Ethiopia: Tense, Quiet Irrecha

Over a pond not far from Mesqel Square, participants eagerly awaiting the annual festival of Irrecha gathered along the banks in white traditional outfits. They sprinkled water from the pond and placed cut flowers and grass into the water, all in celebration of the rainy season and in thanksgiving to the beginning of the harvest.

Nonetheless, from how quiet most of Addis Abeba was throughout the day, it was hard to tell that one of the highly regarded traditional festivities was taking place. The roads of the city, mainly those feeding Mesqel Square, were closed beginning on the afternoon of Friday, and a heavy security presence was felt. At some junctures, even pedestrians were not allowed to pass.

Beyond security fears, part of the relatively muted nature of the festivities was the sensitivity given to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in Ethiopia, according to the authorities. The Mesqel holiday held a week ago took place under similarly dampening circumstances.

The Irrecha celebrations were also held in Addis Abeba last year, where it attracted tens of thousands from different parts of the country, mainly Oromia Regional State. Despite being a partly religious, partly traditional festivity that was held annually in Bishoftu, 63Km from Addis Abeba, the fact that it was held in the capital city had political significance.

Four years ago, dozens were killed after a stampede was caused by the actions of security forces during a gathering for the festival in Bishoftu. Last year, the holding of the festival in Addis Abeba was marred by comments that were made by Shimelis Abdisa, president of Oromia Regional State, during a speech he made.

The security fears during the festivity yesterday came as Oromia Regional State remains tense following the death of Hachalu Hundessa, singer and political activist, and the jailing of major opposition figures. Although the authorities indicated that the celebrations ended without any major security issues, there were isolated outbreaks of protests in parts of Addis Abeba by gathered youths. Several of them erupted in response to the restrictions to movement placed at several parts of the city where there were checkpoints, including entry points to Addis Abeba.

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