Oromo Person of The Year 2017: Haacaaluu Hundeessaa

Mohammed Ademo

Oromo Person of The Year 2017: Haacaaluu Hundeessaa

Oromo Person of The Year 2017: Haacaaluu Hundeessaa

Mohammed Ademo
Pictures: Big Z Kadir
December 31, 2017

(OPride) — For capturing and expressing the frustration, anger, and hope of Oromo protesters through revolutionary lyrics; for courageously defying forcible suppression of dissent and boldly proclaiming ‘we are here and not going anywhere’; for providing a stirring soundtrack to the budding Oromo revolution; for breaking down fear and structural barriers through rousing musical storytelling, and for uniting the Oromo masses and amplifying their collective yearning for change, Haacaaluu Hundeessaa is OPride’s Oromo Person of 2017.

Haacaaluu is a prominent Oromo singer. Songwriter. Entertainer. Master storyteller. And, most importantly, an electrifying voice of a generation that is revolting. In picking Haacaaluu as our person of the year, we are honoring not only the gallant generation whose hearts he speaks to with his bold lyrics but also his mother, as well as his hometown, Ambo, the indomitable bastion of Oromo resistance against successive Ethiopian rulers—a place worthy of all honors in and of its own rights.

Fruits of Oromo protests

It was a horrid year for the Oromo. Following three years of sustained protests, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), in power since 1991, declared a state of emergency in October 2016. The martial law brought a temporary lull in street protests but the killing of innocent Oromos continued. Authorities lifted the emergency decree in August 2017 but, by then, a proxy war along the Oromia-Somali State border had displaced hundreds of thousands of Oromos from their homes and left hundreds dead.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom either. The sacrifices of the resilient Qubee Generation have shown early signs of its coming fruition.

The 2017 Irreechaa festival was held under heightened tensions. But it concluded without a single incident, thanks in no small part to the leadership of Oromo Abba Gadaas, the Oromia state government for refusing federal assistance to keep the peace, the Oromia police for keeping the peace with impeccable professionalism, and the Foollee Oromia, an age-based cohort that were entrusted with managing the Irreechaa processions. It’s a sight to behold to witness a week later as the Oromia youth poised for photos with members of the regional police. A rare gesture of cordial police-community relations in an otherwise repressive state where federal police and security forces are implicated in egregious rights abuses.

The security and humanitarian crisis along the Oromia-Somali state borders also brought about much-needed Oromo unity — at home and abroad. In many respects, the biggest and perhaps most consequential Oromo story of 2017 was the remarkable turnabout of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), the ruling party in Oromia.

The year of OPDO's rebirth

For 27 years, OPDO has been a loyal and subservient member of EPRDF. A brain-child of the dominant Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) created to upstage the Oromo Liberation Front, OPDO slavishly translated and parroted out official diktats from central authorities. It was disliked among the Oromo that, in some circles, being OPDO is still considered an insult. To be clear, the organization always boasted a sizable membership base, but, at the grassroots level, Oromo loyalty was either bought or coerced. Those who deviated from the party’s democratic centralism principle, a code word for unquestioning Tigrean hegemony, were purged, jailed or pushed into exile. That all changed in October 2016 with the rise of Lemma Megersa, the incumbent president of Oromia State and a runner-up for OPride’s 2017 Person of the Year.

OPDO may have come up short at the end of the 18-day-long meeting of the EPRDF executive committee, but under the stewardship of Lemma — and his equally charismatic deputy, Abiy Ahmed — it has shown the potential and promises of Oromo leadership for a better Ethiopia.

It was shockingly disappointing that OPDO emerged out of the most-closely watched EPRDF gathering in years without a clear win or a single action to indicate their reformist agenda was indeed accepted by EPRDF. But politics is a game of compromise. Change is slow and painstaking. Surely, changing the deeply entrenched and colossal EPRDF system will require ongoing and sustained struggle. If it were to deliver on the lofty promises made in 2017, OPDO needs to clean its houses. The next step in its “deep renewal” should be ridding the party of the corrupt old guard, who remain loyal to EPRDF’s legacy and its rigid democratic centralism, and those lacking the steel to fight for the Oromo to attain its rightful place in Ethiopia.

It should be clear that Lemma Megersa’s OPDO is the child of Oromo protests. His staying power and his ability to deliver hinges on the potency and resilience of Oromo resistance. The convoluted, nauseating, and tone deaf EPRDF statement offers further reason why the youth should ramp up the pressure.

As we wrote in our 2016 person of the year profile, the gallant Qubee Generation, which facilitated Lemma’s meteoric ascent, is unlikely to settle for less. In fact, while offering lukewarm support to Lemma’s OPDO, the Qeerroo and Oromo artists continue to press the party for deeper reforms —lest it become too comfortable, take the support of Oromo public for granted, or fall back into its old habits.

