An Ethiopian Runner Makes a Brave Gesture of Anti-Government Protest at the Olympic Finish Line


eth protest-11Defying Olympic rules and risking the wrath of his country’s government, Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa made a political gesture in support of the Oromo people after competing in a marathon during the last weekend of the Olympic Games in Brazil.

Lilesa, who won a silver medal, crossed his arms to make an “X” at the finish line and during medal presentation. The sign is used by the Oromo people and their supporters in their protests against their repression by the Ethiopian government.

The International Olympic Committee, however, bans political protests. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, for example, two black athletes from the United States, were famously expelled after they did a black power salute in the 1968 Games.

Lilesa, who told reporters that if he returns to Ethiopia he would be killed, plans to seek asylum in Brazil, the US or Kenya.

The Oromo people have been protesting since November 2015. The protest in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest administrative region, started when students asked the government to stop its plan to expand the capital city Addis Ababa into Oromia’s surrounding farm lands. The students believe that the controversial expansion would result in mass evictions of farmers mostly from the Oromo ethnic group.

The government argued the plan was meant only to facilitate the development of infrastructure such as transportation, utilities, and recreation centers.

Although the government has scrapped the plan to expand Addis Ababa, the protesters are demanding action on the greater questions of self-rule, freedom and identity. For example, the students want Oromo to be made a federal language. Oromo, the language of the Oromo people, is the most widely spoken language in Ethiopia and the fourth largest African language. However, it is not the working language of the federal government.

Both Oromia and Amhara regions are challenging the dominance of the Tigray ethnic group in Ethiopia’s politics. The Tigray make up 6% of the population, but have an overwhelming hold on power in the country, while the Oromos, who are the country’s largest ethnic group, representing 34%, and the Amharas at 27% have very little representation in key government positions.

Dissent, both physical and virtual, is not tolerated in Ethiopia. Early this month, security forces used live bullets to disperse protesters in Oromoa and Amhara, another administrative region, killing about 100 protesters, according to news sites and social media reports.

On April 25, 2014, nine bloggers and journalists were arrested in Ethiopia on accusations of “inciting public disorder via social media” and “receiving support from a foreign government.” The detainees had all worked with Zone9, a collective blogthat fostered political debate and discussion.

On July 8 and 9, 2015 several days prior to Barack Obama’s historic visit to the country,five of the nine writers were released from Kilinto Prison in Addis Ababa. On October 16, 2015, the remaining four bloggers — Befeqadu Hailu, Natnael Feleke, Atnaf Berhane and Abel Wabela — were acquitted of terrorism charges. Three of the four bloggers were released on October 19, and Befeqadu Hailu was released on bail on October 21, pending a separate charge of incitement to violence.

And in May 2016, the Ethiopian Federal High Court sentenced young Ethiopian blogger and activist Zelalem Workagegnehu to five years and four months in prison for “supporting terror” because of an alleged link to Ginbot 7 Movement, a pro-democracy political party labelled a “terrorist organisation” by the Ethiopian government in 2010. Zelalem is a human rights advocate and a scholar who regularly contributed to the diaspora-run website DeBirhan.

‘Shame on you, the despicable government of Ethiopia!

After Lilesa made headlines with his gesture, one Facebook user observed that the Olympics have exposed two things about the state of politics in Ethiopia: repression and favouritism:

This Rio Olympics has made two political revelations about the savage Ethiopian government. That guy who came 59th out of 59 swimmers showed how corrupt the Ethiopian government is. That loser guy was sent to the Olympics by his own corrupt father. Now the Marathon Silver Medalist showed a sign of the Oromo Protest which has exposed to the whole world the continued protest in Ethiopia against the brutal Ethiopian government. This is a good mix of politics with Olympics. Shame on you, the despicable government of Ethiopia!

Overweight Ethiopian Olympic swimmer Robel Kiros Habte became an object of ridicule after he came last in the preliminary men’s 100-meter freestyle heats. Some Ethiopians argue that the swimmer was included in the Ethiopian Olympic team because of his tribe and political affiliation.

Given Lilesa’s decision not to return home for fear of his life, Ethiopians online raised US$54,433 in less than 24 hours to help him seek asylum.

The Ethiopian government officially says the runner will not be prosecuted over his protest gesture but “will be conferred a heroic welcome along with his team members.”

Endalk, an Ethiopian free speech advocate in exile and a Global Voices author, reacted to the government’s statement by saying:

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