Protesters are taking to the streets in Ethiopia in the wake of a mass panic that killed dozens at a religious festival. The government is reacting with a heavy hand. One anti-regime blogger was jailed.
The situation in Ethiopia is increasingly tense after the tragic mass panic of the weekend in the town of Bishoftu. Activists from the Oromo ethnic group, the biggest in Ethiopia, called for "five days of ire", despite the government declaring national mourning. With flags flying at half-mast, protesters took to the streets in the eastern and western outskirts of the capital Addis Ababa shouting slogans and carrying placards criticizing the government.
Tens of thousands of Oromo gathered on the shores of Lake Harsadi last Sunday for a yearly thanksgiving celebration called "Irreecha". The lake is considered holy by the Oromo. When some celebrants crossed their wrists above their heads, a sign used by the Oromo to protest against the government, and others started lobbing stones and bottles at the police, security forces responded with teargas. This caused a panic with ensuing stampede. People trying to flee fell into a deep ditch and were crushed to death. According to the government 52 died. Human rights organizations speak of several hundred dead.
A circle of violence
"As always, we are hearing only lies", said the deputy leader of the opposition's Ethiopia Federal Democratic Unity Forum party, Gebru Gebremariam. "The government's small truth is that many people died when they fell into a ditch due to a mass panic. But the government is to blame, because soldiers and policemen fired into the air and used tear gas."
Ethiopian activist Geresu Tufa follows developments at home closely from his exile in the Netherlands. "This is a shock for the country," he told DW. The conflict threatens to escalate, because of continuing state violence against critics, he says, demanding that the government accept an offer by the United Nations (UN) of an independent investigation of the incident. All political parties should sit down at the negotiating table. "But I don't think that the regime is willing to do so," he added. Government violence is generating new violence, leading to a terrible vicious cycle, Tufa concludes.
The news of the arrest of renowned blogger Seyoum Teshome at his home on Monday further angered protesters. Activist Tufa says that jailing bloggers who are critical of the regime is no novelty. But it is now likely to fuel the violent conflict in the region. The International Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is calling for Teshome's immediate release.
Merga Yonas Bula, an Oromo journalist working at DW, says that if the government were to set up a dialogue with the population it would give out a sign of stability in Ethiopia. But news keep emerging that security forces are using live bullets against protesters. The violence is making the situation worse and further weakening the region, Bula believes.
Fear of expulsion
Protests by the Oromo and the Amhara began in November of last year. The reason was a plan by the government to extend Addis Ababa into Oromo territory. According to this "master plan", the capital is to be "connected" to parts of the surrounding Oromo territory. Critics do not believe that the plans are aimed at bettering the infrastructure and bringing development, as the government argues. They see a threat to the autonomy of Oromo communities and fear that they will be driven from their land.
Putting on the pressure
Owing to strong economic development, Ethiopia is seen as an example for other African countries. But critics point out the government‘s record of human rights violations and repressing the opposition. A political solution for the crisis is not in sight.
The dire situation in Ethiopia worries independent organizations in Europe. The German-based Society of Threatened Peoples (STPI) demands that chancellor Angela Merkel speak up about the desolate human rights' situation when she visits Ethiopia next week. "A regime which shoots out of helicopters at unarmed women, men and children cannot be a privileged partner of the European Union or Germany," says the organization's director for Africa Ulrich Dehlius. The STPI called for a demonstration in Berlin, this Wednesday, to protest the silence of the German government.
Activist Geresu Tofa calls for more pressure by the international community, which bankrolls the better part of Ethiopia's state budget. Otherwise protests and violence might spill over into other cities and even neighboring countries. "That could have devastating consequences for the whole region and increase the number of refugees fleeing to politically tense neighboring countries and Europe."
Negash Mohammed contributed to this report