Oromo music as a tool of political protest

Given Haacaaluu’s size, it is easy to underestimate the fire in him. Smart, witty, jovial, defiant, and articulate, he is the consummate man of the people. He walks with the full dignity and weight of the nation, for whose suffering and yearning he is singing, on his outsized shoulders. And Haacaaluu is a genius when it comes to connecting with the Oromo, especially the youth, with his lyrics.

He is in a company of giants. Haacaaluu’s musical brilliance is part of a long and proud tradition of Oromo resistance songs. It is impossible to talk of Oromo nationalism or Oromummaa without the galvanising role of Oromo folk music. It helped unite disparate Oromo movements. It was instrumental to the collective Oromo awakening, particularly since the 1980s. When authorities cracked down on free expression, music provided a unique space for the artist and the public to engage in political dialogue — the artist as the leading agitator and provocative commentator, who channels the repressed voices and fears of the masses.

As we wrote in our 2016 profile of Haacaaluu’s Qubee Generation, “the Oromo singer is at once a provocateur, social critic and an inspiration and outlet to a generation suffocated by a deep state hell-bent on clinging to power through the barrel of the gun.”

Generations of folk singers have voiced and articulated the Oromo people’s long quest for freedom and justice in Ethiopia. As a result of their politically conscious music and determination to push the envelope and the boundaries as far out as humanly possible, dozens of Oromo singers have been killed, jailed, or exiled.

Yet Oromo artists continue to write, produce and sing rousing ballads about the enduring history of Oromo marginalization, the importance of unity, cultural revival, and the Oromo way of being. The list is too long to reproduce here but it includes such luminaries as Ali Birra, Ilfinesh Qano, Zerihun Wodajo, Wosanu Dido, Abitew Kebede, Yunus Abdullahi, Shabe Sheko, Abdullahi Jirma, Nuho Gobana, Ebisa Adunya, Yosef Gamachu, Marame Harqaksa, Halo Dawe, Umar Suleyman, Qamar Yusuf, Muktar Usman, Kadir Said, Dawite Mekonnen, Hirpha Ganfure, Usmayo, Mohamed Sheka, Adnan Mohammed, Elemo Ali, Ali Shabo, Afandi Siyo — and contemporary superstars like Jambo Jote, Caalaa Bultumee, Galana Garomsa, Ittiqaa Tafari, Fayyisa Furi, Habib Kamal, Hawi Tezera, Seenaa Solomon, Shukri Jamal, Kadir Martu, etc.

Prison as a crucible of manhood

Born and raised in Ambo, a town whose name is practically synonymous with Oromo resistance, Haacaaluu started signing while looking after cattle and at school clubs. His mother, Gudatu Hora — or “my Gudatu” as Haacaaluu affectionately refers to her — recognized his unique talent and a knack for storytelling at a young age and quietly encouraged him.

His father Hundessa Bonsa wasn’t too crazy about the idea. He wanted the young Haacaalu to pursue a serious career in medicine or as a college professor. It didn’t help that Haacaaluu got in trouble at a very young age.

In 2003, at 17, while still in high school, he was arrested and imprisoned for nearly five years at Karchale Ambo, a local prison known for its notorious torture and mistreatment of Oromo dissidents. Haacaaluu’s jailers wanted to break his young spirit and make him give up singing. But the imprisonment had the opposite effect on the aspiring singer. It deepened his understanding of the Oromo oppression. His father had a simple advice for him: Each time he visited, the elder Hundessa told him: “Jabaadhu gurbaa, hidhaan qoraasuma dhiiraati,” meaning, “prison is the crucible of manhood.”

In fact, he learned how to write lyrics and compose melodies in jail. By the time his case was dismissed and Haacaaluu was set free in 2008, he was determined and ready to give voice to the atrocities and silenced voices he had encountered while in jail and growing up in Ambo.

A year later, Haacaaluu released his widely acclaimed first album: Sanyii Mootii. He wrote most of the lyrics and composed the melodies in prison. The record-breaking album catapulted then 22-year-old singer into a national icon almost overnight. In keeping with the unsung but monumental tradition of pioneering Oromo resistance music, he continues to speak truth to power through his lyrics.

In 2013, while touring the United States, Haacaaluu released his follow-up album: Waa’ee Keenya or Our Predicament. It too became a runaway success. Within days, the critically acclaimed album became the #1 best-selling African music album on Amazon.com.

From Maalan Jira to Jirra

Haacaaluu’s melancholic melodies are often engrossing and send listeners into a deep state of soul searching. He has found a unique way to tap into the tapestry of traditional Oromo folksongs and give it a modern twist. For example, his 2015 single, Maalan Jira, meaning “what existence is mine,” released in June lamented about the displacement and estrangement of Oromo people from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. A mere months later in November 2015, protests broke out across Oromia opposing the controversial Addis Ababa Master Plan. Maalan Jira became an anthem for the protesters and united the Oromo. It’s been uploading to YouTube by dozens of users but it is still one of the most viewed Oromo music videos of all time.

