Podium for Expression

When the Irreecha festivity took place last Sunday, there was the feeling that the state of Oromia would be thrown into another round of unrest, as was the case last year. But October 1 passed peacefully. Social media reports claimed that there were some issues, but nothing as distressing as that of the year before. It is essential to take note that the government has not done anything to solve the cause of the problem, which is the suppression of freedom of expression. The recent controversy over Teddy Afro's 2017 album 'Ethiopia' is a testament to this.

Last year’s Irreecha was like no other, and not for the better. The Thanksgiving holiday was marred with a deadly stampede, where over 50 people died, according to government reports. Participants of the fateful day claim that opposition forces ignited the disorder by starting a protest. An infamous video archive was released of the youth that took a microphone away from the Geda leaders, who were on the stage in the middle of a speech, to proclaim his political opinions.

But a year has passed since then, so when Irreecha finally arrived, there was the understandable apprehension. The hope was for the day, which stood on October 1, a Sunday, to pass peacefully. The authorities announced that security forces would not be at the event. There were claims that they would in fact attend, only in civilian clothes.

All through Sunday, reports were scarce, except a few social media tweets and posts. Some claimed that the celebrations went peacefully, while others said that there were some problems. But at the end of the day, peace prevailed. There may have been some issues, but nothing close to what had taken place yesteryear.

The Geda system practised by the residents of the Oromia Regional State, as studied by Asmerom Legesse (prof.), is a democratic system that has been around for centuries. Individuals get to participate in different stages of leadership, with a term period of eight years. There are ten stages of leadership, so it is common for people to serve in the Geda from childhood to old age.

Being an important component of  Oromia region’s culture, the Geda is not the only famous tradition of the country. There are a lot of them, as many as the dozens of nations and nationalities in the state. And to emphasise this unique feature, numerous works of art are produced. One of these is Teddy Afro’s 2017 album ‘Ethiopia’, which had been thrust in controversy since its release.

The album, which is the result of a single creative talent, ought to have been awarded at least words of encouragement by the government. Its message is about nothing but cohesion and dynamism for the country. In fact, any voice that calls for unity as a democratic entity when many countries in the world are following the opposite route – there are have been referendums for independence both by Catalonians and Kurds in the past few weeks – deserves a medal. Be it for political objectives or mere entertainment, the album is a welcome addition. Unless the hope is to see a country divided, an album like ‘Ethiopia’ should be given all the recognition it deserves.

Despite the album’s immense popularity, it has been met with roadblocks at every juncture. At the launch party of ‘Ethiopia’ in Hilton Addis hotel, police broke up the gathering claiming that the singer has not gotten a permit for the event. Previously, Teddy had been told that he cannot hold a New Year’s concert.

In denying the singer of his rights to entertain his guests, the authorities are doing a disservice to the country.

Intriguingly, doing so is not lessening the public’s adoration of the singer. It is only further uniting the populace. The song has already seen the light of day; the cat is already out of the bag. The authorities can deny him a concert, but they cannot take away our memories. The album was briefly number one on the Billboard World Music chart. This shows that Teddy’s conciliatory album is not just a voice contained within Ethiopia, but overseas.

The controversy of the album ‘Ethiopia’ ties in perfectly well with the incident at Irreecha. If there was free access to the podium, if freedom of expression was not suppressed, regrettable occasions may have been prevented. Whatever the opinion of one may be, there is no ill in having to listen to them. This is basic freedom, and if the authorities are against that message, they should reasonably present their ideas, rather than just blocking the means.

Humanity has always had the natural desire to be free. The effort to preclude suppression is ongoing, a statement especially true in young democracies. Institutional power in these cases is still far away. A perfect example would be the judiciary in Ethiopia, which is more or less inept. It is a far cry from that of Kenya’s, which recently overturned a general election result where the incumbent party had won the vote. But, for this landlocked African nation, the struggle continues. Like my Mozambican friends would say, ‘a luta continua’.

By Girma Feyissa

Published on Oct 07,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 910]



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