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Ethiopians gather for festival marred by bloodshed

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A year ago, Firommisa Darasa barely made it out of Ethiopia’s Irreecha festival alive, managing to escape from a deep ditch where dozens perished.

The tragedy happened after police fired tear gas at anti-government protesters, sparking a stampede.

Last year’s bloodshed at the annual religious festival held by Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo people, became a turning point in months of anti-government protests that prompted the government to declare a nationwide state of emergency.

While dissatisfaction with Ethiopia’s government still runs deep among the Oromo, last year’s protests have since died down.

Those planning to attend this year’s Irreecha festival say they are hoping for the best when Sunday’s gathering begins in the resort town of Bishoftu, southeast of the capital Addis Ababa.

“I feel fear inside but if I don’t come, the people around me won’t come. This is our ancestral celebration and we will have to keep it,” said one of the festival-goers, 28-year-old Firommisa,

At least 50 killed

The Oromo people began protesting in late 2015, angered by a government proposal to expand Addis Ababa that they feared would deprive them of land without proper compensation.

Those tensions exploded at last year’s Irreecha when activists took to the stage and began shouting anti-government slogans, prompting police to open fire with tear gas.

At least 50 people were killed in the ensuing stampede, according to government figures. Activists put the death toll much higher.

Changes have been made this year at the festival grounds adjacent to a lake in the town 60km southeast of the capital.

A new open-air amphitheatre has been built and cobblestones laid on the ground, while the ditch that claimed so many lives last year has been fenced off.

The presence of armed security forces was seen as exacerbating last year’s chaos, but the Oromia regional government said this year there would be no weapons.

“This year will be different because there will be no political involvement from the government and no security from them as well,” said attendee Dachassa Gosa, 22.
Irreecha, or thanksgiving, is the most important annual festival of the Oromo people and it celebrates the end of the months-long rainy season and the upcoming harvest.

While traditionally a time to give thanks and pray for prosperity and abundance, it has increasingly been an opportunity for the Oromo to assert their identity and criticise government policies they say marginalise them.

Last year’s deaths re-ignited the protests across the Oromo region, but this time the targets were government and foreign-owned businesses, with several destroyed.

All told, the months of violence left more than 940 people dead, according to the government’s human rights commission, while arrests topped 22,000.

The bloodshed only ended with the declaration of a state of emergency, which was lifted in August.

However many Oromo say their grievances were not addressed and sporadic strikes and protests still occur.
US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the Ethiopian government to “act with restraint” this time around and to take measures to ensure there is no repeat of last year’s tragedy, while calling for a proper investigation into what happened.

“Certainly, if there were to be a return to what happened at least year’s Irreecha, you would expect that would lead to much wider unrest,” HRW researcher Felix Horne told AFP news agency.

Oftaha Oromoo travelled from a district hours away to join the celebration but expects a more subdued event this weekend.

“Personally I am still angry, but we have to be patient and celebrate,” he said. “This year, we want to remember the people who died.”

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Ethiopia

What triggered unrest in Ethiopia? INSIDE STORY

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Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s surprise resignation came after sustained anti-government protests in the East African country.

While the government considers who will take his place, it has imposed a state of emergency for the next six months.

Ethiopia is the second most populous country in the African continent, with 100 million people in more than 40 ethnic groups.

The two largest groups, the Oromo and the Amhara, make up around two-thirds of all Ethiopians.

Tigrayans account for just six percent of the population but they dominate politics and the security forces.

It’s a 25-year-old arrangement but one that is causing a great deal of resentment among the other groups.

So, what’s next for Ethiopia?

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Ethiopia

No Ethiopia military takeover, minister says amid emergency

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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopia’s defense minister has ruled out a military takeover a day after the East African nation declared a new state of emergency amid the worst anti-government protests in a quarter-century.

Siraj Fegessa on Saturday also ruled out a transitional government. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn remains in the post for now after making the surprise announcement Thursday that he had submitted a resignation letter to help planned political reforms in one of Africa’s best-performing economies succeed.

The state of emergency will last for six months with a possible four-month extension, similar to one lifted in August, the defense minister said.

The new state of emergency, which effectively bans protests, will be presented for lawmakers’ approval within 15 days. Siraj said security forces have been instructed to take “measures” against those disturbing the country’s functioning, with a new special court established to try them.

Ethiopia’s cabinet on Friday cited deaths, ethnic attacks and mass displacement as reasons for the latest state of emergency. The announcement followed crippling protests in towns across the restive Oromia region on Monday and Tuesday that called for the release of political prisoners and urged the government to carry out rapid reforms.
Similar protests have taken place across Ethiopia since late 2015, leading the government to declare a state of emergency in October 2016 after hundreds of people reportedly had been killed. A stampede at a religious event southeast of the capital, Addis Ababa, that month claimed the lives of several dozen people.

That state of emergency led to the arrest of more than 22,000 people and severely affected business.

Rights groups alleged that people were beaten and subjected to arbitrary detentions. The government said those arrested by mistake were released and those who unwillingly took part in the unrest were released after what it described as “trainings.”

The United States has responded to the latest unrest by warning its embassy personnel to suspend all travel outside of the capital. And Ethiopia’s state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting corporate reported that the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, met and discussed current political issues with Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu in New York.

Befekadu Hailu, a prominent blogger who has been jailed for his writings, urged Ethiopia’s government to “carry out genuine reforms, negotiate with legitimate opposition groups and prepare the country for a free and fair election” to solve the unrest.

The new state of emergency will create a group of people with conflicting interests, Befekadu said. “The state of emergency was tested a year ago. It brings temporary silence but not normalcy.”

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Ethiopia

U.S. Embassy Statement on the Ethiopian Government’s Declared State of Emergency

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We strongly disagree with the Ethiopian government’s decision to impose a state of emergency that includes restrictions on fundamental rights such as assembly and expression.

We recognize and share concerns expressed by the government about incidents of violence and loss of life, but firmly believe that the answer is greater freedom, not less.

The challenges facing Ethiopia, whether to democratic reform, economic growth, or lasting stability, are best addressed through inclusive discourse and political processes, rather than through the imposition of restrictions.

The declaration of a state of emergency undermines recent positive steps toward creating a more inclusive political space, including the release of thousands of prisoners. Restrictions on the ability of the Ethiopian people to express themselves peacefully sends a message that they are not being heard.

We strongly urge the government to rethink this approach and identify other means to protect lives and property while preserving, and indeed expanding, the space for meaningful dialogue and political participation that can pave the way to a lasting democracy.

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