Awol K Allo is Lecturer in Law at Keele University, UK.
Lying to the southeast of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa is Bishoftu, home to the Ethiopian Air Force and Lake Arsadii, the site of the Irreecha, the most important cultural festival for the more than 40 million ethnic Oromos. A bustling resort town famous for its crater lakes and picturesque landscape, Bishoftu is striking rather than beautiful. It is too hollow and too sentimental to be beautiful.
The city, in which millions of Oromos gather each year in late September or early October to celebrate the wholeness and deep magnificence of nature and culture, was the scene of the deadliest atrocities (pdf) in the yearlong anti-government protests in which security forces have killed more than 1,000 people.
October 2, 2017 marks the first anniversary of the Irreecha atrocity in which the sacred grounds of Bishoftu desecrated as security forces used tear gas and live bullets against an agitated crowd of about two million assembled on the shore of Lake Arsadi. In the utter chaos and confusion that ensued when the massive crowd began to run, people fell into deep ditches, trampled, suffocated, got shot, and drowned in the nearby lake.
Shortly after the tragic event, the government blamed “anti-peace forces”, a common lexicon attached to activists and dissenting voices with fatal consequences, for triggering a deadly stampede. Activists on their part accused the government of perpetrating an “intentional and planned massacre” of innocent civilians gathered to give thanks and celebrate the deep and true beauty and significance of the Irreecha.
While there is no independent and credible inquiry into the causes and consequences of the tragedy yet, the contestation to control the narrative, the struggle to fix the history and memory of the 2016 Irreecha, began in earnest before victim’s bodies identified and properly grieved by their survivors. The government puts the death toll at 55 while the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress Party reported the death of 678.
|Although there is no evidence yet that there was a premeditated, programmatic, and purposeful killing of innocent civilians, these deaths are not the result of a fatal flaw or aberrations committed by rogue security forces.|
The government resisted calls for an independent and credible inquiry into the causes and consequences of the stampede, but a new report (pdf) published by Human Rights Watch provides a rich account of what transpired at the 2016 Irreecha Festival. Based on interviews with more than 50 individuals who attended the festival and an analysis of dozens of video footage and photos, the report concluded that not only did security forces trigger the stampede; they also used disproportionate force – including live bullets – without any imminent threat to their security.
Although there is no evidence yet that there was a premeditated, programmatic, and purposeful killing of innocent civilians, these deaths are not the result of a fatal flaw or aberrations committed by rogue security forces. Rather, they are a foreseeable consequence of structural forces – prior policy choices, institutional practices, and attitudes – that were central to maintaining and sustaining the prevailing configuration of power. This institutional culture meant that violent actions that are patently illegal and foreseeably lethal become morally excusable and legally defensible when perpetrated by security forces in the name of national security.
The 2016 Irreecha came after a yearlong protest by the Oromos against systemic and structural inequalities at the heart of Ethiopia‘s multinational federal experiment. Over the last quarter of a century, the government tried to maintain power by concealing the exploitative and abusive arrangements and bureaucratic procedures through the policy of divide and rule and the consolidation of economic and militarised patronage. When the protests sparked, the government quickly framed protesters as “terrorists” and “anti-peace forces”, providing a prior justification for its increasingly violent use of force against an already terror-stricken community. In 11 months, security forces killed over 1,000 people and detained tens of thousands.