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

Students mourning at Haromaya University. Photo shared widely on social media.

Students at Haromaya University displaying the anti-government gesture in December 2015. Photo shared widely on social media.

Defying 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 blog that 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:

He continued:

While the Ethiopian government spokesperson congratulated Lilesa, state TV did not show footage of him at the finish line.

‘A muzzled generational cry for freedom’

Jeffrey Smith, a human rights activist, declared Lilesa's anti-government gesture a “profoundly courageous moment”:

Freelance journalist Mohammed Ademo further praised Lilesa:

Responding to those saying that he should go back to Ethiopia, Gebreslassie Kiros wrote on Facebook:

It is up to him to decide what he wants to do. We have thousands of feyisa and thosands of feyisas might be also produced. Hence, what is best is allowing feyisa wherever he needs to live

Ken Smith noted:

this nation has had its share of wars and genocides…but they still produce tremendous Olympians…especially marathoners. He deserves to be respected for this sign of protest…humanity needs more like him.

Hani Teshe wrote:

there is a genocide going on in Ethiopia .. the world must know what's going on in Ethiopia.

And Nardos Kefle observed:

Best moment from Rio De Jenero Olympic. Respect for Feyisa Lilesa, Ethiopian Olympic Silver medal winner in Men’s Marathon. If the 42.195 kilometres (26.219 miles, or 26 miles 385 yards) didn’t kill you the Ethiopian government, [the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front] can’t kill you.

‘Not a stage for personal views’

Not everyone supports Lilesa. On Facebook, Nicola Dotto said the Olympics are not a stage for personal views:

any and all Olympic athlete who shows any sign of political or religous protest in any form should be stripped of they're medal if they won,,these are world SPORTING EVENTS,not a stage for personal views..

Lina Aya also argued the event is not a “political showcase”:

The olympic isnt a political show case. You want to make difference you seat down in your country & create a solution. To Go out on olympic & lying and asking & a visa in a different country is a against the olympic law

Gebremeskel Tesfay Kidanu, an Ethiopian student, wanted Lilesa to go back to Ethiopia to apologise:

His act was dirty, & guilty. But, still we expect you to come to your homeland and saying excuse to the Ethiopian people that you ignored unknowingly.

It is curious to note that on 7 August, long before Lilesa made the gesture, one Twitter user, Ashe, said that she hoped that one athlete would make a solidarity gesture with the Oromo protests:

Read more of our special coverage: Joy, Disappointment and Injustice at the Rio Olympics

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