By Bileh Jelan @BilehJelan
Addis Abeba, May 10, 2021 – A Grand Iftar event organized by the Ethiopian-Muslim community of Addis Abeba, in collaboration with Halal Promotion Plc., was violently dispersed when security forces prevented thousands Muslims who descended on Meskel Square, a public space in the center of the city on May 9, 2021
Videos and photos showing chaotic scenes from the event and the crackdown including security forces firing teargas at crowds flooded social media outlets overnight causing an frustration and critique from several leading Muslim activists and clerics.
“Muslims refuse anything less than equality and will not accept being second class citizens.”
The Reactions to the events ranged from strongly worded condemnations to anger to demands of swift actions by the government. One such reaction is the reaction of Ahemdin Jebel, a prominent Muslim cleric and a close ally of PM Abiy Ahmed who also was one of the key leaders of the Muslim protests of 2011 took to social media to express his concerns and anger over the incident. In one post he said, “Muslims refuse anything less than equality and will not accept being second class citizens.” In another post, he explained that the road to complete equality is filled with struggle while he urged Muslims, “For now, go home and be safe.”
Yassin Nuru, another prominent Muslim cleric was present at the event and took to social media after the standoff disclosing that 100,000 people have participated in the event but adding, “It would have been a brilliant story for Ethiopia if these people were to have a peaceful event as planned. People wanted to pray for peace in the country, and share a meal with their Christian brothers.” He concluded his statement by demanding answers, “ We want to see all those involved in this historic incident held accountable.”
Halal Promotion Plc, one of the organizers of the event issued a statement explaining what unfolded. “Halal promotion and Nejashi humanitarian organization secured the required permission to hold the Grand Street Iftar in Ethiopia,” the statement, said further adding that the coordinators of the event were asked by unidentified bodies in the government structure to change the venue of the event. The statement also highlighted that coordinators of the event explained that they will not hold the event at a different venue. “We are telling the event goers that we were forced to cancel the event,” the statement read, adding “We believe that the government should understand the peacefulness of the event and rethink their decision. We will continue our preparation hoping it will change.”
Prior to the event the Addis Abeba city government peace and security administration bureau issued a letter requesting the limitation of the number of participants to 5,000.
A statement subsequently released by Addis Abeba city administration challenged the organizers account of the events while commending the organizers of the event. The statement explained that the city administration reached a consensus with the event organizers as well as the bodies who exchanged ‘inappropriate letters’ considering the ongoing construction work at the venue, the current peace and security situation of the country, the space limitation where the event was set to take place, as well as the number of the event goers. The city administration said it was decided that the event should take place in the same venue but with limited space allocated to it. In the statement the city administration pointed out that the organizers of the event cancelled the event because they didn’t agree to the proposed limited space of the venue.
The disagreement and the communication that ensued between authorities of the city administration and event organizers was complicated when a letter issued by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) dated May, 6 , 2021 and addressed to Addis Abeba Peace and Security administration bureau started heavily circulating social media platforms. In the letter the EOTC suggested that the Iftar event be held at the stadium (Abebe Bikila Stadium) as it was the custom and explained its request as an attempt to maintain both the unity and peace of the country and avoid unnecessary conflict.
According to Ustaz Abubeker Ahmed, representatives of the organizers have tried to raise their concerns that “prior letters from the Church were taking the matter into unhealthy direction and that the government needed to discharge its responsibilities by keeping the balance. If this wasn’t possible, it was better to cancel the event for limiting the space and prevention would lead to historic mistakes. The discussion ended without agreement.”
Although there was an understanding that some individuals and institutions were agitating through social media to divert the matter from its intended purposes, and that many have taken the understanding that Iftar wasn’t beyond the country, the complaint among the community has shifted the issues from that of related to Iftar to the issues of rights, which led to many to descend to the venue, Ustaz Abubeker said.
Ustaz Abubeker concluded his statement by calling for gaps in administration to be filled and the participation of all sections of the society in the peace building process. He said, “What we have observed on this occasion is that here is a need for a government, people and religious institutions that are committed to work hand in hand to fill the gap and participate in the nation building process. He added addressing the Muslim community, “The people should follow the law and the instructions of the security forces and conduct themselves peacefully.”
“There are those within government structure that think we (Ethiopian Muslims) are a security threat. Our loyalties are questioned and our just demands are challenged and this incident is just an example.”
Addis Standard spoke to multiple participants who attended the event like Othman Hamid who said, , “Here is what you need to understand, the organizers have secured all the permission needed to hold the event but at the last minute they received orders to limit the number of attendees which practically couldn’t be done since people started flooding the location of the event.” He explained that police might have acted in a rushed and used unnecessary force but added, “There are those within government structure that think we (Ethiopian Muslims) are a security threat. Our loyalties are questioned and our just demands are challenged and this incident is just an example.”
Abdulrahman, is another source who was present at the Iftar event and spoke to Addis Standard about the events that led to the disbandment of the event. He said, “I honestly don’t know how the trouble started. Since we entered the premises, we noticed the heavy presence of both federal and city police,” he added, “We left once we heard there was trouble and the police were firing tear gas at the gathering.”
In a bid to calm critiques following Sunday’s crackdown, Adanech Abiebie, the deputy mayor of Addis Abeba, issued a statement where she explained that the square is public and is for all Ethiopians. The mayor’s statement dived into the details of the agreement between the city administration and the event organizers and blamed the entire situation on what she described as ‘Social Media agitators’. The mayor also explained that police actions fall under the umbrella of the precautionary measures and after commending the peaceful nature of the event, offered an apology to the Muslim Community of the city saying, “On behalf of myself and the city, I apologize for what happened yesterday.” AS