Haacaaluu Hundeessaa Boonsaa: A legacy larger than death
A year after Haacaaluu’s assassination, I miss him. Oromia misses him. Ethiopia misses him. But his legacy of kindness and resistance lives on.
Hundeessaa Bonsa and Gudatu Hora always knew their fifth son would go on to accomplish great things. They named him accordingly: Haacaaluu loosely translates to “may he be greater”. As he grew up, his father pushed him to academic excellence and a career in medicine, while his mother supported and encouraged him to follow his passion in music. They had high hopes for their son, but it is unlikely either could have quite predicted what he would become.
Haacaaluu Hundeessaa Boonsaa was born in 1986 in Ambo, a restless town known for being a bastion of the Oromo resistance movement. Despite heavy government surveillance, clandestine youth movements operated widely in the early-2000s. Haacaaluu, a teenager at the time, became involved and joined a youth group at which he was arrested. He was accused of supporting the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which was banned at the time, and jailed for five years with no due process.
Aged just 17, that half-decade in prison was formative. Surrounded by like-minded people, he became informed and inspired. He sang, wrote music, read, and formed his personal and political identity. By the time he was released, still without ever being charged with a crime, he had resolved to use his musical talent to develop Oromo art and contribute to the fight against the persecution of his people. He had already composed most of what would become his first album while incarcerated.
In the following years, Haacaaluu fast became a cultural icon. His songs which captured the displacement, loss, existential precarity, and the subjugation of the Oromo nation within modern Ethiopia galvanised a generation of youth into resistance. His intellect and lyrical genius in his 2009 album Sanyii Mootii and 2013 follow-up Waa’ee Keenya propelled him to near superhero status among the Oromo. His music offered roadmaps of resistance, captured the complexity and promise of the struggle for self-determination, wove and interwove the past and present of Oromo experiences, and brought listeners to tears with the power and beauty of his delivery.
This power was nowhere more visible than in his single “Maalan Jira” in which he lamented the historical plight of the Oromo farmers uprooted to make room for the expansion of Addis Ababa. This song was released in 2015 as the government was implementing a Master Plan to further extend the capital’s borders into surrounding Oromia towns and displace many more farmers. The timeliness of the single combined with Haacaaluu’s powerful delivery made “Maalan Jira”, which loosely translates to “what existence is mine”, the anthem of the Oromo protest movement that swept the country a few months later. His music contributed to the momentous political awakening in Ethiopia’s most populous region of Oromia that changed the country, while the man himself inspired millions with his uncommon courage to stand for truth and justice in the face of imminent danger.
Those privileged to have known him personally also know that his humanity shone through not just in his music. I first met Haacaaluu in 2014 during his US tour with a group of Oromo artists and was immediately struck by how easy-going, humble, and likable he was. He would go on to become a dear friend and a personal hero of mine. Haacaaluu was a friend in need and deed, the kind that tells what you need to hear rather than what you want to hear. He was selfless and kind to a fault. I came to know him as a loving husband to his childhood sweetheart Fantu Demissoo, a loving father to his beautiful daughters Wabii, Milkii, and Giftii, a model son to Hundessa and Gudatu, and a beacon of light to the Oromo nation. He was a lively storyteller, often the life of the party, and a comedian when the moment warranted it. He had a personality and presence that lit up the room. He was a constant moral compass, a library of immense knowledge, and an archive of Oromo history. He was an institution all on his own. He was Oromummaa personified.
On 29 June 2020, Haacaaluu was shot dead by unknown assailants in Addis Ababa. News of his death sent shockwaves across the country and was described as “a spear through the heart of the Oromo nation”.
The Oromo nation was wracked with a collective grief so intense and consuming, protests erupted all over cities in Oromia and the capital. People wanted answers. The answers never came. Instead, those that took to the streets were met with deadly state violence, leaving hundreds dead including Haacaaluu’s uncle in Ambo. As the people mourned, the government arrested Oromo opposition leaders such as Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba as well as many community elders, youth organisers, journalists and academics. They shut down the internet and carried out a devastating purge of all dissenting voices in the Oromo political space. More violence ensued throughout Oromia as protestors and purportedly organised mobs devastated businesses and homes. Many directly targeted ethnic minorities, killing scores of people and razing entire neighbourhoods as government forces reportedly failed to intervene.
In the aftermath of the violence, calls for independent investigations into the attacks and the state violence against protesters went unheeded. Instead, a narrative was formed and disseminated via state media, personalities, as well as fringe Ethiopian nationalist activist camps, that the Oromo are inherently violent and therefore need to be subdued. This framing paved the way for further government crackdowns in Oromia, leading to mass arrests, extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and collective punishment of communities which recently escalated into security forces gleefully conducting the public execution of a 17-year-old boy in the middle of a town square.
Haacaaluu’s assassination ended up being a catalyst for the state of affairs in Ethiopia today. Not only was he denied a befitting send-off commensurate with his legacy, exacerbating the already frayed Oromo relationship with the Ethiopian state, but the aftermath of his death has seen the near decimation of dissenting voices, the closure of political space, and the eruption of a brutal civil war in Tigray. We are at a juncture where kidnappings, public executions, disappearances, sexual violence, intercommunal conflicts and mass atrocities are a daily reality in Ethiopia. We are faced with a humanitarian crisis that could destabilise the wider region and have just witnessed a non-election that has further entrenched political polarisation. The precious opportunity to answer the country’s existential questions that Haacaaluu and his comrades opened is now closed. The country is facing an existential threat with no solutions in sight.
What would Haacaaluu do or say if he was still around? Would he choose self-preservation in the face of terrible dangers, or would he risk it all as he always did? I think the Haacaaluu we know would speak for the downtrodden, roaring like a lion on behalf of the forgotten. Then again, if he hadn’t been killed, perhaps we wouldn’t be here. After all, the aftermath of his death was a catalyst for all the horrors that followed. Perhaps he could have helped force a course correction of sorts. Perhaps.
Tragically, though, he was killed and we are here. One year after his death, those of us left are faced with the challenge of keeping his legacy alive. His legacy of extraordinary courage in the face of tyranny, of unflinching commitment to justice, of fierce advocacy for human rights, and of truly emancipatory politics. We loved and admired Haacaaluu not just for what he represented but for who he was and who he challenged us to be. He inspired us to be the best versions of our ourselves. He challenged us to challenge ourselves. Even in death, he is still a great unifier and beacon of light when his people need him most. He made an impact larger than life. He built a legacy large than death. He will be remembered and celebrated as such.