A combination of smoke bombs and live bullets from security forces at the largest gathering for the Irreecha holiday in the Ethiopian state Oromia triggered a deadly stampede on Sunday, October 2. At least 52 people were killed, according to the government, but a major opposition activist group said the death toll is as high 600 people.
Separately, an unspecified number of people were killed in numerous other towns across Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest state, as the news prompted fresh protests, the activist group said, and hundreds were arrested over the weekend.
Demonstrations have taken place with regular frequency in Oromia since November 2015, demanding greater self-rule, freedom and respect for the ethnic identity of the Oromo people, who have experienced systematic marginalization and persecution over the last quarter century. Authorities have used deadly force against the protesters on more than one occasion.
What triggered the Irreecha stampede?
The bloody incident on Sunday occurred at Lake Hora, considered ritual ground, in a town called Bishoftu, about 48 kilometers south east of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. Hundreds of thousands of people were estimated to have gathered from every corner of Ethiopia not only for Irreecha, a holiday that marks the beginning of the new season of harvests in Oromia, but also to stage a peaceful protest.
The streets of Bishoftu and the fields around Lake Hora were lined with thousands of people who were waiting to place green grass and flowers on the shore of the lake, an Irreecha ritual that marks the beginning of the new season. At the same time, there was also a heavy presence of security forces dressed in riot gear and gas masks, bearing long truncheons and guns with military vehicles. Some participants chanted as they moved through the area, holding up their arms into an X — a sign used by the Oromo people to protest against repression by the Ethiopian government.
At the venue, when a government official tried to make a speech before the Irreecha procession, protesters preempted him in a chaotic confrontation. A video captures a protester taking the stage and leading the public in a chant, “down, down TPLF”. TPLF stands for Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, the main party in the ruling coalition of Ethiopia.
Then, a series of shots rang out around the area. Meanwhile, a helicopter hovered above the gathering. Chaos erupted as marchers fled to seek shelter. “People started scattering in every direction screaming and yelling that ‘they were shooting causing a large number of people to fall over a cliff,” a survivor who was at the scene told me.
Irreecha is the most popular festival in Oromia and is known for its emphasis on an indigenous cultural and religious practice of the Oromos, the single largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. In this way, the biannual celebration of Irreecha is intertwined with the politics of performing what it means to be Oromo.
In addition, for many years now, opposition Oromo activists have been explicitly expressing their discontent with the Ethiopian politico-economic system at Irreecha events. Even during the earlier times of quieter political activism, attendees of Irreecha events in Oromia openly declared their allegiance to banned Oromo political parties such as the Oromo Liberation Front. Making political statements at Irreecha events emerged out of the feelings of decades of marginalization and dispossession.
However, the 2016 Irreecha celebration was even more charged than usual because it came at a time of mourning those who have died over the last 11 months while protesting. By some counts, at least 700 people have been killed in relation with the ongoing protests in 2016. Since November 2015, reports of a person being shot, arrested or subjected to a violent harassment from security forces have surfaced on a daily basis.
On Sunday, the Oromo people had converted Irreecha into a place to celebrate their identity, but also to show their grievances. The violence there has shaken Ethiopia, as it appears to be the first assault by security forces on a major cultural and religious ritual of the Oromo people as well as among the most brutal crackdowns ever perpetrated specifically against the Oromo identity. The incident was probably intended to intimidate the persisting protests in Oromia as well as similar ones in the state of Amhara, to say the Ethiopian government is powerful entity and anyone who dares to challenge it will suffer.