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A year after the tragedy: what has changed?

A year after the tragedy: what has changed?

One of the most tragic incidents in recent memory happened at the Ireecha festival in Bishoftu, Oromia Regional State last year. At least 50 people died in a stampede after security forces fired tear gas at protestors. Subsequently, the government declared a state of emergency after most parts of Oromia and Amhara held anti-government protests. Now, the state of emergency has been lifted and Ireecha festival is to be celebrated tomorrow; but, the question remains, have things gone back to normal? Well, for many, fundamental questions remain unanswered, writes Brook Abdu.

It has been one year since the deadly Ireecha tragedy occurred prompting the imposition of the most condemned state of emergency (SOE) that had been in effect since July 2017.

A yearlong protest across the nation especially in the Oromia and Amhara regional states prompted by public distaste for the prolonged maladministration issues in every rank and file of the EPRDF-led government was believed to be the root for the mishap.

In what began to be an opposition to a more dubious and ill-fated Addis Ababa and Oromia Special Zones Integrated Master Plan spiraled like a hurricane flooding each locality in the Oromia region changing its face from being an opposition to the Master Plan to public grievance for lack of good governance.

This issue of good governance was also in the problem diagnostic report of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) along with the increase of the demand of the public, which is caused by the “incredible economic growth” the country registered for the past decade.

However, none of these satisfied the protesting rioters and eventually led them to continue with their remonstrations.

Because of these protests, businesses across the country, especially those in the two regions, suffered a lot. The hospitality sector suffered the most as there were no local or international tourists that came to get their services.

“It was an extremely difficult time; we had no customers at all for almost six consecutive months since the protests throughout the country began and the state of emergency was declared,” Atikilt Mandefro, the general manager of Papyrus Hotel located in Bahir Dar, told The Reporter in a telephone interview.

Papyrus, which employs more than 140 employees, even faced difficulty paying employees’ wages since its revenue decreased by 3.2 million birr when compared to the previous year, according to Atikilt.

“The international tourist is not still coming; the local visitors have started coming but we still are recovering from what happened to us over the year,” he explains.

Such an incident is also a common one in the protest ridden regions of the country including the wider Oromia region.

Since the start of the protests that engulfed the two major regions of the country, many have been expressing their concerns over the challenges this might pose on the country’s economic and business activities. And this is what really happened.

The country’s economic growth that has been registering double-digit growth experienced a decline to eight percent.

Apart from its economic challenges that the protests brought about, the protests enhanced the rift between the opposition and the ruling party. It has also attracted the attention of international organizations who have issued different notices.

The government, in order to suppress the protests, tried negotiations and peace talks among the protesting society and nothing came to fruition because of failure to identify the real cause of the problem, according to political commentators and opposition parties.

Then, the state of emergency was introduced. It was considered to be repressive by most international and local observers and diplomats since they were told not to go beyond Addis’ 40kms radius; an embargo that did not apply to the locals.

More than 10,000 individuals, who were said to have roles in the public uprisings, were detained and given rehabilitation trainings in different parts of the country. The state of emergency helped the country to arrest the protests that have been spreading uncontrollably.

What has been the immediate cause for the state of emergency was the tragedy that happened at the Irecha festival in Bishoftu. At least 50 people died in a stampede. In a subsequent protest, 669 people died, according to the government’s assessment.

“I was among the first detainees under the state of emergency; we were provided with food no one could taste,” Abebe Akalu, Blue Party’s public relations head, recalls. “The state of emergency just helped the governing party to extend its stay in power and did nothing in answering the real problems and questions of the people.”

He believes that the state of emergency did not play a role in retaining the peoples’ lives to their normal conditions.

Although other political parties and political commentators agree that the state of emergency is a measure taken as a temporary solution to the problem, the government still did not understand the real problem and its problem diagnosis ignores the real problem.

“The real problem has never been identified and one of the indicators for this is the frequent public uprisings and conflicts in different parts of the country,” Abebe argues.

The same stance is shared by Tigistu Awelu, the president of the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party. He believes that the state of emergency that had been in place for ten months helped the government to retain some distractive moves.

