It was not a rally called by any political party, whether incumbent or the opposition. Not even a civic organisation was behind the demonstration held in Addis Abeba on Saturday, June 23, 2018. Neither were the organisers employed by the legacy media who head this call for the rally described as “a day of gratitude.”
Welcome to popular politics where individual leaders overcome limitations imposed by political parties and legislative structures. Organised political parties and the traditional mainstream media are pushed to the back when a popular leader appeals to the majority despite the policies of the incumbent party he leads. The EPRDF was not behind Saturday`s rally nor did its leaders call the public to come out.
This was not lost on Abiy Ahmed (PhD), who was elected and confirmed by a EPRDF controlled Parlament in March of this year as Prime Minister. At Mesqel Square, a venue where successive leaders rallied their base, Abiy fired up his supporters telling them that leaders devoid of popular support are nothing but ineffective.
“Change needs many actors and few spectators,” Abiy told the crowd. “It demands popular participation.”
His base proved they could rally behind him and show force. Many happy faces were cheering. The demonstrators, who joined the rally, wore T-shirts with the picture of Prime Minister Abiy and his most liked popular printed on them. The scene was also decorated with slogans put on banners and flags.
One of the slogans banners read “we`re by your side!”
The massive popular support yesterday was organised by committee of seven, comprised of individuals with a background of a challenging the policies of the incumbent, and others who are known for their activism in the social media. They used social media platforms to mobilise support for Abiy. The organisers, chaired by Gudeta Gelacha, a businessman, had expected to see close to “four million” people during the rally behind Abiy`s march for “justice, forgiveness and democracy.” Thus the official slogan for the rally: “Let`s rally for change; promote democracy.”
The crowd started to appear on the streets before 7:00 am. It began to gather steam at around 8:30 am, filling Mesqel Square to the brink; it was 13 years ago when the venue saw such massive gathering in support of the Coalition for Unity & Democracy`s (CUD) bid for an electoral win. A massive crackdown by the ruling EPRDF against CUD leaders, supporters and other opposition groups led to widespread hunt on dissidents. This, coupled with the ruling party’ hegemonic aspiration convinced many to see the political landscape as toxic, intimidating and repressive.
At Mesqel Square, a venue where successive leaders rallied their base, Abiy fired up his supporters telling them that leaders devoid of popular support are nothing but ineffective.
“Our right to speak our mind has been denied to us for over 13 years,” said a resident in Addis Abeba, speaking to the state-owned ETV on Saturday morning.
The messages conveyed at the rally were varied as they were contrarian. Views of differing political persuasions, subtly displayed by the different flags they waved – Ethiopia`s alongside competing parties including the outlawed OLF and Ginbot-7 – was evident. So were the those that rallied for causes ranging from the unionists, federalists and several in between.
Equally compelling was the commonality in the messages for “peace, reconciliation, justice and democracy.”
This is what senior members of the Administration hailed as a process of healing in a society very much divided and bitterly polarised. Fitsume Arega, the digital savvy spokesperson of the Administration, said the rally was the demonstration of Ethiopians` determination to “seize our future.”
“Coming together to rise to the challenges that undermine our nation,” Fitsume tweeted in the morning of the rally.
The organiser, Gudeta, has credited Abiy for his determination in saving the country from collapse and its people from chaos. Promoters of the rally introduced the Prime Minister as a “humble and intellectual” leader “blessed with multiple competencies.” The standing ovation and loud cheer continued as Abiy gave greetings to the masses, upon his arrival.
Clad with a green T-shirt bearing the photo of the late Nelson Mandela, Prime Minister Abiy headed the accolade in kind. He electrified the crowd declaring the inevitability of restoration for Ethiopia.
“Have no doubt,” he told them. “Ethiopia shall reclaim its former glory.”
For many who rallied behind Prime Minister Abiy, Saturday marks a milestone in defining a turn of events for the years to come, in the same way the opposition rally of May 2005 did for the past decade.
His messages were for the restoration of freedom, security and prosperity, and challenged the status quo`s narrative for over two decades proclaiming that “building an independent nation” is not equal to “building a free society.”
It was a grim reminder to the many who have fallen victims in the quest for the rule of law as well as individual and human rights. The Prime Minister paid tribute to the fallen, acknowledging their sacrifices.
“They could have lived without us,” he told those gathered at the rally. “But we live off their sacrifices.”
His speech emphasised the hope, determination to fight poverty and corruption, while his message on unity got keen appreciation and extolled from the demonstrators.
This too was a sober reminder of the mountain Abiy will have to climb to “consolidate democracy, reconciliation and peace.” There could be no incident to show his anxiety than with what has just followed.
