BISHOFTU – An Ethiopian religious festival transformed on Sunday into a rare moment of open defiance to the government one year after a stampede started by police killed dozens at the gathering.
The Irreecha festival is held annually by the Oromos, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, which in late 2015 began months of anti-government protests over claims of marginalisation and unfair land seizures.
Parliament declared a nationwide state of emergency aimed at quelling the unrestshortly after the bloodshed at last October’s Irreecha, but the protests at this year’s gathering show that dissatisfaction still runs deep.
“The government is trying to control us and deny our rights, lives and security,” said Sabana Bone, who was among the tens of thousands clad in traditional white clothing who gathered by a lake in a resort town of Bishoftu, about 60 kilometres southeast of the capital Addis Ababa.
“We are remembering what happened last year and it makes us angry. We need freedom,” Bone said.
The Oromo protests were triggered by a government plan to expand Addis Ababa’s boundaries, which community leaders denounced as an attempt to steal their land which surrounds the capital.
They later spread to other ethnic groups like the Amharas who have long felt marginalised by Ethiopia’s ruling party, which controls every seat in parliament and wields virtually unchecked power.
The months of protest resulted in 22,000 arrests and at least 940 deaths, according to the government-linked human rights commission.
Also known as thanksgiving and meant to mark the end of the months-long rainy season and start of the harvest, last October’s Irreecha became a turning point in the unrest when police shot tear gas at people chanting protest slogans, sparking a panic that left at least 50 people dead, although activists claim a much higher toll.
The state of emergency, which was repealed in August, succeeded in stopping the demonstrations by criminalising gatherings and allowing police to hold people without trial, provisions that scared off most protesters.
That changed at this year’s Irreecha, as hundreds of people climbed onto a stage, crossed their arms over their head in a gesture of protest and chanted “Down, down, Woyane,” a derogatory term for Ethiopia’s government.
Such actions would normally invite arrest.
Oromo, Somali clashes
Police were nowhere to be seen at the festival grounds, while the elders who traditionally preside over the ceremony stayed away.
The anti-government sentiment at the festival was further amplified by bouts of ethnic fighting in September between Oromo and Somali communities in southern and eastern Ethiopia.
“There is Somali expansionism against the Oromo people, and the government is supporting the Somalis,” said Doyo Wako, from the Borana area where fierce fighting occurred.
After hours of chanting, the crowd dispersed to board buses back home.
Some attendees ran through the streets of Bishoftu yelling protest slogans, as armed police stood by, watching.