Security is high in the Ethiopian town of Ambo for the funeral of popular musician and activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, whose killing in Addis Ababa earlier this week sparked two days of protests that killed more than 80 people.
A farewell ceremony began on Thursday with well-wishers laying wreaths in Ambo stadium and mourning the death of the 34-year-old musician from the ethnic Oromo group, Ethiopia’s largest. He will be laid to rest later at a church in Ambo, some 100km (60 miles) west of the capital.
“Haacaaluu isn’t dead. He will remain in my heart and therefore the hearts of many Oromo people forever,” Santu Demisew Diro, his wife, said. “I request a monument erected in his memory in Addis [Ababa] where his blood was spilt.”
The singer was shot dead within the capital on Monday by unknown gunmen.
His songs had provided a soundtrack to a generation of Oromo protesters whose three years of anti-government demonstrations finally forced the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in 2018. Hailemariam was replaced by Abiy Ahmed, the primary Oromo to become Ethiopia’s prime minister.
Following the killing, protests broke out on Tuesday morning within the capital and other towns and cities within the surrounding Oromia region. The military was deployed in Addis Ababa amid reports of armed gangs roaming neighbourhoods during the second day of unrest on Wednesday. Meanwhile, internet connectivity seemed to be down for a 3rd day on Thursday.
“The riots and demonstrations we have seen within the past 48 hours were caused by the refusal of the govt to possess Hundeessaa buried in Addis Ababa,” said Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Adow, who has reported extensively on Ethiopia.
“The government felt that wasn’t getting to go well security-wise and said he should be buried in [his hometown of] Ambo.
“But his supporters, opposition members and officials thought it had been befitting that an Oromo man and leading figure … should be buried within the capital.”
At least 35 people are arrested in the week, including fellow Oromo and media mogul Jawar Mohammed who was held after his supporters tried to intercept the singer’s body because it was being transported to Ambo.
Jawar was a prominent supporter of Abiy’s appointment but became more openly critical last year. His popular Oromia Media Network gives him the power to mobilise support quickly across Oromia and his power base could pose a big challenge to Abiy’s party within the country’s elections, originally scheduled for this year but postponed thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
The funeral was broadcast live by the Oromo Broadcasting Network, which is owned by the Oromia regional state.
Police were turning people far away from the stadium, consistent with one Ambo resident who tried to attend but met crowds of individuals who had been told to return home.
Members of the military, federal police and regional police were called at force, he told Reuters press agency.
“It is extremely sad that his body is amid only a couple of people and security forces are keeping many others away,” one among Haacaaluu’s relatives, who had been allowed to attend the funeral, told Reuters.
Abiy has indicated that foreign forces may are involved in assassinating the singer in an effort to destabilise the country.
“One of the large questions is who actually killed the musician?” David Shinn, former US ambassador to Ethiopia, said. “This is that the match that touched everything off and that I think what you’re seeing here may be a batch of ethnic unrest, which has been touched off by this incident,” he told Al Jazeera.
The unrest could become Abiy’s biggest test since taking office two years ago. His rise to power ended decades of political dominance by ethnic Tigray leaders within the ethnically diverse nation of some 110 million people.
Abiy’s rule has ushered in greater political and economic freedoms in what had long been one among the continent’s most repressive states. He was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his reforms and his work to finish a long-running conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.
But the increase in political activism has also led to a rise in unrest, with Abiy’s rule frequently challenged by local powerbrokers demanding more access to land, power and resources.
“The current prime minister didn’t really address the elemental questions the Oromos are posing for a real-time,” Awol Allo, an Ethiopian lecturer in law at Keele University, told Al Jazeera.
“The Oromos are demanding that their language be recognized as a national language, and zip has been wiped out that regard, and a few of the strategic steps that the prime minister has taken really angered variety of individuals,” he said.