted media campaign against Abiy. He was accused of trying to bring back the old unitary government system and was portrayed as a figurehead of forces bent on destroying federalism in Ethiopia. This campaign was reinforced by articles contributed by different scholars, including non-Ethiopian writers.
The campaign was not limited to the party and ideology of Abiy; it also targeted Abiy as a person. He was portrayed as a stubborn, incompetent, and overambitious. Addis Standard, for example, portrayed Abiy in its December 2019 editorial as a rebellious figure who “isolated himself from closest allies and a vast political base”, the Oromo, a claim that seemed to rest more on rumors than research. Such unbalanced sentiments were not uncommon in local and international media in the run-up to Hachalu’s death.
The failure of both private and public media in Ethiopia at this juncture was their unwillingness to dissect narratives, seek facts, and uncover whether unsubstantiated claims against Abiy’s administration were accurate. It was sad to see them buying unverified claims and putting them at the top of their agenda, rather than digging out the truth.
Prosperity Party has made it clear from the outset that it would uphold the existing federal arrangement despite shift in political ideology from Revolutionary Democracy to the more eclectic Medemer. Yet most media content critical of Abiy’s administration portrayed PP as anti-federalism. Even prominent writers such as René Lefort, a long-time critic of the TPLF’s rule, now played up TPLF’s strengths, and Tigray’s supposed relative peacefulness, in order to paint a picture of Abiy Ahmed as anti-federalist.
The first phase of the neftegna narrative
Along with the spread of “anti-federalist” accusations hurled at Abiy, another accusation began to take root.
First, Abiy was accused of being neftegna (meaning ‘gun bearer’) in a social media campaign. Then he was accused of sympathizing with neftegna, a stereotyped tag often attached to Amhara elite. Again, he was accused of working to bring back the neftegna system, a feudal system that existed for almost a century in southern Ethiopia from the late 19th century but has little to do with 21st century Ethiopia. Some Oromo activists went to the extent of claiming that Abiy was not Oromo.
Here again, I hardly saw private or state media trying to enlighten us on these baseless accusations. I have not seen any rational debate on local and international media on the relevance of bringing the neftegna narrative into today’s discourse. I have not seen any journalist challenging the accusers and asking them why they chose this phrase to discredit Abiy, while they knew that it was meaningless in today’s Ethiopia—unless the intention was to plant the seeds of ethnic violence.
Deprived of competing narratives, the mass—mainly the Afaan-Oromo-speaking populace—continued imbibing one-sided and willfully distorted facts from the media. The neftegna narrative, going unchallenged, later on became a scapegoat for attacking ethnic and religious groups.
The ‘dictator’ framing
The media campaign that began to defame Abiy as “not sabboona enough”, then as “antifederalist” and “neftegna,” had now begun another round of defamation by portraying him as a dictator. When the human-rights organization Amnesty International released a 50-page report on Ethiopia in May 2020, this accusation found an opportune moment to be propagated.
Jawar did not waste time to draw attention to the report. A few hours after it was released, he gave a thorough analysis of it on Oromia Media Network (OMN). He took examples and cases one by one and used them to establish a dictator narrative against Abiy. TPLF did the same on the state-run Tigrai Media House and TPLF-affiliated Dimtse Weyane.
When the dictator framing was established, it was now easy to bring stories that fit into the built-up media frame.
Both substantiated and unsubstantiated stories, photos and videos of policemen killing and harassing Qeerroos, soldiers burning down a thatched house in a village, government security forces killing civilians and many similar stories began to overflow social media and embellish news stories on OMN and Tigrai TV. But, most of those stories were either only half true, or lacked the right context. Media organizations, including BBC and VOA, started building on agendas set by activists like Jawar.
As all these accusations were thrown on the government, regional government communication offices, and the Press Secretariat of the Prime Minister Office did little to fend them off.
Almost a week after Amnesty’s report was released, Administration and Security Bureau Head of Oromia Regional Government Jibril Mohammed dismissed the Amnesty report in a press conference as partial and unbalanced. Jibril argued that some of the informants mentioned in the report were government opponents and sympathizers of the outlawed armed group known as Oromo Liberation Army, or Shane.
