Ethnic violence rages in Ethiopia but world is blinded by internet shut-off

The unrest was sparked by June 29 killing of Hachalu Hundessa, a singer from the Oromo ethnic group

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As Ethiopia emerges from its biggest uprising in three years, the country faces questions about increasing ethnic tension.

Unrest was sparked by the June 29 killing of musician Hachalu Hundessa, a member of the Oromo ethnic group that makes up about 35 per cent of Ethiopia’s population

He was known for his political songs and had a large following among Oromo youths.

Ethiopia's Attorney General, Adanech Abiebie, said two men confessed to killing Hundessa as part of a plot to topple Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government.

Mr Ahmed is the country’s first Oromo prime minister and introduced progressive reforms after assuming power in 2018.

More than 230 people died in the violence that followed Hundessa’s killing, with at least 10,000 people in the Oromia region of the country becoming displaced.

There were reports of non-ethnic Oromos being threatened and members of the Oromo community protecting neighbours and their businesses.

Less than six hours after Hundessa's death, protesters burnt two resorts that belonged to former Olympic runner Haile Gebrselassie in the towns of Ziway and Shashemene.

The resorts were worth more than 400 million Ethiopian birrs (Dh42.4m) and a livestock farm Mr Gebrselassie owned was also set on fire.

Some people suggested the properties were destroyed after he was accused of not being an Oromo.

“We lost all of these properties,” said Melakmu Mekonnen, director of Haile Hotel and Resorts.

“The protesters destroyed them and it seemed it was intentional and pre-planned.”

Most Oromo-owned businesses were left alone.

Ethnic tension in Ethiopia caused the deaths of thousands of people in the past two years.

In some areas, including Arsi Zone of Oromia, mobs attacked non-Oromo groups, Oromia’s deputy police commissioner Girma Gelan said.

“Religious-based attacks were evident in East Arsi Zone, where 35 people were killed,” Mr Gelan said.

The Archbishop of West Arsi, Abune Henok, said some people regarded the protests as an opportunity to attack Orthodox Christians.

Protesters destroyed hotels and factories in the towns of Shashemene and Bale.

About 300 vehicles were burnt in Oromia, a region in the centre of Ethiopia, and another 30 were destroyed in the capital, Addis Ababa.

Vehicles belonging to a Coca-Cola bottling company and a major cement business were damaged while carrying products in Oromia.

“Everything seems pre-planned and our properties were damaged based on a list given by someone who was sponsoring the violence,” said an investor in Shashemene, who lost assets worth more than 100m Ethiopian birrs.

The government suspended internet access across much of the country during the chaos.

Images of burnt properties and destruction began to circulate online only two weeks into the uprising.

Much of the country has no or little access to the internet.

Human rights organisations, including internet rights group Access Now, denounced the shutdown in a letter to the government.

“Internet shutdowns during such critical times not only violate people’s fundamental rights to express themselves and access information, but also cultivates a state of confusion and panic,” the groups said.

“We reiterate that internet shutdowns only escalate crises and allow authorities to hide atrocities that take place during these blackout periods.”

Ethiopia’s government has detained more than 5,000 people suspected of taking part in the violence so far.

Ethiopia was once described as one of the fastest-growing economies in the region, but is having limited success in attracting foreign investment.

The country continues to rely on support from China, which is credited with funding many of Ethiopia’s recent infrastructure projects.

Millions of Ethiopians face internal displacement and famine continues to be a problem in the country, along with the Covid-19 pandemic.

The decision to postpone a national election planned for next month is another concern.