Ethiopian marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms over his head to protest the mistreatment of his people, the Oromo tribe, at the Rio Olympics.
The Rio Olympics have been a hotbed of protest, but Lilesa may be risking his life with his act of rebellion. Feyisa earned a silver medal in the marathon event and said that he made the gesture as a sign of solidarity with the Oromo people, the largest tribe in Ethiopia that makes up most of the country’s population. Lilesa is from Oromia and is personally affected by the strife caused by the Ethiopian government.
“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.” Lilesa explained at a press conference after the race.
Since November 2015, tensions between the Oromo people and the ruling regime have run high, which initially began when plans were announced to expand the Addis Ababa boundaries into Oromia territory. Reuters confirmed that the plans to move Oromia land were scrapped in January, but protests and uprisings were rekindled in the last month with the execution of protesters in the region.
Lilesa was very aware of the repercussions of speaking out against the Ethiopian government on the world stage of the Olympics. “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.”
BBC News reports that human rights groups have documented that hundreds of protesters have been killed by Ethiopian security forces in the last month. Aljazeera writes that the violence escalated to a boiling point when security forces opened fire on protesters, killing 100 people in three days. Officially, the Ethiopian government disputes the claim, blaming inside and outside influences for causing “anti-peace protests.”
Now that he has spoken out against the state of the government in Ethiopia, Lilesa fears that he won’t be able to return to his country. Considering the government has killed protesters in the past for making a statement in their own country, it’s extremely dangerous for Lilesa to announce the injustice against the Oromo people to the rest of the world.
The marathon runner was aware of the consequences of going back to Ethiopia, stating, “If not kill me, they will put me in prison,” he said. “I have not decided yet, but maybe I will move to another country.”
In addition to possibly facing death if he returns to Ethiopia, Lilesa may also be sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee. The Olympic charter explicitly bans political messages or protests presented at the games.
The OIC is currently gathering information about Lilesa’s actions, but the athlete said he would deal with the consequences. He also reiterated that his country was experiencing a serious problem and that it was still extremely dangerous to protest in Ethiopia. With the international safety of the Rio Olympics surrounding him, Lilesa chose the right time to bring awareness to the Oromo people’s plight.
Ethiopia’s government has been controlled by the same minority group for more than 25 years, and the Oromo have consistently felt as if they are pushed out of the democratic process.
A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, Ravina Shamdasani, told reporters that she encouraged an independent investigation into the suspected killings inside the country. However, the Ethiopian government has ignored requests to allow international observers to investigate the claims.
The Ethiopian government has guaranteed that security officers who have killed protesters will be dealt with, but the guarantee seems like lip service given the tumultuous state of the country. Lilesa has brought worldwide attention to the violent repercussions that protesters and the Oromo people face in Ethiopia.
[Photo by Luca Bruno/AP Images]