This year’s Irreechaa festivities were once again heavily politicized and, as such, were strictly controlled by security forces.
On the weekend of 1-2 October, the Oromo people celebrated Irreechaa, the thanksgiving holiday marking the end of winter, in Addis Abeba and Bishoftu.
Irreechaa is usually celebrated during the weekend following the Meskel holiday. The festival is observed in many areas of Oromia, but, at the national level, it brings millions of Oromos from all over Oromia and non-Oromo visitors from other parts of Ethiopia to the shores of Hora (Lake) Arsadi and, as of 2019, to Hora Finfinee in the capital.
The annual ritual is the hallmark of the Waqeffannaa, the ancient traditional Oromo religion, but, nowadays, Christians and Muslims participate in greater numbers than followers of Waqeffannaa.
For many, Irreechaa is a secular festival that is an emblem of cultural identity and a manifestation of Oromo national unity, as it draws together Oromo people from all walks of life, religious backgrounds, and political affiliations.
The Oromo nation is Ethiopia’s largest, numbering an estimated 40 million people, but has historically been marginalized and its cultural symbols, such as the Afaan Oromoo language and Gadaa system of indigenous democracy, have been attacked and denigrated by the state.
As a response to this legacy, in recent years this celebration has been used to deliver statements of protest against the previous and current federal administrations. As more people gather to connect and express their views, the event has increasingly taken on a political dimension.
This year’s celebrations were no different, as the public’s sentiments about the current political situation were embedded in the prayers of elders, traditional songs, slogans, and protests.
While it has become common to hear political sentiments at the Irreechaa festival, the slogans change each year depending on the shifting political climate.
Since the conquest of Oromia by Emperor Menelik II in the late nineteenth century and its incorporation into the Ethiopian empire, Oromo religious and cultural practices have been the target of state repression.
After 1974, the Derg military regime labeled cultural practices such as Irreechaa as backward and viewed them as obstacles to development, national unity, and its revolutionary ethos.
After the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came to power, Irreechaa celebrations were restarted in Hora Arsadi in the mid-1990s. Despite championing the ability of Ethiopia’s nations and nationalities to exercise their culture, language, and religion, such practices challenged the EPRDF’s dominance and, after 2003, it manipulated the Irreechaa festival to its advantage.
Elders’ prayers during the 2014 Irreechaa rituals were infused with sorrow for the Oromo students who had been brutally murdered by the regime for protesting against the Addis Abeba Master Plan, which sketched out a de facto expansion of the capital and further dispossession of local Oromo farmers.
Irreechaa was the biggest stage for Oromo protests from 2014 to 2017 that were largely responsible for putting an end to the EPRDF coalition government that had the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) at its core.
However, platforming political statements at the festivals has not come without reprisal. The 2016 massacre is an example of how peaceful demonstrations are met with brutal responses by the state. Hundreds of people died at that year’s festival after a stampede was caused by the security forces’ use of teargas and discharging of firearms in response to statements of protest.
Since 2018, the messages being echoed by the youth have changed from largely being in support of the eagerly awaited political and economic reforms to denouncing Abiy Ahmed, the new Prime Minister.
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Specific demands included the release of leaders of the two largest Oromo opposition parties, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC). Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba, and other OFC leaders were arrested in July 2020 and were only released last January, while OLF leader Dawud Ibssa was under house arrest from May 2021 to March 2022.
Voices of support for the armed resistance movement led by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) have also become common at the festivities. Since the agreement between OLF and Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) was breached in 2018, the OLA insurgency has been active in western and southern Oromia. Since then, the government has waged a counterinsurgency and responded with extrajudicial killings and mass arrests.
In response to Irreechaa’s growing political significance, the celebrations now regularly take place under a heavy military presence, and reports of arrests and casualties are common.
Last year, anti-government protests broke out at the Irreechaa Hora Finfinee celebrations in the capital, leading to the arrest of many, including a journalist. This year, eyewitnesses reported that dozens of people were arrested during the two days of celebrations and two people were killed in uncertain circumstances.
There were several state-sponsored events held in the capital in the days leading up to this year’s celebrations, but Saturday marked the first day of the two-day festivities.
Starting on Friday evening, roads leading to Meskel Square were within a five-kilometer radius were blocked off, but thousands of people were already flocking to Meskel Square by 4am local time on Saturday where they were met with long lines for checkpoints.
