OCTOBER 5, 2019 / 9:46 PM
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group celebrated in Addis Ababa on Saturday at the start of an annual thanksgiving festival which was marred by violence in 2016.
Security was high for Irreecha, which is celebrated by the Oromo people to mark the start of the harvest season.
On Friday and Saturday thousands of people dressed in traditional white costumes arrived in buses, cars and by foot from all over the Oromia region to celebrate on the streets of the capital with dancing, singing and flag waving.
“This festivity is a symbol of a transition from darkness to a light,” said Zewidu Megrarobi, 65, a farmer from Yeka, a village located on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, who was present during the 2016 clashes.
Security was high, with a visible presence from security forces including snipers. Ethiopian Federal Police said nine people had been arrested on the eve of the festival for attempting to smuggle weapons within the capital.
The peaceful start was in contrast to 2016 when a stampede triggered by a clash between police and protesters left more than 50 people dead.
“This time everything is peaceful. We are all happy as this represents the unity of Oromos,” said Megrarobi after performing his thanksgiving ritual that involves touching water with yellow flowers and grass.
The festival is usually held in Bishoftu, a town located in the Oromia region, about 40 km (25 miles) south of Addis Ababa. The celebrations, which returned to the capital for the first time in 150 years, are due to be followed by a larger event on Sunday in Bishoftu.
The Oromo, who make up about a third of Ethiopia’s population of more than 100 million, have long complained of being marginalized during decades of authoritarian rule by governments led by politicians from other smaller ethnic groups.
Prime Minister Abiy has pursued a reconciliation strategy since taking power in April 2018. He has implemented a series of radical economic and political reforms including releasing political prisoners and restoring relations with arch-foe Eritrea.
The reforms have opened up what was once one of Africa’s most repressive nations but also stoked violence as emboldened regional strongmen build ethnic powerbases and compete over political influence and resources.