Feyisa Lilesa and Kenenisa Bekele: London Marathon brings Ethiopian politics into the court of public opinion
Since covering the Olympic marathon in Rio and following Feyisa Lilesa’s story, I’ve managed to stay in touch with several people within the Oromo community. Henok Gabisa has been a valuable resource in helping understand the Ethiopian political scene and he reached out to me with the following piece. A little background on Henok, he’s Visiting Faculty at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Virginia. He teaches Transnational Criminal Tribunal Law; and Anti-Corruption & Global Good Governance Law Courses. Henok tweets @henokgabisa; he can also be reached at [email protected]. (Photo from Getty Images)
A tale of two icons
The 2017 London Marathon is hosting something more than sport. The elite marathoners come with something more than sport competition. There are two favorites worth noting. Feyisa Lilesa and Kenenisa Bekele, both from the Oromo ethnic group in Ethiopia.
The world saw Lilesa crossing his arms over his heads as he finished second in the 2016 Rio Olympic marathon. He used the gesture as an aesthetically plain tool of expressing and communicating to the world the story of his Oromo people. His image of the gesture quickly entered the iconography of athletic protest.
He was then equated by international media outlets to the African-American athletes-Smith and Carlos, winners of the gold and bronze medals in 1968 New Mexico Olympic- who bowed their head and raised fist to symbolize the African-American struggle for justice, liberty and equality.
After Rio, Lilesa became a de facto emissary who brought the squeals of the injured group, the Oromo of Ethiopia, to global sport space and to lawmakers in foreign nations. He spoke at US Congress press briefing where draft legislation was considered and introduced against the Ethiopian government. He was invited by the European Union Parliament in November 2016 to speak about Oromo demand for justice and self-governance.
Feyisa Lilesa’s protest life is a counter-archive to the “Ethiopia Rising Story”
Ethiopia is not rising for the Oromo, nor is it for any other ethnic groups in the region. The Oromo are the most targeted and persecuted group. They are made vulnerable to consistent political and economic repressions under the state deployed policies and laws.
Ethiopia today isn’t much different from the memories from the nightly television news reports of the mid-1980s, where the headlines and images of famine in this Horn of Africa nation was occupied by scorched and cracked earth strewn with the carcasses of emaciated and dead cattle and hundreds of thousands of stick-thin Ethiopians wandering in the dust and babies and children with orange hair and distended stomachs indicating the advanced stages of malnutrition and starvation. The current situation is not much different from the 80’s nation ravaged by famine which prompted an outpouring of international humanitarian assistance, as inspired by Sir Bob Geldof’s Live Aid fundraising initiative.
Today, about 20 million Ethiopians, particularly the Oromo, are waiting for foreign food aid while losing their land to a violently dispossessive policy that seeks to produce cash crop for export. The irony! Lilesa’s effort is to expose these kinds of agonies.
The Oromo are the major ethnic group who are politically persecuted and economically marginalized. Since 2014, the nation saw a wave of mass protest convulsing the country coast-to-coast. The crises were caused by the government’s scheme to dispossess the Oromo people from their ancestral land, which later the government took a retreat from the plan admitting guilt. But it continued to kill in cold blood and conduct mass incarceration under state of emergency which was declared in October 2016. The government military force killed more than 1,072 peaceful protestors, imprisoned more than 30,000 and forced several hundred into disappearances. Days ago, the government conceded that it killed 669 peaceful protestors.
The country is under state of emergency where nearly all civil rights are being suspended. In August 2016, Lilisa protested this injustice in Rio Olympic by crossing his arms above his heads while crossing a Silver line for second place. He never went back to Ethiopia as he reasonably believes will be killed or imprisoned by the government. Crossing arms in X has a deadly consequence in Ethiopia. The X became a global symbol of Oromo people’s disapproval of an extremely authoritarian government in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia has the most brutal authoritarian government that shows no remorse to dissenters or critics. Particularly, the Oromo are always kept under surveillance by the successive Ethiopian governments. Lilesa now lives in the US on temporary visa with his wife and two children.
Those who knows Ethiopia and Lilesa’s story have placed a high premium on another round of Lilesa’s chance to shine in London not only to win the marathon race but also his determination to grab the platform to stand in solidarity with his Oromo people’s quest for justice by displaying the heroic gesture of protest.
Lilesa and Bekele are the two lenses through which we can understand Ethiopian government brutality. Both are heroes because one is without home and the other is without freedom. Both are surviving.
To some within the Oromo community, Bekele is less heroic than Lilesa because he is unlikely to be disapproving Ethiopian regime’s brutality on international sport event; but the fact of the matter is that the two Oromo marathoners have real and credible situations they do represent in unveiling the Ethiopian political ruthless against the Oromo. Lilesa is running the London Marathon representing Oromo voice in exile while Bekele represents the silenced Oromo population back home in Ethiopia. Lilesa is a pride for the Oromo diaspora who relatively enjoys American first Amendment and British common law protection of freedom of expression while Bekele is a symbol of those Oromo back home who are forcefully silenced, coerced on a daily; and unfortunately, those who live at the mercy of the Ethiopian deep state. Bekele is a face that represents a forced narrative of the regime as imposed on the people back home while Lilesa’s protest performance in its entirety is a counter-narrative that negates authoritarianism to its core.
After London Marathon Bekele will probably fly back to his home country where there is no freedom while Lilesa travels back to his exiled country where there is some freedom but never feels home. Lilesa is explicit and vocal on international space to speak about his people while Bekele is fearfully silent. Both athletes have something in common: the depressing pessimism about the future of authoritarian regime and the shining optimism of freedom and equality for everyone in the country. This is the story of the Oromo in and outside of Ethiopia.
Dangerously Alien form of Authoritarianism in current Ethiopia
The political environment in Ethiopia is very tense now. The prime minister in his interview with the BBC days ago outright rejected an international, independent and impartial investigation of the mass killings. He is hellbent on an isolated self-promoted attempt to whitewash the situation. His government is not willing to bring a single government official or military officials to justice for the killings. He rather chose to blame the violations on the US based non-profit media organizations belonging to the Oromo such as Oromia Media Network (OMN). Just like the 90’s cold war era when US movies and western news was now allowed in Soviet Russia, today we have it as a felony under the State of Emergency to watch dissenting TV channels such as OMN in Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s mildewed long arm politics is an expression of authoritarian bully that shouldn’t be received positively, whatsoever.
Maybe Lilesa’s insistence is a cautionary warning against a dangerously alien form of authoritarianism in the Horn of Africa that rose above the level of indifference.