Heavily armed security forces confiscated several items, including components of traditional outfits and accessories known as Siinqee, which are decorated sticks women hold after marriage as a sign of fertility, productivity, and reconciliation at Gadaa ceremonies.
Such actions demonstrated a lack of cultural sensitivity. “It makes no sense to forbid a literal symbol of peace from going through,” remarked one attendee.
Traditional spiritual leaders representing different communities arrived at the crack of dawn and delivered prayers. The ritual proceeded in the Irreechaa park well into the morning while more people continued to arrive to perform prayers.
As the number of people began to swell, so did the slogans and folk songs conveying messages of support for the Oromo armed resistance movement led by Kumsa Diriba, otherwise known as ‘Jaal Maarroo’.
Protests called for an end to the widespread violence in Oromia and Tigray, and referenced the recent massacre in Wollega by militants from Amhara region. The late Hachalu Hundessa was also commemorated at the event with T-shirts and banners bearing his face.
The event was attended by several non-Oromo Ethiopians as well as Oromo communities who reside in Kenya. Representatives of the Sidama, Kembata, Gamo, Konso, and Burji communities were seen intermingling with their Oromo compatriots. Attendance is often a sign of solidarity and, at times, a reflection of political alliances.
However, many residents of Oromia were unable to travel to Addis Abeba or Bishoftu to observe the holiday. Residents of Wollega zones, areas in the West Shewa zone, and Fentalle wereda of the East Shewa zone said that people were prohibited from traveling to the capital while others were detained under unclear circumstances.
“They offered no explanation other than that the arrests were made due to security concerns,” one source said.
Another resident of Gimbi, the capital of West Wollega Zone, said, “Yes, the authorities tried to stop us.” He traveled to the capital a few days before public transportation vehicles were prohibited from traveling.
Authorities imposed restrictions on attendance, but a sizable crowd nonetheless showed up in Irreechaa Park to celebrate at Hora Finfinee. Passage from the park to Meskel Square, where people normally go after the ritual, was closed off, forcing people to circle around the compound of the UN Economic Commission for Africa or Hachalu Hundessa Park.
The roads that had been closed off since Friday afternoon were reopened for traffic a few minutes after 10am local time on Sunday, forcing what little was left of the crowd at Meskel Square to disperse.
The celebrations in Bishoftu were no different than those in the capital.
Cars leaving the Hora Finfinee event for Bishoftu were not allowed to enter the town on Saturday. This has become common practice in the last two years owing to COVID-19 restrictions.
Many people decided not to make the trip to Bishoftu for fear of being made to return, as was the case the previous year. Some returned home because hotel rooms were all booked on Saturday. Others entered the town on foot, which took about two hours from Mojo and Dukem towns.
The streets of Bishoftu were already swarming with thousands of people on Saturday afternoon. Groups continued to flock to Hora Arsadi until the next day. On Sunday, cars weren’t allowed in until after 10am.
Slogans and songs supporting the armed resistance movement continued. Like at Hora Finfinee, there was no sighting of the OLF flag, which is a symbol of resistance and common at Oromo gatherings. In the days before the holiday, authorities cautioned against carrying items that convey political messages at the ceremonies.
Calls for an end to the killings in Wollega and anti-government protests continued, while arrests were made at Hora Arsadi as well.
The Joint Peace and Security Task Force said in a statement that it had arrested 166 individuals accused of attempting to commit terrorism at the Meskel and Irreechaa celebrations. The suspects were accused of being members of TPLF, OLA, and the Islamic State.
The prayers at the Sunday ritual also echoed pleas for an end to the bloodshed and mass arrests, and for the preservation of the Gadaa system and unity.
As usual, the celebrations were concluded by traditional dances and songs at Bishoftu and Dukem. Hotels, bars, and cafes were packed with people returning from the celebrations on Sunday afternoon.
This year’s Irreechaa in Addis Abeba and Bishoftu therefore continued the trend of Irreechaa reflecting the existing political climate, rather than simply being a celebration of Oromo culture, and, as such, was heavily patrolled and inhibited by security forces.
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Main photo: Irrecha Finfinne festival celebration, Addis Ababa, Siyanne Mokonnen, 1 October 2022.
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