Thousands of people from the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, celebrated their thanksgiving festival in Bishoftu city amid tight security on Sunday after the authorities said they had seized weapons and foiled attacks in previous days.
The Irreecha festival has been the scene of violent protests before by the Oromo, who have long complained of political exclusion. Recent unrest, including the killing of a popular singer in June and the arrest of prominent Oromo politicians, heightened concern of violence at the two-day festival.
On the eve of the festival, forces from both regional and federal police, as well from the army, descended on Bishoftu in large numbers.
There were at least ten checkpoints by the main lakeside site of the celebrations, and only those with special badges could enter.
“Irreecha has been a platform used by people to express their anger and outrage…that is why this time around they deny people to celebrate this year,” said Abdi Fikadu, 26, a health professional.
On the eve of celebrations, police officials in Bishoftu stopped a group of youths at a bar singing and dancing to songs by Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, the musician killed in June, a Reuters witness said. Others were prevented from attending the festival.
Dawit Dugama, 25, came all the way from Addis Ababa along with nine friends to take part the festival. They were told they could not join the crowds without a badge.
“We were told that we can’t be part of the celebration because we don’t have badge. This is the government’s way to suppress peoples’ voices,” he said.
At the festival in 2016, more than 50 people were killed in a stampede triggered when police used teargas and shot in the air to disperse anti-government protesters.
The festival passed without incident in the capital Addis Ababa on Saturday, again amid very tight security.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed thanked organisers and participants for celebrating peacefully in a Facebook post on Sunday.
Police and intelligence services foiled what they said were plans to incite violence in Addis Ababa and other parts of Ethiopia ahead of the festival, state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting reported on Friday.
A day earlier, Oromiya’s regional police arrested 503 people on accusations they planned to cause violence during the festival and seized guns and hand grenades.
Dressed in traditional white costumes, some wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, people marched chanting slogans while flashing the Oromo protest gesture.