Jawar Mohammed

Singers, Suppression of Dissent and the Dictator in Ethiopia

By Jawar Siraj Mohammed

Due to their immense talent and creativity, artists express the unspoken and often suppressed feelings of the society. This creativity is power, a power not just to express the views of the society but also to resonate what is hidden and change public opinion about policies. That is the very reason why artists are among the primary enemies of every dictator.

A tyrant’s worst nightmare is artists and their work becoming popular. If they can, dictators, would make art disappear, if not control it. But art does not disappear under repression, it hides for a while, then springs up from nowhere at another time. Neither is art controllable. Creativity combines vision, conviction and imagination. An artist who surrenders to the pressure may lose these three crucial qualities, as a result he/she can no longer produce a work of art. In an oppressed society, I believe a true artist always tends to be in dissent.

In Ethiopia, successive tyrants have always been at war with artists who never rest from exposing injustices, corruption and other social ills creatively. Although novelists, painters and poets have been at the forefront of the war, singers tend to be the most dangerous for dictators. This is because in a country where two-third of the population does not read, the best way of communication has been oral. Add the deeply penetrating culture of love for music in our societies, you will find a powerful weapon of delivering your message.

The recent imprisonment of two rising stars Oromo singers, Dirribe Gadaa and Haacaaluu Hundeessaa is this continuation of the confrontation between the tyrant and the art. The two youngsters were arrested and have been tortured simply because their songs resonated with the resistance movement and they became an overnight sensation. They are being punished to discourage others from following in their footsteps in becoming a voice of the voiceless. But this is a futile attempt, as the two singers themselves are simply following the past giants who defied repression and exposed injustice through their music. They are not the first to pay the price and if it continues as it is they won’t be the last.

Popular Oromo singers Ebbisaa Addunyaa was executed in his own home on august 31st, 1996, Usmayyoo Muussaa was tortured for eight years in prison, and was released to die once the regime confirmed both of his kidneys had failed due to the ordeals. Zarihun Wadajo who has been going in and out of prison for the last two decades has also been thrown back once again.

The repression against Oromo singers was so severe in the 90’s that by the end of the decade, almost all of the famous singers were either killed, or have been forced into exile. When the tyrant thought he had finally dealt with the problem, a new generation of singers sprang out in hundreds. Unfortunate for the regime and lucky for the artists, technological advancement has made production and distribution of music faster and cheaper. Stereos are cheaper and widely available than they used to be a decade ago. There are small personal CD players that can be purchased at a fraction of what it used to cost to buy a National or Sharp stereo a decade ago. Hence the market for Oromo music has been the fastest growing in the industry. This is a nightmare for a tyrant whose attempt to indoctrinate the youth and the peasants with his revolutionary “democracy” scam.

Why do Dictators Hate Singers?

Actually tyrants do not just hate singers, they are terrified of them. Think about it. A tyrant spends so many resources and recruits thousands of cadres to spread propaganda to gain legitimacy. A poor singer with a couple of instrumentalists produces beautiful music, deep with messages of resistance that has strong emotional impact on the audience. With a single song he/she completely obliterates the effort of thousands of cadres.  Here are two examples of two great singers frustrating the dictator.

One Singer vs. 60 Thousand Cadres

Let me remind you about a joke from the 90’s. Kuma Demeksa presents a report to Meles Zenawi claiming that he trained 60 thousand cadres. The boss did not congratulate Kuma, he was frustrated and dismissed the subordinate saying “What’s the point of training 60 thousand cadres, while Umar Sulayman can turn against us 30 million people with a single cassette?” Umar Sulayman is one of the most popular folk singers of all time. In addition to his subversive and emotionally moving music, his tactics made it difficult for the regime to shut him down.


The artist was a one-man army, he wrote his own lyrics, melody, and played the guitar himself. To avoid detection, he would often record the music in a non-traditional studio – by himself and his tape recorder. He needed no producer or promoter. Basically his work required as little help as possible from others. In such ways he avoided detection. After searching for him everywhere, the security forces would give up assuming that either he has left the country or dead. Then boom! A new collection of his music would hit the market. When music stores refused to buy his music due to fear of punishment, he distributed the music for free. When the 60 thousand cadres went after peasants who would play his music, guess what farmers did; they simply filled their stereos with batteries and placed them on the tallest trees in the area. It was a nightmare for security forces who were trying to block the music from reaching the mass.

Pop Icon vs.  A Despotic Tyrant

Another example of the fight between the tyrant and artists is the case of Teddy Afro. Teddy’s emergence as a popular singer was not seen as much of threat initially. His songs were all about love not politics. The thinking was that he is just a city boy with talent for music, hence would not care much about the social and political conditions that were affecting the larger public. But artistic talent and creativity rarely come without passion and concern for social issues. Soon the pop icon, whose messianic influence over the young generation in cities was unparalleled at the time, delivered a heavy blow to the tyrant at the worst time possible.

He released his “yasteserial” in the eve of the 2005 election, when the regime was facing a sure defeat and was searching for ways to survive. The song was a direct contradiction to what the regime has been preaching. The tyrants say it deposed Mengistu’s dictatorships, the singer says but where is the change. The tyrant works hard to increase division among the people, the singer calls for unity. The dictator’s wishes ‘interhamwee’ like genocide against minorities, Teddy sings peace and love among all.  And the audience is the unemployed urban youth which the tyrant shamelessly labeled “adegegna bozene” – dangerous hooligans.

Facing a certain loss in the ideal battle, the regime attempted co-optation. Assuming the city boy would shut up if offered enough money; they ask the “shady Sheik” to make irresistible offer to Teddy. But by then the singer was rich by his own merits and too determined not to back down. This followed with intimidation in the form of threats and harassment. The hope was either he will shut up or will be scared enough to leave the country. The creative dude didn’t give in, and became even more outspoken.

Teddy went to go to jail for a terrible crime. Though the circumstances are still confusing, he was convicted of killing an innocent man in a hit-and-run motor vehicle accident. His supporters believe that he was framed and viewed him as a political prisoner. Was the despot happy? Far from it. The court rooms were packed by those who love Teddy the artists and Teddy the freedom fighter. Even worse for a dictator was when international journalist digging into the dirt of his “legal” system  began finding out about tens of thousands of political prisoners who were locked up for years.  Under pressure from all, Teddy is released. The tyrant hopes that the artist has learned his lessons and will shut up, but only time will tell.

 In the mean time, there are these two young Oromo singers, Haacaaluu Hundessaa and Derribe  Gadaa who have poked their noses in the wrong place. Their songs have become too popular, they are re-energizing the Oromo youth resistance. It is better to shut them up before others follow in their footsteps. It’s a futile attempt. True artists know the truth and by revealing it they put their lives at risk. The war goes on between art and tyranny until the later is vanquished for good.

The writer can be reached at jawarmd@gmail.com.

Read the Article in PDF : Singers and the Dictator in Ethiopia.



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