Members of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group gathered in Addis Ababa for a scaled-back version of Irreecha, their annual thanksgiving festival, against a backdrop of unrest and political division.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government said it was restricting attendance for the Oromo group’s Irreecha festival to approximately 5,000 people to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, just as it did for an Orthodox Christian holiday last week.
But some attendees said the regulations were designed to prevent anti-government protests at a time when Oromo opposition politicians are behind bars and security forces stand accused of using heavy-handed tactics against civilians in the Oromo region surrounding the capital.
“When people get together they may reflect on what is going wrong in the country. For fear of that, they have restricted us,” 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 start of the harvest season.
It is traditionally held in the city of Bishoftu, Oromia, some 50km (30 miles) southeast of Addis Ababa.
In 2016, the use of tear gas and firearms by security forces sparked a stampede in Bishoftu that killed dozens, some of whom drowned in a nearby lake.
The government put the death toll at 55, though Human Rights Watch later said it could have been in the hundreds.
The following year, Irreecha turned into an anti-government protest, 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 to take place for the first time in Addis Ababa and hundreds of thousands turned out.
On Saturday, a much smaller crowd led by chanting Oromo traditional leaders gathered at pools of water in central Addis Ababa, where they dipped flowers and sprinkled it over themselves, gestures symbolising gratitude and renewal.
Tensions between Abiy and Oromo nationalists have been on the rise in recent months following the killing of Hachalu Hundessa, a pop star who gave voice to Oromo feelings of marginalisation, in June.
More than 160 people were killed in the ensuing violence, and more than 9,000 were caught up in subsequent mass arrests, including journalists and prominent Oromo opposition politicians.