More than the rebuttal, however, one thing grabbed my attention the most. At the end of the press conference, Jibril mentioned that Shane had murdered more than 700 people in Wollega and Guji zones of Oromia, and inflicted physical injuries on more than 1,000 people, while it kidnapped more than 70 civilians whose whereabouts was not known at the time the press conference was given.
It seemed that no media appeared disturbed by these terrifying figures.
To the best of my knowledge, only Fana Broadcasting Corporation and BBC Afaan Oromo picked them up and integrated them into their news. But the relevance given to these figures was very low even in those stories. The number of the victims was mentioned at the end of stories as if it was not worthy of becoming a news lead. If hundreds of civilians murdered, maimed, and kidnapped by an armed group in Ethiopia cannot draw attention, what can?
Weeks before and after Hachalu’s death, state-run Oromia Broadcasting Network broadcast a documentary called Godaannisa (‘Scar’) in three parts. It recounted stories of suffering and agony from victims of Shane. After watching the three parts, I asked myself if there was any other place in the world in the 21st century where such an atrocity is committed on innocent civilians, and remains underreported, if not unreported. Except for FBC, Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, and ESAT to some degree, no media house took up the documentary film and made it into a news story. From the print media, only the Ethiopian Insight published a story in which Nagessa Dube, Deputy Attorney General of Oromia, detailed from his trip to the Guji area about what was probably the gravest human rights abuses in the recent history of the country.
Neftegna narrative revival
The second phase of neftegna narrative came when social media figures like Birhanemeskel Abebe Segni started to take his personal grievances to the media. After he was fired from his duty as Consul General of Ethiopia in Minnesota, allegedly for personal reasons, he took to social media. He claimed that he was fired because the “neftegna system” that was in control of the Ethiopian government did not like an Oromo like him. Since then, he has been trying to establish himself as a champion of a movement bent on destroying the so-called neftegna system, even if it ceased to exist almost half a century ago.
This and other campaigns employed disinformation, and at times fake news, as a social media tactic. More than a month before Hachalu was assassinated, there were about five new social media pages with a relatively large following. Kello Media, Kush Media Network, and Geda Media Network are among those social media portals. OMN, Tigrai Media and Dimtse Weyane were some of the top users of contents produced by these social media pages. The pages built a network amongst them, sharing similar contents with each other and with other pages.
Here again, the media opted to keep silent, failing in their duty to expose and stop irresponsible agitations on social media and TV channels like OMN, to provide counter-narratives and to challenge arguments wrapped in simplistic but dangerous narratives.
Before Hachalu’s death, social media campaigns aimed at stirring anti-government protests in Oromia, but the campaigns did not succeed for many different reasons. An article published by The Guardian on 3 August attests to this fact. Tom Gardner wrote, “According to one well-connected Oromo activist, preparations for anti-government protests had been planned for several weeks before Haacaaluu’s murder.”
Hachalu’s interview on OMN
When Hachalu appeared on OMN a few weeks before his death, I had a gut feeling that the interview was not going to be like any other ordinary interview. This came against the backdrop of an accusation hurled at Hachalu that he had forsaken the cause of the Oromo and become a PP supporter.
A group of Oromo artists including Hachalu gave an interview to Oromia Broadcasting Service (OBS) in December 2019. In this interview, the artists reflected ideas that denounced armed struggle in which the lives of innocent people were being lost. Many construed the interview as a support for Abiy. As criticism against Abiy began to gain momentum, prominent Oromo artists such as Caalaa Bultume, Jaambo Jootee and Hachalu himself were put under constant pressure to make their political affiliation clear: to support PP or the opposition (in this case Oromo Federalist Congress and Oromo Liberation Front.)
Given the indispensable roles that Oromo musicians had been playing in the Oromo struggle for over half a century, it was not surprising to see political forces seeking to win support from prominent artists and musicians. Hachalu mentioned in one of his earlier interviews that there were some politicians trying to gain his political endorsement. Hachalu’s answer was clear: “Art should not be subject to political pressure.” Hachalu once again showed his unbreakable spirit. Yet, this did not make everyone happy.