In October 2017, his call for Oromo unity realized and Oromo victory all but assured, Haacaaluu returned with yet another single release: Jirra, we are here and not going anywhere. It was an instant hit and remains a viral sensation. Many adoring fans took to social media to share their reviews and confess to replaying the song in an endless loop.Haacaaluu eloquently puts into words all the myriad of sentiments, memories, history, emotions, and just the overall Oromo lived experience,” Fatuma Bedaso wrote on Twitter. “[He] knocks our socks off. So much power in his words and delivery.” The term jirra (jirtu) is now a greeting, a slogan and a political statement that signifies the survival and defiance of the Oromo people against all odds.

Haacaaluu visits Hamaressaa camp

Oromo singers, members of the Qubee generation, have released hundreds of protest songs over the past three years. Haacaaluu leads the pack as the undisputed king of geraarsaa and the captain of Qubee cohort itself. He is as articulate in his speech as in his lyrics. In a recent speech at Hamaressaa camp, one of the makeshift IDP shelters for hundreds of Oromos displaced from the Somali region he said:

“This should not have been the price of Oromo’s peerless hospitality. It’s those whom we fed off our hands that turned around to bite us. I want to assure you of one thing: Yesterday is not today. Today is not yesterday. When they break one Oromo’s leg in Hararghe, those in Wallaga limp; When they kill Oromos in Ambo, Shashamane rises up demanding justice; Killing, displacement and imprisonment is not new for Oromos. This did not happen because we wronged others. It is not because we went to others land. They came to our homes.

The Oromo people have fought enemies not just to safeguard Oromia’s territorial integrity but to protect Ethiopia’s borders. If we were to dig deeper along all of Ethiopia’s borders, we will find bones of Oromos who died fighting to protect Ethiopia. It is not because we are not smart; it is not because we have shortage of intellectuals or because we lacked courage and bravery either. We are being oppressed by former rebels who survived the Communist Derg’s aerial bombardment of Tigray and came to power (arat kilo) on the back of Oromo fighters. These are the facts. There is no reason to equivocate. This much the entire Oromo knows. The Oromo blood won’t be lost in vain. The previous generation brought our struggle this far through immense sacrifices. This generation will fight on and push the struggle to its logical conclusion. The bottom line: If the Oromo don’t achieve their freedom, there won’t be peace in this country. May the Almighty give us our truth.”


Haacaaluu at Lammiin Lammiif concert

On December 9, Oromo athletes and artists hosted a benefit concert to raise funds for the rehabilitation of more than 700,000 internally displaced Oromos. The concert was attended by “Who’s who” of Oromo singers and senior leaders of Oromia regional state, including Lemma and Abiy. Haacaaluu took the stage to thunderous applause and cheers. He brought fire, poetry, and an epic performance that has been described as ‘utopian.’

Streamed online and broadcast live on the state-run Oromia Broadcasting Network, the telepathic performance was greeted with tears and left many an Oromo speechless. London-based legal scholar and human rights activist, Awol Allo, wrote on Facebook: He not only harnesses and deploys the deep well of Oromo traditional music with an astonishing directness and depth, he also represents a new generation of Oromo musicians who can capture and mesmerize the imagination of the Oromo public and beyond.”

He added: “Haacaaluu shows that fear is skin-deep. In this song, he not only expresses that which cannot be easily expressed in words, he finds a way to fly over and above the tanks, the discourses, and the walls of oppression. He says you can no longer pin us down, we are too big, too hopeful, too resilient, to fired up – jirtuu, jirtuu, … eessa jirtu … yaallee hamma dandeenyuu? He reveals the unlived life that we all aspire to.”

Haacaaluu’s captivating performance was notable also for the lyrical homage he paid to prisoners of conscience held at various gulags, including the Maekelawi and Kaliti prisons,  the Qilinto remand center, where jailed Oromo opposition leaders remain incarcerated, and Haacaaluu’s own former jail, Karchale Ambo.

In November, the Addis Ababa City Administration cancelled his planned solo concert in Addis Ababa, costing him more than 2 million birr in sponsorship fee and other expenses. But the ever-present threat of arrest, silencing him, and intimidation is unlikely to force the indefatigable Haacaaluu into exile.
At least he seems very sure of this. Asked why he returned to Ethiopia despite the threat to his life by a BBC journalist, Haacaaluu said, “I returned to my fatherland; I am not a fugitive; As an artist I sing about what I feel and think; I will continue to sing in the future too. The run to exile must end with this generation.”
We wish Haacaaluu continued success in his already prodigious musical career. And a happy and joyful 2018 for all of you!