Last week’s Irrecha festivities ended in a gruesome tragedy the likes of which is not common to public holidays in Ethiopia. Following the tragic death of those who attended the festivities, a wave of protest have erupted in across Oromia Regional State with billions of birr worth of properties going up in flames. Meanwhile, the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has announced its planed reshuffle of its leadership which it expected to be announced next week when parliament opens, writes Yohannes Anberbir.
The Gadaa system is an ancient system of societal stratification and administration which is scared to the Oromo people. Although the system is less influential in terms of day-to-day governance of the Oromo community in recent times, the system is still a highly-regarded cultural institution in Ethiopia.
In connection to the Gadaa system, the annual thanksgiving celebration known as the Irrecha festivities is also another widely observed cultural holiday among the Oromo people. According to Oromo elders, Irrecha is an annual holiday where the Oromo community gives thanks to the creator for the blessings it had bestowed upon the people during the year. Irrecha is celebrated every year at the beginning of the spring season which is either on the Sunday of the last week of September or the beginning of October.
Currently, Irrecha is one of the biggest traditional festivals in Ethiopia celebrated by millions of Oromos, the local community and tourists. And focal point of the Irrecha festivities is the scared grounds of Hora Harsadi; Hora meaning lake in Oromiffa. These grounds are located in the town of Bishoftu, 45kms from the capital Addis Ababa.
Last Sunday was Irrecha 2016, an occasion of celebration in the protest-engrossed Oromia. And the mood in Bishoftu a night before Irrecha was exactly as such. As they do usually, members of the Oromo community travel from afar to take part in the holiday celebrations and finding accommodation on the eve of the holiday was unthinkable in the resort town.
Bishoftu displayed a mixture of festivities and tension starting from Saturday afternoon. On one hand, a number of youngsters who filled the local bars and restaurants on the eve of Irrecha projected an atmosphere of festivities and celebration while, on the other hand, displays of emotion were witnessed whenever a politically-charged Oromiffa songs were played at public recreational facilities. That was an indication as to the potential of a protest the next morning.
Well, that was what happened exactly. A wave of people who flocked to Hora Harsadi to take part in festivities were almost in complete sync in their protest against the government, the regional ruling party the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the ruling party EPRDF. According firsthand accounts of The Reporter, the protest started as early as 6:00 in the morning when high-ranking Aba Gadaas began to bless the lake waters and by adoring the lake with freshly-cut grasses. Blessing the lake is usually a very popular happening in the festivities which also heralds the beginning of the holiday ritual. This was unusually met with extreme lack of interest and opposition.
The predominately young, who were in attendance, were relentless in sounding their opposition to OPDO, member-party of the EPRDF and administrator of the region, and the ruling front altogether carrying slogans like “Enough Woyane,” “Enough OPDO” and “We Want Freedom”. As the protest grew louder and stronger, the more it became unsettling for security forces, mainly composed of the region’s Special Forces.
Nevertheless, the conduct of the security forces and hence the protests had been peaceful. After considerable delay, the Aba Gadaa, who was sitting quietly on the stage all through the protest, tried to get a hold of the ceremony by asking the crowed to quite down. This never happened in fact the protest started to heat up. Many organizers of the ceremony took a stab at calming the relentless protest but failed. That was when the young man who slipped through to stage and mixed with stage organizers got a hold of the microphone. This was indeed significant since nobody anticipated what this young man was going to do next. “Down Down Woyane”, “Down Down TPLF”, blurted the young man and the crowed followed the chant; and yet again louder than before.
This was a turning point to the Irrecha 2016 celebration since most of the present Aba Gadaas and religious fathers started to vacate the stage and lake area declaring festivities will not take place this year. To the disappointment of the regional cultural bureau this was the year where the Irrecha festival was scheduled to be celebrated in style on account of UNESCO’s observers who were present at ceremony and who are influential in registering the festival as world intangible heritage.
Yet, the failed attempt to impress some observers from the UN was the least of problems for this year’s Irrecha. The departure of the Aba Gaddas was followed by the simmering protest and move by some youngsters in the front row to climb on to the stage. Although repulsed by the security forces, eventually the mass started to push through to control the stage and security forces decided that it was time to respond.
Then things went south really fast. The preferred weapon of dispersing the crowed was tear gas, which together with rubber bullets and water cannon are standards across the world. So, at face value, the response could not be conceived to be deadly, Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn said on the national broadcaster on Sunday. But, for Irrecha celebrators tear gas was just that. According to first accounts, the firing of tear gas has unforeseen and deadly consequences for the people; once the sound of tear gas firing started to echo across Lake Hora, the crowd responded by dispersing fast. All this happened in very crammed location which is surrounded by a ditch and the lake. The result, then, was a stampede, one of the most harrowing tragedies in Ethiopia in recent years. According to conservative estimates, some 53 people have lost their lives falling into ditches, into the lake or suffocated by the stampede. In fact, less conservative sources say the death toll is goes way above 150 and in some cases up to 300.