A blast not far from the stage where he galvanised his supporters was heard. Most of the demonstrators had thought it was a firework meant to grace the rally and shouted for a repeat.
“Again! Again! Again!” the crowd was heard screaming.
When many began to run for their lives away from the incident, the ambience of the rally changed into uncontrollable chaos. It was a grenade explosion. Several were confused, angry and furious. The stage was deserted instantly and subsequently overtaken by the crowd, showing their anger in groups.
“There was many more grenade taken away by the police,” an eyewitness told Fortune. “They [the suspects] brought grenades with a vehicle; the police also took the suspects to a nearby building.”
This vehicle, a Toyota Land Cruiser with a Police plate, was put ablaze by the crowd. The explosion was detonated within a few minutes after the Prime Minister completed his public address. Many of the injured were admitted to nearby Zewditu Hospital and the total number of casualties has yet to be confirmed.
The incident left 114 people injured, according to Solomon Ali (PhD), communications director of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society. The Red Cross had deployed 13 standby ambulances and established five temporary medical centres to provide emergency services during the rally.
“Three of them were critically injured,” Solomon said.
Although Police said later in the day that there was no death reported, the Health Minister, Amir Aman (MD), tweeted in the late afternoon raising the casualties figures to 156, of which 51 were admitted to Black Lion, Zewditu and six other hospitals, while 10 of the injured were in critical condition. One person was reported to have died after being admitted to the Black Lion Hospital.
Seyoum Teshome, a university instructor who was jailed twice under the two decrees of state of emergency, is one of the organisers. He believes the incident was evoked by those who do not want to see changes in Ethiopia.
“It was against our hope and the new change,” Seyoum told Fortune.
Several others share his views.
The incident was depressing, according to Beyene Petros (Prof), a veteran opposition leader and once a member of the parliament.
“I don’t think this is just an incident that merely occurred. Rather it seems as if it is a very complicated one,” he said. “It seems there is a group who wants to send a message and shows that there are still differences.”
Those rallying on the street concuring. The attackers have the intention of creating a shock to the public, according to Ashenafi Tadesse, one of the hundreds of thousands who rallied in solidarity with Abiy.
“Yet the incident cemented our unity,” he told Fortune.
For Abdiwasa Abdilahi (PhD), a lecturer of Political Science & International Relations at the Addis Abeba University (AAU), specialising in the Horn of Africa, the rally was successful in sending the right message, although the incident was regrettable.
“It passed leaving behind many points that needed to be addressed,” Abdiwasa said. “The incidents signalled that there is a force which wants to undermine and create fear among the community.”
Appearing on national television a few hours after the tragic incident, Prime Minister Abiy told the nation the explosion was the work of “forces who planned and designed it, with the work of a professional touch.” He denounced the act as a “shame and defeatist.” The Prime Minister, alongside Addis Abeba`s Mayor, Diriba Kuma, paid a visit the same day to Black Lion Hospital where some of the victims were admitted, comforting those injured.
The Federal Police have announced their arrest of six suspects, while nine members of the Federal Police Commission, including Girma Kassa, deputy commissioner of Addis Abeba Police, were put under custody on the same night.
For many who rallied behind Prime Minister Abiy, Saturday marks a milestone in defining a turn of events for the years to come, in the same way the opposition rally of May 2005 did for the past decade. For others, the incident will not hold the country back from its path to change.
Abebe Abebayehu, a lawyer by training and a deputy commissioner of the Ethiopian Investment Commission, is one of those who sees the day as a moment that shows Ethiopia has “turned a corner.”
“The march toward a full-fledged democracy, the call for inclusive and equitable growth, the yearning for unity in diversity, the full embrace of togetherness with a considerable sense of forgiveness can never be arrested or reversed,” Abebe tweeted the same afternoon.
He was one of the many who were moved by Abiy`s call for a shared sense of forgiveness and peace.
“This day affirms the laying of a cornerstone that assures us we will overcome the formidable challenge ahead of us,” Abiy said to a roaring crowd that was interrupting him after every few remarks. “The support that we received today will not make us complacent but motivate us instead to work harder.”
Yet, nowhere in his address did he mention the ruling party as the conspicuous absence of EPRDF`s veteran leaders was evident. It was only Arkebe Oqubay (PhD) and Kebede Chane, EPRDFites from the days of the armed struggle, who accompanied the Prime Minister to the stage. Nonetheless, in the views of a senior leader of the EPRDF, Abiy took a bold effort to chart a new course for the EPRDF.
“He tried to revitalise the party for the elections in two years,” said the senior leader, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Fortune.