With longstanding grievances still unanswered, this year’s Irreecha festival could be fraught with tensions, says Human Rights Watch.
Ethiopian government and security officials should act with restraint and take concrete steps to prevent injuries and deaths at this year’s Irreecha festival on October 1st, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released on September 19th.
Many people, likely hundreds, died in a stampede at last year’s festival, triggered by security forces’ use of teargas and obstruction of exits.
The festival, attended by massive crowds, is the most important cultural festival to Ethiopia’s 40m ethnic Oromos, who gather to celebrate the end of the rains and welcome the harvest.
HRW found evidence that security force personnel not only triggered the stampede that caused many deaths but subsequently shot and killed some members of the crowd.
Dozens of witnesses said they believed this was an intentional planned massacre by the government. HRW has seen no evidence of that, but the perception, coupled with the past two years of brutality, makes this year’s Irreecha a potential flashpoint, HRW said.
Tensions were already high ahead of the 2016 festival following a year of protests against the government and security force aggression that left more than 1,000 people dead and tens of thousands in detention.
Anger at the Irreecha deaths triggered unrest across Oromia as mobs of youths destroyed or looted government buildings and private businesses. On October 9th, the government announced a far-reaching state of emergency that codified vague and overly broad restrictions on basic rights and was only lifted in August 2017.
The government has expressed condolences for the deaths but has stated that security forces were not armed, despite photographic and video evidence to the contrary.
The prime minister congratulated security forces for their efforts to “maintain peace and order.” Government officials also have stated repeatedly that the situation was exacerbated by “anti-peace” elements in the crowd.
“Last year’s tragedy was triggered by the government’s botched effort to control the event,” Horne said. “This year, the government should consider whether a much lighter security force presence would best serve to minimise the potential for violence.”
Oromo boys in Ethiopia – CC 2012
The warning came as a conflict that had been raging for months between Oromia and Somali regional states escalated in September in violent confrontations.
Demonstrators accuse a police unit of carrying out killings and human rights abuses against the Oromo people, while the government has blamed the clashes on a border dispute between the neighbours.
Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has called on major stakeholders to assist the government to achieve a durable peace among the feuding parties.
Desalegn reiterated that federal security officers had been deployed to secure areas in the troubled spots. He was speaking at a meeting with community elders, tribal and religious leaders at his office on September 16th, the state-owned Ethiopia News Agency reported.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) – which is affiliated with the government and is “in no sense independent”, according to HRW – had been deployed to investigate rights violations in the conflict.
Head of Oromia Regional State Lema Megersa said the conflict is the result of criminal activities of individuals and does not represent the people and governments of the regional states.
Government spokesman Negeri Lencho said Somali Regional State put the death toll at more than 50, while Oromiya Regional State said only 18 people died, The Reporter said on the 16th.
(HRW 19; BBC News Online 13/9; Shabelle Media Network 17/9; BBC Monitoring 17/9)
Find out more in the Africa Research Bulletin:
Ethiopia – State of Emergency Ends
Political, Social and Cultural series
Vol. 54, Issue 8, pp. 21546B–21546C
Ethiopia – Arrests and Protests
Political, Social and Cultural Series
Vol. 54, Issue 7, pp. 21509A
ETHIOPIA: State of Emergency Extended
Political, Social and Cultural series
Vol. 54, Issue 4, pp. 21402C–21403C