“But, the real problem is not yet solved as it was not identified; the effort by the government did not go beyond proposals,” he asserts.

Similarly, Nahusenay Belay, a Political Science and International Relations lecturer at the Addis Ababa University says, “The government has not identified the fundamental problem” as there were no well-organized research that has been carried out.

“The real issue is democracy and political question and minimizing this to leadership is inappropriate,” Nahusenay argues. “The politics could not look like the constitution; the constitution is different and the politics is different.”

He believes that the constitution of the country is a democratic one and no one had argued on it being democratic.

But, for the specific protests that have been sweeping the country since November 2015, the real problem still needs to be identified, according to Nahusenay.

According to the government’s assessment, the problems emanate from two sources: the first one is the rampant lack of good governance at every rank and file of the government and the demanding population driven by the economic growth that the country registered over the past decades.

“How could economic growth be a reason for public uprising?” both Abebe and Tigistu question.

Abebe goes to the extent of daring the government to leave power as he believes that EPRDF is unable to lead the country. Abebe sees that the problem is narrow democracy and political space as well as widespread corruption.

“The old ones also have to leave as they are already tired; they must be replaced by new ones,” he asserts.

Abebe’s party, Blue, is also concerned over the recent clash between the Somali and Oromia residents. He said that the party is preparing to send its delegation to the conflict areas to observe the situation. But, before doing that, it is preparing to send a letter to the Office of the Prime Minister in order to notify the government and avoid any mishaps to them.

He says that he is so sad that even the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid bin Ra'ad Zeid Al Hussein has been forbidden to go and visit the protest ridden areas.

The main point of departure for the political parties is the way the protests were handled and solution provision in order to guarantee that the problems will not happen again.

“There is no guarantee that such problems would not happen again,” Tigistu sayd. “The solutions offered so far have been of a short-term solution and not long-term solutions.”

According to Tigistu, discussion with the public as well as the establishment of a neutral think tank that can assess and recommend solutions is the best step towards issuing a long-lasting solution to such problems.

He also states that political dialogues like the recent one going between the government and the opposition can give opportunities to observe and solve such problems before they become consequential.

“There needs to be diverse political thoughts unlike the previous decades in which only revolutionary democracy was surfacing all political thoughts,” Tigistu contends.

Tigistu also believes that regional body powers are swelling in that they became challenges to the federal government; this has to be reversed and controlled according to him.

Papyrus Hotel’s manager, Atkilt, says that discussing issues before they get out of hand and giving solutions to questions of the public whenever possible can decrease the probability of occurrences of tragedies that happened the past year in which “one of the many victims are operators in the hospitality sector.”

But for Nahusenay, a scholar in politics, the real solution extends beyond this. He believes that apart from discussions, which he says should be held in a more open and participatory manner, “there needs to be mechanisms in which those responsible will be punished.” Nothing has happened nothing so far.

“I even doubt if the people in the leading coalition have a unity of purpose; I don’t believe they have the unity of purpose.” Nahusenay challenges.

He says that what has been looming around is a question of democracy and of giving the politics to its real owners; that is the public.

“Participation in politics should not cost anything to the public,” he asserts.

He also downplays the solutions that the government took in order to calm the protests which include leadership and cabinet reshuffle both at the national and regional levels.

“This is just procrastinating and no long-lasting solution has ever been offered,” he observes. “The government is very much short-sighted.”

He believes that the public has no question on the system but political ownership and its implementation is the major problem.

In order to avoid casualties that happened at the Ireecha festival last year, this year’s festival will involve no uniform wearing personnel to maintain security and no arms are allowed inside the place of celebration.

Negeri Lencho, the minister for the Government’s Communication Affairs Office in a press conference said that the necessary preparations have been made in order to make this year’s celebration as peaceful as possible.

Apart from preparations for such yearly events, observers agree that there need to be long lasting solutions in order to maintain the country’s peace and security. Is that remains to be the case, commentators say that the effects could be uncontrollable as many western countries continue to issue frequent travel warnings and alerts which has the potential to diminish the country’s economic growth and business deals.