Last Sunday, October 2, 2016, was one of those rare but sad moments when tragedy befalls a nation. Ethiopians were gripped with a deep sense of grief and loss as they mourned the unfortunate deaths of no less than 55 individuals. These Ethiopians, alongside vast crowds, had gathered in Bishoftu (Debrezeit), 45km south east of Addis Abeba, to mark the annual Irrecha festival of thanksgiving. Regrettably, it was a tragedy that could have been avoided.
We join the nation in grieving the loss of many young and old, men and women, as well as children, as we pray for their souls and express our condolences to their families. We also join the many who have demonstrated their sense of fury and anger at the state’s failure to protect the wellbeing of individuals converged in the lake-dotted resort town to take part in the yearly rituals, which takes place at the shores of Hora Arsede.
No major security confrontations were reported in the days prior to the event, despite the crossing of arms symbolising the popular discontent being widely displayed and anti-government slogans echoing in the town. In addition to these glaring signals, the law enforcement community failed to read the signs considering the current tense political and security context. The region has witnessed prolonged and protracted protests as recent as a few weeks ago and going back several months during last year.
In a climate of confusion, where claims and counter claims make it too difficult to reconstruct the turn of events that took place on this fateful day, the biggest casualty is the truth. Nonetheless, it is possible to deduct from the footage the state released on the public broadcast, and the many others its opponents posted on social media platforms. A rather agitated youth was determined to take advantage of the event in showing its defiance in the face of state power.
As the time approached for the Aba Gedas – elders in the Oromo tradition who hold a revered cultural authority – to oversee the proceedings of the festivity by giving blessings and offering thanks, things took a different turn of events. An unusual pattern of standoff between the protestors and security forces followed, which lasted for a couple of hours. The police, composed of the regional deployment, was seen exercising restraint while elders urged the youth to remain calm to let the cultural proceedings continue. The standoff reached its climax when some youth attempted to take over the stage.
Security forces fired tear gas and warning shots, creating chaos that ensued in a deadly stampede, as the crowd panicked and stumbled into each other; a significant number of people fell into a deep ditch. Eyewitnesses, the government and some international media outlets reported that several hundred were injured and several others lost their lives. The dispute over the number of individuals who perished on the shores of Hora Arsede is beside the point; not a single life should be lost over something that ought to have been prevented.
Individuals should be free to exercise their rights to protest – non-violently – in public spaces; the freedom of expression includes the right to assembly. Indeed, the country has laws that determine the time, place and manner in which such demonstrations and assemblies should take place. Protestors and demonstrators are bound by law to notify authorities of their intent to organise public demonstrations at least 24 hours prior to such events.
However, the burden of ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the many people who were present at the Irrecha and those who demonstrated (though procedurally unlawful) lies squarely on the shoulders of the state, regardless of what transpires at the event and what the intentions of the people who took part might be. Those who failed to adhere by the law and provoked the situation might have been at fault and should face the consequences, but the state and its agents are also bound to observe international norms of proportional use of force and follow due process of the law when carrying out their duties of maintaining law and order.
The state, and particularly authorities from the Oromia Regional State, failed miserably on Sunday in outlining all possible scenarios and preparing accordingly for all eventualities. There was no deployment of specially trained regional or federal forces to handle riots and demonstrations. A senior security official from the regional state admitted that they were counting on the people that the festivity goes without any security glitches, while they had made extensive efforts to make sure the public and law enforcement agents were well aware of the need to peacefully address security problems.
This was an erroneous assumption for the regional security forces to make. Those in charge of the region’s security failed to deploy a sufficient number of police in riot gear. The senior security official said that this was a conscious decision made not to disturb people, as it was feared that the display of such security personnel would engender a sense of insecurity among the holiday-goers. This too was a critical error of judgment.
The authorities seem to have taken little out of past experiences, where, even in peaceful times with no political tension, people have died from stampedes at Irrecha celebrations. There was no extra caution taken owing to the sheer size of the people taking part at the event. There was no effort made to learn from international experiences in handling a magnanimous number of people converging in an extremely small area.
Despite having made some attempts to clear the area where the event took place (some houses were moved and the roads have been expanded), the failure to anticipate the danger that the topography of the area posed for the wellbeing of the people and take necessary measures is extremely disappointing on the authority’s side. They could have prepared for all scenarios based on previous experiences, the topography of the area, and the current tense and politically charged context the country is in right now.
The unfortunate incident has now driven many to react angrily and violently in several parts of the east and southern parts of Oromia and on the outskirts of Addis Abeba. The destruction of private property – investments that have created jobs – and the toll on human life has continued. It is now official that no less than 15 flower farms and factories, two resorts and 67 trucks have been torched to ashes.
It is a typical but horrifying scenario that violence is being privatised and the state is losing grip over its monopoly of exercising legitimate violence only through due process. Certainly, a state which is failing to protect the wellbeing of citizens cannot ensure the wellbeing of property, whether public or private.
While exercising extreme restraint, the state should fulfil its duty of protecting citizens from violence perpetrated by groups and non-state actors, as well as public and private investments from any threat by upholding the rule of law and ensuring law and order. As there is no guarantee to avoid violent confrontations from flaring up again, the state cannot rely on the goodwill of the public to protect itself, or simply and randomly use deadly force to bring calm. The security establishment should train and equip its forces with standard riot control capabilities that are non-lethal.
Yet, there is as much the security establishment can do to restore calm and bring order. The lasting solution can only come from a bold and politically courageous response to the demands of the protestors.
They are calling for a new social order, where a system provides them with dignified accommodation and offers them equity in social justice. A generation of leaders, who grew up learning from textbooks, may see it worthwhile to take time to understand a generation that is learning from Facebook.
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