When Hachalu appeared on OMN for the much-anticipated interview, one of the first questions posed to him by the interviewer Guyo Wariyo was, “…You used to sing saying ‘Qeerroo jirtuu- meaning Qeerroo alive’, now you have changed it into ‘feerro bittuu’ (‘buying steel’) Did you start selling feeroo (steel) now?”
The interview was an attempt to make him admit if he was indeed siding with Abiy as rumors indicated. They wanted to know if he was in support of Abiy who was now labeled as neftegna, anti-federalist and a dictator thanks to well-organized disinformation campaigns.
Hachalu answered all test questions with utmost care, trying his best to walk a fine line. He defended himself as much as he could until he was faced with a very tricky question from Guyo, “Is neftegna the enemy of Oromo? Yes or no?” Hachalu became more emotional. He started throwing his hands up and down as he tried to respond to this tricky question. “Neftegna was enemy of Oromo, it is enemy of Oromo today, and it remains enemy of Oromo tomorrow,” he replied. Later that day, I asked myself, “Was that what Hachalu intended to answer? What would have happened if he had answered it otherwise?”
The final act
The night Hachalu was killed, I tried to connect the dots and figure out where all that disinformation, lack of balanced media treatment over the last few months, and the latest interview could lead the public to. Given the negative anti-government portrayal of Abiy and his government, given the silence of government and lack of critical private media, I did not doubt for a minute that Hachalu’s death would have a bad consequence.
The next morning, I switched on the TV to find OMN was the only station live transmitting the incident at the time (later joined by Tigray TV and Dimtse Weyane). I saw thousands of young men and women flooding the streets in Addis Ababa, weeping and mourning the death of the beloved musician. I also saw a journalist interviewing a group of angry and tearful youth. One word that was repeatedly used on the media was “neftegna.”
Later that day, Birhanemeskel, the diplomat-turned-activist, appeared on OMN with a gloomy countenance and angry tone. He repeatedly condemned the neftegna for the death of Hachalu and called on Qeerroo to take to the streets and topple Menelik II’s statue in Addis Ababa.
Two days after the death of Hachalu, disturbing news of death and destruction of properties began to surface in the media. More than 150 innocent people were killed across Oromia and in Addis Ababa. Cities like Shashemene and Batu became “a war zone,” as one Deutsche Welle Amharic journalist described it. Grim news and stories of victims began to surface in the media.
The aftermath of Hachalu’s murder has seen not only the death of civilians and destruction of properties, but also the arrest of thousands of individuals suspected to have been involved in the crimes. Some of them are prominent politicians and opposition leaders. The arrest of politicians like Jawar Mohamed has created a sense of competition especially among diaspora Oromo activists in what seems to be a desire to replace Jawar as a leader.
But, they could not learn from their past mistakes. They continued pushing their dangerous narratives. They kept on using the neftegna narrative on OMN and social media. They went on doing their best to demonize Abiy and his party.
Following Hachalu’s death, the activists called for anti-government protests in Oromia at least three times, which received no significant response. They have repeatedly called for market boycotts and road blockages with the aim of weakening the economy of the so-called ‘neftegna system’. The latest call, which coincided with a social media rumor that Jawar was sick, resulted in the killing of at least nine people by security forces.
Equally striking was the rise of anti-government protests in Europe and the U.S., especially among Oromo and Amhara communities. It was not surprising to see the Diaspora Oromo communities react in this way. Due in part to a lack of journalists on the ground in Oromia, diligence from media in balancing narratives, providing fair analyses, and for failing to analyze the truthfulness of claims against Abiy, Oromo communities are now in disarray.
Not only has the lack of clarity on what was happening in Ethiopia been worrisome, but also the increasing sentiment of hatred towards other ethnic groups. In a short video released on social media a few weeks ago, a group of protesters chanted “Down, down Amhara” in front of the Ethiopian Embassy in London. If such chants, words and phrases loaded with sentiments of hatred towards others are not explicitly condemned by journalists, the consequences will be worse than we can imagine.
