The rally on June 23 was as significant as it was unexpected. Hundreds of thousands of people attended the rally, which was unfortunately cut short by an explosion. But it was the feeling of solidarity and the endorsement of a united Ethiopia that won out, writes AMBESSAW ASSEGUED(firstname.lastname@example.org).
The hubbub of merriment and celebration starts early Saturday morning in the neighbourhood of Dejazmatch Webbe Sefer, just above Menelik Square, when people start calling out to their friends to hurry up, excitedly nudging each other to move fast.
The recent downpours have washed away some of the filth and dirt off the worn-out streets, and the sun had already risen warming up the rain-soaked mountain air from the night before. A crisp and gentle breath greets the residents as they emerge from their houses to join the rally for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD).
Questions are often asked in autocratic rules from the top down to the bottom, observes the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, writing in his book, “The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat.” The author notes that when questions begin to be asked from the bottom up, that is when people recognise that a revolution has started.
The question has now been asked from the bottom up, and Ethiopians have woken up to a revolution of hope on June 23, 2018. It is a revolution of rejection of nativism and ethnicity, and one that embraces one nation under one government.
The city dwellers come out en masse to ask the first questions.
A young man, draped with an Ethiopian flag across his waist shouts out to his friends, “please, please hurry. We should have been there already,” referring to Meskel Square where Abiy is to address the nation.
His friends, a collection of young and old men, have gathered at a corner and one of them is squatting busily trying to scrape off the five-pointed star, the blue and yellow emblem of the ruling party, from a tattered flag. The others are exchanging and trying on more decorative articles of green, yellow and red colours to add to their costumes.
Almost everyone is attired in T-shirts bearing the photograph of the new leader. The green, yellow and red colours are worn by most as wristbands, necklaces, earrings, hats, scarfs and as wraps over their shoulders and arms.
The friends finally assemble and start the march down Bennin Street and walk to Menelik Square where a carnival atmosphere awaits them.Here, the square is teeming with hawkers and marchers selling and buying Abiy’s T-shirts, photographs and small plastic maps of Ethiopia painted with the colours of the flag.
Merchandise bearing the five-pointed star is quickly discarded, and the call around the vendors is, “give me the one without the star. Give me that one that has no star.”
The group takes a shortcut on a side street, enter the Arada Building through the back and go down the stairs where hundreds of other marchers join them. By the time they emerge out of the building, spill on to Arbeynoch Street and cross over to Churchill Avenue the crowd has multiplied to thousands of people.
The road fills up slowly with hordes of people that arrive from the side streets of Cunningham, General Wingate, Gaston and Colson and link up with the rolling mass of humanity in motion. At Tewodros Square the march slackens down to a crawl as the assembly of old, young, women, men and children converge, and the revelry and merriment erupt into an ethereal experience.
The rally-goers reach the turn at Ras Desta Damtew Street, and like a river at its bend, the mass swells up in size and climax of energy. The grizzled and the nimble are jogging together holding up the flag, without the dreaded star, singing in choruses and vocal harmonies serenading Mother Ethiopia.
A checkpoint set up by the Federal Police just before the Ministry of Defense does not dampen the spirit of the crowd who passively subject themselves to the superficial body patting. At one point the soldiers give way to a large carousing group of men who come jumping, running and breach the line without stopping to be frisked.
By the time the marchers reach Addis Abeba Stadium, Abiy has started to address the rally, but the people roll on slowly because it is impossible to move any faster. Not one can be seen going back even after it has become apparent that it is nary possible to reach Mesquel Square any time before the end of the speech.
Matters change dramatically by the time the group reaches Ghion Hotel, and the square becomes visible in the distance where the ruling party has plastered huge flags – bearing its five-pointed star emblem – across the ballasts of the Chinese built light-railway tracks and giant signboards above the massive throng. Suddenly, there are hundreds of people who are rushing in the reverse direction of the marchers.
As the group enter the square, the alarm has sounded and calls for ambulances are being made by men who are running around flustered and confused, and people are scurrying away from the main stage of the rally towards the edges. The friends hurry up to one of the railway columns for protection and watch as the wounded are brought to an ambulance standing nearby, and the vehicle whisk away the wounded blowing its sirens.
When news of an explosion reaches the crowd at the outer edges of the rally, it is greeted with doubts and derisions, and everyone is scolding and admonishing those that were running to slow down.
The panicked horde will hesitate and regain their composure until another wave rises from the centre, surges and people begin to run wildly.
“Don’t panic, it will only server those who planned it,” says a man in a black suit as he helps a woman holding two children to a safer place near the columns.
For an hour or as a suitcase is carried aloft in a triumphant dance of victory, as men try to overturn and then eventually burn a police car, as federal soldiers nervously mill around the area, and as rumours and facts rove unchecked in the square, the crowd remains unsettled.
Eventually, the rally starts to break up peacefully, thins out and the friends from Arada make their way back on Ras Desta Damtew Street. The rest of the crowd disperses through Menelik Avenue, Airport, Asmara and Debrezeit Roads, moving slowly out of Meskel Square.
The Revolution of Hope has been preserved, and people have found in Abiy someone who heeds and cares about their questions.
What we saw in the tepid attempt at the disruption of the peaceful rally is that it has backfired and that it has instead galvanised and strengthened the people in their quest for freedom, equality and justice.
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