This after an estimated 400 to 600 people died in a deadly stampede that broke out when Ethiopian police reportedly fired teargas to disperse a protest by the Oromo ethnic group at last year’s Irreecha festival. HRW said it had also found evidence that security force personnel “not only triggered the stampede that caused many deaths but subsequently shot and killed some members of the crowd”.
Irreecha Cultural Festival is an annual Oromo celebration held on the banks of Lake Hora near the town of Bishoftu, about 50km southeast of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. The festival is the most important cultural event to Ethiopia’s 40 million Oromos, who gather to celebrate the end of the rains and welcome the harvest.
Tensions were already high ahead of the 2016 festival following a year of deadly protests against a government plan to clear a forest and football pitch for a development investment in the small town of Ginchi, which lies some 80km southwest of Addis Ababa.
“The security forces’ disastrous and disproportionate use of force should not be repeated this year,” HRW senior Africa researcher Felix Horne said.
“With longstanding grievances still unanswered, this year’s Irreecha could be fraught with tensions. The government and the security forces should take all steps necessary before and during the festival to protect human life and de-escalate tensions.
“Last year’s tragedy was triggered by the government’s botched effort to control the event. This year, the government should consider whether a much lighter security force presence would best serve to minimise the potential for violence, and in any case, ensure that security force personnel minimise and seek to avoid any use of force.”
Several Oromo musicians have also met the wrath of the Ethiopian government for protesting against plans to expand Addis Ababa to adjacent farmlands in the Oromia region.
“The regime has intensified its war on Oromo artists,” online activist Jawar Mohammed said earlier this year. “Almost all singers are either in jail, forced to flee or have gone underground. Music studios have been closed and their properties confiscated with Seenaa Solomon and Elias Kiflu being the latest victims.”
Solomon and Kiflu are part of a group of seven artists who were arrested in December 2016. In June 2017, the seven were charged with terrorism for producing and uploading “inciting” political songs and videos, according to a number of media reports.
Earlier this month, singer Teddy Afro, who has a long history of criticising the Ethiopian government through his songs, was prevented from launching his Ethiopia album at a hotel in Addis Ababa.