When activists broke out in anti-government protests at a packed religious festival in the Ethiopian town of Bishoftu on Sunday, police reacted by spraying tear gas and firing rubber bullets into the crowd.
The aggressive response prompted panic in the huge crowd — some 2 million came for the festival — and caused a deadly stampede that has in turn sparked a new wave of anti-government demonstrations around the country, which has been roiled by social unrest that has seen some 500 civilians killed since last November.
Now an American is counted among the dead.
On Tuesday, an unidentified U.S. citizen traveling in a car in an area just outside of Addis Ababa was struck by a rock and killed. The rock was was reportedly thrown by an unknown individual in one of the areas that has been rocked by protests in recent days.
On Wednesday, the State Department confirmed to Foreign Policy that a female U.S. citizen had been killed, but did not offer any further information about the person’s identity or what she was doing in Ethiopia.
Girma Birru, the Ethiopian ambassador to Washington, told FP in a phone call that he had received no official confirmation of her death from U.S. officials. But he defended Sunday’s police response that ultimately caused the stampede and subsequent protests, saying that officers fired tear gas in response to protesters who interrupted the religious festival and “started to snatch away the microphone from the elders and started to destabilize the people around them.”
“I don’t think the government has overreacted, rather, the government was very tolerant,” Girma said.
Sunday’s festival and the U.S. citizen’s death took place in the Oromia Region, the heart of this year’s protest movement over land and political rights. The Oromo people’s frustration garnered international attention in August, when Olympic marathoner Feyisa Lilesa raised his arms in an “X” to express solidarity with them. He then fled the Olympic village, hid in a Rio de Janeiro hotel, and eventually showed up alongside a U.S. Congressman Chris Smith (R-N.J.) at a press conference on Capitol Hill.
Pointing to Feyisa as an example of civilians’ fear of dangerous government crackdowns in Ethiopia, Smith announced his plans to introduce legislation that would ask Ethiopia to accept an independent human rights rapporteur — a request Ethiopian officials have referred to as an “insult” and a threat to to their sovereignty.
But in an interview with FP in New York last month, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said that Feyisa had been coerced into protest by the armed, Eritrea-based Oromo Liberation Front. Both Feyisa and the OLF vehemently denied those allegations, and the Olympian said he made the decision on his own to protest the mistreatment of his friends and relatives at home.
Now, the killing of an American citizen will likely pump up pressure on the U.S. partner to quell the protests and begin peaceful negotiations over Oromo demands for better representation in the federal government and property rights reform.
But in an earlier conversation with FP, Girma insisted that the Oromos already have fair representation in the Ethiopian government. And on Wednesday, he pinned the blame for the stampede on violent activists who he said inappropriately took advantage of an ancient religious festival to push their political agenda.
“The protests should not be mixed with the values of the people when they practice these religious festivities,” he said. He also insisted that the death toll of 55 in the stampede is accurate, despite activist claims that the government is purposely releasing a lower death toll in order to cover up the severity of the incident. Girma said that because the numbers are coming directly from medical staff at the closest hospitals, skewing the data would be impossible.
“There was no mistake on the number of deaths on the part of the government,” he said. “The right source for this type of news is the hospital.”