Members of the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia gathered in Addis Ababa for a reduced version of Irreecha, their annual harvest festival, amid unrest and political division.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government said it was restricting attendance at the Oromo group’s Irreecha festival to around 5,000 people to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, just as it did last week for an Orthodox Christian holiday.
However, some participants said the regulations should prevent anti-government protests at a time when Oromo opposition politicians are behind bars and security forces are accused of persistent tactics against civilians in the Oromo region around the capital.
“When people come together, they can think about what’s going wrong in the country. They restricted us for fear of it, ”said Jatani Bonaya, a 26-year-old student, on Saturday. “What the government is doing is not right.”
Irreecha marks the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the harvest season.
It traditionally takes place in the town of Bishoftu in Oromia, about 50 km southeast of Addis Ababa.
In 2016, the use of tear gas and firearms by security forces sparked a rush in Bishoftu that killed dozens of people, some of whom drowned in a nearby lake.
The government put the death toll at 55, although Human Rights Watch later said it could have been hundreds.
The following year, Irreecha became an anti-government protest that was part of a broader movement that brought Abiy, Ethiopia’s first Oromo ruler, to power in 2018.
Last year Abiy allowed a separate Irreecha celebration in Addis Ababa for the first time, and hundreds of thousands turned out.
On Saturday, a much smaller crowd, led by Oromo singing leaders, gathered at pools of water in central Addis Ababa, where they dipped flowers and sprayed themselves, gestures that symbolized gratitude and renewal.
Tensions between Abiy and Oromo nationalists have increased in recent months after Hachalu Hundessa, a pop star who expressed Oromo’s sense of marginalization, was killed in June.
More than 160 people were killed in the violence and more than 9,000 were implicated in subsequent mass arrests, including journalists and prominent Oromo opposition politicians.