The government of Ethiopia declared a national mourning for three days at which time the security of the regional administration has went down to its newest low.
Those who buried their loved ones after Irrecha took to the streets once more clashing with security forces, blocked roads and burned down private and public properties.
After the latest turn of events and revival of the protest in Oromia, the political upheaval in Ethiopia looks to be growing into an international concern with global partners issuing statements. Perhaps, the most concerning factor is the evolution of the overall protest and demands which are advanced by the protestors as opposed to the proposed reforms the ruling party has promised to bring to country in the coming months.
The ruling EPRDF’s assessment of the issue revolves around three core points: lack of good governance, abuse of power for personal gain by public officials and job creation. Chairman of the party and Prime Minister of the country has promised that the party would get rid of a significant portion of these problems after undergoing a deep renewal process which is expected to result in a major reshuffle of the both government and party ranks.
Already, speculations are abounding regarding a major reshuffle in the top leadership of the government, especially in PM Hailemariam’s cabinet. This reshuffle plan, although not unusual in EPRDF government, now is expected to rely only on merit based assignment. According to these speculations, the party has been looking for candidates who can deliver and not bound with party affiliation.
On the other hand, recent protests in Oromia and Amhara regions look to have a crystallization of the demand towards complete removal of the current government. According William Davison, Bloombergcorrespondent in Ethiopia, there seems to be a significant degree of public dissatisfaction with fundamental issues such as weak public services, unresponsive bureaucracy, inefficient courts, official corruption, unfair compensation and a rising cost of living. However, these basic grievances are mixed with more overt political issues such as lack of democracy and pluralism and a perception of Tigrayan domination and marginalization of groups such as the Oromo, he argues.
He also observes that pushed by political activities, the protestors are now demanding at least systemic change and at most a change of the whole regime altogether.
This is where things get complicated; with the ruling party expected to present its majorly reshuffled top government leadership when parliament opens next week, commentators are now deliberating on the chances of such a reshuffle to win the hearts and minds of protestors and those not in the protest but waiting anxiously on the government’s response.
“There may be some short-lived new energy brought to the government by replacing leaders,” Davison told The Reporter in an email interview. But, the activists mobilizing most of these protesters are demanding systemic change, and in many cases regime change, he argues, and that chances are high that they will brand EPRDF’s reshuffling as cosmetic change. Davison’s view is not so much about the actual effectiveness of the reshuffle plan but the political attitude and general perception that this reform will be implemented in. According to him, the reshuffle will have less chance of reducing the level of opposition in the country because of the evolution of the demands and the expected branding of the reform by political activists.
Mulugeta Aregawi, international law expert, is more radical in his approach towards the reshuffle program. According to him, the merit of reshuffling party and government ranks should come as secondary to the more radical reforms that country needs to undergo. “The government is saying is that it will conduct a reshuffle. In my opinion, there is no way that reshuffling will be the only solution,” he said.
“What I suggest is that there has to be a platform to entertain the questions and concerns of Ethiopians from different walks of life,” he told The Reporter. He further argued that there are other fundamental issues that need to be addressed by the ruling party. Priority should be given to fully implementing the FDRE constitution, according to Mulugeta. However, apart from that, reforming the country’s justice should also be on the top of the agenda of the ruling party, he says. Independent and strong justice system is critical to hold officials accountable and build the confidence of the public on the government, he added.
On the other hand, Mulugeta is also adamant about reforming the political space. He says that the party should take this opportunity to build a more open and tolerant system towards political dissents. The system needs to accommodate alternative ideas and points of view. However, Mulugeta do not write-off the importance of reshuffling the leadership but says it should come as secondary measure.
One issue that could be noticeable here is that experts and political commentators do differ greatly in their idea of the needed reforms to address the current questions raised by protestors across the Amhara and Oromia regional states.
Nahusenay Belay, federalism expert at Addis Ababa University’s School of Federalism Studies, argues that EPRDF has gone wrong in the diagnosis of the problem in the first place. According to him, it is not a few individuals’ self-enrichment or rent-seekers controlling the party that is the most pressing issue for the country; not at least the fundamental problem. Rather it is the leadership legitimacy that is testing EPRDF at the moment.
He explains how: “the constitution has institutional arrangements to help the public control the power of the government; however, there seems to be a serious role reversal here”. According to him these institutions are now used to control the public instead. And that has robbed the government of its political legitimacy in spite deniable success in economic aspect, he argued.
In fact, he is also of the view that, the reform that is needed is also as simple as the diagnosis, which is installing a political leadership that resembles the constitutional provision of the country. As far as, reshuffle is concerned, however, he argues that it could not amount to anything more than a short term relief. Perhaps, could buy more time for more serious reforms to come.
Ed.’s Note: Asrat Seyoum of The Reporter has contributed to this report.