— Roel Veyt (@RVeyt) August 21, 2016
An Ethiopian runner made a defiant statement against his country’s government while crossing the finish line at Rio on Sunday. The BBC:
As he took the silver medal, Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms above – a gesture made by the Oromo people who have suffered brutal police crackdowns.
Lilesa is from Oromia, home to most of Ethiopia’s 35 million Oromo people. […]
Explaining his actions, Lilesa said: “The Ethiopian government are killing the Oromo people and taking their land and resources so the Oromo people are protesting and I support the protest as I am Oromo.
“The Ethiopian government is killing my people so I stand with all protests anywhere as Oromo is my tribe. My relatives are in prison and if they talk about democratic rights they are killed. I raised my hands to support with the Oromo protest.”
The marathon runner said that he might be killed if he returned.
Ethiopia’s government is dominated by the victors of the country’s long and devastating civil war, the Tigray ethnic group. Although the ruling EPRDF party technically includes members of Ethiopia’s two largest groups, the Amhara and the Oromo, the Tigrayans still run the show. At 6 percent of the population, the Tigrayans’ numbers are small but their grip on power remains secure, for the time being.
Ethiopia is attempting to straddle two great powers—the U.S. and China—while positioning itself as the leading power of the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia looks to China for guidance on how to achieve rapid economic growth and steady poverty alleviation under strict single-party governance. The Chinese funded a light rail line that opened in Addis Ababa last year and is supposed to shuttle up to a million commuters a day.
In recent years, however, as the EPRDF regime has grown more repressive, it is clear that the Chinese have offered a different kind of inspiration: Tiananmen. In holding together a vast territory with many ethnic groups and rambunctious constituencies like students and the middle class, Ethiopia’s ruling party like the Chinese Communist Party knows that baldfaced repression works. Hence the killing of more than 400 protesters in Oromia in the last 10 months.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s repressive turn puts the U.S. in an awkward position. The United States has relied on Ethiopia as a steady counter-terrorism partner; the Ethiopian military famously invaded Somalia in December 2006 after it perceived Islamist influence there to pose a threat to Ethiopia’s restive Ogaden region, which borders Somalia. The Ethiopians were forced to withdraw after Al-Shabaab emerged and waged a brutal and exacting insurgency campaign. In the years since, the U.S. has funneled millions into Ethiopia to make it a bulwark against terrorism in the Horn of Africa. Now it seems some of those weapons are being used to put down domestic insurrection, not neighborhood terrorists with international ambitions. This situation is difficult to reconcile with the wishes of the human-rights-and-democracy-promoting contingent of the American foreign policy elite.
This is a situation to watch and TAI will continue to follow Ethiopia closely over the next few months under the supertitle “Ersatz Ethiopia.” In Addis Ababa, the shiny trains run on time, but not all is as it seems. The problems there are structural, not coincidental, and the resentment of the Oromo and Amhara peoples will only grow if the Tigrayans remain the dominant group in a single-party state experiencing rapid economic growth and skyrocketing inequality. The Tigrayan-dominated regime is powerful, but brittle, so it is strong only up to its breaking point.
As for the silver medalist from Oromia, we salute his courage, and hope that he never has to outrun a vengeful Ethiopian regime.