Members of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group chanted and waved flags as they gathered Saturday for the first time to celebrate their thanksgiving festival in the capital Addis Ababa, a city that prominent members of the group claim belongs to them.
The annual Irreecha festival of the Oromo people marks the end of the rainy season and the start of the harvest season.
It is traditionally held in the city of Bishoftu, located in the Oromia region some 50 kilometres southeast of Addis Ababa.
Many Oromo leaders argue that the capital is part of their group’s territory, meaning the decision to allow Irreecha celebrations there risked exacerbating ethnic tensions.
But a concert Friday night in the central Meskel Square and blessing ceremonies Saturday morning unfolded without incident.
Dawud Ibsa, leader of the opposition Oromo Liberation Front, a former rebel group, told reporters that Saturday’s celebrations were “very significant” for Oromos who believe their claims to Addis Ababa have not been respected.
“This is our turn and a revival of what is taken from you,” he said.
In a park not far from Meskel Square, large crowds of mostly Oromos dipped flowers into pools of water and then sprayed themselves in a gesture symbolising gratitude and renewal.
Yado Birhanu, a student, said celebrating Irreecha in Addis Ababa was fitting given the Oromos played a major role in anti-government protests that swept Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, himself an Oromo, to office in 2018.
“We have sacrificed many young people to bring forth these reforms,” she said.
In remarks at the concert Friday, Shimelis Abdisa, vice president of the Oromia region, struck a similarly triumphant tone.
“Today, we have crushed those who crushed us, and now the Oromo is winning back his respect right where he lost his dignity,” Shimelis said.
“Today, our politics is coming from the periphery to the centre.”
But Takele Uma, the Oromo deputy mayor of Addis Ababa, stressed on inclusion.
“Now we are celebrating Irreecha with other nations and nationalities in the capital of Ethiopia,” he said.
“We are doing this because Addis Ababa is home to every one of us.”
Tight security –
Irreecha has already been a political flashpoint in recent years.
In 2016, the use of tear gas and firearms by security forces sparked a stampede that killed dozens, some of whom drowned in a nearby lake.
The government put the death toll at 55, though Human Rights Watch later said it could have been in the hundreds.
The following year, Irreecha turned into an anti-government protest.
Last year’s Irreecha, the first since Abiy came to power, was peaceful.
The celebrations in Addis Ababa on Saturday will be followed by a larger event on Sunday in Bishoftu.
The state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate said the festival was expected to draw “millions of Oromos from all over the country as well as non-Oromo visitors from different parts of the country and other parts of the world.”
Abiy said the festival was “a symbol of peace and unity,” Fana reported.
Security forces were nonetheless on high alert. Federal police on Thursday said they had detained a number of people with weapons who were seeking to “disrupt” the celebrations.
By midday Saturday, the Addis Ababa Police Commission was reporting that it had gone off “without any security problems,” according to Fana.
Security is expected to remain tight in Addis Ababa all weekend, and roads in the city centre were closed Saturday.
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