This is not a one-sided problem only. There is also a growing sense of intolerance from extreme Amhara nationalists who do not shy away from using pejorative words and phrases that belittle the Oromo. The Ethiopian media, which is supposed to expose and condemn such worrisome development, seems to be indifferent to it so far.
Why was the government silent?
Having looked at the above developments, one could fairly ask, ‘Why was the government not able to respond to these negative media campaigns?’ Even if the responsibility to answer this question first and foremost lies on the shoulder of the authorities, one can provide possible reasons as to why the government was not effectively countering the media propaganda.
The first possible reason is underestimating the power of social media.
The government of Ethiopia often seems to underestimate the propaganda power of its opponents. When this is added to the already inefficient communication bureaus that do not adequately respond to public demands for information, the effect can be corrosive. This might emanate from the government’s inability and unwillingness to listen to public opinion and try and proactively influence it. It could also come from underestimating the indispensable role of communication in modern politics.
Fear of slander and defamation could also contribute to the problem.
Several months prior the death of Hachalu, anti-government messages were flooding social media, but largely went unchallenged. Some pro-government voices were writing on social media in defense of the government, and even those were harshly campaigned against on social media. This could have possibly discouraged other officials from publicly defending the government.
Another reason could be tied to lack of trust within the government and the ruling party.
This was evident especially in Oromia after Lemma announced that he did not agree with Abiy on the merger of EPRDF. His refusal to recognize PP seems to have contributed to internal division. Insiders claim that Lemma’s position had divided the regional government. This internal crack must have resulted in a decline of trust among members, which indirectly contributed to declining motivation to counter external propaganda pressures. One of the drastic measures undertaken by Oromia Prosperity Party following the latest party appraisal was to suspend members who violated the party’s internal regulations. Lemma was among the first victims, though it’s not clear that he ever willfully joined the party in the first place.
Another possible explanation is more external than internal.
This was the threat from death squads known by the name Abbaa Torbee, an Afaan Oromo phrase meaning, “Whose turn is it this week?” The government claimed that this group had connections with the outlawed Shane armed group. Abbaa Torbee members intimidated, beat up, and in some cases, killed sympathizers of the ruling Prosperity Party. This and a combination of the above factors had probably played a role in convincing officials not to try and counter negative media influences.
Where do we go from here?
When Abiy became prime minister in April 2018, many Ethiopians hoped to see a bright future for their country—a future in which the rights and dignity of citizens are respected and protected, a future in which our nation realizes the democracy we have been longing for. Today, many Ethiopians worry about the future of the country, thinking that they might be sliding back rather than moving forward.
Despite its wrongdoings, the government is trying to walk a fine line in a highly polarized political atmosphere. Abiy is trying to take the golden mean in an era where errant conclusions are made and amplified based on invalid premises. Perhaps it is time as citizens to sit back and reflect on where we are heading. Even if we have to oppose Abiy for whatever reason, we should do it in a democratic way without resorting to polemics and violence. As always, violence begets violence.
As for the media, I believe this should be a time of deep reflection. Our media and journalists should be challenged by the recent incidents that shook our nation to the core. Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves if the way we handle daily stories are exacerbating our already complex problems. We have to ask if we are updating our knowledge and skills in such a way that they help us navigate the complex social and political realities. Probably it is time to ask if we are betraying the public, knowingly or unknowingly, by way of disinformation.
This reminds me of a prominent spiritual figure who once told a group of journalists about the danger of disinformation: “Disinformation means telling half-truths, the part that is most convenient to me, and not saying the other half. Therefore, those who watch the television or listen to the radio are not able to arrive at a perfect judgment, because they do not have all the elements necessary to do so, and the media do not give them. Please shun these sins.” Looking at how our journalists and media were covering events leading up to the murder of Hachalu, I wonder if there was a media house free of this sin of disinformation.
At this juncture, I invite all citizens, especially those engaged in journalism, to reflect on our roles in building a nation we can all proudly call our home.